Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought

Here are some highlights from this 2016 edition:

* Freud once proposed that normality is defined by an ability to love and to work… an ability to love and to work (Erikson, 1950, p. 264). By this criterion, Mr. Z’s initial analysis might be claimed a success. In listening to Mr. Z five years later, however, [Heinz] Kohut was struck by a crucial missing element in Freud’s formula: the ability to feel joyful and proud of these capacities. Without this inner vitality, the victory seemed a hollow one. Psychoanalysis had offered Mr. Z a more “realistic” orientation, a recognition that his fantasies of specialness were unrealistic, but gave him nothing to replace the spark and the excitement the now-abandoned fantasies of narcissistic grandeur had provided. And, from Kohut’s perspective, the existing theory of psychoanalysis seemed to offer no real way to conceptualize this particular problem.
Freud’s theory of libidinal development—the inverse relationship between self-love and love of others—seemed to Kohut to be in need of reformulation. Is love of self really fundamentally inimical to love of others? Is it in the interest of mental health to abandon as immature a high regard for oneself and a desire for attention and praise from others? And are relationships with others worthwhile if pursued at the expense of loving oneself? Might not good feelings about oneself in fact often contribute a vitality and richness to one’s encounters with others?
…He tried to put himself in his patient’s shoes, to understand the experience from the patient’s point of view. This approach, which he described as empathic immersion and vicarious introspection…

Kohut came to believe the problem was only superficially grasped if it was thought of as “too much” narcissism. The normal development of healthy narcissism, Kohut concluded, would be reflected in a feeling of internal solidarity and vitality, the ability to harness talents and reach steadily for goals, self-esteem that is reliable and durable in the face of disappointments and that allows for expansive pride and pleasure in success. A clinical picture like Eduardo’s documents the disruption of this normal developmental process. Intense grandiosity is coupled with an absence of capacity for sustained effort. Self-esteem vacillates between dizzying highs and horrifying lows; there is no steadying counterbalance to temper unrealistic plans or absorb frustration and defeat…

Children live in a world of superheroes and superforces. At times they imagine themselves totally perfect and capable of anything. At times they imagine their caregivers, to whom they are attached, as larger than life and all-powerful. Consider the terms that traditional psychoanalytic theorists applied to this early phase of development: omnipotence, grandiosity, exhibitionism, archaic idealism . Traditional theory regarded the inflated overestimation of self and caregivers that characterizes the early years of life as shot through with infantile fantasy, as an immature irrationality to be overcome, thereby allowing the development of realistic connections with others and the outside world in general.
Kohut took a fresh look at these early experiences in light of his patients’ narcissistic disorders. What he saw in the world of early childhood was a vitality, an exuberance, an expansiveness, a personal creativity that were often missing in adults who led lives devoid of excitement and meaning, or else, like Eduardo, defensively guarded a brittle, exaggerated self-image that isolated and undermined them. Kohut became interested in the fate of infantile vitality and robust self-regard, the developmental process through which it can be preserved in healthy adulthood or become derailed into pathological narcissism…

How does the child emerge from these childhood narcissistic states? Not, Kohut came to believe, by confronting their unrealistic features. The child who is swooping around the living room in his Superman cape needs to have his exuberance enjoyed, not have his fantasies interpreted as grandiose. The child who believes his mother makes the sun rise in the morning needs to be allowed to enjoy his participation in the divine, not to be informed of his mother’s diminutive status in the universe. These early narcissistic states of mind contain the kernels of healthy narcissism; they must be allowed slow transformation on their own, Kohut suggested, simply by virtue of exposure to reality. The child comes to appreciate the unrealistic nature of his views of himself and his parents as he suffers the ordinary disappointments and disillusionments of everyday life: he can’t walk through walls, her father cannot decree that her soccer team will always win, and so on. In healthy development, the inflated images of self and other are whittled down, little by little, to more or less realistic proportions. Inevitable yet manageable, optimal frustrations will take place within a generally supportive environment. Against this secure backdrop, the child rises to the occasion, survives the frustration or disappointment, and in the process internalizes functional features of the selfobject. For example, he learns to soothe himself, rather than collapsing in despair; he comes to experience internal strength despite defeat. Kohut felt that this process, which he termed transmuting internalization , is repeated in countless little ways and builds internal structure, eventuating in a secure, resilient self that retains a kernel of the excitement and vitality of the original, immature narcissistic states.

* Like the parent, the analyst cannot make the sun come up or protect the patient from the harsh realities of life. So the analyst, like the adequate parent, fails the patient slowly and incrementally, allowing the narcissistic transferences to become transformed (through transmuting internalization) into a more realistic, but still vital and robust, sense of self and other.

* Kohut emphasized the chronic traumatizing milieu of the patient’s early human environment, not the primitive urges arising from within; he described the patient’s anxious efforts at self-protection, not his clever routes for obtaining forbidden gratification. In particular, Kohut’s words repeatedly reveal his deep respect for and appreciation of the patient’s often ill-fated but ever hopeful attempts to keep growing despite adversity, a theme that rarely emerges in the classical literature.

“Just as a tree will, within certain limits, be able to grow around an obstacle so that it can ultimately expose its leaves to the life-sustaining rays of the sun, so will the self in its developmental search abandon the effort to continue in one particular direction and try to move forward in another.”

He saw the intense sexual and aggressive pressures that Freud had defined as basic to human motivation as secondary, “disintegrative by-products,” consequences of disruptions in the formation of the self that may now express attempts to rescue some feeling of vitality in an otherwise depleted inner world. He explored this idea particularly creatively in connection with sexuality, as, for example, in his discussion of the function of masturbation in sustaining a person’s internal experience.

“Since he could not joyfully experience, even in fantasy, the exhilarating bliss of growing self-delimitation and independence, he tried to obtain a minimum of pleasure—the joyless pleasure of a defeated self—via self-stimulation. The masturbation, in other words, was not drive-motivated: was not the vigorous action of the pleasure-seeking firm self of a healthy child. It was his attempt, through the stimulation of the most sensitive zones of his body, to obtain temporarily the assurance of being alive, of existing.” (1979, p. 17)

Similarly, he understood the patient’s aggression and rage in the treatment not as expressing an intrinsic force but as evidence of a legacy of vulnerability. Aggressive denigration could be the patient’s way of protecting himself from the risk of retraumatization inherent in embracing the analyst as selfobject. 6 Bitter fury could be understandably precipitated by the patient’s perception of the analyst’s unreliability, weakness, lack of attunement, when, having entered into a reanimation of this needed selfobject tie, he has become deeply and desperately dependent on its effective functioning. Aggression, for Kohut, was reactive, not fundamental.

* One of the deepest fears stirred up by psychoanalysis throughout its history has been the dread that analysis might destroy both creativity and passion. Many artists have regarded psychoanalysis as a threat to their creativity; they feared that analytic understanding, while relieving their neurotic misery, might also deplete the source of their artistic inspiration. As Rilke put it, “If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well” (quoted in May 1969). Peter Shaffer’s play Equus (1973) explored the concern that analytic understanding of perversion is likely to disperse the wellsprings of passion.
These fears may be unfounded. Many artists have been helped by psychoanalysis, both in their work and in their life. And there is no empirical evidence that we know of concerning the impact of psychoanalysis on artists in general. Yet it is true that classical psychoanalysis was pervaded by a rationalism, objectivism, rigid patriarchalism, and an idealization of conventional maturity (a developmental morality) that run counter to the irrationality or nonrationality that is often intrinsic to both creativity and passion. The very term analysis was employed by Freud and his contemporaries to suggest a breaking up of things into their underlying component parts. Adult passions and compulsions were seen as driven by infantile wishes and antisocial impulses. Classical analytic interpretation had a reductive quality to it, revealing the underlying, conflictual, infantile meanings of adult activities and experience. Further, the classical classical analytic process was marked by a renunciatory spirit: once exposed, infantile wishes were necessarily renounced, so that sexual and aggressive energies could find more mature modes of gratification. In this framework, narcissism—including the self-absorption and grandiose flights of fancy that accompany so much creative production—could only be regarded as self-indulgent and infantile.
A fundamental feature that distinguishes postclassical psychoanalysis is the shift in emphasis and basic values from rationalism and objectivism to subjectivism and personal meaning (see Mitchell, 1993). Winnicott and Kohut were among the most important figures in this movement. In chapter 5 we noted Winnicott’s emphasis on play and the anchoring of authentic self experience in the omnipotence of subjective experience. Similarly, one of the central features of Kohut’s revolution, both in theory and in clinical practice, was the reconceptualization of narcissism from a form of infantilism to a source of vitality, meaning, and creativity. For many contemporary psychoanalytic authors, the analyst’s interpretive understanding is much less important than the reality and personal meaning of the patient’s productions to the patient . In this sense, the basic features of contemporary psychoanalytic thought are consistent with, are reflective of, and have played a role in shaping what many have termed postmodernism. Meaning is to be found not in an objective, rational perspective, but in local, personal perspectives; the value of life is not measured by its conformity with a mature and transcendent vision, but by its vitality and the authenticity of its passion.

* The place of Jacques Lacan (1901–1981) in contemporary psychoanalytic thought is unlike that of any other author. He reigned over French psychoanalysis for decades, and his work is a dominant presence in psychoanalysis both in Europe and in South America. Although his influence on English-speaking psychoanalysts has been minimal, his impact on academia, particularly literary criticism, has been considerable. An enormous industry of explications and commentary has grown up around him; yet there is a complete lack of consensus about what his dense and difficult contributions really mean. His more enthusiastic followers consider him the most important French thinker since René Descartes (Lacan was continually grappling with traditional philosophical and epistemological problems) and compare him favorably to Nietzsche and Freud; his critics consider him deliberately obscurantist, an outrageous showman and stylist with little substance. (It is not uncommon to hear detractors quip about the way in which the psychoanalytic world has been la-conned.)
Lacan entered psychoanalysis through the unusual double route of medicine and surrealism. He lived in Paris, where his friends included many prominent surrealist painters and writers (he was closely associated with André Breton), and he contributed influential essays to early surrealist journals….

Any discussion of Lacan’s ideas necessarily begins with a consideration of why they are so difficult to understand. 4 Several factors are important. First, for the non-French reader, there is the problem of translation. Lacan approaches psychoanalysis through linguistics and literature, and his highly idiosyncractic style of writing and speaking is much more poetic than expository. (Commentators such as Mehlman, 1972, and Turkle, 1978, have suggested that his style was modeled on Mallarmé’s.) According to some commentators, Lacan’s central concepts, like good poetry, are simply untranslatable (Schneiderman, 1983, p. 92).
Second, Lacan was a creature less of psychoanalysis as a clinical discipline and international movement than of French intellectual life. There is no better example than Lacan’s work of the way psychoanalysis in different countries takes on a distinctly national character. Lacan’s presentations were spectacles, filled with the conceptual and verbal gamesmanship characteristic characteristic of the French intelligentsia: sweeping philosophical, political, and literary references and allusions, a contemptuous, combative posturing (the title of Julia Kristeva’s novel depicting the intellectual world in which Lacan lived is, tellingly, The Samurai ), and a complex blend of authoritarian fiat and antiauthoritarian defiance. These translation problems, both of language and of milieu, have left many readers interested in psychoanalysis content to remain, with respect to Lacan’s contributions, among the uninitiated.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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