The Freud Museum

Events Archive

15 March 2003

Lived Events and Remembered Events in Psychoanalysis

Conference Report

Conserving archives is an important function for any museum. Creating archives is another thing. Some years ago the museum embarked on a series of dialogues with renowned figures of the British Psychoanalytic scene, and others, like author Frances Partridge, who were part of the cultural milieu in which analysis developed. The dialogues were recorded on digital audio tape with the intention of creating an archive record. Due to a combination of circumstances, the project was abandoned prematurely, only three of four interviews having been completed. Having this history, we were delighted to cooperate on a similar project - this time with video as well as audio recording - initiated by Therip, The Higher Education Research and Information Network in Psychoanalysis.

Therip has been in existence for some 15 years and was formed by a small group of academics and clinicians concerned about the status of psychoanalysis in British universities. The number of university courses now available in psychoanalytic studies is testament to the work of the organisation and the aims it promotes. Therip also compiles an annual register of members and their research interests, thus providing a valuable resource for academics in many fields of enquiry.

The archive project was initiated with "Lived Events and Remembered Events in Psychoanalysis". Two talks in the morning, by Michael Molnar (research director of the Freud Museum) and Julia Borossa (lecturer in psychoanalytic studies at Middlesex University), were followed by a long recorded interview in the afternoon with Ron Britton (president of the British Psychoanalytical Society), conducted by the historian and psychoanalyst Daniel Pick.

In the first talk of the day Michael Molnar confronted the conference theme head-on and examined the elusive concepts of 'reality' and 'truth'. To illustrate the problem, he investigated an event from Freud's own life: the famous walk in the mountains with a colleague and a 'young poet' in 1913, which Freud recounts in his paper 'On Transience'. It is commonly supposed that the unhappy poet of the story was none other than Rainer Maria Rilke, but by sifting the evidence, questioning sources and refusing to jump to premature conclusions, Michael Molnar gradually undermined the received wisdom and the assumption of a 'real event'. Now that 'everybody knows' the poet was Rilke, it was salutory to realise that our certainty may be based on a myth. Memory and ambiguity play their part in historical enquiry, just as they do in psychoanalysis, and it is incumbent on historians to create a form of history which can encompass uncertainty. History, it turns out, is an 'imaginative medium', like fiction. A sentiment with which the author of Moses and Monotheism would surely have agreed.

The next talk was given by Julia Borossa, a lecturer in psychoanalysis, translator and editor of Ferenczi's Selected Writings (1999) and author of Hysteria (2001) The paper MEMORY AND TOTALITARIANISM began with a series of basic reflections on the multiple meanings and functions of memory and remembrance in psychoanalytic discourse. It then further explored the ways in which psychoanalysis understands what it is to be human, and whether certain ethical and political choices lead from this. Are the ethics of psychoanalysis in direct opposition to a totalitarian vision, or are they of a different order all together, far from the scene of politics? Julia looked closely at the role ambivalence plays in psychoanalytic conceptions of human subjectification, and followed this through by a reading of two highly topical texts of Freud: "Why War?" and Civilisation and its Discontents. She ended her talk by recounting the horrific experiences of the Brazilian psychoanalyst Helena Besserman Vianna during the years of dictatorship in her country. Vianna was persecuted for speaking out against a fellow psychoanalyst Amilcar Lobo who worked as a torturer for the secret police whilst undergoing a training analysis. Instead of being supported, Vianna was betrayed by an IPA leadership unable to take a public stand against human rights abuses which were taking place in Latin America. The paper concluded by arguing that the failures of psychoanalysis to account for material or socio-political conditions - which are clearly of an ethical-political order - can be better understood if they are considered as being failures of the institutionalisation of psychoanalysis and its history. It argued that tracing the story of these failures does not constitute an attack on psychoanalysis, and that, paradoxically, it was, in fact to mount its defense.

The morning sessions were chaired by one of the founding members of Therip, Prof. Bernard Burgoyne, Lacanian analyst and Professor of Psychoanalysis at Middlesex University.

The afternoon was devoted to an extended interview with Ron Britton, president of the British Psychoanalytic Society. Dr Britton's new book is titled Sex, Death and the Superego, so it was appropriate that he began his dialogue with the sobering thought that he had lived for seven decades and had seen a war in every one of them. Born into a pro-intellectual working class culture (a species on the verge of extinction), Ron Britton recounted stories of his school and college days. His early interests were in biology and literature, (precisely the twin poles of Freud's own intellectual edifice), while his medical training was based entirely in the 'organic point of view'. "What cured me of that" he drily remarked, "was meeting patients". Discussion ranged broadly, prompted by the intelligent questioning and contributions of interviewer Daniel Pick. From the problems of institutions and 'totemic' ideas which structure them, through the encounters with key figures in British psychoanalysis (Anna Freud, Hanna Segal, Wilfred Bion, Betty Joseph) and comments on their differing styles of work, to the relationship between theoretical ideas and clinical practice. Echoing Michael Molnar's earlier paper, he argued that the most crucial cornerstone of analytic training was the capacity to tolerate uncertainty - for long periods of analysis things do not cohere. "We hold onto the idea of a future that never arrives" he said, and speaking of his own way of handling the dilemma, arrived at through long experience: "I know psychoanalysis works; I'm less confident as to why".

The conference as a whole was a great sucess, and I'm sure everyone present will agree with me that the afternoon session was a delight; thought-provoking, witty and moving in turns, capturing some of the vicissitudes of a life in psychoanalysis. The full interview can be seen and heard on the Therip website.

The afternoon session was chaired by Prof. R. D. Hinshelwood, a member of the British Psychoanalytical Society and Professor of Psychoanalysis at Essex University.

We were delighted to participate in this joint event with Therip, and we hope to continue the fruitful collaboration in the future.

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