HE.S.T.A.F.T.A. - Scientific Society of Mental Health Professionals


  • Alekos Alavanos

These are the main points of Alekos Alavanos’ intervention in the presentation of Katia Charalabaki's book "Families in Leap,Years-Notes of a Psychiatrist".

Translation: Theodora Skali, MSc, PhD Psychologist, Psychotherapist

Reading the book  _"Families in Leap Years - Notes of a Psychiatrist", _ a question recurred that has often been of great concern to me: "Is politics related to psychotherapy?" Psychotherapy very often has tangible, positive or even impressive results, as opposed to the politics, which for the past decade in Greece, but also in Europe, has been producing poisonous results.

Historically, these two fields, either as theories or practices, having man and society as their reference, are always in communication. From the time of Plato, whose main political work,  The Republic,  refers to division of the soul in two parts, a "logical and archon” and a “ferocious and wild",  the first a ‘rational, gentle and dominant part’ and the second a ‘beastly and savage part’—or a conscious and unconscious part, in current terms. To the time of Freud, whose book  Die Traumdeutung refers to unconscious desire as a "capitalist" that provides "capital" to dreams.

First: Towards another politics of liberation

Nowadays, politics makes systematic use of—or rather exploits—psychology. Their relationship is very close, but perverted and corrupt. If psychotherapy seeks to bring out every person’s or every family’s truth, current politics uses psychology to present its lies as truth. The relationship between the two can reach quite extreme and dangerous points, such as the use of psychiatric facilities as prisons for political dissidents.

Yet these two fields could have a completely different relationship.Italo Calvino, in a 1976  lecture in Massachusetts at a conference about Europe, , spoke about the "Political uses of literature.". If we could change the word "literature" to "psychotherapy” in some passages, new horizons would open up: "Above all, psychotherapy’s true political value is visible when it gives a name to what is still nameless, a voice to those still voiceless, especially to what the language of politics tries to exclude. Psychotherapy is like an ear that can hear things beyond the understanding of the language of politics.. It's like an eye that can see beyond the color spectrum perceived by politics". Calvino, obviously, is not talking about politics in general. He is talking about a politcs of liberation.

The book “Families in Leap Years” acknowledges this relationship with honesty. This is not because it practices politics, but because politics (as financial, social and political effects) has stormed into the therapeutic session.

The relationship between the two fields is expressed in the title, the preface and the content. The author underlines this when speaking in a psychotherapeutic congress in Milan, in 2015 :

_ “Suddenly, six years ago, Greece, Italy, Europe, and the entire world have gone mad. Poverty in material goods was soon accompanied by poverty in mental life, poverty in giving meaning to new external conditions, in ideologies, in the functioning of various institutions. Thus, new questions arose for all kinds of relationships (family, professional, political) and psychotherapies”._

These words are illustrated by the following:

“At each session his wife screamed, blaming him for everything, even for being ill! I felt sick after each such session.. She screamed that he had once bought a cheese that cost 0.25 euros more than the one they used to buy. She was shouting at him, saying it would be better for him to die tomorrow...”

The association between psychotherapy and politics in this book is not intended to improve our political thinking but the therapists' psychotherapeutic capacitybased on a psychiatrist’s empirical experience and theoretical background. The association is facilitated by the fact that this book is not based on psychoanalytic theory butοn systemic psychotherapeutic theory that considers the individual not as a separate entity but as a member of a group, of a family, of a "system". ΗThis therapeutic approach, which was first developed in California, just after the major crisis of the Second World War, is a belated link between the social and the psychological, a delayed "Marxism" in the field of psychology.The bad thing for politics is that the way Marxism was developed confined it to a closed system, so it lagged behind compared to the systemic psychotherapeutic process, which is always open to a continuous dialogue, feedback and enrichment with different theoretical ideas.

Consequently: politics  has the possibility to use the experiences, thoughts, practices, techniques and theories of psychotherapyto its own benefit.

Second: The politics of liberation before  the monster of theκοινωνικού ασυνειδήτου social unconscious

One chapter in the book, written in 2012, is entitled "The Unconscious of the System". I quote specific excerpts: “ T _he first significant systemic observation came to me from the connection between individual and context. _ The same person was different in a different context”.

Elsewhere:  " We all are someone else ", unknown to each other and to ourselves and, at the same time, we are a large body, as if it comes from the depths of an ocean, which emerges and dives, is stirred and trembles, crumbles and roars. How else could we call this hidden side of us which the disintegration of the social and institutional context has brought to light through a lot of unconscious material?”

And then: “According to F. Dalal, the most vital element of the social unconscious is the figuration of social power and the way it organizes our thoughts and feelings as well as our mutual transaction”.

Also : “According to Bateson, in our relationships constantly we relate to each other exchanging this unconscious hardware”.

It may not be possible for those who are not well-versed in psychology to fully understand the meaning of these words. However, some skylights may be opened in our minds to help us approach a lot of the social paradoxes weobserve in our everyday life, especially in Greece, at this time of crisis.

The first paradox is that, in spite of the troika and governments' attacks on the economic and social achievements of society, society’s response is cool. The second is that at a painful moment for everybody, when solidarity is a primary need, the envy among the people spreads its nets like a spider. The third paradox is that a peoplewho identified themselves with the brave stance of "no" in the referendum, have now resigned from all effort.

We of the Left are constantly ambivalent towards the people, we don’t have a stable emotional stance towards them. We are very happy when people roar against power, we mourn when they fall asleep.

Yet what we have before us is nota vast homogeneous "mass" – a term often used by the Left to describe people - sometimes red, sometimes black.We have people in the most varied combinations of colors and nuances, in relation to their genogram, age, gender, education, culture, psychology, sexual orientation, marital status, income, property, employment. It’s chaos. It is like a tree with countless interlocking branches, and if a small twig breaks it may bring the whole tree down. Inside the tree trunk there are continuous underground processes, there are rivers, galleries of quarries, active and dormant volcanoes, geothermal sources, toxic marshes. So, some people are looking for a protective father, others for a nurse mummy and some want to kill them both. So you can see, next to hatred that people feel there is love, next to mercy there is punishment, next to terror there is risk.

Faced with this "monster" of the social unconscious in today's Greece, a miraculous economic and technical solution is not enough. For a better understanding of what is happening and what needs to be done, a politics of liberation needs to be linked to all social - and other - sciences. Interpretations are needed and interventions are required in a narrative context, which, in order to be therapeutic and enchanting, cannot be limited to an exclusively political and economic language.

Third: The human factor in the transformation of the public

In politics, we often consider that psychotherapy, and especially psychoanalysis, belongs to the hostile camp of the rich. Many psychoanalysts have contributed to this - not everyone - with their high fees. “Good treatment requires financial sacrifice” is their alibi—not new, if we remember the sophist Protagoras in ancient Greece, who linked the quality of education with the fees.

The writings of great men who have established schools, like Apostle Paul, Darwin, Marx, Freud, become like gospel for their devotees. But these devotees have kept some of these great men’ ideas hidden and buried when they were not convenient.

An excerpt with such inconvenient ideas is coming to the surface again in "Families in leap years". It is about an unknown quote from Freud’s speech at the World Psychoanalytic Conference in Budapest, which he wrote in 1918, after the end of the First World War.

“The needs of our existence limit our work in affluent classes ... At some time or other the conscience of society will awake and remind it that the poor man should have just as much right to assistance for his mind as he now has to the life‐saving help offered by surgery; and that the neuroses threaten public health no less than tuberculosis, and can be left as little as the latter to the impotent care of individual members of the community.Then institutions and out-patient clinics will be started, to which analytically-trained physicians will be appointed so that men who would otherwise give way to drink, women who have nearly succumbed under the burden of their privations, children for whom there is no choice but running wild or neurosis, may be made capable, by analysis, of resistance and efficient work. Such treatments will be free…”

At a time whenthe state, not as a capitalist mechanism, but as a cooperative society against the private sector’s self-interest ,  is stifled by ideologies, this book brings “Freud back to the square with his flag", according to its subtitle with the slogan “More State for the Poor!”. The book is daring because its ideas go against conventional and privatepsychotherapeutic practices.

Yet the book goes beyond the call for "more state for the poor!" Looking at public psychotherapy, “which in Greece is like an illegal immigrant", it deals with the human being in the public sphere, which, with the exception of workers’ rights, we often overlook altogether. I shall stop briefly at four of the many relevant references in this book.

One: People not only as fighters for rights, but also as part of the problem of the State sector. " A therapist in the Public becomes the Public himself. No matter how humiliated he feels about this, he is a civil servant. Consciously or unconsciously, the therapist becomes a carrier of values and practices, transported through the history of the public place he works in, which survived through implicit and explicit rules and are reproduced in everyday interaction”.

Two: It is difficult when the psychotherapy offered in a public context comes from a therapist’s initiative and not from political planning:  "These are bottom-up initiatives, not embedded in the rank of public services. A therapeutic stance by the employees in a public context is not required by the state and is not recognized ("not paid"), so it is up to the therapist to choose whether to support or abandon the values of psychotherapy".

Three: Any person benefiting from public services needs to become a co-builder of a democratic state.  "In any case, the co-building of a specific context with the patient requires dedication and willingness on his side for being fully present in the therapy, in terms of a common lived experience".

Four: The cultural revolution as an element of the state’s democratic transformation.  _"Can the State establish a culture that considers psychotherapy, as well as education, an _ inseparable part of social wellbeing ?"

We can understand the importance of such sensitive observations, when we see them against the background of one-dimensional quantitative public policies such as “we support every union member”.

Fourth: Polyphony and open dialogue: From psychotherapy to politics

There are not only provocative quotes, there are also provocative writers whose writings are buried along with themselves. One such writer is Mikhail Bakhtin, who was totally unknown even to people who had a basic knowledge of Russian culture due to their ideological orientation. The book "Families in Leap Years" introduces his ideas in the last and most extensive chapter. An absolutely pleasant surprise. Coming from an aristocratic background and suffering from osteomyelitis, he studied literature in Odessa and St. Petersburg and worked first as a teacher and later as a literary critic in Leningrad. His PhD thesis was rejected, he was sentenced to a decade of exile in Kazakhstan and remained in obscurity for the rest of his life. His work resurfaced in the last decades of the 20th century through young Russian intellectuals, and Bakhtin was recognised as an important thinker among the narrow circles of European literature, philosophy and psychology.

The first of Bakhtin's two ideas, which the book "Families in Two Years," focuses on, is that of the polyphonic self:  "The reference of this concept to psychology is of great interest and extremely current, as it signifies   a transition from self-understanding as a closed system to a relational self, formatted through a continuous internal and external dialogue, questioning, exposing, integrating elements of other parts of self, in a psychotherapeutic process that has no quick solutions, that is incomplete, uncertain, open to the challenges, painful and at the same time promising".

Bakhtin writes:  "According to   Dostoevsky, thinking means asking and listening, exploring different relationships by associating them on the one hand and revealing them on the other. And this association has an interactive character. It never leads to the identification of voices and truths or to a single impersonal truth, as it happens in monologue ... The ego that realizes and judges, as well as its world as an object, is considered here as being in plural rather than singular. Dostoevsky overcomes autism".

Bakhtin’s "polyphonic" ideas led the systemic psychotherapy to the practice of "open dialogue", which provides sessions with many therapists, the patient, members of his family. and also with many people from his life.

Let us also think about the dialogue. This all-out idea of ideologies and parties, through the decades, proved to have no practical results and led to the demolition of the socialist endeavour of the 20th century.

This does not mean that planning, strategy, organized action, and the structured program have no meaning. But all these can flourish only when based on dialogue and plurality. A political program can’t be planned in dark party offices but through an "open dialogue" with society, with professors and craftsmen, with teachers and pupils, with mayors and street sweepers. A liberating alliance does not require a total agreement of views of the participants, but a partnership based on pluralism and diversity.

In order to be broad,  a liberal movement comprises not only political organizations but also social clusters, websites, magazines, ecological movements, cultural initiatives, study groups, groups supporting the migrants or the homeless, social groceries, bands, solidarity committees, youth groups. Faced with the complexity and difficulty of the current problems, a citizen or a political organization, does not need to feel guilty about holding two opposing views at the same time. He will emerge wiser through the dialogue of his different selves.

The policy of liberation as an element of a folk festival

Another of Bakhtin’s idea the book presents is that of the "carnival". The author of the book writes:  "Bakhtin selects Rabelais (a 16th-century French satirical author) to develop his ideas about the other, the liberated, the unconventional, the orgiastic world, which was at the core of his critical work" .

Bakhtin writes: "The basis of laughter that gives form to carnival rituals, frees them completely from all religious and ecclesiastical dogmatism, from all mysticism and piety. They also are lacking in any magical and defamatory character. They do not demand or ask for anything. Having a prominent sensual character and the intense element of the game, carnival images may resemble various artistic styles such as spectacle... In fact, l ife itself is formatted in this specific pattern of this feast. During carnival feast life is subject only to the laws of freedom, to an ecumenical spirit for the rebirth and renewal of the world ... The feast always had a meaningful, philosophical content. It cannot be categorized in the world of practical conditions, but in the higher purposes of human existence, that is, in the world of ideal”.

What do all these carnivals have to do with a liberation policy? Much, especially if you carefully observe the excerpt. Carnival exists only in an atmosphere of  "freedom, rebirth, renewal, "against the system, "religious dogmatism, mysticism, magic, and begging".

Gramsci (a disabled person like Bakhtin), in a letter to his beloved sister–in-law Tatiana, sent from prison, explains to her the four ideas about his theory for “Hegemony”. These ideas eventually became his book  Prison Notebooks . One of these ideas is the "creative folk spirit," which he conceived when he was young and full of pleasure from the shows of a playwright, Serafino Renzi, in a remote Italian province.  "The suspense and unleashed  passions , together with the intervention of the  audience  of ordinary folk,  [...] was certainly not the least interesting part of the performance".  However, he warns, as does Bakhtin, that the people's spirit is in contradiction with the dominant urban culture.

The French Revolution liberated all the repressed creativity, inspiration, specificity, artistic instinct of barefoot, homeless, bohemian, wandering young artists. The October Revolution is accompanied by a visual explosion of the Russian Avant-Garde, a poetic miracle, a revolutionary cinema, sexual freedom - all this until the ΄30s. The youthful revolution of '68 was based on rock music groups, on Woodstock, on sexual liberation, on new wave in art, on the culture of “flower children”.

The Dionysian/ rituals with the oversized phalluses, liberalization of morals, and orgies, together with the theatre they spawned, constitute a cohesive element of democracy. Same as what took place around Aris Velouchiotis, in the mountain camps of ELAS, the army of the national resistance against the nazi occupation of Greece. For those who participated in the anti-dictatorial student movement, it was a period of great loves.

At the end of the book, "Families in Leap Years", takes us on a tour of the fascinating theoretical roots of systemic psychotherapy. Let us trust every such guide to the sources, whatever science comes from.

A political-economic program of social transformation is the main branch of a large tree. The tree is the big popular feast of freedom, proud, cheeky with authority, disrespectful, groundbreaking, experimental, inventive, erotic, Dionysian, insurrectionary, joyful.

For this branch to exist, the trunk must exist. And if the trunk grows old and rotted – as history constantly shows us in dramatic way- the branch is left without roots, dries up and dies.


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