Book: Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession by Janet Malcolm

Interesting in a variety of ways

Janet Malcolm
Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession
Vintage, 1982
ISBN: 0-394-71034-7
163 pages (main text)

Truman Capote's book In Cold Blood is a powerful book when read today. How much more powerful it must have been in 1966 when it was new and the novelistic techniques that Mr Capote used in it were new to non-fiction. I suspect that something similar is true of Janet Malcolm's Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession.

The book is not really about how psychoanalysis is exactly an impossible profession (though it seems to be a rather difficult one). On one level, the book is about the state of psychoanalysis in New York in the late 1970s. That was presumably of some interest to readers at that time since psychoanalysts are, as a result of their profession, a rather close-mouthed lot. But there's rather more to the book than that. If there weren't, it would hardly be worth reading twenty-seven years after it was published. On another level, the book is an opportunity for Janet Malcolm (herself the daughter of a psychiatrist) to analyze (indeed psychoanalyze) psychoanalysts, psychoanalysis, and Freud himself. That's reason enough for anyone interested in the subject to read the book. Ms Malcolm is perceptive and persuasive on a difficult subject. On a third level, the book is a meditation on themes of knowing and learning. Psychoanalysts are professionally chilly and what they do may even seem cruel at times. The same is true of journalists, perhaps especially of Ms Malcolm. Those last two ways that the book works are interesting enough now, but I suspect that they were rather remarkable when the book was new.

Ms Malcolm is very informative about psychoanalysis and also the lives and working conditions of psychoanalysts. It was probably pretty interesting to read in 1982 something like:

    I had come across numerous papers on the subject,
    and been struck by the extraordinary tension and
    bad feeling that pervade analytic organizations.
    "Envy, rivalry, power conflicts, the formation of small
    groups, resulting in discord and intrigues, are a
    matter of course," the Dutch analyst P. J. van der
    Leeuw wrote in 1968, adding wistfully, "We expect
    fulfillment from the relationships between ourselves,
    and are so often disappointed. (p. 106)

But none of that is probably very surprising these days. But a description like this, of an analyst and his office, retains its power to shock:

    The room was like an iconoclast's raised fist; this
    analyst's patients didn't come here to pass the time of
    day, it told you. Cross himself looked like the gnarled,
    tormented stubs of men that Bacon paints. You felt
    that he didn't sit down to meals but furtively gulped his
    food, like a stray animal; you fancied that his wife had
    left him years ago, and that for several days he hadn't
    noticed she was gone. He was a man without charm,
     without ease, without conceit or vanity, and with a kind
    of excruciating, prodding, twitching honesty that was
    like an intractable skin disorder. (p. 81)

I imagine that it had even more power when it was written, two and a half decades ago.

Few people would enjoy being written about that way. But Ms Malcolm says, "The job of the analyst isn't to offer the patient sympathy; it's to lead him to insight" (p. 75). I suspect that she would say the same of the job of a journalist.

This work was originally published in The New Yorker and reminds me that when that magazine was edited by William Shawn, there was little in its articles that was amusing or light-hearted. Ms Malcolm is an excellent journalist, but I suspect that Mr Shawn rarely found her prose lacking in seriousness.

Posted: Fri - March 13, 2009 at 07:58 PM   Main   Category: