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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Why psychoanalysis should be kept outside one’s home

Home psychoanalysis is a modern disorder. More than ever, people are attributing reasons for a person’s behaviour to something not very obvious, like the distant past or sexual melancholy or the subconscious mind. Thus there are claims that a man does not prioritize his family because he had a bad childhood; or that a woman is unhappy in a relationship because she entered it “on the rebound"; or that a child is scared of birds because she once had a frightening toy, and so on. And there are interpretations of dreams where serpents mean sex and public nudity means a sense of inferiority. (A search for meaning in dreams is close to the origins of psychoanalysis—in Sigmund Freud’s fanciful interpretations.) And, of course, people also read “body language": folded arms are a defensive pose and a rub of the nose signifies lying.

It is hard to dispute that the subconscious mind exists, and that it dictates behaviour. The collective subconscious mind of society is even perceivable, but the mainstream view that the individual subconscious can be read using general cues that hold good for all minds and that such an analysis is a settled science is a marketing triumph of psychoanalysis. The internet has accelerated the transmission of psychoanalytical cues and labels, inserting them into how people think about others.

As recently as a century ago, people did not psychoanalyse much, or at all, as we can deduce from literature that is available to us from many parts of the world. In the Bible, or the great Indian, Greek or Arabic epics, for instance, characters do not perceive an esoteric cause of an effect. Even dreams are only supernatural instructions and not omens of a secret personality. But after Freud grew popular and gave academic sophistication to the religious idea that dreams are allegories, the subconscious assumed the reputation of being our true self, with our public persona a facade. We have never been more unfair to those who love us.

Most people have not read Freud; they are merely under the influence of his insight, which is that we appear to do one thing but something else is going on with us. The actual transmission of psychoanalysis was done by writers. A literary novel, for instance, is almost entirely about what is going on in a character’s mind. And often what is going on is a psychoanalysis of others. Take for instance a strand from The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. In the novel, a beautiful young woman named Tereza has the habit of studying herself in the mirror. The reason, Kundera says, is that Tereza’s competitive mother had made the girl feel unattractive for years, and now she is liberated. “Now we can better understand the meaning of Tereza’s secret vice, her long looks and frequent glances in the mirror. It was a battle with her mother. It was a longing to be a body unlike other bodies, to find that the surface of her face reflected the crew of the soul charging up from below."

She is just a young woman checking herself out. Is that so unusual? But then, Tereza is a creation of Kundera, so his psychoanalysis of her cannot be wrong. However, the passage conveys how writers may have infected the world with psychoanalysis, which is often an over-analysis. It approximates how modern people who believe they are ‘perceptive’ think about others, how they unearth delicious connections and how they enjoy the satisfying click of a theory fitting an observation. If Tereza were a real person with a bitter mother, it is highly likely that her long gazes into the mirror would have no deep reason. Also, it is likely that her bad childhood had not adversely affected her at all. This is a point that is hard for many to accept because they are more steeped in psychoanalysis than they know. But in a world addled by psychoanalysis, which came to us first as a pseudoscience, and then as a new way of storytelling, the people around the real Tereza who rate themselves as ‘thinkers’ or as ‘sensitive’ would find meanings in almost everything she did, just as the lover of the fictional Tereza overthinks her rather ordinary vanity.

Today, the influence of psychoanalysis is more direct. There is TikTok psychoanalysis and self-improvement reels on Instagram. The world is suddenly awash in labels, with men who are ‘gaslighting’ and relationships that are ‘toxic,’ and events that are ‘triggering,’ and homes that are ‘dysfunctional,’ and pasts that are ‘traumatic’ and situations that cause ‘panic attacks.’ Some old metaphors, too, have returned, like ‘demons.’ There is no greater sign of psychoanalytical farce today than when people claim they are “fighting their own demons."

Literature gives an idea of what is going on. Psychoanalysis is at the core of modern literature, but a lot of it is sham even in fine novels. But then there are moments of great insight. In Unbearable Lightness..., Kundera is impressive when he writes how we are torn between gravitas and lightness, the heaviness of love, and the lightness of freedom. Psychoanalysis has some moments of greatness, but mostly it sees too much.

Some people have an intuitive ability to look deep into human nature and see hidden meanings in actions, or to realize there might be no special meanings. Most people do not have that gift, yet they make forays into the minds of others by consulting a spurious map.

It is alright to get an analysis of the Prime Minister or Elon Musk wrong, but people who are more important in our lives do not deserve home psychoanalysis.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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Updated: 18 Sep 2023, 12:16 AM IST
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