Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Breaking Down is Hard to Do

When Freud asks toward the end of his career what it would take for a “cure” to be “radical and permanent,” he makes a distinction between recovering from an injury or mourning a loss, on one hand, and making something like a structural change in the being of the patient (“Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” Standard Edition, ed. and trans. James Strachey, Vol. XXIII, 217), and it becomes a question how you would know, internally or externally, that someone was changed in this way. Freud brings up the logical limit case of an analysis that has reached so far that “no further change could be expected to take place” in the patient “if his analysis were continued” (219). To be unable to be set back by any trauma would mean having been “as it were, inoculate[d]” against conflicts, or having lived life in advance by “prophylaxis,” having stirred up and resolved all the possible combinations of conflicts that one could experience (223). The notion of an ego too strengthened to blink much at future events lies one step beyond the traumatized ego that has suffered some specific setback but “not been noticeably altered”—the kind of patient whose prognosis is “most favorable,” according to Freud (220), in contrast to those who have been deeply altered. In the thought experiment of the maximally strengthened personality, one would look forward to being in the situation of these luckiest traumatized patients who have only been damaged by what they’ve suffered.

Freud goes on to reflect, however, that “all we are trying to do is to make clear what limits are set to the efficacy of analytic therapy” (231), and his scaled-down goals seem to repeat his subject matter. There follows a long list of concrete factors that he can’t do anything about (240-245):

*what you were born with (made of)
*what happened to you
*human self-destructiveness, an actual desire to leave things alone or even to die
*the part played by chance
*the part played by biological sexuality

Our power is “not unlimited but restricted” (230), Freud writes; it draws on “definite and limited amounts of energy” (240). If the recognition of reality is working through, Freud is working through his loss of the illusion that psychoanalysis could make the human mind healthy (enough) forever—revealing that this had at some point been his hope. What “experience has taught us” is the recurrent note of the essay (216). Interminability, then, is something with which we need to be acquainted in order for working through to be . . . as finished as it gets. The literature on the subject repeatedly figures working through as a struggle to begin working through. In Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s film Rosetta, the breakdown for the first time of the protagonist is her great accomplishment, and constitutes so new an era that the screen promptly goes black. Narratives like this one, that end as soon as the work has started, suggest that if the terminus of well-being is hard to locate, it’s also because in this realm having begun is such an achievement that it can hardly be distinguished from completion.

Image: Emily Dequenne inRosetta

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