Thomas Fink: You have much professional experience performing literary interpretation—most notably of Russian fiction—and you have more recently embarked on a career as a psychoanalyst. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that your theoretical orientation is either Lacanian or Freudian. How did your literary studies and critical writing prepare you for interpreting your psychoanalytic clients’ personal narratives (and language in general) for and with them?
I’m a firm believer in so-called lay analysis—that is, in psychoanalysis practiced by people whose original fields of expertise and licensing bodies are outside medicine, so not only clinical psychology, but also the humanities, and the arts. The psychoanalytic institute that I’m training at was founded by Theodor Reik, who wasn’t a medical doctor, and who was the inspiration for Freud’s paper “The Question of Lay Analysis.” Freud thought that a broad education in the humanities and the arts was essential for psychoanalysts. His reasons for this were complex, one of them certainly relating to his claim that the poets got there first—that poets and artists have always known something about, had special access to, the unconscious. Beyond this, to the extent that cultural memes make their way into an analysand’s discourse, being broadly conversant in cultural productions is one of many inroads into what is going on when we listen to another person speaking.
At the same time the content of cultural exchange is rather different now from when it was in Freud’s day, so from this perspective, it may be as important now to be aware of the ongoing dramas of the Kardashian sisters as of, say, the ups and downs of the characters of Greek tragedy. Or maybe that comparison only underscores the extent to which the question of “content” in analysis is both inescapable and beside the point. I have a patient who keeps returning to Odysseus and Telemachus in order to articulate something of his relationship with his father. I know that story well, I’ve taught that story, and so it’s something we can play with; if I didn’t, I could go read it, if I wanted to. But if not, to the extent that something of this relation permeates his discourse, we could (and do) always work with it somewhere else. So in a way I think this kind of cultural “education” of an analyst is interesting—it’s preferred by me, it’s what I like—but it’s certainly not crucial, or the only kind.
I think more important in terms of what I got out of a background in literature was also what motivated my pursuit of literature in the first place, which is a love of and attention to language. Lacan, in his return to Freud, underlined this aspect of psychoanalysis. I think in a way I was always reading literature as a psychoanalyst, though I didn’t know it—that is, reading for the unconscious of the text as it was manifested in the linguistic repetitions on which the text was founded. This is essentially what literary criticism is, or at least that’s when I think it’s at its best. But critical writing about literature can go in all sorts of different directions—comparative, historical, theoretical—and I found myself, in my reading and writing, always performing these very rigorous analyses of texts, tracing something of a text’s structure and latent mechanisms very minutely. I wanted to take each text very seriously on its own terms. And I was often reading and writing about big nineteenth-century novels, which took a long time to read and write about, and which were often founded on, simply put, a problem. (Randall Jarrell defined the novel genre as: “a prose work of some length with something wrong with it.”) Novels are symptomatic. Like, unhappy families, or people who need to grow up, or cities in disarray, or mysteries to solve, whatever—something amiss that takes 600 pages to work through, on the basis of the terms of the beginning. So I think I sort of always conceived of novels as objects that attempted to work through something, to cure themselves, and that’s what I always wanted to trace. In a way that’s how I conceive of an analysis—that we come in with a complaint that, in one way or another, gives articulation to some form of suffering, and a store of signifiers that bear some kind of relation to that suffering, and we work our way through that store with a listener. And that the fact of being listened to does something to those terms, puts them in a new arrangement, and in so doing makes room for new possibilities.
This isn’t to say that a psychoanalytic intervention really takes the form of a literary interpretation, or that it need be in any way explanatory. There’s an enormous amount at play when you speak in the room with a patient, and you’re never trying to just interpret, or enlighten—you’re trying to move something in a particular way. If that takes the form of “interpretation” traditionally conceived, as something explanatory, that’s fine, but that’s fairly rare, at least for me with my patients, and also in my own analysis. Outside the room, I do do a good deal of thinking through certain structural questions of what’s going on in a particular treatment—like, treatment as text. That makes its way into the room in various ways. But it’s never really what’s going on in the room, and also, when it gets too obsessive and minute, I know it’s sort of going awry.
And actually in a way, training as an analyst has changed my literary interests, and my writing. I don’t think analysis really has much to do with the narratives we tell in analysis, or the plots we construct, or whatever meaning we think we’re finding in texts or in our own lives. It’s funny but I’m sort of no longer interested in novels the way I was before, nor do I think that my kind of beginning comparison between psychoanalysis and novel was really all that apt—or maybe I’ve just moved beyond it. More at stake for me now is less the structure of narrative than the sort of magic of linguistic resonances, and what it does when we enunciate them. One aspect of psychoanalytic listening that was new to me when I started was listening for, in a way, meaningless resonances in a patient’s speech—rhymes, half-rhymes, homonyms—and paying attention to what those might be doing in a subject’s economy. So they’re meaningless in the sense of, content is irrelevant, referent is irrelevant—what is relevant is what the resonance speaks to, or what it makes, in the very fact of a linguistic connection. This wasn’t something I was used to listening for in novel reading, though probably I should have been doing it. In any case I’ve found myself more drawn to reading poetry these days, and I think my writing has similarly changed along those lines. I’m not as interested in making well-structured arguments any more—I’m more interested in playing with the signifiers that emerge in the act of writing, and seeing what happens.
Fink: What poets are you reading these days? What would be an example or two of a metonymic chain of signifiers in a poem or poems that has given you access to an articulation of suffering that, as you put it, “puts [the terms] in a new arrangement, and in so doing makes room for new possibilities”? (Or, to put it another way, perhaps that chain gives access to the desire of the Subject.)
Lieber: I’ve been reading mostly contemporary American poets: Kay Ryan, Louise Gluck, Donald Hall, Sharon Olds. I thought Molly McCully Brown’s The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded was incredible. I’m thinking of reading Maggie Nelson’s “Bluets” next because what really thrills me is prose poems, perhaps because that’s the form that actually reminds me of analysis most.
The piece that comes to mind in terms of this signifying chain is actually not poetry or fiction, but memoir—Donald Antrim’s “I Bought a Bed.” It’s, you know, fertile ground, so to speak, for an analyst—about the death of his mother and his long attempt, and eventual failure, directly afterwards, to buy a bed. It’s incredibly funny and sad and wonderful. And, you know, this quest for a bed, as it relates to the loss of the mother—it’s packed with “meaning.” What is Antrim doing as he goes from store to store, obsessing these various potential beds, harassing store managers and salespeople with absurd questions, hesitating, buying, returning? He is living out something of the problem of filiation. He is researching his mother, exploring her body, figuring something out, conducting forensic analysis. He is surpassing her, buying a huge and luxurious bed in response to the crappy twin hospital cot on which she died. He is repeating her, practicing her craft, outfitting a mattress with sheets and ruffles and tassels and drapes the way she outfitted actors for the theater and, later, herself, for daily life. He is liberating himself from her. He is purchasing a roomy coffin to share with her. He is nuzzling up to her, climbing on top of her. You can call these meanings what you like: the Oedipus complex, the incest taboo, the repetition compulsion, intergenerational trauma, Eros, the death drive. The sick family, the sick woman, the sick child. The search for home. It’s all there. But at the center of the essay is a meaningless rhyme (matricide, mattress), the ridiculous nonsense of aural resonance that creates the speaking subject and it’s labyrinthine structures. This resonance is central to the structure of the essay, which rehearses the structure of the lived event. As well, the fact that Antrim’s mother’s maiden name, the last name of her father, the first person to die in the essay, was Self. Somehow, the history of a writer, of a memoirist, is in part determined there, in the vicissitudes of that name, though in and of itself the name, located like all selves are in a social network, words linking to other words ad infinitum, doesn’t “mean” anything.
I wrote a poem once (something I don’t do very often at all and generally do with a lot of embarrassment) and I didn’t really know what it was about until I looked back and saw what was common in some of the words that turned out to be central: “talisman,” “mania,” “manipulate.” I hadn’t known why those words were coming, or what their relation was. This is what psychoanalysis feels like, to me. I was about to try to say something of the question of the psychoanalyst being (or not being) a shaman. A shame man? So, you see, it keeps going and going.
Fink: Yes, shaman, sham man, shame man, shameful manipulator, manic shamer, but as you are a female psychoanalyst and a feminist, the reiteration of the “man” sound indicates that the history of the profession’s patriarchal strictures must also be significant: a sham and shame and others’ mania to work through.
I want to go back to your point that “you’re never trying to just interpret, or enlighten—you’re trying to move something in a particular way” and “’interpretation’” as a way of doing this is “fairly rare… with [your] patients”; how is this movement distinct from interpretation of the client’s narrative and the elaboration of her/his signifying chain? And is this different approach connected or not at all connected to (non-interpretive) immersion in and/or temporal process in poems, prose-poems, drama, or fiction?
Lieber: Yes, sham man! Wonderful.
I suppose when I say interpretation is rare, at least for me (on both sides of the couch), it means, it’s rare that I say something that takes itself out of the patient’s particular vocabulary, the very specific articulation of her universe. What the analyst says never serves a purely communicative function, nor does it believe that the transmission of information is itself enough (or is ever just, or even primarily, what is happening in the moment of speech). Psychoanalysis takes very seriously the notion that speaking is an act, that it does something, that the putting to language of the previously unlanguaged itself enacts shifts—the psychoanalyst is there to further that action. And then as an analyst, the register you speak at depends on what the treatment demands at a specific moment, which means, on what will help something to move: on what pressure points seem to be ready, or on what can be shifted, or on what has finally come into view that can be touched. There is something both very immersive and very not-immersive about it, because you’re deep within someone else’s linguistic world, and yet, you’re always keeping a certain reflexive distance from it as well—the possibility of turning a word or a phrase that you hear on its side, and returning it—because if you didn’t work according to that kind of torsion, nothing would happen. So I think if the kind of immersion you’re talking about is one that also maintains a self-consciousness about itself, then yes, it may be very connected.
Fink: I want to shift to a consideration of two institutional structures with which you—and not so many people—are well acquainted. What common areas exist between the institution of literary study and psychoanalytic candidacy? What do you see as the implications of these connections for the practice of teaching of literature, the pursuit of criticism, and the practice of psychoanalysis?
Lieber: I’ve thought about this a lot, given that I’ve spent something like the past 15 years in some form of training, or candidacy. Freud said that teaching and psychoanalysis were two “impossible” professions, which again means many things, one of them being that something of the impossibility of transmission is brought to the fore in both endeavors. I’d argue that teaching literature and teaching psychoanalysis are especially impossible. In other words not only is there some impossibility at the heart of all these projects—some kind of infinite demand that you have to negotiate related to one’s responsibility to another person’s words—but also, that the transmission of these endeavors is impossible. There is no sufficient way to communicate what happens in a consulting room, or between a reader and a text, nor should there be—and this puts the notion of “education” on complex ground. How can you teach someone to read literature, how can you teach someone to listen, how can you teach someone to teach, how can you teach someone to speak about someone else’s words in a way that registers with that person, or with someone else? What on earth happens in a classroom when such things are at stake? Well, you can do lots of things: you can talk about theory, about how a text is made, how a person is made. You can talk about history, the history of literature, of literary studies, of psychoanalysis. You can place the objects at issue (the texts, the enunciations of a patient) in a variety of contexts or frames. You can require certain knowledge bases about all of these areas; you can give exams relating to all of these rubrics. I generally think that all of these approaches are, in and of themselves, beside the point, except to the extent that they immerse the person pursuing them in acts of language as it is received and passed along. Institutional forms of education, especially in these two fields, are often founded on the mistaken notion that they are transmitting content, rather than form. But within that mistake, something happens. When I teach literature, my task as I understand it is to help students figure out what they’re trying to say, whether in class discussions, or in papers—no more, no less. In certain ways I view the text or texts at issue as a kind of stimulation for speech and writing, though I take my and the students’ responsibility to those texts very seriously—but of course all of one’s speaking bears responsibility to others’. Certainly, this ethic is influenced by my involvement in psychoanalysis, but it also long predates it.
Fink: In what ways are the institution of literary study and psychoanalytic candidacy markedly different? Do you find these differences productive, problematic, or, to some extent, both?
Lieber: Well, psychoanalysis names what other discourses often don’t. So elements that always inhere in institutional life—power negotiations, hierarchies of influence and knowledge, forms of envy and attachment—have available names according to their psychic dynamics, which are themselves the proper objects of study. This doesn’t mean that psychoanalytic institutes are any less pathological than other institutions, or that this vocabulary really helps in running a school well. Rather, that the subject of inquiry at least assures, for those who are listening carefully to it, that such things can’t be taken for granted. I mean something that psychoanalysis allows is a radical questioning of something like pedagogy, for instance, whether or not it’s taken up. Built into the psychoanalytic endeavor is a certain questioning of institutionalizations of all forms, and I think psychoanalytic institutes refract this in one way or another (not always fortuitously, but always palpably). Such questions aren’t as near the surface in academia, though maybe they should be.