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IntimaciesReview - Intimacies
by Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips
University Of Chicago Press, 2008
Review by Rudy Oldeschulte
Jan 27th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 5)

In 1903, Rilke wrote in a letter to a young man, "...and just in the deepest and most important things, we are unutterably alone, and for one person to be able to advise or even help another, a lot must happen, a lot must go well, a whole constellation of things must come right in order once to succeed."  In a similar vein, E.M. Forster (Howards End) captured the desire of connecting "the prose and the passion" in a person's relationship with another.  "Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die."  

Our desire to come together in a meaningful relationship with another -- although always cognizant of the fact that we may feel 'unutterably alone' at times -- is the crux of our persistent attempts at intimacy.  In Bersani and Phillips recent work on Intimacies, the authors want to work out a 'new story' about intimacy and interpersonal relationships, as one might do in an essay.  Though they both want to convey to the reader that this is an attempt or trying out of a new perspective on 'ways of being' with another, Bersani and Phillips fall short of bringing any coherence to the ideas that they provocatively and at points intriguingly, bring to their effort.  The book is written for those with considerable understanding of psychoanalytic theory -- in both its current and historical references.  

Leo Bersani wrote the first three chapters, with Phillips reacting in the fourth, and a brief conclusion is offered by Bersani, which reacts to Phillips' comments. The brief introduction by Adam Phillips notes that psychoanalysis has "misled" us in our beliefs about what ought to happen by way of psychoanalytic exploration -- that is, our belief that knowledge of oneself will be one avenue toward personal development, and ultimately intimacy with another -- and that narcissism is a barricade to this journey forward.  Rather, it is suggested, and attempts are made to explain, that an impersonal intimacy is the goal, and that this would help alleviate the inherent rage and destructiveness in relationships.  

The book begins with a description of the 2003 film Confidences trop intimes (translated as Intimate Strangers), and Henry James' work, The Beast in the Jungle, the latter vaguely referred to in the movie. These are used to demonstrate the 'sexually neutralized encounter,' referring to Phillips' remark, "[p]sychoanalysis is about what two people can say to each other if they agree not to have sex." In both works -- the film and the story -- the unequal nature of the analytic conversation, as well as the missed passion between the characters- are used to presumably set the stage for a discussion of narcissism, with elaborate digressions into the death drive and destructiveness, bare backing (homosexual sex), Greek philosophy and the soul, American politics and evil intent. None of these excursions allow any further understanding of their attempt at formulating a new 'story' or 'project' about human relations. 

The fourth chapter does begin to add to the conversation by articulating that the first intimacy is one of 'becoming.' This is the relationship between the mother and the baby -- one that centers on the 'potential,' as it is mediated by the mother back to the infant.  The mother recognizes the potential for growth (relationally) in her infant, and conveys this to the infant.  This idea, however, has been elucidated by Donald Winnicott many years ago, and followed up on in many psychoanalytic interpretive writings on the research that has been done on infant development.  Further, this idea has its usefulness for understanding the psychoanalytic encounter, explicitly and implicitly referred to throughout the text of this book, yet not elaborated upon by the authors.   

This slim book, billed as it is as a 'project,' may be considered a collection of some thoughts, albeit provocative in their style, and the other's reaction to those thoughts.  Both writers are arguably good thinkers and good writers about the more interesting bits of life. This reviewer is familiar with Adam Phillips' work, but not Leo Bersani's -- and the content of Intimacies offers little to the psychologically or literary minded audience; nor does Intimacies seem to offer an interesting or thoughtful discourse on the idea of achieving an impersonal intimacy "without needing to personalize it." 

Forster, E.M. (1910) Howards End. USA: Penguin Classic.

James, H.  (1903) The Beast in the Jungle.  New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Leconte  Patrice (2003) Film: Confidences trop intimes (translated as Intimate Strangers).

Rilke, R.M. (1934) Letters to a Young Poet. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 

© 2009 Rudy Oldeschulte

Rudy Oldeschulte trained in psychoanalysis with Anna Freud, and teaches psychology and ethics at a local community college.  roldeschulte@gmail.com


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