21 January 2007

Three Analysts Walked Into a Bar

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 12:21 pm

There’s this story that Jacques Lacan used to tell about Freud coming to America for the first time. Freud and his erstwhile protégé Karl Jung sailed from Europe together. As the ship passed under the Statue of Liberty at the mouth of New York Harbor. Freud turned to Jung and said, “They don’t realize we’re bringing them the plague.”

Get it? Here’s neo-Freudian, neo-Lacanian Jacques-Alain Miller’s interpretation:

Normally we welcome the analyst as a therapist provided he/she brings along a method to cure-the psychoanalyst as a new curing method. Contrariwise, Freud's Witz (joke) posits the analyst as the one who hands over the disease, not the cure... as if Jung and Freud were two fundamentalist terrorists sneaking into the United States.

Freud said that jokes, like dreams, express subconsciously repressed instincts for sex and aggression – Freud the terrorist infecting America with a sexually-transmitted disease. Lacan sees in the joke evidence of Freud’s hubris:

To catch their author in its trap, Nemesis had only to take him at his word. We could be justified in fearing that Nemesis has added a first-class return ticket.

Lacan interprets the United States as Freud’s Nemesis. According to the Encyclopedia Mythica:

In Greek mythology, Nemesis is the goddess of divine justice and vengeance. Her anger is directed toward human transgression of the natural, right order of things and of the arrogance causing it. Nemesis pursues the insolent and the wicked with inflexible vengeance. She is portrayed as a serious looking woman with in her left hand a whip, a rein, a sword, or a pair of scales. In the Hellenistic period she was portrayed with a steering wheel.

So here’s the mythic hero Freud sailing into the West, taunting the immense statue of Nemesis standing guard over the New World. But, says Miller, tragedy awaits:

The hubris and Nemesis strike back: the real victim of the challenge thrown at the Statue of Liberty and to all that it represents in the modern world is psychoanalysis itself, Freud's creature.

In the glare of Liberty’s torch no subconscious desire or fear can hide in the shadows. But it’s not denial that characterizes America; it’s unhindered expression. We mean what we say and say what we mean, and what we mean is sex and violence, and we never stop talking about it. The subconscious has been evacuated; only the inhibitions are inhibited. We spill our guts; we give birth to our inner child; the inner child screams out what it wants. And what does the voice of the Father have to say to the inner child? “Go fer it, dude. Pursue happiness. Squeeze every drop of enjoyment you can out of life.”

America didn’t just catch Freud’s disease: it altered the metabolism of the disease and assimilated it into the organism. America infected the disease.




  1. *speechless*
    Freud himself is said to have rewritten his theories at least five times and contradicted himself.
    His importance is in showing that humans are more than a machine to the medical world, and that illness of mind existed as a result of threats to the mind rather than the body; and the existence of complexes.
    I think his idea of complexes to be more interesting at this day than hedonism. Complexes could be filled with contextual and personnal content. Totem and Taboo has made me laugh out loud more than any book ever (but the hedonistic angle keeps getting more attention than the more contextual aspects).
    To me, rejecting complete theories never made sense. How is it logical that if one part (A1) of A is prooven false, another part (A2) should then be false too?
    But about Americans… You’re making me wonder if Americans don’t have the mechanism of “hush” of thoughts, indeed no taboo’s? I don’t really know enough Americans to be able to judge this… American express themselves more in books? in moovies? in blogs? in shows? Maybe, I don’t know the statistics, but it would not surprise me, although I would like to know how the percentages are.
    But in terms of the father, I would say America has lots of superego. There are so many great lawyers, Psychologists, journals, writers, scientists, educators, politicians in America. And I think there is a lot of healthy thinking there too.
    What a contrast.


    Comment by Odile — 21 January 2007 @ 11:37 pm

  2. Freud has never been very popular in America. Too pessimistic, too complex, too slow, too difficult, not results-oriented — too European perhaps. I have a Ph.D. in psychology, and in school we never studied or discussed Freud.

    Jacques-Alain Miller says that today the superego is the voice telling us that we “ought” to enjoy. Enjoyment is certainly the main ethos of America as I know it. Buy what makes you happy, get a job you enjoy, have fun, live for the moment, find your passion, express yourself, love yourself — these are the social expectations placed on the individual and the goals to which the individual aspires. People feel guilty when they fail to achieve these hedonistic expectations.

    Psychoanalysis was built around a Judeo-Christian ethos; what does analysis become in a hedonistic-bohemian ethos? Do analysts need to help people realize that there’s more to life than happiness and self-esteem?


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 January 2007 @ 10:07 am

  3. I would caution against overarching meta-statements about “what America is.” Remember Disneyland? Baudrillard? “America” is people, cultures and subcultures. But “America” is also what Hollywood makes it. “America” is what the record companies sell us. “America” is a mass media hype. But even this is oversimplistic because you have diversity and pluralism in the media as well. And what the media spins as “America” is always changing.

    On the one hand there is the “America” of relativistic morality and self-indulgance. On the other hand there are many groups reacting to this not the least of which are conservatives coming from Fundamentalist backgrounds. These groups seek to reclaim the original, ideal “America” of the Founding Fathers. A dream of hard-working, God-fearing, and self-sacrificing individuals working for the good of God, family, and the book. And there are many who fall somewhere in the middle. They derive meaning from bits and pieces of different versions of what “America” and “life” is. They draw from a radio talk show host or a reality tv show or elements of their religious tradition or a self-help book at Barnes and Noble or something they heard at University. In short, I see fragmentation. A disperate attempt to bring together fragments of meaning into life and live holistically. And all of this is usually done in relative isolation devoid of real and genuine vulnerability or community accountability.


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 22 January 2007 @ 1:52 pm

  4. So it’s the voice of moderation now, is it? Throwing a guilt trip at me for stereotyping America? OK, I’ll back off.

    I suppose I was putting forward an evaluation of the kinds of people who might have gone in for Freudian psychoanalysis: verbal, well-educated, successful, probably urban. I’d say that for most of these people Freud already shapes their outlook even if they never read Freud. They’ve recognized the anxiety-producing effects of repression and of internalizing the disapproving voice of the Father (i.e., the community’s intolerance of deviance). These people now feel guilty and ashamed for not having enough fun, for not feeling great about themselves, for not having a passion, for not being open about their feelings, and so on. In other words, the kind of psychological freedom Freud made possible has itself become a source of anxiety because people can’t live up to their own and others’ expectations for being free, open, uninhibited, happy, etc. It’s ironic. This is the sector of Americans I know best, the sector I’ve been part of for a long time. If I was going to put together a psychological practice it would be these people I would envision as potential clients.

    The moral conservatives never would have considered going into analysis. For them Freud’s message still has great relevance and would do a world of good. I do think the Freudian ethos has “infected” even the conservatives though, don’t you?

    By the way, Freud wasn’t an advocate of self-indulgence. He was looking for a middle ground between the self-indulgent id and the disapproving superego. He didn’t believe happiness was a realistic goal for the human condition. What Miller sees as ironic (and I do too) is the situation where the superego (as manifested in the media, the neighborhood, the workplace, the economy) disapproves of the self for not being self-indulgent enough.


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 January 2007 @ 2:48 pm

  5. I was trying to write a reply yesterday but was interrupted many times…

    It is paradoxal indeed that the media stimulate the self-indulgence and that it would be healthy to restrict it. Not very ethical.

    It is difficult to have this discussion because it is about stereotypes. I had an exam on the Psychology of women. I managed to come late twice for the exam, this never happened on other exams. I wonder what Freud would say of that.


    Comment by Odile — 24 January 2007 @ 2:11 pm

  6. Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer
    Thiings fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocense is drowned;
    The best lack all convictions, while the worst
    Are full of pasionate intensity
    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again; but now I know
    That twenty cenuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

    The Second Coming, W.B. Yeats


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 28 January 2007 @ 6:22 pm

  7. “A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun” — some kind of banishing of the shadows in the dispassionate midday glare. But sleep soothes us to nightmares. Something is lost in the clarity of pure light and pure darkness.

    And as for Odile missing her psychology of women exam twice — how is it that I missed reading and responding to this comment?


    Comment by rivierawriters — 28 January 2007 @ 8:15 pm

  8. LOL
    wild guess: a significant woman in your life ressembles Nemesis?


    Comment by Odile — 29 January 2007 @ 11:52 pm

  9. I deny that! Oh wait…I see I posted my last comment as rivierawriters, which is one of my wife’s alteregos. I use her machine and assume her identity when posting on my own blog… what’s up with that, Dr. Odile?


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 January 2007 @ 10:02 am

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