Category Archives: Freud meant…

A Pot & Kettle Situation


Our theme today is Freud’s charging horses, back at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. They of his hypothetical question, “Would you rather be pulled apart by two horses, or charged by two horses?” To be less Poetic and more Metaligual about it, we’re talking the defense mechanism of projection. Here are some of Ray Corsini’s definitions [in The Dictionary of Psychology, 2002]: “attributing to others what is actually true of the self, often used to justify prejudice…the process by which impulses, wishes, or aspects of the self are imagined to be located in some external object.”

Thus, the premise behind Projective Tests is that the subject will see in ambiguous visual stimuli, unconscious aspects of himself. You may recall from an earlier post that, unlike most “subjects” who think Lili looks like a wolf, a municipal workman thought she looked like a bat. Two more recent “responses” [as they are called on the Rorschach]: this summer a general contractor for the school, taking smoke breaks in a shady passage to the playing fields, would routinely greet Lili with, “There’s my bear!” More bizarrely, a middle school boy, rambling in the woods with his science class to collect leaf specimens, asked “Is that a mountain lion?”

Instead of the deadpan “yes” I gave him, I could have said [in my best Cockney accent], “Oooh! Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!” but that archaic expression has long since been shortened to the title idiom. It would have been an obscure joke, anyway, like the recurrent SNL sketch where two dorky Bostonians keep saying, “No, you ah” to each other. But that’s what projection is: saying “No, you ah” to the “charging horse,” rather than owning the “wolfish” aspects of oneself. Remember the middle school retort, to being called something negative [like a bat, or a bear, or a wolf, or a mountain lion]? “Takes one to know one.”

Well, precisely. That was Freud’s point. Well spotted, you middle schoolers and SNLers! Be a detective of human nature with me, and notice, on any given day, who is screaming the loudest imprecations against the “despicable” behavior of his/her foes. Wait one news cycle, and behold the hideous portrait [or skeleton] hidden in said screamer’s own closet.

Less fun, but more to the point, we might ask ourselves why a friend’s or relative’s Highly Inconvenient behavior is Driving Us Howling Mad. Whatever else is “up our nose” about their shenanigans, there might just be a whiff of humiliation, as we grudgingly recognize in our own sweet selves a similar impulse to be beastly.

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"How do children survive?"


Maurice Sendak’s question is quoted at the top of an article about Where the Wild Things Are, in The Psychologist, the journal of The British Psychological Society [of which I have been a member since the 70s], written by an American psychoanalyst, Richard Gottlieb, whose thesis seems to be that Sendak had a rotten childhood, so he writes about children having rotten childhoods, who nevertheless, against all odds, survive.

Predictably, I beg to differ. Some aspects of Sendak’s childhood [like yours & mine] were rotten. His genius has been to transform his tough stuff into images [visual and verbal] that kids receive with delighted recognition: “I know just how Max/Mickey/Pierre/Really Rosie feels, cuz sometimes I feel that way, too.” In Gottlieb’s tone, I detect the whiff of unacknowledged wolf. He even tries to make psychoanalytic hay out of Max’s wearing “his wolf-suit” [which, tonight being Halloween, I’m betting we’ll see more than one of, at our front door]. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a wolf-suit is just a wolf-suit.

Now, to introduce Ying Tong, the Worst Cat in the World, whom I credit with my childhood survival. Like little Maurice, I was a sickly child [although my parents didn’t “make a dog’s dinner” of their concerns about my health, unlike the Sendaks]. In the winter of 1961 I developed severe bronchitis, and my constant bouts of phlegmy coughing made it almost impossible to keep food down. When we had moved to the UK the previous summer, we had tearfully left our dog Alfred behind [because of the draconian 6-month quarantine rule], so on Christmas eve my father burst into the house [bleeding and swearing profusely], and pried a black & white, snarling Wild Thing off his neck, saying, “Merry effing Christmas!” My parents had secretly agreed that the family needed a local pet, to ease the loss of Alfred. The cat was a rescue from the RSPCA, supposedly female [and therefore named by my mother “Jingle Belle”]; but later assessed by the vet as Ever So Male: “Perhaps you would like to call him ‘Jingle Bill’?” We fell into the habit of calling him Ying Tong, after the Goon Show song, “Ying Tong Iddle I Po.” [Another gem of non-lexical vocables, suitable for lowering anxiety.]

The cat was the bane of the street, commando-raiding the neighbor children’s outdoor tea table and making off with their Marmite sandwiches; climbing another neighbor’s sapling tree and chewing off all the buds. Inside the house, he would lurk under my bed, snarling with menace. I would do the longjump from the hallway to under my bed covers, and he would pounce, trying to bite me through my many layers of duvet. Then [and this is the Beauty Part] he would curl up on my chest and fall asleep. My parents theorized [and I agreed] that the very credible threat of a woken up Ying Tong’s wrath would strongly motivate me to resist the urge to cough, thereby keeping my food down and my strength up. And, lo, I survived! And, despite his rotten disposition, I just loved that cat.

The week we were set to move back to the US, a worried neighbor knocked at our door, asking if we owned “that large back & white smooth.” My mother said, “Yes. What’s he done now?” “Well, I’m afraid, been run down by a lorry. He’s in our front garden,” said she. Cheer up. He didn’t die from his injuries, which were extensive: a broken hind leg, a broken jaw, and a gash in his side. In fact, he became [marginally] sweeter. Because he chewed off his plaster cast on the voyage home, his leg fused in a straight-out position; but that did not affect his agility or speed. When we got to our new duty station, we were [unexpectedly, but joyously] reunited with our beloved dog Alfred, and were also given a gray & white cat [whose markings were identical to Ying Tong’s]. That cat had 7 kittens [none of which was going to St. Ives], all of whom learned to sit with one hind leg extended, in apparent emulation of “Uncle Ying Tong,” who lived to the age of 18.

So, my answer to Maurice Sendak’s question is: Children survive by consorting with fierce creatures [both human and 4-legged; both inside themselves and Out There]. To make the wolf [or a vicious cat] your friend is sometimes the key to making it into adulthood, against all odds.

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Glienicke Breucke: "Bridge of Spies"


Hands up, if you remember the Cold War…or have read any spy novels by John Le Carre or Len Deighton…or maybe saw the movie Funeral in Berlin, starring Michael Caine. In fact and fiction, the little bridge, spanning the Havel River between Potsdam & Berlin, has been the venue for several spy swaps between the Soviet Union and the US, under cloak of darkness. First, Gary Powers, the downed U-2 pilot [no, not part of the Irish band, you Young Ones], in 1962. [Followed by the fictional “Harry Palmer” in 1966.] Then in 1985 the US got back 23 agents in exchange for 4 Soviet agents [such a deal!]; and finally, a 4 (of ours) for 5 (of theirs) swap in 1986.

If you keep in mind that these exchanges happened at night, between warring factions, the metaphor I’m about to lay on you will work better. As a Young One, myself, in the UK of 1960, I used to fall asleep listening to Radio Luxembourg play the latest English & American hit tunes…only to wake up with a shriek @ midnight, when the station switched over to broadcasting Voice of America “information,” only to be promptly and cacophonously jammed by transmitters in the USSR. What a racket! What a rude awakening! What an apt analogy for Freud’s theory of the interpretation of dreams!

Initially, he thought the purpose of dreams was two-fold. They serve to preserve sleep. C’mon, admit it. Have you never concocted an elaborate dream which “accounts” for the sound of your alarm clock, transforming it into something else entirely, just to allow you a bit more shut-eye? Secondly [pace Walt Disney], Freud opined that “A dream is a wish your heart makes, when you’re fast asleep.” His example of this is the sad story of a man whose child has died, for whom he is now sitting shivah. He falls asleep and dreams that he and his child are walking together through a field, with the warm sun beating down on them…until finally, the smell of burning cloth intrudes on his reverie, and he wakes up, to discover that a candle has fallen over onto the dead child’s bedding and set it on fire. While it lasted, this Restoration dream fulfilled the wish that his child had not died; and, for a time, it “accounted” for the heat & light of the fire [transforming it into a sunny day], thereby postponing the mourning father’s rude awakening.

“Oh, really?” said the skeptics of his time, “Do you mean to tell me that the nightmare I had last night was a wish?” Stand by for a large loophole. The language of dreams is Primary Process (more of an Indie film than a conventional Disney narrative); and the way you express “not” in a dream is to begin a scene and then “yell ‘Cut!'” before its logical conclusion. Always? Not always. Just when the dream makes more sense as a wish, with a “not” thrown in.

Enough quibbling, already. Let’s cut to the chase [scene]. There is an “Iron Curtain” between the Unconscious [where dreams are produced] and the Conscious [where they are shown, shared with friends, underappreaciated…]. Like the Soviets who jammed the Voice of America signal, there is (in most individuals) an intra-psychic “censor,” whose job it is to filter, spin, and otherwise obfuscate the message from the Unconscious. How come? Because the censor thinks “The Conscious can’t handle the truth!” Maybe the truth is inconvenient to the current regime. It might incite the dreamer to challenge the status quo, rock the boat, do something wild & crazy. The more “buttoned-down” an individual, the more powerful his censor is; and fewer of his dreams make it across the Glienicke bridge.

Here’s where the “tradecraft”–the cloak & dagger passing of secrets, as described in the novels of le Carre & Deighton–comes in. The message has a better chance of slipping past the censor if it is encrypted. Freud described two common forms of encryption: displacement & condensation. In dreams, actors rarely appear as themselves [except, like Hitchcock, for brief cameos]. So where do the characters come from? And, for that matter, where do the plotlines come from? Often, from current events, mass media, and the dreamer’s daily routine. Freud called this Day Residue. In his dream decoding algorithm, Day Residue is “subtracted” from the Manifest Content of the dream; and the remaining images (especially the odd ones) are assumed to be displacements or condensations of two (or more) images, which need to be deconstructed, for the dream’s Latent Content to be discovered. Got all that?

Let’s use a dream I had in graduate school, to practice decryption. “I have just come out of the 72nd Street subway station and am waiting to cross to the East, but there is traffic from both Broadway & Amsterdam Avenue. I don’t have time to wait for a ‘walk’ sign, so I intend to jay-walk, when there is a lull in traffic. Here comes a furry limousine, moving very slowly. I could definitely dart across in front of it…but I feel the need to reach out and touch it as it passes by.”

Day residue: That’s my real-life subway stop, my etoile of streets to cross, and my typical late-for-a-very-important-date mindset. What’s left, if we take that away?

Odd image: “Furry limousine, moving very slowly.” My free association: “Looked like a Cadillac. Hate them! Make me carsick. Grandparents always drove them. Why furry? This is Springtime. Who wears fur in the Spring? My maternal grandmother wears those weasels biting each other around her neck, even in mild weather. Why moving slowly? Like a hearse? ‘Reach out, reach out and touch someone’ is the current jingle for Bell long distance telephone.”

Latent content: I wish to call my grandmother, before she dies.

“BFD!” I hear you say. But, for complex tribal and power subtext reasons, I had been estranged from my grandmother for about 5 years. Still, having deconstructed a possible meaning for the dream, I went ahead and enacted the “latent wish,” and called her. [She mistook me for my sister, and mentioned she was feeling her end was nye; but when she realized she was talking to me, she back-peddled and hung up.] And, verily, she died later that week. No, I didn’t cause her death, or even really predict it. [She was in her 80s, after all.] I did allow a coded message from my Unconscious to affect my behavior regarding her; and I am very grateful that I did.

Next time you remember one of your dreams, why not see if you can decode it? You are not obliged to enact every “wish your heart makes”; but dreamwork (like wolf-work) often provides valuable “inside information,” to those brave enough to undertake it.

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Backgammon (Bear Off)


While both backgammon and chess are war-games, the former is way older [3000 B.C. vs. 600 A.D.] and–in Geneva Conventions terms–way more soldier-friendly. In chess you can sacrifice all your troops, except the King, in the name of victory; whereas in backgammon you cannot win until you rescue all your troops from their captivity [on the Bar], and bear off every last one of them to safety.

Without getting too name-droppy about it, I was lucky enough to meet [separately] with two of Freud’s analysands [his patients], who went on to become noted psychoanalysts [both now dead–this was in the 70s]; and one of them [can’t remember which] told me that Freud preferred the metaphor of backgammon to chess, for the Game of Life. As we slog through the vicissitudes [Freud’s oh-so-prissy translator, Lytton Strachey, chose this term, instead of ups & downs, or snakes & ladders, or swings & roundabouts] of life, we get stuck in some boggy patches. [If A.A. Milne had been Freud’s translator, more people would have gotten the benefit of the useful bits.] These have to do with tricky dilemmas discussed in previous posts [such as “To be smothered with attention, or to be left utterly alone?” and “To be a Goody-Two-Shoes, or to be a Black Sheep?”]. In our earliest struggles, grown-ups represent the opposing side [the Giants, Freud said, because these battles took place When We Were Very Young, therefore, small].

In each of these skirmishes, we lose a few soldiers; but we carry on with our remaining troops, to face the next dust-up. For some people, these encounters are not so bad, and only a few soldiers are lost. For others, it’s a hard-knocks life; and the Bar is crowded with their captive troops. Freud thought of troop strength as the Vital Force [or psychic energy] needed to confront life’s challenges. Let us think of it as blood to the hippocampus, shall we? Not enough of it, and the hippocampus shrivels up, leaving us unable to remember important stuff or to problem-solve. We lose traction. We are in danger of being gammoned or even backgammoned [losing the Game of Life very badly].

So we need to make like the Red Cross [Crescent, whatever], and negotiate for the release of these PoWs. In backgammon, it’s a roll of the dice–if a useful number comes up, a soldier can be liberated and head for home. In real life, we need to go back–to revisit the hard-knock event–and see if we can reframe it in such a way that we get the captive soldier back. The most current treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder encourages the individual to recollect the traumatic event: to write about it, or to talk about it into a taperecorder and listen to it repeatedly, until it loses its power to arouse the amygdala. Then the “wolf-work” can begin. “What got up your nose, about the event?” “Are you bummed because you lost a buddy, or do you blame yourself for his/her loss?”

As in all real wars, we may never recover all the fallen or captive soldiers, but it is vitally important that we try. Those who say that we should simply “Move on,” from traumatic events, without any attempt to understand what really happened–what we were thinking, what got up our nose–are ignoring human nature and brain physiology. What we have not acknowledged and understood, we are likely to act out–against ourselves and others. Before we can truly move on, we need to look back.

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"The Wolf Is at the Door"


Although we each have our own, personal associations to this metaphor [possibly involving 3 little pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, a Russian boy named Peter, even Kevin Costner…or Sarah Palin?], the received meaning of the phrase for several centuries has been, that one has fallen on hard financial times. [Everything old is new again.]

Since many of these scenarios end with the scary, intrusive wolf being shot dead, it’s a wonder that more bailiffs and repo men don’t get blown away on the beleaguered householder’s doorstep. One could argue that, by doing the dirty work of the householder’s creditors, these “heartless mercenaries” become de facto Silent Partners, who are prepared to destroy the lives of the debtor and his/her family. In many recent lost-his-job-and-went-on-a-killing-spree-including-himself stories, this Silent Partner dynamic is obvious.

But, even for those fortunate enough [for now] to remain solvent, the wolf-at-the-door is an archetypal symbol of threat. To understand why, let’s go back to Vienna, to the 300-year-old Spanish Riding School, for another animal story [attributed to Freud]. The Lippizaners are the horses that do “ballet” [high-level Dressage moves] to Mozart, whose shows are a notoriously hard ticket; but whose rehearsals are open to the public. I like to think that it was while watching such a rehearsal [perhaps seeing a groom leading two high-spirited stallions around the arena] that Freud asked a friend, “Which would you choose–to be pulled apart by two horses, or to be charged by two horses?” If you’re like most people, you would choose to be charged. The usual logic behind this is, “If they’re coming at me, I can try to jump out of the way.” Freud used this metaphor to illustrate the defense mechanism of projection. Rather than feel “torn apart” by two powerful, opposing impulses [such as the urge to act out antisocially vs. the desire to “be good”], an individual externalizes [projects] the impulse to behave badly onto a scapegoat [or wolf], and then tries to “jump out of the way” of it [saying, “That is so not who I am!”]. The problem with this temporary fix, is that the wolf can circle around behind you [called in psychoanalytic parlance–like a B movie title–“The Return of the Repressed”], and thus overpower your good intentions, causing you to act out antisocially, willy-nilly.

So, sometimes, the Big Bad Wolf at the door is not a sinister stranger. It’s an unacknowledged part of ourselves.

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"Hashi" (Say what?)


The title above demonstrates the Metalingual speech function [first discussed in the Funny Bone post]. I say the Japanese word for “bridge” [not necessarily on the River Kwai], and you ask for clarification [unless you are Lili, in which case you obediently procede to the nearest bridge]. After mastering all our dog trainer’s Japanese commands [many of which Lili also mastered], I came to believe that I could train Lili to do anything, as long as I could find the word for it in a Japanese dictionary. I have created a monster. We decided that it would be cool [in summer, and warm in winter] if we could get Lili to shut the front & side doors behind her, since she had already figured out how to let herself into the house from the outside, but would leave the door ajar. Ten minutes of successive approximation, using the command “Shimaru,” a clicker, and high-value treats [dried lamb lung, I regret to say], and she has become Carlton, Your Doorman, biffing away at an open door as many times as it takes to slam it shut. This skill loses its charm when one is ferrying in several loads of groceries from the garage, and finds the door slammed firmly in one’s face. There are other commands to avoid this…but I digress.

When I am doing psychotherapy, or even hearing/reading people co-opt clinical terms to signify something entirely different from their original meaning, I get all Metalingual about it. My first bete noire is “schizophrenic.” No, it does not mean “in two minds” about something, or acting in two mutually inconsistent ways. That would be to feel ambivalent about something, or to experience cognitive dissonance. DSM-IV criteria for schizophrenia require delusions and/or hallucinations. If one means to signify a Jekyll & Hyde switcheroo between two radically different behavior patterns, that would be a Dissociative Disorder. See, now you can stop a conversation cold in its tracks, by asking a speaker who throws around the term “schizophrenic” just what they think they mean by it.

Another co-opted word is depressed. Do you mean, like, “bummed out about something that just happened,” or that you blame yourself and think you deserve whatever bad thing just happened? [That was Freud’s original distinction in Mourning & Melancholia.] Like, are you sad that the Cubbies lost, or do you think you made them lose and everyone should hate your guts? It makes all sorts of difference to a clinician, what you mean by “depressed.” [Notice how Phatic I am, when trying to understand what the other person means to say? It helps keep the lines of communication open.] Since another early definition for depression was “anger, turned inward,” it is useful to play our old parlor game, “What gets up your nose [about the thing that is ‘depressing’ you]?” Did you brag to your out-of-town friends that the Cubs were going to win, and now you feel humiliated? Did you put your money where your mouth is, so now you are feeling the pain & suffering of a financial loss? Was it a large wager, and now you fear that the bookie is coming to have his pound of flesh, if you can’t pony up? Until you do the wolf-work of figuring out what is eating you [“What’s up your nose?”], you are stuck in that bad place, where amygdalar overload robs your hippocampus of the ability to come up with any good coping strategies, and your pre-frontal cortex can’t stop you from “doing something stupid.”

I also need to know what you really mean, when you say you “feel guilty.” It’s a Rorschach word, signifying quite different things to each “guilty” person–depending on his or her fear of divine and/or karmic retribution, or earthly punishment, or the humiliation of loss of face [for not having lived up to one’s own code of conduct]. Play the parlor game, yourself, and identify the irritants of guilt, for you. I have no doubt that as I write this, in some neuropsych lab, college students’ brains are being scanned with fMRIs, like hi-tech lie-detector tests, to see who experiences what kind of “guilt”–in what area of their brain–upon learning that they have just fulfilled Milgram’s grim prophesy for mankind: that we would all act inhumanely towards another, if given a compelling enough reason to do so.

My final example: disappointed. Everybody would be out cold on the frathouse floor, if the game was to take a drink every time you read/heard that, in the face of egregious behavior [their own, or others’] someone in the news is “disappointed.” What on earth does it mean? Miffed? Perturbed? Crushed? Desolated? Mad as hell? About to act out aggressively and antisocially? Suicidal/homicidal? In every follow-up article about a shooting-spree-ending-in-the-death-of-the-shooter, someone who knew the shooter says that he/she was “disappointed” about something that had recently occurred. So are we all, I dare say; but we don’t all go ballistic about it. Substitute a more descriptive word, the next time you catch yourself using “disappointed”: and you will be well on the way to “knowing, and training, your wolf.”

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If you wanted a friend in Vienna…


With the arrival of First Dog “Bo” at the White House this weekend, let’s celebrate the first dog that Sigmund Freud’s family owned: a “not undangerous” German Shepherd named “Wolf.” [This from 3 independent sources, available upon request.] The best anecdote about Wolf’s cleverness has it, that one day the dog got loose in Vienna. [So far, not so clever, since although Wolf was nominally daughter Anna’s dog, “Papa” Sigmund adored him so much, that in 1925 Anna wrote, “I always assert that he transferred his whole interest in me on to Wolf.” The Guardian, 23 March 2002] The family searched all day for Wolf, but in vain. That evening the dog arrived home in a taxi, having jumped in and sat there, until the driver thought to read the address on his ID tag, and drove him back to 19 Bergasse [The German Shepherd Dog, Howell Book House, 1995].

Anna was being only a little bit Poetic, concerning the true object of her father’s affections. Freud’s Vienna apartment was turned into a museum some time ago; and I have made 3 visits to it over the years [yeah, yeah, what a geek], where they just let you wander about the place unattended. I have, naturally, used Freud’s WC, which has little pink flowers painted right in the toilet bowl [a quaint Viennese fin de siecle lavatorial fashion]. On the wall of his office there is a photograph of Freud with his very own, beloved dog [a Chow called Jofi], who was his “inseparable companion” from 1930 until her death in 1937, as Freud was suffering with terminal cancer of the jaw. She sat in on every one of his psychotherapy sessions, letting analyst & analysand know that their time was up “with copious yawning and stretching” [The Guardian].

In the same frame as the photo is Freud’s handwritten letter, in German, posing the question [my approximate translation here], “Why am I able to love my dogs more dearly than I love any person in my family?” His answer recalls the old Washington aphorism: “Because they love me without judgment or conditions.”

Willkommen, Bo!

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