Tag Archives: Melanie Klein

Love and hate and Don Juan

 

It was all a fantasy, an act, and yet it seduced because it seemed so real. It even took off from the stage at one point, crossing some invisible plane, whooping and dancing with harsh laughter, helicoptering over a star-gazing audience. There will have been more special effects in Don Juan in Soho than in the original, 14th century legend, but the essentials of a drama that has inspired the likes of Moliere, Byron, Camus, and Mozart are unchanged.

Patrick Marber is the playwright who has turned Don Juan into a twenty first century rogue in west end London. He appears currently as David Tennant (of Doctor Who fame), transformed from his sexy nerd sci-fi persona to that of a lusty, unfettered snake. His Don Juan is a self-confessed “child”, unapologetically seeking pleasure, while decrying the envy and hypocrisy of those whose outrage implies they wouldn’t want what he has. I was drawn to see the play because the main character was described in press releases as a sex addict, which is the fashionable term these days, replacing that of libertine, womanizer, or more plainly, sinner. Religion and morality have been the traditional lenses via which Don Juan has been criticized or admired. My profession, and specifically, the corner of it that treats sex addiction, has afforded sex addicts something like empathy while retaining our fascination, and it is this fascination that prevails in Don Juan, even as the seduction subsides, and tragedy unfolds with Reaperish inevitability.

And yet, what is most fascinating about Don Juan in Soho is not his seductions of women (only one such exercise is captured in full flight), or even his masterful manipulation of important male characters in the play, such as his long-suffering and devoted man-servant, and his curmudgeonly but foolhardy father. Ultimately, what I found most fascinating was his seduction of the audience, including me, though like a proud would-be target, I found myself resisting the supposedly irresistible, and feeling separate, even haughty, as the audience cheered and whooped along with the Don Juan specter.

This seduction is for audience sympathy, through a complex display of honesty, entitlement, defiance, and counter-provocation. As Tennant’s DJ argues that he’s not a rapist (“I don’t grab pussy”), I hear echoes of a familiar rationale. The libertine/addict claims he is not hurting anyone, contrary to the claims of others, like (in DJ’s case) his man-servant, or more ominously, the claims of brothers of a jilted bride. He points out that all involved are chronologically adult, and thus responsible for themselves, and anyway, have derived pleasure from his sexual behaviors, which is Don Juan’s all-justifying raison d’etre.

To those who disagree, or who seek to penetrate his hidden depths, DJ exudes contempt, even if they are, like his man-servant (Stan), people he values and cares about somewhat. DJ’s seeming need of Stan is not only endearing, it tugs upon suspicion that he, like the addict as he/she is understood by modern psychology, has needs that are not encompassed by physical pleasure, but merely symbolized by it. Needs for attachment. For love. For distance. Of course, DJ will never say or admit as much, and this will be his downfall, everyone says. So, besides his pursuit of sex, he alternates between acts of subtle supplication (for attachment), and efforts to subvert the wholesome.

A Kleinian analyst would have a field day watching this play. From start to finish, DJ seems most drawn to seduce those who are innocent—those whom he’d find deluded, or hypocritical. He is a child seeking pleasure, and thus wants to suckle and be suckled, but he also bites and seeks to destroy that upon which he projects his ambivalence. He callously drops the woman whom he’d married just two weeks prior to the play’s action, and whom he’d diligently seduced over the course of a year (just for the challenge, apparently). In the play’s most entertaining sequence, he hits upon the bride of another man in a hospital, hours after having been responsible for the groom’s injuries following a boating accident. Even more improbably, DJ seduces the bride while being fellated by another woman whom he’d met only moments before this scene.

His aggression isn’t exclusively directed at women. He is misanthropic, not merely misogynist, as some suggest of Don Juan. Those who highlight the latter listen selectively, and are gender-centric in their outlook. DJ delights in hoodwinking his rich father, on whose aristocratic fortune he depends. His enactment of remorse for his father’s benefit reminds me why sex addicts enter therapy, because I often hear about the pleasure’s aftermath of guilt, or even more so, of the shame of being exposed. When DJ seduced me, he did so because he revealed his darker, unrepentant side, and I rarely hear the level of honesty that DJ otherwise exhibits.

He temporarily, at least, torments a homeless Islamic man, who resists DJ’s attempt to bribe him into making blaspheming remarks. Ostensibly, this scene illustrates again the libertine’s distaste for the wholesome, for he thinks them false. But the Islamic man shows his “integrity” by refusing to blaspheme for the reward DJ offers, and as a result, DJ rewards him anyway. A secondary purpose of this and another scene I won’t detail might be a politically correct subtext: Christendom is oppressive, harboring of sex offenders, and repressive of sexuality in general, the protagonist declares. But DJ and his playwright live in 2017, and theater-goers are progressive-leaning, so author and actor are more careful with Muslim sensibilities.

Amid his two or three soliloquy/diatribes, DJ expands upon his political/philosophical outlook: he rails against men in power, makes allusions to modern race politics, the aforementioned quotables of Donald Trump, now so etched in the public mind that the lines mocking them draw instant recognition and approval. DJ, we are led to believe, is a relative hero: in 2017, he has an advantage over his medieval ancestors, because today it is less offensive to be merely promiscuous, even if that promiscuity is extreme. The audience for Don Juan in Soho ultimately applauds the protagonist and is saddened by his demise: partly because he’s clever and attractive, but more importantly because he seems democratic—meaning, he will fuck anyone, of any color, religious, or class background. Because he isn’t hateful.

But that’s incorrect, actually, because Tennant’s DJ isn’t entirely honest. He is a child, but he’s not a lover. As the Kleinian lens teaches us, children can be hateful, and may remain in that hateful state throughout their lives. And maybe that’s okay, we might quietly, reservedly suggest—as long as that hate is understood, exposed or tempered by notions of justice, for example. So, Don Juan from Soho is hateful, and maybe that’s okay with his audience, because the things he hates—the people he hates—are those whom his audience hates also.

 

 

 

 

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Personality Disorder: the other way (part two)

 

I want to blame someone. James Masterson did also, I think. He will have argued with many over what comprises a real versus a false self, or a personality disorder—whether such a thing exists with some. Were he alive today I think he’d argue with proponents of trauma model, and possibly with authors of novels like The Woman in Cabin 10. Not that these people don’t think that personality disorders exist. They simply call them something else, because mental health services, like any commodity, ultimately, is not just something to be validated by research, or—sorry—evidence-based research. It is something to be sold to the public.

For the average consumer of psychotherapy, a diagnosis of trauma, whether that trauma is episodic, chronic, the result of fatefully aberrant events or an aggregate of quaintly termed little ts that shape development (the theorized etiology of personality disorders) is simply more palatable. The word connotes victimization by an external agent, and thus a diminished responsibility for the sufferer. Treatment encourages a present identity of a survivor (very popular), with a possible future of healing. It’s a meet-them-where-they’re-at-thing. Regarding etiology, the accent is upon recent, precipitating events, with an intellectualized nod towards distant antecedents, that complex internalization of others which blurs a simplified reality.

Trauma model practitioners pay lip service to the antecedents of trauma. Prominent authors even co-opt object relations theories without crediting them, and repackage (reframe in the jargon of the field) personality disorder as something like developmental or relational trauma. A good example is featured in Barbara Steffens’ Your Sexually Addicted Spouse, whose target readership is evident by the title. In her text, Steffens describes PTSD as “something that can last a lifetime”, and that relationship trauma entails “painful coping mechanisms ingrained in personalities” Study the work of Klein, Fairbairn, Mahler, Winnicott, Masterson or Kohut and you’d hear the echo of their theories in such pop psychology literature: that psychic pain is integrated into personality over time, generating a disordered self in which such pain is habitually defended against in relationship.

But again, while trauma model educators pay lip service to old patterns, they mostly ignore it in treatment. The reasons are two-fold: A.) Treatment doesn’t last very long in this model. It’s a two week stay in a group home of some kind, or an eight-week course at your nearby hospital. B.) Discussion of problems is intellectual, academic—therapy as education. You’re given homework, even, to solidify the association with school. This is organizing, some say. Stabilizing for the unsafe person who cannot, it is presumed, manage complexity, the uncertainty of not knowing more deeply why something is happening. They are unable to weigh or contemplate their own mind alongside those of others, which are similarly complex, and implicitly dangerous. This danger is cast as objective reality, and anyone who says otherwise is “gaslighting”. Thus, treatment prioritizes affect regulation techniques and procedures, not the contemplation of self and other; it advises the practice of coping skills, self-care activities—all of which is worthy, actually, as adjuncts to growth. Meanwhile, the model’s adherents suggest that the afflicted let go of the actions, opinions, even the feelings of difficult others, while attaching labels. Fuller contemplation is put off until some ambiguously later time, when the person may be deemed ready. I think that readiness is seldom achieved. Time passes. It doesn’t so much heal as fossilize thoughts about self and other. What’s difficult to let go of are the pat understandings imparted by practitioners who recycle the same lessons in one short-term treatment episode after another.

In a longer-term therapy model, individuals inhabit their adult roles and live their lives as opposed to dropping out of society and going to school. They are challenged to do more than learn how to self-soothe or calm down, or take time-outs when mad, or to leave that bad relationship that your friends all think is wrong, only to start another one that’s similar because you haven’t learned what you got from that bad relationship. Instead, some learn (or are challenged to learn) to hang out with confusion, the grey areas of day-to-day life; to tolerate discomfort, stay with the difficult, as Masterson was once quoted as saying. Reality is learning about one’s own mind and being open to those of others, especially those that are not so easy to detach from: bosses, spouses, children; the memory of those absent but still profoundly influential.

What’s your pain today? Who or what do you want to blame, talk about instead of understand; focus on instead of yourself? Do you really know what your pain is about, what it’s backstory is—it’s underpinning? Do you think you really know the story of others? I know. It’s not what you (I’m) thinking.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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Where’s the breast?

 

A comical question, no doubt. Somewhat crazy: inappropriate, eccentric. Welcome to the world of psychoanalysis, or more specifically, Kleinian or Bionian analysis. This is what a Bionion therapist might ask of a group making what he/she would call a ‘basic assumption’ of a dependent group (seeking a leader), and floundering in midst of unfulfilled expectation. Yesterday I attended a four hour presentation about the work of Wilfred Bion, whose name, like his copyrighted interventions, have dotted this blog over the last year or so. This essay follows the spirit of Bion, the seminar I attended on a sluggish Saturday morning: it will be inchoate, elusive in meaning; seemingly interchangeable at times with ideas that many working in or else consuming mental health systems will take for granted. A discussion of Bion’s ideas begins plainly enough, with references to having an ‘ordinary conversation’, the ‘subjective experience’ of the patient; a search for the ‘real’ experience. Yet there is a secret attached: a sense that understanding is something that is transiently captured but then hard to retain, as if the desired knowledge (if that’s the correct term) was not meant for us.

Having taught a class once on Bion I knew the bio: born into an aspiring gentry in India at the end of the 19th century, Wilfred went to boarding school at age 8 to one of those stiff, militant academies that Harry Potter has since immortalized; he faced peer cruelty, the incomprehensibility of adults…their occasional kindness. He recounts a story of a headmaster who rebuked him for a game in which a playfriend is harmed by a game involving a rope without a knot, tied around a neck. The game might have killed the boy, the headmaster admonished. The headmaster later spoke to an assembly of boys, sparing young Wilfred humiliation, but drawing attention to the dangers of exploratory play. Young Bion felt chastened but not shamed, and oddly understood. An incident with an initial meaning took on another meaning, and its evolution was understood and modified by what Bion would later term the ‘reverie’ of an adult.

World War I was a setback in many ways. Obliterating men, obliterating meaning, Bion never felt more foreign that when he fought on European soil as a tank commander, his responsibility that of determining enemy positions, orienting his comrades. Impossible, he decided, observing the chaos. Impossible also to take in the purpose and meaning of all that slaughter, though he noted the primitive attempts, the glorifications of Winston Churchill, for example, who wrote with seeming ecstasy about the sensuous whistle of bullets in the field. After a momentous campaign in Cambrai, France, Bion was offered a Victoria Cross medal for his bravery, but declined, and when interviewed by an admiring General, later reported: ‘I couldn’t think what to say’. So Bion’s development was one of estrangement from commonplace human aspirations: for power, status, or even belonging. An outsider, Bion contemplated trauma, dissociation, the breakdown of thinking, and links to emotion, and later brought to psychoanalysis an almost mystical view of the human mind.

To consider the types of scenarios wherein Bion’s ideas are relevant, a student should invest some time and read his seminal papers of the late fifties, early sixties: “Differentiation of psychotic and non-psychotic personalities”, “Attacks on linking”, “A theory of thinking”, in which Bion asserted that many patients in psychotherapy communicate via a primitive defense known as projective identification (a defense first explicated by Melanie Klein), inserting into another’s mind a disturbed experience, which is then to be either ‘contained’ or not, metabolized or not, and re-directed back to the patient for internalization. Bion offered that the psychotic individual, or he/she existing in like borderline states, experiences their mind as composed of furniture, ‘things in themselves’, not modified by symbolic function as language, dream and metaphor (the ingredients of what Bion termed Alpha function), but lost in minutia. Thus we consider the experience of the patient who enters an office in which the therapist has made alterations to the (literal) furniture, and is rendered uncomfortable, and is not only incapable of putting words to that experience, but is also blocking of the therapist’s attempt to reflect back and give meaning. Lacking this fund of knowledge, or ‘K’ as Bion dubbed it, the patient in this proto-psychotic state exists in a world of things, drained of ideas, meaning, and feeling.

Later in his career, Bion expanded his theory to include the concept of ‘O’, or ‘being’, to denote a mystical, transformative experience. In his worldview, the outsider is a key figure: he or she is a genius, an innovator; contained by an established order, that (like me) dilutes ideas so as to make them digestible by a mass audience, the outsider is restrained only by God, ultimately. Bion’s book, Transformations, may have alienated him somewhat from the psychoanalytic community, who appear to have inherited or internalized Freud’s supposed distaste for the spiritual, but it crystallizes for the modern therapist an essential task when sitting with patients. Why? Because patients or clients don’t come into our offices with explicitly organized complaints like “Who am I?” or “I need to figure out how I think?” As therapists, our precociousness (yesterday’s speaker’s term) leads us to give premature insights, to show off our minds, deliver solutions; understand our patients before they understand themselves. We want to do that. I want to do that. And I believe the people who come see me want this also…sort of. But it is not cheaply arrived at, and between complaint and working through there is, more often than not, a nameless wasteland that elicits dread: it is a space of boredom and emptiness; it is painful in ways that are hard to describe on a somatosensory level, though we may be arrested at that point of entry. It is a dead zone of sorts, and a therapist, the person standing before an uncertain process,  is a kind of Grim Reaper.

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The Orb

 

The spherical object sits atop a glass coffee table between myself and my patients, apparently inert save for the qualities Maggie, Ray, and Joe assign to it, and which they absorb. Maggie, my regular ten o’clock on a Wednesday, gives the object a forlorn glance whenever she feels stuck in thought. Briefly, it seems there may be inspiration in its translucent green, or refuge in its fetching diamond patterns. Soon her eyes move away, tracking mid-morning light spearing in from the East. Maggie notes the illusion of choice.

Others make a tactile move. Reaching for the object, Ray sometimes remembers that despite paying for the hour, he is a visitor and therefore asks permission to handle my belongings. “What is this?” he more specifically asks, a fraction of a second before an entitled, if gentle seizing. “It’s an orb,” I say proudly. I found this thing in a consignment store about five years ago, and was struck then by its occultish mystique; its compelling, Kubrickian appeal. Placing it center stage in my office, I imagined it might pique interest, or perhaps graze the unconscious, stirring wonder of an alien presence amid frenzied thoughts about self. Ray appears to envy the undisturbed demeanor of the orb, thinking it a symbol of coveted stolidity. I’ve known him to study it in detail, gazing about its every inch as if determined to see inside to discover secret contents, like a way of being. Like many objects that remind of childhood, the orb is shiny and promissory of concealed riches, a garden of delights within. In such memories, I think the world is like Christmas morning: made up of rainbow pastures ever beckoning yet beyond reach, teasing with magic, and not yet disappointing with empty spaces, the residue of a dull, grown-up’s contrivance.

Maggie says she gets lost when she “spaces” on objects like the orb. Her purpose is escapist, she declares ambivalently. The orb, the seductive toy, compels rumination: a speculative inventory of its details; an imagined backstory as to its production, even its merchandising. Upon hearing my tale of discovery and purchase, she cooed like I’d just described the story of an abandoned animal rescued by me. Had Maggie found it, the orb would have spurred a poem, and thereafter a ceremonial place in her heart. In session, after frozen minutes contemplating the orb’s essence, Maggie’s foiling of herself is complete: she has forgotten something, the terrible thoughts and then feelings that search for release, only to find a dead end doorway. Sometimes I envy the orb also, though not in the sense of wanting its qualities; more in that Kleinian, spoiling the object sense of the word. At these times I want rid of my cursed ornament and its solipsistic, self-blocking evil.

Joe on the other hand satisfies the repressed urge, performing that which I can’t do myself. And he does it ingeniously: without conflict, self-consciousness; without giving it a moment’s thought, bless him. He doesn’t even ask permission. Slumping on my couch, his slovenly adolescent frame stretched out, he grabs at the orb on his way down and begins a gifted juggling act as part of a session norm. Over the course of fifty minutes he intermittently tosses the orb from one hand to the other, ignoring its aesthetic value entirely, instead focusing upon the action; the soothing, mind-and-body organizing action. For Joe, the object is a baseball substitute, which is in turn a sublimation of something, but isn’t any longer since Joe got kicked off the team for smoking too much weed. But hey, repression doesn’t really work, I say encouragingly. “Damn right,” he replies, a little too pumped by the notion. I clarify that defenses, like people, aren’t meant to be perfect. “Right on,” he says after a seemingly thoughtful pause—a pause which breaks his rhythm, causing the orb to sail beyond the unadapting reach of his left hand, descending like a breaking curve ball towards the perfect glass of the coffee table. A moment later I am shaken by the cracking sound of impact, the vision of a spiderweb pattern now spread over splintered glass. “Oops,” says Joe, looking inert.

**this story is a fiction

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