Dreams Team

Rhonda Lieberman on Slavoj Žižek, Wayne Koestenbaum, and George Prochnik

New York

Left: Cultural critic Slavoj Žižek. Right: Writers George Prochnik and Wayne Koestenbaum onstage. (Photos: David Velasco)

“The lions roared,” as promised by New York Public Library director of public programs Paul Holdengraber, who MC'd last Saturday’s “Day of Ideas” celebrating the Atlantic Monthly’s 150th anniversary. I attended a conversation between Wayne Koestenbaum and George Prochnik (whose recent Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology explores his great-grandfather’s relationship with Freud—also 150 years young this year) and a talk by everybody’s favorite Slovenian Hegelian reader of Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Žižek.

Part Boston Brahmin, part Viennese Jew, Prochnik is descended from “intellectual royalty,” marveled Koestenbaum. Prochnik’s great-grandfather Putnam, an eminent neurologist, was a pal of William and Henry James and an early ally of Freud. Freud’s relationship to America, noted the dapper Prochnik, was “porcupine-like. Love/hate isn’t right—it’s more hate, but he wanted to get closer to America.” Freud “worried and knew the future of analysis was in America. And money would distort it.” He understood “the degree to which Americans look for salvation in their mental treatment. This line in American desire for something more exists in all pop culture but was banished from the analytic world.” Putnam “was saying to Freud, you couldn’t stop people at the point of ridding them of their demons. You have to give them a goal, after looking inward as much as possible, to look outward in concentric circles. Analysands might,” suggested the prominent New Englander, “become social workers.”

Freud considered this American messianism, like mysticism and Carl Jung, not kosher. Quoting from scripture, The Interpretation of Dreams—“Just as every neurotic symptom, dreams allow overinterpretation, indeed demand it”—Koestenbaum connected Freud’s “overinterpretation” with his Jewishness. America would have difficulty digesting both. Freud, for his part, “developed stomach pains at Putnam’s very waspy retreat in the Adirondacks. [He] complained about what he called his ‘American colitis’: issues regarding his own digestibility within goyish society. People running around playing tetherball and charades.” Koestenbaum appreciated how Freud’s “deepest thinking can take place around a stomach ache, or [how] a spot on his scrotum grounds serious thinking.” The critic and poet, in natty pinstripes and a lavender shirt that nicely complemented Prochnik’s, is clearly inspired by Freud’s MO: “Apart from what the dreams are supposed to express, the sense of dream logic as an entire poetic system . . . has extreme dignity and legs. . . . I have undergone a self-analysis remembering my dreams nightly, mostly to make linguistic connections. I have a tin ear for the wish fulfillment of dreams—I’m more into the decor.”

Left: Wayne Koestenbaum and George Prochnik. (Photo: Patrick McMullan) Right: The crowd at the New York Public Library. (Photo: David Velasco)

After that urbane duet, Žižek took the podium excitedly. His topic: “Are we allowed not to enjoy?” His persona flouts the Freudian cliché: “On the surface we are nice, underneath we are beast.” Like the best comics, his timing (the wild ride of thrilling counterintuitive Hegelian transpositions) and his attitude (like an unruly eruption of the “real” ruffling the seamless surface of ideological consistency) are key to his shtick. Resembling an extra from Life of Brian, walleyed, with a medieval-looking hairdo (bangs and a bob), he’s the Lacanian one most easily imagines in a fairy tale, residing under a bridge, in a jagged-hemmed tunic posing riddles to wayfarers. His thick Slovenian accent imbues his critique of Hollywood “feel-ums” (films) with the retro aura of Mitteleuropean intelligentsia. Like fellow ideological critics Joan Rivers and Roseanne Barr, he’s not above recycling his best material. I hadn’t seen him live for ten years (I used to teach the good ol’ Sublime Object of Ideology), yet I recognized many of the old chestnuts he served up to the delighted audience.

“Freud was always interested in the retelling of the dream,” Žižek stressed. “The least important is the original, ‘true’ version of the dream.” His shtick disarms with “proper psychoanalystic causality,” which, defying common sense, is always retroactive: “Traumas determine us, but we retroactively determine our traumas.” Noting the nerd who acts out his fantasies “fighting other men and violently enjoying women” online, but who behaves like a dweeb in his actual social contacts, Žižek demonstrates: “Reality is for those who cannot sustain dreams.” After nailing “decaffeinated multiculturalism” and its flabby misreadings of ambivalence, he rigorously ribbed his audience, “I hate you for asking good questions! I love to hate you!” Žižek left us with a rosy view of psychoanalysis in the twenty-first century. “It used to be that one had inhibitions but one secretly wanted to violate them. In today’s permissive society, we are bombarded with commands to ‘enjoy’ ourselves—but we cannot. Because the superego sabotages you. Psychoanalysis is the only place where we are ‘relieved’ of the pressure to enjoy.” Fabulous.

“He was all about how the ‘medium is the message,’ and just look at his presentation,” observed a nice Upper West Side lady therapist at the reception afterward, “It was a mass of tics.” Žižek plucked at the sides of his pullover, all worked up and bouncing from Job to Hitchcock to Schindler’s List (“I did not like the feel-um.”) Yet he looked way more kempt, healthful, and even trimmer than I remembered. When an audience member asked how his approach might apply in a clinical setting, Žižek sagely replied, “Look at me! Would you go into analysis with me?” “That was the best line of the evening,” said the nice therapist. “It’s performance art.”