Impervious to psychoanalysis?

Representation of a subject has never been simple, and more complex still is the process that underlies that representation. Historically and culturally, most representations of being Irish function out of an ambivalent affirmation of narratives imposed by authority. The year 2016 in the Republic of Ireland offers an important opportunity to analyse this dynamic process. The ethnic national identity and the fixation on the 1916 Rebellion offers a focal point in Irish culture of a reconstituted historical and psychological process. It functions in the collective narrative as a microcosm of the Irish experience and an experiment of revolution. One hundred years later, Ireland’s ethnic national identity requires a re-examination, due to the many human rights violations that are linked inexorably to this problematic narrative. In 2006, Martin Scorsese’s film The Departed was released. It went on to win a multitude of awards and continues to be highly esteemed. However, there is one particular scene which caused amusement amongst the audience and curiosity amongst academia. It was a quote attributed to Sigmund Freud about the Irish, and that the Irish were ‘impervious to psychoanalysis’. The origin of the quote was the subject of an international research effort which included the Association of Psychoanalysts and Psychotherapists in Ireland, the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the Freud Museum of London. Eventually, it was revealed in a private email by William Monahan the screenwriter to Abdon Pallasch a writer for the magazine Irish America that it was based on a similar quote (also without an established origin in Freud’s work) which embodied the sentiment he wished to convey in the drama (1). But beyond the authenticity of the quote, there is resonance. Are the Irish impervious to psychoanalysis? Are they so stoic and irrational that they are beyond the reach of the most famous psychotherapy? Do they have such robust ego defence mechanisms that enable them to endure the hardship of life due to the centuries of colonial oppression and the petty insularity of small island psychology? Is the Irish ethnic national identity simply a combination of Celtic folk psychology and Catholic doctrine, with no room for a critical analysis of subjective experience? Or is there something else to be said? Psychoanalysis is not just a theoretical discourse, but also a critical clinical practice. This of course evokes two questions, can the Irish be psychoanalysed and more importantly, should they undergo such a process? The answer is yes on both accounts and to substantiate both positions one must also engage with the contemporary critical dialogues regarding the narrative of being Irish.

As a consequence of establishing an Irish nation-state, there has been an over reliance on the ideals of nationalism to bind subjectivity with the nation-state for the sake of social cohesion (2). This key fixture of Irish national discourse prioritises authority as the central arbitrator of subjective agency and has led to the emergence of a constellation of cultural complexes that governs a critique of the discourses that operate within that society. The individual then operates within this system as a subject/persona. To acknowledge that the persona serves to conform to social constructions of being a particular person, is to accept that there is no innate Irishness, only a set of ontologically tenuous symbolic constructs that together manifest as a coherent homogenous Irish narrative. There are of course a multitude of interpretive methods for critically analysing the subject within the cultural events of Ireland. The Marxist, feminist, liberal, Queer, and legalistic theoretical frameworks have all made a meaningful contribution (2-6). In particular, the Marxist and feminist critiques have contributed enormously and continue to do so by deconstructing and re-organising the rigid narrative of the Irish persona; both in terms of revealing how power relations operate and by giving a voice to the injustices inflicted upon specific groups (7, 8). However, in stressing the symbolic and social at the foreground of human experience there can often be an overshadowing of the individual who is situated within this culture. What is then lost is the subject itself and the voice of experience amidst the complex arrangements of identity and symbolism.

Within the contemporary intellectual pluralism there is the necessity of a psychoanalytical framework to tackle that which is not discussed within these other disciplines. Always challenging and never without controversy, a discourse of subjectivity within culture always evokes the spectre of psychoanalytical ideas being phagocytosed into the edifice of anthropology and vice versa (9, 10). Indeed Jung, Freud, and many other theorists generously adapted ideas from this discipline to identify cross cultural similarities that would provide evidence for their clinical observations (9, 11, 12). Since its inception, psychoanalysis has consistently been applied to a critique of culture, especially during moments of political change. However, the relationship between psychoanalysis and discourses of power has always been complex and not entirely benign, with particular instances when it was used as the locus of authority in state institutions (13). Jung and Freud each wrote about the temptation for psychoanalysis to be a Weltanschauung (an all-encompassing world view), but each correctly identifying that it was a hermeneutical practice of scientific discourse, rather than a secular religion (14, 15). In sharp contrast to the rest of the world, Irish psychiatry has extremely rarely or in the majority of cases never used psychoanalysis (theory or practice) despite the Irish Psycho-Analytical Association being founded in 1942 (16). Psychoanalysis is not a substitute for other forms of critiques. Instead, it is used to re-assess the presuppositions and firmly held beliefs of self-evident interpretations regarding the relationship between the individual and society (13). The richness of ideas and terms to describe the phenomenology of an Irish psychology with its cultural and historical dimensions can be defended on the basis of the necessity for a method that interprets psychology at both a personal and collective level. More poignant still, psychoanalysis highlights the role that discourse, with both its conscious and unconscious facets, operates within society and its practices. In the context of Irish culture, these centre within the collective dream of Irish nationalism.

In general, nationalism sets out to define the geography of a nation which encapsulates all experience and in so doing capture the imagination of those inhabitants. This symbolic social narrative, initially tackles anxiety at a cultural level, but then quickly escalates into enhancing and maintaining the binary psychological constructs of being a member of an in or out group. Within this narrative is the visceral attachment of the subject to the nation-state and with it the experience of civility masquerading as loyalty to authority figures (17, 18). Psychoanalysis has been applied to such authoritarian frameworks in the USSR, South America, Europe, and the United States (13). Even though a psychoanalysis of Irish culture has been neglected, the 20th century has seen a number of scholarly texts trying to explore the Irish subject, especially from the untouched rural environment, such as The One Blood (1975) by Elliot Leyton and Inis Beag (1969) by John Messenger (19, 20). However, the most detailed psychoanalytically informed cultural critique of Irish people is to be found in Nancy Shepper-Hughes classic work Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics (1979). Here a psychodynamically informed anthropological study of Irish life was undertaken. Identifying through the psychological methods of reflective interviews, thematic apperception task cards, drawing tasks, and demographic data, the narratives of the locals in the Dingle peninsula town of ‘Ballybran’ (real name An Clochán) were explored. The author recognises that there are a number of imperfections in the work, but the discoveries pertaining to Irish culture and the Irish personal narrative still resonate, and eclipse any shortcomings. Within and between exploring the assumptions underlying the cultural narratives of Celtic folk psychology and the dominate mode of Jansenist Catholic social psychology, there is the epistemological breeding ground from which the modern Irish ethnic national identity manifests. To be sure, the key finding of the study is simply this; that within the psyche of the Irish is an anxious preoccupation with the subjective life and at the same time a robust process of censorship which categorized otherwise typical human experiences into secrets. In essence, this process renders the Irish experience of the body/psyche and all its relations to the status of other, and hence pathologized; this process of course is called repression (21). That study is now almost 40 years old and as acknowledged by the author, times have changed dramatically, both in terms of economics, but also the role of the church itself. Indeed, surrounding the role of the church is the complex role Ireland finds itself within globalisation and capitalism as it functions in unregulated and detrimental forms. From consumerism to Catholicism, the desire, wishes, and object relations, become extremely murky and the relationships between these often contradictory systems of expressing and inhibited pleasure exist as a tense cohesive lattice within the psyche of Irish people. The conflict, the form, the ever pervasive sense of doom, shame and guilt all get mixed with the endless possibility of expressions of hedonism through commodities of travel, alcohol, restaurants, fashion, and all the modern comforts of a growing economy (2). Despite the penetration of global markets and international liberal values to replace the old order of Ireland, there still exists a conflict and a merging of the relationship between the ego and the actualisation of pleasure in both these domains of identity.

Nationalism when guiding all the institutions of power within the nation-state can easily descend into Fascism. In Umberto Eco’s now classic essay Ur-Fascism (1995), the author, himself a witness to Italian Fascism, identifies the patterns and commonalities of Fascism. He proposed that it is based upon a network of exclusive and often contradictory psychological features that together make up a political edifice, but such cultural complexes defy an essentialist notion of what Fascism is. This interpretation enables one to see Fascism as a psychological process that is not rooted in some petrified past, but a potential that needs to be resisted in modern times. The features are evident in all societies and indeed in the individual themselves, and when enhanced and combined with institutional practices creates the Fascist narrative of authoritarianism (22). Many of these features operate within the Irish cultural context, in particular cultural complexes pertaining to sexuality, suffering, and servitude. Although many of the issues that have plagued the Irish psyche have also been studied by other researchers who have given a clear account of the murky past, the elemental challenges retain their potency in society and continue to dominate the national discourse for example, abortion, LGBT rights, contraception, compensation for victims of Magdalene laundries and symphisiotomies, to name a few (6, 23-25). The solution to these issues is not simply to identify a demarcation between then and now, but rather identify that there is a continuous system of psychological processes, mostly guided by repression and displacement that function in Irish society. Such processes are not simply archaic vestiges of a more primitive society or indeed primitive man, but are domesticated within the contemporary collective psyche. It is not the objects within these problematic fields themselves that is of central importance, but the system of meaning in which they are embedded. These affective objects oscillate around all the things that cannot be said, in a network of meaning, pregnant with silence. Whatever the principles or lessons that one can draw from this intermingling, one can clearly affirm that the Irish are almost pure psychoanalytical subjects.

Although psychoanalysis deals with repression and mental health problems at an individual level, it also identifies at a cultural level the link between individual repression and societal taboo. There are many taboos that form the Irish national discourse, but a critical analysis of the psyche remains the primary and most final one. It forms the foundation for all the others and acts as a network of meaning that links them together into a repressive narrative. The fields of problematization (e.g. how we talk about sex, reproduction, and pleasure) and the sacred spaces of the body (e.g. breast, genitals, mouth, anus, and womb), retain their anxious potency today (25). At the affective heart of all these cultural complexes is the residual nationalism, the thread of green that ties all the institutions of the nation-state together. Each of the contentious domains within the Irish national discourse result from a neglected engagement of the body as part of a healthy subjective life and instead relegate it to the status of other. These taboo domains are linked and separated by silence, indeed this is how repression operates. But the separation between these objects is not a static picture, rather the emotional dimensions not dealt with work ceaselessly to undermine our ideology of denial. The end result is almost a permanent state of anguish and anxiety as the default function of existence. Talking about these things links and connects them not only to the rest of the chain of significance, but links us all to a shared condition of being human. This empathic exchange is necessary, indeed mandatory for optimal human health and happiness. The converse is also true.

The Irish discourse on mental health is largely behaviourist, with no identification of a psyche that goes beyond the bounds of ego-consciousness. Focusing more directly on the Irish national discourse on mental illness and the public conceptions of madness, A Vision for Change: Report of the expert group on mental health policy (2006) is the Irish national mental health policy which aimed at revolutionising the Irish mental health system by 2016.  At a systems level, the policy sought to change the institutions and practices of mental health care in Ireland and transition its mental health services from a detrimentally fragmented system into a community based system that was both effective and compassionate (26). However, implementation of this policy continues to reveal the taboo of tackling the problems of mental health.  Indeed, after almost a decade, the key aspects of the policy remain to be enacted and the policy has no clear framework for implementation (27). There are annual reports and essays highlighting the piecemeal progress and the persistent obstacles, but at the heart of the matter remains the central issue of not considering mental healthcare on par with other domains of healthcare. More problematic still, is the focus of the policy and its representation of mental health care. Although A Vision for Change touches upon the key domains of how a compassionate modern mental health system should operate, it omits in clear form, the very obvious continuum between constructs of mental illness and the ever pervasive suffering of the human condition. In essence, the person/patient/client/service user is constituted within a probationary system of formal normalisation with no clear link for how a person once designated as a patient/service user can symbolically leave the system and interdependently recover.

However, since the publication of A Vision for Change in 2006, there has been the rudimentary formation of a discourse of mental health surrounding the notion of recovery. This construct has especially been elucidated by the Mental Health Commission’s Strategic Plan 2016-2018 (28). But the ambiguous and elastic construct does not lay out a process to ease critical suffering. It is a construct that all parties to the mental health system can project into, while at the same time the psyche can remain a black box and unknowable. This active function of our cultural past retains the psyche as a region dedicated to a predetermined narrative presented by a totalising authority, The Irish Catholic church and its religion (21, 29). Indeed the Irish Psycho-Analytical Association, which was founded by the Englishman Jonathan Hanaghan infused Christianity with psychoanalysis and openly refused to join the International Association of Psychoanalysis (which upset Ernest Jones). In one of his works entitled Freud and Jesus (1966) he situates ‘these two sons of Israel,’ in the tradition of divine healing, with psychoanalysis being a mode of actualising a modern process of Christian therapeutics (16). In the Christian religion in general and Irish Catholicism in particular, there is a complex and established narrative, forged by God and delivered by priests and other figures of authority. To function in such a society, one has to simply remember the truths, pleasure is a sin, obedience is paramount and guilt/shame are the price of being human (25, 30, 31). The broader national discourse on mental health also has another guiding principle. In line with the Jansenist style of Catholic teaching, it evokes the notion of personal responsibility over mental illness and the common notion that individuals can simply choose to overcome mental distress through an act of discipline (21, 29, 32). The rest of the branches of medicine continue to grow from innovative international sources, but psychiatry and practices of psychological wellbeing continue to be stifled by a conspiracy of silence.

Given the intimate link between the national discourse on mental health and the other cultural complexes, there is often a displacement onto legalistic debates over the mental well-being of the individual and preserving at all costs the boundary of power that the nation-state exerts. Noted recent examples include the introduction of The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 and the national debate which largely focused on suicide and how effective psychiatrists and other mental health experts are at identifying and treating suicidal tendencies (33). Another debate was surrounding the Irish Referendum on same sex marriage, which focused upon the impact of legislation on the notion of family and child welfare (34). To accept in silent opposition a distorted, displaced, and almost sclerotic culture is to accept a method of strangling the zest for life into a form and practice that renders optimal human functioning impossible. De Tocqueville once wrote that when revolution can be considered its conditions are ripe (35). Therefore, the residual nationalism that evokes arbitrary emotional virtue in maintaining Irelands cultural complexes by separating pure citizens from treacherous others, must be challenged.

However, an active engagement with the life of the mind must be entered into with the provisional threat that sin and virtue are co-dependent. In the process of dealing with our demons and their exorcism, there is the risk that we vanquish the very best part of ourselves. However, like all psychotherapy, psychoanalysis seeks not to conquer the psyche, but to catalyse its transformation. In doing so, the individual goes on a journey of discovery and reflection, so that at the end of the journey the individual becomes who they were always meant to be. The true target of an authentic existence is not simply to become unbound from society, but to expand the horizon of the self-inflicted rigid narrative of subjectivity and hence inspire others by modelling this behaviour. To engage with the unconscious in a meaningful way invites the individual to consider their link with society, and this is the birth of empathy and a vision not just for a change, but hope. To hope is to resist the temptation that accepts the common notions and unarticulated wisdom of stasis, and with that to hold true to the motivation for change. Therefore, one must combine in the crucible of discourse the maximum of enthusiasm with the maximum of self-criticism, with the maximum of scepticism of authority and the maximum of rebellion. This practice gives the individual an experience, even for a fleeting instant, of the audacious position which recognises that an incomplete view is parallel with an incomplete reality in which one finds oneself. Such an unfinished project inspires a drive towards action by being reminded of the freedom to choose.  As long as that hope retains the threat of green.



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