Sunday, January 20, 2013

James Strachey - Comments on Mutative Interpretation

"I shall first of all give a schematized outline of what I understand by a mutative interpretation, leaving the details to be filled in afterwards; and, with a view to clarity of exposition, I shall take as an instance the interpretation of a hostile impulse. By virtue of his power (his strictly limited power) as auxiliary superego, the analyst gives permission for a certain small quantity of the patient's id-energy (in our instance, in the form of an aggressive impulse) to become conscious.11 Since the analyst is also, from the nature of things, the object of the patient's id-impulses, the quantity of these impulses which is now released into consciousness will become consciously directed towards the analyst. This is the critical point. If all goes well, the patient's ego will become aware of the contrast between the aggressive character of his feelings and the real nature of the analyst, who does not behave like the patient's 'good' or 'bad' archaic objects. The patient, that is to say, will become aware of a distinction between his archaic phantasy object and the real external object. The interpretation has now become a mutative one, since it has produced a breach in the neurotic vicious circle. For the patient, having become aware of the lack of aggressiveness in the real external object, will be able to diminish his own aggressiveness; the new object which he introjects will be less aggressive, and consequently the aggressiveness of his superego will also be diminished. As a further corollary to these events, and simultaneously with them, the patient will obtain access to the infantile material which is being re-experienced by him in his relation to the analyst.

Such is the general scheme of the mutative interpretation. You will notice that in my account the process appears to fall into two phases. I am anxious not to pre-judge the question of whether these two phases are in temporal sequence or whether they may not really be two simultaneous aspects of a single event. But for descriptive purposes it is easier to deal with them as though they were successive. First, then, there is the phase in which the patient becomes conscious of a particular quantity of id-energy as being directed towards the analyst; and secondly there is the phase in which the patient becomes aware that this id-energy is directed towards an archaic phantasy object and not towards a real one." (p. 283)

"I shall have occasion to return to this point for a moment later on, but I must now proceed to the mention of one further quality which it seems necessary for an interpretation to possess before it can be mutative, a quality which is perhaps only another aspect of the one we have been describing. A mutative interpretation must be 'specific': that is to say, detailed and concrete. This is, in practice, a matter of degree. When the analyst embarks upon a given theme, his interpretations cannot always avoid being vague and general to begin with; but it will be necessary eventually to work out and interpret all the details of the patient's phantasy system. In proportion as this is done the interpretations will be mutative, and much of the necessity for apparent repetitions of interpretations already made is really to be explained by the need for filling in the details. I think it possible that some of the delays which despairing analysts attribute to the patient's id-resistance could be traced to this source. It seems as though vagueness in interpretation gives the defensive forces of the patient's ego the opportunity, for which they are always on the lookout, of baffling the analyst's attempt at coaxing an urgent id-impulse into consciousness. A similarly blunting effect can be produced by certain forms of reassurance, such as the tacking on to an interpretation of an ethnological parallel or of a theoretical explanation: a procedure which may at the last moment turn a mutative interpretation into a non-mutative one. The apparent effect may be highly gratifying to the analyst; but later experience may show that nothing of permanent use has been achieved or even that the patient has been given an opportunity for increasing the strength of his defences. Here we have evidently reached a topic discussed not long ago by Edward Glover in one of the very few papers in the whole literature which seriously attacks the problem of interpretation(1931). Glover argues that, whereas a blatantly inexact interpretation is likely to have no effect at all, a slightly inexact one may have a therapeutic effect of a non-analytic, or rather anti-analytic, kind by enabling the patient to make a deeper and more efficient repression. He uses this as a possible explanation of a fact that has always seemed mysterious, namely, that in the earlier days of analysis, when much that we now know of the characteristics of the unconscious was still undiscovered, and when interpretation must therefore often have been inexact, therapeutic results were nevertheless obtained." (p. 286)

James Strachey (1969). The Nature of the Therapeutic Action of Psychoanalysis. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, Vol. 50, pp. 275-292

Editor's Note: This paper was originally published in the Int. J. Psycho-Anal. (1934), 15, 127–159 

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