On the Dialectics of Psychoanalytic Practice

This book review of On the Dialectics of Psychoanalytic Practice (Fritz Morgenthaler, edited by Dagmar Herzog, London and New York: Routledge, 2020; 199pp.) was written by Ian Parker for the journal Psychoanalysis and History22, 3, pp. 382-384 [DOI: 10.3366/pah.2020.0357]

The fraught connection between psychoanalysis and politics has been forged, broken, rediscovered and remade in different cultural contexts during Freud’s working life, and, after his death, in different schools devoted to his clinical practice as well as in radical movements that have often been keen to find in psychoanalysis the promise of liberation. This book – ten lectures by the Swiss analyst Fritz Morgenthaler who died in 1984 – enables the reader to see something of the contradictions that beset attempts to make this connection from within the organisational heart of psychoanalysis, the International Psychoanalytical Association, the IPA.

Morgenthaler was a prominent member of the IPA, engaging with the tradition of ego psychology, dominant in the IPA diaspora after the Second World War, and, towards the end of his life, with the object relations and relational currents of theory developing in the United States. It is that ‘relational’ aspect of his work that is claimed in this book of lectures; the useful contextualising essay introducing Morgenthaler to an English-speaking readership by Dagmar Herzog, the chapter end-notes and the supplementary material are together deployed to shift emphasis from the more conservative aspects of Morgenthaler’s clinical practice to a particular conceptual and political project.

Herzog’s introductory essay explains why Morgenthaler is historically and politically important, drawing attention to two axes of his work that are relevant in that respect. The first axis of his work, questioning assumptions about ‘race’, was of interest to the West German Left; the title of the popular co-authored ‘Whites Think Too Much’ (Die Weissen denken zuviel) is both indicative of the nature of the question and contains a clue as to the rather romanticising answer Morgenthaler proposed. Morgenthaler adverts, in his lecture on ‘Modes of interaction in perversions’, for example, to the way that in Africa ‘rituals can be joyful celebrations that allow participation in sensual pleasure’ (p. 181).

The anthropological studies Morgenthaler carried out in Africa and Papua New Guinea, and published with his co-workers, were influential resources in the development of ‘ethnopsychoanalysis’. This anthropological aspect of his work is not explored in this volume, though it is present in the concern with opening up psychoanalysis to the possibility that there are different forms of subjectivity in different cultures, something that perhaps led Morgenthaler to make his well-known break with homophobic assumptions in clinical practice.

It is that aspect of his work, the second axis of psychoanalytic critique, that is more present in this book, though we still need the editorial and supplementary text apparatus to draw out what was most radical about it. It concerns sexuality; Morgenthaler makes an important distinction between ‘the sexual’ (das Sexuelle) of the primary process and ‘organised sexuality’ (organisierte Sexualitãt) which he likens to a kind of dictatorship. Morgenthaler was one of the first IPA psychoanalysts to speak out against the pathologisation of homosexuality, and, in one of the supplementary texts included in this book, he takes Heinz Kohut to task for that. Morgenthaler’s take on the distinction between ‘the sexual’ and ‘sexuality’ enabled him to key into the emerging lesbian and gay liberation interests of the West German Left in the 1970s, this without adopting the rather moralising precepts of Wilhelm Reich.

This is where Morgenthaler’s clinical work is actually, potentially, most liberating, for he values the space of the clinic as one in which no particular presuppositions are made about what is ‘normal’ about sexual object choice (unlike Reich, who wanted to gear the clinical process to what he saw as a radical hetero-orgasmic political programme). More than that, Morgenthaler begins to question the implicit assumption in much psychoanalytic practice, one voiced by Freud, that the aim of analysis is to enable the analysand to live a more productive life. That productive element locks psychoanalysis into a concern with adaptation, something that Morgenthaler sets himself against; ‘Analysis is also no good for quickly reassimilating to the dominant societal morality a patient who is in a nonconforming position vis-à-vis society’ (p. 151).

Note the rather cautious and elliptical formulation here. It is potentially radical, but that needs to be drawn out and made explicit by his readers. Morgenthaler comes to the conclusion that there should be no prescribed end-point of analysis beyond it introducing some ‘turbulence’ into the analysand’s internal life. These arguments were enough to encourage the West German Left to invite Morgenthaler to contribute to their Kursbuch in 1977; his essay ‘Modes of interaction in perversions and perversion of modes of interaction: A look over the fence around psychoanalysis’ is reprinted as one of the supplementary texts in this book.

One can well imagine that Morgenthaler’s comments on the nature of an ‘ill society’ (p. 169) that requires psychoanalysis, and his suggestion (to Kohut, for instance) that interpretation of society as well of the individual in the clinic could be possible and useful would have been attractive to elements of the Left who were already intrigued by psychoanalysis. However, the lectures themselves are replete with existing ego-psychological and quasi object-relations themes, with quite long stretches of the text devoted to successful ‘reconstructive interpretations’ that would be avoided by many psychoanalysts today.

The subversive nature of Morgenthaler’s ruminations in these lectures and the suggestive comments he makes about ‘perversion’, including perversion present in the analyst, are well-worth excavating and making visible now, and that, perhaps, justifies the effort the reader must make. These lectures are not, Dagmar Herzog warns us, easy reading. There are hints and false starts and twists in the argument, and there is sometimes some special pleading on behalf of Morgenthaler in the chapter end-notes, reminding the reader that he does not really mean what he seems to be saying about ‘feeble-mindedness’ and ‘frigidity’, for example.

The title of the book is indicative. Although ‘dialectics’ will, no doubt, hook a reader who wants to find in these lectures a connection between the process of personal transformation in psychoanalysis and political-economic transformation and, perhaps, some attention to the nature of alienation in a society organised around the commodification of sexuality, they will be disappointed. Morgenthaler’s ‘dialectics’, it turns out, is concerned with the nature of ‘contradiction’, nothing more than that, contradiction that speaks of the internal conflicts of the human subject whatever society they live in. He edges towards Marxism in these lectures, but does not arrive there.

The next steps, beyond Morgenthaler, need to be taken through developing traditions of psychoanalytic and political praxis. His comments on the ‘sequential’ form of analysis are reminiscent of later attempts in psychoanalysis to return to the properly Freudian retroactive character of trauma, self-accounting and interpretation. The ‘relational’ current of work reads back into his lectures a particular trajectory, but his opposition to adaptation and his refusal of the once-popular image of the psychoanalyst as cleansed of pathology could just as easily lead us to other forms of psychoanalysis; to Fanon, who is absent from this book, or to one who was persona non grata in the IPA, the barely editorially end-noted Lacan.

The book speaks of the democratising hopes of psychoanalysis in Europe after the Second World War, but does not, in the lectures themselves, take us much beyond that. Editor Dagmar Herzog opens a door, shows a path, but readers will need to take the next steps themselves.

This is one part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements