In one of his final essays, “Analysis Terminable and Interminable” (1937), Sigmund Freud writes that “it almost looks as if analysis were the third of those ‘impossible’ professions in which one can be sure beforehand of achieving unsatisfying results. The other two, which have been known much longer, are education and government.” In some ways this is a rather dispiriting conclusion to a life’s work, though it fits with the melancholy tone of much of Freud’s later pronouncements, written in exile from Nazism and in the shadow of impending world war. See for instance the last sentence tacked on to the end of Civilization and its Discontents in 1931, tempering its hitherto relatively upbeat conclusion about the return of Eros: “But who can foresee with what success and with what result?”
At the same time, there is also a resigned determination here reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Just because an enterprise is doomed to failure doesn’t mean it’s not worth undertaking. The fact that something is impossible doesn’t necessarily mean we should cease striving towards it. Few would suggest we give up on education or government however much they, too, are destined to “unsatisfying results.” Like Sisyphus, we roll the stone up the hill once more.
What is interesting is that, for all the confident tone of Freud’s earlier writings, in which he presents himself as the heroic scientist or explorer uncovering an entire new world, failure was always inscribed into the heart of psychoanalysis. Famously, he seldom held up much hope for a cure to the human condition or the various psychological maladies that afflict us. As early as Studies in Hysteria (1895), the most that he felt able to promise was to transform “hysterical misery into everyday unhappiness.” Moreover, his first published case study, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905), ostensibly presented as the confirmation of certain of Freud’s insights on dream analysis and symptomology, is also manifestly a narrative of a failed analysis. After a mere couple of months, the patient gives up on the treatment as though quitting a bad habit at year’s end: “she said good-bye to me very warmly, with the heartiest wishes for the New Year, and–came no more” (100).
Not that Freud is all that apologetic for his failure with Dora. If anything, quite the contrary: he takes her decision to break off the analysis as confirmation of his interpretation of her symptoms, and of his theories in general. For the problem with Dora is her “craving for revenge” (101), exacted against all those who show her affection. She treats those around her (particularly the men) with what Freud calls “an almost malignant vindictiveness” (96). No surprise, then, that he should characterize her behavior with him as “an unmistakable act of vengeance on her part” (100). That is just how she is. And the fact that Freud should be receiving the same treatment as she doled out to her mother, her father, and family friend “Herr K.” merely demonstrates that the analysis is working, and that transference is setting in. After all, Freud concludes, “No one who, like me, conjures up the most evil of those half-tamed demons that inhabit the human breast, and seeks to wrestle with them, can expect to come through the struggle unscathed” (100).
There are some harsh words here reserved for Dora. It is as though it were a case more of exorcism than of therapy. No doubt the young woman in question would have her own choice words to say in return. But she is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t: continuing the analysis legitimates her treatment as much as breaking it off also ended up doing; when she is on the couch, all her protestations are taken simply as instances of denial. And at the end of the day, when this “talking cure” is written up, it is Freud who does all the talking (and none of the cure).
The sad irony is that the reason Dora comes (or is brought) to Freud in the first place concerns a story she tells that nobody will believe. She has been out for a stroll with an older man (Herr K.), who apparently propositioned her, getting a slap across the face for his efforts. K., who is married (though in a somewhat sordid ménage a quatre his wife turns out to be Dora’s father’s mistress), vehemently denies that anything of the sort took place. And though Freud believes Dora’s story, he does so only to turn the tables on Dora’s own denial that she was interested in K. Isn’t she secretly in love with him after all, the analyst asks? Doesn’t she turn him down only because she was jealous that he had (it seems) earlier also tried to force himself on his family’s governess? Or was she simply playing hard to get? After all, she didn’t even mention the scene until a fortnight afterwards, as she was waiting “so as to see whether he would repeat his proposals; if he had, [she] would have concluded that he was in earnest, and did not mean to play with [her] as he had done with the governess” (98). K. himself, meanwhile, can hardly be blamed for being disappointed at Dora’s apparent rejection of him: surely “he must long before have gathered from innumerable small signs that he was secure of the girl’s affections” (39).
All this has understandably raised the hackles of feminists. Not least because it goes against the grain of the prevailing mantra by which men are (rightly) reminded that women’s agency should be respected: “No means no.” What to do then with a psychoanalytic theory that claims so definitively that “there is no such thing at all as an unconscious ‘No'” (50) and that therefore advises the “inquirer” not to “rest content with the first ‘No’ that crosses his path” (18)?
One response might be to suggest that there is a distinction between an encounter by a lake (or in a bar or wherever) and the analytic couch. Out and about, in normal circumstances, we should take a “no” at face value; perhaps therapy presents a space where such denials can and should be questioned and challenged. But how distinct are those two settings really? Isn’t the danger that the analyst repeats the traumatic situation that inspired the call for help (and this is manifestly his aim: “a whole series of psychological experiences are revived” through transference ) only also to replicate the cultural prejudices that were the true source of the trauma… “You did want it, didn’t you?” There are few points at which Freud, for all his scandalous iconoclasm, more clearly reveals himself to be a man of his time, and psychoanalysis to be an agent of normalization and (ultimately) repression. So no wonder its work is never done: as analytic theory itself tells us, repression is never either total or complete.