'My Capital Secret': Literature and the Psychoanalytic Agon

By Camden, Vera J. | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, October 2009 | Go to article overview

'My Capital Secret': Literature and the Psychoanalytic Agon


Camden, Vera J., International Journal of Psychoanalysis


Taking as my departure point Freud 's unequivocal claim in The Question of Lay Analysis that psychoanalytic education should include "the history of civilization, mythology, the psychology of religion, and the science of literature" (Freud, 1926b, p. 246), I advocate for an integration of psychoanalysis with the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences in psychoanalytic training. Foundations in these fields are not only acceptable as preliminary to clinical training but will also provide the diverse intellectual climate that is urgently needed in psychoanalytic institutes whose discursive range is often quite narrow. To provide one example of the salutary effect of such disciplinary integration on clinical practice, I illustrate how the transformative power of literature provides compelling metaphors for the psychoanalytic encounter. Through an example drawn from within my own experience as literary critic and psychoanalyst, I describe the ways that the troubling tensions in Milton's Samson Agonistes functioned to illuminate, for me, an analysand 's 'capital secret'.

Keywords: annihilation fears, dream analysis, John Milton, lay analysis, literature and psychoanalysis, Samson Agonistes, trauma, 9/11

There is beauty in ruins.

(Susan Sontag, 2003)

You assume that every neurotic has something oppressing him, some secret.

(Sigmund Freud, 1926b)

Drawing on the template for psychoanalytic research presciently set by Freud in his Project for a scientific psychology, biologist Eric Kandel has called for the psychoanalysis of the 21st century to become 'unified' as a discipline with the developments in biology, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology. He cites François Jacob who proclaims that "the century that is ending has been preoccupied with nucleic acids and proteins. The next one will concentrate on memory and desire. Will it be able to answer the questions they pose?" (Kandel, 2006, p. 163). Psychoanalysis will be part of the dialogue engendered by such a concentration on questions of memory and desire if, says Kandel, it adapts to the demands of a new millennium. I take as a departure point Freud's equally prescient text, The Question of Lay Analysis which claims that psychoanalytic education must include a full range of human learning. I briefly explore his contention that psychoanalytic clinical practice should draw on the reservoir of literature for its vitality; I then offer an extended clinical example that I hope illustrates the veracity of his ardent contention.

The question of lay analysis or, the cure in culture

Despite Freud's best efforts to undermine the distinction between clinical and applied psychoanalysis already familiar to his readers in 1926, the majority of psychoanalytic institutes in the United States still teach 'applied' psychoanalysis as an afterthought. Yet, says Freud: "The true line of division is between scientific analysis and its applications alike in medical and non-medical fields" (Freud, 1926b, p. 257). His vision might well inform and direct our discussions today as we attempt to revision psychoanalysis in the next century. Here is his idea of a psychoanalytic university:

If - which may sound fantastic today - one had to found a college of psychoanalysis, much would have to be taught in it which is also taught by the medical faculty: alongside of depth-psychology, which would also remain the principal subject, there would be an introduction to biology, as much as possible of the science of sexual life and the symptomatology of psychiatry. On the other hand, analytic instruction would include branches of knowledge which are remote from medicine and which the doctor does not come across in his practice: the history of civilization, mythology, the psychology of religion, and the science of literature - unless he is well at home in these subjects, an analyst cannot make anything of a large amount of his material. By way of compensation, the great mass of what is taught in medical school is of no use to him for his purposes. …

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