Stories from the Bog: On Madness, Philosophy, and Psychoanalysis

Patrick B. Kavanaugh, Rodopi, Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies, Volume 14:  Amsterdam – New York, NY (2012)

a review by Merle Molofsky

In 10 fascinating chapters, seven of which were originally published in The Psychoanalytic Review, and one of which was published in Other/Wise, Fall 2010, Patrick Kavanaugh shares with us his rich and original vision of psychoanalysis as gift, a science of subjectivity, and an art form,  providing us with a profound philosophical and mystical foundation, guiding us to an understanding of mental and emotional states found in what Kavanaugh understands as the truth of the “bog”.

Kavanaugh is a storyteller.  Those of us who were fortunate enough to have heard his presentations at quite a number of IFPE Annual Interdisciplinary Conferences were privileged to experience his storytelling gift – his mesmerizing, compelling, engaging spinning of tales rich in a depth understanding of unconscious process and the interaction between analyst and analysand.  Kavanaugh invites us to wander the bog with him – and we get our boots madly muddy.  Kavanaugh’s presence is magical – and so is his prose.

What is the bog?

The bog is Kavanaugh’s metaphor – and reality – describing states of being that wander between, and deep into, madness and sanity.  The bog encompasses the permeable boundaries between such states, and the states themselves.  Kavanaugh offers us his more than 40 years of experience working with the institutionalized, the marginalized, people in residential treatment centers, hospitals, and his private practice.  His experience informs, and is informed by, his penetrating intellect, his strength as a philosopher, his scholarly inclinations, and, most importantly, his soulful humanity.

Madness is Kavanaugh’s subject – and in some ways, is the way of the world.  Kavanaugh’s appreciation of what psychoanalysis offers  in understanding madness itself enriches psychoanalytic knowledge, contributes to the discourse.  “In many respects, the madness revealed in the analytic discourse has to be spoken with outside of the more traditional psychologies of psychoanalysis precisely because they have excluded madness from their discourse” (pp. xx-xxi).  In a sense, we have to be driven to madness to speak sensibly of what we cannot ignore.

In his introduction, Kavanaugh delineates psychoanalysis as a “science of subjectivity”.  He describes the ongoing storytelling that is our subjective state.  “The subjective I is at the center of the individual’s existence, generates, his or her unique and personal reality, and is the ultimate referent in telling his or her story in the analytic discourse: the subjective I is ever-present in organizing and communicating his or her life-story” (p. xxi).

Within the context of storytelling, Kavanaugh tells stories and orients us to an understanding of how to understand, interpret for ourselves, and work with the unfolding drama, the ongoing theater of the mind.  Because Kavanaugh is so attuned to inner dramas and their enactments, he escapes the confines of the biomedical model that has exercised too much of an influence on the theory of mind and feeling that is psychoanalysis.  He shares his ventures into the bog, and provides a philosophical foundation for remaining outside of convention.  This collection of stories is an act of love, opening the gateway to the love that is at the center of the psychoanalytic endeavor.

The metaphor of gateway is apt.  The introduction is illustrated with an open gateway, and the image is drawn from Kavanaugh’s first exposure to the institutionalized, his first professional position at a county psychiatric hospital, where he saw 15 to 20 inmates mowing the lawn as he rode in through the gate.  He learned about institutionalizing as an institution – the biomedical confines of “treatment.”  The  lawn-mowing inmates were known as “The Lobo Brigade” – and if your association is to Lobo, the Wolf, you are lost in the woods, you are not in the manicured grounds of an iron-spiked enclosure where inmates are penned – The Lobo Brigade was an institutional slang term “The Brigade of the Lobotomized.”  With this story, Kavanaugh leads us into the bog, and his critique of the mental health profession, the medicalization of the soul.

I will offer a summary of each chapter, in the hope that the summary whets the appetite for the full story.  Some chapters I will dwell on in detail, because, to use a Quaker phrase, “they speak to my condition,” and some I will spend someone less time and fewer words  on, even though they are of equal value.

Chapter One, “Stories From The Bog: On the Underworld, the Underconsciousness, and the Undertaking”, leads to a discussion of memory, a feast salted with the poetry of myth.  Kavanaugh turns to Irish traditions to link myth and place, storytelling and place.  He introduces us to the mythic Hag, the Veiled One, the incarnation of the Mother Goddess of Ireland, in Irish lore, the ruler of place, and she leads us to the most sacred place, the Bog.  Kavanaugh quotes the great contemporary Irish poet Seamus Heaney, “We have no prairies… but we have bogs.”  Kavanaugh explicates, “The bog remembers and preserves all that it might envelope….”  the mystery of the bog is the mystery of what is preserved, the story that keeps on telling, the story that cannot stay buried.

Kavanaugh’s underworld is what is beneath the surface.  Storytelling exhumes what is beneath the surface.  His first case study is of a woman diagnosed as catatonic schizophrenic, and her shoebox.  Her shoebox contained her story, and Kavanaugh recognized the unfolding story beneath the lid, a story that was beneath the surface, coming to light.  “The image of the shoebox… was like a psychic stem cell: it contained the whole of Ms. A’s life story, the gradual understanding of which took place through the associative-interpretive process” (p. 7).  By exploring Irish mythology, and the great Irish gift of storytelling, Kavanaugh finds what he calls the “storytelling voice”, the gateway to the underground.  Like Orpheus, he follows the path down, identifying “storytelling purpose”, “storytelling style”, “storytelling perspective”.  He lifts the veil of the Veiled One because the veil is an invitation to a story that asks to be told.

Chapter Two, “The Dead Poets Society: Ventures Into a Radioactive Psychoanalytic Space”, Kavanaugh invokes the poet and the shaman, those whom a culture assigns to be The One Who Remembers.  Psychoanalysts are those who remember how to remind people to remember.  Kavanaugh dubs psychoanalysts “Mind Poets”.

Kavanaugh is a consummate Mind Poet, with a rare luminous poetic sensibility.  To enhance our understanding of what a Mind Poet sees, and does, he quotes visionary writers.  He quotes Theodore Roszak:  “Besides our eyes of flesh, there are eyes of fire that burn through the ordinariness of the world and perceive the wonders and terrors beyond.”  He takes the phrase Mind Poet from Gary Snyder, quoting:

A Mind Poet

Stays in the house.

The house is empty

And it has no walls.

The poem

Is seen from all sides,


At once.

Because Kavanaugh is a consummate Mind Poet, with an uncanny ability to weave a spell of words that enlivens and illuminates, I would rather let him speak for himself than try to summarize what he says.  For instance, Kavanaugh offers us what poets offer – how to see – how to see the more there is – with words.  He turns to the poets of old, the poets of many lands:  “This chapter gathers together this multicultural society of dead poets to speak from their respective wisdoms to something of the nature of the analytic space and the poetic utterances and understandings that unfold therein.”  Further, “In this chapter, the analytic space is conceptualized as an invisible geometry of interrelated and interconnected matrices of meaning; constituted by determined but unpredictable dynamical systems, and, organized by the inexplicable something more of the mystery, magic, and spirituality of being human” (p. 25).

The chapter focuses on a clinical study of Mr. J., the “radioactive man”, who was living in a group home and who wanted begin a psychoanalysis.  Although he had a diagnosis of schizophrenia and was well aware that psychoanalysis and the couch was not considered appropriate for schizophrenia, he insisted on both, and was fortunate in finding a Mind Poet who appreciated Mr. J.’s perspective – Mr. J. insisted, “Like I’ve never gone psychotic sitting down or standing up?”  (p. 27).  Kavanaugh recognizes “a kind of unworded poetry [that] seems to be expressed in the overarching rhythms and patterns of everyday life” (p. 28).  He listens to everything!  Using the concept of the Sha’ir, the term used in ancient Egypt for poet, literally, the “Knower”, Kavanaugh recognizes that what is remembered cannot be forgotten but cannot be remembered in words.  What is remembered is presented in symbols and patterns and rhythms.  Mr. J. spun tales about big and powerful, small and weak, focused on stories from “Star Trek”, described terrifying hallucinatory experiences, told stories of his childhood – and his Mind Poet analyst understood!  Understood as a Poietes, a Maker of Meanings, as a Sha’ir, a knower, as a Vates, a Seer, all terms Kavanaugh defines for us in this chapter, terms that guide us to psychoanalytic making of meanings, knowing, and seeing.

In following the symbolism, the metaphors, the seemingly incoherencies of a rambling schizophrenic, Kavanaugh found Mr. J.’s poetic language, survived Mr. J.’s radioactivity, punned with him, riffed with him, shared meaning with him.  Meaning shared is a roadway co-created in the poetics of analytic space.

Chapter Three, “Frankenstein’s Genie-ology: The Magical Visionary Experience and the Associative Method,” begins with a lament that almost is a eulogy – a lament that an effort is being made to de-mystify psychoanalysis, and the “mystery and magic of free association” is being “overshadowed by the grand and reductive rationality of our scientific world view, vision, and reality” (p. 41).

Not yet a eulogy, because a hero is riding to the rescue of mystery – Kavanaugh repositions the poetry of psychoanalysis as central to the psychoanalytic enterprise, absolutely not subordinate to scientific thought.  Kavanaugh not only repatriates the poetics of symbolic process – he reclaims the exploration of symbolic process in understanding psychosis – the voices from the bog, no longer lost voices, if a Mind Poet is listening and resonating….

I well remember the thrills and chills – the literal thrills and chills – I felt when I heard this chapter at an IFPE conference – my first experience with hearing Patrick Kavanaugh speak.  In that presentation, and in this chapter, he described his first encounter with, and ongoing work with, Mr. P., in a locked-ward inner-city state hospital, and the transformative dyadic experience, the associative-interpretative psychoanalytic experience.  The central metaphor that defined Mr. P.’s life was that he was the monster Frankenstein.  Kavanaugh’s capacity to recognize the metaphor, resonate with it, enabled him to encounter a monster in a way that led to encountering a human being, a human being who himself encountered his monstrosity and his humanity.

As Kavanaugh explored with Mr. P. Mr. P.’s visions, metaphors, imagery, he recognized that an ongoing transformational conversation was taking place.  He describes the experience of transformational conversation as a magical event that can serve to “unite two people in the splendors and terrors of their shared humanity” (p. 53), something he considers goes beyond rationality and objective consciousness.

Kavanaugh addresses the sociopolitical context of psychoanalysis in Chapter Four, “An Ethic of Free Association: Questioning a Universal and Coercive Code of Ethics”.  The title of the chapter summarizes Kavanaugh’s position regarding psychoanalytic culture and group expectations.  He questions and essentially rejects the philosophical underpinnings of a medicalized approach to what Kavanaugh is arguing for – the freedom of the Mind Poet.  He identifies medicalized mental health practices and ethics as grounded in the 19th century utilitarianism of John Stuart Mills.  First defining psychoanalytic ethics in terms of metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics, he then critiques the paradigm of natural science as a foundation of psychoanalytic ethical thought, concluding that the medicalized emphasis on healing leads to conformity.  He then questions the “authority” of the psychoanalyst, the assumption that a practitioner knows what is best for the person who consults the practitioner.  He recognizes that ethical norms arise from a group culture, from legal and political considerations.

Kavanaugh proposes an “ethic of free association”, a fundamental question of freedom.  Freedom of self-experience, freedom to be fully one’s self.  He underscores that ethics is something alive, something that has to be lived in the analytic dyadic discourse.

In Chapter Five, “Wang Fo and an Ethic of Free Association: Poetic Imagination, Mythical Stories, and Moral Philosophy,” Kavanaugh enlarges on the concept of free association put forth in Chapter Four.  He returns to poetic imagination, the psychoanalyst as Mind Poet, and offers literature, e.g. poetry and myth, as the foundation for a psychoanalytic ethic.  He uses the story of the Chinese Buddhist master, Wang Fo, and his acolyte, Ling, as an exemplar, a teaching tool about relationship and unburdening the self from what is unnecessary and causes imbalance.  The relationship between Wang Fo and Ling is one of co-creation, a model for the psychoanalytic relationship.

In this chapter he offers clinical material that demonstrates his sense that the Mind-Poet has an ethic of care arising from his/her sense of identity and purpose.  He offers clinical material that exemplifies the listening process of the psychoanalyst, the ability to enter into, and eventually decode and decipher, the lived experience and language of another, the essence of collaborative conversation.  He draws on Taoism and Zen Buddhism to provide an essential ethic – healing through being-with.

Chapter Six, “The Dramatic Meaning of Madness in Psycho(analy)sis: The Ear-Rationality of Treating Illusion as Reality”, he addresses contemporary perspectives in dealing with psychosis, noting that psychoanalysis has its roots in literature, the arts, and philosophy, we have embraced a scientific-rational-medicalized psychology perspective.  Kavanaugh leads us back to associative-interpretive process, to the metaphor of the theater of the mind, the theater of everyday life.  He offers an extended discussion of his work with a severely traumatized woman, who self-describes as a catatonic schizophrenic, and tells the story of her mother’s psychotic abuse of her as a child.  Kavanaugh hears the message, his analyst’s ear hears what he calls the “rhythm and rhyme in the ear-rational narratives of madness.”  He hears meaning in what others may only hear as psychotic ramblings.  In a sense, he assumes that indeed there is a road-map within psychotic communication – that when illusion becomes reality two people together can penetrate the madness by finding meaningful language together.

Chapter Seven, “Escaping the Phantom’s Ghostly Grasp: On Psychoanalysis as a Performance Art in the Spirit World” further ventures into the imagery and poetics of madness.  Kavanaugh turns to imagery from “Phantom of the Opera” and Artaud’s theory of a Theatre of Cruelty, cruelty meaning the inevitability of dealing with the rigors of life.  Again, Kavanaugh draws upon his experiences working in an inner-city state hospital.  He encounters a psychotic man whose richness of imagery and narrative is highly dramatic, a theatrical language that Kavanaugh and the man he is working with use to trace the images back to the man’s earliest infant/child experiences.

Rather than try to convey the emotional power and poetic vision involved in Kavanaugh’s work, all I really can say is this chapter should be read.  I don’t want to offer a wan approximation of what Kavanaugh presents so vividly.  “Attention must be paid,” and this chapter should be read.

Chapter Eight, “A Fractured Fairytale: the Story of Our Professional Lives” begins with a mythopoetic critique, a fairy tale narrative:  “A long time ago in a place far away, the little Kingdom of Positivism was settled on the western shores of the Sea of Empirical Methodology.  Nestled in the foothills of Certainty, the kingdom’s scientific vision of the world, people, and life held out the promise of safety, simplicity, and security….” (pp. 134-135).  The fairy tale continues.  Kavanaugh’s language is playful and imaginative, and his rational, philosophical approach is cohesive and well argued.

The entire chapter, from pages 133 to 150, extends the fairy tale narrative, and serves as a fantastical excursion into a grounded critique of positivism.  Kavanaugh offers an alternative vision, an icon-shattering possibility:  “Ultimately, the psychoanalytic community realized that the future of psychoanalytic education and practice rested on the freedom to question their received assumptions, theories, and institutions, and actively and strategically plan for the future” (p. 149).  He questions conflicts of interest and power politics.

In a sense, he Is a whirlwind, a one-man revolution.  “There were not safe, simple, and secure solutions.  And nobody lived happily ever after.  After all, this is a fractured fairy tale. — The End – “ ( 150).

Chapter Nine, “Developing Competency in the Destruction of Psychoanalysis: An Other Approach” picks up where the whirlwind of Chapter Eight dumps us.  Kavanaugh drags us 100 years, from the beginning of the 20th century to the onset of the 21st century.  This chapter was first published in an earlier version in Other/Wise in Volume 4, Fall 2010.  From the early 20th century world view of the world and reality as fixed, stable, and predictable, Kavanaugh tells us that we now find ourselves in a zeitgeist of philosophical challenge, a world that challenges our assumptions regarding time, process, and complexity.

In this paradigm shift over the last 100 years, Kavanaugh points out, we have to develop new ideas of competency.  The old paradigms no longer are significant.  He demands of psychoanalysis a respect for the poetry of the individual, the magical aspect of individuality that should not and cannot be co-opted and controlled by the scientism or the state.

In essence, Kavanaugh is a mighty David fighting the clumsy gigantism of Goliath, touting individuality over what he terms socio-political ideology, the interface of organized psychoanalysis and the state.  And here he almost gleefully aims to épater la bourgeoisie, attacking the cherished liberal ideals of community, of government safeguarding its citizenry.  I am a dedicated progressive liberal, and of course I bristle at an attack on liberalism.  And yet, in following Kavanaugh’s defense of the mythopoetic associative-interpretative dyadic conversation, I find myself, at least temporarily and specifically, in sympathy with his rejection of the liberal perspective vis-á-vis psychoanalysis and government.

When Kavanaugh asks the burning question, “Who Decides What Counts in Psychoanalysis?” his answer is eloquent, and compelling: “Outcome in psychoanalysis is highly ideothetic, the value of which is best judged by the participants in the process who are, ultimately, the only ones who can decide what counts” (p. 172).

I know, I know, there lies the rub – who will protect vulnerable people seeking help from exploitative, unscrupulous, or incompetent practitioners.   The question is unanswered.

Chapter Ten, “How Will Bodies of Knowledge(s) Speak the Psychoanalytic Practitioner in the 21st Century?: On Madness, Shamans and the Psychoanalytic Arts”, endeavors to provide a yellow brick road out of the severity of the medicalized scientific model of psychoanalysis back to what Kavanaugh intuits as the mystical, magical essence of psychoanalysis – a vision that speaks to me.  He insists on separating psychoanalysis from an organized health care model, and returning it to “a literary, spiritual and mystical sense of madness”, “the romantic psychologies of psychoanalysis”, “the emphasis of which is on the depth and value of human experiences” (p. 187), William James over Descartes.

Kavanaugh links the Freudian unconscious to “magical visionary experience”, and defies organized medicine, recognizing that “From the standards of a medical-scientific framework… a shamanic discourse is, of course, a sham discourse.  It’s ‘wild analysis’.” (p. 191).

Thus we are led to Kavanaugh’s axe to grind, and a finely honed axe it now is, his critique of psychoanalytic education and training.  He argues for an educational model at an opposite end of a spectrum from the training institute model – non-organizational, non-legalistic, a highly individualistic, open seminar, mentoring model, where the psychoanalyst-to-be is self-selected, self-guided, and designs one’s own path of learning.

“Psychoanalytic learning in the shamanic tradition involves nothing less than learning to presence one’s self in the un-teachable and silent knowledge(s) of the Freudian unconscious” (p. 195).

In so many ways I learned to presence myself, and one way was attending Patrick Kavanaugh’s presence-imbued presentations at IFPE conferences, and interacting with him at those conferences.  Stories from the Bog is presence-imbued.  Read and be inspired.

It has been a great joy for me to read and re-read these chapters, chapters I first heard as vividly dramatic presentations at IFPE conferences, chapters I first read in issue after issue of The Psychoanalytic Review, chapters that continue illuminating the bog that at first mystifies, terrifies, repulses, the bog that contains very human, meaningful stories.  Kavanaugh’s ability to hear these stories, and illuminate these stories, awakens the Mind Poet reader to new potentials of psychoanalytic exploration.

Merle Molofsky is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City, a poet, fiction writer, and playwright. Her psychoanalytic articles have been published in Other/WiseThe Psychoanalytic ReviewJournal of Religion and Health, and other journals. She serves on the Board of IFPE, is Chair of the IFPE Ethics and Psychoanalysis Committee, and is a member of the IFPE Committee on Sexuality.She has served as Editor of Other/Wise from Spring 2010 through Winter 2012. She serves on the Advisory Board of Harlem Family Institute (HFI), and is faculty and supervisor at NPAP and HFI. She is former Dean of Training, NPAP; former Director of Education, IEA; former Board member, NAAP. Her play, “Koolaid”, was produced at Lincoln Center. Her books of poetry, Mad Crazy Love: Love Poems and Mad Songs, and Ladder of Words, are available at Merle received the 2012 Gradiva Award in Poetry from the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis.

One Response to Stories from the Bog: On Madness, Philosophy, and Psychoanalysis

  1. Now that is some great writing.

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