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On Relational Psychoanalysis

An Interview with Emmanuel Ghent

We dedicate this interview to the late Jeremy Safran, a distinguished professor in the New School of Social Research’s Psychology Department and a senior editor of Public Seminar, in the week of his memorial service to honor his legacy. 

Emmanuel Ghent was one of the founders of relational psychoanalysis, and his ideas have been hugely influential on subsequent developments in the field. However, he published sparingly, and his papers are scattered across a range of sources. In The Collected Papers of Emmanuel Ghent: Heart Melts Forward, edited by Victoria Demos and Adrienne Harris, his key writings are reproduced, along with analyses and critiques by major contemporary psychoanalytic figures including Adam Phillips, Jessica Benjamin, Seth Warren, Adrienne Harris and Barry Magid. The book provides a thorough examination of the key tenets of Ghent’s thinking and illustrates the continued importance of his theoretical and clinical work for the next generation of psychoanalysts. Chapter 9, “On Relational Psychoanalysis,” published here in full, is a rare interview with Emmanuel Ghent, conducted by Dr Lewis Aron.

Lew [L]: Hi, it’s Lew Aron and I’m interviewing Mannie Ghent on Monday, December 14th 2000 for the online symposium on the development of psychoanalysis. The development of relational psychoanalysis. We’ll just deal with that. Hi Mannie.

Mannie [M]: Hi.

L: So, I’d like to start by asking you if you could say something about what got you involved in psychoanalysis and how you ended up being an analyst.

M: Well that goes back a long way. That goes back to when I was in college and I think the first person that influenced me was Erich Fromm. I was first interested in society, I would say, before I became interested in psychology. And then I ran across that wonderful book, Escape from Freedom, way back in the 1940s. Early 1940s. And then that developed an interest in the psychological side of things that Fromm began to speak about in that book. And then from there I discovered that he was at the White Institute and I found out about Harry Stack Sullivan, and I found that very different type of reading because Sullivan’s language is rather tortured at times but at the same time it was extraordinarily illuminating. And in many ways, much to my mind, much more exciting than much of the Freud that I had read at that time. The Freud was, I guess, during my college years. It was a great time of excitement but when I came across Sullivan I was really thrilled to find out that there were different ways of looking at things that didn’t quite sounds so mechanical as a lot of the Freudian theories sounded to me at that time.

L: Mannie, you’ve been at the forefront of the development of relational psychoanalysis and certainly one of the founders of the relational track at NYU and very active in Psychoanalytic Dialogues and the whole relational thrust. Can you say something about the changes in psychoanalysis over the years that you’ve been practicing?

M: Well, I can say something about my own experience with it. You know, I graduated from the White Institute where, as I mentioned before, Fromm and Sullivan were preponderant thinkers and theoreticians. But even back then I was very much interested in what the British Object Relations people were working on, particularly in Winnicott and I remember reading Milner’s work way back in the 1950s and was very much taken with that.

One of the things that I was interested in was some of the work that Jane Pearce was doing at the time which felt like an extension of some of Sullivan’s work that made it a little bit, I thought, richer. But then the group that she founded and started, the so-called “Sullivanians,” went on a very different trajectory and I was not terribly keen on what happened there although I thought that she herself had a very fine mind and had a very creative mind.

L: Let me get into that a little bit more because I haven’t heard you speak about that. Can you say, what was it that you felt Jane Pearce was really adding to Sullivan? Before the whole Sullivanian group went its own way, what was being developed?

M: Well, you know, when I was a student at White it was rather strange. Sullivan had died not long before and his name was spoken reverentially but at the same time there was very little actual teaching of Sullivan. I was very struck with how the emphasis was more on saying what was wrong with Freud than what was right with Sullivan. And so, when I came across Jane Pearce, which was somewhat by accident, I was a psychiatric resident at Hillside Hospital where we had very long-term, severely disturbed schizophrenic, obsessional patients sometimes, and the supervision I got there was just perfectly dreadful. On the other hand, I came to Jane Pearce who introduced me to Sullivan’s actual work with schizophrenic patients and suddenly my work with these patients catapulted into a whole new dimension. It was just wonderful because I discovered ways of working with these people which were not only enlightening to me but made an enormous difference in terms of their therapeutic experience.

Then I got to know something more about her work and she was one of the few people who not only had worked extensively with him but had really thought about it and wanted to extend it. One extension, for example, was the idea of extending. See the problem with the self- system that Sullivan had brought into being was that it was essentially designed as a kind of anti-anxiety system and it left out all the aspects of the self, you might say, that didn’t have to do with ways of containing anxiety. And so, what she did, and I must say I was instrumental in helping out with that, was develop an extension which spoke of an additional system, you might say, which we called the integral system, and the idea was that the experience people had in their developmental years and throughout life was organized simultaneously along two lines. On the one hand it was organized into the self-system, which was very much like Sullivan’s self-system, which was that which was acceptable, you might say. Which was conceivable, which was thinkable by the person and in a certain sense corresponded to what might be called preconscious. It involved everything but the “not me.” It involved, what did he call it — I forgot the terms that he used — the “good me” and the “bad me” were Sullivan’s terms. The “not me” was what Sullivan referred to as the dissociated system and the line of thinking that we developed was that rather than thinking of it simply as a dissociative system — we conceived of it as another line of integration that took place within the person. Something along the lines, much more current today when you think of multiple personality, multiple personality organization with any given person, the idea being that the integral system was integrated along the lines of a totality of experience rather than that which was acceptable to the relatively accessible self and so on. So that you might say, the way it was thought of after that was that there was constant pressure from the integral system to extend the self-systems. And that was one way of looking at where therapy could be helpful because it was really a way of trying to locate those aspects of the self that were what we would now call in dissociation. And try to make them more accessible. But the way of thinking of it was that these were two parallel systems, one of which was almost totally out of awareness.

L: It’s very interesting to me because it really sounds like this is some of the origins or at least antecedents of where you went in later years. I mean, a lot of the focus on multiple self-states but also the constriction and expansion of the self, the polarity there which you’ve written about, and I guess I want to lead this in to one of your major ideas which has to do with surrender and it sounds like this idea of an integral self also anticipates some of that.

M: Well I think so. I think that, you see surrender in one sense can be thought of as the opposite or the other side of resistance, the inverse or the obverse of resistance. And what I mean by that is that we’re all very familiar with processes of resistance in psychoanalysis, we encounter them all the time. But we very seldom talk about those forces which I think exist in many of us, if not most of us, that incline us to want to undo the defensive structure that we are heir to, that we have developed. One way of thinking would be to say that we have some sense of that integral system that was organized and that there’s some kind of longing to open that up and make that accessible to one’s being, to one’s conscious being. And now surrender, that’s one route to surrender. Surrender of course has more roots in meditation and Buddhist thinking and there I think I came to have that influence because of my interest in Buddhism and my interest in meditation. And, it seemed to me that one of the sources, I guess when I first came across the usefulness of the concept of surrender was in relation to understanding that there may be other sources of understanding the nature of submissive and masochistic behavior. And it seemed to me, as I began to study this more, that in some people, at least on some occasions, that underlying the impulse to submit or surrender was another impulse, more deeply buried, that was closer to the quality of giving up one’s defensive structure, of in a certain sense, coming clean, of divesting oneself of all the false self-organizations (to use Winnicott’s terminology), and it seemed to me that it was a useful way, and I have found it a rather useful way of thinking of many of the phenomena that we encounter in submission and masochism.

L: Mannie, we just have a couple of minutes, but I want to ask you before we get off the phone, can you say anything about what you think the most current issues are for psychoanalysis? Where do you see the field going? Where do you think we are at this point?

M: Well, that’s not so easy to say. I think that we’re at a bit of a crossroads in psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis has had something of a downward spiral in the last twenty or so years from the highpoint in the 50s down to the low point in the 90s. But I have a feeling that there’s new fresh blood coming into it, not necessarily with new people, although partly that’s so, but I think that there’s a kind of vitalization in psychoanalysis that’s coming into being now, and my sense is that the general trend towards everybody taking refuge in medication and drugs is going to come to something not exactly of a dead end but its limitations will soon be found or recognized by large numbers of people, and I think that the interest in much deeper kinds of self-examination as a means towards healing will come back into the foreground again. So, I think that we’re coming down towards the nadir of psychoanalysis and I think it’s going to start climbing up again.

L: That’s probably a good note for us to end. Mannie, thanks so much. It’s always a pleasure and it makes me want to spend more time talking with you.

Buy your copy of The Collected Papers of Emmanuel Ghent: heart melts forward on the Routledge website here, or on Amazon here.

Dr Lewis Aron is the Director of the New York University (NYU) Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. He was one of the founders, and is an Associate Editor, of Psychoanalytic Dialogues. He is a co-editor of the Relational Perspectives Book SeriesRoutledge, and a Fellow of the College of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis (2016-2020). Dr Aron is the editor and author of numerous clinical and scholarly journal articles and books.

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