Chimney Sweeping

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Aristotle argued that greatness is always rooted in an excessive melancholia. What he meant was that individuals who posses an extraordinary insight into their own self always ipso facto suffer from that excess of knowledge. This excess of knowledge, what Lacan might call jouissance can either lead to a deep self-loathing, and longing for an object which the self has actually never possessed, or to a form of mania. For Aristotle, it is mania that becomes the way out of this excessive knowledge of oneself.

To begin with the first pole, of excessive insight into oneself and excessive suffering, this is the melancholic. Melancholia has no object that it mourns or longs for, whereas mourning has a clear lost object. The lesson of mourning for Freud is clear: I do not experience mourning in relation to someone I have loved, but I experience mourning in relation to myself, to my ego.

The remarkable thing about melancholia is its capacity to switch into mania. In mania the self exceeds the excess. The alcoholic desires mania. By drinking excessively you push aside your melancholia and become like a God. Freud pointed out how the fundamental alteration between melancholia and mania is part and parcel to the human experience.

What this means is that there is a splitting of the ego between itself and the critical agency which perceives it. This is what Freud refers to as the superego. There are poles of a splitting of the ego where the ego is hated and treated seditiously.

The best literary example of this split personality and excessive melancholia is Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet suffers from an excess of knowledge of who he is. This excessive knowledge produces an inability to relate to his own desire. The dialogues between Gertrude and Hamlet point out precisely how Hamlet cannot even assume the place of his own desire, only the place of her desire, i.e. of the other’s desire. With Ophelia, his love object, Hamlet seeks to assume the place of her desire, but he continually fails.

If we wanted to be very bold and put forth an idea of what the overall objective of psychoanalytic work might be, I would say that it is to promote happiness, or what Aristotle might have called eudaimonia. But we have to recognize that the promotion of happiness is contingent upon dealing with the split psyche. One of the things about the split psyche that is important to understand is that it radically decenters the subject from himself.

Psychoanalysis discovers that the feeling which many people have of feeling like a fraud, or feeling as if they are not fulfilling the “right” career, or even that they are foreign to themselves. The Freudian understanding of suicide is important here. In suicide, it is that not that I kill me, it is that I kill that worthless piece of shit that has become me. Suicide is the taking up of the position of the superego.

This stranger inside oneself, this enigmatic otherness that forms the very basis of subjectivity presents an entirely new set of challenges to understanding the very core of what we desire in ourselves, as well as what we desire in our careers. A perfect example is the field of academic philosophy. Think of how opposite the personalities are of Nietzscheans. Far from the ubermensch supermen of Nietzsche’s overmen, contemporary Nietzscheans are shy, quiet, and often quite reclusive. What one is attracted to theoretically is what one is not.

This truth of psychoanalysis in many ways was formed by Anna O in her infamous, albeit little known parable of the “Chimney Sweeping.” For Anna O, Chimney Sweeping epitomizes the psychoanalytic exchange of transference between the analyst and the analysand. Taken from the Talmud, the Chimney Sweeping legend is based on a dialogue between a Rabbi and a philosopher:

The philosopher, seeking validation for his wisdom, consoles with a Rabbi. The Rabbi gives the philosopher a riddle to solve.

Chimney Sweeping

“So, you think you are wise?”

The philosopher, eager to prove his wisdom, replies, “why of course, anything you have for me, please ask.”

“ok,” the Rabbi responded.

“Two Chimney Sweepers jump down a chimney at the same time and proceed to clean it. They both emerge from the chimney at the same time. One of them has a dirty face, and the other has a clean face.

Which of the chimney sweepers cleans the others face, the one with a clean face, or the one with a dirty face?”

The philosopher responds:

“Why this is very easy. The one with a clean face washes his face because he looks at the other with a dirty face and simply assumes that he also has a dirty face. Meanwhile, the one with a dirty face does nothing because he assumes that his face is also clean.”

The Rabbi responds, “no, silly, there is no way anyone could go down a chimney without dirtying their face. Both of them clean their face.”

This parable reveals the very nature of psychoanalysis in two ways:

1. The question itself is wrong. We must start from an entirely new fundamental premise. In the case of psychoanalysis, that premise is the role of the unconscious. As Freud would come to point out, if you accept the role of the unconscious, then you see how my entire theoretical views must then be accepted.

2. Both the analyst and the analysand are dirty and there is no escaping it. There is no escaping of the transference.

One response

  1. Maija

    Interesting. I like the conclusion that the question is wrong. I kind of think that about most philosophy in general, actually! Too bad Aristotle came before Spinoza, who said that melancholy or mania result from LACK of sufficient self-knowledge. I favor Spinoza here (and usually.) When did the self become split? Why do we understand ourselves that way? Is it really split, or are we just living in an unnatural world with so many contradictions we don’t know how to react?

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