The Freud Museum

Events Archive

5 March 2005

Life Beyond Language: The Psychoanalytical Voice

Juliet Mitchell in conversation with Felicity Dirmeik

This was the third joint event between Therip (The Higher Education Research and Information Network in Psychoanalysis) and the Freud Museum, and part of the series Being a British Psychoanalyst, in which distinguished psychoanalysts are interviewd for the Therip video archive.



Luke Thurston is a lecturer in 20th century Literature at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He is the author of James Joyce and the Problem of Psychoanalysis (2004) and editor of Reinventing the Symptom: Essays on the final Lacan

Lyndsey Stonebridge is a senior lecturer in Literature at the University of East Anglia. He is the author of The Destructive Element: Psychoanalysis and Modernism; and editor (with John Phillips) of Reading Melanie Klein

Juliet Mitchell is Professor of Psychoanalysis and Gender Studies at Jesus College, Cambridge. She is the author of several highly influential studies of the relations between psychoanalysis, gender and culture, including Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974), which challenged orthodox views of Freud as the enemy of feminism. Subsequent books include Women: The Longest Revolution (1984) and Mad Men and Medusas: Reclaiming Hysteria and her most recent study, Siblings: Sex and Violence (2003).

Conference Report

Freud was famously logocentric. He created psychoanalysis with the interpretation of dreams, but hardly every refers to the dream as a visual medium. Everything is reduced to - or elaborated in - language. His slips of the tongue are slips along the fault lines of syntax and semantics; jokes are a semiotic process. It is true that the metaphoric associations and metonymic displacements of language are linked immediately to the flux of desire and unconscious intentions, but there are no other modalities, intermediate levels or sources of determination. Other kinds of experience such as sight and sound, smell, taste, or the endopsychic perception of bodily states, are relegated to the margins. Moreover, the assumption of free association is that human beings produce language continuously as an internal dialogue. How else could every cessation of speech in the analytic situation be regarded as a resistance? The 'analytic rule' which seems so deceptively simple ('say anything that comes into your mind'), is a demand that you place your life under the tyranny of language. That which cannot be spoken, that which cannot be rendered into language and the domain of 'meaning', becomes inadmissable, 'other' and 'unconscious'.

The title of this conference reins back the logocentric assumption and reminds us that there is 'life beyond language' which is also an essential part of the analytic enterprise.

The first speaker of the day, Luke Thurston ("Murphy Go: Beckett, Bion and Cultural Transference"), addressed the question of 'life' and 'language' in the work of Samuel Beckett, a key figure in 20th century English literature who famously wrote his major works in French. The attack on language became an artistic manifesto for Beckett, as he attempted to tear apart the veil to get to "the things or the nothingness" behind it. Arguing that psychoanalysis and literature "occupied the same skin", Luke Thurston looked at the relationship between Beckett and his analyst Wilfred Bion. In a paradox which is perhaps only explicable within psychoanalysis, Thurston traced traumatic effects of Bion's life, in particular his war experiences, which seem to have infiltrated the life and work of Beckett. It was as if the grisly horror of the trenches lodged itself in Beckett's consciousness and found a home there. The dismembered bodies and minds of the war found expression in the "attacks on linking" which characterised Beckett's work, chiming as it did with Beckett's own fractured and traumatic childhood relationship with his mother.

Lyndsey Stonebridge's talk ("Human Voices: The Group in Psychoanalysis and Literature") was punctuated by an uncanny happening when a pigeon crashed into the 5th floor window as she spoke the phrase "dark powers of the superego". Perhaps the disorientated pigeon whose flight was thwarted by an invisible barrier could indeed be a metaphor for the impact of the superego on our lives. Authority is sometimes invisible, but no less implacable for that. Looking at group psychology Stonebridge also took the work of Wilfred Bion with traumatised soldiers immediately after the second world war as an example. Creating what he called a 'leaderless group', Bion's own voice, she noted, questioned the phantasies of authority - the basic assumptions - which seem to be endemic to group structure. The voice of authority binds us to the group but undermines our ability to hear the human in the other's voice. Why is it sometimes so difficult to bear to listen to what other people are saying? Because sometimes what we hear is our own projected disintegration coming back to attack us, just as the words of a dying soldier invaded Bion's mind as he held him in his arms. Stonebridge explored these links further through the works of Penelope Fitzgerald (author of Human Voices) and Muriel Spark, many of whose novels are set in closed societies or institutions. Strikingly, both authors worked in propaganda, of a 'black' or 'white' variety during the war, which may have had an impact on their feeling for the subtleties of persuasion and control. In the end it was an 'appetitte for democracy' (as Adam Phillips called it) that Stonebridge was advocating, an appetite that comes about through the ability to engage in free conversation. Author abstract

The afternoon was devoted to an extended videoed interview. In conversation with Felicity Dirmeik, Juliet Mitchell spoke about her life in psychoanalysis for the Therip video archive at the Wellcome Foundation. Literature also played a part in the story, since it was the stories of growing up (such as Jane Eyre) which first introduced Juliet to a 'psychoanalytic' sensibility. Another determinant was the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s and the impact of the New Left in Britain, which questioned some of the shibboleths of traditional class-based radical politics. Here feminism had a big part to play, and the phrase "the personal is political" was resonant with the promise of a new type of understanding. Juliet started writing about the position of women in 1962, when the disparity between the life-chances of men and women was still shockingly evident. Even in higher education women were almost 'invisible'. Turning to continental thinkers for inspiration, Juliet wrote Psychoanalysis and Feminism in 1974. As opposed to the vituperative attacks on Freud from the US feminist movement, continental writers had begun to look for a rapprochement with the ideas of psychoanalysis and the unsettling notion of unconscious desire. So long considered the arch-patriarch, Freud became the key to unlocking the logic of Patriarchy. Soon after the publication of her book, Juliet embarked on her training as a psychoanalyst, finding that clinical work was a new and frightening experience for which academic work had not prepared her. Felicity Dirmeik was one of her fellow trainees and they reminisced about some of their teachers during this period (Enid Balint, Herbert Rosenfeld, Adam Limentani, Marion Milner), and, more especially, their peers. Both young recruits learnt the art of listening and learning in a different way - but it took about ten years after their initial qualification to feel truly at ease in their new profession!

In the second half of her conversation Juliet Mitchell spoke about some of her recent writing, starting with her book Mad Men and Medusas, on the hidden history of male hysteria. 'Hysteria' - especially any mention of male hysteria - disappeared in the 20th century and gets lost in a morass of diagnostic subdivisions such as 'anorexia nervosa' and such. Juliet thinks it is important to reclaim hysteria for psychoanalysis, since it embodies some of its universal ideas about mind and body. More recently she has focused attention on another hidden aspect of Freud's theory - the importance of siblings in mental development. Acknowledging that Freud writes of the sibling relation at many points in his work, she shows how the emphasis on parental influence (especially the mother) has now relegated siblings to the margins. The crucial unanswered question - and the unanswered questions are always the most interesting ones - is whether there is some human universal which corresponds to the sibling relation, and whether it determines some unconscious precipitate in the mind. Is there a 'brother and sister complex' (Freud's expression) which is in some way equivalent to the Oedipus complex? The day ended with a long and lively audience discussion.

The conference was expertly and thoughtfully chaired by the Lacanian analyst Bernard Burgoyne who was ever ready to throw an interesting fact or theoretical insight into the mix, and also managed to keep more or less to time! We would also like to thank Audrey Cantlie, the Therip chairperson, who co-organised the event and provided a delicious homemade quiche for lunch. Next year's event with Christopher Bollas is another mouth-watering prospect. 

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