What is Psychoanalysis?

Robert Enoch, 2001

Psychoanalysis is a belief system, not unlike religion. And it could even constitute a substitute for religion. For, like religion psychoanalysis prescribes to a parallel reality: supplant Consciousness for mortal life and the Unconscious for Heaven and Hell. Before the advent of psychoanalysis and its idiom, people looked to God and devils to locate hope and apportion blame. Now psychology searches into one’s ‘psyche’, or memory and thought processes, to find explanations for mental illness and behaviour and hopes to root out problems and understand the nature of the human mind. This makes it a retrospective practice – the past is seen as the instigator of the future. The present moment can never be transparent and is always the sum of one’s past experiences. This causative view of life’s experiences asserts that all is governed by the logic of reason and so, leads to a chase for rational answers for a fundamentally rational being.

Psychoanalysis became more a form of philosophy or anthropology rather than a medical science. Some analysts believed they had made some fundamental discoveries about humankind’s psychological nature. For Freud, our desire for sex was hidden beneath all of our motives. Adler thought it was the need to attain power and control over other people and nature. Jung sought to integrate the individual into the mystical whole of symbolic existence.

Psychoanalysis has evolved from the insights of psychologists who analysed what their patients said about their problems and their lives. Through a process of identifying clues and making connections, theories emerged about the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind, about the origin and purpose of fantasies and dreams, about the causes of ‘neuroses’, i.e. mental illnesses. For example, the central concept of repression is ‘the process by which an unacceptable impulse or experience is driven into the unconscious’ and unfortunately these impulses or memories ‘can keep breaking back into the conscious mind’ disguised in slips of the tongue, dreams or fantasies and may manifest themselves as mental illnesses and behavioural disorders. Hence the need for a ‘psycho-detective’ to unravel these disturbances. Unfortunately the mind seems predestined to conflict. It is supposedly divided into three key areas: the biological and instinctual self with its lusty demands called the Id; the moral part that exerts conscience over our actions and responds to external principles and rules is the Superego; and the Ego is the conscious identity stuck between the other two.

Psychoanalysts may wish to be able to help those suffering from mental and emotional anguish but can they really offer any more than to listen without judgement and by doing so help their patients to air their problems? Although the patient’s motive to seek therapy itself is an acknowledgement of a problem and a positive attempt to challenge a destructive situation, my personal experience of analysis was disappointing. Psychoanalysis, with all its theories, could constitute nothing but a grand pretence, a game of the imagination like astrology where vague signs are elaborated on and creative links are made for the sake of self-indulgent reverie. By focusing on assumed important relationships or extreme events, it gives itself the semblance of legitimacy. But after all the theory and so many cases, analysis is still a long and convoluted affair with no guarantee of reaching its objective. So why do we go on believing in psychoanalysis? Is it the only hope out there?

Our culture is permeated with science and consumerism and hence the very notions that ills can be cured and desires can be satisfied. In this sense we automatically believe in psychoanalysis with its promise of solutions, its history and authority of famous names and big ideas. Today we even consider our life troubles in the language of psychoanalysis: ‘depression’, ‘compulsion’, ‘repression’, ‘phobia’, ‘psychosis’ etc, are all well used terms. But ultimately we blame our minds because there is nothing else to blame and nowhere else to search. In a world where religion and spiritual experience seem hard to comprehend from the mundane perspective of everyday existence we seek solace and enlightenment from the promised infinite complexity of the mind.

After many attempts at psychoanalysis, the one thing I am left with is the notion of the unconscious which, like consciousness, is many things, from a force beneath one’s actions to the spring of dreams. Freud said that one of the goals of psychoanalysis is to make the unconscious conscious: to reveal one’s repressed and hidden fears; the principles and behaviour planted by socialization; the desires contorted and reformed by morality’s grip. Despite the fact that the unconscious may be a mirage, the concept is intriguing. The goal is happiness and liberation from psychological anguish or existential ennui and who wouldn’t wish for that? Dreams, artistic creations, jokes and word associations are all supposed to contain elements of the unconscious so it’s of common interest among artists.
Psychoanalysts have a vested interest in believing in the efficacy of its theories, not only because it is their work but because as caring persons they wish to purge people of their problems. They are therefore apt to believe in and find theories and concepts that attempt to explain these difficulties in the logo-centric framework of science. But all the explanations in the world do not signify a cure, which in therapy must be the sole aim. Understanding one’s problems can be regarded as an accomplishment in psychoanalysis, but understanding oneself in the context of one particular belief system is highly contextual: one can perceive oneself from the perspective of any belief system. Understanding is not enough and does not necessarily precipitate change or solution. To engage in psychoanalysis is to re-frame one’s identity and one’s problems in psychoanalytic terms. This could be helpful to some people but it could also lead to an over-analytical mode of thinking, a reflexive rather than immediate response to life which may become a problem in itself. The most important thing that psychoanalysis has given to humankind is a deeper sense of individual personality, of the self differentiated from others. Unfortunately, this is at variance with society’s continued aim to homogenize human beings into reliable consumers.

Human beings crave reason when powerful feelings overwhelm them or threaten their homeostasis, but why resist the fall into the irrational? In a world where Reason is a totalitarian presence and even God has been subdued by it, we are bound to call things irrational when we don’t and can’t understand them. It is simply the result of our rationalist upbringing, to which we owe our rationalist outlook. Is it possible to trust the mind, especially when it is leading us in unpredictable, absurd or disturbing directions? I am not suggesting following destructive or hateful drives to violent realization, and those obvious instinctual desires for sex, material possessions or power over others whose outcome is clearly visible when they arise. I am thinking of an openness to intuitions, insights and impulses of a more obscure nature which lead one in directions that are vague and do not have known outcomes. I am indicating a willingness to trust oneself and that the fundamental motivating factor of the mind is life-giving. In this sense Art could become a vehicle for regeneration.