August 22, 2016 / Theology
Putting David Foster Wallace in conversation with Andrew Edgar, Benj Petroelje argues that while sport no longer trades in transcendence, it does contain echoes of two elements of a Christian vision of human flourishing.
The Other Journal (TOJ): One of the main arguments of your book, Theology, Psychoanalysis and Trauma, is that psychoanalysis is a theological parody, and that psychoanalytic intervention is a parody of the intervention of Christ. To begin to understand how psychoanalysis is a theological parody it seems important to understand how you use the idea of trauma in your book. Could you talk a bit about what you mean by trauma and how you see it other than simply an overwhelmingly negative and psychologically harmful experience that we associate with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Marcus Pound (MP): My point is quite simple. I take the view set out by Aquinas when he famously asks: why the need for ceremonial precepts (e.g. sacrifice) under the old law? The answer he gives is that under the old law truth was deficient in the sense that revelation in Christ was still yet to be given. Sacrifice was employed therefore to maintain a bond with God prior to the fullness of truth.
So the question arises, why then the need for ceremonial precepts (i.e. the Eucharist) under the new law, now that truth has been given in full? The answer is that after Christ there is a ‘superabundance’ of divine truth, so the ceremonial precepts act in the reverse: they are not established to maintain a link in a world otherwise beset by a lack of truth; rather, the rites ensure that divine plenitude is received in proper proportion now that truth is given in superabundance. Aquinas seems to saying that under the new law the sacrament acts as a kind of defence against God’s plenitude, without which we would literally be burned by the intensity of his love. The distinction here falls upon whether lack is predicated upon an initial scarcity or a prior plenitude.
And this is how theology introduces a new frame for thinking about trauma, because it thinks in terms of the latter, not the former. So when I speak of trauma as a positive thing, I do not mean it is positive in the crass sense that out of everything bad comes something good; I mean that the very goodness of life offered in Christ—the prior affirmation of the material and spiritual excess of life—is more traumatic than its lack thereof. For this reason, I view Christianity not as something which heals the sense of alienation or split that accompanies us in so many ways; rather, it posits the split as such, only now from the perspective of excess.
In many ways the shift Žižek highlights between the early to late Lacan in regard of the real repeats this shift from the old to the new law (and so, unsurprisingly, Lacan’s work also becomes increasingly orientated towards Christian theology). In his early work, the real stands principally for trauma, where trauma is defined as a lack. The real corresponds to that which is outside the symbolic and therefore in the realm of death. By contrast, in his later work the problem arises because the real is only too present. It is not that our enjoyment is inevitably tied to a primal loss for which we must forever reach after, but as Žižek puts it: that the encounter actually happens.
The distinction here is subtle but well understood with reference to the bread queues witnessed in the bakeries of Russia during the eighties, and their Western counterpart found in today’s supermarkets. In the former, the queues resulted from the scarcity of bread; in the latter case it is the sheer abundance of goods which accounts for the queues. This analogy also highlights the material aspect to trauma. What is traumatic for Lacan is never simply the cut of the symbolic, the fact that we are alienated through language from our bodies. On the contrary: it is the overbearing nature of the material body which proves traumatic, a body which no sign can subsume.
The theological implications of this are obvious. Christianity does not present us with the great panacea, healing all fractures and wounds. On the contrary—it invites us to identify through the incarnation with the greatest trauma of all: that God was man. After Christianity, the trauma resides not in the presumption of a life built upon the inevitability of death, but the death of death and hence the sheer excess of life. So I am not saying in any sense of the terms that post-traumatic stress can be a positive experience; I am saying that the most mundane affirmations of life in its material being can be the most traumatic thing of all, and nowhere is this brought into perspective more acutely than in the incarnation because it is precisely material existence that God affirms.
On a related note that is why students of theology always favour a Gnostic reading of Jesus’ first miracle in which he turns the water into wine at the wedding in Cana. It is far less traumatic to posit this as an allegorical foretelling of Jesus mission turning the old law into the new law than it is to read it in terms of Jesus affirmation of material sensual pleasure.
TOJ: And so analytic intervention is a parody of Christ’s intervention in that the patient is opened up to the superabundance of life, the reality outside of the neurotic containment of psychological pathologies. Could you talk a bit about what characterizes a Christological intervention, perhaps noting how Jesus intervened in the lives of those he ministered to? I suppose I’m concerned with how this view—both misunderstood and conflated with the violence of our culture—might be co-opted to perpetuate abusive pastoral practices (and abusive clinical practices) rather than to subvert them.
MP: The first thing to say is that Christ’s interventions were directed by, amongst others, a healing ministry. Salvation means health, salute. Christ heals the hemorrhaging woman and the leapers. Moreover, this approach to salvation has formed a rich part of the Christian heritage. History remembers well the hospital institutions set up by Christians on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compestella, providing free health care for those who had contracted syphilis, and not simply the condemnation thereof.
Likewise, it is important to remember that Freud was a social democratic, caught up in the visionary optimism following the First World War. Europe had taken itself to the brink of destruction only to pull back, thereby allowing for hope to arise. Freud perceived psychoanalysis as an agent of this revolutionary charge, and moreover, something for all strata of society (historical records show that Freud was very wide-ranging in his treatment of patients). Care was to be formularily accessed through a series of free clinics throughout Europe. However, his visionary optimism failed (more so in America), curtailed by the raft of private health care. So as I see it, the Christian Church is in a very real place to make good on Freud’s dream, as indeed it already is in other areas of healthcare. I think Christians should contribute to Freud and Lacan in respect of psychoanalysis.
The second thing to say is that the abuse of clinical practice was not just a serious question for Lacan; it was a founding concern in his break with ego-psychology. In his eyes, the development of ego-psychology had led to false sense of confidence on the part of analysts regarding what they knew or might say about the subject. By offering interpretations in advance of the primacy of conversation—and psychoanalysis is a talking cure—the analyst could easily reduce the relation to the analysand to one of power; imposing his or her view of reality upon the subject the analyst could close the analysand down (and nowhere was this of more concern for Lacan than in the context of feminine sexuality). As Lacan said, ‘one trains analysts so that they are subjects in whom the ego is absent’. There is something of the Socratic principle here, which Kierkegaard identified with Christ, the ignorantia docta who presents the paradox, the unfinished question by which the subject is prompted to answer, thereby cultivating an ‘inwardness of existence’. Lacan was insistent on the value of the maieutic during his early work.
What is at stake in analysis is not knowledge, but a conversation in which the subject gives his speech its ‘true meaning’, such that the analysand discovers the truth for his self. As Kierkegaard’s work testifies, one can readily find this Socratic principle in aspects of Christ’s ministry. His parables do less to explicate the Kingdom as throw readers back onto their own presuppositions, to challenge the way it was traditionally thought about. The kingdom is never presented in terms of a positive list of predicates; it is presented as a riddle which brings into question our very presuppositions, thereby clearing a space in which it may be given a ‘true’ meaning. Likewise, this approach is repeated in the very presentation of Christ. He is not merely a sign of God; He is God, and yet fully man, in such a way as to evade rational mediation. God’s intervention in Christ makes folly of our reason, opening up a space of uncertainty to which the only possible response is an interpretive act, a passionate commitment to the Word or as Lacan calls it: Logos.
TOJ: The work of Jacques Lacan is central to Theology, Psychoanalysis and Trauma. You note that ego-psychology’s dominant influence of the psychoanalysis in the 1960’s upset Lacan, and his critique of ego-psychology is very important to understanding Lacanian psychoanalysis. In reading your book I was struck by the continued dominance of ego-psychology in North America and how that is complicit in nurturing a solipsistic society (some would say America is full of citizens who are all narcissists on some level). Could you talk a bit more about ego-psychology, why Lacan despised it so much, and how ego-psychology has bolstered—and perhaps festered—the narcissism that characterizes the west today?
MP: Early interpreters of Freud tended to read him in a particular way, emphasising that the self was in origin a bundle of self-seeking drives, a primary expression of nature’s chaos, which needed to be brought into social conformity through the rationalising principle of the ego: ego-psychology. Ego-psychology was concerned therefore with the adaptive and developmental ability of the ego in its mastery of inner drives to the outer demands placed on the individual by society; it offered a rationalisation of selfhood and thereby lent itself to the modern ethos of individualism.
Lacan’s distrust of ego-psychology stems from his careful reading of Freud in the German and the subtle nuances he is able to draw out from Freud’s difficult work. As Lacan understood it, Freud had not meant the ego was to stamp out the id, but that the ego is always implemented in the id; that we live in the field of the dream. Shoring up the ego was precisely the thing Freud warned against; this was the basis of his distrust of narcissism, an imaginary identification by which the subject bestowed upon himself the sense of self-certainty, thereby belying the fragmented sense of being.
Moreover, ego-psychology shifted the emphasis in psychoanalysis away from speech and language (‘the talking cure’) towards any particular method which helped ensure the autonomy of the ego (hence Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is really ego-psychology taken to its logical conclusion: the most pragmatic means by which ego defences are secured). The idea that analysis took as its criteria of success the patient’s ability to adapt to society represented for Lacan a mental abdication that was tied up with the aging of the psychoanalytic group in the diasporas of war, and the reduction of a distinguished practice to a label suitable to the American way of life.
But to understand the dangers one need only translate ego-psychology directly into political terms. For example, on a narrative level it neatly conforms to the liberal assumptions at work in the founding father of liberalism, Thomas Hobbes: left to a state of nature man was a self-seeking individual who nonetheless could pass from nature to society through a contractual agreement, giving up freedoms in some spheres for rights in others. Freud’s only difference was that the contractual agreement was specially linked to the sexual ban.
Indeed, it was just this understanding of liberalism and Freud that Henry Kissinger explicitly called upon whilst drawing up America’s foreign policy, predicated as it was upon the need for missile defence—the assumption being that all nation-states are self-seeking and desirous id forces for which the only response was defence. So, when the analyst says that the goal of therapy is to shore up the ego’s defences, think of the Cold War! Indeed, is there any greater metaphor for the prevailing trend of ego-psychology in the political sphere than the Star Wars Project, initiated under Reagan and recently resurrected under Bush: a strong ego bubble of protection over America? This is why Lacan favoured the ‘subject’ over the ‘individual’. The former implies the dimension of speech and language upon which the self-certainties that mark our political and consumer assumptions begin to look rather questionable. The latter merely reinforces ego-identity by assuming an autonomous being.
Part of the issue here is the radical status of psychoanalytic knowledge. If the aim of analysis is to help the ego adapt to a reality given in advance then psychoanalysis becomes an essentially conservative project, shoring up the prevailing order. For example, it make us better producers by getting us back out to work, or better consumers by getting back into shops, but it cannot critique production or consumption as the horizon of the social order. Yet psychoanalysis claims to be radical, to ‘wipe the slate clean’ so that one may act in a fashion not circumscribed by neurotic repetition. When psychoanalysis becomes one of adaptation to a given situation it gives up its claim to a traumatic encounter with the other which brings the given into question; and to that degree gives up also its Jewish/Christian heritage.
TOJ: Also central to your book is the Eucharist and the theology of transubstantiation. For the Eucharist to work, you argue, God must and does break into time every time we partake in the bread and the wine. God breaking into time, the infinite breaking into the finite, is trauma. Can you elaborate on the therapeutic function of God breaking into time, how God offers in this way an analytic intervention?
MP: Before directly answering your question I should point out the obvious problem regarding this language about God breaking into time. It lends itself toward an extrinsic theology of nature and grace as if prior to the event, God was somehow distanced. Yet as Henri de Lubac puts it, God did not create the world only to disappear. De Lubac, and those associated with nouvelle thèologie spearheaded a return to the sources (i.e. the patristic sources of theology) from which they recovered a more paradoxical understanding of the relation between nature and grace according to which humans were already graced with a natural desire for the supernatural (paradoxical because the end exceeds its beginning). God was not distanced from creation. God is, as Augustine put it: Deus interior intimo meo, the God who is more interior to me than I am myself. That is to say, the realm of the supernatural is not some extra appendage which occasionally bursts through in a punctilios fashion—the predominant model underpinning Evangelism and populist forms of Islam—the world and matter are given as already supernatural in ways which transcend the sphere of a natural order.
There is much in this paradoxical understanding that accords with Lacan’s approach to subjectivity. Augustine’s claim that God is more internal to man than man is to himself easily translates into Lacan’s neologism “exitmacy”, the exterior that is more interior. In fact, in my forthcoming book on Žižek I take seriously the direct historical impact these theological debates had upon Lacan. For example, he cites his conversations with Father Teilhard de Chardin (a close friend of de Lubac), he made de Lubac’s star pupil Michele de Certeau one of his inner circle, and openly spoke out on issues such as Ecumenism and Vatican II. Moreover, what was the return-to-Freud if not a return to the patristic sources of psychoanalysis, a renewed interpretation predicated upon close translations of the original texts, and attentiveness to the historical context which yielded a richer and more paradoxical view of subjectivity?
So, to return to the question: God breaking into time. It is not an extrinsic theology that underpins Lacan but an intrinsic one. The unconscious is not hidden, out of view, distanced from the subject in the manner of an extrinsic God. The unconscious works by hiding the truth in full view, like the thief who hides a diamond in a chandelier. So the trauma is not so much about something new bursting in as it is about seeing what is already there.
And herein lies the point about trauma and Eucharist. The Eucharist is traumatic not because it is a special instance of God’s grace breaking in, as if it were some hidden force behind the material support of life; rather it is traumatic because it shows God in the absolute mundane, the simple subsistence of life, directly identifying the two. As Catherine Pickstock has put it, in the Eucharist—the repetition of Christ’s own passion through the breaking (trauma) of the bread—we face both the greatest dereliction of meaning, Christ abandoned on the cross, yet equally the greatest promise of plenitude through that giving.
TOJ: When helping analysands recover from traumatic events, the analyst will help the analysand assimilate and accommodate the traumatic event to take the power out of the traumatic moment. Yet your point is that God blesses us by not allowing the Eucharist to be accommodated and assimilated into our egos—that by continually traumatizing us he makes sure we are not ‘curved in on’ ourselves, imprisoned by our own anxieties and neurosis. Seeing God as one who redemptively traumatizes us (as opposed to a God who stabilizes our egos) seems to turn on its head certainly a lot of the self-help Christian books that are popular but also the developed Christian psychologies that are complicit with ego-psychology. Do you see this as a radical paradigm shift?
MP: I like your language, a God who redemptively traumatises us as opposed to stabilising our egos. Indeed, one can have some fun with Lacan’s French as Mario Beira does, taking the “i” out of “je suis,” [I am], to arrive at “Jesus”; i.e. we coincide with Christ at the point we cede our ego-identity. This is one sense in which we are traumatised by Christ. But to return to your question: What of Christian self-help books? Should they all be thrown out? Part of the problem with this proliferation of Christian self-help books is precisely what happens around therapy when it is divorced from medicine and illness to become a universal value in-itself: first, we all become ill, hence the proliferation of categories by which one defines one’s neurosis or trauma; second, therapy is removed from a field of intervention. In other words, if you really are in need of therapy these books will not help.
The same can be said of the Christian part. Christianity is supplanted by the universal values of therapy, encouraging an individualism which serves a regulating function in the ideological sense of the term by encouraging ego-autonomy within the market sphere. In both cases, therapy and Christianity are reduced to what Marie-Hélène Brousse has called ‘a cushion of compassion’ upon which we can depend for our security, all the while allowing us to serve the discourse of the contemporary master: the market.
It is not simply then that we need a paradigmatic shift to take us beyond ego-psychology; we need a psychology and a theology which allow us to believe in the possibility of a paradigmatic shift in the first place. In other words, we need a theology and psychology in which we do not simply ‘discover ourselves’ as if all along we had merely been lost or forgotten. That being the case, the ‘moment of discovery’ would reveal nothing extra, there would be no intrinsic change. Likewise, we do not need a theology and psychology which simply encourages us to develop a strong and autonomous ego. As Augustine argued, when love begins with love of self, then we have no need of any other good to enjoy; we produce our own wisdom, and forgo the pain of training and learning from another source. Rather, we need a theology and psychology which allows for radical intervention.
TOJ: Your book reads Lacan through the lense of Kierkegaard. How did your interaction with Kierkegaard provide a vision toward both a theology and psychology that allows for, as you say, radical intervention and a traumatic break toward experiencing the world in a radically alternative mode?
MP: Kierkegaard’s key contribution has been his careful delineation of ‘repetition,’ the Christian alternative to Greek recollection. The basis of Greek recollection is that one recalls the truth within, as if it were always already known, given since eternity, only merely forgotten. In this way recollection seeks to bridge our contingent nature with eternal truth through an immanent relation. Yet as Kierkegaard pointed out, the moment such a truth is immanently recalled will fail to have any decisive significance for the person because it simply marks the return of the self which had otherwise been forgotten; nothing new has been gained. Kierkegaard’s point was that genuine change requires transcendence; something new has to come from outside: the incarnation. In this respect, Christ exceeded Socrates. Christ was not merely a teacher who helps give birth to the subject’s own truth only to be discarded. Christ is the truth.
This difference was picked up early by Lacan. Recollection situated knowledge in the realm of the imaginary, the seat of ego-identification and hence illusion. In short Greek epistemology is narcissistic. By contrast, repetition is on the side of the symbolic, i.e. language, and hence introduces something new: the Big Other, or what Lacan refers to elsewhere as “sin”. For Lacan, the subject’s constitutive moment requires just such a rupture, the invention of something new which opens up the process of creativity as a whole, just as for Kierkegaard Christianity relies not on any form of gnosis or intuition, but on the revelation that Christ showed us that we exist in sin. Moreover, because Christ is presented as the absolute paradox, the God-man, in such a ways as to evade the immanent mediation of rationality, the only response can be the earnestness of faith. This makes of Christianity and psychoanalysis alike a labour.
TOJ: You point out that liturgical practice is a vital therapeutic for Christians. Do you see within Western Christianity a loss of connection to Liturgy and liturgical practice? Why? And given that you argue we must be rooted in a liturgical setting to achieve praxis (and avoid nihilism), how can Christians start to recover our liturgical tradition?
MP: Let us look at the experience of South America and the Pentecostal Churches. How does one account for their success over and against the Catholic tradition? Pentecostal Churches initially started as house churches which, given enough donations, were able to hire premises and a preacher, thereby becoming formally established. Today however the pattern is changing. House churches use donations not to hire a building, but to buy air time, i.e. they become televised. This has a profound effect on the congregational life. For example, as soon as you become televised you become professionalized. Choirs which previously tolerated less trained voices become more discerning in who they let sing, so that the less able are actually discouraged.
Likewise, pre-show auditions are held for the best personal testimony; the winner’s performance is then repeated throughout an airing, and homilies are reduced to a set period of time. In England the problem is less to do with the sentimentalising the faith to provide an effective media witness as a form of economic managerialsim. In the Catholic Church, minor feast days which fall in the week have been moved to accommodate to the nearest Sunday when Church attendance is higher. In this way not only is the feast assured greater participation, the clerical and administrative staff save on church time and cost. While such an administrative approach to the liturgy may save money and help to re-establish a more vibrant cultural celebration in the life for the church, there are also symbolic consequences as the historic ties of meaning are cut. A generation looses the ability to read its own culture. What happens for example when the twelfth night ceases to be celebrated on the twelfth night after Christmas?
My point then is simple: the loss of connection to liturgy and liturgical practice in Western Christianity must be understood within an increasingly media-driven and bureaucratic administration and its effect on the psyche of churches. And if Christianity is to achieve praxis, it must not only begin to understand the way the media is affecting the liturgy, and hence the form of Christian subjectivity, but whether or not liturgy is the only possible site one can critique the media from.
TOJ: In your conclusion you note that you “adopt a Protestant (Kiekegaard) and an atheist (Lacan) to defend a Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist and its institution.” What are the ecumenical conversations you hope would grow from your work or the expected ecumenical implications of your work? What would you hope the Protestant, Evangelical, or Orthodox Christian would glean from your work?
MP: It is difficult to say what any one person let alone an institution, will glean from my work. Traditionally Protestants have tended to favour Jung in their psychological encounters, not least because so much of his psychology was tied up with his own break from the institutionalism of his father’s clericalism, but also for reasons tied to liberal pluralism. For example, religions are never treated in terms of their intrinsic claims to truth, but merely as phenomenal or cultural examples of an archetype, a kind of Kantian noumena, posited as a an a priori condition of experience. In short God is privatised, and religion culturalised, thereby ensuring it remains out of the political sphere. Perhaps for this reason Jung was able to remain working on Zentralblatt, the scientific journal for the General Medical Society for Psychotherapy, under the editorship of Professor Goering.
So despite his emphasis on the collective unconscious his psychology is curiously uncollective, favouring a pick and mix of symbols to give cultural expression to a vague sense of sublimity. Freud on the other hand is arguably more Catholic as Paul Witz has argued. Despite his Jewish heritage and positivist atheism, he nonetheless grew up in the Catholic climate of Vienna. Moreover, contrasted to Jung, Freud tends to discuss religion in far more social terms. For example, he is more interested in the ritual aspects of it, hence his association of ritual with the obsessive neurosis. Indeed, one way to say that religion is a social form of neurosis is to say that obsessive neurosis is a privatised form of religion.
However, I am inclined to view Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox relations in terms of Lacan’s triad: the symbolic, imaginary, and real. Catholics take a particular pride in their ritual tradition and thereby occupy the symbolic; the Protestant and Free Churches emphasis personal faith according it the status of the imaginary (without which all meaning would fall into word heaps); and the Orthodox, who resist a theology of sin versus grace for emphasis on God’s superabundant gift of love, account for the real.
With regard to Ecumenism therefore, I should say first, that at Durham University we take the issue very seriously, and have established an ecumenical project in partnership with local churches called “Receptive Ecumenism,” dealing with the institutional pathologies of churches and their dysfunctions. Like psychoanalysis, true ecumenism is not about telling each denomination what it thinks the other should be like (the ecumenical equivalent of ego-psychology); rather it requires receiving the gifts of the others (receptive ecumenism) while maintaining the integrities of one’s starting point such that unity is constituted in the conversation itself as it is weaved through the three registers of the psyche and without which the very concept of catholicity (i.e. the universal church in the broad sense of the word) would have no bearing.
TOJ: I found your final words in Theology, Psychoanalysis and Trauma a beautiful vision of ‘normalcy’ for Christians. You say, “Imagination fails not because one is lost, caught up in the seventh heaven, but because the question of Christianity—what it means to live and experience God’s love or to live a life of risk in Christ—is now seen principally in terms of engaged and embodied action: the assumption of desire. This is the point at which, after analysis, the analysand is delivered over to doxology.” As we end this interview, do you have any final reflections for our readers on being “handed over to doxology,” particularly how this vision resists the norms of a society plagued by the fear of death?
MP: Undertaking the Eucharist should be traumatic, not least because as a participant one is called to identify with both the victim’s death and its perpetrators; but also because it invites us to enjoy in that very suffering, precisely through recognising that in the final analysis suffering is of itself meaningless. This is not to abandon one to the despair of nihilism al la Lacan. It is simply to recognise and reciprocate love.
Chris Keller is Founding Editor of The Other Journal and a psychotherapist in Seattle, Washington.
Dr. Marcus Pound is Research Fellow in Catholic Studies at Durham University, and Assistant Director of the Centre for Catholic Studies. He is also a co-director for the Project on Receptive Ecumenism. He is currently listening to the The Boat Band on Harbour Town Records.