N°2 | Adaptation(S): Repetition and Novelty Looking for an Author in the Patient’s Narration
Julio Guillén and Julia Martin
The concept of adaptation in psychology usually conveys not only the idea of a specific relationship between an organism, particularly a human being, and the environment, but also of the functional changes needed to find a new balance when changing to a different one. From a psychoanalytical perspective, which is the fundamental theoretical background of this work, we study the modification of the subjective position of a patient while creating a new narrative sequence of his own history in the context of psychoanalytical therapy.
Le concept d’adaptation est utilisé habituellement en psychologie pour designer l’idée d’une relation entre un organisme, en particulier l’organisme humain, et l’environnement, mais aussi pour indiquer les changements fonctionnels nécessaires pour trouver un nouvel équilibre quand cette environnement se modifie. A partir d’une perspective psychanalytique, qui est le cadre théorique fondamental de ce travail, nous étudierons la modification de la position subjective d’un patient par la création d’une nouvelle séquence narrative de sa propre histoire dans le contexte d’un suivi fondée sur la psychanalyse.
The concept of adaptation in psychology usually conveys not only the idea of a specific relationship between an organism, particularly a human being, and the environment, but also of the functional changes needed to find a new balance when changing to a different environment. From a psychoanalytical perspective, which is the fundamental theoretical background of this work, the environment can only be defined in terms of meaning, linguistic meaning and not instinctual knowledge, and this environment or context is essentially linked to the Other with a capital “O” which is a specific Lacanian notion that guarantees the existence and the stability of this meaning (Lacan, L’Instance de la lettre dans l’inconscient ou la raison depuis Freud). From a constructivist point of view like that developed by Jean Piaget, adaptation implies two interconnected processes: first, assimilation, which is a conservative process and secondly, accommodation which leads to novelty. It is clear that in this approach, repetition and creation are fundamentally linked to one another (Piaget).
The meaning of the term “adaptation” in biology or psychology is quite different from its meaning in literature or cinema where it implies a transposition from one medium to another (even if this is not an exhaustive definition). Nevertheless, it is possible for this meaning to open a new perspective, especially for clinical psychology. Let us remember that, even if this is not a logical demonstration, transferring concepts from scientific disciplines to psychoanalysis has always had interesting heuristic effects. The notion of “trauma” from biology and medicine (Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle), discourse, metaphor and metonymy from linguistics (Lacan, L’Instance de la lettre dans l’inconscient ou la raison depuis Freud), spherical mirror experiments from physics (Lacan, Le séminaire Livre I. Les écrits Techniques de Freud), topological constructions like the Möebius band or the Klein bottle (Lacan, Séminaire L’identification), are some examples.
The word “adaptation” comes from Latin, and is composed by the prefix “ad” meaning “to,” a direction, and “aptus” meaning being capable of, having the ability of doing something. So “to adapt” means to regain the ability to be functional, and the term is used to indicate both the effect of a process and the process itself. In scientific papers or books on adaptation three fundamental characteristics are emphasized (Hutcheon 8). Adaptation is:
1- a product that is an announced and extensive transformation of a particular work
2- a process of creation (re-interpretation or re-creation)
3- a form of intertextuality
We are especially interested in the second aspect, the creative process, because it necessarily bears traces of the Subject. So, it should be clear that from a psychoanalytical point of view that our main concern is not to study the original object, the new object or their relationship, but rather the subjective position in the adaptation process from a dynamic perspective; the possibility of the emergence of the Subject as an effect of a process will be our central topic here.
In our Everyday clinical work, we can conceive the idea of “transposition” in several ways:
- when telling a story about an image while doing a projective test.
- when drawing a picture from a story that has been told, as in art therapy groups.
- when creating a new story from a previous one that we have heard, read or been told about.
For psychoanalysis, the notion of transposition, meaning both displacement and translation, was one of the first concepts introduced by Freud to account for psychological complexity. Indeed, it appears in The Interpretation of Dreams where he speaks of the multiple records of perceptive stimuli in the mental system. The concept of displacement, together with that of condensation, is essential to explain the basic mechanism of dream formation: “The dream-thoughts and the dream-content are presented to us like two versions of the same subject-matter in two different languages. Or, more properly, the dream-content seems like a transcript of the dream-thoughts into another mode of expression, whose characters and syntactic laws it is our business to discover by comparing the original and the translation” (Freud, Interpretation 295).
As we can see, the idea of a transformation from one form of expression to another seems essential to determine the meaning of dreams. However, one might think that this transformation consists simply in the transmutation of the image, the “film” we have watched in our sleep, into the narrative form through which we are conveying it in the session. Nonetheless, this interpretation suggests that we have taken the word “thought,” using Freud’s definition, in the sense of an iconic representation, an original, primary phenomenon about which we can talk in a session.
However, the object at stake reveals all its complexity if we follow Freud’s article in detail. The latent content actually consists ofa textthat takes the form of a succession of images during sleep and that the patient shares with the psychoanalyst(or not). It is precisely at this moment, while the patient is talking, and especially when he does so in a psychoanalytical setting, that the Subject is called up beyond the role that the person attributes to himself as a reader or as a translator. The patient may say, for example, “I will tell you what I dreamt, but the dream was longer, more complicated … I have forgotten almost everything.” The “I” designates the storyteller who is unaware of the message concealed in this “series of images” which he calls his dream.
One of the principal aspects in our previous definition of adaptation was the fact of “consciously” admitting that the adaptation it is a new product and, in so doing, to concede the existence of a previous work that has been modified. In psychoanalysis, we could claim that the “original author” of a dream, but also of a symptom or a delusion, has to be found; in fact, the author has to be created. When talking about a nightmare for instance, we can feel relieved to have been able to escape from it, but to escape from where, from whom?
It is worth noting that the unconscious is not to be understood as a receptacle where the “authentic content” at the origin of the dream is kept. Rather, it is a dynamic product created along with the possibility of the Subject’s actualization beyond the narrative. It is always incomplete and the “I” in the sentence, not the “ego” as a unified individual image, attests to it by its role as a shifter (Jakobson).
Later on, in 1915, in the text The Unconscious Freud states: “How are we to arrive at a knowledge of the unconscious? It is of course only as something conscious that we know it, after it has undergone transformation or translation into something conscious. Psycho-analytic work shows us every day that translation of this kind is possible” (Freud, The Unconscious 166). In the same text, Freud, introduces the hypothesis of a double inscription: “….the first, or topographical, hypothesis is that of a topic distinction of the systems Ucs. and Cs. and also the possibility that an idea may exist simultaneously in two places in the mental apparatus indeed, that if it is not inhibited by censorship, it regularly advances from the one position to the other, possibly without losing its first location or registration” (Freud, The Unconscious 175).This hypothesis affirms the existence of at least two copies of the same “idea”. We may consider that the copy shows a distortion compared to the original, but, in a more fundamental way, if we follow Lacan’s reluctance with regard to the principle of identity: A = A, we can say that it is actually the same idea but different, even if this enunciation may seem paradoxical: A ≠A (Lacan, Séminaire L’Identification). Does this difference lie simply in a topographical location, or in nearly imperceptible dissimilarities? Again, we find that the unconscious can only be perceived in terms of movement, here in the process of duplication, in the construction of a “not-identical” copy.
From a clinical perspective, we will start from the assumption that every statement made by a patient during a session necessarily has a fictional character where the truth of the Subject is at stake (Lacan, Subversion). Here “fictional” can be understood in two different ways: the first, closely associated with the notion of authorship, is the narrative character of a story: every narration implies the shaping of a reality from a subjective point of view. The second meaning of the adjective “fictional” is that of a “fabulous or chimerical invention,” an invention that only finds its justification through the inner coherence of the story being told and not at all through verification in the “real world.” The question of Truth in psychoanalysis, is not a question of verification whatsoever (in particular, during the session, this is stated explicitly while explaining the rules that define the setting to the patient).
Let’s recall that in Freudian theory the relationship to reality is always “second-rate”, it is always stained by an uncanny feeling and associated with a tendency to escape from it. It always involves an unpleasant sensation. Waking up can be a relief when coming out of a nightmare, but the sensation of the “uncanny” may also arise from the “glimpse” we have of the gap between the two scenes. This impression is masterfully conveyed by Calderon de la Barca in his play Life is a Dream where the main character, Segismundo, is seized by an odd feeling every time he switches from one “reality” to the other.
As already mentioned, the verbal expression of a dream is not the narrative adaptation of a “film” which we have seen while sleeping. Rather, the dream, like anything that could be considered as a “fact” in psychoanalysis (Ricoeur), is nothing more than the story that the patient tells during the session to the analyst. And it is precisely in the disruptive or missing points of this story, that the Subject may have a chance to emerge.
The personal history brought by the patient is then to be considered as a “subjective fiction” that may be thought of as a way of dealing with complexity, a construction that offers him a limited frame for the vastness of the world, others and their relationships. It is not a question of mistrusting the patient’s sayings as if he had made everything up, we should not forget that Freud invented psychoanalysis by taking seriously the hysterical symptoms that other physicians thought were ludicrous simulations. We are pointing out here the only way to inscribe the confrontation with the Real that has to be neatly distinguished from reality. In the textual background of the session, the Subject has a chance to appear as a desiring Subject beyond the narrative “I” that figures as a unified “One” throughout his existence; clearly this is true only if his structural position allows such an emergence. Every transposition implies movement from one state to another and so requires the form to be defined, circumscribed, thus giving the impression of a whole.
It is only when we admit the existence of this finished form that the question of “fidelity to the original,” so impelling when analysing films or lyric adaptations, makes sense. For the patient, the story told in the first person about his own past gives consistency to the “I” and puts forth the problem of author identification. It is clearly a question of the author, and especially of his style, that is at the core of psychoanalytical work.
A second but also essential element which is part of the concept of adaptation in psychoanalysis, apart from the dynamics of “transposition,” is repetition. It is one of the four basic concepts defined by Lacan in his seminar for the year 1963-1964 (Le Séminaire Livre XI. Les Quatre Concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse). Psychoanalytical therapy is always an opportunity to “rethink” reality that leads the patient to rebuild his own history. But repetition in psychoanalysis involves a necessary failure and it is precisely there that the elusive truth (structurally unattainable) can be circumscribed. Then, it is not a problem about “the” original version or about fidelity to reality, because reality, even if it is always related to Truth, is not the same thing.
When we work on a story, we always produce novelty, even if we may recognize the “old” version. The problem is: how far can we go in reshaping it without losing it completely? And in clinical psychology, if a patient is talking about his own life, how far can he modify his position without losing his own identity at the same time? Obviously, the question of the author is essential in psychoanalytical treatment and it is also a rather curious question since the author of the multiple versions would seem to be the same “person”; this is the perplexing dilemma of the simultaneous unity and division of the self.
In other words, the problem of the fidelity to the original brings us to the question: who is the author? Listening to his own alternative “versions,” the patient could ask himself if he is being faithful to the self he has always recognized as the true one or to the unfamiliar one who is being revealed through the new version? In both cases, we are talking about unity and we are in the field of an imaginary capture; the word “imaginary” is to be understood in the structural sense of Lacan’s developments. But it’s not in the realm of this imaginary capture that we should seek for the subject: the subject may find a place through an event in the sense Badiou gives the word: “the event is something that appears, that happens as a pure occurrence, it is unrepeatable.” If there is adjustment, it is both by an assumed reading and, at the same time, an assumed re-reading of his own history.
We will evoke here the psychoanalytic therapy by a Latin American colleague of a patient, Ben, that we have studied together. We will concentrate only on the elements of his story that may be interesting for this article yet knowing that this restriction will prevent us from giving the whole logical analysis of the case.
Ben is a thirty year-old man. He was hospitalized after a delusional episode that followed a relationship break-up. At the time of his hospitalization Ben was accusing his family of trying to poison him and, for that reason, had stopped eating. He also told us that thoughts were blurred in his head and that he wanted to get rid of “the shadows that were pursuing him”.
Ben had been hospitalized when he was younger, due to a delusional episode that focused on the idea of his being the son of a “desaparecido,” a missing person. This idea would never leave him from the moment he “understood everything” after being struck by lightning and falling on his head while at a football match.
Ben is a writer. From the interviews we had with his parents, we learnt that Ben was a top athlete and that he wrote poems. In fact, he published a collection of poems under a pseudonym which won a prize in a local competition and had very good reviews. The outbreak of the first psychotic episode appeared when his father asked Ben to sign his poems with his real name.
Ben said that his father was not often at home, and that he wasn’t in the least concerned by his performance at school. He is described as a cold and severe person. Ben said that the poems he writes are “imposed” on him, that he writes them but that they come from the outside. He feels compelled to write them down. One of his requests to the psychoanalyst is to help him get rid of these ideas, together with the shadows that pursue him.
After many months talking to the psychoanalyst, during the hospitalization and after it, some of his symptoms had notably disappeared, but they reappeared as a consequence of the absence of the psychoanalyst after a few months. Back at the hospital, the psychoanalyst found him in a state of exaltation and the idea of being the son of a “desaparecido” was back again. During a session, while he was talking about this idea, the psychoanalyst, seriously considering the importance of this signifier, told him that the word “desaparecido” refers to someone who has disappeared but that it is also used to designate someone who is absent in an emotional sense, in the same way, as Ben said, his father wasn’t there beside him when he was younger.
Immediately after this intervention, Ben says “That’s true, I’ve been also thinking that I’ve made up this story just to create the family I’d like to have.” The multiple psychological dimensions implied in this intervention would be too long to analyse (namely the position of the psychoanalyst, the position of Ben, the reference to what had been said, the fact of addressing another person). But it must be stressed that this moment marks a particular point, a critical point in the treatment. Ben started going out again with women, he started writing again, but now he says he will try writing novels. Earlier, he was afraid of writing novels because, he said, “one is greatly exposed when writing fiction.” The poems are not experienced as imposed writings any more. He will sign them with his own first name and recognize them as his own creation.
Shall we dare to assimilate this transformation to a kind of “adaptation”? Certainly, there is a new author for Ben’s story, or simply, there is an author. Previously, his story “flew from the outside” in his poems, he was obliged to write it down and the “shadows” were still present, at the same time he remained fixed on the hypothesis that had for him a delusional role, an anonymous axiom that he was the son of a “desaparecido.” It was precisely by suggesting the ambiguity of the word “missing” that the psychoanalyst introduced a gap in Ben’s own knowledge, pointing out the multiple meanings of every word. So, what appeared as an absolute autobiographic certainty is be assimilated with the idealized parents he himself had created. In this way, Ben became the author of his story and not just a spectator. He can now invent without losing his identity even if it is partially “amputated.” And it is precisely through this “amputation” that he is able to detach himself from the ideals of his parents who functioned as a monolithic matrix.
It is this identification as author that allows us to locate the subject of desire at a precise moment. The subject can find a stance at the critical point where the One designated by the “I” in his uttered sentences would otherwise have missed his appointment: been too early or too late.
Should we, in the clinical psychology framework, keep on looking for the “original” version, the “authentic” version? We think that what really matters is to hold to the differences as much as to the resemblancesso that in the indestructible interval, the Subject as an author may sign his own version and summon other people not only as listeners but as readers of his story. In this way the patient would be able, within a stable social link to the O(o)ther , to find his stance without erasing the uncertainty and the incompleteness of all creation. Like every author, he would become an inventor after passing through the link to the O(o)ther. But, the O(o)ther in psychoanalysis is not an anonymous observer, reader or listener, he should be incarnated in the figure of the psychoanalyst through transfer, always in an ephemeral way, so that beyond any imaginary capture, he may open a symbolic place for the Subject to enter.
For Ben, as for all of us, it is obviously not only a question of adapting to objective reality that matters. It is not only a question of fidelity to a history where he can recognize himself, but of becoming the author of an alternative version that, pointing out the structural place of the Real, may allow him to find a new place in the world without being compelled to completely obliterate the old one.
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Julio Guillén has a PhD in abnormal and clinical psychology. He is a lecturer at Lille Catholic University and also works as a clinical psychologist in a mental health clinic in Lille (EPSM Lille Agglomération). His research is focussed on the relationship between fiction, logic and psychoanalysis when defining structures in abnormal psychology. This research relies both on theoretical developments in psychoanalysis and on case studies encountered in his clinical practice and the way patients define the symptoms they are experiencing. Special attention is given to creative narratives as an expression of the subject’s individuality.
Julia Martin is a clinical psychologist. Elle coordinates the mental health network (CAPSA) in Berazategui, in the Province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and lectures at La Plata University, Argentina, in the department of Abnormal Psychology. Her research concerns clinical and theoretical approaches to psychoses and also violence against women.
 We have changed the name and certain personal details to preserve the patient’s anonymity.
 In some Latin American countries, during military dictatorships, thousands of political opponents were kidnapped. No information about their situation was ever given or their eventual death admitted. These “missing persons” are known as “desaparecidos.”