Monday, November 24, 2014

Frank Lloyd Wright- The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Learns about the Architecture of Relationships

My mother, in her eighties, is more productive than I am in late mid-life.  I am reminded of a friend of mine’s comment on meeting my grandmother, my mother's mother, who was in her eighties at the time – he said that he hoped that he could be that clear minded when he was her age.  Then he corrected himself.  He said that he wished he were that clear minded now! 
In the last three years my mother has co-written, produced and directed four plays, each of which has been presented in a one night stand at her local theater.  The previous three were offered late on weeknights and travelling to her city two hours away and then back after a performance during the school year was daunting and we never managed it.  This year, however, the production was a Sunday matinee, so the reluctant wife and I were gladly able to make the trip.

Mom has been working with a theater group – they have sort of become an informal company – during this time.  They have worked on themes of plays that have struck their fancy.  This time, the local arts center that houses their productions was going to be hosting a display about a housing development that a Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiast built in the town in the 1960s.  This is an architecturally distinct neighborhood in a community that is, as a whole, divided between Olde New England style – with early 1800s buildings and buildings built to look them (including gas stations with cupolas required by the town zoning) and modern suburban split levels.  So the Frank Lloyd Wright inspired subdivision is a group of 20 or so homes that form a visually and even spiritually unique sub-community.  The houses don’t have clear boundaries between the plots, one is circular and one is a tower and each of the rest are in their own way unique yet vaguely reminiscent of the others because they have casement windows, parts that are underground, no gutters and downspouts, and that Frank Lloyd Wright look.  The theater group decided to celebrate this community by creating a work that described who it was that Frank Lloyd Wright was.  As they pulled together material to create the play, they read biographical material about Wright, but much of it was focused on the women in his life, and the play emerged as a description of the home makers who made the houses that Frank Lloyd Wright lived within.

The play, then, included six characters – the four central women in Wright’s adult life – his first wife, Catherine “Kitty”( Tobin) Wright, second, Maude “Mimi” (Noel) Wright and third wife,  Olga Ivanovna “Olgivanna” (Lazovich Milanoff) Lloyd Wright and also the woman he lived with, Mamah Bothwick Cheney, who was killed by their live-in cook, along with her children, while he was separated from wife #1 – a newspaper reporter, and the voice of Wright himself, which came from backstage.  It was staged as a series of monologues – each of the four women spoke twice – they went through in order – and the newspaper man interacted with them while Wright offered editorial comments – or pontificated.  The style at first felt like it might be stilted or preachy or too didactic, but as the play settled in, it clearly became a play and the sense of anticipation – of wondering what happened, what would happen, and why it all happened, emerged, but more importantly, the sense of a dramatic unfolding took place.  We were in the presence of people whose lives mattered - people about whose lives we cared.

It is interesting to note that Wright was born about 13 years after Freud and lived 20 years or so longer than Freud.  While he lived in the US, they were born into similar worlds, and worlds where the roles of women were quite similar.  Wright’s first wife was every bit the traditional wife, and played the traditional role that Freud’s wife did.  Though she was educated – she was a social worker as well as a socialite – she came across as terribly traditional in her gender identification.  She was portrayed in the play as saying something like “Frank built the house that I lived in, he made the furniture, and I found it no surprise that he designed the clothing that I wore.”  There was a sense that Wright, who was frequently absent, treated his first wife as an object to be housed, furnished and clothed.

Of course Freud’s interests and Wright’s could not have been more different.  Freud was interested in people – in their minds, in their products – their works of art and where they came from, and in their psychological health.  Frank was interested in buildings – in architecture, which he took to be the highest form of art.  And he was not particularly interested in the creature comforts of the people who lived in his works of art – his homes are notoriously cold and drafty – those single pane casement windows conduct the heat and the cold directly into the house – and Taliesin, the home where his second lover died and his third and fourth wife lived, was primitive, with only fireplaces to keep out the cold of the Wisconsin winters. 

Wright connected with the second, doomed woman, when she and her husband were clients of his.  She and Wright, who had been having numerous brief affairs, became proponents of free love, and she relied on the writings of a woman who was a spokesperson for the free love movement to support her decision to leave her husband and Wright's to leave his wife and children so that they could live together – they could not marry as neither spouse would grant them a divorce.  At least as portrayed in the play, this woman was a more suitable match for Wright, but was still quite traditional, while he was breaking architectural boundaries and creating a novel visual style.  She felt, at least on stage, as a slight move forward from wife #1, though Wright viewed her as more of an intellectual equal.  And Wright seemed less than invested in her (and her children) as individual people with particular minds than he might have been – even more than he was interpersonally somewhat distant from his own children.

This was an interesting period in which to have come of age.  In an earlier time, or at the same time in Europe perhaps, he and woman #2 might have simply had an affair.  But they made a bold and public break at a time when divorce was still relatively novel and had a morally repugnant tone, and they began to build lives together quite publicly – talking with the media about the decisions that they made – publicizing their otherwise “private” lives.  This took a macabre turn when the cook – who was I think from the Caribbean – set the house on fire and took an axe to the family members as they fled, killing Mamah and two of her children (Wright was away at the time).  What the cook’s motives were have never been clarified, though some have wondered whether he was driven by moral qualms over the living arrangements – whether true or not there was certainly plenty of room for a late Victorian public to feel that some justice had been served by the deaths, justifying their own sense of satisfaction at an event that otherwise would have appalled them.

Frank then got caught in a snare.  Wife #2 sought him out by writing long, long letters to him in the wake of the deaths at Taliesin, and he became enamored of her – or perhaps more accurately, he became enamored of how enamored she appeared to be of him.  He was dazed by her enough that he overlooked such things as her dependence on morphine – at least long enough to marry her.  Once married, he reasonably quickly became aware of what a burden she was.  The character, by the way, was one that was clearly quite fun for the actress portraying her to play.  She enjoyed that this histrionic woman turned every little interaction into drama, and it was an actress’s dream to have a part in which nothing could be too over the top – what a chance to act without abandon! 

The intriguing thing about the arc of this trio of women, though, is that it seemed to prepare Frank for the final relationship of his life.  The final woman to waltz into his life, wife #4, Olgivanna, was a dancer from Montenegro who had the mettle to match the distant and brilliant Wright.  I am not certain of this, but the plot of the play, which borrows heavily from novels tracing Wright’s wives, including one titled “The Women”, suggest that Wright needed to learn that a woman could be a match – that love could occur between two people with similar passions and with similar strengths.
Again, like Freud, Wright was the leader of a group of people who learned their craft at his feet.  He was an acknowledged genius within his lifetime and exercised his genius with impunity, treating lesser mortals with a certain amount of disdain.  Freud was able to stick with his wife – apparently quite faithfully (though he had a very close relationship with her sister who seemed more his intellectual equal and some have wondered whether they may have had an affair).  Freud was deeply invested in his children (maybe too deeply – analyzing his daughter Anna and helping her become the heir apparent in the family business).  He was deeply invested in his work with women patients and became a clueless and sometimes problematic icon in the development of a women’s movement toward equal footing with men.

At a time when, even in the privileged classes, women did not have anywhere near the same opportunities as men for such things as getting a good education, to expect equal relations between individuals so differently prepared to become adults required a tremendous amount of romantic (meaning fictional) support to work. Olgivanna was an accomplished artist in her own right and she was able to manage the farm that was their home, to keep Frank’s students in line, and to command the respect of those around her, including, I believe, Frank himself.

 My grandmother, the one whom my friend noted was such a powerhouse, was raised by her father, who trundled her across lumber towns in the Pacific northwest and she watched as her father engineered and built one lumbermill after another.  As an adult, engineer friends marveled at her ability to understand mechanical principles, yet she claimed never to have been taught about fractions and decimals and therefore claimed to be mystified by them.  She ended up being a college graduate, but she was an art history major – something for which she had great passion – but her apparent native mathematical and engineering talents could never have been tapped in the educational system available to her.

She, in turn, became the mother to my mother, whose training was pushed towards the humanities in part because of prejudice and what kinds of opportunities existed for women, though largely out of interest and aptitude.  She became a theater director, which meant someone who taught theater, and then her career was secondary to that of my father, who was seen as the de facto bread winner.  Perhaps because of that, her current productivity is particularly impressive.  Perhaps the arc of her life has mirrored in some ways the arc of the lives of the privileged through the first half of the last century and has led to a certain ownership of her gifts and talents that is continuing to reap rewards later in her life.

What would Freud – or Wright – have made of this?  I think that Wright came up against women of greater and greater strength as his life developed – OK the strength of wife number two was largely in her ability to be wacky, but that is a certain kind of strength, one that women have relied on when all else has been denied them for a very long time, and it may have taught Wright that you really want to have the strength of women working with you, not against you.  So find someone who can measure up, and he seems to have, at least at the end (Perhaps Mamah did as well – their relationship never had a chance to mature).  Freud, too, befriended and championed powerful women, including his daughter, throughout his life.  But it is also the case that women have taken what Freud had to offer, including his misreadings of women, and made them right – refusing to be cowed by a genius who had his blind spots.

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Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Conscious Id – The Reluctant Psychoanalyst reads Mark Solms

Many psychoanalysts talk lovingly of the first time they read Freud.  They say things like, "He really helped me understand myself," or "For the first time I felt like someone understood psychology;” for me, not so much.  I found Freud to be a difficult and dense read.  His models of the mind were too simplistic in text books and too complicated for me to understand when I read Freud himself.  And, while some of his cases were lovely, many times his explanations were tough to follow.  But the clinicians who loved Freud really seemed to understand people and to be helpful to them.  And, over time, I learned a language - not necessarily Freud’s language, but a dialect related to the language he coined - one that helped me better understand the people that I was working with and how to be helpful to them.  And I kept banging away at Freud, giving the old man another chance, trying to understand what he was saying.  I read a lot of Freud in my psychoanalytic training proper, but I can't say that I got it all of the time - or even much of the time.  I am teaching Freud now, and I'm beginning to get him, but it ain't easy.  So, imagine my surprise when I read a paper and said - "Oh, of course.  So that's how the mind works."  It's not a paper by Freud, but one by a South African neuropsychologist named Mark Solms.  I recommend it - here is the link, though you may need access to a subscriber base, which you may be able to get through a library if you don't have it personally - but I think it would have been largely impenetrable to me, so I offer the following as an interpretation - and therefore recognize that it will overly condense, simplify or distort the paper - so please, feel free to check the facts.  I am also aware, now having written it, that this may be as dense and impenetrable as the paper, and for that I apologize ahead of time.

Now there are two funny things about Solms’ paper.  First of all, Solms claims to be turning Freud on his head, but I experience him as straightening Freud out.  The second is that this paper is a really dry, really technical paper (OK, it has some cool color pictures of the brain, but you know what I mean), and yet it seems, at least to me, to be incredibly applicable to day to day life - to be burning into my thoughts these days as I try to puzzle this or that problem of human living.  I feel like one of those psychoanalysts I have envied who found Freud speaking to them; ironic that I am getting that experience out of this very dry paper.  It is also ironic that I find this lively because Solms is, I think, completing some of Freud's work, or at least intending to update it based on our current neuropsychological understanding.  Freud was originally a neurologist, he abandoned neurology for a particular psychology that he invented because his neurological descriptions were not up to the task of explaining the phenomena he ran into, so he translated his neurological understanding into a more psychologically based one - though he never gave up hope that his model of the mind could become a neurologically supported one.

So how does Solms claim to turn Freud on his head?   Well, first of all, he claims that the id - Freud's cauldron of drives, uncivilized wishes, and forgotten/repressed material - is not unconscious at all, but intimately related to consciousness and, indeed, central to our primary conscious experience. He also states that we are pretty much constantly at least capable of being aware of the stuff that Freud claimed was deeply unconscious (though I think he means by this the immediate derivatives of drives - feelings – not necessarily the contents (memories) and functions (defenses) of the unconscious) though he does not clarify this, which confuses the paper.  In any case, Solms locates the id deep within the brain - in the brainstem and the structures near it like the ventricular system - in the systems that are responsible for waking and sleep and for our feeling states.  In fact, Solms claims that the function of the mind is not primarily to think - to be cognitive - but instead to feel.  Why did we choose this course of action?  We chose it because it felt right.  We leaned in one direction, and checked out how it felt.  If we felt uncomfortable, we may have asked for more information.  Getting it, we may have leaned further, or leaned in the other direction and, when it felt like we were in a comfortable place (or we felt like there was no time left) we acted.  And the cognitive parts of the brain, the stuff that Solms equates with Freud's ego, provide the needed information.  It informs our feelings (and restrains them – so we don’t act too impulsively), but also justifies them, creating a plausible rational narrative for our affectively based actions and, Solms believes, the ego is thus subservient to feelings on both ends - the feelings search the ego for what they need to have a better feeling for something and, once the decision has been made, using the ego to provide support for the feeling based decisions.  So Solms feels that he has turned Freud on his head.

Now, I’m going to quibble with Solms' idea that he has turned Freud on his head with a technical point about Freud’s model in this paragraph. Solms seems to assume that because something is unconscious, it must be part of Freud’s id.  Solms seems to have forgotten that, for Freud, most of the mind, including most of the ego, is unconscious.  Our conscious selves are really small – not just small but largely inconsequential or irrelevant in most of our psychological functioning.  The real bang, for Freud, is in the unconscious.  And I think that Solms is elevating a very small part of that unconscious, but one that Freud put deep inside the most unconscious part of his model the id, the drives – the part of ourselves that wants this now and wants it anyway, into something that we have conscious access to rather than being unconscious.  I think he means by this something like what happens when I walk by an unlocked car and see something in it that I could use – a CD that I want but don’t have – I have an impulse to open the door, grab the CD and keep on going.  This is part of what seems so right about this article.  Solms is maintaining that a lot of what Freud sees as having been defended against is just kind of continually running across the front page.  So I think that Solms may be confusing consciousness with the ego. I think he is extending the range of consciousness more than upending the ego and id.

The major thesis of the first part of the paper is that there are two self-representations in the brain.  One – which is located in the cerebral cortex – is the one that locates us in space.  It is the part of ourselves that feels where we are and that directs us to move in space.  This is connected with the sensations that come to us from the outside world.  This is the self that Solms equates with Freud’s ego.  I think there is some sense to that.  He then contrasts this with another sense of self, the sense of self that arises from within – the feeling states – the urges that drive us and that give texture and continuity to our lives.  This is the stuff he locates in the brainstem and other “lower” brain centers.  These brain centers he claims are actually in charge of our consciousness because they do such things as determine our wake sleep cycles, and they operate to do that even when there is no cerebral cortex.  OK, they determine wake and sleep, but I think he makes a bit of leap when he states that they therefore are the site of the primary consciousness and the “higher” ego consciousness is subservient to it.  This could be the case, but does not follow necessarily.

So, Solms maintains, the cerebral cortex, or ego, is called in to access procedures for handling particular situations – it is what he believes is the aptly named working memory that is our conscious functioning – and it figures out what, procedurally, to do at a given moment.  We access relevant chunks of information and manipulate them in order to come up with a procedure and the intention of this is to come up with a procedure that is a routine so that we can just do that routine and NOT have to consciously work at a problem.  OK, I am dealing with x situation – I need the x solution box and need to plug in the subroutine that will solve it.  I don’t need to figure out how to do this.  The point of our minds is to avoid being conscious as much as possible so that we can function efficiently and, I suppose, have RAM (or working memory) open to be used for novel situations which require actual problem solving.  This is largely a restatement of what Freud has said, but also what cognitive psychologists have been saying about why so much of our processing is unconscious.  Solms is taking the position that his “new” part of this is that it involves the ego as an unconscious piece, but I think Freud actually beat him to the punch on that in The Ego and the Id.

What I think is remarkable about the distinction that Solms makes between “higher” ego functions and “lower” ego functions is something that is actually implicit in one of Freud’s models of the mind that Solms recreates in one of his color illustrations.  This model is from Chapter 7 of the interpretation of dreams and is a model that Freud used to describe how dreams function.  I think of it (perhaps wrongly, I have not yet heard others call it this) as a kaleidoscopic model of the mind.  Freud creates this model to explain two features of dreams – that dreams are visual and that they are never in the location that we would expect them to be.  And what Freud comes up with, I think, is brilliant.  It is a model where we look at an image that is on top of another image that is on top of another image so that we can simultaneously see multiple things that are coming to bear on a particular issue and so that we can also obscure some things that are occurring because they can be covered by other images.  What is it that we are observing?  We are observing the things that have occurred during the past day – and the things that have been associatively called up by them – how those things have been fit into our memories – our reworking of what has occurred at previous moments in our personal history and how those are related to what has happened more recently.

While Solms does not apply his model to dreams, this is one of many places that I think it could well prove quite fruitful.  For instance; what if the function of dreams is partly a consolidation of memories – not just as they occurred but as an active integration of them into the existing components of our perspective on the world?  Here we have been applying, from our data banks, the material that we use to make decisions and move forward in the world.  Then, at night, we replay our experience – Freud calls it regression because we reverse the direction of the movement of materials, and move them backwards – from the memory out to the sensory system where we watch them being played back, but on unfamiliar ground – the ground of the old memories that are called up by what we have observed and engaged in during the day.  This might help us both build more efficient means of staying unconscious – help us fine tune our procedures; but it also might help us realize when those procedures have failed us – and these might be the dreams we remember or the moments in dreams when we awake and need to think of a new way of handling things – our processes are not capable of handling the situations – or we realize the negative consequences of handling situations in the ways that we have – they feel bad to us – and our brainstem says to us, in effect, there is something dangerous going on that we need to react to.

Solms does talk about psychopathology.  In this model, psychopathology – neurosis – happens when the automatic processes of the ego are put in place prematurely – before there has been a chance to adequately test them.  This largely happens because we are anxious about a situation and act before we have enough information.  Once the solution gets put in place however, because it is unconscious and because it works at some level, it becomes automatic.  Dreams and psychoanalysis become ways to rework these compromise or failed but nominally functional solutions.

So you may have lost track of why I think this paper is so exciting.  Let me try to review with some bullet points:

  • Solms clarifies that the drives, if not directly conscious, are much closer to consciousness than Freud maintains.  The ego, instead of being a driver, is actually a largely unconscious consultant to the lower parts of the brain that are both driving us, and central to our conscious experience.
  •  This means that our minds are primarily feeling organs rather than thinking ones.  Thought is an afterthought, as it were.  This “feels” to me more consistent with my experience than that thought is primary.
  • This models preserves and enhances something specifically psychoanalytic – that there a multiple layers to our experience and that these can be understood singularly, but also in terms of how they interact.  It essentially explains that there are multiple systems functioning simultaneously that can be accessed and understood as separate entities and as integrated systems.
  •  It is complementary to theories of how dreams work – that this may be the basis for new thinking about the adaptive function of dreaming – and why it is neuropsychologically so important to our functioning.  That dreaming might be similar to the cleaning out a fountain pen that occurs by drawing ink in from a reservoir after having had it run out onto the page.
But I think the primary reason that I am so excited about this paper is that, as much as psychoanalysis has evolved in the past 100 years – we have self-psychological models, object relations models, intersubjective models, new and better models of psychological development – we still rely on Freud’s models of the mind – his metapsychological models.  This paper revisits them, finds them more serviceable than I think we would have expected, and updates them in ways that make them even more relevant, including in ways that may help us better understand how the relational models work within the individual.  As Kurt Lewin noted, there is nothing more practical than a good theory.  Freud’s theory has been very practical.  Tweaking it in ways that make it more closely mirror reality can only make it even more useful.

To access a narrative description of other posts on this site, link here.     For a subject based index, link here.
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