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How Psychoanalysis Changed Siri Hustvedt's Life

The New York-based writer Siri Hustvedt has explored neurological subjects and psychoanalytical issues not only due to intellectual curiosity, but also for reasons of personal concern. And this concern was triggered off by the sudden occurrence of uncontrollable shaking in her whole body when she was giving a talk about her father who has died two years previously.

Driven by the disturbing question of what had actually happened to her at that time, Siri Hustvedt decided without further ado to make herself the object of her research. She described the experiences she gained in this process of (self-)awareness in the talk entitled "Between You and Me: Art and Analysis" which she gave on the evening of 29.05.2012 in Berlin. The event represented a highpoint in the IPU's public lecture series in the current summer semester, which are being held under the motto "Psychoanalysis as a Reflection of Culture: Pathologies of the Modern Age – Certitude as Fiction".

This PhD writer swept her audience off on a journey through the fields of knowledge that interest her. Doing so, she let her listeners join her in her intensive discussion of the ambiguities of a diagnosis from philosophical, neurological, psychiatric and, of course, psychoanalytical and artistic perspectives.

Following the mysterious shaking, Siri Hustvedt – who was 53 years old by then – attended a series of sessions with her female psychoanalyst, which would ultimately change her. And because she was already very familiar with the theory of psychoanalysis, she was particularly interested in the question of whether this fact would have any impacts on her own therapy.

In the meantime it is now clear to her that, in her opinion, her analyst's theoretical knowledge proved to be beneficial over the course of her sessions. However her analyst's "particular beliefs" represented one area which was completely unknown to her as a patient. Hustvedt recalled that from the very beginning her psychoanalysis evoked controversies and intellectual trench warfare. Every philosophical system, every theoretical model of the mind, brain, self, body, consciousness and unconsciousness is incomplete. There is always a "thing" that escapes, that remains unsaid, Hustvedt commented, as she put her thoughts into words and, doing so, she forged a link with art. Because "art can speak to what fall outside of theory and it can also embody felt ideas".

Hustvedt, who then assumed the role of a contemporary witness, talked about the changing intellectual climate at American universities in the 1970s and 1980s. The wind began to blow in the opposite direction at that time in the humanities and cultural studies faculties. According to Hustvedt, post-structuralist and post-humanist theories blew across campuses at that time and took many intellectuals "for a ride" so to speak. Referring to this intellectual change in connection with Freud's definition (which in 1932 described psychoanalysis as an exploration of the psychic accompaniments of biological processes), Hustvedt demanded that the gap between the neurosciences and psychoanalysis now be closed. She is convinced that "we do not have a single form of psychoanalysis – we have many". She herself prefers psychoanalysis which does not ignore biology and also does not reduce the psyche solely to neural circuits.

This was then followed by a precise description of her thoughts in relation to the question of whether her "intellectual fancies" played a substantial role in her own therapy. The author was convinced that this is so. "But they are bound up in the strange reality of the room" and the analyst. The room is always the same one, her analyst always looks the same, always has to same tone of voice and is there when she says she will be. In this regard, Siri Hustvedt  was certain that the analyst and the room belong together as a setting, forming an inseparable whole. And this was the only reason why she as a patient was able to change.

"This is the constant reality: two people in a room, speaking to each other," Siri Hustvedt said. Doing so, one of them speaks more than the other, and "through this dialogue there is eternal motion within the patient" which is also taken up by the analyst. Ultimately however, the change in the patient grows out of this. These "dialectic shiftings" between the "me" and the "you" and everything that happens in the analyst's space represents Freud's greatest legacy, according to the writer.

"Repeated sessions of talk" between two persons could promote a very special form of remembering, a remembering "with or about feeling" which is unknown or impossible prior to this. Freud, whom she quoted in this connection, coined the term "Nachträglichkeit", which is related to transference in her mind. For Siri Hustvedt, Nachträglichkeit is the reason why analysis is comparable to "making art". She commented, "art is always made for someone else" and added that artworks are never created in isolation. When she writes, she always speaks to an imaginary other. The book is (re-)created between her and her imaginary other.

Perhaps however, as Siri Hustvedt said in conclusion, that will become clear to her once at a later point in time – by which she also meant numerous other unanswered questions.


Next lecture scheduled

12.07.2012 - Dr. Ronald Britton, London: Natural, Unnatural and Super-natural Beliefs
The talk begins at 20.00 and is being held in the Large Lecture Hall in the IPU's seminar building, Stromstraße 2, 10555 Berlin, on the third floor.