Alan Rickman in Seminar - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Goes to a Convention and A Play





Sometimes the world falls into place in a way that defies explanation – synchronicity or kismet or fate or whatever it is that lines things up and makes them right acts to create a syzygy that can’t be ignored.  Tonight that happened.  The plenary address at the convention I am attending was by Judith Chused and was titled the “Psychoanalyst’s Narcissism” and the thesis was that the narcissism of the analyst (always abundantly on display at conventions of analysts) is not just off-putting and even destructive, but also can be – because it includes a desire to be helpful and a wish to avoid being vulnerable – one of the therapeutic elements that we bring to the table.  Of course this can cut both ways, but generally we think of narcissism as something to be vanquished rather than as something that is our ally.  So it was an interesting talk; provocative, but in a subtle way.  A talk that was applicable to me and to my work, novel, but not strangely new or different.  Perhaps like the best of new ideas, one that seems so sensible that we feel we must have thought it to be the case all along.

Then, we went to the Theater.  We stood in line to get half price tickets and chose to see “Seminar”, mostly because Alan Rickman stars in it and we like the way he plays wry, self-satisfied characters.  Well, this character was a bit over the top in that department.  Not just wry and self-satisfied, but a full blown narcissist who, at least initially, appears to be totally insensitive and destructive.  Cast as a teacher of a seminar of four young writers living in New York; instead of teaching them, he belittles, berates and attacks them – not their writing, but they, themselves as people.  He attacks them directly in the case of three characters, calling one dull, the second a whore, and the third a pussy; in the case of the fourth he even more insidiously attacks her by sleeping with her – something that she believes will help her writing career.  These attacks turn out to enact the very thing that Chused was describing, though I think in an idealized way that conveys some truth, but also in an exaggerated fashion that includes some dangerous elements of fiction and wish fulfillment.

Narcissism is essential to parenting, teaching, editing, and to therapy.  Narcissism is a complicated term that has been defined in a variety of ways.  For the moment, let’s think about the aspect that is central to parenting.  At birth, our children, little lumps of living breathing flesh, evoke tremendous feelings of love.  Part of that – a big part of it – is because this little lump is our creation – more than that, a part of us.  We love the child the way that we love our own bodies – the way that we love our own ideas  - they belong to us.  As the child grows and develops their own identity and becomes the person that they will be – a person who is influenced by our genes and our relationship – they also become a person more and more certain that they themselves own.  Indeed, many of the conflicts between parents and children revolve around this very issue – who is it that is in charge of my life?  To a lesser per cent perhaps than in parenting, we identify – more than that, psychologically “own”, the people with whom we work.

The positive aspects of “owning “ our patients includes wanting to protect them, wanting our work to be effective – it will reflect back on us if it is not - and not wanting to hurt our patients – indeed wanting to protect them more broadly, including from ourselves.  This is balanced by the danger of not recognizing that our children/patients/students/etc. are actually doing the work that will lead to the changes that they (and we) desire as a result of treatment.  Further, it is their actions (not ours) that are ultimately going to be the ones that carry them to a place – a place where they no longer need us in the way that is very gratifying to us that they do now.  We can get derailed from that process in a thousand ways; including by becoming caught up in and believing in our own power to manipulate, change, and to achieve through them what, at its worst, we have not been able to achieve ourselves. 

In the play, Alan Rickman’s character is a writer who, the seminar members discover, was drummed out of publishing when he was accused of plagiarism.  Rickman’s character himself later clarifies that he was accused of plagiarizing by a student he has slept with who feels rejected by him.  This led him to have to give up writing – and to move into editing.  He is now an editor who wields some power.  His challenge to the dull writer leads her to make up a first person account that is not her own, but of a person that she imagines.  The seminar leader notes the value of this writing and gets her a job interviewing people to ghost-write stories for them.  He lines up an interview with a Hollywood producer for the writer he has dubbed a whore – and this clearly is consistent with the career aspirations and abilities of the writer – and he saves the writer years of work discovering that this is his calling.  He also finds an appropriate slot for the person he is sleeping with. 

The fourth writer, the “pussy”, is the one whom he sees as having the ability to become a really good writer and with whom he most closely identifies.  He offers to edit this man’s writing and to mentor him through the process of publishing so that the man does not crash and burn the way that the seminar leader did.  The writer is skeptical and worries that Rickman's character does not actually have the chops to help him.  He shows up, unannounced, at the seminar leader’s apartment (discovering that the seminar leader is now sleeping with the other female member of the group).  While the seminar leader is tending to his private life, the writer reads something the Rickman character has written, becomes convinced that the leader is, indeed, a good writer and can help him and decides to work with him.

We leave this feel good play cheering for the narcissist whose apparently destructive intentions have had a positive impact on those who have been in his care.  This experience is part of the experience of the child/patient/student who successfully concludes a relationship with a truly caring other, one who is mildly distracted by their own agendas in the ways that all good enough parents/therapist/teachers are, but not so much that they harm the child/patient/student.  But it is not clear to me that this narcissist really was concerned about his students.   While sleeping with the first might be construed as consistent with an expressed desire on her part, sleeping with the second seems to me to make it clear that he is really much more interested in his own agenda with no regard for those of the others.  More to the point, the Rickman character is not willing to put his own writing out there.  He has not done what he will ask his protégé to do – publish the work and let other’s attack it or love it in whatever way they will. 

While we want to rewrite history to have our past demons become angels in disguise (or, perhaps, more to the point, we want to justify our demonic actions by pointing to the positive outcomes that occur in spite of our malevolent intentions), I think this sort of thinking clouds our narrative.  This editor/teacher is not benignly, but malignantly narcissistic – meaning that his own need for self satisfaction and acknowledgement will not be achieved through his own actions, including by having an impact on others that frees them to engage the world more fully as themselves, but he will achieve his satisfaction through claiming the actions of others as his own, while being able, simultaneously, to distance himself from them by ascribing the negative/disliked/disowned to them.

Chused’s position was that our narcissistic investment can, despite the dangers, be our ally as we work to help those who are dependent on us.  I think the play suggests that we can allow our narcissism more license than I believe is warranted.  In so far as narcissism is our ally, it is a dangerous one because its heady perfume can lead us into dangerous, indeed damaging waters – waters where we are tempted to justify ourselves out of all measure to what is actually taking place.  Generative narcissism requires; and this is almost oxymoronic, self-disavowal.  We must be prepared to give our investment in our dependents up in order that they may become whomsoever they will be, and take satisfaction, not in their accomplishments, but in our own – including the accomplishment of letting them go.

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