PHYSIC HIMSELF MUST FADE:
A View of the Therapeutic Offering through the Lens of Mortality
Ellen Pinsky, PsyD
The essay examines the psychoanalytic situation—its appeal and resilience as well as its imperfection—through the prism of the analyst’s mortality. By “mortality” I mean the analyst’s humanness, or limitation, which includes not only his (or her) frail body but also his proneness to error. An artifice, psychoanalysis functions by offering a safe, delimited illusion, like a play. The vehicle of attraction derives its energy from an ordinary human being, someone fallible as well as vulnerable in that benign fostered illusion. What are the dangers in this artificial realm, a stage purposely tilted to court intense feeling (the transference)? The analyst, in safe-keeping the position (or function) of analyst, becomes a human medium with all of any human being’s idiosyncrasy. I consider particularly the patient’s experience in relation to the profession’s avoidance of the analyst’s literal mortality—that is, the relative silence in the psychoanalytic literature about the analyst’s illness and death.
I use a number of metaphors in the essay to capture the extraordinary nature of the psychoanalytic situation. For an example, the paper concludes with the image of Medusa and Perseus, and Perseus’ bright shield; the metaphor likens what is reflected in the shield to the transference: In the story of Medusa and Perseus the shield is a mirror. This fact suggests a triangular configuration. At one point of the triangle is Medusa, the terrifying Gorgon with the snaky locks; at the second point is Perseus, the hero who slays the monster; at the third point of my imagined triangle is the vehicle, or means, by which Perseus accomplishes the feat: his polished, reflective shield. Perseus holds up that bright shield and mirror in which the image of the Gorgon is reflected, enabling him to kill her without looking directly at her, which would turn him to stone. In that perfect, protective surface, the defect, or ugliness, is visible, but no longer fatal or immobilizing. Held in the shield—it could be called an “enchanted glass”—is the transference. Safe-kept by the analyst, the process is a clear mirror, and a reliable shield, and—what’s more—the hero is clearly the patient (2012, p. 53).
American Imago, Vol. 69, No. 1, 29-56, 2012.