Monday, December 21, 2009

A Festival of Film

By Kevin Murphy,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

The link between psychoanalysis and film is, believe it or not, long established. At first glance it might seem as if they are strange bedfellows. What has the business of therapy got to do with cinema? Well, psychoanalysis was put on the world map, so to speak, by Freud’s most famous book ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ in 1900. And movies were born at much the same and, by their very nature, are the art form that most closely replicates the dream state. They are visual, switch from scene to scene, can frighten or inspire, and generally have a meaning that, blockbusters aside, is not immediately obvious and often cleverly disguised. As such, they provide rich pickings for psychoanalytic enquiry.
But it goes further than that. All the major neuroses, psychoses and perversions first outlined by Freud have been touched on by film makers over the last century in one way or another. One that immediately comes to mind is Hitchcock whose 1945 Spellbound with Ingrid Bergman and Gergory Peck had dream scenes designed by Salvador Dali. But there are endless more examples.
Every murder story has an undercurrent that psychoanalysis loves to examine. Every love story is a search for the missing part of all of us. Every comedy lets us access unconscious truths that would normally go unsaid. It goes on and on. In fact Freud himself was asked on numerous occasions to write a movie script with Hollywood offering him large sums to do so. He turned all the offers down.
And Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, who was the honorary president of the First European Psychoanalytic Film Festival in 2001, has been in psychoanalysis since the late Sixties, and has spoken about the way in which this experience coloured the films he made immediately after his analysis began: Last Tango in Paris, The Conformist, The Spider's Stratagem, 1900 . 'I found that I had in my camera an additional lens,' he once said, 'which was not Kodak, not Zeiss, but Freud.'
This is by way of noting that a Festival of Psychoanalysis and Film, jointly sponsored by The Irish Forum for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy (I.F.P.P.) and Independent Colleges Dublin , is taking place in Dublin on January 29th and 30th. I include details below for anyone who wants to book a place. It promises to be both interesting and entertaining. It will be held in Independent Colleges on Dawson Street, Dublin 2.
The theme of the festival is ‘Love and Madness’ and the format will be that participants will have a choice of three movies at any one time. Each movie will be introduced by the person chairing it and afterwards there is a discussion. For those within the psychoanalytic area it will be a celebration of film and a chance to hear and air views on their possible meanings, both intended and unintended. For those new to psychoanalytic thinking it will be a chance to offer new and different perspectives.
There is an opening reception at 5pm on Friday 29th after which the choice of movies starting at 6.35pm are the Oscar winning Black Narcissus (1947) which is a story of five young British nuns in the Himalayas who succumb to earthly temptation. There is also Lars and the Real Girl (2007), a comedy in which an awkwardly shy young man in a small northern town brings home the girl of his dreams to his brother and sister-in-law's home. The only problem is that she's not real - she's a sex doll Lars ordered off the Internet. The third movie of Friday evening is The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) which is about a 1950s Manhattan lavatory attendant, Tom Ripley, who borrows a Princeton jacket to play piano at a garden party and ends up going to extreme lengths take on another persona.

On Saturday 30th, the first three films at 10:00 a.m. are The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema which takes the viewer on an exhilarating ride through some of the greatest movies ever made. In it, philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek is variously untangling the famously baffling films of David Lynch, or overturning everything you thought you knew about Hitchcock. Alternatively you can see Estamira (2006) a documentary about a sixty something woman in Rio de Janeiro, who is an insane but happy woman that has been working for more than twenty years in the city dumpster in Gramacho. The third alternative of the morning session is Donnie Darko (2002) about a young man who doesn't get along too well with his family, his teachers and his
classmates; but he has a friend named Frank - a large bunny which only Donnie can see.

At 1.15pm on Saturday the three film choices are Safe (1995) which is about California housewife Carol who has it all but who succumbs to a curious illness and seeks to find a cure with a phony guru. Some Like it Hot (1959) is the second choice and is the classic Billy Wilder comedy with Jack Lemon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe. The third movie is The Soul Keeper (2003) which is the true story of Sabina Spielrein, a patient of both Freud and Jung. She has an affair with Jung which, when it becomes public, he denies.

Then at 4pm we have Reign Over Me (2007) which has Adam Sandler playing a riveting role as a man who loses everything and almost loses himself. He finds a path out of his situation through the friendship of an old college mate. The second choice is Betty Blue (1986), a French movie about the beautiful Betty who slips into madness despite the intense love of her boyfriend Zorg. And the third movie is Ai No Corrida (1977) one of the most notorious films in movie history that is based on a true story set in pre-War Japan about a man who engages in a perverse affair with his servant. Banned at its premiere at the New York Film Festival in 1976 it is not for the faint hearted.

So a veritable feast of cinema with the promise of lively discussion and debate afterwards. The organisers tell me that the cost is €25 for the full programme, €15 for one day and €5 for an individual film. Booking is essential and can be done through calling 01-6725058 or by emailing Caroline at or Eve at

* The next blog will appear on Tuesday January 12, 2010.

Monday, December 14, 2009

‘We Are Cured Because We Remember’

By Kevin Murphy, MSc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

I have had a number of clients in recent weeks who have all said the same thing in their own different and unique ways. They have no memory of their childhoods. That's not to say that I insist on people having a memory of one thing or another. One of the fundamental 'rules' of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy is that people choose to speak about whatever they want. There is no direction in terms of 'you must speak about this'. It is a freedom that runs to the heart of analytic work.

That's why the comment had such resonance. These were very different people from different walks of life who each came up with the same statement by different routes. Each had a sense of simply not remembering large chunks of what is, essentially, their past. They did remember bits and pieces here and there but their own perception of it was that this part of their personal history was, to put it bluntly, forgotten.

The second interesting thing about it was that all of them saw nothing unusual about this. So essentially, you have a situation where people go through life unable to remember much about what they were like in their earliest experiences. And, hand in hand with that, they are quite accepting of it.

Now it should be said that there will always be parts of our childhood that remain forgotten. Very few of us remember every detail although there are some people who do. Remembering is a patchy experience for most of us. But the experience, and it is not uncommon to come across it in practice, of 'not remembering one's childhood' has other aspects to it.

Often we forget not because we simply have bad memories but because we unwittingly push things out of consciousness. Why do we do this? Sometimes yes the memory is bad, or sometimes the experience of being dependant was unpleasurable for us, or we may have acted in a way that we care not to recall, or we may have had a fright or a scare or a fearful moment or disappointed someone dear to us, or even disappointed ourselves. Our memories are being repressed all the time. Even as adults, we often forget the name of someone we are less than enamoured with, or we forget an appointment that we never really wanted to commit to, or we have no memory of a holiday that was ghastly. It is part of our defence system and sometimes it is useful.

But being unable to access or visualise memories of this kind can often have a downside too. You particularly find it with people whose lives are being badly affected with anxiety or depression or sexual issues or even obsessive and compulsive symptoms. These kinds of conditions are usually experienced by people as being of relatively recent origin. Most point to their teens as being the time of onset. And, for the most part, that is true in the sense that this was a period in their lives when they became aware of their symptoms.

But becoming aware of something is not the same thing as pinpointing when it started. Often you find that the roots of anxiety or depression or many other debilitating conditions reach much further back. The person who became badly affected by a teenage or late childhood experience was already emerging as the kind of child much earlier who would be susceptible to that.

This is why having access to memories can be so important. Understanding who we are now is as much to do with understanding the present as it is to do with understand our past. Someone once said that if we do not understand history we are doomed to repeat it and the same could be said of individuals. Within all our memories, especially the ones we cannot access, there is valuable meaning tied up and unexplored. There is also a degree of energy being used to keep it from view. Memories don't just stay inaccessible without some effort employed to keep them that way.

Yet it is surprising how many people believe that memories are of no value and should not be considered when looking for answers, or that they are intrinsically painful and should be left well alone, or that they are impossible to recall and so no effort should be made in that direction at all. And so a vital avenue of exploration gets closed off.

And yet what analytic practice teaches again and again is that memory can unfold slowly, bit by bit. Once one memory is recalled, then it is possible for another to follow and then another. A foothold is all that is needed and then the links which bind all our memories start to operate and more and more pictures emerge. If we even get a glimpse of who we once were it is of huge value in adding the missing piece to the jigsaw of who we are now.

French psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once said we don't remember because we are cured, we are cured because we remember. The act of remembering is the cure. Being able to remember is a sign of health. Being willing to remember is a sign that fear is abating and confidence is returning. It is the lifting of the veil, the new light that we shine into an old part of ourselves that brings new meaning. And we use this meaning to combat the emptiness, the lack, the void, the agonising puzzle that is at the heart of anxiety and depression and so many contemporary ailments.

  • Next week I'll be highlighting an upcoming Psychoanalytic Festival of Film in Dublin.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Depression in the modern world

By Kevin Murphy, MSc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

It is good to see the popular advice around depression making it seem a less threatening ailment than it first appears. Pretty much wherever you look these days, the language you hear is usually the same - calming, practical, commonsensical. Seek help, talk to someone, don’t get isolated, consider medication, go to therapy, tell someone you trust how you are feeling. If your job is making you blue, change it. If you are feeling lonely, get out and make friends. The emphasis is on de-stigmatising and de-mystifying which, in themselves, are good things.
And when it comes to the causes of depression, which is a crucial question when in Western society it is reaching pandemic proportions, you usually find that the commonly provided view is that it is a mix of things: some social, personal and biological factors. It is hard to argue with any of this, especially as all the bases seem to be covered. Even genetics is usually thrown in for good measure.
Where psychoanalytic theory and practice differs from the usual run of advice and information, is that its focus on cause is more detailed, more directed at the individual sufferer and more relevant to our contemporary society. You could say it is a hand-stitched approach rather than a production line one.
Why? Because it includes two other sources of depression that other theories either ignore or don’t recognise. These are the unconscious, the individual unconscious of the person suffering depression, and the wider cultural context as it has evolved today.
This notion struck me at the recent 16th Annual Congress of the Association for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in Ireland (APPI) which was held in St. Vincent’s University Hospital, Dublin. The theme of the Congress was ‘Depression and Melancholia in Modern Times, A Psychoanalytic Understanding’. When the papers for the event are published I may do a blog summarising each of them, because they give a flavour of the unique way that psychoanalysis has in approaching this subject.
I won’t go into the history of it but if you want to read the seminal paper then Mourning and Melancholia (1917) by Freud is the place to go. Since then the theory has been steadily evolving and it was fascinating to hear what contemporary theorists and practitioners had to say about it at the recent Congress.
While most commonly accessible advice on depression focuses on the social, personal and biological aspects that cause depression, psychoanalysis hones in on the fundamental place that the individual takes up for significant others in his or her life. It posulates that we are driven to be the thing that drives important others. Put another way, our true desire is to be the desire of the other person. Depression, therefore, is essentially caused by a setback that sees us ‘tumbling out’ of this desire of the other. As perspectives go it is a fascinating one. But, equally, it is not something we are consciously aware of. It is all happening at the unconscious level.
Talking to people suffering from depression in the consulting room, it is striking how they speak the language of loss – this brings us back to Freud’s paper above, in which he was the first to see that depression had a great deal in common with mourning. They understand that something, or someone, has been lost to them but they do not know what it is in those people that has been lost to them. On the conscious level, they understand that they experience the unpleasant symptoms of depression – something within themselves has been lost – but they do not know what that something is - the loss is at an unconscious level. For psychoanalysis the thing that has been lost is this essential position within the human dialectics of desire, the place of being the desire of a significant or important other or others.
The theory also depicts how, as a result of this tumbling out of the desire of the other – a mother, a father, a main carer, a lover, a friend, a sibling - the individual is then thrown onto a trajectory of essentially attacking him or herself as a result of this failure. Failing to be the desire of an ‘other’ means that an ideal they had of themselves – something we all need to get us through life - has been damaged. And, because they were unable in some way to sustain this essential ideal, they then become the target for self-hate and self-loathing.
That’s the unconscious part. Then we have the wider cultural context. Changes in the role of fathers, in the methods of child rearing, in the responsibilities of mothers, in the value systems of society, in the importance of ideals of bodily perfection, in the decline of religion and authority, in the rise of scientific and capitalist discourses and in a devaluation of human individuality, has meant that it is harder for people to find sustainable ideals. By this I mean, ideals that are within reach, that come without too much expectation, that are credible and workable.
In the Victorian era people lived according to a widely understood and often unspoken command to ‘obey’. It was an era characterised by obedience, self denial, the repression of bodily desire and obedience to church, state, community and family. We can never go back to that because the world has evolved, for better or worse, depending on your point of view.
Today, we live according to a widely understood and often unspoken command to ‘enjoy’. For some, it is an easy one to follow because it matches perfectly our contemporary desire to escape, de-stress, find meaning, be happy, be free, experiment, give free rein to our curiosity. For those who suffer depression, however, it is just as ferocious and unrelenting a command as the earlier one to obey. And this, among many other reasons, is how psychoanalysis is different to other approaches.