The Real Real

Jamieson Webster and Alison M. Gingeras discuss psychoanalysis during the pandemic

Henry Fuseli, The Shepherd's Dream, 1786, black chalk, brush, ink and brown ink, sanguine, white chalk and wash over pencil on paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna.

In this unprecedenteed global crisis, and in the wake of a total caesura of normal life, many of us are looking to mental health workers—or discursive systems such as psychoanalysis—for individual therapeutic guidance and collective societal answers. I sat down with Jamieson Webster, a writer and practicing psychoanalyst in New York, to discuss the limits of her profession, states of separateness, resisting normalization, Covid dreams, and how virality has broken through to the Real.

Alison Gingeras: Years ago, you gave me Élisabeth Roudinesco’s book Why Psychoanalysis? (1999). Today, the burning question may actually be, “Why not psychoanalysis?” You’ve been vocal in questioning the assumption that your discipline holds some salvific promise or that it can offer any sociopolitical conclusions about this moment as it is unfolding around us. Can you talk about the provocative letter you and some of your colleagues recently addressed to mental health professionals that vigorously pushed back against the self-celebration of some in the field? 

Jamieson Webster: The letter was in the style of the advice/non-advice of a psychoanalyst, asking us to step back from recommendations, prophecies, and theories, as so many pyrrhic victories and rather to work against the pervasive denial (I wrote it during the first days of the shelter-at-home order in New York State) and the wish to obscure the reality of death. I think the time of a catastrophe, traumatic time, works very strangely: In a zig-zag fashion, back to front, slow-motion molasses to utter haste, with aftereffects and shockwaves that inspire a race to cover it all over, to seal the tear in the fabric of reality. Also, the wish to get out of the uncertainty, the anxious wait. I wanted analysts not to join the chorus of talking heads. We have too many of them in the country. That’s all the news is anymore, it seems.

I wanted to reject the heroism of mental health as necessary hygiene, or as helping through salvific narratives—even the celebration of our “togetherness” in this moment of crisis. It was too early. I still think it is too early, though the reality of those who are being affected the most—namely, minorities and the poor—is clearer. So, why not psychoanalysis? Psychoanalysis is singular, private, continuous work on one’s life and its place in the crossroads of history, persona first and only then the social, especially insofar as clearing up the personal often reveals the effects of the social. Pandemic may be a moment when some want to engage; it also may not be. More immediate concerns, or even symptoms exacerbated by the current situation, like being OCD about germs or whatever, may take center stage. Psychoanalysis isn’t in a hurry, and, for some, it can certainly wait. Psychoanalysis always travels liminally, including at the boundary between life and death. So perhaps I could be of more use right now speaking with those dealing with death, or those who are dying, or their family members who are separated from them. Many know that psychoanalysis began with hysterics symptomatically rebelling against the constraints placed on their lives as women. But it also took shape during World War I through work with people suffering from what they called “shell shock.” Freud developed his theory of the death drive around the war and the sudden death of his daughter from Spanish influenza. 

Sigmund Freud with his daughter Sophie, 1910.

AG: I read in the New York Times about a doctor who helped arrange final, virtual conversations between dying patients and their loved ones. “We are being asked to do things that are tearing at our souls,” she said. “We must not normalize this.” This is very powerful, and I think that the “not normalizing” aspect of this crisis, on collective and individual levels, has to be attended to. To die in such isolation, or to have someone one loves die while so removed from them, is not normal. 

If it is too early for psychoanalysis’s contribution in terms of public discourse, how does this physical separation impact your practice on the individual level? This socially distanced “togetherness” is one of the most befuddling elements of this moment. How are you and your patients managing? In 2018, you wrote an article in the New York Review of Books titled “The Psychopharmacology of Everyday Life”:

What separateness means for psychoanalysis is that even if it is a simple fact—we are irrevocably separate from one another and even from ourselves—separateness is still a major achievement, one we have to continually refine.

Now that we are legally ordered to self-isolate, how is this affecting this struggle to come to terms with this notion of separateness?

JW: It must be said that I’m a hypocrite. I wrote the letter to my colleagues about the crisis and two articles on the pandemic in the New York Review of Books, and now we are having this conversation. . . But there is also the hypocrisy of the analyst who continues to frame a conversation without entirely engaging in it, or what we might broadly define as “communication” with the normal turns of call-and-response. Even to be present to the dying or to families in grief couldn’t be characterized easily as conversation, but rather listening, acting as a witness. Many of my loneliest analysands, who haven’t physically seen another person for over a month now, seem calmer than those who are living with others, as if they can face their isolation and separateness because it is truly a fact. It’s the separateness, even loneliness, contextualized by others that seems unbearable—the truth of social media. This productive confrontation with solitude may be an artifact of being in psychoanalysis with me, but I think I’ve learned how the need for separation within enforced isolation together is really a psychic struggle and is only an exaggeration of something that was already a part of normal everyday life. “We must not normalize this” is very powerful. I think psychoanalysis, at its best, is deeply suspicious, even paranoid, about norms and normalization. Nothing is normal. We only have a few rare chances to see this. Covid-19 is certainly one such opportunity. It’s as if it travels along the cracks of a society, exposing us to our weaknesses and failures, to how fragile our identities are, or our security as a group; it almost mimics the unconscious in this way.

Illustration from Russell Trall's “The Hydropathic Encyclopedia” (1843).

AG: I feel like we are about to be assaulted with capitalist propaganda meant to gaslight us into going back to normal, stamping out the transformative potential of this caesura—foreclosing the possibility of a radical societal reconfiguration or a slowdown that could mitigate climate change, for example. At one point in my dreams, I kept saying, “But the Earth is healing, the Earth is healing,” and it was so comforting. And then I woke up in horror.  

Speaking of nightmares, it has been widely reported that many people are having more vivid dreams since the quarantine began. What do you make of this phenomenon and its relationship to the pandemic?

JW: Did you read about the book The Third Reich of Dreams (1966) in Mireille Juchau’s recent New Yorker article? The shared themes across many of the dreams, compiled in the 1930s by Charlotte Beradt during the rise of Nazism in Germany, showed what was unconsciously understood about the Third Reich—from the increasing threat of surveillance to the Kafkaesque bureaucratic maze meant to pacify the masses to even the seduction of erotic propaganda that was used to signify Hitler’s power. I know several colleagues who are trying to collect coronavirus dreams. I’m curious about them, especially red-state dreams. What do they unconsciously recognize about this catastrophic leadership? As for vivid corona dreams—dreams are vivid, it’s their nature—but I think since people are working from home, they are sleeping more, waking up more slowly, with some ease. This allows them to remember their dreams, which are sucked into repression by attending to the demands of the day. It shows you how much repression we normally live under. Anxiety and frustration, combined with rest, create a ripe scenario for dreaming, and for the lucky, I think this is the experience of sheltering in place. For the unlucky, it’s trauma plain and simple—anxiety and real deprivation or loss, which dreams often try to master by repeating the trauma. But I think there is a fascinating paradox here, which is that these dreams show us that we might be waking up to something, in ourselves and in our world. 

Paul Mathias Padua, Leda and the Swan, 1939, oil on canvas. Hung in the first Great German Art Exhibition (GDK) in 1937 on the orders of Adolf Hitler; current location unknown.

AG: So, from our collective dreamwork to actual clinical work, how has the analytical process been impacted by this required physical distance from your patients? In a recent interview, Julia Kristeva speaks about “sessions of telephone isolation” and her observation of a pattern of “moments of archaic collapse” that have emerged in her work with patients. Deep traumas that were not spoken of before are emerging and being confronted, “as if the danger [of the virus] forced us to expel our deepest pain. These days, through the telephone, we manage to touch something ‘nuclear.’” Do you share such observations and clinical experiences of the “nuclear”? I was very struck by how Kristeva takes up the “virality” that has permeated and infected contemporary society and now has broken through into the Real. Kristeva is not deploying a simplified “Illness as Metaphor” when she says we are in a period of “viral war” in this interview.

JW: Going viral, cancel culture, globalization, the #MeToo indictment of the war between the sexes: It’s as if this has all entered the Real, or become too real, finally real. I even thought of the zoo in Zoom, as if we have become animals in a cage, with the occasional visitor or visitors peering in. Maybe this is why we like Tiger King so much right now, unless it’s the King and the crown/corona. We are also really in a state of confusion about freedom in this country, and these characters all see themselves as “beyond” the law, vigilantes in the name of freedom, even the supposed conservationist. I was struck the other day by a text by Jacques Lacan where he says that he doesn’t care about freedom. Quoting Molière’s The Misanthrope (1666) he says he hopes that the character finds what he’s looking for, “some spot unpeopled and apart / Where I’ll be free to have an honest heart.”

Freedom is always only “my” freedom, usually held against other people. Once we want to think about everyone, we curb our freedom, sacrifice a part of it: “Madness is freedom’s most faithful companion, following its every move like a shadow.” The psychoanalyst isn’t interested in freedom; they are interested in truth. I fear that whatever truth has been exposed by this virus, especially the blow to our sense of omnipotence—the kings that we think ourselves to be—will soon be buried. Cuomo said we don’t have kings and queens; I don’t know, we have Corona, and we have Trump, and in one of his recent briefings he said he’s looking forward to normalizing, and it’s gonna be good, and it’s gonna be fast.

Jamieson Webster is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City. She is the author of The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis (2011) and Conversion Disorder: Listening to the Body in Psychoanalysis (2018).