Endless Analysis: On Janet Malcolm


Early last week, I was lying on my couch reading a passage from Janet Malcolm’s 1980 report on the characters in and around the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, Psychoanalysis: the impossible profession, to my boyfriend as he sat behind me in a chair. The passage I read introduces an analyst who is given the pseudonym Gregory Cross. As with so many of Malcolm’s characters (“topics” never seem to be the right word, even though she was a journalist by trade), our first glimpse of Cross is suggested by the manner of the room we find him in: his space of. consultation, which “had the harsh and anguished modernity of the pieces in Francis Bacon’s paintings”. Such observations result in a scathing assessment of himself: “He was a man without charm, without ease, without vanity or vanity, and with a kind of atrocious, incisive and convulsive honesty which resembled an insoluble skin disorder.

This recent scene of otherwise poignant timing – the way it juxtaposes incisive cultural criticism with the pitfalls of psychological analysis – seems in retrospect to be the kind of situation that Malcolm herself, as an admirer and pastiche practitioner, could have borrowed years ago. then projected into the present to give it meaning. But anyway, it turned out like that, and his prose lingered in my mind. The next evening, which preceded the news of Malcolm’s death from lung cancer at 87, I was still reading The impossible profession, put it away just before sleeping and dreaming.

For a while now, Malcolm’s writing has taken me out of all kinds of day-to-day problems, and it was no different a few days ago. I often turn to her when I’m stuck on personal grievances, or my own writing, or haven’t read anything satisfactory in months. In the margin of his books, notes on the personality, the first sentences of essays, maps scribbled in haste from my unconscious. Perhaps it is incongruous that this is the case given its reputation for being elegant, precise, quietly menacing, divinely fair. Surprising too, given that its most famous lines warn its readers against letting a journalist enter their homes, let alone their hearts. Some of these lines appear in Malcolm’s best-known book, The journalist and the murderer (1990), which documents a journalist’s parasitic relationship with a subject convicted of a horrific crime, and begins with his beloved saying: “Any journalist who is not too stupid or self-possessed to noticing what is going on knows that what he is doing is morally indefensible. In a 2011 interview with the Paris review, Malcolm put it just as bluntly. “[Journalists] are certainly not a “helping profession”. If we help anyone, it is ourselves, so that our subjects do not realize that they are letting us get carried away.

Malcolm’s professional mood is incredulous, which turns analysts into surgeons, journalists, scoundrels and thieves. Yet such speculation is pale compared to the experience of sifting through his work, which has induced so many devotional obsessions: its overall quality is not pessimism but perseverance, unparalleled attention to surfaces that engages in every crevice, crack and support. beam of the human condition. His interlocutors speak far too long, sometimes because the conversations that take place over the weeks are compressed into a single encounter on the page, sometimes due to Malcolm’s knack for keeping their lips sealed while the interviewee gives and gives. Another unconventional convention of Malcolm’s reporting is his prominent position as a character in his own right. In almost all of his books, The silent woman (1995) and Read Chekhov (2001) to In the Freud archives (1983) and Iphigenia in Forest Hills (2011), she appears as the prodigious detective, accumulating clues like a beach made of seashells. Like a novelist – or a therapist – she does not leave the room without a story, even if it means returning to it dozens of times (her essay “Forty-one false starts”, On artist David Salle, is an ingenious summary of this proposition).

Although Malcolm often appeared as a character in her own reporting, she was reluctant to put herself at the center of his intrepid investigation. In recent years, however, she has finally written movingly about the digging up of old family photographs, especially her inability to incorporate earlier versions of herself into the crystal-clear journalist she had become (critic Sarah Nicole Prickett pointed out in a 2019 article see again of Malcolm’s work that there is no image of her online as a young woman). “I don’t think of the child as myself,” Malcolm wrote of a portrait taken at age 2 or 3, a few years before his Jewish parents, fleeing Nazism, moved in with Janet and her sister from what was then Czechoslovakia in an apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn. “No sense of identification sets in when I look at her round face and slender arms and incongruous, assertive pose. She treats photographs like an analyst would treat weekly snapshots of a new patient: formal first, then memories start to flow.

TAlthough Malcolm wrote with extraordinary curiosity and endurance on literary figures (Sylvia Plath, Gertrude Stein, the Bloomsbury Group) and court cases, it is his personal and psychoanalytic writings that I have dealt with most often. The analytical and personal tensions in Malcolm’s work seem intertwined, but the nature of their relationship is elusive, if not subconscious. Her father was a psychiatrist in the old country and in their new home. She has often been asked in interviews about this fact and whether she had nurtured the ambition to enter the family business, to which she gave mixed answers. She will say on an occasion where she never considered it for a moment; at another which she would have liked very much, but, alas, she has no aptitude for the mathematics required to enter medical school (the impossible profession, indeed).

After years of writing a monthly design column called “About the House,” Malcolm’s first piece detailed declaration for The New Yorker, published in 1978, focused on various emerging theories of family therapy. She probably wrote there her first words printed on the experience of reading Freud: “One always has the feeling of being in the presence of someone more honest, rigorous and morally scrupulous than anyone else. The line sounds like it can describe Malcolm too, or at least the version of herself she came to warn us later not to trust.

In the Freud archives is Malcolm’s ode to rebellions of the mind, an examination of resistance to the psychoanalytic process which guides his followers away from the “terrain of so-called objective reality into the unexplored wilderness of psychic reality,” which Malcolm poses mysteriously, “is never defeated by anyone. Its main character is a scholar named Jeffrey Masson, an “intellectual gigolo” who is excommunicated from psychoanalytic paradise (the apparent heir to the father of the literal legacy of psychoanalysis, Freud’s archives), after publishing controversial findings on one of Freud’s rejected ideas known as the “seduction theory”. This theory – that the sexual abuse of childhood is the real cause of neuroses – becomes, in Masson’s reasoning, the death knell for the whole of the psychoanalytic project, an objective reality so piercing that it breaks the unconscious to eye view. “They are afraid that I will destroy psychoanalysis,” Masson tells Malcolm of his detractors. “They are right to be afraid.

In the Freud archives is Malcolm’s book that I have read most often over the years, and each time it takes on a different character. When I first read it I thought it was the void of truth, the sealed documents that no one reads properly, the cosmic joke of journalistic and academic access. Now I read there with a more Manichean temperament. On one shoulder sits Masson pretending to be bored of everything, moving worriedly from one domain to another, setting their sacred texts and practices on fire as he walks ominously on his way. On the other, Malcolm, who stays with Masson when he doesn’t even want to stay with himself, who judges the act of building “interesting, because ultimately impossible”. Again, Malcolm perseveres: “It’s easy to see through something – to show how stupid or wrong it is – but it doesn’t take very long, and then you’re done. ”

His first work on the history and practice of psychoanalysis, The impossible profession, turned out to be less dramatic, but was actually an even stranger book. We meet the pseudonym Aaron Greene, who has trained his entire professional life to enter the “inner sanctuary” of an institution he perversely despises. This is just one of the many ways in which Greene is a carefully curated display of contradictions. He is a son of psychoanalysis, a strict devotee, by dint of which he must act as a father figure towards his patients, who will not fail to consider him a suitable lover (he sees erotic transfers everywhere. ). Malcolm is amply circumspect, but it is not so easy to dismiss Greene as the object of ridicule, since, like Malcolm and unlike Masson, he has devoted his life to the experience he has chosen. Greene asserts that “the purpose of analysis is not to educate the patient on the nature of reality but to familiarize him with himself,” and he assumes these responsibilities with the greatest severity, assimilating them time and time again. many times to surgery.

But Greene’s job isn’t really like surgery; he has no experience in stitching up the patient. Most of his analysands, after years of undergoing his so-called operations, are fed up and quit, or stop paying their bills, but none have ended in a way that Greene can come to terms with. Malcolm suggests that even analysts who succeed in ending certain cases of their patients (or finishing their books) are never able to end the psychoanalytic process themselves, for they have made their vocation a focus, which is to be their legacy thereafter. “If the full experience of the end is some sort of existential rite of passage – a sojourn in the wilderness, a final stoic acceptance of the uncertainties of adulthood and the inevitability of death – then analysts never grow up. and must never die, ”he wrote. Malcolm, whose body of work has almost never been immature, even though he has resisted any natural ending or summary. How could someone who sits in the room every day – looking at the faces until she has the words, scanning the page until the characters merge – justify this endless work? For instruction, she consults the journal of analyst Hartvig Dahl, who writes about her last session with a six-year-old patient. Rarely does an analyst like the one Malcolm interviewed show emotion in front of a patient. Many, like Greene, believe this overshadows the sacred purpose of their work: to make the subconscious conscious. Nonetheless, Dahl writes, “I choked on saying goodbye, and for the first time our eyes met in a long look that we both understood.”


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