Impossible Professions: Teaching Literature and Psychoanalysis

by Emma Lieber

In “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” Freud famously claimed that psychoanalysis is one of the three “impossible professions”—the others being education and government. The recent political environment in America certainly gives us a lens onto the impossibility of the latter, and perhaps what “impossible” means in these contexts, though the high drama of the Trump administration may also obscure what’s at stake. What is the aporia—the irreducible, unassimilable gap—at the heart of these vocations? What are their desires and aims, and what within them challenges, not so much the achievement of those aims, but any conventional notion of what achievement means? In what way do these pursuits underscore what Lacan for one designates as the impossibility of desire? And how might recognizing the impossibility of these endeavors influence the aims and techniques of their practitioners?

I’m writing as someone who has long been a professor of literature, practiced as a psychoanalyst more recently, and, most recently, taught undergraduate courses on psychoanalysis and literature. In certain ways, as a literature professor, I’ve always worked psychoanalytically. That is, I view my task as being not so much to transmit knowledge—about literary history, or about certain writers, or about genre, or about how literature “works,” though all of these things are important—as to attend to the workings of my students’ minds as they attend to the workings of a given text. For me, the work of teaching involves the active investigation of the dynamic relation between readers and what (and who, and with whom) they read: the ever-changing constellations of teachers, students, and the works they study together.

Shoshana Felman writes that the unconscious is “not only that which must be read” but also “that which reads,” and I think that, even before I was consciously engaging psychoanalytic ideas in my teaching, I understood that to study and teach literature meant attending to the unconscious (as Lacan says) as a linguistic effect and that to do so meant opening up space for a certain kind of serious play among participants who can recognize and respond to the various ways in which the unconscious destabilizes easy dichotomies between text and reader, teacher and student, inside and outside, etc.

It may well be the case that the “impossibility” of education is most keenly felt in the literature classroom, since where pedagogy in other fields may hide the mystery of the educational encounter behind pre-made rubrics of accomplishment and knowledge (testing, retention, imitation), to teach literature brings one closer to an encounter with the anxiety of what it means to teach, and to evaluate so-called learning. In psychoanalytic terms, teaching literature brings us closer to the register of castration, that is, to the impossibility of mastery and other totalizing fantasies of knowledge, power, possession, and self-possession. This is also the place at which psychoanalysis—which, at its base, helps us lay down our various forms of protest against what we don’t have, with the understanding that we suffer precisely from this protest—works. This is why I believe psychoanalysis is so necessary in theorizing pedagogy and in thinking through its possibilities, just as I believe that a literary education is the best possible preparation for becoming a psychoanalyst.

Thus, when I began teaching literature and psychoanalysis courses a few years ago, from the position of a practicing analyst, I found that I was already primed to re-think pedagogy in ways that a genuine engagement with psychoanalysis and unconscious experience demands. Psychoanalysis makes us re-think speaking as action: to speak, in psychoanalysis—from both sides of the couch—can be thought of as more performative than constative. That is, as an analyst, I am listening not so much to the content of what a patient is telling me—though of course, I hear this too—as to the fact, contours, and implications of their speaking: what Lacan calls the “saying” rather than the “said.” By the same token, when I speak back, I do so not so much to transmit to a patient some knowledge about themselves (though this might happen), but to get something done through the act of speaking: to apply torsion to whatever has emerged. The impossibility of psychoanalysis is related to the infinite demand that one faces with respect to one’s active responsibility to another person’s words, and to the recognition that both bearing witness and speaking back are themselves events that, in their very occurrence, make something happen (though it is always impossible to know what, until later—if ever).

What would happen if we were to understand education on a similarly grand scale, with a similar attentiveness to the vibrant and wayward life of speaking as such, and with a similar respect for the act of speaking as a scene of bearing witness? What if, in the classroom, we paid as much homage to the saying as to the said? How then would we conceive the aim of the pedagogic encounter—for individual students and for the class as a whole?

Of course, many if not most literature professors—who, given their choice of field, are likely constitutionally inclined to take seriously the complexity of the act of articulation—are already teaching in this way. It is my contention, though, that if this pedagogical vector were more rigorously theorized, with psychoanalysis in mind, broader cultural assumptions about the aims and methods of education might shift. For example, I have recently re-thought many of my evaluative practices in the classroom: I now often ask students to write personally, or to merge reflection on and vignettes about their own lives with textual analysis, not so much to document their “response” to a text or what a text “means” to them, but to give shape to the structure of a life as a textual phenomenon, as something that can be read.

To engage psychoanalysis seriously means to question any easy assumptions about the aims and methods of transmission: to teach psychoanalysis means to teach psychoanalytically, and to teach psychoanalytically means to re-think teaching (just as to write psychoanalytically means to re-thinking writing). From this perspective, to banish entirely personal associations to a text—which is where, inevitably, a text does its work on students—started to seem defensive. It seemed more generative to help students find a rigorous way to express the complex interweavings of text and life as itself a means of articulating both the saying of a particular text and the notion of subjective life as a textual effect, more broadly.

I now understand my role as a teacher to be to help foster students’ curiosity about and surprise at their own unconscious lives as they are pricked by the texts we’re working with, as well as by the classroom encounter itself. Inevitably, this means that the object under investigation shifts as a class discussion or the course as a whole proceeds and that the students, in order to begin to think psychoanalytically, must follow, together, the logic of those shifts. It’s not so much that, in psychoanalysis, everything begs for explanation (this is a vulgarization of psychoanalytic claims—in fact, in psychoanalysis, nothing is ever definitively explained), but that there is no outside: nowhere to step outside of the transferential field that, while always at work, is made by psychoanalysis its essential subject. This means that one reads context as one reads text, and vice versa; that is, that the classroom scene itself, as it is in part determined by or responsive to the text at hand, becomes an object of inquiry in its own right. To give an example: several years ago, when I first taught “Psychoanalysis and Literature” at Eugene Lang college, my students were especially interested in the idea of parapraxis—that is, what Freud referred to as “bungled actions,” or mistakes that have unconscious determinants. On the last day of class, I was horrified to realize that I had forgotten to bring the book we were supposed to be working with that day. So we started off the class by analyzing my parapraxis as a response to the class and to the place of the final text within it, and these interpretations then wove themselves into our analysis of the texts that we had worked with throughout the semester, seen retrospectively through the lens of my parapraxis—such that the entirety of the course became organized under the heading of this terminal event. It was quite the final exam (for me as much as for the students).

I leaned into this pedagogical rhythm this past fall, when I taught “Psychoanalysis and Literature” over Zoom, as the virus raged and the U.S. government threatened to crumble. I didn’t know what I could expect of students in terms of academic work that semester, given the circumstances. So I made clear that I wanted students to use the pedagogical space in whatever ways would be most helpful to them—that, during this difficult time, the classroom could become a place of working through, not because I wanted students to speak about their own lives specifically (though this was never entirely off the table), but because the mere act of allowing oneself to speak spontaneously makes things happen for oneself and for others. I spoke about the anxiety of speaking, both in the classroom and in the consulting room, and communicated to the students that to speak is always a wager: you never know what will come of it, the words will inevitably get away from you, and you’ll generally say something other than or in addition to what you intended. And I assured them that that was the point of the class: to foster a faith in the language that one receives and produces—and that this faith then would be a way of pursuing literature. Essentially, I was preaching the Freudian ethic of free association; if the students got nothing else out of the class, I wanted them to leave with at least some sense that the rich life of signification that one witnesses in literary texts is also, always, at work in them.

To that end, I also asked students to keep dream journals throughout the semester, since dreams are the places where we most clearly witness at work the literary genius inside all of us. At the beginning of every class we started off by analyzing some of these dreams, with all of the discretion involved in analyzing, as a collective, the dream of a group member. It was a remarkably effective way to approach the work. Inevitably, we would find a way to connect the dream dynamics with that day’s assigned literary or psychoanalytic text. It also helped foster a group spirit while working remotely. I remember one class that ended up centering on a dream that one of the students had about being in therapy and that hinged on the signifier “kidman,” which appeared in the dream. The class reached an interpretation of the dream collectively: one student happened to know that Nicole Kidman had played a therapist in a certain television show, while another knew she had played a therapy patient in a different show. This allowed us to start formulating ideas about what the dream was doing with questions of signification, the unconscious, maturation, and gender—a discussion that worked its way into our examination of the assigned text. The dreamer was generous enough to allow her dream to be taken up in this way, as a text to be worked on and associated to, all while keeping at play the delicate question of whose unconscious was at stake in the work we were doing.

Several students reported having major realizations about their life histories within the context of the course—not because we were discussing their lives in detail, but because its methods opened up an associative space for them and because witnessing something of another’s unconscious life sets one’s own into motion. Certainly, the global crisis that we were immersed in helped determine the urgency of this project and the students’ ability to make use of it, and I give enormous credit to the students for taking seriously my call to use the class as an opportunity to do psychic work. But, to the extent that confronting the unconscious is always a crisis, I was left wondering how teaching during this distinctly devastating moment might help us reframe education more generally and what the aims, assumptions, and methods of pedagogy would look like if we were, on a much more comprehensive scale, to take seriously the disruptions and possibilities of unconscious desire and unconscious life and to give them a more central place in our classrooms.


Works Cited

Felman, Shoshana. 1977. “To Open the Question,” in Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading, Otherwise. Ed. Shoshana Felman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Freud, Sigmund. 1964. “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXIII. Tr. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press, 209-53. Originally published as “Die Endliche und die Unendliche Analyse,” Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse 23.2: 209-40.