10 October 2012

Chalk Talk

Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:49 am

Here’s a paragraph in Bruce Fink’s book on psychoanalytic technique that I read on the plane yesterday. In his chapter on interpreting, Fink recounts an episode from his practice — an episode with which some of us in the blog world are familiar as recounted by the analysand.

One of my analysands told me that he had noticed he was no longer putting so much pressure on his chalk when writing on the blackboard that it would break, which he had been wont to do for some time when standing in front of his class (much to his embarrassment). This change apparently occurred after I had rearranged a few of his words, saying something like “pressure at the board” (referring to pressure he had felt as a child when called on by teachers to perform at the blackboard, and to pressure he was putting on himself to fail for a whole variety of reasons). He had not given my phrase any thought at the time but realized a couple of weeks later that he was no longer breaking chalk, even though he was not making any special effort to ease up and did not know why he had stopped. Although this is just a micro-symptom, it points to the fact that the analysand need not even become conscious of what had been unconscious for a symptom to disappear, as long as enough of it is verbalized by the analyst, the analysand, or the two together building on each other’s words. It also points to the fact that the analyst need not know that what she has said has had an effect — I would not have known if the analysand himself had not told me a few weeks later.

The analyst’s implicit interpretation — that the analysand was feeling too much pressure, putting too much pressure on himself — seems pretty straightforward. As I recall, though I’d have to check the original source to be sure, the analysand’s self-interpretation was much more convoluted than this. Presumably he arrived at his own understanding only after his behavior had already changed and he’d stopped breaking chalk.



  1. It still has all the super-precious talk that creates this ‘secret childworld’, and it’s been there since all that crap with Freud’s patients and their pathetic, delicate sensibilities. Maybe it’s no wonder Lacan decided to just make some dough and fame from people who can’t even figure out why they’re making nervous movements that cause minor inconvenience. Even my very limited experience with analysts proved to me how silly they are, the way they try to make you comfortable by telling you can talk to them about all the things nobody else wants to listen to. That was the first shithead, also a Presbyterian preacher on the Upper East Side. The second one, good Jewish boy from Brooklyn, is the one who himself went crazy and ended up in the basement reading room one summer day in 2001, where I was trying to read the Rolling Stone article on Suge Knight, and he tried to ‘treat me’ there. I rarely spend time down there even by then, except when they had books I didn’t want to buy or mags that were unnecessarily expensive, because street people had started using it as a hangout. Both of them were such ABSOLUTE CREEPS, and the first one made me pay him for the fees for bouncing one check, because I had terminated the sessions in which he tried to flatter my cock.

    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 10 October 2012 @ 1:45 pm

  2. I can see that it would be embarrassing to break many chalks during a lecture. My seventh grade social studies teacher used to break chalk by throwing it at kids who were talking or not paying attention. The chalk would hit the floor and break. A kid seated nearby would toss the biggest piece back to the teacher, who would continue writing with the broken chalk as if nothing had happened, making no further mention of the incident precipitating the breakage. This suggests a straightforward behavioral solution for Fink’s analysand: don’t keep using new pieces of chalk; use only the broken pieces, which can stand up to the pressure without shattering.

    There may be “secret childworld” aspects to severe and incapacitating performance anxiety, but it seems that most people respond to anxiety-provoking situations in a similar manner: they press too hard, or not hard enough. They might oscillate between the two until they find the right nuance. I’m not at all persuaded by the idea that a typical chalk-breaker secretly desires to break the chalk, to embarrass himself publicly, to prove to one and all his unfitness as a teacher, to “break off” his line of thought because it’s not worth writing down or being seen by students, and so on. Of course everybody is different, and the possibility of unconscious self-defeating desires are probably worth exploring if he keeps breaking the short chalks or insists always on using the long chalks. But jumping immediately to masochistic desire seems like sending someone with a cough to the sanatorium.

    Comment by ktismatics — 10 October 2012 @ 2:19 pm

  3. Okay, that’s really freaky.

    Comment by Asher Kay — 10 October 2012 @ 2:41 pm

  4. I know, right?

    Comment by ktismatics — 10 October 2012 @ 3:34 pm

  5. Did you know that the story was in there before you read the book? I’m just imagining sitting in a plane reading and just coming across it in the text. The setting would heighten the sense of unreality.

    Comment by Asher Kay — 11 October 2012 @ 11:57 am

  6. I really can’t see quite why either of you finds it so strange. It’s ordinary, and the psychoanalytic structure alone gives it a kind of ‘glamour’.

    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 11 October 2012 @ 12:26 pm

  7. It’s a deja-vu strangeness. I had no idea the story was there. I was just reading along in the book and did a double-take when I hit this paragraph. To add to the strangeness, I was flying out of Dallas, which is where Levi Bryant — the presumed analysand — lives. Here’s the blog post from June 2009 where I first read Levi’s chalk story. I see that you, Asher, are the first commenter on the thread, then CPC, then me. Then in November I wrote a post using the chalk-breaking incident to illustrate my point, and on this post we have Asher, CPC, “Ray Fuller,” and a few other notables contributing. Eventually Levi shows up on the thread and as I recall we had a nice discussion.

    Comment by ktismatics — 11 October 2012 @ 12:31 pm

  8. I see. Quite extraordinary indeed. If things aren’t repeated elsewhere (Fink) they are repeated my oneself (I keep talking about those two shrinks, and that points to one of my less popular characteristics.) Thanks for telling me, though. I wouldn’t have ever guessed, though. I think things like that may have something to do with age, instead of just seeing them as literal. I do know that I had literally nervous fingers at the piano brought on by a single performance in too cold an auditorium in a competition (which I lost as a result, and my teacher at the time only more or less told me to ‘sustain the problem, not solve it’), and that this did not go away until I got to my New York teacher, whom I first met in 2 summers at Aspen, and she gave me a very ‘conscious technique’, so that I knew exactly what my fingers were doing. The Alabama teacher simply didn’t know how the mechanisms worked, and I might not have needed that had I not played (and many other times as well) in that cold auditorium–years after that traumatic bad performance, I still played in there sometimes, but I always divide my ‘technique career’ between Mr. McAllister’s half-assed technique and Ms. Dowis’s rigorous and confidence-giving technique, which allowed me to become a virtuoso in two years–she was that good at that kind of thing.

    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 11 October 2012 @ 1:27 pm

  9. Jeaneane Dowis was from Dallas. I last saw her in 2001, just after 9/11. She was having dreadful health problems and so was her son, the apartment was an enormous filthy disaster area, even though she had long been pretty well-to-do. A little later that year she moved back to Denton, a rich suburb of Dallas. Dallas is often described as being somewhat singularly ‘artificial’, as having just been shoved up instead of appearing more organically like most have done. And it’s contrast with its immediate neighbour, Fort Worth, is always played up: Fort Worth considered to be ‘hick’ by Dallasites, who think of themselves more like Easterners or West Coast types, with Fort Worth more ‘western’. Nieman Marcus is the perfect symbol for Dallas, a very wealthy Republican town.

    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 11 October 2012 @ 1:36 pm

  10. I wonder if Levi knew that Fink intended to use him as an example. Fink doesn’t reveal any more psychological or behavioral details than did Levi, but it’s strange to know the secret identity of the unnamed case study. It seems cruel to withhold a specific technique for resolving a tangible problem, a solution that could curtail additional anxiety and embarrassment at the (key)board. Teaching the technique relies, as you say, on having the necessary expertise about “how the mechanisms worked,” but also on empathy, knowing how bad it feels not to do well. Instead Fink seems to be superimposing on shared experience and feelings the theory that failure represents desire and so must be sustained.

    Comment by ktismatics — 11 October 2012 @ 1:40 pm

  11. In my young-executive days I went to a nationwide company convention in Dallas to make a presentation and to hobnob with the sales staff. The most successful salesman in the company was from Dallas, and after the company dinner ended he took me and a couple of other guys off to his favorite strip club. I remember also taking a piss at the convention hotel the next day with two other Texas sales guys standing next to each other at other urinals. “The water’s cold,” says the one as he’s peeing. “Deep, too,” the other replies. Big D.

    Comment by ktismatics — 11 October 2012 @ 1:49 pm

  12. It was to some degree cruelty on Mr. McAllister’s part, to some degree it was that he just wasn’t nearly the whiz at the physical how-to of the piano. But he didn’t want to admit that. And he was very petty later after I left him in last year of high school, but we ran across each other at another competition in Cincinnatti. I played poorly there, and didn’t win that either, but he kept wanting to tell me how ‘innacurate’ it was.

    In the earlier period (around 9th grade and years following), I would complain about my ‘nervousness’ about playing, all of which had directly come from that one disastrous experience. He told me “I think that is a form of conceit”. I had forgotten this, because Ms. Dowis herself also did a sadistic number on me the 2nd year at Aspen when I played the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto in competition. She had this crackers idea of falling from a foot above in the opening chords. Everybody said ‘JUST DO IT YOUR WAY’, that nobody could do what she was demanding I do. And she also knew how unhappy I was about this all summer. But I was too much of a dependent child still to go my own way then, and I made a huge mess in that performance. The difference in the two disastrous performances is that I have long looked back at the second as somehow heroic, whereas the first has never seemed so.

    Years later, I would punish them both thoroughly and severely for taking such liberties with me. I once went to see ‘Mr. Mac’ long after I was living in New York, and he told me ‘well, you can sleep with me if you want to’. During the 70s, I actually DID want to sleep with Ms. Dowis, but in 2001, things had changed and she really got aggressive, having fallen on hard times (except for money; she sold the Riverside Drive apt. for $1 million and a quarter) and become enormously fat. She had been a beautiful young woman and a real prodigy-genius, and there she was, constantly feeling up my leg at age 71 to my age 49. He had long died, but once came up to lecture Ms. Dowis on her ‘false technique’, and met me (unfortunately for him) at a restaurant, where I ripped him to shreds, and he never spoke to her. I realized her limitations much later, but it would be impossible to deny that she gave me New York singlehandedly. I wrote about her on some early parts of the bleug, but not in the book.

    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 11 October 2012 @ 1:57 pm

  13. “I think that is a form of conceit” — doling out this sort of aphoristic pomposity to nervous and dependent ninth-graders is a more massive form of conceit.

    Comment by ktismatics — 11 October 2012 @ 3:45 pm

  14. Indeed, and I also knew that he was insulting me, but had no idea what he meant, it was so far-fetched.

    I love the Dallas Pissing Story. Those guys’ wit was not unsophisticated.

    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 11 October 2012 @ 4:56 pm

  15. http://www.kera.org/bios/lee-cullum/

    Remember her? Great commentator on Lehrer News back in the 90s. There really is a Dallas Look. Texas in general has lots of beautiful Amazonian women, but I used to love Lee Cullum’s voice, and when she’d be introduced, she had this hilarious way of opening her quite lovely smile in two stages: She would first keep the sides of her mouth very tight while pushing up and down the very centers of her upper and lower lip. When she’d finished that, she open the sides all the way out. Then she would get this dead serious look on her face and brow, and I remember the commentators the night of the OJ Simpson verdict: Lee opened her eyes wide and side “Jim, what disturbs me is the reaction of THINKING PEOPLE to this!” She’s very bright.

    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 11 October 2012 @ 5:23 pm

  16. I don’t know Lee Cullum; in the photo she looks like Sally Field. I picture the Dallas look: Nieman Marcus as you said, big jewelry, big hair, big makeup, big tits, big smile.

    Comment by ktismatics — 11 October 2012 @ 8:18 pm

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