Can a psychoanalyst see through you?

By Rebecca Abrams, April 4, 2013
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A scene from Shulamit Ran’s 1997 opera, Between Two Worlds, based on The Dybbuk (Photo: AP)

A scene from Shulamit Ran’s 1997 opera, Between Two Worlds, based on The Dybbuk (Photo: AP)

Psychoanalysis and Ghostly Transmissions
By Stephen Frosh

Have you ever seen a ghost? Or felt that an event in your past needed laying to rest? Or had a strong premonition something was going to happen before it actually did? Or caught sight of your reflection in a shop window and for a moment failed to recognise yourself?

These are the intriguing phenomena that Stephen Frosh explores in this short but fascinating book about the experiences of haunting familiar to many of us, and what those experiences might tell us about ourselves.

In the course of his investigations, Frosh draws on a wide range of Jewish sources, including the Bible, the Talmud, and Jewish folklore and literature. The story of the binding of Isaac, for example, provides intriguing insights into the difficulty of seeing and being fully seen. The play The Dybbuk informs a discussion about the search for the Shechinah, and the possibility of forgiving those who have possessed and dispossessed us.

“Judaism, Jewish identity and psychoanalysis are bound tightly together”, Frosh reminds us, since psychoanalysis is itself haunted by its Jewish origins, and “the ambivalence that comes from having a ‘Jewish father’ to whom one might feel in thrall, and against whom one might have to rebel.”

Jewishness, he argues, is itself a “spectral” presence within psychoanalysis, “another unlaid ghost, bursting out from time to time, sometimes celebrated but at other times abjected.” A strong theme running through the book is Freud’s complex relationship with his own Jewishness.

All humans can find themselves haunted by the past, and also, according to Frosh, by what ghosts intimate to us “about what we are about to become.” In various guises, he argues, ghosts speak to us from the past about the future. For Jewish readers, Frosh’s book has a particular resonance, since the dead, for good and ill, seem to exert an especially strong hold over us, be they the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Torah, or our own specific ancestors. But being haunted is a normal state in Frosh’s view: “Those who are not in some way possessed are also not fully human.”

Frosh is Professor of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck College and his overriding focus is on how these experiences can be understood and worked within a psychoanalytic context.

Hauntings is aimed at a specialist audience and at times this makes for fairly impenetrable reading for a reader not steeped in the work of Freud, Klein and Lacan. But even for the non-specialist there are rich rewards in this book. It will change the way you think about things that might haunt you.

Last updated: 1:43pm, April 4 2013