Recent research, widely publicised in the press with the usual barely-disguised glee that usually accompanies news that the efforts of other people has been in vain, suggested that therapy was no more effective than prescription drugs or ‘talking regularly to a friendly academic’.
I doubt this is the case, though I can’t speak from experience as I’ve never been in therapy. Like an Anglican agnostic, or perhaps just a pathologically lazy person, I don’t take part myself but it reassures me to know that lots of other people are.
Instead I like to think I can read myself better, or at least smarter. Certainly there’s no shortage of literature these days pandering to those who can’t quite make it out of their armchair and onto the couch, encouraging however tacitly the idea that a talking cure can be a reading cure. With practising analysts like Adam Phillips, Darian Leader and Raphael Samuels so keen to write for a general audience it’s impossible not to suppress the uncharitable thought that perhaps shrinks are fed up with having to shut up for most of that analytical hour. One of the disadvantages of the talking cure is that someone has to do an awful lot of listening.
Probably very few people ‘talk regularly to a friendly academic’ — most academics I know would become very unfriendly very quickly if the traffic were one-way: in the opposite direction to the one they are accustomed to.
But then, as Leader himself puts it in Freud’s Footnotes (Faber & Faber) ‘anyone who chooses to devote their life to psychoanalysis be it as profession or object of academic research, has something seriously wrong with them.’ Of course, it would be cheap to deploy such an ironic confession against its author, but I won’t let that stop me. I’ve never used prescription anti-depressants, but Leader’s prose strongly inclines me to try. Clearly some of his reviewers have been trying non-prescription ones. His extraordinarily bloodless writing has been pantingly described as ‘coltish’ by one paper and ‘athletic’ by another. The Guardian described him in awe as ‘Oliver Sachs as agony aunt’. Which does rather beg the question, who would want Oliver Sachs as an agony aunt? Mind you, Leader’s last book, ‘Why do women write more letters than they post?’, also begged a few questions: the first – from every woman I mentioned the title to – being: ‘Do they?’
However, it’s all somewhat academic whether Leader begs questions or asks them because he rarely stoops so low as to actually answer them. Or present a coherent argument. Or write in an accessible way. No, Leader doesn’t need to do any of these things because Leader, as his name would suggest, is a very special kind of man, with a very special access to knowledge and a very special way of showing it off. Leader you see is a Lacanian.
Lacan is the French post-structuralist smoke-and-mirror-phase phallus-as-signifier chappy who ‘updated’ Freud and rescued him from his gravest error: his accessibility. Lacanians are a perverse bunch. It is as if after Martin Luther, Protestants had decided to translate the Bible back not into Latin even but into Greek, so as to keep the hoi polloi and their crude misapprehensions at bay. Difficulty is not of itself objectionable, especially in an age of pop-everything let alone psychology, but something that manages to be at once inscrutable and trying too hard is just hideously uncool. Someone once said of reading Nietzsche that it was like seeing the world lit by flashes of lightning; with Lacan and most Lacanians it’s like seeing a library lit by a faulty fluorescent tube.
As Leader points out, Freud was the father and mother of psychoanalysis. With the possible exception of Nietzsche himself (who Freud deliberately avoided reading until late in his career) there really isn’t much of a tradition that goes before him. Hence psychoanalysis really is footnotes to Freud, in a way which philosophy isn’t footnotes to Plato, despite the famous aphorism. Perhaps this is why Leader wishes to present himself as the master of the addendum, the king of the cross-reference. His book is largely a squabble about sources, overly arcane even for someone who ‘has something seriously wrong with them’. ‘Freud’s Footnotes’ is in fact a book-length footnote to a footnote. Moreover, almost every page has its own footnotes, including the very first line on the very first page of the introduction. This, no doubt, is a Lacanian’s idea of a clever joke. It is however, everyone else’s idea of agony.
Sometimes Leader’s observations are mildly interesting, such as when he points out that Freud’s footnotes on the importance of the repressed olfactory senses hugs the bottom of the page, ‘just like the quadruped man they are supposed to describe.’ It is also piquant to learn that when Newton magnanimously described himself as ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ he was actually being very bitchy – Hooke, his chief rival, was a hunchback. (It also suggests that Oasis’ singular new album title ‘Standing on the Shoulder [sic] of Giants’ might be worryingly clever instead of dippily daft).
Occasionally, like a lighthouse looming up out of the nightime fog of his obscurantist prose, Leader produces an important contention, albeit one which goes against the grain of his own style: ‘Freud’s idea that desire generates states of wishing and of expectation as well as all forms of thinking only emerges in the most garbled form, in most of the translations…’
And there is a curiously fascinating case history Leader touches on to illustrate how Freud may have put too much emphasis on guilt/self-punishment as a function of the desires of the child, instead of a response to the parent’s own desires. Leader tells the story of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy fussed over by his mother who continually banged his head against inanimate objects because his father had greeted his first bruise with the exclamation: ‘That’ll make a man of him!’ (‘Or,’ I found myself adding out loud as I read this passage, ‘a Lacanian’).
Certainly Leader is always well-informed and bafflingly well read, but unlike the Viennese master (as opposed to the French Pretender), he has a tendency to come across as a pedantic show off. Worst of all, Freud himself seems to be largely missing from ‘his’ footnotes. Unless you are mightily interested in what the Kleinian and Lacanian schools might have in common despite their recent falling out, ‘Freud’s Footnotes’ isn’t worth looking up.
Originally appeared Independent on Sunday, February 2000