McDougall - Prologue from the Theaters of the Mind

Prologue from the Theaters of the Mind ©

The Psychic Theater and the Psychoanalytic Stage 


by Joyce McDougall

One always hopes to become someone 
only to find out in the end that one is several.  

Raymond Devos, French comedian    

"All the world's a stage," and that all the men and women in it are "merely players" expressed Shakespeare's deep conviction that we do not readily escape the roles that are essentially ours.  Each of us is drawn into an unfolding life drama in which the plot reveals itself to be uncannily repetitive.  


In taking the theater as a metaphor for psychic reality, I am hoping to avoid the standard psychiatric and psychoanalytic classification of clinical entities.  Those terms apply to symptoms, not to people.  To designate someone as a "neurotic," a "psychotic," a "pervert," or a "psychosomatic" is little more than name-calling and is inadequate to describe anything as complex and subtle as a human personality.  It not only fosters the illusion that we have said something pertinent about somebody, but implies that the rest of us are free of the psychic dramas that lie behind the symptoms to which these terms refer.  


We all have our neurotic conflicts, our little areas of private folly (at least let us hope so); we are all susceptible to psychosomatic breakdown under stress; and we are all capable of creating perverse fantasies as well as dreaming impossible dreams.  Each of us harbors in our inner universe a number of "characters," parts of ourselves that frequently operate in complete contradiction to one another, causing conflict and mental pain to our conscious selves.  For we are relatively unacquainted with these hidden players and their roles.  Whether we will it or not, our inner characters are constantly seeking a stage on which to play out their tragedies and comedies.  Although we rarely assume responsibility for our secret theater productions, the producer is seated in our own minds.  Moreover, it is this inner world with its repeating repertory that determines most of what happens to us in the external world.  


Who writes the scripts?  What are the plots about?  And where are they performed?  


Language informs us that the scriptwriter is called I.  Psychoanalysis has taught us that the scenarios were written years ago by a naive and childlike I struggling to survive in an adult world whose drama conventions are quite different from the child's.  These psychic plays may be performed in the theater of our own minds or that of our bodies or may take place in the external world, sometimes using other people's minds and bodies, or even social institutions, as their stage.  We are also capable of shifting our own psychic dramas from one stage to another in times of overwhelming stress.  For the I is a multifaceted character.  

 Free-floating associations, essential to the work of analysis, allow us to discover how many different people within us claim to be I.  At the same time, it is difficult to hear what several people are saying if they all speak at once - as they do in our unconscious minds.  


Although being given permission to free associate is a rare opportunity, unthinkable in an ordinary social situation, many patients resist the invitation to "say everything" even within the therapeutic setting.  Sometimes patients treat the analytic relationship as though it were a social one, becoming apprehensive about the analyst's thoughts and judgments.  At other times they are afraid of meeting their thoughts and feelings when faced with little-known or unacceptable aspects of themselves.  In addition, some analysands fear the loss of control that is entailed in letting their thoughts wander freely: they are afraid of getting confused or sounding crazy.  These reticences are known as resistance to the analytic or therapeutic process, and they demand respect until such time as the analysand feels capable of assuming the conflicts and paradoxes that cause resistance.  


Little is left to chance in the dramas that make up a human life.  Yet we often prefer to believe we are the playthings of fate, obliged to perform unrewarding tasks that present themselves as essential and to fulfill obscure desires that we do not recognize is our own.  Unaware of the hidden choices that direct our decisions, we are rarely coherent in accounting for our choice of partners or professions, or for the mixture of success and failure that each choice may bring us.  We do not escape the roles that our unconscious selves intend us to play, frequently using people in our lives today as stand-ins to settle problems of the past.  It is only when we try to re-create everyday scenes upon the psychoanalytic stage that we often discover to our dismay that we are in full performance yet totally ignorant of who the real characters are or what the story is about.

Who were we when we started that absurd argument with the new neighbor?  We've been so busy asking ourselves who the hell he thinks he is to park his car where it becomes virtually impossible for us to get into the driveway that we have quite overlooked our role in the ensuing discussion, which ended to everyone's total dissatisfaction.  Of course the intrusive newcomer is remarkably like cousin Dave, who came to live with the family when he was eight, taking up half our "driveway" as children.  What with his dinky cars and toy soldiers scattered all over the place we no longer even had the playroom to ourselves!  It may have been thirty years ago, but Dave is still there among our inner personages, and we are still trying to get him onto any promising stage, using a suitable character to play his role, so that we can at last tell him just what we think of him.  


Each secret-theater self is thus engaged in repeatedly playing roles from the past, using techniques discovered in childhood and reproducing, with uncanny precision, the same tragedies and comedies, with the same outcomes and an identical quota of pain and pleasure.  What were once attempts at self -cure in the face of mental pain and conflict are now symptoms that the adult I produces, following forgotten childhood solutions.  The resulting psychic scenarios may be called neuroses or narcissistic disorders, addictions or perversions, psychoses or psychosomatoses but they originate from our childlike I's need to protect itself from psychic suffering.  


Let us take a closer look at these repressed scenarios of which symptoms are only vestigial remnants.  All drama, tragic or comic, reveals the struggles of men and women, confronted with violent instinctual forces in a world that offers little support in solving conflicts.  Swept by storms of love and hate, seeking as much to please and to seduce as to punish and to destroy those closest to us, from childhood on we all have to compromise with two fundamental aspects of external reality: the Forbidden and the Impossible.  These form the ineluctable framework from which our personal identity is constructed.  Helped or hindered by the demands of the "others," the people who brought us up and the society to which we belong, each of us attempts to find solutions that satisfy the exigencies of our forbidden libidinal longings and our impossible narcissistic desires.  


By definition, the Forbidden is potentially realizable.  It is theoretically possible, for example, to commit incest or parricide.  That such acts may be considered impossible arises from the barrier of repression that makes such guilt-laden wishes unthinkable.  The true Impossibles, on the other hand, are connected to inevitable narcissistic wounds that beset the human infant from birth onward, beginning with the wound of being severed from fusional oneness with the mother.  These are markedly less accessible to verbal thought and require counterinvestments and compensations of another order.  


The psychic repertory of the Forbidden comprises, in the neurotic theater, endless variations on the oedipal theme in both its homosexual and its heterosexual orientation.  Instead of enjoying the adult right to sexual and love relations and the normal narcissistic pleasure afforded by work and sublimatory activities, the I draws inward in an attempt to hold on to these precious rights.  Meanwhile the distressed child hidden in the adult sacrifices pleasure and satisfaction in exchange for compromise solutions that lead to the creation of neurotic symptoms and inhibitions.  These compromise solutions, constructed to protect sexuality or to satisfy it in roundabout ways, are camouflaged in an atmosphere of interdiction, anxiety, and guilt.

The Forbidden, as its etymology implies, is always related to what the child has been told.  Its repertory is therefore composed of highly condensed verbal texts that recount storms and obstacles in the odyssey of desire.  The first three "scenes from psychic life" recounted in chapter 2 * illustrate the alternating forces of attraction and repulsion of the Forbidden.  They preserve, in petrified form, the fruit of childhood sexual theories and fantasies.  Such creations, remarkable for their density and overall efficiency, are actually encoded versions of complex plays.  


By contrast the theater of the Impossible reveals suffering of a more widespread nature, suffering that frequently makes social and work relationships painfully difficult and leaves people hurt and confused.  How do we manage to bind the wounds to our narcissistic integrity caused by external realities-the impossibility of being one with the mother; the failure of the illusion that one can control another's thoughts and actions; the realization that we must accept to be one sex or the other and do not have the power and sexual attributes of both parents; the fact of aging; and finally, the inevitability of death?  Most of us manage to make unstable adjustments to these realities, but there is little doubt that in our unconscious fantasies we are all omnipotent, bisexual, externally young, and immortal.  


Failure to devise acceptable ways of transforming impossible wishes into substitute satisfactions may create a serious fault-line in the psychic structure, leading to profound narcissistic disturbance.  The fragment of analysis of the patient called Angela, whom we shall meet in chapter 10*, gives a glimpse into this aspect of psychic perturbation.  Should narcissistic defenses and relationships fail, there is a risk of psychotic decompensation.  An example of this more serious outcome is the particular disorganization of reality called delusion.  The scenario of the young would-be murderer, recounted in chapter 2, is a vivid illustration of the tragedy inherent in this particular expression of the Theater of the Impossible.  We are no longer witnessing the scenes of the normal-neurotic struggle to protect one's adult rights nor of the narcissistic struggle to maintain one's feeling of self-esteem and personal identity.  The psychotic plot turns around the unceasing struggle for the right to exist, against the subject's deep conviction instilled through childhood interpretations, that the right to an independent life, or even to existence itself, was not desired.

When the curtain rises on the psychotic stage, we have the impression that the stage manager has destroyed the setting and instead is allowing the public to witness the disorder behind the scenes.  Without the coherent lines of the players through which neurotic scenarios are communicated, we are of ten puzzled by the story that is presented to us.  Psychotic plots, like those of neurotic creation, are made of words and ideas, but the meaning of the words has been reorganized in such a private way that it is difficult to grasp their underlying significance.  Delusions, structured like dreams, are nevertheless lived as an implacable reality by the minds that have invented them.  


Fortunately, in coming to grips with life's Impossibles, most of us have at our disposal other theaters than that of delusion.  There is another stage, on which many impossible and forbidden wishes may find substitute expressions.  This stage, lying between the limitless inner universe and the restricting world of external reality, coincides with what Winnicott (1951, 1971) called "transitional space." This potential "space," according to Winnicott, is the intermediate area of experiencing that lies between fantasy and reality.  It includes, among many other phenomena, the place of cultural experience and the area of creativity (Ogden 1985).  In the time-space continuum of this social area, as Winnicott emphasized, much of what is essential to human life is played out.  For many people, however, this intermediate area of experiencing is painfully restricted and may be replete with pathological activities such as the pursuit of addictions of every kind.  Scenarios belonging to the Transitional Theater are described in chapter 3*.  


A special form of addictive pursuit is played out by those who use people as though they were drug substances, resulting in exploitation rather than exchange.  Such patients often reveal a tragic disbelief in their right to the indirect libidinal and narcissistic sublimations that the Transitional Theater provides.  Unaware that they are using others as stand-ins for objects that are lacking in their inner psychic world, they fear annihilation if the others do not fulfill their expectations.  Their scenarios are neither neurotic nor psychotic creations; rather, they borrow ways of thought and action that belong to both.  These character symptoms are difficult to stage since they require the cooperation of other peoples' I in accepting roles in the subjects' private theater.  The drug-like use of others as players in one's secret scenarios is founded upon one postulate of the Impossible, namely, that others exist only as parts of ourselves.  At the same time the stage manager is dependent upon the needs and wishes of others and to this extent is forced to submit to the exigencies of the Possible.  The story, recounted in chapter 3, exemplifies one of the many ways in which we may, without knowing it, use another's I to deal with intolerable feelings.  Expressions of hate, anger, guilt, and worthlessness are sought out in the other, who is then punished accordingly.  


We come finally to the most dimly lit of the scenarios that belong to the psychic theater: a plot in which the characters manage to put themselves on stage by profoundly altering the body's biological functioning.  In these scenes the psyche appears to have given up the struggle, letting the soma stage its own, essentially wordless, show.  It is important to distinguish the psychosomatic theater from neurotic scenarios of a hysterical nature that make symbolic use of the body, as well as from those that create a psychotic body-theater in which hypochondriacal delusions or actual mutilation of the body express the psychic themes.  Unlike the psychosomatic dramas, these tell stories, and the key words of the plot may be deciphered eventually through the analytic process. ** 


We must therefore consider the nature of these "stories without words" that make up the repertory of the psychosomatic body-theater.  Most individuals recognize intuitively the painful but nevertheless reassuring fact that their neurotic creations, their perverse and addictive activities, and even their psychotic productions contain hidden meanings and therefore belong to them, secretly wished for or needed to weather the storms of life.  When we come to the psyche's psychosomatic productions, which do not at first sight appear to be on the side of life, this certitude tends to disappear.  One reason for the unheralded performances of psychosomatic drama, for we are rarely forewarned of dramatic physical illness, lies in the fact that the mind has not dealt with a multitude of perceptions, sensations, and affects that normally would clamor for mental representation.  These have been radically severed from psychic awareness, and a body-mind split has been created.

In our attempts to recons

truct the obscure plot of the disturbed soma, the characters on the psychoanalytic stage appear as strange creatures, "body-things," primitively eroticized vital organs and senses that lurk like mysterious monsters in the wings of the mind's theater.  This motley cast has few words at its disposal.  Lacking their lines, the actors tend to draw attention to themselves by means of gestures or abrupt physical displacements such as tears or trembling; if they do use words, these serve the needs of energetic discharge rather than those of communication.  Each individual psyche hides a number of such archaic personages in the recesses of its mental space, and they tend to come on stage at times when the rest of the psychic repertory is out of commission.  Chapters 4 to 8 attempt to conceptualize these strange theatrical productions that are disconnected from the patients' words.  


Coming to terms with forbidden and impossible wishes requires in each case a mourning process, but one that brings a recompense for all that is relinquished.  The renunciation of the impossible desire for fusion and omnipotent control of others brings in its wake the precious feeling of individual identity.  (This frequently serves as a bulwark against grave narcissistic or psychotic breakdown.) The realization that one will never be both sexes or possess either parent sexually is rewarded with the gift of sexual desire and the promise of fulfillment in the future (Failure to achieve this conviction lays the individual open to neurotic problems or to the obligation to choose homosexual or "neosexual" solutions [chapters 11 and 12*] in order to salvage one's sexuality.) There is of course the possibility of psychotic solutions to the difficulty in accepting one's biological gender, such as the choice of transsexualizing one's body, or creating a Schreber-like delusion (Freud, 1911a) that one's sex has been changed by God.  Acceptance of the inevitable end of life gives urgent meaning to living and for many people leads to the wish to leave something of one's self behind in the ongoing flow of life --children, works of art, projects of every kind. (Failure in this important domain may lead to a disinvestment of life, with consequent grave depression, autistic withdrawal from the world of others, or an increase in psychosomatic vulnerability.)  


Failures in coming to terms with the Forbidden and the Impossible are sometimes due to the far-reaching effects of parents' unconscious problems, as well as inherent fragilities in certain children.  If parents' internal dramas drive them to use their children--either their bodies or their minds--to settle scores with the past and repair their own narcissistic images or damaged libidinal relationships, the small megalomaniac is not likely to receive the help required to find solutions to the inevitable traumas of human life.  For it is parents who give their children a sense of self, enjoyment in their individuality, masculinity and femininity, and the right to enjoy as fully as possible all aspects of adult life.  


The conflicts and characters of the past, as well as our own various child and adult selves, are the essential elements that make up our secret scenarios.  We can readily envision the task of the mind's I that must meet the demands of all the conflicting inner voices clamoring for attention.  The I strives constantly to achieve and maintain a measure of libidinal and narcissistic satisfaction in external relationships and activities, while at the same time it tries to make sense of its symptomatic productions and thus assure coherence and continuity.  In other words, our psyche seeks to keep the illusion that we really know who we are when we say I.  This feat requires both imagination and invention, and the I is a constant creator.  The psychic theater runs twenty-four hours a day!  


On the psychoanalytic stage the different theaters and their varied cast of characters slowly emerge.  As an analysand begins to have confidence in the analyst's interest and ability to contain the conflicting emotions of love, hate, fear, anger, anxiety, and depression that come to the force, particularly when fantasies about the analyst and the analytic relationship develop, the I begins to reveal the different psychic theaters in which its conflicts are expressed.  It also allows the inner characters to be recognized by both analyst and patient.  Among the throng appear many different aspects of the self, some idealized and others repudiated by the conscious adult I.  Equally ambivalent dimensions of people from the past also take their place in the analytic discourse, so that their underlying significance can be appreciated.  


As the analysis proceeds, wounded and sad aspects of childhood make their appearance, along with joyous and irrational ones, many of them left in the wings years ago.  All jostle to be heard, understood, possibly applauded.  People from the present day join this crowd, and they too are presented in varying lights; positive and negative feelings about them create temporary confusion until the analysand can see that two important parts of himself or herself are also in question.  From the past must come the essential figures of childhood: the parents with their loving and loved dimensions as well as their feared and hated images.  Siblings too appear, as both welcomed and unwanted parts of the family constellation.  Other family characters, stretching back several generations, come to play their roles in each subject's human drama.  The scripts of these internalized characters are remembered or reconstructed in the course of the analysis.  Meanwhile the producers and directors must discover the meaning of their place in their family history, with the hope that before leaving the psychoanalytic stage they will have come to recognize who they are and what they represented for their parents.  Optimally, analysands also become acquainted with their personal life goals and the reasons for past failures to achieve them.


In the psychoanalytic experience, patients hear, in their own free-flowing associations, the forgotten voices of the past and the lost fears and fantasies of childhood.  Thus there is created a new stage on which to play the unfolding drama of living.  This inchoate experience enables the analysand to engage in a dialogue with the figures of the past.  The threads of discourse, broken off in precipitous fashion in childhood, can now be joined once more and their elaboration continued into the present and the future.  


As the psychoanalytic adventure continues, the classic characters of the human comedy all take their places on the analytic stage.  The many facets of the father, at one moment idealized and at another denigrated, in one scene a seducer, in the next a castrator, at first contradict each other in a confusing series of conflicting memories and fantasies.  On the same stage, the complex images of the mother come back to life, refracted, like the father, into several different mothers: adoring and devouring, omniscient and omnipotent, seductive and rejecting, dispenser and withholder of miraculous gifts.  By the same token, each I reveals unknown facets of itself: little Oedipus, neurotic and perverse, tortured by inescapable feelings of guilt, caught in the maze of the Forbidden; the even smaller Narcissus, suffused with shame and inadequacy, fighting for the Impossible.  


The analytic stage thus allows the infantile and the adult selves to become better acquainted.  The analyst meanwhile becomes a stand-in for any of the people who make up the analysand's internal world.  It is essential that the analyst too be able to tolerate the intensity of the analytic relationship in both its loving and its hating aspects, since analysts are also exposed to the risk that their own inner characters and secret scenarios may inadvertently be led into playing roles in the analysands' unfolding adventure, thus deflecting the analytic discourse.  


Under optimal conditions the psychoanalytic adventure allows each I to bring forth its own Jekyll and Hyde and its own Faust and Mephistopheles, split-off yet vitally necessary parts of every self.  Thus love and hate may be reconciled, enabling the subject finally to sign the treaty of many years' silent warfare, which otherwise might lead to exhaustion and death.  In other words, while seeking to express themselves verbally, the many Is contained within each patient's official I listen to each other.  Discovering their paradoxes and contradictions, they can hence-forth assume their cohesive identity and their mutual enterprise.  The analytic discourse, in giving new meaning to the past, enables many patients to resume possession of their abandoned potentialities, to extend their capacity to think and to feel, and to explore such thoughts and feelings without fear.  


We might finally question the veracity of the reconstructed texts and resuscitated personages that emerge from the different theaters of the mind, played out upon the analytic stage.  Such "truths" are constructed, in dialectical fashion, out of memory and fantasy and provide an inner world in which the I of each participant finds more space within which to move, constructing meaning where before there was none.  Delivered from the role of hapless victim of the uncontrollable present and the unchanging past, the analysand is no longer endlessly condemned to repeat the old scenarios, to suffer the same old failures, and to meet each new challenge with the old familiar anxiety or despair.  "Truth" is the affirmation of the actual and the recognition of one's place in the human, sexual, and social order; it is the acceptance of one's strengths and failings as well as those of others-- people of the past and people of the present.  For many, the psychotherapeutic experience is the sole way to escape from the compulsive quality of the age-old scenarios that can bring only pain and disappointment with each reenactment.  


It is the lot of humankind to be locked in constant conflict with instinctual nature while at the same time endeavoring to take account of the desires and conflicts of others.  Thus, many people find solutions that do not require analysis.  They use their psychic theaters in ways that deal adequately with the inevitable conflicts of the past, creating healing dreams and actions, rewarding relationships, intense and lasting love, and sometimes sublime works of art that bring as much joy to the creator as to those who behold them.  These people already know that, in spite of suffering, life is a creative and continuing adventure at all ages.  On the other hand, those who have immobilized and muted many of the plots and players in their internal theater, allowing them no action but to hammer on the walls of the mind, might learn to value the words of Sartre (1965, p. 37): "If you want your characters to live, then liberate them!"



* All of the chapters mentioned are of the book Theaters of the Mind, Illusion and Truth on the Psychoanalytic Stage, by J. McDougall, 1985.

  **Different body theaters of this kind have been discussed at length elsewhere.  See Joyce McDougall, Plea for a A Measure of Abnormality (New York: International Universities Press, 1980), chaps. 9 to 12.