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It feels strangely surreal to be writing this editorial in the midst of a pandemic — a time of medical, economic and social emergency. Persecutory anxieties, ordinarily contained, now pervade one’s consciousness, bringing into sharp relief the way we manage anxiety and stress, not only for ourselves but in a group and community context.
It is wartime in both psychic and material reality.
The five papers in this issue all reference in their own way psychic responses to a situation of war, or of extreme psychological and social pressure.
Paul Coombe’s poignant account of the renowned Northfield Experiment: that creative burst of intellectual and emotional energy in the psychiatric inpatient unit of Northfield Hospital in response to war trauma during the 2nd world war, opens this issue. Coombe gives an elegantly-rendered overview of this period which, as he explicates in the abstract, led to the development of “applied psychoanalysis” including “the development of the principles and practices of therapeutic communities, major contributions to the development of psychoanalytic group theory and … the application of an analytic understanding to organisations”. The essay is more than an excellent historical overview; it offers a mirror into the dynamics involved in the professional relationships of the chief protagonists including Bion, Rickman and Foulkes and gifts us with the author’s account of the origins of his own interest in this area of enquiry.
Joanne Emmens provides a creative and courageously thought-provoking view of the origins and maintenance of narcissistic group dynamics in various organisational/institutional settings. She references Bion and Trotter in drawing attention to an internal tussle between “an ‘intuition’ employed in the service of expansive thinking … fostering … true learning from experience and an “imitation-intuition” operating “to dismantle and de-nude knowledge.” (Bion’s minus-k). The antedote, Emmens argues, referencing Trotter, is to preserve and continuously repair our capacity for truly intuitive self-observation and understanding: our “small, quiet monitors”. Emmens draws on her fine understanding of Bion to weave a comparison between the closed narcissistic system depicted in Dickens’s “Oliver Twist”and that of a contemporary fictitious learning institution, arguing that in both fear, often disguised defensively and/or malevolently as laudable intention, is the greatest obstacle to avowing the truth. Presciently, Emmens likens the creation of a narcissistic organisational structure by “unmitigated fear(s) maintained by breaking the links (Bion) required for the potential of intuition, to “a virus that attacks the healthy functioning cells of a living organism”.
Neil Maizels’ rich and generative paper elucidates an important concept in the psychoanalytic theory of aesthetics: the apprehension of beauty and what is named as the “aesthetic conflict”. Maizels deftly interweaves theory (Meltzer, Klein) with two beautifully rendered clinical examples from his practice and a further example from the cinema, demonstrating his words at the paper’s beginning that: “ the theory that the human infant really struggles seriously with the emotional impact of the beauty of the world — initially that world being its mother — is a very complex, yet far-reaching concept; affected by, and affecting, almost every aspect of the psyche.” Maizels emphasises reciprocity as integral to the human tendency to look for “an aesthetic object who inspires awe, but who also reciprocates the feelings, so that one gains a similar interest in one’s own internal mysteries:”a search he sees as the single most important factor bringing people into analysis. He identifies “the aesthetic conflict”: the struggles with primitive feelings of envy, jealousy and fear of the unknown that heat the brew for internal struggle against succumbing to the possibility of awe, highlighting the interplay between internal and socio/political reality. Theory is impactfully illustrated with examples from classical literature, poetry and the theatre.
Frances Moran in her paper “Magnum Silencium” gives a passionate yet measured account of “an instance of foreclosure … children born of priests within the Catholic church,” arguing that such foreclosure, historically ordained by the Church in a process of disavowel and secrecy, leaves both the priest and his children subject to the trauma of intergenerational and personal shame. The paper pivots on recent events of disclosure including the ABC’s 2019 programme “Secrets and Lies” featuring the Irish psychotherapist, Vincent Doyle, who has courageously led the charity for recognition and help, Coping International, for the children of the ordained and religious. Moran gives a clear account of historical context and the psycho-social ramifications, contextualizing Lacanian theory in her examples: “If the signifier “father” is unavailable, if it is foreclosed to the child, there remains a type of tear in the fabric of language with which the child constructs its symbolic world. Where the word ’father’ should live, pulsate, there the child finds a hole … .”
The final paper in this issue by renowned psychiatrist and author, Paul Valent, is based on a talk to the VAPP, introducing the themes of his upcoming book: “The heart of violence-why people harm each other” (ASP, February 2020). Valent describes the origins of his lifelong preoccupation with the phenomenon of violence, locating it in the traumatic and unassimilable events of the Holocaust which he personally faced as a young child. He signifies the Holocaust as the unparalleled historical event incorporating every type of violence and “It is unique, too, in that victims and perpetrators were highly civilized people who recorded their experiences”. Valent disagrees with film director Claude Lanzmann’s approach of not analyzing the Holocaust for fear of diminishing the force of its evil; on the contrary, he argues, this entrenches an unhelpful taboo. It is incumbent on us to “understand perpetrators without losing our moral compass”. Valent gives a view of these events through the lens of Hitler’s (perverted) thinking, also referencing other traumatic events that have influenced his thinking, integrating historical and current relevant brain research into his theory on the human tendency to violence, defined as “unnecessary and irrational harm imposed on others”. Valent says at the end “I would like to finish by reminding us that our brains and our civilisation are under the influence of other than agonistic drives and their maladaptive expressions. In adjoining chambers of the human heart are nurture, cooperation, altruism, love and fulfillment”.
Apposite words for these times.
As always, I thank Carol Bolton and Elizabeth Hanscombe for their skilful help with this issue. For book and film review submissions the book review -editor may be contacted directly.
We will be devoting the major part of the next issue of the AJP, vol 38 Nº1 to papers given at the inaugural conference of the Australasian Confederation of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapies (ACPP).
Judi Blumenfeld Hoadley
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