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Doing Psychoanalysis in TehranReview - Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran
by Gohar Homayounpour
MIT Press, 2012
Review by Mark Welch, PhD
Aug 6th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 32)

A very basic question that has always troubled psychoanalysis, and divided its champions and its critics, is whether the practice is pertinent only to western European culture, or whether it has some universal qualities that are able to transcend time and space. Therefore, as this book asks, we must wonder if it is actually possible to do psychoanalysis in Tehran.

Homayounpour writes a strange book in a way. It is on some levels a very personal memoir and speaks eloquently and wistfully about her early life, her intellectual father and the cultural climate in pre-revolutionary Iran with its western sophistication and consumption of the western avant-garde (the importance of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (parts of which she memorized) has a recurrent presence throughout), even though they were also the days of SAVAK and the Shah's extravagance. At other times it seems to look at the nature of psychological resistance where, as in Kundera's world, the absurdity of reality seems to make absurdity the only possible reality. Thus, she retorts to an American colleague who doubts that Iranians can free-associate, and are therefore not really suitable subjects for psychoanalysis, that Iranians do nothing else. Lives and meanings are created and woven through stories and those stories create layers of meaning that elliptically, but inevitably reveal the truths of the lives of those she meets on and around her classically designed psychoanalyst's couch (which, not coincidentally appears on the front cover looking stark and bare  against a backdrop of Tehran's high-rise skyline).

However, even before reaching the first page written by Homayounpour the reader is asked to deal with two deliberate features. The first, and most obvious, is the title. Of course, it is meant to find an echo with Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi -- and like Nafisi, Homayounpour left and returned to Iran and is riding the tension of western and Islamic traditions. It may be an initial hook, but it contains a real question -- more so than just psychoanalysis, how universal are western values and how easily can seemingly conflicting world views co-exist? Is there a valid and helpful psychoanalysis of the state of Iran itself? Can a state like Iran be understood through western values?

The second, more surprising feature is the short but pointed introduction by Abbas Kiarostami, perhaps the Iranian film-maker who is best known to western audiences. In it he remarks on the cinematic nature of the subject and the writing, the interior monologues and the symbolic living. Again we are reminded of the story-telling nature of this particular construction of reality.

Homayounpour describes a number of her diverse clients in detail. There are middle-class women, students, even a truck driver and she comments on both them and her reaction to them. How much they are presented as real people or as symbolic or types that are to exemplify what she sees as Iran's neurosis is difficult to say. Her methods seem to be more classically Freudian (with a distinct French twist as indicated by the frequent acknowledgements, not to say genuflections to the likes of Lacan and Kristeva) than might ordinarily be found in modern practice today. Indeed, to reflect back on the introduction some of her encounters are very cinematic indeed. She litters some passages with references to western intellectual tradition: one client speaks about Proust; at another point she compares herself with Odysseus having both “made the symbolic to our motherlands ... in order to re-find the warmth we had lost; in one two-page section she moves from Schopenhauer to de Beauvoir to de Saint-Exupery to Kundera and back to Schopenhauer -- a formidable feat in itself. These tend to detract from what she needs to be saying about the life as experienced in tension, conflict and dissonance. There are moments, such as when she says that writing the book has been “a lover's discourse”, that it appears to be over-written, but that should not detract unduly.

The book is very likely to appeal to those interested in cultural cross-overs. Those who find Freudian practice insightful and helpful are likely to be excited by its application in what at first sight might seem a very alien environment. Those for whom Freudianism is an interesting historical and cultural phenomenon and not so much a science, are likely to be interested in the lack of insights as much as what is revealed.

It is nevertheless, a unique book and has its fascinations. It is perhaps a book that needs to be read a number of times before a reader will really form an opinion. The first reading may be totally convincing, and the second skeptical -- or the other way round. Perhaps, that is the recommendation. Perhaps, that ambivalence is a positive aspect. Perhaps, what we learn about doing psychoanalysis in Tehran is that we are learning about doing psychoanalysis in Tehran.


© 2013 Mark Welch


Mark Welch, PhD, British Columbia.


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