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Psychoanalysis: A foreign field (Part II)

Author: Dany Nobus / Sabrina Zehetner (TVP)


In Part II, Dany Nobus discusses the Bloomsbury Group, the psychoanalytic tradition (or lack thereof) in the United Kingdom, Shakespeare and the status quo of mental health services.

When did psychoanalysis arrive in Britain?

Dany Nobus: Psychoanalysis was already picked up as a theory in Great Britain by various individuals, organizations and institutions before World War I, and before Ernest Jones acted as a conduit for the creation of the British Psycho-Analytical Society. In this respect, Philip Kuhn has persuasively set the record straight by showing that spiritual healers, psychical researchers and asylum psychiatrists already engaged with Freud’s ideas during the mid-1890s, quite a few years before Ernest Jones arrived on the scene. In addition, John Forrester, who sadly passed away in November 2015, has retraced how renowned Cambridge scholars, such as Arthur Tansley and W.H.R. Rivers, were reading Freud and using Freudian ideas in their own fields of research, outside the groups and activities for which Jones was responsible.

The Bloomsbury Group had an affinity for psychoanalysis – Why?

Dany Nobus: James Strachey, Lytton Strachey and Alix Strachey (née Sargant-Florence) were very much part of the Bloomsbury Group, which has its origins in a student society, and which only became a literary group after World War I. You can trace the Bloomsbury Group back to a Cambridge student society called the “Apostles”, which had been established in 1820 with the purpose of undermining “the other places” (i.e. Oxford’s) hegemony in the development of good English cultural taste. So the Stracheys were already part of fairly well-established cultural and literary groups. Before long, Virginia and Leonard Woolf became interested in psychoanalysis and I do think that the Stracheys were a catalyst for it. When Freud lived in London, he received many visitors and among them were Leonard and Virginia Woolf. There are stories that Virginia Woolf didn’t really want to go, but that Leonard, who was much more enthusiastic about psychoanalysis than she was, persuaded her. Of course, pursuing a literary career in the modernist tradition during the 1920s and 30s would almost automatically have made anyone come into contact with Freud and psychoanalysis – it was part of the atmosphere people absorbed. In any case, because of his affinity for psychoanalysis, Leonard Woolf was more than happy for his publishing house, The Hogarth Press, to publish psychoanalytic works.

I believe as a writer she wanted to maintain a sense of mystery, or what Keats referred to as “negative capability”.

Dany Nobus: I think Freud would have agreed. There is a story about a famous Hungarian violinist by the name of Maria Thomán, who wrote to Freud in 1934, presumably with the request to take her on as a patient, and Freud replying to her (I’m paraphrasing): I’d be prepared to do that, but if you pursue psychoanalysis you would have to put your creative inspiration as an artist at risk. The principle could be extended to creative writers. For a writer to enter psychoanalysis doesn’t necessarily imply that new sources of inspiration will open up, but that the source of inspiration might actually be closed down, because he or she might come to the realization where it’s situated and how it operates. True artists generally don’t know where the inspiration comes from. When asked where he found the inspiration for his poems and songs, Leonard Cohen always replied: but my friend, if I knew where it was all coming from, don’t you think I would have gone there more often? It resonates with what you said. Maybe Virginia didn’t want to visit Freud, because she didn’t want her creative inspiration to be put at risk.

So far as I recall, The Bloomsbury Group and Virginia Woolf would occasionally make fun of Sigmund Freud in their letters. Virginia Woolf once called him a “screwed up shrunk very old man”.

Dany Nobus: Well yes, but paradoxically I think Freud would have appreciated that. Maybe he would have appreciated it more than yet another artist coming to pledge his allegiance to the Freudian cause. Freud liked being admired, but at the same time I think he also appreciated it when people didn’t take him too seriously.

Was psychoanalysis considered a foreign discipline when it arrived in Britain?

Dany Nobus: I don’t think that there is a strong psycho-social tradition in the Anglo-American world for people to embark on a process of soul-searching. There is a long tradition of soul-doctors and people looking after the insane in Britain, but when it comes to soul-searching I’m not sure that this tradition exists. By contrast, in Continental Europe, Southern Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia, there is a much longer tradition of people telling stories to each other about one another, which by definition occasions processes of self-reflexivity. Although we don’t know whether Homer existed (and so classicists tend to refer to the “Homeric” question), we do have a transcript of an oral tradition that was passed on from one generation to another, and that contributed to the development of large sections of the social fabric in the Ancient world. Yet this type of ‘telling of tales’, or what one could call an oral mythopoeia didn’t take root in Britain. Indeed, one of the first things I noticed when I arrived on the shores of Britain almost 25 years ago is that there is no culture of telling each other stories, which not only involves capturing what happened to other people, but also trying to make sense of what we ourselves represent as human beings. As you know, philosophy in Britain is primarily analytic philosophy, in which philosophical problems are reframed as problems of logic and language, which need to be solved mathematically. So, to answer your question: yes. And it is because psychoanalysis was foreign—literally and figuratively—that it was first taken up by spiritualists and faith healers, and only later by the academic, scientific community, and even then with a great deal of skepticism.

But what about Shakespeare and his unerring grasp of human nature?

Dany Nobus: I am convinced that you can learn more about “human nature” by reading one play by Shakespeare than by spending three or four years doing a psychology degree. If you want to know what makes human beings tick, academic degrees in psychology are a complete waste of time. I would love to teach courses on Shakespeare (or Dante, or Milton, or Homer) to psychology students, yet I will never be allowed to do that, because the honorable guardians of the psychological faith will say it’s not evidence-based, and therefore inadmissible. Shakespeare, they say, is fiction, and what psychology students should learn is facts. So because there is no scientific (experimental) basis for anything anyone says in Shakespeare’s plays, he belongs in the English department, which is absolutely ridiculous, the more so as the scientific (experimental) basis for what psychologists have to say is generally also extremely fragile. I could present you a ton of ‘nonsense’ that has been produced as a result of so-called evidence-based research. Hence, I think that psychoanalysis, as a discipline based on narrative and narration, would have come across as rather odd indeed, if not to say as outright dangerous, to the majority of British academics, and times haven’t changed really.

What is your view on the status quo of mental health services and the promotion of mental health in Britain?

Dany Nobus: Mental health and mental illness are seen primarily through the lens of biological psychiatry, and within the confines of the National Health Service, which means that mental health services are driven by a two-pronged paradigm: evidence-based reductionism and cost-effective liberalism. One is bad enough; the two together are a recipe for disaster. And the fact that we now have this stupid mantra “It’s okay not to be okay” doesn’t make things easier or better, because what still sits underneath is the principle that mental health is a commodity. If you have a mental health problem and you want to go and see your doctor and you are lucky enough that you are being seen within six weeks, one of two things will happen. Either you will be put on antidepressants, irrespective of your condition, or you will be prescribeds ten sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy, for which there will obviously be a waiting list. The point is that your mental health problem needs to be turned as quickly as possible, according to the three E’s of neo-liberal rationality (efficiency, effectiveness, economy), into a newly functioning operating system that allows you to go back to work and contribute to the economic production process. In other words, the patient is seen as a non-productive entity and all interventions are geared to restoring the ‘economic balance’, internally as well as externally. But I don’t think matters are any different outside Britain; if anything, countries operating with a system of managed care, in which insurance companies contribute to decision making processes, are probably worse when it comes to providing adequate services.

Contact information:
Dany Nobus