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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (by Janet Malcolm)

After repeatedly running into praises about Janet Malcolm, I checked out her early book "Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession" (1982). 

The best thing about the book is that it's a riveting read. I gobbled it up in two days (it's not long). I don't remember the last time a nonfiction book gripped my attention so. Her overview of Freud's major theories (along with their evolution) and certain branches of psychoanalysis in the 1950s to 1970s is very accessible while maintaining its accuracy. Anyone with superficial acquaintance of Freud's theories can follow it.

Besides the dry theoretical summaries and academic gossips, at least half of the book is told from the point of view of one mid-career, earnest, somewhat neurotic psychoanalyst in New York. The approach has both strengths and problems. The advantage is that the reader is given very intimate access to the mind and routines of an analyst, which is so often mysterious to and misunderstood by the layman, including most people who have been analyzed and everyone who has not been. The life of a modern psychoanalyst is not quite like the descriptions in Freud's books. It's an absorbing (addictive?) and somewhat voyeuristic peek as she turns the gaze around at analysts. She did not hide her simultaneous sympathy and skepticism toward the profession, and the ambivalence is reflected in the book title. Nevertheless my impression is that she thinks them heroic in a sense.

On the other hand, I couldn't help but suspect that her summary of both Freud and the post-Freud evolution of psychoanalysis was greatly simplistic and incomplete. It helps the text's readability and accessibility to keep the theoretical stuff short and light, but the loss of proportion and balance is inevitable. The book's credibility is further hampered by her reliance on one analyst's point of view and quotations. One! Even a look at her summary of academic theories tells us that psychoanalysis in New York alone is practiced in substantively different ways by different analysts, despite the stability of the setup and, of course, the couch. However, only the one analyst, whom she named Aaron Green, provided the first-person perspective, while other approaches and schools and dissidents were given little more than a passing mention.

Given the limited length, but despite the intermittent overviews and summaries, the book is really concerned about only one of a number of aspects in the structure of psychoanalysis: transference (including countertransference). Other major concepts are either mentioned in passing or left out altogether. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the reader does not expect to get a comprehensive overview of psychoanalysis through this book. However, some disclaimer by the author to begin with would have been kind.

Nevertheless, what makes the book a great read was the astonishing honesty about psychoanalysis, especially its limitations and the limitations of its practitioners. It often cures neurosis but fails in some patients and some disorders, and sometimes the practitioners falter. It does not bring about a life of happily ever after, nor does it make a person wiser or better (whatever that means).

Finally, this caveat cannot be helped: The book was written more than three decades ago, and a lot has changed.


Mark said...

Ive read several books by Janet Malcolm. I still have my copy of The Impossible Profession. There is another book--"In The Freud Archives" which Id urge you to read if you care to. Very interestingly, Malcolm got into a lot of legal trouble over this book because the subject of the book sued her for liable, claiming she made up some quotes. It was a big story in the 90s. She followed with a book that as a journalist you may want to read called "The Journalist and the Murderer" which addresses what Malcolm calls a fundamental moral problem in journalism. CAnt summarize here. If you care to read it, do. I still think The Impossible Profession is a great explanation of psychoanalysis

Jun Yan said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Mark. I am especially curious to read her book on journalism, which I heard was very controversial. Nevertheless it is not surprising that journalists cannot be as impartial as they want to be (or less human than they really are). The same can be said for scientists.

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