Odd things people say about psychoanalysis as if they were self-evident

First in an occasional series.

In this week’s New Yorker, David Denby has a feature-length article on the “slacker-striver romance,” or movies that feature a male slacker and an ambitious woman who’s out of his league. While leaving the film criticism to Chuck, I did want to pick out one comment Denby makes about psychoanalysis. He notes that Woody Allen’s romances, such as Annie Hall, tend to drive couples apart, and “the cult of psychoanalysis” is partly to blame:

Psychoanalysis yields “relationships” and “living together,” not marriage, as the central ritual, and living together, especially in the time of the Pill and the easy real-estate market of the seventies, is always provisional.

Yes, I think we’re all familiar with Freud’s famous essay, “The Vicissitudes of Staying Single: On Shacking Up with Your Woman.” Lacan famously re-interpreted this essay in the sixties to mean, “how to have booty calls *and* a significant other.” (From the as-yet untranslated Le seminaire, livre 69.)

Psychoanalysis certainly doesn’t “yield relationships” as a replacement for marriage. For strict Freudians, for instance, the centrality of the family romance means that marriage–if not your own, then your parents’, or your fantasy about what marriage must be like–plays a central role in psychic life. Further, classical and Lacanian schools of analysis, at least in theory, both abstain from recommending any particular arrangement of one’s life.

Now: It is probably fair to say that psychoanalysis works with the cultural ideals found in a particular milieu. If, in New York in the seventies traditional marriage was being eroded by a variety of forces, then it is true that psychoanalysis is profoundly unlikely to insist on marriage no matter what. And it may well be that Woody Allen thinks psychoanalysis converts marriages into relationships–but that’s hardly, like, part of the secret handshake you learn at the training institutes.

But far from claiming that psychoanalysis dissolves marriages into relationships, I would have been much more inclined to argue that psychoanalysis strengthens secular marriages (though it is not the only force that does so): By helping one recognize fantasies for what they are, and orientating one to the struggles for which the fantasy compensates, psychoanalysis could very well help a spouse maintain his or her commitment to the marriage. (By contrast, therapies that focus on self-affirmation, or that assume that unconscious fantasies are “the truth” about a person,” would directly threaten the long-term stability of a marriage.)

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