Issues of interpretation–Conjectures on construction
André Green (Paris)
EPF Congreso de Vilamura, Portugal 2005
Freuds work extends, roughly speaking, from The Interpretation of Dreams to Constructions in Analysis. It could be said that the entire history of psychoanalysis is strewn with issues of interpretation and conjectures on construction. That Freud first focuses his interest on dreams is no coincidence.
Seeking irrefutable proof of the unconscious, after several unsatisfying attempts, with the dream he finally finds the form of psychic life that corresponds to his expectations. Although the dream is good evidence of the unconscious freed from the artefacts of consciousness, this form of psychic life, enigmatic in many respects, can only be elucidated by means of interpretation. It can thus be said that the object of interpretation is to make the unconscious comprehensible, by reducing the gap that separates it from consciousness. If the dream serves as a paradigm, the same will be true of the other formations of the unconscious, also identified in the Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Hence this conclusion: in order to interpret the unconscious, one has to know in what way it merits this name. In other words, wishing, desiring, acting etc., cannot belong to the conscious system for reasons of censorship and repression. An interpretation concerning consciousness would amount to paraphrase, redundancy. It might be the object of hermeneutics, but it would miss the object of psychoanalysis, because it would bypass the unconscious.
Among the formations of the unconscious, one, which belongs to the essence of psychoanalytic treatment, poses particular problems, namely the transference. After Freuds death, the so-called transference-interpretation was to become an important choice of technique. But a few explications are necessary to explain this choice.
One of the unquestionable aspects for Freud is the link between interpretation and resistance. The unconscious has succeeded in getting round the obstacle of censorship and has expressed itself in a form that is barely discernible yet interpretable, and thus intelligible. It is by no means easy to give a meaning to dreams, parapraxes, slips, etc, and even less to the transference. When one turns to the case of the dream, one finds that in addition to the latent thoughts and the manifest content, a work of interpretation has occurred on the side of the patient, which has governed the dream-work. Conclusion: interpretation pertains to what has already been interpreted. For in order to disguise, render unrecognisable and misrepresent what has to be silenced, one first has to recognise that such and such a thought must not be identified. Freud states that the dream is not meant to be understood. The work of interpretation, properly speaking, is one of re-establishing a meaning that has already been distorted so that it passes unnoticed or is taken as absurd and thus rejected from the mind which gets rid of it or evacuates it as non-sense. This is proof that psychic work has taken place in order to bring censorship into play, before circumventing it and finding a way nonetheless of expressing itself in a disguised form that has to be unmasked. The finest realisation of this work is negation. Now youll think I mean to say something insulting, but really Ive no such intention… Youll think that the person in this dream is my mother but it is not my mother. Even more extraordinary is Freuds observation that the analysand only has to say I didnt think that or I didnt (ever) think of that for the interpretation to be confirmed.
So what is it, then, that has to be interpreted?
There are two contrasting attitudes here. The first is based on the psychic processes that are supposed to belong to early childhood. Prohibition is said to have its origin in the projections of childhood. It is the unconscious which comes first. Furthermore, it must be remembered that it is an unconscious organising itself in childhood. The second attitude claims to be based only on unconscious processes, without reference to the age at which they are supposed to emerge or predominate. Pre-eminence is accorded to structure over history, yet this structure is rarely expressed better and more than in childhood. In fact, the correct point of view must be a historico-structural one.
When one observes the place of interpretation in Freuds work, several ideas can be identified. Most of the references to it are related to the interpretation of dreams, its interest and its limits. For Freud is persuaded that the dream is evidence of an archaic mode of thinking which has survived in spite of the progress of rational thinking. But there is no point in underlining its archaism, because for the dreamer what matters is what he is thinking at the moment, without consideration of its origin, its age and its mechanism. Freud extends progressively this primitive nucleus, which will never lose its pre-eminent role. His second observation links the efficacy of interpretation with the transference. Freuds advice is not to interpret before the transference manifests itself. Finally, interpretation also has to count with resistance, the role of which will become increasingly important. Freud recommends that analysts abstain, from the very first encounter, from throwing at the patient everything that they have understood about his problems. This can only strengthen resistances. In other words the meaning has to be deconstructed fragment by fragment, handling the unconscious carefully, which, if it is treated too brutally, solidifies and becomes impenetrable. Likewise, he renounces the idea of an exhaustive interpretation. Freud never ceases to refer to the art of interpreting. Though he believes that psychoanalysis is a science, where technique is concerned, he speaks of an art of interpreting. An interpretative science is out of the question. In this art, what is essential is to take account of resistance. Freud writes: Psychoanalysis was first and foremost an art of interpreting; then it became an art of uncovering the resistances to the analysts construction. Freud S (1920). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. S.E. XVIII, p. 18.
Let us summarize the various stages of Freud thought on the matter:
- It is in relation to the dream that Freud discovers interpretation as a specific and essential mode of comprehension.
- Interpretation is applied to the other formations of the unconscious.
- Interpretation is supported by the transference; its interpretation is favoured by the support it provides.
- The transference is thwarted by resistance which is opposed to the act of awareness that transference and interpretation require.
- Ultimately resistance has to be taken into consideration as a matter of priority. The art of interpreting rests on the art of detecting resistances and their progressive neutralisation. If the transference, that is to say, the wish to obtain the others love, can facilitate acceptance of the interpretation, resistance, for its part, is evidence of self-love that is unable to accept any concession whatsoever. Such is the vigilance of narcissism.
- All the preceding remarks must take into account the fact that Freuds entire elaboration was built for the most part on the analysis of the neuroses. It is true that Freud also took interest in the psychoses, in two cases in particular, namely, The Memoirs of President Schreber, a text, but not clinical material, and the case of the Wolf Man which demonstrates a certain failure of interpretation. However, in his final writings, and from 1924 onwards, his interest for the psychoses deepened, allowing him to make certain advances which relativise the various stages I have just outlined. After his death, analysts would be increasingly faced with pregenital fixations involving ego restrictions which were often resistant to the action of the treatment.II. Post Freudian strategies
This path from the dream to resistance bears witness to the stages of the transformation of interpretation, for if the dream gives rise to interpretation, ultimately it is resistance (to interpretation…of the dream) that has to be interpreted.
But then, what is one to do in the face of resistance? Freud spoke of fighting against resistances rather than interpreting them. This is understandable: the interpretation of resistances will be met with resistance that is opposed to the uncovering of resistances. And this was to become increasingly obvious once Freud had understood that a large portion of the ego is unconscious. This was an unforeseen obstacle and was reinforced by the discovery of defences such as splitting, which say at one and the same time yes and no in their psychical organisation. Are we left with no other resource than fighting against, which risks taking us back to suggestion? That would be anti-analytic and of doubtful efficacy in the case of non-neurotic structures. All one can do is to show patience and rely on the work of analysis. Nonetheless the overcoming of resistances was to remain the principal concern of analysts after Freuds death.
This gave rise to diverse strategies. The first was the systematic interpretation of resistances (Greenson) which led analysts to interest themselves in the ego sometimes to the detriment of the unconscious , claiming to strengthen it. This had the drawback of giving analytic work the appearance of a struggle rather than an elucidation, which could evoke a return to suggestion: You dont accept my interpretation because you are resisting (me). This reproach is being made again today by many intersubjectivists, Owen Renik in particular. In this case, one will only interpret what the patient wants to hear which, for the most part, he already knows. Another tactic consisted in interpreting more deeply, the point where the conflict, the cause of the resistance, was supposed to lie. This was the era one that is not yet over of so-called deep, systematic pregenital interpretations, increasingly far removed from the material presented. Interpretations related to narcissism are denied. On this view, there is no narcissistic regression, because primary narcissism does not exist. From the outset there is an ego (later called the self) and an object (Fairbairn-Klein).
Everything is linked, then, to the interpretation of the object-relationship. This opened the way to the quasi-exclusive value placed on the transference-interpretation which is supposed to reveal the object-relationship, i.e. the present is the direct substitute of the past, seen from the angle of the object-relationship. A technique of interpretative harassment was soon developed in order to break down the barrage of defences and to get to the bottom of the conflict. This was the triumphant era of Kleinian technique, which has little in common with Freudian technique.
I shall not enlarge upon the polemic concerning transference-interpretations which are favoured in British psychoanalysis. I have already given some of the explanations for it. The principal argument is that interpretation outside the transference has no impact because it becomes interpretation of a narrative content that does not involve in a direct, intense and emotional manner the two partners of the analytic situation. However, This interpretative mode perhaps has the drawback of personalising the transference excessively, of bypassing its value as repetition of the past and, above all, of not allowing the session to be seen in terms of a succession of moments of transferential rapprochement, alternating with non-transferential moments, in which the patient examines from a distance the facts of the material related, returning to important events of the past. This retrospective examination is in no way intellectual, as is shown by material that is likely to lead to repetition in acted forms. In these cases the camisole of the transference binds the patient in his relations to the analyst and prohibits him from developing a capacity for thinking which relativizes the effects of what he is reliving. The priority accorded to the actual, to the present, to lived experience, does not leave enough room for the development of thought-capacities concerning the extra-transferential material. I know that many Kleinian or non-Kleinian colleagues will be unable to recognise themselves in this description, just as French-speaking colleagues will be able to recognise themselves in the accusation by the Anglo-Saxons that treatments practised three times a week are psychotherapies. How many recorded clinical cases, respecting the canon of five sessions per week, give the impression of bypassing the unconscious material! Will it be argued that the cases treated by Anglo-Saxon analysts reveal deeper regressions that are more difficult to overcome? It may indeed be the case that the indications of analysis posed by the French concern less severe clinical pictures than those presented by many Anglo-Saxon patients, and that this justifies the greater frequency of sessions and the difference of interpretative style. But there is no evidence so far that the number of five sessions per week makes it possible to obtain better results than their reduction to three. And how does it justify the quasi-deafness of analysts from across the Channel to sexuality, wishful-fantasies, the erotic transference, all of which are considered as defences. There is a constant conjunction destructivity transference-interpretation reparation which, in many cases, seems debatable. Rosine Perelberg, Perelberg R (2004). Violence et suicide I, tr. A.L. Hacker. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. analysing groups of extremely violent patients, has discovered the major role played in them by sexuality and the deficient role of identification with the father. This is an exception that confirms the rule.
Transference-interpretation can in certain cases become a form of acting out by the analyst who exerts his control over the patient instead of letting him discover the implication of what he is saying.
The evolution of technique in France, represented by Bouvet, is completely different from this conception of analysis. In a series of writings on the evolution of the treatment, he identified a few principal ideas on conducting the treatment. Bouvet is the author of a conception of object-relations that is quite different from Anglo-Saxon formulations, Kleinian in particular, and it is based on the role of closeness in the treatment. In La Cure type (1954), he devotes a chapter to the sequence resistance-transference-interpretation. M. Bouvet wrote much more on resistance and transference than on interpretation. Doubtless his early death did not allow him the time. But what he says about it in this chapter allows us to surmise what he thought about it. Bouvet emphasises the aspect of series. He argues that it is constantly reproduced as long as the deep sources of anxiety have not been reached. Bouvet maintains that resistance is only the connotation, in relation to the progression of the analysis, of defensive transference effects (II, 45). He draws on Freuds affirmations and makes the distinction between the Oedipal phases which allow the sources of anxiety to be expressed superficially, and the pre-Oedipal phases, where they are more difficult to reach. Interpretation will only be really efficacious when the layers of material relative to these pre-Oedipal phases are accessible.
Let us recall that it is customary, in French psychoanalytic circles, to interpret as close as possible to the ego, sometimes making use of ellipsis or allusion, proceeding by limited touches, stimulating the associative work, counting on the participation of the patient, the main actor of the analysis who has to do his analysis rather than being analysed by his analyst. As for deep interpretations, Bouvet thinks that they can have a traumatic effect, inducing a global regression causing an aggravation in latent psychoses. He agrees with the statement that interpreting the transference material takes precedence over everything else, but that interpreting the defence- transference consists essentially of transference-interpretation.
But Bouvet maintains that it is important not to neglect interpretation of extra-transference material. The judicious interpretation of this material concerning the past the defensive modalities, the parade against instinctual pressures prepares the way for interpreting resistance, a notion, of course, which was only a connotation compared with the work of analysis, and which can only be an actual event, a transference event, even when it consists in an absence of transference which is merely evidence in fact of the excellence of the defence transference (p. 161).
In other words, whether there is an explicit transference or not, everything that happens in the analysis pertains to the transference whether it is a defence-transference or a transference of affects and emotions.
Let me repeat that interpreting extra-transference material prepares the way for the transference-interpretation, on the condition that one is wary of cases where excessive intellectualisation is employed. As for the frequency of interpretations, the patients capacity to tolerate frustration has to be taken into account. But silence is still the rule for French analysts who remain sparing with interpretation. With Lacan, this attitude is pushed to the extreme. Lacan advocates the cadaverisation of the analyst, his tenacious and systematic silence, all of which is evocative of the technique of Zen masters. Lacan set about making a radical critique of received ideas on interpretation. On this view, the analysts interpretation claims to be a substitute for the analysands thinking, like a truth that takes the place of a semblance. In this situation, the treatment begins on false bases, arousing the patients resistance, without the analyst putting himself in question; the analysts technique reveals his resistance.
In order to get out of this impasse, it is necessary to divert attention from the meaning or the signified, and to focus on the irreducible “non-sense” of the signifier. Thinking involves trying to take possession of the signifier in its abrupt, original aspects, without slipping towards the facilities of the signified. Take the example of Le Nom du Père, the planned title of one of Lacans seminars which never saw the light of day and has become Les non-dupes errent. That is to say, those who are not dupes err. The play on words cannot be carried over into English. From this point of view, then, the analyst must constantly forget what he has learnt and the analysand must cope with this emerging and novel event. Interpretation does not consist in unveiling a hidden meaning, but in trying to react, by means of a blind construction, to something that emerges suddenly and is disconcerting. Seminar XI, p. 279. This says it all. The work of Lacan the analyst must astonish and remain ungraspable. Nonetheless, it would be unfortunate to overlook the singular aspects of this critique. But even though such standard or all-purpose interpretations, applied without discrimination, are legion in a good many analyses, Lacans ideas are not thereby justified. There are other more pertinent critiques.
Winnicott casts doubt on the exactness and efficacy of interpretation according to the Kleinian technique. He advocates another theorisation against what has to be called interpretative suggestion, an application of Melanie Kleins theory by her zealous followers, blindly won over to her cause. I will not enlarge on the place he accords to play and the necessity of letting the patient arrive at the interpretation by himself, not to mention his questioning of many of Kleins ideas: the paranoid-schizoid position, projective identification, early phantasies, etc. At the end of his life, Winnicott increasingly recommended silence, listening, and interpreting environmental failures absent from the Freudian and Kleinian positions.
French analysts had long since arrived at a similar technique, remaining silent, striving to interpret as closely as possible to the ego, not neglecting to interpret the Oedipus complex, even its less apparent forms, respecting resistance, sceptical about making too many interventions to convince the patient.
In Interpretation in Psycho-Analysis (1968), Winnicott sets out his way of seeing things. His observations are among the most precious on this subject: The word “interpretation” implies that we are using words, and there is a further implication which is that material supplied by the patient is verbalised. Winnicott, D.W. (1968) Interpretation in Psycho-Analysis. In Psycho-Analytic Explorations, p. 207, ed. C. Winnicott, R. Shepherd, M. Davis. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989. On this last point, Winnicott adds that analysts recognise now that a great deal of the communication between patient and analyst is not verbalised.
The reason for interpreting must correspond to the analysts feeling that a communication has been made and that this needs acknowledgement. It is noticeable that from this point of view interpretation is no longer subjected to the restrictions that it once was. Winnicott expresses his disagreement with the incidence of interpretations of symbols such as the two white objects in the dream are breasts. No doubt it was Klein (or rather her disciples) whom he had in mind. Winnicott expresses his preference for interpretations that give back to the patient what the patient has himself communicated. One can sense his reticence concerning so-called in-depth interpretations. Likewise, he criticises analysts who do not accept their patients corrections, for this means that they regard themselves as unassailable. One can see that Winnicotts position is quite close to Freuds. The analyst must question his motives for interpreting, especially in cases where his interpretations serve to verify his theory.
Winnicott points out that interpretation can only concern a limited part of the interpretative field that the patient conveys to the analyst; when it is reflected back by the analyst, it assumes a global value that renders it inexact. Likewise, the interpretation given by the patient depends on a specific moment of insight. When the analyst takes up this insight and interprets it, the patient is no longer in the same state as before. All these arguments lend support to Winnicotts position which favours the giving back to the patient of what he has just said over any other technique. Symbolic extrapolations dictated by theory are tendentious. The patients silence sometimes contains more essential signification than his words. Winnicott acknowledges the validity of a critique that is very present in French analysis, that is, the concern not to introduce into the interpretation material that is more related to the analysts projections than the patients communication.
It has to be remembered that analysands learn to speak the analysts language. In their response, they do not necessarily respond in terms of the impact that the analysts interpretation has had on them, but in terms of what they have understood about what the analyst was thinking and wanted them to think. This can nonetheless produce dynamic effects, obtained from an interpretation that was perhaps inexact a problem that Glover dealt with a long time ago.
These observations show just how far the objectification of an interpretation is an illusory task. We have noted the priority that Winnicott puts on giving back to the patient what he has communicated. It seems to me that this attitude is closer to what Freud wished (making the unconscious conscious) than any other. In any case, it is necessary to take into consideration the state of the resistances and the necessity of respecting them in the interpretation.
III. Description of an ideal situation
What is the aim, what is the effect of interpretation?
It would be nice to be able to give a single and general answer to this question, without any ambiguity. Unfortunately, this is not possible. When one consults the analysis of Dora and that of the Wolf man, one realises that behind their apparent unity the interpretations given by Freud in each of these cases draw on very different modes of thinking. It has already been noted that the population of analysands is not homogeneous, that its problems differ from one type of structure to another, that receptivity to interpretations is not univocal, and finally that the resistances that they mobilise are more or less difficult to overcome. I will thus take as my starting point a classical case, where the indication of analysis has been correctly identified, of a patient who, even if he falls somewhat short of the ideal condition, remains sufficiently close to the neurotic structure, presenting fixations that are quite accessible, mobilisable, displaceable and transformable by virtue of the transference. We know that this scenario is currently more of a rarity than a frequently encountered reality. Nevertheless, for the clarity of my exposition, I have chosen this type of patient in order to highlight the issues of interpretation.
I have already pointed out that interpretation has more effect when on the one hand it is sustained by the transference and, on the other, repression and resistance do not freeze psychic activity unduly. Even in those cases which continue to concern neurosis, the work sometimes turns out to be more difficult than anticipated. It then has to be supposed that resistances arising from character defences, or of a narcissistic order, are thwarting the efforts of the treatment. For it would be wrong to conclude that neurotic structures are easy to analyse, as one is obliged to recognise that, without having foreseen or anticipated it, the analyst can find himself faced with difficulties which will prevent the analysed transference from being integrated with the result that transformations will not proceed from it.
What, then, is the ideal effect of interpretation?
I shall refrain from employing all-purpose formulas such as increased insight, loosening up of the superego, greater acceptance of reality, which are only of very limited help to us, for usually no details are given as to the way in which these modifications occur. I will thus try to give a more lively description.
Consider any given piece of material, in a precise transference situation: the analyst hears this communication and decides, at the opportune moment, to respond to it in the way that seems most appropriate to him. Let me just say two words on the circumstances of his interpretation: what seems to be most important is the analysts feeling that the analysand, through his material, has let it be understood that he expects something to be said on this subject. In other words, he reacts to his own production in a way that he feels is at once a bit strange, not absolutely clear, not quite in line with what he meant to say, and which rings slightly mysteriously in his ears. Thanks to free association, provided this is not too impeded and fluid communication can continue, other statements are produced that are more or less loosely connected with what he has just said. Control over the associative production, at least in favourable cases, escapes him, engendering unsuspected effects. There is something to be understood, but what? While the analyst has been listening to the patient, his ear, so to speak, has not remained passive, contenting itself with registering the series of propositions made by the patient. Links centred on anxiety have been established, bringing into relationship terms belonging to diverse propositions. He has been listening to the connections, displacements, reversals into their opposite and against the self, repressions, denials, projections, and above all the movement of the successive themes broached, etc. Most are aimed at dissimulating a prohibited desire or a fixation of a relationship with a person among his close relations, a fixation causing the patient disappointments, annoyances or even persecutions; it is here that the transference- interpretation has its value. It is impossible here to draw up a catalogue of the unconscious motives that the material dissimulates.
In the Central Phobic Position, I have described a set of mechanisms, of associative radiations, accompanied by effects of irradiation, either backwards (retroactive reverberation), or forwards (anticipatory annunciation). The combinations occurring in the analysts mind between these different modalities of associative irradiation open the way for the emergence of the interpretation. The interpretation, which often wells up in the analysts mind like a sudden or emerging idea, will be held back by him until such time as the development of the material indicates that the patient is ready to hear something from the analyst, and shows that he is capable of taking in what is new, the appearance of which he had previously struggled against. But why does the patient struggle against something new that he does not know? It is because in fact, even if he only has a vague idea about it, the form of instinctive knowledge (Freud) which is in him gives him the intuition that he might hear the analyst saying something that could displease him or even that the analyst might turn him out or which could surprise him unexpectedly. It may involve libidinal expression that is too crude, an aggressive manifestation that might lead to being rejected by the analyst, or also something that is wounding for his narcissism. Old traumas can be acquire new vigour, repressed conflicts can break through the barrier of repression, splits and all sorts of other defences that are supposed to protect him can suddenly become inoperative. I do not wish to give a systematically pejorative picture of the effects of interpretation. There are numerous cases in which it leads to liberating effects that have the virtue of showing the archaic character of the defences, the sterility of the inhibitions that the patient imposes on himself, the pointlessness of the self-punishments to which he resorts, etc. It is in such cases that interpretation can lead to a real liberation, provided the patient does not suffer too much from the deleterious effects of a form of masochism which casts a shadow over his life, or from a need for self-punishment which poisons all his joys. This explains the frequency of these negative effects and the increasing number of cases taken on in analysis which present significant regressions and are psychically handicapped by destructive fixations established prematurely.
How is the correctness or the beneficial role of the interpretation to be evaluated when the analyst decides to verbalise it? As Freud points out in Constructions in Analysis, the analyst cannot adopt the position Heads I win, tails you lose, turning to his advantage both the Yes and the No of the patient. Rejecting both these positions, Freud announces a truth of great importance namely, that the confirmation or the invalidation of the interpretation must be searched for in the train of associations of the patients discourse, which will elucidate retroactively the content and value of what the analyst has said. Once the interpretation has been given, the analysts role does not stop there. He must focus his listening on the patients response to the interpretations (H. Faimberg). Winnicott pointed out that in the course of his long career, he never heard a patient reproduce for him one of his interpretations with exactness. In my view, the role and benefit of a good interpretation are almost certainly manifested when the patient, instead of saying whether he agrees or not, responds to the analyst with the familiar phrase, that makes me think of…. In other words, the interpretation has liberated the knots of the discourse so that an association can be constructed; its emergence has been facilitated by the work of free association leading to the unconscious conflict. An interpretation does not always emerge via the analysts words. It can emerge in a more or less incidental way by a chance happening that reactualises an internal psychic content which has some relationship with the central conflict, a relationship that has long been unrecognised because it aroused a resistance preventing it from being included in the associative network. The number of occasions on which the network of associations can be revived in relation to an infantile conflict is obviously infinite. It can be something said by a third party, a sudden idea that appeared during a state of reverie which loosens the egos control, a quarrel between friends, etc. There are any number of opportunities for seeing the ghosts that one hoped had gone to sleep for ever come back to life, haunting sleep, modifying ones humour and giving rise to significant parapraxes. But only the reliving of experiences in the transference is of unquestionable value. Thus, we come to a conclusion: the aim of interpretation is not to produce insight directly but to facilitate the psychic functioning that is likely to help insight to emerge by creating the links which make it possible to get round the resistance or to overcome it, thereby ensuring that the preconscious structure of the associations serves as a mirror for surmising the network of unconscious associations.
This is the situation that the analyst is looking for, one that he hopes to see functioning when psychoanalysis is indicated and to encounter as the transference develops. It should be added that an isolated insight is never likely to bring about a definitive victory. I have always had considerable doubts when reading the article by James Strachey concerning the so-called mutative interpretation. It has always seemed to me, on the contrary, that even after a good interpretation, the bloc of resistances tends to form itself again; and that one has to listen yet again to the conflicts whose interpretation had been considered satisfactory, sufficient in any case to neutralise them, after elucidating their pathogenic power. This involves something of a work of Penelopy which, however, should not discourage the psychoanalyst inasmuch as he senses that the transference remains an ally and the resistance a moderate brake. Especially if he perceives in his patient a predominance of Eros, which, in spite of the conflictual obstacles, has found a way of obtaining satisfaction.
In writing Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud made the situation much more complicated. He gave prominence to the compulsion to repeat, beyond the pleasure principle. If pleasure (and thus prohibition) ceases to be the guide for orienting us towards psychic health, the task becomes more difficult. On the condition that it is accepted that the possibility of finding pleasure is a better indication of psychic health than reparation or the need for security.
Nevertheless, it is necessary to relativise what he says. The beyond the pleasure principle is due to the failure of the pleasure principle in early development; that is, when circumstances too heavy to bear have weighed upon the young child and marked him forever. One can thus understand the true nature of the inversion that occurs, causing its disqualification, as one of the possible reactions engendered by distress (Hilflosigkeit). Here a set of contradictory reactions are intertwined in which the young childs ego, desperate to find a solution, prefers the monotonous rhythm of repetition, the negative of masochistic satisfaction, stubborn obstinacy in sterile regression, all mechanisms that go in the opposite direction to that of the pleasure of living (the work of the negative). It is thus very difficult to give a single formula for interpretative elaboration if the patient evacuates, obstinately rejects, and radically resists the analysts interpretations, to the point of making him feel discouraged so that he is more than once tempted to throw in the towel or to lose his control. Much patience is needed, much acceptance of the rebuffs that the analysand imposes on the analyst, for the analytic work to be continued. The solution is sometimes found when, after a long period of endurance, the analysand accepts the transferential value of the material and understands that what he is addressing to the analyst is destined for someone else to whom he is tied by an inextinguishable wish for vengeance or a wish to obtain from him what he wants in spite of all opposition.
Finally, I would like to consider a particular case. Namely that of analysands, or rather patients in the face-to-face position who, after long years of analysis, usually more than ten, have changed in a positive way and have made considerable progress in their life. However, the analyst cannot help but notice that these improvements are not accompanied by the hoped-for progress in terms of insight. His attempts to find evidence of a positive modification of mental functioning are disappointing. One is thus faced with the paradoxical situation of having seen progress accomplished (accompanied by unfailing interpretative support) without any integration of the interpretative work. Should one consider that the effect of the interpretations was illusory and that the progress was made as a result of outside factors? I think rather that it is a question of split integrations, where the patient both hears and does not hear the interpretation. This scenario poses the problem of the technique applied to defence mechanisms of the splitting type. This does not mean that this is the last word of the treatment and it may be necessary to wait for subsequent elaborations before the patient really becomes aware of the meaning of his psychic productions.
IV. On Construction
Construction is the end point of the translation of the unconscious. It comes very late in Freuds work. Too late, no doubt (1937, like the recognition that psychoanalytic work is carried on in two localities. The locality of the psychoanalyst is the workshop where interpretation is manufactured and where the firm carries out the construction. Freud now makes the obvious point: interpretation concerns a fragment of material to which meaning is given, making its unconscious side comprehensible; whereas the construction, starting from the interpretations that have preceded it, gathers together, puts in order, synthesises, completes, in order to arrive at a hypothesis making it possible to bring together the elements of the material into a coherent content, but one which risks being more rational than real. It is somewhat schematic to want to make an absolute opposition between interpretation and construction. In analytic work it is not uncommon that an interpretation comprises an element of construction and that, conversely, a construction is supported by a fragment of interpretation.
Why is construction necessary?
Because of a late but fundamental discovery. Infantile amnesia cannot be totally lifted because the traumas dating from a time prior to the acquisition of language leave no memory-traces proper that can be mobilised, and thus no memories.
Freud no longer expected the analysand to give him the means to reveal everything to him. It was now up to the analyst to use his own means to construct a picture of the patients forgotten years that shall be alike trustworthy and in all essential respects complete (S.E. 23: 258). The analyst must construct what has been forgotten. Constructing means deducing, bringing together, co-ordinating, making plausible. But constructing the lost psyche is like building castles in Spain. One needs the help of hypotheses. Freud always thought that his boldest hypotheses reflected reality. And nowadays, though certain of his very bold conjectures have been confirmed, others are hardly credible. His model of reflection was that of the burying of the past.
The archaeological metaphor is still a valid one for Freud. The basic hypothesis is that no psychic structure can be the victim of total destruction that makes it disappear. The indisputable conclusion is that the finer structure of the psychical object contains much that is still mysterious.
In comparing interpretation and construction, Freud opts, without beating about the bush, for construction. Moreover, it is worth pointing out that he sometimes speaks in his work of constructions prior to interpretation before he has actually defined the concept. There can be no denying that a construction comprises a greater risk of error than an interpretation because it includes a much larger ensemble, thus more questionable elements. But here, too, resistance, maintained by a sense of guilt, a masochistic need for suffering, a negative transference, can transform the correct construction which is supposed to lead to a recollection confirming its content, into an aggravation of symptoms. So, how is one to know?
Freud remarks that the communication of a construction gives rise to ultra clear recollections concerning details that are sometimes of secondary importance. Such recollections may even take on a hallucinatory character. Certain psychic contents which are not remembered are the object not of reminiscences but of revivals. Where one patient recaptures a memory, another hallucinates as if he was having a delusion. This makes it possible to recognise the nucleus of truth contained in the delusion. Delusions are analogous to the analysts constructions. The patient suffers from reminiscences those related to the historical truth.
This fundamental articles raises two questions:
- Is it really true that no psychic structure can be the victim of total destruction?
- Is it possible to arrive at a complete picture of the forgotten years by virtue of construction?
Freud pleads here in favour of the deep unity of the psyche. Hysteria and delusion have the same basic mechanism. They involve the same psychical attitude with differences of structure, but not of nature. And he adds that the analysts construction is of the same order. The Botellas have argued in favour of a principle of coherence of the psyche. Here is an example.
Although written in 1937, this work of Freuds never mentions the last theory of the drives or the role of the drives of destruction. What are we to think of this absence of reminiscence? What remains of this development is the notion of a permanent construction in the formations of the psyche. Are we always dealing, in the lacuna of the psyche, with the action of repression, or can one also implicate the reaction against the work of destruction, the work of the negative?
Constructing is all well and good, but it is founded on the rubble of destruction. It is in this sense that one can speak of reconstruction.
Another possibility is that construction is necessary when the material relates to a phase of childhood during which the means to construct are not available, since the necessary equipment is lacking. Hence the need to draw on the phenomenon of après-coup. Psychotic anxiety is not only a threat of destruction; it is first and foremost the consequence of a past destruction which risks being reproduced or at least of being relived.
Finally, constructing has the sense of building up an approximate truth retrospectively, without any certainty; it is a truth that has to be constantly revised during the work of analysis. It is a subjective truth whose value resides in being circulated among analysts who always have the possibility of recognising it or contradicting it, and in the latter case, of proposing a new construction. Bion argued that analysis ends with an approximation shared by the analyst and the analysand, and Winnicott put forward the idea of a fear of breakdown, of which Freud had already had an intuition in 1937. He wrote at that time: Often enough, when a neurotic is led by an anxiety-state to expect the occurrence of some terrible event, he is in fact merely under the influence of a repressed memory (which is seeking to enter consciousness but cannot become conscious) that something which was at that time terrifying did really happen. Freud, S. (1937). Constructions in Analysis. S.E. 23, 268. Thus fantasy is not everything; the trauma in reality may have existed but it was repressed and threatens to repeat itself. To interpret is thus not to dissipate an imaginary fear; it is to recognise sometimes that it may have taken place in the past and been repressed, and that it threatens to reappear in one form or another, leading one to fear considerable damage.
I approve of Freud preference for construction over reconstruction. If some prefer interpretation on account of the slight margin of error that it involves, construction has the merit of admitting that it is the product of the analysts imagination. If the analyst cannot say the truth about the truth, at least he can conjecture the truth that seems to emerge from what the patient communicates. If it is a question of a reconstruction deduced exclusively from what the patient says, it is too subject to caution to be believed without reservation and without interpretation. And if it is a question of carrying out restructurings on the basis of observational studies, it is not possible, in my opinion, to have confidence in observations whose object of study concerns phenomena belonging to external reality and behaviour, for the object of psychoanalytic work pertains to internal psychic reality.
The solution of here and now interpretations tends to avoid these impasses. It seems to me, nonetheless, that however actual transference-interpretations may claim to be, they cannot avoid alluding to the historical and extra-transferential dimension of the material. A transference- interpretation takes insufficient account of the transference of the different intrapsychic layers of the past amalgamating with each other. It is doubtful whether a transference-interpretation can be based on a single layer of the past without being composed of a mixture of psychic events belonging to different periods of the past. To see transference-interpretation as a model of intersubjective interpretation thus seems to me to be an illusion of direct transmission, the existence of which is doubtful.
Intellectualization, which one seeks to avoid, remains present, as Winnicott has shown, through the analysts tendency to want to apply the theory, even though the theory can be abundantly criticised by those who do not share the same allegiance.
V. Contemporary discussion of the relations interpretation-construction
How can the relations interpretation-construction be assessed today?
It seems to me that inasmuch as the patient does not present a neurotic structure, constructions have little efficacy in analysis. In other words, the neurotic patient furnishes a part of the constructions himself. On the other hand, this is not the case with non-neurotic patients because they do not dispose of a similar integrity of their mental functioning at the level of the ego. That is to say, when the patient presents a form of ego restriction which cannot fail to affect temporality, the means of integrating the constructions are often reduced by disorganisation; or, when a construction is proposed to him, it remains an intellectual hypothesis only which barely penetrates beyond the surface. In this case transference and interpretation without forgetting resistance will remain the sole pillars of the analytic work. Interpretative precision will be based thereon.
It is necessary, by way of conclusion, to reflect on the nature of what is interpretable. As long as one remains in the context of the first topography Cs-Pcs-Ucs interpretation stands a good chance of bringing about the necessary changes, because the organising structures of temporality are in place and intact; but as soon as one touches on material which can only be interpreted within the terms of the second topography, that which in the former system depended on unconscious mental representations has now passed over on to the side of the instinctual impulses constitutive of the id. It is too often forgotten that Freud disavowed the systematic unconscious, which he restored to the rank of a psychical quality (1923, 1938). The unconscious representations of the first topography were subsequently replaced as elements of the psyche by the instinctual impulses of the id; that is to say, the energetic, economic (and not representative) role of the psyche became the deepest level of it. The unconscious still exists, but it relates to unconscious structures of the ego, which explains why interpretations that are intended to reach the most inaccessible parts of the psyche concern forms of mental life unlinked with representation. Instinctual impulses are not very sensitive to interpretations based on language. The work of analysis will thus seek to favour their transformation into representations so as to render them accessible to interpretation subsequently. In the forms that are dominated by instinctual discharges of the id, intermediate structures, i.e. dreams, fantasies, parapraxes and slips sometimes exist, but assume an incomprehensible form for the patient, that is, for his thinking, and thus are scarcely usable for the analysis. For the patient to be able to take in the interpretation, it is best to wait until the regressive forms arising from the id become, thanks to the associations, interpretable by being included within the order of representation, so that the conversion thing-presentationword-presentaion can be accomplished. It is often intense archaic anxiety that hinders this elaboration, not allowing the patient to reflect on what he is experiencing, thinking or saying.
What we have before us here is the whole modern clinical experience of non-neurotic structures: repetition-compulsion, acting out, somatisation, hallucinatory episodes, depersonalization, negative therapeutic reaction, etc. Neither interpretation nor construction is likely to lead to modifications for a long time (which justifies the British position of five sessions). Interpretations, when they are given, must be discreet and intentionally superficial to avoid the traumatic effects of interpretation. Interpreting in great depth is scarcely acceptable and, as Winnicott says, the return to the sender is tolerated better. The mirror role of the transference- object transforms the content of the material into a shared object and becomes a source of reflection. Nevertheless this work which makes the material interpretable even though it is dominated initially by acting out, aggravations of psychosomatic accidents, hallucinatory episodes, all of which can be helped to evolve successfully towards representative forms thing-presentations, from which certain fantasies can be liberated, has its counterpart.
If the material gains from this transformation which makes it comprehensible, it also loses something through this modification. It seems to me that what is lost is the instinctual force, always more or less brute, more or less wild, more or less mad, or more or less dangerous for psychic health, which leads one to underestimate the level of regression. It is a vehicle of life as well as of death.
One of the greatest difficulties in interpreting deep, primitive structures, is the need to avoid the temptation of interpreting in the narrative, that is to say, of never going beyond the preconscious level. The unconscious is certainly difficult to reach; but what are we to say then of the id? How are we to interpret it in a treatment, whether the patient is lying down or in the face-to-face position?
There seems to be a contradiction here between the mistrust that I have expressed towards deep interpretations and what I am stating now. So let me add that my opposition concerns deep interpretations that are systematic and too frequent. On the other hand, at certain fruitful moments, interpretation beyond the verbal continues to retain its value. But at such moments, the analyst must take the risk of seeming mad to the patient (Winnicott).
Ultimately, an analyst is always doing the same work: he starts with an often obscure communication of the patient, makes it pass along the paths of associative and countertransferential elaboration and, depending on the circumstances, transmits the transformation, or holds it back in order to make use of it at an opportune moment. I have called this the return to oneself by the detour of the similar other. The similar other has heard, thought about, and interpreted the message, and then sent it back to its source, often in an inverted form (Lacan).
All this is within the transference. And when the content is related to the relationship with the analytic object (directly or indirectly perceived), this will be called a transference-interpretation or better an interpretation on the transference. But not everything is transference, even though it takes place within the analytic space a space intended to receive, preserve and safeguard the transference, so that the analysis continues.
After considering the way in which the problem of interpretation presented itself to Freud, the text continues with a brief review of post-Freudian interpretative strategies, while noting divergences between the dominant theoretical movements. Consideration of an ideal situation offers the opportunity of describing the process of interpretation in detail and the insight that is supposed to result from it. The case of construction is then considered in the light of its necessity. Finally, the paper ends with a reminder of the relations interpretation-construction as they are conceived of today, starting from Freuds description of the unconscious. As he proceeds, the author discusses questions related to the transference-interpretation, the preferred mode of British analysts, and interpretation within the transference setting, in the French style. (8576 words)
Paris Psychoanalytical Society (SPP)
Freud, S.: Au-delà du Principe de Plaisir, pp. 57-58.
Freud, S.: Construction en analyse, p.280.
Lacan, J.: Séminaire XI, p.279.
Perelberg, R.: Violence et suicide, trd. A.L.Hacker, PUF, 2004.
Winicott, D.W.: L’interpretation en psychanalyse (1968), in: La Crainte de l’effrondrement et autres situations cliniques. Translated by J. Kahnanovich et M. Gribinski. Edited by M. Gibrinski.