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Monday, June 23, 2014

Blue Jasmine - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reverts to Type



Woody Allen is the poster boy of psychoanalysis - famous for featuring it in his films and in his life - sometimes twice a day with two different analysts...  After one of his very public peccadilloes twenty five years ago - let's just say it was when he married his stepdaughter - I was working at a psychoanalytically oriented hospital and thought to myself - if there was ever proof that psychoanalysis does not work, Woody Allen is it.  But one of my trusted supervisors had a different view - that his behavior demonstrated how pernicious - how difficult to change - character pathology is.  Currently I suppose that there is something to both of these thoughts.  There are certainly limits to the ability of psychoanalysis to create change, particularly in people who are attached to their pathology - and Woody Allen's latest movie, Blue Jasmine, demonstrates the complexity, and insidious nature, of character pathology.

OK, so it is a cliche for an analyst, reluctant or not, to write about Woody Allen's movie; but wait, it gets worse!  I watched it at the psychoanalytic institute with a bunch of analytic types and then we discussed it afterwards.  How cliche is that?  The discussants had done their homework.  One area they talked about was the apparent relationship between Blue Jasmine and the play "Streetcar Named Desire".  Another was in reviewing interviews with Mr. Allen, but also archival interviews with Tennessee Williams.

Blue Jasmine mirrors Tennessee Williams' play Streetcar Named Desire.  The dramas are set in different parts of the country, in different decades, and have very different plots.  To my way of thinking, what unites them is that the central character in both is challenged by her need to be dependent - or more particularly to ward off the awareness of just how vulnerable her wish (and need) to depend on another makes her - especially in the context of an intimate relationship.  The character - or character pathology - of the lead has changed, however.  Blanche Dubois, the lead in Streetcar, can be understood as having an hysterical character.  Her chief motivation is to be loved - and she is willing to overlook many faults - to repress her awareness of them - in order to hang onto her high regard of others - and to let them have, in turn, a high opinion of her.

Hysteria was the most frequent diagnosis that Freud made.  He learned about hysteria from the French.  He traveled to France and observed Charcot treating hysterics using hypnosis and took this treatment home to Vienna where he found no shortage of patients with hysterical character styles.  The famous Anna O. who, as Bertha Pappenheimer, went on to found the social work movement in Germany and who was credited by Freud with discovering the psychoanalytic cure - chimney sweeping she called it - of saying whatever came to mind in relation to hysterical symptoms - using this technique, with her Doctor Joseph Breuer, to break through the repressive barrier - discovering the unwanted thoughts that had been discarded, and dealing with them in the light of day, finding another way to cope with them, and moving on.  Freud saw Hysteria everywhere, including, as he engaged in self analysis and the analysis of others, in himself and other men - something the establishment couldn't bear - Hysteria, etymologically based on the Greek word for Uterus is, by definition (they maintained), a female disorder.

In fact, I believe it to be a means of coping with the world that was much more prevalent in times when authority figures were relied on in ways that they aren't currently.  I remember watching that transition as my grandmother sat transfixed day after day by the Watergate hearings.  Pundits at the time claimed that it was the end of an age of innocence, and it was.  Nixon, a man grandmother had voted for three times - a man she trusted to have integrity - was not trustworthy, and his band of henchmen were too graphic and three dimensional in all of their shiftiness for us - individually or collectively - to repress.  We learned that authority was not to be trusted.  But of course authority has to be trusted for the system to work, so there continue to be hysterics among us and hysterical streaks within each of us, but as a dominant style, it became more difficult to maintain.

So what did we replace the hysteric style with?  I am indebted to a fellow analyst for pointing out that Woody Allen's answer, in the character of Jasmine, played by Cate Blanchett in a performance that won her an Oscar, is that we have become narcissistic - or, in Jasmine's case, brittle narcissists - believing that we do not need others because we are self reliant and, unlike the hysteric who represses information that would interfere with our being able to be cared for by the other, we divide ourselves not between what is known and what is unknown, but between what is known when things are OK and what is known when things are not OK.  This way of not knowing is what we call a vertical split (between parts of the self that can be consciously in control - between the part that intermittently is in charge and feels independent and the part that intermittently is in charge and knows that we depend, despite what we tell ourselves, on others) rather than a horizontal split( a repressive split between what the trustworthy things are that are known about the other and the parts of the other - and ourselves - that is not trustworthy - parts that remain consistently unknown or unconscious).

But before we get to splitting, let's talk about narcissism.  First of all, narcissism is a normal part of our development.  It is, quite literally, self esteem.  It is self love, which is an important, perhaps even crucial part of a "healthy" personality.  The character (and dramatists are enviable because they create characters rather than the messy self-contradictory things called people), the character of Jasmine is a person who has loved herself.  She has been wealthy and stylish.  Her husband (played by Alec Baldwin) was suave without being smarmy.  While he was wheeling and dealing, she was entertaining his business associates and their wives.  She was also managing the charitable endeavors, the "noblesse oblige", that this couple of tremendous privilege engaged in as an integral part of the rounding out of their lives.

We meet her after all the trappings of wealth have been stripped away and get to know her former life only in flashback.  We see her in a raw state - one where her own self-involvement - her need to not just survive but thrive - is paramount, and these needs outweigh the agendas of those around her, including her adoptive sister on whom she is imposing - and whom she was party to swindling in her former existence, demonstrating that this is not just a means of functioning in the present, but a style that she has relied on forever, part of her character.  She does not just have self esteem, but self love that eclipses her ability to resonate with the needs of those around her.  She overlooks the shadiness of her husband's business dealings until he betrays her - not just her family - at which point, when things are not OK, she "recovers" her memory of his shenanigans and seeks terrible retribution - publicly exposing his private matters.

It quickly became clear to me that the movie was a condensed and highly symbolized version of Woody Allen's experience.  Jasmine (who changed her name from the drab given name that her parents chose for her) becomes a glamorous, competent person, but is also aware of the ways in which it is a sham - she is playing a role rather than being a person - and this is the vertical split - I both am and am not the person that I am pretending to be.  I remember an ancient interview where Woody Allen was asked about being married to a movie star - to Mia Farrow - and how did that feel to a nebbish kid from Brooklyn.  He responded that, as a world class director, of course he was married to a movie star.  And that statement rung to me as both true and not true.  He is a world class movie director.  But he is also a nebbish kid from Brooklyn and, at least in my memory, he did not say that he was a director AND a kid from Brooklyn, but that he was JUST a world class director.

This kind of split is evident in Jasmine.  She tries, in the wake of her dislocation, to play herself again, and is initially successful, catching the eye of a man who would remake her into who she was before - perhaps even more legitimately, but she can't - or doesn't - do this honestly and straightforwardly.  Instead she pretends to be someone she isn't - even though the man she discovers is attracted to the person she is - and when she is caught at being who she is not, she is abandoned by him, and she begins to totter on the edge of madness.

What I found compelling about the interviews - those with Allen and Tennessee Williams, is the contrast between Williams comfort with himself and his characters as projected aspects of himself (see a discussion of this in a post about The Glass Menagerie) - he states, in effect, that he is writing about parts of himself that he knows - parts that he isn't proud of, but that are very human, and he would never place himself above his characters while Allen, who denies any relationship between himself and his characters (and any relationship between his movie and Streetcar), creates distance which seems disingenuous at best.

Woody Allen depended on Bernie Madoff - a wheeler dealer like the Alec Baldwin character who disappointed him and absconded with a fortune.  Woody Allen depends on his audience, and they can turn on him, especially when he engages in behaviors that they find reprehensible (marrying his daughter), though he denies the reprehensibility (she is adopted).  And he denies a connection between his life and the movie, where the adopted daughters are, not surprisingly, all but unrelated to each other.

Both Williams and Allen, I believe, write incredibly presciently about female characters.  I think this is partly because those characters are, indeed, projected and, in Allen's case, apparently disowned aspects of themselves.  They are writing about their own psyches, or the feminine aspects of them, and allowing them to infuse the characters that are also based on people that they have interacted with.  This suggests that the chief characters they create may mirror the dominant characteristics of their own personality styles and that the character's means of managing what they don't want to know - in Williams/Blanche's case through repression - in Allen's/Jasmine's case through splitting, may mirror the functioning of the author's (even if, or, weirdly, particularly if, one of them denies it).  And Allen's denial through splitting - if that's what it is - may make the treatment of that aspect of the character structure particularly resistant to a treatment that relies on insight to achieve cure.  Interestingly, then, if this is true and Allen were to read it, he would both agree with it and deny it - the latter part would not be something that we, and perhaps not even he and his analysts, would be able to access.

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Post script: Rereading this after Bruce Jenner's transformation into Caitlyn this year, I am struck by the frustrated response of a feminist writer in the New York Times who railed that she was tired of men defining what it means to be a woman.

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