The wish to sleep and the wish to wake up and the capacity to dream?

Psychoanalysis is likened to voodoo, and seen as deriving from dreaming. The fright of the reader of psychoanalytical texts.  Also: Masud Khan and the why of art.

Masud Khan (photo by Neil Libbert)

I am not a psychoanalyst, nor am I seeing one.  But I read psychoanalytical texts, and must ask myself why. 

I mean I try to read mostly narratives of the analytical encounter and the analyst’s subsequent attempt to extract or abstract a number of still theoretical formulations that could be useful to him, and then to others.  But I prefer it if the texts have an emotional significance, meaning that they are, at the end, tragically useless beyond what they describe.  Freud’s “Dora” is a great narrative but is contested because the patient, at the end, does not return.  A writer of such texts is, I believe, later bound to put their name to an unhappy, uncertain ending – to a text written over by the absent patient. That adds, in a way, to the drama of the texts.

 But it’s even more unclear to me what a reader of psychoanalytical texts does, or is.

In psychoanalysis, I am attracted to the notion of saying anything that comes to my mind insofar as I am unable to do so – as Freud says “we not only want to hear from him what he knows and is holding from others, but he shall also tell us, what he does not know – wir wollen von ihm nicht nur hören, was er weiss und vor anderen verbirgt, sondern er soll uns auch erzählen, was er nicht weiss” (Freud 1938) – and to dreaming as a formation as much as something that is happening to me: a “working-through” as dream construction, a revelation to my self.

But beyond what psychoanalysis might teach: who is the reader of their texts?

Of course, I can read psychoanalytical texts hoping for a clarifying therapeutic effect.  Or I can follow the drama of two people speaking in a room, as the HBO series “In Treatment” does – laying bare the “dramaturgy” of the unconscious (Jean Starobinski, quoted by Khan 1983). “I find it always uncanny,” Freud himself wrote in a letter “when I can’t understand someone in terms of myself.” (29 October 1882, to his fiancée, quoted by Jones, Khan 1962).  But my interest in reading analytical texts could lie a little deeper than therapy, beyond the “use and abuse” of such texts, and the possibly creative mirror game of looking for (un)familiarities in other people’s constructions.  Another question inhabits analytical material – one that can unsettle this reader.

Indeed, I believe there is a deeper drama – to me, at least – in truly analytical texts.   I’ll claim this: an unresolved conflict or an original question lies within written reports established, as Masud Khan writes, “through a mutuality of playing dialogue between the analyst and the patient in an atmosphere of trust in unknowing” (Khan 1983)  – an irresolution that is not stated, but inspires in this reader a sense of fright.

(photo: Yuji Ono)

I recently saw an exhibit on vodun (West African voodoo) – specifically vodun statues – at the Fondation Cartier in Paris.  These “dolls” are made from pieces of the natural world (bones, wood, etc) and detritus from civilization (bottles, clocks, etc) in response to the complaint of the one seeking help: the loved one will return or s/he will be punished, disaster will fall on an enemy, the gossiper’s mouth will be struck dumb, whole villages will be protected from disaster, and so forth – cures will be had through the tale of desire and fear the doll’s exterior tells.  The fabrication takes time as such dolls are made individually, tailored to the sufferer’s specific complaint.  The figure-maker seems part healer, part psychologist, part con artist, part politician-priest, all transference expert – but, in the end, a great craftsman.  The hoped-for-resolution itself entails the irreducible materiality of the doll, made of teeth, birds’ beaks, claws, iron, hair, twigs, locks, medicine bottles – an insistent left-over, a vibrant anteriority that takes its place years later in a museum.  The construction is even today an other more substantial, weightier than transference: the art of the cure.

These stubborn remains form an otherness that, if it exists in the analytical cure as well, could easily be overlooked in the theory and case histories, where the transcript of two people speaking and listening to each other can seem immaterial, intellectualized or fictionalized – involving, if successful, a rhetorical or magical sublimation of the elements of the “talking cure.”

But is there such a leftover in psychoanalysis?  What would psychoanalysis put in a museum?

Let me approach this question as a reader: if the patient tells Freud even what he, the patient, “does not know” I could read even that which I do not know I read.  That does not mean the same as learning – accidentally or by design:  beyond information gathering, I read for what I cannot assimilate.  This reading experience, driven by what cannot be absorbed – a little like Bataille’s part maudite, his accursed share – involves desire and departs from a blind objectivity, from strictly academic model-based reasoning or from common sense, even.

 A question draws me in, like a moth to a flame.  That much is clear to me.

 Masud Khan

 The psychoanalyst M. Masud R. Khan’s articles and books greatly intrigue and seduce me by his storytelling, the way in which Winnicottian language elements of care animate the story of Khan’s encounters with patients, or simply others.  “Psychoanalysis has to abstract and make sense of the very private subjective experiences in a person,” Khan explains. “This person can be a patient, the analyst himself or a mélange of both.”  (Khan 1983)  He must have been aware that his case histories read like short stories, or, rather, since he is prominent in them, and the recurring figure, installments in an autobiography.  As far as I know he gets criticized for that very autobiographical impulse, when, in his later years, his behavior apparently overshadowed his texts.

Here, for instance, Khan becomes the antagonist in his patient’s story.  The analyst can become his patient’s dead ringer.

Khan has written a set of three articles about the use of dreams.  The patient is not only a neurotic but also a dreamer. In these texts, Khan returns persistently to the question of art – a central issue as psychoanalysis needs to distinguish itself from mimetic work that is exceptional and never useful.  First, “Dream Psychology and the Evolution of the Psychoanalytic Situation” (1962) proposes that the analytical situation has derived from the dreamer’s situation or the “wish to sleep and the wish to wake up and the capacity to dream”. It originates historically in the termination of Freud’s one-of-a-kind self-analysis, and on the unavailability of both Freud’s dreams as well as his clinical experience with his first patients for a second interpretation by others.  Freud intuitively understood this: both his heroism and his subjectivity.  This resulted in the creation of a substitute: psychoanalysis.  (In other words, Freud’s texts are not workbooks, adaptive manuals providing models for a better life.)  That origin – a double occurrence, first with the end of Freud the dreamer, then with its substitution by the analytical situation – must be seen as rivaling but not emanating from the “products of poets, artists, and gifted dreamers.”  Dreams are not art.  For Khan, artists have access to dreams in the sense that they can replicate what dreams do, but in the waking world.  That’s their “gift.”  From the capacity to dream comes a vast amount of literature, myth, ritual and science, Khan acknowledges.  But the article is haunted by the perceived necessity of reclaiming dreaming from art, from the work of metaphors.  Khan’s Freud had to find a substitute for art.  Freud, the analyst, is not a magician (he no longer hypnotizes), lacks the pride of the creator (his metaphorical abilities) – as he has, instead, a genius for abstraction – but is an “awakener” who keeps the dreamer from the narcissistic satisfaction of sleep and oblivion and who wrests the gift of dreaming away from the poets.  In other words: Freud is truly heroic in that he did not end up as an artist.

The analyst-as-awakener holds the patient and the analyst between two types of forgetting: sleep and consciousness.  It is a mimetic activity that, literally, recreates dreaming but in the magic hour of psychoanalysis.

In “The Use and Abuse of Dream in Psychic Experience” (1972) a patient’s wild dream constructions shatter his ability to form “good” dreams, and to make use of them.  Dreaming itself is negated as he is left exhausted, “depersonalized and jaded”.  He is then, Khan sees, “emmeshed in a macabre world, “possessed” by a structure in him: he is “as much the dream itself as the dream is his concoction.”  The assault of sensations – of an “absurd mélange of images … unreal and compulsive” – is seen as disruptive of life. Khan pleads for the necessity to make use of those constructions in the dream space.  Failing that, the human being is simply not. He acts out in the social-space what could have been kept in, and made use of in the dream-space: a macabre world, a possession, a concoction.

What, I wonder, does the “artist”, the “gifted dreamer” – as opposed to the good dreamer of psychoanalysis – do?  Leave us, their audience in the social-space, with a disquieting enigmatic remainder?

Khan’s third article “Beyond the Dreaming Experience” (1976) goes a step further: not only do the products of traumatic dreamers disintegrate their dreaming, any patient’s dream text is now seen as a negation of dreaming.  The dream text brought by the patient to the session – the memory of their dream – is a stranger to dreaming itself.  “There is a dreaming experience to which the dream text holds no clue … dreaming itself is beyond interpretation, as it is not reflected in the dream text.” Freud is quoted as witness:  “These dreams best fulfill their function about which one knows nothing after waking.”  The dreaming experience can actualize the self during sleep – and this is its essential achievement – but only in an unknowable, unwritten way. But analytical waking life only works with dream texts.  The dream text is a narrative, opportunistically or creatively fashioned, whose purpose it is to be communicated, shared and interpreted.  (Channeling Starobinksi, Khan compares the dreaming sleep to Oedipus – Oedipus himself “does not dream” – and the dream text to Hamlet who has a thousand questions, and bad dreams.  Oedipus does not dream, because he is.  But put him in a narrative and Oedipus is the original usurper of his own identity, the original dissociation.)  Khan therefore writes the following: the analytical situation “has to work with the absence of a lived experience in the person without seeking for its articulation.”

(photo: Yuji Ono)

Dreaming is “depth itself”, with “nothing behind”.  At best we depart or fall into this dreaming sleep.  The work of analysis is to not talk about what the dream text does not cover: a lived experience.  “The dreaming subject is the entire subject,” Khan writes.  Beyond that, or after that lies analysis where patient and analyst form a new difference.  But the material of the analytical situation– its substance, what weighs it down – is the absence of the lived.  Analysis does the work of the dead. In practice, it has to ignore the absent plea of the neurotic why is there a competitor in me who lives? and continue its work.

Mimesis and fright

Working with – producing – something that is not is one possible definition of mimesis, or of what mimesis does. Khan refers again to art, giving it an exceptional status. He thus quotes William Blake: “The imagination is not a state: it is Human Existence itself.” (Khan 1983)

Art is often seen as central to questions of human self-identification.  But I do not think that psychoanalysis has or is interested in a definition of what is human (as opposed to mimetic), or needs to know what a constituted self (the I of philosophy, of the law, or of aesthetic theory) is.  It works with material from anterior times, where the human is always not yet. 

In the best psychoanalytical texts I wonder, however, whether they have an aesthetic theory that remains unspoken, a secret assumption about why there is art.  This is also a question that leads us to an anterior experience.  Why – not what is art? or what is art good for? Those latter, familiar questions of aesthetic theory seem less relevant or pressing.  They have already bypassed or suppressed the initial why? in favor of answers that are usually predictably positive in one way or another: idealistically celebratory, or critical only to guiltily admit the fundamental humanity of art – art as mankind’s privileged means of expression or subversion.


The human is exalted through this, its exceptional achievement, and thereby art, although dangerously present at the dawn of humanity  is not presented as an obstacle to human self-identification, as an original foe. Art is never seen as the original dissociation in the human experience.  Such a more challenging perspective – contained as a darker possibility in the question why is there art? – is thereby elided.  Please take a moment and ask yourself this question: beyond wonder and awe at the originality of art, beyond the what? and the what is it good for? – is there another, less safe question you could or would like to ask?

To return to the experience of this reader: the question of art inspires in me a sense not of wonderment or surprise but of fright – a more transgressive feeling. In general, by not merely reading for assimilation, for objectivity, we can allow an earlier intent to any text – earlier than author’s intent or textual subversion – one that comes in questions, images, bizarre formations: subjective like dreams.

Here I propose the question why is there art? as such a question-construct because psychoanalysis has this tragic fault line: it needs to exile art, constantly.  It cannot allow for a left-over, a token or fetish that would make it a kin to art.  There should be no remainder – and no reminder of art.  Conversely this exorcism drives its argument, the way Oedipus (the untranslatable: the us, but not for us) is the origin we neurotics flee from.

Art (is the name given to that which) can threaten the integration of a person’s self.  Psychoanalysis cannot stem from (originate in) art.

Dreams must not be art.

So why is there art?

Luc Kinsch


This photo shows Georges Bataille in the cave of Lascaux, where art is born and the human is invented. If Freud’s original heroism and his genius for (self) abstraction was his renunciation of art, Bataille is a heroic neurotic who stuck with art.

Freud, “Die psychoanalytische Technik”, Abriss der Psychoanalyse (1938, published 1940)

Masud Khan, Dream Psychology and the Evolution of the Psychoanalytic Situation (1962)

The Use and Abuse of Dream in Psychic Experience (1972)

Beyond the Dreaming Experience (1983)


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