by Anneleen Masschelein and Yael Segalovitz
It was June 2020, about two months into the whirlpool, which—we then had no way of knowing—would swallow up our lives for many more months to come. In Israel, Yael was at home with her two young boys (who couldn’t fathom why the playgrounds were empty and cordoned off by yellow tape), rushing to meet the deadline for an article on autotheory and psychoanalysis. In Belgium, Anneleen was in a similar situation: torn between the demands of her child, her teaching, and her research during the early stages of what would become a seemingly endless lockdown.
We didn’t know each other at the time. Yael chanced upon an article by Anneleen that, echoing her own thoughts, questioned why—to paraphrase Maggie Nelson—Winnicott is everywhere to be found in contemporary American culture decades after the British analyst and pediatrician had reached the peak of his fame. Why did Yael feel the urge to reach out? Perhaps as a way of counteracting the growing sense of isolation. In any case, we formed a strong bond and, with the support of Ben Gurion University, we decided to craft a joint course on Contemporary Psychoanalysis and Anglo-American Culture. In retrospect, it was a naïve idea—we didn’t anticipate the amount of work that would be involved in launching an international online seminar. Nevertheless, the project provided us with a steadying anchor during these disturbing times.
In the months to come, in between naps and lockdowns, we forged ahead, shooting introductory videos on Freudian psychoanalysis, Ego and Self Psychology, and Object Relations to give students the background they would need to read contemporary works. We evaluated a wide assortment of materials to find what might work well for both B.A. and M.A. students, at our respective institutions. And we negotiated the bureaucratic complexities of establishing a virtual platform that could be shared by all of our students.
Since time was already out of joint, we decided to add yet another incredibly demanding task. We’re an ocean apart, we thought, and so are our students; they will not meet face-to-face during our course, if ever. If speech will be our chief means of encounter, then perhaps we could add even more voices to the mix, ones that would amplify the opportunities for verbal exchange embedded in this otherwise constrained virtual format. We reached out to thinkers and writers whose work we’d decided to assign and whose engagements with psychoanalysis we found crucial to the revival we felt was taking place in the adjacent fields of psychoanalysis and literature: Judith Butler, Maggie Nelson, Jane Gallop, Patricia Gherovici, Emma Lieber, Amy Allen, Ben Ogden, and David Stromberg. We didn’t really expect responses; we ourselves could hardly lift our heads above the muddy waters of the pandemic, and these were all very busy writers. The responses, however, were overwhelmingly positive. Perhaps, we thought, others, too, were craving conversation, intimacy, and a reminder that lively intellectual dialogue could still take place, even though the world around us, politically and otherwise, was in crisis.
Our course launched in February, and the first class featuring our podcast was dedicated to Thomas and Benjamin Ogden’s book, The Analyst’s Ear and Critic’s Eye. It was a joy to hear Ben answer students’ questions in his recorded voice. One student asked, for example, why the Ogdens felt the need to present a new mode of psychoanalytic literary interpretation, to which Ben responded: “It is a difficult question…psychoanalysis for quite some time built walls around itself and saw itself as having all of the answers in a certain sense, having a kind of confidence, bordering on arrogance if I’m being honest, that put off a lot of people.” The conversation then drifted to the topic of “arrogance” in the context of psychoanalysis, and the early North American reception of this field of knowledge as mastery-seeking. It took students by surprise that Ben answered these questions for them, since, as they told us, they frequently felt like the scholars they were reading were abstract, unreachable entities rather than accessible, flesh-and-blood people. And indeed, in the following class devoted to Nelson’s The Argonauts, they seemed not yet to have grasped that the link we sent them was to an interview conducted by their own professors with them in mind. “She has the same vocal voice as she does in writing,” one student remarked; “whimsical and playful and at the same time so knowledgeable.”
We devoted the first part of our conversation to the book’s title, considering Barthes’s own use of the Argo metaphor: a ship whose parts have all been replaced but remains the same ship, symbolizing continuity through transformation. We transitioned to a discussion of Nelson’s engagement with Winnicott and relationality. But by the end of class, the Argo reappeared on the horizon—this time in response to Nelson’s spoken words. Our students wanted to hear more about Nelson’s experience teaching psychoanalysis, and we listened to her explain how “people would say to me all the time, oh I don’t read Freud because I don’t believe that I want to kill my father and sleep with my mother….Why, if that is what somebody thinks is the foundational structure of the human condition, why should I read that?….To me…having a gender-complex household, as is every household, I do believe there is such a thing as a family romance….It might not be constitutive, but it’s certainly an interesting lens by which to look at systems in the family.”
The class was about to end (in fact we went over time) but a student who rarely speaks was moved to share a question that turned into a luminous insight: “What then remains,” she wondered, “if everything about Freud’s theory changes? If people reject the Oedipal structure and replace it with others, so that Freud’s theory almost disappears?” She paused. “Can it be then that psychoanalysis is the Argo?” We could almost hear Nelson’s delighted laughter in the room. And so we sail on.
We’ve thus far launched three episodes and conducted six interviews, with two more scheduled and many others planned (or, more precisely, wished for). Each episode is 20-30 minutes long and includes 7-8 questions, opening with the most urgent—“Why psychoanalysis, now?”—and continuing along the route determined by the interviewee’s work. Because producing the podcast requires connecting Yael in Israel, Anneleen in Belgium, and the interviewee at her home location, the sound quality can be somewhat uneven. But Buzi Raviv, our audio editor, has put his heart (and ear!) into the project and helps not only our three voices but also the dialogue between psychoanalysis and literature come to life as much as possible. We invite you to explore what we’ve done via the links below.
“Psychoanaliterature,” a companion podcast for academic courses in English literature at Ben Gurion University (Israel) and at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium), hosted by Prof. Anneleen Masschelein and Dr. Yael Segalovitz: