Darian Leader in Conversation with Hanif Kureishi

Freud Museum
17 November 2010

An edited version of extracts from a conversation

Opening Address

LISA APPIGNANESI     As you can see this isn’t the Freud Museum. It’s Freud’s daughter’s Centre, Anna Freud’s house. We just – we’re having this event here because the Freud Museum, I’m afraid, would love to expand its premises for such events, and indeed bigger ones, but we need to raise money to do so. So if you will allied to any influential people, you might see other ways to financing a new building, do let us know, or please just sign a cheque! My name’s Lisa Appignanesi, I’m – amongst other things – I’m the Chair of Freud Museum Trustees. And it’s a huge pleasure and honour, and indeed an excitement, I think, to introduce you tonight to Hanif Kureishi and Darian Leader. I’m sure you know as much about both of them as you probably need to, but I think in sheer respect to the extraordinary work that they’ve done, I’ll just mention to you that Hanif is one of our I think – greatest, most provocative writers; winner of the prestigious PEN Pinter Award. His first film, My Beautiful Laundrette, which followed after work as a playwright at the Royal Court, became something so iconic that if you travel the country there are ‘Beautiful Launderettes’ everywhere. He’s described the life of multi-cultural London to us and raised a great deal of questions about it in books like The Buddha of Suburbia and most recently in Something to Tell You, which is really, I think, a book that probably brings him here and into the terrain of Darian Leader, who is a psychoanalyst and the founder of the – help me Darian – the Freudian School of Psychoanalysis.

DARIAN LEADER     The Centre for Freudian Analysis.

LISA APPIGNANESI     The Centre for Freudian Analysis. I do know this, but I haven’t been looking at my sheet of paper. And it’s also – I mean, this is a very rare event. We have a writer who is informed by psychoanalysis, who has given us a hero in Something to Tell You, who is himself an analyst; and an analyst, who is, on the other hand, also a very, very fine writer and has given us such extremely interesting an enticing books as – I’m going to have to read this because I can never remember book titles – Why do women write more letters than they post?, which is something that I recommend to you all, as well as Promises lovers make when it gets late - I’ve printed this from my book, Darian – Freud’s Footnotes, a more scholarly work, and most recently, The New Black, a book on mourning, melancholia and depression. I think there’s a new one on its way very soon as well. So, I’m not going to go on because I’m really just here to introduce them and to intervene if I don’t feel that they’re actually doing what they’re meant to be doing and talking about the link between writing, psychoanalysis, Freud – perhaps even Anna Freud – and raising some interesting questions. So Darian, I’m going to turn over to you first of all and let you begin the conversation.

DARIAN LEADER     Again, thanks, Lisa. So, Lisa wanted us to start off by saying something about psychoanalysis and culture and the arts, given the fact that the Freud Museum has a very lively programme of art exhibitions and events around the work of artists there. And I thought that maybe one thing that we could kick off with then would be to think about what psychoanalysis can learn from the arts, rather than the more classic question of what the arts can learn from psychoanalysis. And thinking perhaps a little bit about how Freud uses his references to literature and art in his work – Hanif, perhaps you can say something about that?

HANIF KUREISHI     Yes. Well, I got interested in psychoanalysis because I had an uncle who ran a school for autistic children, and I was having some problems with my life and I was sent to my uncle. And he used to hypnotise me. And then one day he said to me, he said, ‘The thing is, Hanif, the thing about you is,’ he said, ‘You really want to sleep with your mother, and also, you hate your father.’ And looking at my mother, and indeed looking at my father, I wondered if it might be the other way round. And I was so shocked that somebody would say something like that, that I wanted to read Freud. And he had lots of books by Winnicott and stuff in his house, and I began to think about becoming a writer, but at the same time I was interested in the unconscious, I guess. And I became interested in writers who were interested in madness, so I was thinking about Gogol’s Diary of a Madman or Dostoevsky and obviously Shakespeare and Dickens, and you can’t think of many important or great writers who don’t have characters in them who are mad.

And so, I guess I would like to talk to Darian, who I consider to be an expert on madness, and spends a good deal of his time listening to people who may or may not be mad – something I rather envy – what it is about mad people, or about madness, that so intimidates and so frightens us, or that we find so difficult to deal with. That dealing with madness is one of the central questions of any society, just as we have to think quite hard about whether we are man or whether we are women and there doesn’t seem to be any final answer, thinking about madness seems to me to be something that most societies have huge problems with. And the figure of the madman really bothers all of us. So I guess I wanted to ask Darian why this figure is such trouble for us.

DL     It’s a very interesting and, I guess essentially, important, question: if we think of the literary representations of madness, most of the time the mad person is represented as someone extreme, someone with noisy and visible symptoms, someone who in some sense disrupts the social order, and obviously that resonates with the contemporary view that mental health means lack of conflict with the social world. And if most examples from literature involve someone who dramatically disrupts the social world, it’s very interesting to look at psychoanalytic texts and early psychiatric texts, where the emphasis always moves from a study of noisy, dramatic madness to quiet madness – the kind that doesn’t attract any attention and that fits in, that conforms with social life – with the idea that many analysts elaborated in the 1920s and ‘30s that conformity and adaptation to society can, in themselves, be symptoms of madness – symptoms of psychosis – rather than the other way round. It’s very interesting that today that we’ve moved, at least in popular discourse, to a view whereby it’s precisely not fitting in that’s the signature of psychosis; whereas before, it was conformity and adaptation that was seen as a hallmark of the possible presence of a psychosis. It’s very interesting to see in literature those cases where there is a study of more quiet madness where, although nothing dramatic happens, you start to question the place of certain fixed ideas in, let’s say, the life of a fictional character. I think it’s something that Hanif, you’ve elaborated in your work.

HK     Darian’s written a book which I’ve looked at a draft of, about psychosis. And there’s a fascinating chapter in it about Harold Shipman, who to all intents and purposes was your GP, and presumably displayed nothing that could be described as a symptom before he murdered your mother. So, it seems to me that Darian’s view is quite different to the one that most writers have adopted about madness, you know, that they are loud, florid, exaggerated characters and so on. This other idea of madness, as it were, in terms of conformity or people hiding, as it were, in plain view – I think it’s a fascinating idea that suddenly, as it were, somebody would go bonkers. How would that happen? What would trigger that?

DL     The Shipman case is a good example. Because you have someone who, according to the five psychiatrists who examined the evidence in the report – the Janet Smith enquiry – there were 270,000 pages of evidence, they spent £21 million doing the research, and they concluded that they could find no sign of mental illness in Harold Shipman, which is an amazing reflection of what contemporary psychiatric knowledge must be to come to that kind of conclusion. If you look at the same evidence – his letters, some of the biographical details, the little bits we have of his discourse – using categories not necessarily of psychoanalysis, but just of the psychiatry of the 1920s and ‘30s, there’s no question at all about making a particular diagnosis that would be of paranoia. But, it seems to be – and I think this takes up Hanif’s point – what would happen if Shipman had never murdered anyone? We have to look at the question: were Shipman’s murders part of his psychosis – part of his madness – or were they what he did when something blocked his madness from being able to elaborate itself? I think the really crucial question here – and it’s linked to the work of perhaps, creative writers and artists – is the idea that what seemed to be the noisy and dramatic symptoms of psychosis – delusions, some hallucinations, and so on – are actually not symptoms of psychosis but attempts at self-cure after the symptoms of psychosis start. This was Freud’s view: that a psychotic delusion is not a primary phenomenon of psychosis, but is an attempt to solve the difficulties that have entered the person’s life through let’s say, to put it simply, encountering something that can’t be thought. When the person encounters something in their life that they can’t symbolise, that they can’t think through, they might be assailed by psychotic phenomena and experiences of intense perplexity.

HK     You could say that about voices too?

DL     Some voices, but not others. If the person hears a voice that insults them, it’s usually a term with a sort of feminine signification for both men and women. If that keeps appearing in their thought like a kind of staple, it’s as if it’s trying to pin things down for them. If they hear a rude word in their head every now and again - ‘bitch,’ or something like that is very common – it’s as if the words are trying to pin things down for the person, to stop the sliding of meaning which they might be experiencing, and the kind of catastrophic collapse of their world. So we see that particular form of auditory hallucination not as a primary phenomenon of psychosis, but rather as an attempt at self-cure. And that was recognised by Jung and Bleuler really very, very early on; that single words had a function of trying to hold things together for the person. It’s interesting, if we take that view that a lot of the phenomena of madness are actually attempts to find a solution, it dramatically changes the clinical aims of people who work with madness. Because it means than rather trying to get rid of those phenomena, you’re trying to encourage them, to refine them, to purify them, to allow the person to use the resources of their own madness.

HK     Should we just then say, if you had a patient, therefore, who was suffering hallucinations, delusions or whatever, and they were given some sort of drug that suppressed their symptoms, you would say that that would prevent them from, as it were, helping themselves? And it would – may or may not – make the psychosis worse?

DL     Yes. There’s a crucial point that long term medication has an effect on people’s cognitive abilities. It makes it more difficult for them to think. And if you’re medicated for a long time, it means that the chances of constructing a stable and robust delusional system decrease; the more medicated you are, the less it’s possible to use your psychosis to build up your own defensive system. So all you’ve got left is the medication, long term uses of, you know, heavy duty medication mean that you will have organic deterioration, which gives an image of madness as a kind of chronic, deteriorating illness. So it’s a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. When people say, ‘Psychosis gets worse, it’s going to make your brain deteriorate,’ and then slap you on a lot of drugs, over the years that’s what will happen. So, you have a kind of circularity there, rather than the approach adopted in some other countries where they are very, very prudent about the use of neuroleptics at the beginning of the treatment and give the person as much opportunity as possible to elaborate the delusional system or some kinds of activities or lifestyle that might allow them to find a kind of solution.

HK     Yes, well I wanted to ask you about that. Because if we think of the delusion as a story that the person will be telling themselves and also fits something in place, and we think, obviously, of what I do or what writing is as an attempt to do that too; a writer, though, is doing it with a reader in mind. It’s in what you would call, I guess, the symbolic. It’s in the world. I am writing a book that somebody else will read. It’s not just a private madness. And when I’m teaching writing I am attempting to get the students to write something that somebody else will understand and like. If it’s a private delusion, as it were, then the person is imprisoned, in a way, are they not, by their own narrative? Presumably the point would be for them to join their narrative to the world, in some way. What would you say – how would that be possible?

DL     There are some forms of delusional thought that contain within them the necessity to communicate. So, in paranoia, for example, the person might know a truth about some fault in the world – a political conspiracy, let’s say. And their mission will be to disseminate that knowledge to other people – they have to go and tell the world. They’ll write to politicians, they’ll write to the newspapers, they’ll write to the police. They’ll address themselves to the world, especially institutions and public figures, to have that knowledge disseminated in order to bring a new order and clarity to the world. That’s the kind of delusion which has an addressee. Other kinds of delusion stabilise in a different way over time, and the person is less concerned to tell the world. They elaborate it in private, they write something. It can become quite a contained elaboration of work. One of the things that you find with therapy of a psychotic subject is that it’s very important to give them an addressee, and the fact of giving them an addressee can then encourage the development of delusions, new kinds of lifestyle invention, or any kind of idiosyncratic way of finding a stabilisation. But I think, when you teach creative writing you experience the same kind of thing.

HK     Well Darian got me into a lot of trouble recently, when he made a remark which I really enjoyed. He said to me, because I’m a creative writing teacher, and he said, ‘The creative writing schools are the new mental hospitals.’ I really enjoyed this and I said this in public, and I nearly got sacked from my job for talking about the students in this way.

DL     You got more students after that?

HK     There are loads of students. There are more and more students. Everybody wants to be a writer, and apparently 2% of the world’s population are writing novels.

LA     Or memoirs.

HK     Or memoirs. I’m sure there isn’t a person in this room who is not working on a novel at the present time.

LA     But Hanif, if I could just turn back one of your questions to Darian on this? You started off by saying that society likes to think of a dividing line between madness – and you didn’t say the word ‘sanity’ but it was implied. One of the things, it seems to me, that you’re saying, is, of course, always the case in fiction, is that there is never a clear dividing line; there is only a process, it’s a movement. And it can be a movement from what we ordinarily call ‘sanity’ - to use that term that I don’t particularly like, but it’s there – into something which is another state, a breakdown or an illuminated state, or whatever it happens to be. Now, it seems to me that you come into play, not in the process, but somewhere where somebody has actually got to what might be the end, or certainly the middle or one of the climaxes, of the story. And I wonder how you then think, you know, back to the other state, if you do, or if you consider it to be another state, I don’t know? And how Hanif would actually arrive in a book, without the process which leads you into a breakdown or looks back retrospectively at what we might call ‘breakdown.’ Because it seems to me, you know, the time timing differences are very different. I mean, the way in which you proceed through the mental life of hero, character and patient.

HK     I think it’s partly to do with thinking of yourself as being a writer. It’s not only the writing itself; it’s the idea of being a writer. I remember as a kid in South London it was rough in the ‘60s, and if you were an Asian family like us, you were subject to numerous descriptions from numerous people around you. And people would often say to me, ‘Where are you from?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, I’m from that house over there.’ And they’d say, ‘No, but where are you really from?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, I’m really from that house over there.’ And they’d say, ‘Well, you’re not. You’re strange; you’re from elsewhere.’ And this would go on and on and on. And it was like the suburbs were full of existentialists. And eventually you would feel that you’re subjectivity was, as it were, slipping. And so one day it occurred to me that I should be a writer. And it was the word ‘writer’ that really cheered me up. It was thought not that I would write books, but that I would be a writer. That this was a name that really suited me, like being in a particular club, I guess. I thought that’s who I wanted to be. I wanted people to say about him, ‘He’s a writer.’ And they do even to this day and whenever I hear it, it still cheers me up. So, maybe the idea of being a writer – the idea that you may then communicate with other people, that they see you in this place – then they, as it were, give you an identity or in the terms in which you’re speaking, give you a stability. Did you say something about that? Have you got anything to say about that?

DL     Yes.

HK     You were talking in your book about places, about people identifying themselves somewhere.

DL     Yes, but it’s different. One of my friends said to me the other day: ‘I’ve got a new job, don’t I?’ And why did he say, ‘Don’t I?’ at the end of his sentence? It’s the idea that when we speak, there’s always an other included in what we say that pins us down; that as we speak, we always include within what we say the presence of a real, or a potential, listener. And so, to say for example, ‘I’m a writer,’ implies that there’s someone for whom one is a writer who pins it down.

HK     Yes.

DL     What you find, very interestingly, in some cases of madness is that it’s as if you don’t have the, ‘Don’t I?’ at the end of the sentence. ‘I’m a writer, aren’t I?’ let’s say, hypothetically.

HK     There’s nobody else there.

DL     You won’t have that. So rather, the person might hear the hallucination ‘writer’, naming them, pinning them down, without necessarily knowing what it means. It’s the difference between finding one’s identity through addressing other people, it’s through being a writer – addressing other people through writing – that one becomes a writer; and on the other hand, being directly designated as something, by, let’s say, an auditory hallucination. So they’re very, very different because one includes the other to situate one’s self through one’s activity; and in the other case, the opposite. Does that make sense?

HK     Probably to someone, yes. Do you think writing is possible in that state of mind - in what you’ve described? From your point of view there are quite a lot of people who are psychotic without being mad, for instance. Is that right? Who you would say – described as having a psychotic structure, which is the relation to language and to other people. Would they be able to write?

DL     Well, why not? The figure of 2% is a massive underestimation, because adverts for creative writing classes – write your own novel – go on the front page of the Sunday papers. Now imagine how expensive that’s going to cost. I think, you know, it’s very, very rare to meet anyone who doesn’t want to write a book. Most people in the country want to write a book – fiction or non-fiction. The question is: do they want to write or do they want to be a writer? Do they want to address others through the work? Does it aim at an audience? Does it have an addressee? But with the question of being mad, psychotic structure and so on, just to put it very, very simply: from the psychoanalytic point of view, there’s a difference between being mad and going mad. In that, a majority of people might be mad; but only a minority of people will go mad. Then you have to look at what the triggering situations would be that would send someone who has got a psychotic structure, actually into psychosis itself. And obviously that would depend on the particularity of each person’s history and you know, there are various theories about this.

But, in terms of the link of that to writing which I think is your question, it’s interesting that, as far as I know, there’s not a single instance in the whole of psychoanalytic literature where a patient has been encouraged not to write. Writing is always seen as a good thing; you know, it is what saves you. Although, there are plenty of occasions when writing hasn’t saved people – plenty of cases of poets, novelists and so on – where writing hasn’t really succeeded that well in saving them. And yet, we still always have this idea that if you can encourage the person to write; that’s a good thing. But, can you say more about that from your own experience with the creative writing?

HK     Well, I had a student the other day who I could see who was – seemed to me to be in some sort of trouble, and looked quite mad to me. And I thought – and she wrote something and she gave it to me, and I said something about it and I could see that it made her more paranoid; and that somehow I had to think not about encouraging her or being critical of the writing, but somehow just seeing the writing – any sort of writing at all – as a communication to me. And that almost would have been enough – that she had written something and that she had given to me. And it would have been daft of me to say, ‘Well I think it should have a better…’ you know, ‘It would be better if that bit was there,’ or, ‘It was more like that,’ or, ‘It was more this or that and the other.’ And then I – it was quite difficult for me, because I’m not a therapist. I didn’t know whether I was a teacher or whether I was supposed to be doing therapy. And I wanted to talk to you a bit about this idea of doing therapy with people who are psychotic, because - I may be wrong about this - I thought Freud was nervous about working with psychotics. And there are Freudian analysts who don’t wish to work with psychotics, but the Lacanians have never flinched from that. And I wondered what you thought the chances were of working with people who were psychotic, and I know, indeed, that you’ve got a lot of psychotics in your practice.