By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
If I can, I’m going to try and draw two things together that, on the face of it, seem worlds apart. Let’s take the first thing first. I was talking to a man once who said he hated going on holidays. He didn’t like being away from home, he didn’t like flying, he didn’t like the sun and he went as rarely as he could. Any time he did go away, he felt uneasy, anxious, was prone to panic attacks and the entire experience was miserable for him and for anyone who happened to be with him.
The second thing is that Jean-Gerard Burzstein, doctor of philosophy and teacher and practitioner of psychoanalysis in Paris, was speaking in Dublin on Saturday and Sunday to the Association for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in Ireland about issues of contemporary psychoanalysis. As you would expect, he was attempting to bring an understandable focus to a relatively complex array of concepts and theory.
So how on earth would one bring two things like this together; the nuggets of wisdom from complex theoretical concepts, and the position of a man who didn’t like going on holidays? Not an easy task.
Let’s take the man who hated holidays. An interesting thing about him was that, in his view, it was not ok to hate holidays. He should like holidays. All men liked holidays, going to the sun, or distant places, getting a tan, enjoying freedom of choice. By not being able to do it, and by not liking the fact that he wasn’t able to do it, he was somehow less than other men. An interesting place to see oneself, you might think.
Now Jean-Gerard Burzstein – and I had the privilege of chairing his second talk on Sunday – was pointing out why psychoanalysis is efficient, in contrast to the way some like to paint it. It is efficient he said because it focuses on the cause rather than the symptom. So instead of figuring out ways of trying to help this man get to like going on holidays, it would seek to find out the cause behind why he didn’t like holidays and how he could come to understand it in such a way as to bring about change for him.
In contemporary Freudian-Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Mr Bursztein said the things that form us most fundamentally are our experiences as infants and young children in terms of dealing with the simplest of things: being loved, being satisfied, and being frustrated in relation to our primary care givers. These are the earliest experiences we have, at an age and stage when words are not available to us. Put in a slightly more formal way, the 'who we are' (identity) and the 'what we truly wish for' (desire)are the result of intersubjective (between people)dynamic.
The man who hated holidays said that he was never been able to understand why it was so unpleasurable for him. He said he hated the feeling of vulnerability when he was away, the feeling that something bad might happen. Yet when he got home, he looked back fondly on the experience and seemed to enjoy it once it was over.
Mr Bursztein in his seminar spoke about a core concept in contemporary theory, the fundamental phantasy. This is a group of imaginary ideas we have about who we are and what we represent to the world, that we form in the earliest part of our lives, particularly when we measure ourselves and decide on our place in relation to the people we have as significant adults around us. Some of us are very lucky in that we have adults who seem to do all the right things. Some of us are not. And some of us are lucky from the start in that we have the right inner resources to deal with ups and downs while some of us are not.
In terms of the few things he said, the predicament of the man who hated holidays can be viewed in a particular way. Let’s recap for a moment: the fundamental phantasy is an imaginary way that we prop ourselves up in relation to others. It is not always helpful but it can be all we have.
What the man who hated holidays seemed to be saying was that the experience of going away made him feel vulnerable, unsafe. Some vague threat was pending in the wings, something that would affect him negatively. It would, whatever it was, see him overcome in a way that he would not be able to cope with. The threat would have to be human so he would be overcome or overwhelmed by another person or persons in some way. The thought of it was enough to create anxiety.
The fundamental phantasy is our way of propping ourselves up, showing ourselves to be capable of withstanding the feeling of helplessness, a feeling that is with us at the earliest stages of our lives until we become independent beings. It is not always a secure construct, sometimes it gives way. Nor is it always a beneficial one - sometimes it runs counter to who we really are.
The man who hated holidays didn’t like hating holidays. It wasn’t manly, it wasn’t how he liked to see himself. It showed him up as being weak and fearful. He liked to see himself as strong, independent, resilient, capable of doing things like anyone else. The fear he experienced when faced with going away was at odds with how he lived the rest of his life. So the mask slipped, some idea he had of himself wasn’t working very well when he was faced with going away.
Mr Burzstein said that according to the man who reformulated Freudian theory – Dr Jacques Lacan with whom he worked and researched up to the latter’s death - said that neurosis occurs when we sacrifice our own desire to the demands of an other or others who we perceive as significant. This way of managing ourselves begins from the earliest stages of our lives. We carry on the habit as adults. It isn’t terminal, however, as we have a second chance of correcting the situation with psychoanalysis.
The man who hated holidays displayed the same characteristics. A fundamental phantasy was at work in his imaginary life, in which he saw himself as incapable of withstanding the supposed threat that the desire of unknown others would impose on him against his will. It only ever came to the surface when he had to travel to an unfamiliar location. In fact, it surfaced with such force that it was deeply unpleasant for him.
This phantasy was held in check during his everyday life by the conscious belief that he was strong, resilient, capable of doing anything he wanted. But when it came to travelling abroad, that belief system collapsed and didn’t support him. Mr Burzstein in his seminar said that belief systems we have about ourselves that are purely in the imaginary realm will always come crashing down. The antidote is to discover the truth about ourselves through analysis. That way we don’t end up spending vast resources of energy and time fending off imaginary threats that threaten to pull down our imaginary ideas about ourselves.