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Therapeutic ActionReview - Therapeutic Action
An Earnest Plea For Irony
by Jonathan Lear
Other Press, 2004
Review by Matthew Pianalto
Nov 24th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 48)

Jonathan Lear begins Therapeutic Action with a question: "How might a conversation fundamentally change the structure of the human psyche?" That is, how could an exchange of words between analyst and analysand effect a cure to neurosis? To answer such questions would be to uncover the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis. While arguing that a deeper understanding of irony and its possibilities is central to the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis, Lear's book is much more than its "earnest plea for irony." It is an invitation to psychoanalysts (and all those involved in psychological counseling) to return to this fundamental question of their profession, and to ask not only how psychoanalysis works upon the psyche, but how psychoanalysis is supposed to work at all. Thus, Lear embarks upon a Kierkegaardian journey of inquiry, asking what it takes to become a certain kind of human being, to be a psychoanalyst. In this way, Lear is trying to write not only a book about therapy, but a book which is itself therapeutic.

The plea for irony in this work manifests itself as a process of retrieving an older, and what Lear takes to be a richer, conception of irony. Thus understood, irony is not, as our dictionaries tell us, "saying the opposite of what is meant." To say the opposite of one's intended meaning is to engage in sarcasm. What distinguishes irony from sarcasm? Lear returns to the writings of Kierkegaard and finds that what constitutes irony in Kiekegaard's work is not simply saying the opposite of what he means, but arises from saying exactly what one means and saying it in a manner which exposes a gap between pretense and aspiration on the one hand, and reality on the other. When Kierkegaard asks, "Is there a Christian in all of Christendom?" it becomes clear on reflection that this is not a ridiculous question. The question exposes the gap between being a "nominal" Christian (by fulfilling the external requirements of Christianity) and a "subjective" Christian (which involves something like an internalization of the Christian faith such that one not only acts like a Christian, but is--to the core, if you will--a Christian.) To be a Christian in the second sense involves not only the fulfilling of certain requirements, but is to become a certain kind of person. To understand this distinction would be to understand the deep irony of Kierkegaard's question. Lear writes, "irony becomes possible precisely because the speaker insists on holding onto what the words really do mean" (68). Lear claims that Kierkegaard's ironic question, by clinging to this deeper understanding of what it is to be a Christian, is asked with therapeutic intent. It attempts to put the reader (for Kierkegaard, a "Christian" in 19th century Europe) into a position to see the possibility of there being a gap between appearances (pretense) and reality--to see that his question is not settled by, say, going to church or putting some change into the collection plate. The therapeutic element of this question is that it is supposed to invite the reader to re-examine his or her commitments to a certain kind of life.

Returning from Kierkegaard's Christendom, Lear endeavors to show how a similar form of ironic questioning plays a central role in the analytic process as well as in the self-conscious development of psychoanalysis itself. To himself and his colleagues, he puts forward the question, "Is there a single psychoanalyst in the psychoanalytic community?" Although he believes the answer is yes, his discussion of irony is intended to remind us that the answer is not obvious, that there is a point to the question. Taking up an issue explored in his mentor Hans Loewald's essay "On the Therapeutic Action of Psychoanalysis" (1960), Lear discusses the notion of psychoanalytic objectivity and argues for a "subjective" understanding of objectivity. The activity of the psychoanalyst risks distortion when it is construed on the model of objectivity as scientific neutrality. Rather, psychoanalysis does require a certain kind of involvement of the analyst with the analysand. It requires the analyst to become a particular kind of human subject (to become in this sense "subjective"): one who is able to make him or herself available to the analysand, as in the process of transference, so that the analysand eventually comes to discover his or her own neurotic distortions of the world.

Lear argues that this process is one of developing in the analysand a capacity for irony--the ability to see in him or herself the gap between pretense and reality, and to see that the analysand herself is largely responsible for creating this gap. Thus, "the analytic process is thought to consist, at least partially, in a process by which the analysand comes to internalize the capacity for psychoanalysis" (97). That is not to say that the analysand learns to be a psychoanalyst, but that she learns to engage in self-reflective activities that allow her to discover the irony of her own thoughts and behavior. Lear writes, "In a truly ironic uptake the analysand not only grasps a meaning but also develops his own capacity for irony. The analysand begins treatment with little understanding of the gap between his aspirations and pretense. Even less does he understand how this gap is structuring his life. Through lovingly ironic interpretations, the analyst helps the analysand to bring this gap to light" (177). By calling the psychoanalytic interpretations "lovingly ironic," Lear indicates another key element in the nature of the therapeutic process--that psychoanalysis may be seen as a "cure through love" (178). For to call the analysts activity "lovingly ironic" again reminds us that irony consists in more than sarcasm or flatly telling the analysand what's gone wrong with his psyche. The ironic interpretation allows the analysand to discover for herself the gap between pretense and reality, which Lear believes will inspire a more genuine self-consciousness than merely informing the analysand, "Look, you are distorting the world in such-and-such ways." This is a loving activity on the part of the analyst because ironic interpretation--once the analysand is ready for it--offers the analysand the reins of self-discovery: loving in the way that a parent expresses love for the child by allowing the child to discover the world for herself, even as the parent keeps a watchful eye over the child. (Lear would be very cautious about taking this analogy too far!)

Lear is a superb writer. He is able to explore the multiple threads of his argument, shifting from concerns about psychoanalytic concepts and theoretical commitments to the nature of the analytic process and the place of irony within it, to discuss specific passages in the work of Loewald and Freud, without losing sight of the main road. Therapeutic Action is in some respects very personal. Lear is working out his own commitments as a psychoanalyst, and is using the book as an opportunity to better understand his life-activity as a psychoanalyst. It is this personal investment which enables the book, in many places, to transcend its subject-matter, and allows the reader (who is not an analyst) to identify his or her own struggles to become a certain kind of human being as concomitant with the psychoanalytic questions of how we go about unifying our psyches and how it is possible to keep ourselves open to psychological growth.


© 2004 Matthew Pianalto

Matthew Pianalto is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Arkansas, where he has also taught logic and introduction to philosophy. He holds a B.A. in English, and an M.A. in Philosophy. His master's thesis, "Suicide & The Self," attempts to reinvest in the philosophical nature of the problem of suicide. More info at his website: (See "Suicide & Philosophy" link for resources on suicide.)


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