Mad Men and Medusas

grey Mad Men and Medusas

The return of the (well-dressed) repressed

Coming across this old review of Juliet Mitchell’s ‘Mad Men and Medusas’ (Independent on Sunday, 2001) reminded me that pretty much all the main char­ac­ters in the TV series of the same name launched in the late Noughties are hys­ter­ics, but most espe­cially Madison Avenue’s Don Juan, aka Donald Draper. I hope Mitchell is get­ting a royalty.

by Mark Simpson

A touch of hys­teria can make you a real hit with the ladies. If you play your symp­toms right, emin­ent fem­in­ist schol­ars might even end up arguing over your body years after your death.

Robert Connolly was treated for hys­teria in 1876. He suffered from an unfor­tu­nate com­pul­sion which forced him to swing his arms from side to side like a pen­du­lum. Elaine Showalter, the media­genic American fem­in­ist, held him up in her 1997 book ‘Hystories’ as an example of how hys­teria is a response to a situ­ation that is unten­able — point­ing out that he worked as a watch­maker she ‘read’ his body as an express­ing his dis­taste for the mono­ton­ous, finicky work he was unable to artic­u­late through lan­guage. Hysteria, in other words, is the cor­por­eal protest of the power­less and inar­tic­u­late work­ing class, women and blacks; lit­er­ally, the sym­bolic sigh of the oppressed.

It sounds plaus­ible. It cer­tainly sounds fash­ion­able — since it’s say­ing that hys­teria, like everything else these days, is ‘about power’. But in ‘Mad Men and Medusas: Reclaiming Hysteria’ Juliet Mitchell the not-so media­genic British fem­in­ist psy­cho­ana­lyst dis­agrees. Inarticulate frus­tra­tion at his job is not enough to explain Connolly’s symp­toms, she argues (and besides, runs the risk of middle class con­des­cen­sion). Politics has rendered him a cipher for social forces. What is miss­ing is the internal com­pul­sion pro­du­cing his symp­toms: he could not stop. Mitchell spec­u­lates that Connolly may have been aware of Voltaire’s com­par­ison of God to a watch­maker. Such a hub­ristic iden­ti­fic­a­tion would, explains Mitchell, have had to have been repressed. When it returned from the failed repres­sion — as such wishes do — it made a com­prom­ise with the ego which had repressed it in order to allow it’s expres­sion. ‘With the wit of the uncon­scious, the watch­maker who wants to be God finds that, as Voltaire said, it is God who is the watchmaker.’

This poetic inter­pret­a­tion may or may not explain Robert Connolly’s hys­teria, but it cer­tainly explains why Showalter is much more likely to be invited on Richard and Judy or, for that mat­ter, Newsnight than Mitchell. For her part, Mitchell explains that whatever the spe­cif­ics of the case, a con­flict of a wish for omni­po­tence and a pre­ven­tion of it would be needed to explain Connolly’s — or any hysteric’s — move­ments. In other words, what’s needed is psychoanalysis.

And, at a time when many seem to want to be uncon­vinced of psy­cho­ana­lysis’ value, Mitchell’s book makes a con­vin­cing argu­ment for this. Not only because ‘Mad Men and Medusas’ offers a deeper, subtler — and much more dif­fi­cult — under­stand­ing of hys­teria than the famil­iar victim-victimiser Manichean nar­rat­ive of American fem­in­ism, but also because it admits that psy­cho­ana­lysis itself is part of the problem.

Hysteria was recor­ded and writ­ten about for 4000 years before dis­ap­pear­ing in the earlier part of this cen­tury. Today the term is almost unheard of in clin­ical usage. However, its many mani­fest­a­tions through­out the ages are still famil­iar: sen­sa­tions of suf­foc­a­tion, chok­ing, breath­ing and eat­ing dif­fi­culties, mimetic imit­a­tions, deceit­ful­ness, shocks, fits, death states, crav­ing and longing.

Hysteria has of course his­tor­ic­ally been strongly asso­ci­ated with women. The Greek doc­tors talked of a ‘wan­der­ing womb’ requir­ing treat­ment, Christian witchfind­ers of a ‘seduc­tion by the Devil’ requir­ing drown­ing or burn­ing. After the Renaissance, hys­teria was remed­ic­al­ised and, fol­low­ing the vogue, loc­ated in the brain, albeit a female one. In the Eighteenth Century refined women were quaintly described as suf­fer­ing from ‘the vapours’ (which eman­ated primar­ily from the brain but were some­how sup­ple­men­ted by espe­cially debil­it­at­ing vapours from the womb). By the Nineteenth Century asylums were chock full of hys­ter­ical women. By the end of the Twentieth Century, no one was dia­gnosed as hav­ing ‘hys­teria’ any more. For Mitchell this is not some­thing to be cel­eb­rated: defy­ing post­mod­ern cor­rect­ness, she asserts that hys­teria is as uni­ver­sal and as tran­shis­tor­ical and as com­plex a phe­nomenon as ‘love’ and ‘hate’ (which are, it so hap­pens, both con­stitu­ent parts of hysteria).

So who kid­napped hys­teria? It would appear that embar­rassed mas­cu­line pride bundled it off the clin­ical scene. She argues that hys­teria dis­ap­peared because of the intol­er­ab­il­ity of the idea of male hys­teria to men. Eighteenth Century science’s relo­ca­tion of hys­teria in the brain, even in one intox­ic­ated by the pres­ence of a vagina, meant that hys­teria was no longer so hygien­ic­ally con­fined to the female of the spe­cies. Ironically, Nineteenth Century psy­cho­ana­lysis, which was born out of the study of hys­teria, hastened the ‘dis­ap­pear­ance’ of hys­teria by uni­ver­sal­ising hys­teria and estab­lish­ing it as a male as well as a female characteristic.

The shin­ing corner­stone of psy­cho­ana­lysis, the Oedipus Complex, was fash­ioned out of the study of male hys­teria — Freud’s own, as well as that of his patient. However, Mitchell power­fully argues that Freud’s need to sup­press his own ‘little hys­teria’, as he fam­ously called it, and his ambi­val­ence about the early death of his younger brother, led him to over­look the import­ance of sib­ling rela­tion­ships and the threat of dis­place­ment they con­tain, which are felt before the Oedipus Complex. ‘When a sib­ling is in the off­ing,’ writes Mitchell, choos­ing a word which could be inter­preted as an example of the ‘wit of the uncon­scious’, ‘the danger is that His Majesty the Baby will be anni­hil­ated, for this is someone who stands in the same pos­i­tion to par­ents (and their sub­sti­tutes) as him­self. This pos­sible dis­place­ment trig­gers the wish to kill in the interests of sur­vival. The drive to iner­tia [the death drive] released by this shock becomes viol­ence. Or it becomes a sexual drive, to get the interests of all and every­one for oneself.’

As the title Mitchell gives to one of her chapters ‘Sigmund Freud: A Fragment of a Case of Hysteria in a Male’ sug­gests, Mitchell believes that Freud’s hys­teria was not so ‘little’. Again buck­ing the trend, she doesn’t reject the import­ance Freud’s Oedipus Complex, which she admits is dif­fi­cult to over­state, but argues that the focus on gen­er­a­tional rela­tions has blocked the under­stand­ing of lat­eral ones.

Mitchell illus­trates the import­ance of lat­eral rela­tion­ships by ref­er­ence to the first World War and the epi­demic of male hys­teria amongst the com­batants: the ‘shell shock’ vic­tims (so labelled partly because it was less humi­li­at­ing to the men con­cerned than being called an ‘hys­teric’). However, what has been for­got­ten is that the war­time male hys­teric has not only been a vic­tim of aggres­sion from enemy action but has also been an aggressor. What the sol­dier may also be suf­fer­ing from ‘is the know­ledge that he has broken a taboo and that in doing so he has released his wish to do so — his wish, his “want­ing” to murder, to kill his sib­ling substitutes.’

The so-called ‘neg­at­ive’ or fem­in­ine Oedipus Complex, in which a man wants to be his mother and desires his father was elab­or­ated by Freud as being as uni­ver­sal as the ‘pos­it­ive’ one — but it never received as much atten­tion in the the­ory then or espe­cially since, effect­ively releg­at­ing it to the uncon­scious. ‘But it has sur­faced again and again as homo­pho­bia…’ com­plains Mitchell. However, beat­ing one’s breast about homo­pho­bia is to miss the point: ‘The atten­tion now drawn to this homo­pho­bia means that we miss the cru­cial import­ance of hys­tero­pho­bia in the the­ory as a whole.’

The neg­at­ive Oedipus Complex, a pass­ive rela­tion towards the father, had to carry the weight of explan­a­tion of both male hys­teria and homo­sexu­al­ity. ‘Too often the two have become con­fused. Hysteria, to the con­trary, is essen­tially bisexual,’ explains Mitchell. (In an eerie con­firm­a­tion of either great art’s psy­cho­ana­lysis or psy­cho­ana­lysis great art, Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ tri­logy fic­tional shell-shock vic­tim ‘Billy Prior’ was bisexual and sexu­ally compulsive.)

After the First World War the role of sexu­al­ity in hys­teria and then hys­teria itself was replaced by trauma (which is nowadays used to explain almost everything). But how to account for what Mitchell describes as ‘the rampant sexu­al­ity of war’ — which was recently illus­trated by he pub­lic­a­tion of servicemen’s let­ters from The Great War which talked about ‘hard-ons’ when bay­on­et­ing the enemy? Mitchell pos­its an appar­ently ‘nor­mal’ male war hys­teria — a non-reproductive sexu­al­ity involving killing, mass rape and promis­cu­ity: the death drive attaches itself to sexu­al­ity. The Oedipalization of all rela­tion­ships meant that men at war and on civ­vie street could avoid being seen as hys­ter­ics — they were either homo­sexual or ‘nor­mal’, that is het­ero­sexual, and hys­ter­ical women merely appeared ultrafem­in­ine. ‘In hun­dreds of clin­ical accounts… the man who dis­plays hys­ter­ical char­ac­ter­ist­ics is suf­fer­ing from “fem­in­ine nar­ciss­ism”, “fem­in­ine passiv­ity” or homo­sexu­al­ity. In the eternal struggle to repress male hys­teria, these are the new pathologies.’

Perhaps most inter­est­ing of all is Mitchell’s res­cue of the Don Juan myth from the neg­lect that tra­di­tional psy­cho­ana­lysis has con­demned it. In the myth, Don Juan, a serial liar and sedu­cer of women, kills the father of one of his con­quests and is finally led to Hell by a stone statue of his vic­tim. Sexuality and murder are completely/hysterically inter­twined in the Don Juan story in a way that they are not in the Oedipus myth. Don Juan, the son, kills and defies the father sub­sti­tute who has done noth­ing to him, where Oedipus defies then kills the father who has twice threatened to kill him (the dis­place­ment from actual father to father sub­sti­tute is a typ­ical hys­ter­ical substitution).

According to Mitchell, the repres­sion of the Don Juan story, the story of male hys­teria par excel­lence, has allowed all psy­cho­ana­lytic the­ory to estab­lish male sexu­al­ity as the norm and in doing so avoid its ana­lysis. ‘Don Juan, the male hys­teric, was absorbed into Freud’s own char­ac­ter; repressed and at the same time iden­ti­fied with.’

What is repressed returns. Now Don Juan is every­where. The pre­val­ence of the male hys­teric ensured he became nor­m­al­ised as the post mod­ern indi­vidual — a latter-day Don Juan, unin­ter­ested in fath­er­ing, just out to per­form.’ The post mod­ern Don Juan, like the ori­ginal, does not take women as a love-object but instead makes a hys­ter­ical iden­ti­fic­a­tion with them. Loaded lad is lit­er­ally a ladies man.

However, for all her efforts to make hys­teria vis­ible again, Mitchell does not want to quar­ant­ine it. ‘Hysteria is part of the human con­di­tion,’ she states, ‘the under­belly of “normality”:

…it can move in the dir­ec­tion of ser­i­ous patho­logy or in the dir­ec­tion of cre­ativ­ity… it is a way of estab­lish­ing one’s unique­ness in the world where one both is and is not unique, a way of keep­ing con­trol of oth­ers where one both does and does not have control.’

Jungian Complexes at the Multiplex

This week David Cronenberg’s feature-length shrink cos­tume drama, A Dangerous Method, about the most fam­ous — and doomed — love-affair in psy­cho­ana­lysis, premières in the UK. I’m talk­ing of course about the pas­sion­ate, twis­ted and teas­ingly uncon­sum­mated romance between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

Despite very mixed reviews I’ll be going to see it when it’s put on gen­eral release as I’m a sucker for this kind of costume-drama nos­tal­gia — and let’s face it, any­thing to do with psy­cho­ana­lysis in the skin-deep Twenty First Century is nos­tal­gia. Although both are good act­ors, the cast­ing of Michael Fassbender as the mous­ta­chioed Jung and Viggo Mortenson as the bearded Freud seems, like some of the lush loc­a­tions in the trailer, to be mostly an aes­thetic rather than dra­matic consideration.

Put another way, A Dangerous Method looks like Brokeback Alp, with cigars.

But this is a love-triangle, with Keira Knightly as Sabina Spielrein, an hys­ter­ical Russian patient of Jung’s that he ends up hav­ing a sexual rela­tion­ship with, much to Freud’s dis­ap­proval. Spielrein, who des­pite (or because of) her entan­gle­ment with Jung ended up a patient and then con­fid­ante of Freud’s, was to become an ana­lyst her­self and her work may have inspired both men — who were to end up bit­ter enemies.

Although it’s pretty clear that in most import­ant things Freud was right and Jung just plain wrong, nobody is really inter­ested in that. In fact, pre­cisely because of the airy-fairy inco­her­ence of his ideas, and because in his ruth­less egot­ism he was more of the kind of per­son we can relate to now, Jung seems to be regarded more sym­path­et­ic­ally these days than Freud. Jung the keen astro­lo­ger who came up with the breath­tak­ingly neb­u­lous con­cepts of ‘racial memory’, ‘the col­lect­ive uncon­scious’ and ‘syn­chron­icity’ is hip. Or maybe, just a hipster.

But as an incur­able Freudian myself I would say that. Here’s a par­tisan review I penned of a bio­graphy of Jung, The Ayran Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Gustav Jung’ by Richard Noll, back in the 20th Century — when such things seemed to matter.



By Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared in Scotland on Sunday, April 1998)

On October 28, 1907 Carl Gustav Jung was in an unchar­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally can­did mood. On that day he wrote a love let­ter to Sigmund Freud, father of the new Psychoanalytical Movement that Jung had just joined. But this love let­ter, in keep­ing with Freud’s own the­or­ies, was a touch ambi­val­ent: ‘My ven­er­a­tion for you has some­thing of the char­ac­ter of a “reli­gious crush”,’ he admit­ted. ‘Though it does not really bother me, I still feel it is dis­gust­ing and ridicu­lous because of its undeni­able erotic under­tone. This abom­in­able feel­ing comes from the fact that as a boy I was the vic­tim of a sexual assault of a man I once worshipped.’

It turned out just five years later that this some­thing ‘dis­gust­ing’, ‘ridicu­lous’ and ‘abom­in­able’ did bother the impec­cably Aryan doc­tor from an impec­cably pious Swiss German bour­geois fam­ily after all, and Jung split from the Jewish Darwin to found his own psy­cho­lo­gical movement.

Interestingly, the split with Freud was ostens­ibly over Freud’s insist­ence that the sexual drives were the ori­ginal motor force of all human actions. Jung felt this didn’t allow for the ‘nat­ural’ reli­gious and spir­itual inclin­a­tions of the human race. In other words, Freud refused to accept that ‘reli­gion’ was some kind of basic drive and that a ‘reli­gious crush’ might have ‘erotic under­tones’ but wasn’t erotic in ori­gin. In Jung’s eyes, he was once again a vic­tim of a sexual assault from a man he once wor­shipped. (He even wrote later of Freud’s ‘rape of the Holy’.)

As Freud feared, Jung and his myth­o­lo­gical mumbo-jumbo proved to be a ral­ly­ing point for many who rejec­ted the pess­im­istic and dif­fi­cult view of the human con­di­tion that psy­cho­ana­lysis put for­ward, pre­fer­ring Jung’s romantic meta­phys­ics of ‘the col­lect­ive uncon­scious’ and ‘arche­types’ to ser­i­ous enquiry into the nature of human desire. To this day people at parties talk­ing about being in ther­apy often say, ‘Oh, but it’s not Freudian, of course. It’s Jungian.’ As if this were some­thing to brag about.

Richard Noll’s book The Ayran Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Gustav Jung should make them and all the New Age Jungian groupies think twice before using his name as a byword for artsy soph­ist­ic­a­tion and rejec­tion of authoritarianism.

For all Freud’s flaws next to Jung he’s a blem­ish­less as Lou Andreas-Salome’s found­a­tion cream. If Noll’s research only claimed that Jung was a char­latan who lied about his research and took the credit for the dis­cov­er­ies of oth­ers – which it does – then few people would turn a hair. But his book goes much fur­ther than this. It shows how Jung set out to turn ana­lysis into a Dionysian reli­gion with him­self as its lion-headed god­head, how he believed him­self to be the Aryan Christ and how his Volkish, pagan beliefs com­pli­men­ted and fed into National Socialism and anti-semitism. And how he brain­washed and dom­in­eered his mostly female patients who had a ‘reli­gious crush’ on him (which he fre­quently exploited in that ‘spir­itual’ way that reli­gious cult lead­ers too often do).

The pic­ture that Noll – who is, it’s import­ant to point out, is a non-Freudian psy­cho­lo­gist – pieces together of Jung is worse than even Jung’s former Freudian col­leagues sus­pec­ted at the time. Jung was, by any stand­ards, bark­ing.

But it was Jung’s rela­tion­ship with Freud that seemed to shape his mad­ness; even his obses­sion with Mithraism. Just before his split with Freud, Jung wrote extens­ively about the tauroc­tony, or ritual slay­ing of a bull that was cent­ral image of Mithraism. Mithras is depic­ted as pin­ning down a bull and slay­ing it by plunging a dag­ger into its neck. A scor­pion or lion is usu­ally depic­ted attack­ing the bull’s testicles. Jung, nat­ur­ally, was a great fol­lower of astro­logy and Freud’s star-sign was Taurus – The Bull. Even the scor­pion attack­ing the bull’s testicles looks like Jung’s attack on Freud’s libido theory.

Freud had pub­lic­ally anoin­ted Jung as his ‘son’, declared his love for him, and looked for­ward to him inher­it­ing the lead­er­ship of Psychoanalytical Movement (as a hand­some Aryan Christian he would bring the respect­ab­il­ity to psy­cho­ana­lysis which Freud craved, but which he knew he could never quite deliver). Hubristically, per­haps, Freud turned out to be a vic­tim of the very Oedipus Complex he’d dis­covered. Jung failed to nego­ti­ate his ambi­val­ent feel­ings towards Daddy Freud and ‘murdered’ him. Jung turned psy­cho­ana­lysis into a reli­gion to replace Christianity and real­ised a long-held German aspir­a­tion by repla­cing the Jewish ‘Christ’, Freud, with his Aryan self.

My own the­ory is that Freud was a vic­tim of Jew-envy. Jung knew that Freud was a smarter, bet­ter, big­ger man than him and his ego was out­raged and suf­foc­ated by this real­isa­tion. Like his brown-shirted coun­try­men were to do twenty years later, he resolved rid him­self of the incon­veni­ent reminder of his inferi­or­ity. Indeed, when the Nazis – strongly influ­enced by the same Volkish tra­di­tions as Jung – gained power in the Fatherland, it was Jung who per­suaded the International Society for Psychiatry to accept the expul­sion of Jews from the German Society.

Jung’s femme-fatale seduction-assassination syn­drome was not only dir­ec­ted at Freud. As Freud put it, in a let­ter to Sandor Ferenczi in November 1912 about his last ser­i­ous com­mu­nic­a­tion with Jung: ‘I spared him noth­ing at all, told him calmly that a friend­ship with him couldn’t be main­tained, that he him­self gave rise to the intim­acy that he so cruelly broke off; that things were not at all in order in his rela­tions with men, not just with me but with oth­ers as well. He repels them all after a while…’. This is why Jung lit­er­ally turned him­self into a God – there wasn’t room for other men in his world, or, per­haps, the dis­gust­ing, ridicu­lous and abom­in­able feel­ings they pro­voked in him.

But per­haps the most intriguing part of Freud’s obser­va­tion was his ref­er­ence to Jung’s trus­ted – and recently deceased – assist­ant: ‘His refer­ring to his sad exper­i­ence with Honegger reminded me of homo­sexu­als or anti-Semites who become mani­fest after a dis­ap­point­ment with a woman or a Jew.’

Johann Jakob Honegger was a young assist­ant Jung took under his wing in 1909, telling Freud he had entrus­ted everything he knew to Johann. He was also to anoint him as his ‘son’ and heir in the way that Freud had done with Jung. But by 1911, when he was only 25, Honegger com­mit­ted sui­cide with an over­dose of morphine. Noll doesn’t go into the details of what promp­ted this – sui­cides are fre­quently acts of revenge – but he does give a start­ling account of how twenty years later Jung ‘murdered’ the dead man.

In 1911, the same year as his death, Honegger had dis­covered in a psychotic patient of his the fam­ous ‘solar phal­lus’ hal­lu­cin­a­tion – the basis of Jung’s the­ory of the ‘col­lect­ive uncon­scious’ and notion of ‘racial memory’. But accord­ing to Noll, from 1930 onward, know­ing that Honegger had been dead twenty years and had no liv­ing heirs to com­plain, Jung deleted Honegger from his­tory and took the credit for the case himself.

Jung was so excited by this hal­lu­cin­a­tion, in which the patient ima­gined that a large phal­lus hung from the sun mov­ing back and forth cre­ated the wind, because it seemed remark­ably sim­ilar to a ritual enacted in the pre-Christian Mithraic litur­gies. But Noll shows how Jung later lied about the details of this case, claim­ing that the patient could have had no access to inform­a­tion about Mithraic rituals, in an attempt to use it to ‘prove’ the exist­ence of the col­lect­ive unconscious.

But the philo­sophies of East and West occult reli­gions had any­way been dis­sem­in­ated for years by pamph­lets and books that could be bought at news­pa­per kiosks. Neo-paganism any­one? Hellenistic mys­tery cults? Zoroastrianism? Gnosticism? Hermeticism? Alchemy? Swedenborgianism? Spiritualism? Vegetarianism? Hinduism? Or per­haps a nice well-matured bit of Neo-Platonism? Jung’s whole ana­lyt­ical psy­cho­logy cult was pieced together out of pre­cisely this roll-call of des­pair; a pick ‘n’ mix of hys­ter­ical symptoms.

Noll’s case study is slightly more sym­path­etic to Jung (or at least non-judgemental) than I make out in this con­densed ver­sion of his argu­ments (full dis­clos­ure: I’m an incur­able Freudian). But I would ima­gine that after read­ing it most people would find it dif­fi­cult not to con­clude that if Carl Gustav were alive today he’d be liv­ing in L.A., scan­ning the hori­zon for fly­ing sau­cers, writ­ing astro­logy columns for the National Enquirer and selling Solar-Phallus key fobs on his website.

And still mut­ter­ing about that old bearded Jewish guy with the cigar whom he wor­shipped once but turned out to just have one thing on his mind.

Simpson Tops Arnie and Freud in GQ Spread

grey Simpson Tops Arnie and Freud in GQ Spread

From this month’s GQ Russia.

My Russian is a little rusty, but I think the piece from this 50th anniversary of GQ issue is about ‘Forty Things That Changed Men’s Lives’.

I’ve no idea what GQ has to say about me, but all I care about is that:

  • there’s a scar­ily large pic­ture of me oiled-up pulling my pants down and
  • I’m ahead of, and much big­ger than, Sigmund Freud, Arnold Schwarzenegger and — this is really impress­ive — Biotherm Homme

I only wish I’d, err, trimmed a bit. Or worn some snug, designer, pos­sibly pad­ded, blind­ingly white underwear.

And had Freddie’s body and face. Or Beck’s air­brusher. (See below.)

MS Pic by Michele Martinoli

Agony from the king of cross-reference

grey Agony from the king of cross referenceRecent research, widely pub­li­cised in the press with the usual barely-disguised glee that usu­ally accom­pan­ies news that the efforts of other people has been in vain, sug­ges­ted that ther­apy was no more effect­ive than pre­scrip­tion drugs or ‘talk­ing reg­u­larly to a friendly academic’.

I doubt this is the case, though I can’t speak from exper­i­ence as I’ve never been in ther­apy. Like an Anglican agnostic, or per­haps just a patho­lo­gic­ally lazy per­son, I don’t take part myself but it reas­sures me to know that lots of other people are.

Instead I like to think I can read myself bet­ter, or at least smarter. Certainly there’s no short­age of lit­er­at­ure these days pan­der­ing to those who can’t quite make it out of their arm­chair and onto the couch, encour­aging how­ever tacitly the idea that a talk­ing cure can be a read­ing cure. With prac­tising ana­lysts like Adam Phillips, Darian Leader and Raphael Samuels so keen to write for a gen­eral audi­ence it’s impossible not to sup­press the unchar­it­able thought that per­haps shrinks are fed up with hav­ing to shut up for most of that ana­lyt­ical hour. One of the dis­ad­vant­ages of the talk­ing cure is that someone has to do an awful lot of listening.

Probably very few people ‘talk reg­u­larly to a friendly aca­demic’ — most aca­dem­ics I know would become very unfriendly very quickly if the traffic were one-way: in the oppos­ite dir­ec­tion to the one they are accus­tomed to.

But then, as Leader him­self puts it in Freud’s Footnotes (Faber & Faber) ‘any­one who chooses to devote their life to psy­cho­ana­lysis be it as pro­fes­sion or object of aca­demic research, has some­thing ser­i­ously wrong with them.’ Of course, it would be cheap to deploy such an ironic con­fes­sion against its author, but I won’t let that stop me. I’ve never used pre­scrip­tion anti-depressants, but Leader’s prose strongly inclines me to try. Clearly some of his review­ers have been try­ing non-prescription ones. His extraordin­ar­ily blood­less writ­ing has been pant­ingly described as ‘colt­ish’ by one paper and ‘ath­letic’ by another. The Guardian described him in awe as ‘Oliver Sachs as agony aunt’. Which does rather beg the ques­tion, who would want Oliver Sachs as an agony aunt? Mind you, Leader’s last book, ‘Why do women write more let­ters than they post?’, also begged a few ques­tions: the first — from every woman I men­tioned the title to — being: ‘Do they?’

However, it’s all some­what aca­demic whether Leader begs ques­tions or asks them because he rarely stoops so low as to actu­ally answer them. Or present a coher­ent argu­ment. Or write in an access­ible way. No, Leader doesn’t need to do any of these things because Leader, as his name would sug­gest, is a very spe­cial kind of man, with a very spe­cial access to know­ledge and a very spe­cial way of show­ing it off. Leader you see is a Lacanian.

Lacan is the French post-structuralist smoke-and-mirror-phase phallus-as-signifier chappy who ‘updated’ Freud and res­cued him from his gravest error: his access­ib­il­ity. Lacanians are a per­verse bunch. It is as if after Martin Luther, Protestants had decided to trans­late the Bible back not into Latin even but into Greek, so as to keep the hoi polloi and their crude mis­ap­pre­hen­sions at bay. Difficulty is not of itself objec­tion­able, espe­cially in an age of pop-everything let alone psy­cho­logy, but some­thing that man­ages to be at once inscrut­able and try­ing too hard is just hideously uncool. Someone once said of read­ing Nietzsche that it was like see­ing the world lit by flashes of light­ning; with Lacan and most Lacanians it’s like see­ing a lib­rary lit by a faulty fluor­es­cent tube.

As Leader points out, Freud was the father and mother of psy­cho­ana­lysis. With the pos­sible excep­tion of Nietzsche him­self (who Freud delib­er­ately avoided read­ing until late in his career) there really isn’t much of a tra­di­tion that goes before him. Hence psy­cho­ana­lysis really is foot­notes to Freud, in a way which philo­sophy isn’t foot­notes to Plato, des­pite the fam­ous aph­or­ism. Perhaps this is why Leader wishes to present him­self as the mas­ter of the addendum, the king of the cross-reference. His book is largely a squabble about sources, overly arcane even for someone who ‘has some­thing ser­i­ously wrong with them’. ‘Freud’s Footnotes’ is in fact a book-length foot­note to a foot­note. Moreover, almost every page has its own foot­notes, includ­ing the very first line on the very first page of the intro­duc­tion. This, no doubt, is a Lacanian’s idea of a clever joke. It is how­ever, every­one else’s idea of agony.

Sometimes Leader’s obser­va­tions are mildly inter­est­ing, such as when he points out that Freud’s foot­notes on the import­ance of the repressed olfact­ory senses hugs the bot­tom of the page, ‘just like the quad­ruped man they are sup­posed to describe.’ It is also piquant to learn that when Newton mag­nan­im­ously described him­self as ‘stand­ing on the shoulders of giants’ he was actu­ally being very bitchy — Hooke, his chief rival, was a hunch­back. (It also sug­gests that Oasis’ sin­gu­lar new album title ‘Standing on the Shoulder [sic] of Giants’ might be wor­ry­ingly clever instead of dip­pily daft).

Occasionally, like a light­house loom­ing up out of the night­ime fog of his obscur­ant­ist prose, Leader pro­duces an import­ant con­ten­tion, albeit one which goes against the grain of his own style: ‘Freud’s idea that desire gen­er­ates states of wish­ing and of expect­a­tion as well as all forms of think­ing only emerges in the most garbled form, in most of the translations…’

And there is a curi­ously fas­cin­at­ing case his­tory Leader touches on to illus­trate how Freud may have put too much emphasis on guilt/self-punishment as a func­tion of the desires of the child, instead of a response to the parent’s own desires. Leader tells the story of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy fussed over by his mother who con­tinu­ally banged his head against inan­im­ate objects because his father had greeted his first bruise with the exclam­a­tion: ‘That’ll make a man of him!’ (‘Or,’ I found myself adding out loud as I read this pas­sage, ‘a Lacanian’).

Certainly Leader is always well-informed and baff­lingly well read, but unlike the Viennese mas­ter (as opposed to the French Pretender), he has a tend­ency to come across as a pedantic show off. Worst of all, Freud him­self seems to be largely miss­ing from ‘his’ foot­notes. Unless you are migh­tily inter­ested in what the Kleinian and Lacanian schools might have in com­mon des­pite their recent fall­ing out, ‘Freud’s Footnotes’ isn’t worth look­ing up.

Originally appeared Independent on Sunday, February 2000