Richard L. Rubens, Ph.D.


And as regards its truth, the real truth, that which is independent of ourselves, beyond reach of our logic and of hearts-- of this truth who knows aught?"

-Unamuno (1912, p. 131.)


In recent years, a phenomenological approach to the understanding of tragedy has developed that has replaced more formalistic and stylistic definitions, in vogue since the time of ancient Greece. This new approach is based on a view of tragedy as a mode of experience, a particular way of viewing life. It is reflected in the very titles of the works that have developed this particular viewpoint: Unamuno's The Tragic Sense of Life, Muller's The Spirit of Tragedy, and Sewall's The Vision of Tragedy.

It has long been apparent that this new understanding of tragedy has important implications for our understanding of psychoanalysis. Roy Schafer (1976), in his book, A New Language for Psychoanalysis, noted the special relevance of the tragic vision to the psychoanalytic. While he also explored other modes of vision, he concluded that, "of all the perspectives on human affairs, the tragic is by far the most remorselessly searching [and] deeply involved" (p. 35); and, ultimately, that it is the vision that is most closely linked to psychoanalysis.

In this paper, I shall examine the extent to which the tragic sense of life is essentially related to the process and goals of psychoanalysis. In doing so, I shall extensively rely on the formulation of the tragic sense of life developed by Richard Sewall, whose teachings on the subject deeply influenced my own thinking, as well as so many others in the Yale University community.


The Tragic Sense of Life


Unamuno (1912) presented tragedy as a "sense of life." He termed it a pre-philosophy, only "more or less formulated, more or less conscious...not so much flow[ing] from ideas as determin[ing] them." (p. 17) It is a mode of experience, a subjective shaping and way of organizing the data of existence. What is tragic does not inhere in the external events, but rather in the internal meaning with which events are imbued and interpreted.

The central, defining characteristic of the tragic sense of life is its insistence on the balance between the striving for rationality on the one hand, and the recognition of the underlying irrationality of existence on the other.

In tragedy, there is a tremendous value placed on the attempt to find answers and to understand one's experience rationally. In fact, it is in tragedy that the most fundamental questions of existence are repeatedly raised. It is Job asking, "What is man?" and Oedipus, "Who am I?" --these most basic of existential questions form the foundation on which tragedy is constructed. And while these questions are asked in the most quintessentially personal of terms and are set in the most individual of circumstances, their answers far transcend the importance and scope of the particular individuals posing them. They represent striving towards the understanding of universal questions of meaning and value as they are represented in individual experience.

The tragic vision ceaselessly and heroically insists on answers to these questions. The tragic figure stretches the limits of his knowledge and understanding often to a frightening --and sometimes to a dangerous-- extent. The tragic vision demands its confrontation with truth. It is a confrontation assiduously avoided by most, who, committed to the belief that ignorance is bliss, do not question too far --and act only within the context of what socially accepted norms have declared 'safe.'

Despite its monumental commitment to the search for rational understanding, the hallmark of the tragic sense of life is its recognition that rationality has its limits. Man's understanding, while indefinitely extendible, is never total in its extent. So while the tragic figure is willing to risk everything in his pursuit of the truth, he must also recognize that his quest will never be completely fulfillable. He must accept the irrationality that underlies existence, and not artificially attempt to reduce that irrationality to something less than it is.

One can escape from the tragic vision in two directions: most obviously, one can lack the courage to pursue truth; but, more subtly, one can escape by pretending that reason can emerge completely triumphant. Richard Sewall (1959; all citations from Sewall used in this paper are from this work) has pointed out that throughout history there have been swings between these two possible escapes from the tragic sense of life, for example, the swing from the Medieval abdication of rationality to the Renaissance embracing of the power of man's reason as the measure of all things. Neither position is consonant with the tragic vision. Tragedy is created during the time in between, the time when there is both a commitment to the search for rational understanding and the recognition that not all of experience is reducible to rational understanding.

The world according to the the tragic vision is a place in which values and rationality are justifiably sought, but not necessarily found. It is, according to Sewall, a world "secure only to those who do not question too far" (p.24), for, when the tragic figure demands answers that go beyond the accepted explanations and philosophical theories, he enters into what Karl Jaspers termed a "boundary situation." Paul Tillich writes,


The human boundary situation is encountered when human possibility reaches its limit when human existence is confronted by an ultimate threat. (1948a, p.197)


The boundary situation is one in which the tragic figure has gone beyond the safety of defined explanations and the security of accepted norms. In this view, the tragic situation is not defined by the occurrence of terrible and rending events, but rather by the level of awareness and questioning it has engendered in the tragic figure. In this state, his quest for truth has led him to his own, individual confrontation with the meaning of his experience. It is Job on the dung heap, Orestes confronted by the horror of what he must do, and Oedipus confronted by the horror of what he has done.

This is man confronting his world in full recognition of what Jung (1938) termed "the terrible ambiguity of immediate experience." Without the reassurance of logical systems or the resignation of blind acceptance, the tragic figure must attempt to understand his experience in the face of all its complexity and ambiguity and to take responsibility for creating meaning and value in a world in which fundamental questions often have no reassuring answers. Sewall has noted that the Greek tragedians "affirmed the absolutes like justice and order, but revealed a universe that promised neither and often dealt out the reverse." (p.46)

It is against this backdrop that the tragic figure undertakes his quest to understand the meaning of his experience. As Sewall has noted, it is a quest that


recalls the original terror, harking back to a world that antedates the conception of philosophy, the consolations of the later religions, and whatever constructions the human mind has devised to persuade itself that the universe is secure. It recalls the original un-reason, the terror of the irrational. It sees man as questioner, naked, unaccommodated, alone, facing mysterious, demonic forces in his own nature and outside, and the irreducible facts of suffering and death. Thus it is not for those who cannot live with unresolved questions or unresolved doubts, whose bent of mind would reduce the fact of evil into something else or resolve it into some larger whole. (pp. 4 f)


It is essential to recognize that this quest cannot be a solely intellectual one. In the tragic vision, the most important knowledge comes not from intellectual speculation, but from the understanding of one's actual experience of acting in the world. The very essence of the tragic sense of life involves meaningful action. As Sewall notes,


Only man in action, man "on the way," begins to reveal the possibilities of his nature for good and bad and for both at once. And only in the most pressing kinds of action, action that involves the ultimate risk and pushes him to the very limits, are the fullest possibilities revealed. (p.47)


The tragic figure must possess the courage and stature to act and to see his actions through to their ultimate conclusions, without allowing anything to deter him. He must be willing to say, with Job, "Though he slay me, yet will I...maintain my own ways before him." (Job, 13:15) It is an interesting historical fact that Herman Melville underlined this verse in his Bible the week before beginning work on what was to be one of the great landmarks in American tragedy, Moby Dick. (Leyda, 1951)

The tragic sense of life therefore has little to do with pathos and nothing to do with despair, but rather implies the loftiest possible conception of the heights to which man is capable of rising. He who has the courage and stature necessary to "maintain his ways" and carry the quest through to its conclusion,


does more than prove man's capacity to endure and to perceive the ambiguity in his own nature and in the world about him. The Greeks and the Poet of Job saw the suffering endured by these men of heroic mold to be positive and creative and to lead to a reordering of old values and the establishing of new. (Sewall, p.48)


Psychoanalysis and Tragedy


Just as the journey is so often the metaphor for the process of discovery that takes place at the very heart of tragedy, so, too, is it one of the most compelling of metaphors for the process of psychoanalysis. This is true because in both instances the central figures are striving to discover things that involve unknown territory and primitive dangers. In both, a contemplative stroll on the parapet can end up bringing one face to face with one's terrifying ghosts; a walk down to the harbor can lead ultimately to a confrontation with one's monsters. In neither case does the confrontation occur by chance. Rather, it is only when the journey is undertaken with a special courage and pursued with an unusual perseverance that such monumental confrontations ever come to be. Such journeys are precisely the province of the worlds of psychoanalysis and of tragedy.

To undertake such a journey is what is asked of patients in psychoanalysis. It is a journey into territory neither analyst nor analysand knows completely, and both participants must recognize that they cannot know in advance what they will ultimately discover.

Nevertheless, it is not a journey which is entered into blindly, for each party knows something of what is in store. The analyst, as expert --or perhaps guide, has been on such expeditions before. He knows how to go about such an exploration, even if the particular territory in question is new to him. The analysand, on the other hand, is the owner of the territory. He has far more local knowledge and initial familiarity with the landscape and its inhabitants --even if there be regions he has walled off and not dared to enter into very deeply.

Psychoanalysis, like tragedy, is vitally concerned with those regions of an individual's experience that defy exploration. It recognizes that there are secrets people carry deep within themselves and treat as unapproachable. At times the secrets are horrible, and always the secrets are terrifying. The very concept of the unconscious, quintessential to all psychoanalytic theories, is predicated on precisely this belief. Whether conceived of as being completely the result of repression, as it is in most post-Freudian systems, or in the more classical way, as a combination of some instinctual inheritance and that which is repressed thereafter, the unconscious represents that part of an individual's psychic existence that the individual considers too dangerous to be known.

The avoidance of these terrible secrets constitutes the essence of all psychopathology. Erwin Singer (1973) wrote that at the heart of all psychopathology was the abandonment of "a birth right and a fundamentally given human capacity: to see what can be seen, to grasp what can be grasped." (p.187) Thus it is that the forces of repression counsel one, like Jocasta warned Oedipus: "I beg you --do not hunt this out --I beg you, if you have any care for your own life." Psychoanalysis calls on one, like Oedipus, to "not be persuaded to let be the chance of finding the whole thing out clearly."

If there is any value judgment that is intrinsically psychoanalytic, it is the Socratic bias that the unreflective life is not worth living, or its New Testament version, "The truth will set you free." Freud (1915) insisted that psychoanalysis must have at its very foundation the absolute commitment to truthfulness. As in the tragic vision, the psychoanalytic approach demands that one use "all the resources of his soul," (Freud, 1916-1917, p. 454; here using Riviere's translation) in the pursuit of the truth.

Tragedy and psychoanalysis are cognizant both of man's hunger for full and direct experience of himself and of his world, and of his simultaneous propensity desperately to hide from it. Both place ultimate stress on the value of the quest for this truth, while at the same time recognizing the monumental courage required not to flee and abandon the journey.

Thus psychoanalysis attempts inexorably to draw one deeper and deeper into this journey of confrontation with one's self. It calls on the individual to overcome his repressions and face that from which he has been hiding --to transcend the bounds of the secure systems he has established to keep full and immediate experience at bay.

The patient in psychoanalysis, like the tragic hero, senses that this journey threatens ultimately to bring him face to face with some ancient terror that stalks his world. And, in one way or another, all psychoanalytic theories would agree with him.


The Ancient Terror


What then is the 'ancient terror' that "doth make cowards of us all"?

Psychoanalytic theories universally maintain the concept of the existence of such underlying, repressed 'terrors.' Nevertheless, on the questions of how, why, and of what they are constituted, different theories very significantly diverge, and the divergence extends to the very epistemological underpinnings of the metapsychologies involved. This paper will confine itself primarily to those areas of general agreement.

It is agreed that the character of the terror is ancient because it is not based solely on a realistic fear of the current situation. The terror participates in some crucial way in a more profound, irrational anxiety. It connects with the more primitive experiences of the individual's own personal history, and of his prehistory --those familial and societal facts and myths that contribute to the shape of the individual's own experience.

It is no accident that tragedy and psychoanalysis both are preoccupied with the determining effects of family history. It is in the setting of the family where individuals experience the strongest and most primitive of feelings, where relationships take on their starkest and most charged of forms. This is true largely because a person's experience within the context of his family has its genesis at a time before coping mechanisms are well-developed, and before an independent sense of security has had time to solidify.

It is in these earliest years, when one is least equipped to cope with dangers, that situations pose the terrifying possibility of annihilation that Melanie Klein so dramatically explored in her writings. At this stage of development, the individual must contend with his unmitigated and unmediated dependence on his parents; and this fact lends a life and death sense of totality and unconditional absoluteness to the relationships. It is precisely in this context that one's archetypal object relationships take form --that the most crucial of one's self-appraisals are reflected. And it is the threateningly unsuccessful aspects of these relationships that underlie the 'ancient terrors' which people are so convinced they cannot survive confrontation with.

Psychoanalysis views man as being, like Agamemnon, ensnared in the net of his past. Every psychoanalytic theory acknowledges that an individual is shaped and conditioned by the experience of the past, although there is considerable disagreement as to what each theory understands as the origin, mechanism, and meaning of this fact.

Freud, like the great Greek tragedians he so admired, knew the power that generations of accumulated experience could have on the current experience of the individual. He understood the extent to which even one's most private decisions and actions took place in the context of events that had occurred years and even generations before.

Consider the dilemma of Orestes: he feels duty bound to avenge the murder of his father, Agamemnon, even though to do so is to be himself guilty of matricide. The murder of Agamemnon by Orestes' mother, Clytaemestra, in its turn had been committed to avenge the sacrifice of her daughter, Iphigeneia, by Agamemnon. The sacrifice of Iphigeneia had been demanded by the gods as atonement so that "fair Helen" could be retaken from Troy. And that atonement was necessitated by events in the history of the House of Atreus, harkening back to the gruesome Feast of Thyestes, and, by evoked implication, perhaps even to events in the prehistory of the gods themselves. Orestes is caught up in a horrible web of obligation and necessity dictated by generation after generation of his ancestors wreaking violent revenge on each other: each act required to respond to an earlier one, but none able to claim any ultimate moral justification.

Like Orestes, the patient must live and act in a world conditioned by what has happened before. He has become the bearer not only of his own prior experience, but also that of his parents, and the amalgam of their pre-histories which they have bequeathed him --consciously as well as unconsciously. He has been shaped and conditioned by the strivings and guilts, the hopes and fears, deeds and misdeeds, and even the beliefs and repressions of untold generations of his forebears.

But, as in the tragic view of life, psychoanalysis does not see man as helplessly at the mercy of his past. Despite all the emphasis on determinism in psychoanalysis from Freud right up to the present day, there is, at the very heart of psychoanalysis, an insistence on the possibility and significance of meaningful individual action. The entire psychoanalytic enterprise is founded on a belief that a person can have a meaningful effect on the course of his life; and, moreover, that he can even affect changes on the deepest levels of what underlies and shapes his experience.

Without any minimization of the tremendous weight and profound influence that the past exerts on choices in the present, the patient, like the tragic hero, must, as Paul Tillich has noted, neither


yield to fatalism nor humble himself in total guilt, but to press on in his action to find by experience the truth of his own nature and of the nature of man. (1948a)


One of the most profound similarities between the psychoanalytic and tragic visions, is the insistence of both on the balance between, on the one hand, a belief in the possibility of an individual acting freely and meaningfully in a way that can effect alterations not only in his patterns of action, but even in the way way he shapes his experience, and, on the other hand, a recognition that man is never completely free from the forces that limit his capacity to experience his world in any way different from the preconceptions of it that have been dictated by his past. And this balanced view of the efficacy of human striving and its limitation, must also be seen as applying to the psychoanalytic process itself.


The Well of the Past


At the heart of the psychoanalytic process is the commitment to study human lives in depth. As in tragedy, psychoanalysis searches for an understanding of what it means to be human. The quest in both cases takes the form of uniquely individual journeys, but there is a recognition that there can be no dichotomy between the unique, personal nature of each individual's experience and the profound, universal importance of the questions with which individuals struggle.

The psychoanalytic endeavor carries both analyst and analysand progressively deeper and deeper on their journey of discovery. Like Freud's metaphor of unlayering an onion, Sewall has noted that "there is something archetypal of all tragedy in this steady uncovering, layer by layer." (p.98) Working inward from the surface of present experience and time, psychoanalysis and tragedy carry the participants in their respective processes further and further into ever different perspectives and ever evolving integrations.

Nevertheless, psychoanalysis, like tragedy, must acknowledge that this process, while infinitely extendible, can never be complete. As with Thomas Mann's (1934) "well of the past," psychoanalysis can plumb deeper and deeper in its understanding, and yet,


...the deeper we sound, the further down into the lower world of the past we probe and press, the more that we find that the earliest foundations...reveal themselves unfathomable. No matter to what hazardous lengths we let out our lines they still withdraw again, and further into the depths. Again and further are the right words, for the unresearchable plays a kind of mocking game with our researching ardours; it offers apparent holds and goals, behind which, when we have gained them, new reaches of the past still open out --as happens to the coastwise voyager, who finds no end to his journey, for behind each headland of clayey dune he conquers, fresh headlands and new distances lure him on. (p.3)


Gone from psychoanalysis is the old fantasy of a post-analytic personality, and gone too is the belief that the process will eventually uncover the memory of some specially traumatic event that constitutes the absolute cause of a person's psychic torment and the unconditional end of his quest. Since the 1930's, psychoanalysis has increasingly come to understand itself as concerned with character as opposed to with symptom; and character is invariably the bearer of the full complexity of what an individual is in light of all that has gone before.

From this perspective, tragedy and psychoanalysis must understand the question "Who am I?" as being ultimately unanswerable in any absolute sense. The psychoanalysis of character offers, at most, what Mann (1934) termed "provisional origins: those beginnings...where memory may pause and find a hold whereon to base its personal history." (p. 30) Such "provisional origins" are, of course, no less crucial because they are relative and provisional in their nature; ergo the adoption of them involves ultimate acts of personal choice and responsibility taking.

There are no simple or easy answers acceptable to either the tragic or the psychoanalytic understandings. In both, individuals must, like Job, push beyond the accepted 'wisdom' and reassurances of society's "provisional origins" and systems of understanding, ultimately to have their own, personal confrontation with truth. And even then, they must accept that the fruits of their labors will be always "provisional."

And yet, deep within the foundations of psychoanalysis and tragedy alike is the conviction that having this personal confrontation has the deepest possible value and meaning. The taking of responsibility for oneself --extending right down to the core of who one is and what one has become; the knowing of oneself --including the acceptance of the relativity and limitations of this knowledge; and the pursuit of these ends without any recourse to reassurance from some faith that everything will work out all right or even that all questions will be answered: these are the conditions one accepts when, like Job, one accepts the charge to "Gird up thy loins and be a man." This is the human condition, viewed from both the tragic and the psychoanalytic perspectives. It is neither pessimistic nor optimistic; it quite simply is. Nevertheless, the full acceptance of it is ennobling.


Man "On the Way"

Knowledge, from the tragic as well as from the psychoanalytic perspective, is always of a total and all-encompassing sort. While it includes all of man's cognitive endeavors, from his innermost, unformulated attitudes and predilections to his most abstract philosophizing, it is never solely intellectual. To 'know,' according to the tragic vision, is akin to what it means to 'know' in the Hebrew bible, carrying the connotation of to 'have experience of.' It implies the broadest possible range of knowledge --affective as well as cognitive, intuitive as well as systematic.

Tragedy rejects any simple or reductivist answer to Job's question, "What is man?" and Oedipus' "Who am I?" Sewall has pointed out that


the answer is not that Oedipus is a sinner being punished by righteous gods, or an innocent man being destroyed by malign gods, or a man trapped by subconscious sexual jealousy of his father or --as the Chorus says finally-- a man who is better off dead. The answer, as in the Book of Job, is in all that Oedipus says, does, and becomes; ...all that is implicit in image and metaphor; all that is revealed through the rapid and relentless dialectic of the action. (pp. 31 f.)


Psychoanalysis, while it may choose to examine man in light of any number of metapsychological metaphors and from a wide variety of clinical perspectives, at its best likewise remains open to the fullness and uniqueness of who an individual is.

Psychoanalysis manages to achieve this openness through its emphasis on the importance of the transference. Just as tragedy insists that truth can be conveyed only through "dramatic action, or the dialectic...of the play," (Sewall, p. 28) so, too, psychoanalysis maintains that what is most important occurs in the relationship between analyst and analysand. Freud (1912) recognized this importance early on, and pointed out that psychoanalysis should never be satisfied to deal with facets of the patient's psychic life "in absentia," (p. 108) but rather should focus on the real and present versions of these phenomena as expressed in the transference. It is in the lived interaction that both see beyond the systems that normally shape and regulate their respective experience. It is in this dialectic between the two that the only first hand experience of each other is to be had. And the knowledge derived from this dialectic is no less valuable because it is complex and subjective.

The increasing emphasis in psychoanalytic theory on the importance of the relationship between analyst and analysand parallels the historic decision of Aeschylus to introduce a second actor into the world of tragedy. Both changes shift the emphasis to the more immediate, less intellectually interpreted dimension of present experience.

It is only man in action, man "on the way," that is the proper subject of both tragedy and psychoanalysis. And both declare that it is in the intensity and involvement of interpersonal relationship that man simultaneously discovers and reveals the deepest truths about himself.


Time and Change: "The blight man was born for"


The most fundamentally tragic feature of life is its finiteness: to live is to die. There are no exceptions: it is indeed "the blight that man was born for." (Hopkins, 1880)

Furthermore, the very process of living, that of growth and change, implies continuous loss. To move on to a new stage of life always involves abandoning some prior developmental level; to formulate a higher integration of one's experience always involves relinquishing an earlier integration.

One can avoid recognizing this truth, but one cannot change it. In tragedy, as in psychoanalysis, one is exhorted to confront and accept it.

Nevertheless, the more common human reaction is to flee from any and all awareness of this reality. Regardless of how deeply positive and profoundly promising the new may be, man is always loath to loose his attachment to the old. This reluctance occurs regardless of the fact that the old may have become outgrown and unnecessary, that it may be limiting and counterproductive, and even that it may be painful and self-destructive. Irrespective of the external reality, the loss of earlier situations and attachments is often viewed as being too intolerably threatening to be endured. In this vein, Erwin (1978) Singer used to claim that the Oedipus complex itself was not so much an issue of incest, but rather of a refusal to leave home!

In psychopathology, the reluctance to acknowledge loss becomes intensified. At the heart of all neurotic processes is an attempt to deny the possibility of loss by refusing to recognize the reality of growth and change. In a psychopathological state, an alternative world is created in which time and change do not exist and meaningful action is neither necessary nor possible. In this world there is a drama that is continuously being re-enacted with the same players and the identical script. In the stasis of the unchanging repetition, there is the promise of eternity. This is the world of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," where the lovers and their love exist frozen for all eternity, perfect and unravaged by the passage of time, because they are "All breathing human passion far above":


Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Thou winning near the goal --yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!


In this world there is no loss, no death. There is no decay, but no growth, either. Unfortunately, the price of eternity is the absence of life.

The closed systems on which psychopathology is founded are such worlds. In these closed systems, timeless and unchanging, endings and death do not exist. These crystalized versions of prior experience preserve within them a mummified representation of the past --but of a past that is in no way recognized as dead or gone. In a sense, what is dead and gone is treated as if it were alive and present, while what is alive and present is treated as if it were dead.

A common representation of these systems appearing in patient's dreams and fantasies is the image of the crypt. Treated as the most intensely personal repository of inner life, and insulated and protected from direct contact with the outside world and the passage of time, the dreamer seems only secondarily aware that the crypt is a place for the dead. The usual depiction involves the implicit assertion that it is a place into which to retreat in times of danger. Unfortunately, all new experience eventually comes to be seen as dangerous. Progressively, the patient can find himself increasingly in the schizoid position of living a life that is frozen and cut off from the world of the living. He spends his time in the darkness of his inner sanctum, living among the ghosts of past experience.

It should be no surprise that what renders a system closed is the fact that it exists under repression. Closed systems are the unconscious structures of the psyche. While they are conceptualized differently in various psychoanalytic theories, their existence and function are central to all such theories. Freud's (1907) attachment to the burial of Pompeii as a metaphor for repression reflected his awareness that the establishment of such repressed, closed systems within the psyche is an essential process "by which something in the mind is at once made inaccessible and preserved." (p. 40)

When operating out of such a closed system, an individual has experience only in accordance with the template for experience which defines that closed system. The newness and novelty of the present circumstances cannot be recognized; nor can the 'pastness' of the old experience be acknowledged. (Freud (1914) recognized the significance of this dynamic in his paper "Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through.")

Closed systems leave an individual feeling fated to re-enact the same drama, over and over again. And, to the extent that one is operating out of such a closed system, there is continuing confirmation of this self-made prophecy of inescapability. This confirmation is provided by means of the ongoing shaping of experience by the closed system in accordance with its internal template: when functioning in this way, one seeks out experiences and people that conform to the original template of experience, one induces people to respond in ways consonant with that template, and, finally, one is able to ignore those aspects of experience that do not conform with the prescribed format.

Psychoanalysis, like tragedy, calls upon an individual to confront life in an open way. It notices, as did Hamlet, that "time is out of joint": that the normally inexorable and irreversible flow of time --from the past, through the present, into the future-- has been transmogrified into an eternally repeating, never changing loop. The psychoanalytic goal is the dissolution of these closed systems, and the replacement of them with a system of living that attempts to remain fully cognizant of the evolving, changing nature of lived experience. Nevertheless, in this instance, too, one is called upon to accept that the goal can never be attained completely.

In the pursuit of the goal of living openly and fully, both psychoanalysis and tragedy focus acutely on loss as an integral dimension of human experience. Every attempt is made to abjure what both recognize as the ubiquitous human temptation to avoid experiencing loss by denying the existence or reality of difference and change. Both call upon man to have the courage to push beyond the systems he has constructed to reassure and insulate himself, and to live openly and face "the terrible ambiguity of immediate experience"; and both understand that to do so requires that he accept the reality of loss that is inextricably bound to the very process of living.

From Freud's (1917) "Mourning and Melancholia" on, psychoanalysis has always recognized the importance of the contrast between sadness and depression. More recently, many analysts have pointed to the dichotomous nature of the distinction between the two, noting that in sadness a recognition of loss lies at the heart of the affect, while in depression it is the denial of loss that provides the starting point for the mechanism. In this light, to the extent one is sad, and therefore experiencing loss, one cannot be depressed; and, conversely, to the extent one is depressed, and thereby denying the actuality of loss, one cannot be truly sad.

Depression constitutes a closed system, based as it is on the preservation of an internal relationship with some person or state of affairs that no longer exists in the actual flow of lived experience. Enforced by repressions, this closed system occupies the individual in experience in accordance with this internal relationship, and, to the extent that it is operative, it removes that individual from active and affective interaction with the outer world and his open experience in it.

The depressed person may feel that there is something dreadfully wrong with his world. Like Hamlet, he may sense "there is something rotten in Denmark," or like Oedipus, he may be aware that Thebes is plague-stricken and sick. But, before he is willing to discover and acknowledge the full personal meaning and present immediacy of the situation, he is condemned to neurotic inactivity. His suffering is aimless and empty, persisting while availing naught. Within the closed system of his depression, he is convinced that he is hopelessly stricken, and helpless to rectify or even to ameliorate the situation.

It is only once the depressed person accepts the full tragic implications of his situation that action and change become possible. By facing the full reality of the present situation with all its novelty and ambiguity, and by accepting the full brunt of the sadness and loss involved in renouncing the neurotic attachment to the world of the closed system, the depressed person becomes able to proceed with his life. His ghosts, as Loewald (1960) has written, can become ancestors; his neurotic misery, as Freud (Breurer & Freud, 1893) wrote, can become realistic sadness. Through the recognition of loss, he becomes able to affirm life; through the understanding of past as past, he becomes able to experience the present as real; through the acknowledgement of the limitations of his control, he becomes capable of meaningful action.

In this last regard, it is useful psychoanalytically to remember that there is a tendency for people to avoid the tension of the tragic vision by overestimating the extent of their influence over their situations. The fear expressed by many a patient --particularly one who experienced the early loss of a parent-- that he in some way was responsible for the calamity that befell him, most often defensively masks the more unbearable and terrifying truth that he was simply unable to do anything to prevent the catastrophic occurrence. In short, there is a tendency to feel bad rather than sad, as the lesser of two evils: neurotic guilt appearing less frightening than the full tragic acknowledgement of the irretrievable loss of an essential attachment.

This does not apply to the more uncommon situation of authentic remorse --the guilt that ensues when one painfully recognizes the commission of some deed that one has adjudged morally unacceptable and for which one is truly repentant. Neither psychoanalysis nor tragedy will tolerate any attempt to reduce or deny the power and meaning of so profound an emotion. Neurotic guilt is a travesty of this moral guilt; aping its form, but containing nothing of its substance. In fact, as Schafer (1976) has put it, successful psychoanalysis results in an "enhanced sense of responsibility and choice [that] is an alternative to neurotic guilt." (p. 43)

The manic defense similarly avoids the tragic balance by insisting on an unrealistic belief in the omnipotence of man in confronting the calamities he may face or have faced.

There is a not uncommon tendency in discussions of the psychoanalyses of certain patients, to view the appearance of depression as a clinical improvement. While there is an uncontestable phenomenological validity to such judgments, from the perspective of this paper it is clear that it would be more accurate to understand what is emerging as an increased capacity to experience sadness and loss rather than depression. Although depression mimics the acknowledgement of loss, it is at its foundations a denial thereof.

The psychoanalytic vision, like the tragic, insists on a balanced view. It calls upon a person to accept the possibility of his own meaningful action in the world and the responsibility for it, while at the same time requiring that he acknowledge and accept the finite limits that are involved. It calls on man to recognize his position in the forward sweep of time and to choose to live his life in full awareness of the loss that is inextricably bound up with the process of growth and change.

The importance placed by psychoanalysis on the termination phase of the work is derived precisely from these principles. Termination becomes the final "boundary situation" of the analytic process itself, in which the very growth and change that have been engendered within the the relationship move the participants towards the loss of that relationship. The success that has been achieved, much like the mastering of any developmental task, brings one to the point of having to abandon one stage for a new set of possibilities, to relinquish an attachment in favor of the progressive pursuit of one's life.

Moreover, analyst and analysand alike must face the loss without recourse to the reassurance that their journey has been complete. The tragic vision has established the impossibility of perfection and the unattainability of absolute answers. The end point of the psychoanalytic quest is only a "provisional origin" --at best, one deemed reasonable by both participants. The validity of this end point derives not from its perfection but from the authenticity of the responsible act of decision that brought it into being, and the openness with which the decision was explored within the relationship.

Once the decision to terminate has been made, the awareness of the impending loss becomes a potent force in the remaining work, lending a hitherto unequaled quality of reality and immediacy to the struggle against the neurotic attempt to deny loss in general. As Dr. Johnson (19 September 1777) once quipped, with his usual trenchant sagacity: "Depend on it sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Nevertheless, the patient (and, at times, the analyst as well) may desperately attempt to deny the the approaching loss by means of any of the avoidances that have been discussed: by questioning the finality of the separation, by denying responsibility for the decision making, by minimizing or by overestimating the importance of the attachment or the sadness that will result from its loss, or even by a wholesale attempt to repress any awareness of its existence at all.

It is the tragic task of psychoanalysis to insist on the termination's progressing through to its ultimate conclusion, and to exhort the participants to remain open to the full reality of the meaning and implications of the event.




The foregoing exploration of the tragic sense of life has revealed that tragedy does not inhere in situations but in the vision through which situations are perceived. The tragic vision has been defined by a particular mode of organizing and interpreting experience, and it has been demonstrated that the tragic vision, so understood, has extensive relevance to psychoanalysis. In most aspects, the visions that inform each are identical.

From this perspective, it cannot be agreed that, as Schafer (1976) claimed, "the person comes to analysis caught in a tragic situation" (p. 39); for it has been seen that situations are not, in themselves, tragic. He was nearer the mark in his assertion that "it is the work of the bring out into the open the analysand as tragic hero." (pp. 39 f.) Perhaps the most accurate statement would be that it is the work of the analysis to encourage and support the development of a tragic perspective.

Current views of the interactive, reciprocal interlocking of transference and countertransference make unavoidable the conclusion that analyst as well as analysand is subject to the same pressures to depart from the tragic balance that psychoanalysis requires. For the undertaking to be a success, each participant must struggle to achieve the evenly balanced vision required, in which each must summon up "all the resources of his soul" in order to face courageously the knowledge he will discover and the choices he will need to make.

Like Kierkegaard's "knight of faith," each must accept full responsibility for his own part in the journey. As Wolstein (1981) has written:


It is, always, [the] two particular co-participants --and they alone-- who take on the responsibility for their uniquely individual, psychic realities and for moving their shared psychoanalytic inquiry toward one another. (p. 400)


In the end, there is no authority to which to turn for objective truth, no system to which one can appeal for absolute answers--no certainty outside the shared subjectivity of the mutual interrelating. There is only the ennobling, tragic acceptance of personal responsibility for the pursuit of truth in the face of its provisional nature, and for the taking of meaningful action in light of that truth.




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