Faith and Disillusionment: An Interview with Dr. Michael Eigen
Michael Eigen is widely acknowledged to be the finest, most profound psychoanalytic writer of our time. In a review of one of Dr. Eigen’s works, Christopher Bollas writes: “Eigen has not only assimilated the works of his intellectual tradition, they have traveled a dense journey into his unconscious and returned in the form of spontaneous original thinking, as rare as the authors he admires. Do we know of any one who writes like an evocative amalgam of William Blake, Mark Twain, Freud, and Raymond Chandler? Eigen’s voice is unique; his vision is singular yet embracing, his mysticism is of this earth yet transcendent, and each of his chapters is a wonderful ‘spot in time’.” Dr. Michael Eigen is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology in the Post Doctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis at New York University, and Senior Member of the National Psychological Association of Psychoanalysis. He is also the editor of the Psychoanalytic Review.
Dr.Michael Eigen was interviewed in September 2006 by New York Institute for Psychotherapy Training (NYIPT) faculty and supervisor, Dr. Regina Monti. Dr. Eigen has a relationship with respected NYIPT going back to the 1970’s when he was a teacher and supervisor at the New Hope Guild.
Regina Monti: Throughout your writings, there is a thematic grounding of faith. In The Sensitive Self you describe the infant’s agony and hunger for the mother (the Other) leading the infant into a “numbness, stupor, oblivion”. When mother shows up, the infant is full with the “Bountiful Other . . .whose merciful intervention enables restoration of aliveness.” You go on to say that “something of this pattern remains as an organizing sequence . .informing emotional life”. Disintegration-integration, fragmentation-wholeness, etc. Is this the arena of faith? A definition of faith?
Along with faith, you write often about destructiveness. So much destruction in the Bible (a book of Faith). Where does the therapist’s faith originate in sitting and witnessing with the patient his/her trauma, destruction and shattering?
Michael Eigen: I’d like to start by taking these first two questions together. The problem of faith and destructiveness is basic to the human condition. Many sessions I write about are felt to be crises of faith. Faith in face of destructiveness. Can faith survive destruction? In what way? How?
As you know, a person sours in face of injury. Disillusionment can lead to cynicism, an embittered personality, an embittered soul. One hardens. We’ve learned that even fragmentation can harden. Diffusion can harden. Personality dispersal can become a chronic defense, a self-hardening. And if one touches it, one finds injury. A baby faith devastated. Often devastation one never recovers from, not fully.
We may give reasons why we use unnecessary violence, like wiping out Dresden, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Unnecessary violence. Like the Nazi concentration camps. Like so much wiping each other out on the global scene today. We point to politics, economics, national “self-interest”. Why does so much professed self-interest have to be so destructive, including destructive to the “interest” it professes to advance? It may be jejune of me to say that one reason is our injured baby faith, soul injury that remains with us all life long, looking for expression, correction. We are caught in a dreadful law: injury leads to injury.
We get a thrill from acts of obliteration. The biblical God is a model of our psyche on this score. What’s his response to feeling hurt by how badly his human creation turns out, human beings a blow to his ego? He wants to wipe the human race out, blot it out. With a flood. Throughout the bible, one emotional flood or another tries to wipe out destructiveness. Destruction wiping out destruction. This primal response shows how prone we are to respond to difficulty and injury by trying to blot it out, obliterate it. Because we feel wiped out by it. Because we are partial beings who ache for total states.
A lot of therapy is about the slow recovery of faith, at least more of it, a more informed faith, wiser, fuller, ready for anything. Although we can never be so ready. A respectful faith. In which caring has a real place, a caring about one’s destructiveness. To care enough to struggle with it.
In my twin books, Toxic Nourishment and Damaged Bonds, I describe how people are poisoned by what nourishes them, damaged by bonds that sustain them, that give them life. You mention a rhythm I describe in The Sensitive Self, a basic rhythm. Therapy supports or tries to jumpstart a rhythm of coming through injury, defeat, megalomania, a rhythm one goes through over and over, a rhythm of faith.
RM: You have written that the post-Freudian interest and deeper exploration of psychotic process has allowed psychoanalysis to “come out of the closet”. Please explain. What is the close? Who and or what is in there?
ME: Although Freud ostensibly developed a theory and clinical approach to neurosis, I point out in The Psychotic Core, that his concepts are heavily steeped in a phenomenology of psychosis. The id: seething cauldron of emotional realities where the law of contradiction and common sense do not hold, where space and time are abrogated, compressed, nullified (and in some ways expanded). The superego: persecution gone haywire, spinning into self-hate, self-demolition, a mixture of self-torment and self-obliteration. The ego: at once a hallucinatory organ and adaptive agent with anti-hallucinogenic properties. Freud wrote that an early cognitive operation of the ego is hallucination. For example, the ego as wish-fulfillment machine, attempting to get rid of disturbance by making believe it’s not there in some way, wishing it away. A problem with wishing disturbance away is one tends to wish oneself away as well. A vanishing tendency is initiated that becomes objectless or something like all-inclusive. In extremis, a vanishing tendency that vanishes itself as well as anything in its path.
Freud spoke of flooding as a primal trauma. And one way one deals with emotional storm is by trying to wish it, hallucinate it out of existence. A problem being one hallucinates oneself out of existence, too.
So, one thing I brought out is how psychotic states informed the background and construction of Freud’s structural concepts, and that psychosis was crucial to his theory and practice from the outset.
As psychoanalysis unfolded, attention gravitated to psychotic states: Melanie Klein, Harry Stack Sullivan, Searles, Winnicott, Fairbairn, Bion. In 1975 Andre Green formalized this seismic shift in psychoanalysis in his statement that where once neurosis was a defense against perverse tendencies, now both were seen as ways of warding off and organizing psychotic anxieties. Henry Elkin, steeped in Jung and the British school, used to lecture: “Behind every neurosis is a hidden psychosis”.
It seems to me after two world wars, the shift towards madness was inevitable. Although, of course, madness has never been a stranger to the human race. Now we can add pervasive psychopathy to the pie. For our own moment of history has as a guiding light, the calculated, psychopathic manipulation of psychotic anxieties. We have just seen one of the great power grabs in our nation’s history, certainly the most amazing in my 70 odd years, a basic weapon being manipulation of catastrophic dreads. Bodies are paying for it and, I believe, the psychic health of nations.
RM: In your work, your refer to “states of consciousness.” For example, you write: “We are challenged to work with cosmic and practical I-feelings”. I love this statement. Would you explain further?
In many of my books I write about the challenge of being in multiple worlds at once. Pluralistic dimensions of experience. One might speak of tendencies, capacities, attitudes. Different worlds open with different modes of approach. For example, when immersed in taste, touch, vision, hearing - worlds open in each that the others can’t offer.
With this in mind, one appreciates the implicit humor in Bion’s references to “common sense”. How to coordinate the senses is no small wonder. In autism, for example, attention is pulled first by something preeminent in one sense, then another. So that common sense, the senses working together, becomes quite a challenge, a genuine achievement.
And yet each sense gives us inexhaustible worlds, gives us ourselves differently. There is no end to the nuances of self-feeling, the self-sensations that our senses modulate, ineffable pathways. Yes, sensation is ineffable.
How much more so is the challenge, the invitation, to get to know, to taste, to smell different worlds along the cosmic-personal dimension. In The Psychotic Core I showed intricacies of being both anonymous and personal beings. We are made up of many anonymous capacities that work by themselves and we sense this anonymity that pervades our existence. Yet we have personal feeling, personal self-feeling, I, me, you, we. A feeling of my personal being. Winnicott, for example, is exercised by the question of how personal self-feeling extends to embrace and grapple with anonymous processes that make it up.
It may be that Federn was the first to write about this systematically. He, following Freud, felt the I at first is a kind of cosmic I, boundless, no end to surface or depth, if these spatial terms apply at all. Psychotic individuals he worked with failed to make the transition to it into their body envelope. They refused or were unable to squeeze into the limiting field of usual material and social reality. The ability to contract the cosmic I-feeling to fit a common sense world did not undergo sufficient development. I won’t cover all this ground again here. Just using this to note the difficulty the demand of living in and coordinating different regions of being can bring. Part of therapy involves a certain double (multiple) directionality: worlds open with movement of sensation fields and worlds narrow and close. The rhythm of opening-closing, expanding-narrowing is part of basic rhythms that need to evolve. Therapy tries to support evolution of capacities to nourish each other.
Mystics also attest to impalpable, ineffable awareness. This is a very real capacity that stamps experience. It plays an important role in creativity, personal transformation and deformation, and also horrendous individual and group scenarios. For we squeeze a sense of the infinite into time-space scripts that can be uplifting or murderous or both. Note the fusion of infinite satisfactions in suicide bombing, where devotion and obliteration merge, an approach to a totalistic experience that is hard to match in ability to satisfy competing strivings.
How to confess we are at a loss what to do with ourselves, with all we are and have been given, with all we can do?! We are like babies who have not yet developed frames of reference that do justice to experience, this sense of being, streams not only of sensations, but infinities of worlds within and without. I am glad you love the sentence you ask me about. It shows a love of the mystery we are part of.
RM: I am confused by the discussion in your book Damaged Bonds regarding the idea that with traumatized or what Bion refers to as “shattered” patients, the analyst needs to “dream the patient”. “Dream” in the sense of imagine? Or literally dream as in during sleep? Or both?
ME: Bion remarks in Cogitations, “I am his other self and it is a dream.” You let this resonate, let it seep in. Sometimes I play with a resonant statement like this: I am his other. I am his dream. I am his other dream. We are indeed each other’s selves, each other’s dreams.
In Cogitations, Bion develops the notion that dreaming is part of our psychic digestive system. In Damaged Bonds and other places, I somewhat rework this and put it this way. Dreams, in part, help initiate digestion of catastrophic impacts. They help feed trauma globs into the stream of experience and try to begin the processing of injury. Often we don’t know what wounds us or the extent of the wound. It hits and if there are enough hits or big enough hits, we are in danger of going under. We deform to work with unbearable impacts. There is always more than we can ever possibly digest. But we try to break off, bite off some bit of trauma glob or chunk and chew on it, turn it this way and that, dream it, rework it, develop expressive symbols and gestures. In some form or other, through dance, music, painting, poetry, hopefully psychotherapy, we slowly develop, over thousands of years, an emotional language, a digestive language.
Politics, economics, public affairs potentially does this too. With modern technology the stakes are greater, nearly instantaneously global. And if the digestive process goes wrong- and often it does- we are left with global representations of trauma that escalate the trauma chain, increase the trauma momentum. The digestive system is broken.
Bion calls attention to the deep fact that our emotional digestive system can be damaged, our psychic digestive system damaged, dream-work damaged, primary process damaged. The impact of massive trauma is through and through. It is not a matter, as in the old model, of secondary process working on primary process. The new model is that primary process itself plays an important role in the digestion of affects. And if primary process is warped and damage, no amount of secondary process “correction” will correct this. We will add warp upon warp and make the whole in some way even more monstrous. It would be a macabre caricature to say we are in danger of chronic psychic indigestion. The situation is much worse. People are paying for this damaged capacity with their lives.
That is why in Psychic Deadness, in a chapter called “Primary Process and Shock”, I call the analyst an auxiliary dream processor, rather than auxiliary ego. For primary process needs long-term support. And this support partly comes by profound self-to-self interweaving, unconscious permeability, in which we taste each other’s self-substance, a kind of mutual steeping. It is a process that is needed in cultural as well as personal dreamwork.
RM: You (like Winnicott, Bion, and Lacan) have found a personal language, a unique voice in psychoanalysis and methodology. Your idiosyncratic use of language, the experience-near aspect of reading your work manifests, I feel, from the ability to blend the deeply personal with the historical-theoretical. Your work is at times unabashedly autobiographical, experiential, and self-revealing. In light of the issue of self-disclosure in psychoanalytic work, please comment on the evolution and use of your personal experience in your analytic work.
You often cluster your thoughts/observations/case studies around specific human emotions/feelings: e.g. Lust, Rage, Ecstasy. Why these particular emotions, and how has this methodology served to express your professional experiences/observations?
ME: Thanks, Regina, for these thoughts. Let me try putting these two questions together. When I wrote Ecstasy my intent was to give expression to something that made my life worthwhile, something at the very heart of my experience. An ecstatic core at the heart of life. Yet when I got into it and tried to let come out what wanted to speak, I found myself gravitating more and more to destructive ecstasies. For there is something about ecstatic destruction that is world threatening at this moment of history. Destruction of the conditions that support life, the atmosphere, the water, the air. The hole in the ozone layer parallels a hole in our own selves through which toxins spill, emotional toxins, affective attitudes that damage rather than support existence. This is happening on a wide scale with accelerating momentum. But there must be something we can do.
When I speak about damaged primary process and dream-work, I am speaking about damaged processes that support emotional life, that support psychic life, that support us. We breathe each other as feeling beings, breathe in feelings and attitudes and expel them too. We live in a psychic atmosphere that is very sensitive. We have sensitivity that can evolve to support our psychic atmosphere and enable it to support us. But we seem to be heading in another direction and getting a kick out of doing so.
Our current bully government seems to get well-nigh ecstatic from the exercise of power, even though they are like drunk elephants in the china shop of the world. They know what they are doing. They know how to make fortunes and create power for themselves and their corporate base. But they do not seem to care about the damage their jouissance causes. A kind of psychopathic element rules the day. But it is not the only element. It is now the only path we can take. So many of us want something better, fuller, more caring than this. A caring for the conditions that support life. A caring for the emotional conditions that support us. A caring for our human health, which is falling behind the pace of spiritual toxic spills.
The second book in this series, Rage, caught a ruling feeling of the time. Everyday news reports spoke of one kind of rage or another, race rage, terrorist rage, road rage, computer rage,alcoholic-addictive rage, you name it. Rage appeared to be a core affect in our nation and I tried to put some tracers on it. I tried to turn the experience of rage around, something like a kaleidoscope, and touch it in many contexts from many angles. Through art, literature, religion, clinical sessions, politics. I used anything I could, anything that was part of me, that could let rage speak and dig into and open our rage world. There is, for example, a smoldering rage against the inflated power egos that flaunt dumbfounding success while multitudes look on and cringe. Great Macy parade balloon egos inflated with and feeding on the resentment of many, playing with fire.
The last book in this series, Lust, just came out this year. My own experiences of lust, ecstasy, rage play an important role in these works. But lust, too, took me deeper into the body politic and the lust for power. It straddles individual and group activities. A particular lust dear to me, writing lust, poetry lust received some care and poets will, I think, like what I say about their particular addiction - what poetry opens.
Tradition tells us death haunts lust and this notion is no stranger to psychoanalysis. I use some of Lacan’s writings on death in lust to heighten the interplay of our pairing of lust and mortality. A premature dying haunts experience, as if we drag a kind of self-deadening process like a weight. Self-deadening we try to deny. Again, I fear, if we don’t find ways to face this coupling of heightened aliveness-self deadening, we will create overly destructive mimicry of these states. We are doing so with alarming consistency in public affairs where sensitivity to human feeling is for losers.
My latest book, Feeling Matters, should be out any month, any day. It builds on these themes and pleas for the importance of feeling in personal life and in public life. It shows how insensitivity spirals, wreaking havoc on a national and global scale. In one chapter, for example, “Election Rape”, I trace the resonance between a case of child abuse and this same person as an adult feeling raped by the 2000 presidential election and much that followed. She was sensitized to rape in daily life and felt it keenly in the body politic as well as in her own body. A confluence between childhood trauma and adult trauma opened reality in important ways.
While this new book is concerned with fits between personal and group trauma, it also opens domains beyond trauma and appeals to an ethics of sensitivity with psycho-spiritual roots. This work explores ways that faith meets catastrophic impacts and helps support beginnings of processing them, ways of working with them. An affirmation of life in the midst of horror. We have much work to do.
Thank you, Regina, for your questions, your care, your exuberant sensitivity.
A powerful mix of lust, rage and exhuberance in the screaming process of enless being.