Email

There’s nothing special about email any more. It’s junk – junk mail. A letter sounded special, but when email arrived it was already cursed by truncation, and the sad fact that whatever ended up in an email it was always just a power failure from nothing. Email will always be dwarfish, unsigned and easy to overlook. Emails which are not printed are almost certain never to be inherited: no secret boxes, no tantalising stacks tied with ribbon, no lover’s scent. Look at the world: we keep in touch by email.

Strange Sight

There was a man in Brighton sitting outside a department store beside a folding table. On it were some toys and some leaflets; on the other side of the table, a telescope. The man, an outdoor kind of man, said something as we walked past and we stopped, and wandered back. He smiled at us without anything odd at all and suggested we look through his telescope. There was a black-looking bird hunched up on a railing. It took me a few seconds to work out that the railing was at the top of a tower block, hundreds of feet up, towards the sea front. I realised it was the block that towered over our hotel.
     The man told us his name was Barnaby and that I was looking at a peregrine falcon. He showed Sarah and me a web page where we could look inside a nesting box at the top of the tower, beneath the railing I’d just seen.  There was a bird inside, slightly ruffling her fathers, shifting, sitting tight on some eggs.

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     So I joined the RSPB and bought myself some new sunglasses. The evening before there’d been a sunset like fire in the sky. It was an odd kind of a sight-seeing trip.

Brighton Sunset

Transference: the force that through the green fuse …

I’ve spent a few days writing a novel, something I’ve been working on for a few months now, and I’ve been immersed in a certain idiom: my protagonist’s. A man called Hart. It’s left me thinking about interpretation and transference.
   Something about what I’ve been doing as a writer has involved interpreting the Hart I have in mind for my reader; and this morning, a few thousand words on from where I once began, I have such a strong idea of who Hart is even if I have very little knowledge of what he will do in the future. What’s happened without me really knowing it? All I’ve done is stick to imagining Hart and conjuring him up, one moment to the next; almost being him while not being him. What’s going on in the writing?
   If I approach this question as a psychotherapist I’d say that I’ve allowed Hart’s past, which seemed to suggest itself to me automatically out of something that was already there in me, to register in him in ways neither he, nor I, were aware of, so that the effects of what Hart feels, thinks and does are somehow repetitious. They aren’t predictable, but there’s a thread I can pull on. Hart has come to me supplied with a force behind him and if I tune into it I find not that I craft him, in the way a potter might craft a pot, but that he seems to write himself.
     I wonder if I could talk about this force behind Hart at least partly as transference, that phenomenon Freud noticed, named and described over a hundred years ago? There are an awful lot of other descriptions of transference I can think of, in fact literature is full of them, but Freud’s makes it possible for me to understand how I, as a psychotherapist, might specifically get involved in getting to know a client; and how I may be able to help them. I’d like, for example, my clients to finish working with me thinking they can do the equivalent of ‘writing themselves’, rather than to feel they’ve been written, or even written over (not that I’d suggest that ever happens in psychotherapy).
     Transference, then.Early on in his thinking Freud wrote:

What are transferences? They are new editions, facsimiles of the impulses and fantasies that are to be awakened and rendered conscious as the analyst progresses, whose characteristic trait is the substitution of the person of the doctor for a person previously known to the patient. To put it another way: a whole series of earlier psychical experiences is brought to life not as something in the past, but as a current relationship with the doctor. (Freud, 2006 [1905])

Much later (the work, written in 1938, was published a year after he died) he reflected:

The most remarkable thing is that the patient doesn’t continue to see the analyst in a realistic light, as a helper and adviser who, moreover, is paid for his efforts and who would himself be quite happy to play the role of, say, a mountain-guide on a difficult climb. Rather, he sees in the analyst the return – the reincarnation – of an important person from his childhood, his past; and because of this, transfers feelings and reactions onto him that undoubtedly applied to this role model. This fact of transference soon proves to be a factor  of undreamt-of significance: on the one hand, it is an aid of irreplaceable value; on the other hand, it is a source of serious dangers. The transference is ambivalent: it encompasses positive and tender attitudes as well as negative, hostile ones towards the analyst, who is as a rule put in the place of one or other of the patient’s parents, his father or his mother. (Freud, 2006 [1940])

     My adventures in writing remind me that interpretations, which used to form the main part of psychoanalytic work, only become more than intellectual asides when they engage with whatever it is that transference might be. Transference, as Freud describes it, is about bringing something to life: a process of ‘reincarnation’. I don’t often offer interpretations to my clients, some of whom find this disappointing, but I try to attend to their particular idiom: the force in them that I experience; the trace they leave in me of which they can only ever be unaware.The force‘, as Dylan Thomas puts it, ‘that through the green fuse drives the flower’.
     The way that I work, there’s always interpretation occurring. It feels as if there’s something being brought to life – somehow like Hart has been, perhaps? As a psychotherapist I am a kind of simultaneous interpreter (interpreters can bring language to life, and hopefully vice-versa) revealing to my client in what I feel, think, and then say and move, how I understand them and how that understanding might lead to a better understanding for both of us, of how and why they act as they do. Sometimes I lob her or him a way of thinking about themselves that draws together history, feeling and present moment fact but more often I’m engaged in a constant, barely perceptible (especially, sometimes worryingly, to me) process of resuscitation. There’s always transference, and we’re always in it. Sometimes I draw attention to this but, more often, I don’t.
     Each moment of a therapy is interpretation, every moment transference. My conception of psychotherapy is unscientific and my method as unverifiable as the effects of the process of writing or reading a book. Transference interpretation is always happening, and it takes a certain way of listening, a particular kind of openness to notice it in ways that might lead to a life becoming less repetitious.
     This afternoon I shall write about the other main character in my book, a woman called Delphine; and while I am doing that I shall probably think about how the women that I work with find their lives changing as we explore the force that they bring with them, which they and other people have sometimes found hard to acknowledge positively. Their signatures in the world, which they’ve sometimes been driven to hide but often come to enjoy.

(I’ve taken the Freud I mention from the most recent translations. Both papers can be found in the Freud Reader edited by Adam Phillips.)

Freud, S. (2006 [1905]). An Outline of Psychoanalysis. In A. Phillips (Ed.), The Penguin Freud Reader. London: Penguin.
Freud, S. (2006 [1940]). An Outline of Psychoanalysis. In A. Phillips (Ed.), The Penguin Freud Reader. London: Penguin.
Laplanche, J. (1989). New Foundations for Psychoanalysis. Wiley-Blackwell.

Sex, Holding Hands & Writing

You don’t need to know who you are to have sex but you do to hold hands.
     Something about us, consciousness we call it, ‘a mind endowed with subjectivity’ as Damasio puts it, continues to expand and diversify: the power to more than reproduce; the ability to fall in love, create art and hate each other. More about us is being transferred without being written down (email, texts) than it has for many, many years, but being stored without finding material form in vessels that won’t grow old and die (data storage). These are not memories which will die with us, or the thinking of the distant past which died with them, our ancestors who didn’t mark things down.
     Human beings are a product of our ever-expanding ways of remembering and thinking: the same old emotions, but new ways of responding to them. I imagine, as we go about transferring and storing, we’ll find ways of displacing ourselves permanently, losing our dependency on feeling. No need for metaphor in the kind of awful transfer I imagine; no possibility of love or holding hands as we escape our bodies. Or shouldn’t that be dying?
     You don’t need to know who you are to have sex but you do to hold hands. We wouldn’t be who we are without writing, and we certainly won’t be, either.

Broken Lines

I need a number, a telephone number which I have lost, and the person I want to speak to, whose lost number it is, is ex-directory. Quite a few people in my family know this person’s number, but quite a few of us don’t speak to each other. I think I’ve work out how to get the number, but the person I ask doesn’t have it – she asks someone else, who I don’t usually speak to. So it goes on, crossed wires and broken lines of speaking, of loving. Perhaps something’s happening. I may have let go of a few loose ends.