Telling anxious and fateful stories about ourselves to a mostly silent and invisible witness while reclining on a sofa is, by any stretch of the imagination, a peculiar position to find ourselves in. It goes delightfully against the grain of our automatic recourse to scepticism. So how did this situation come about? Nathan Kravis offers a brisk and dizzying series of reflections on this question in his beautifully illustrated book-length essay On the Couch.
Once we start doing a bit of digging down into the history of recumbent speech, we begin to see how Sigmund Freud reworked the cultural antecedents of this posture to his considerable financial and therapeutic advantage. Freud had a rich tradition to draw on in his role as a pre-eminent modern mythologist. And Kravis makes the point that, rather than a carefully calculated and measured technique of evidence-based practice (the sine qua non of state-registered therapies), the analyst’s use of the couch depends on an irreducibly complex cultural amalgam of intimacy, tasteful furnishing, healing, erotic freedom and the so-called private life. This is indeed a heady mix, the genealogy of which the author traces with a knowingly light touch from the reclining dining posture in Graeco-Roman icono-graphy through 18th-century furniture design and 19th-century medicine to the mise en scène of the analytic encounter.
We arrive, by way of a breezy historical narrative, at Freud’s Ruhebette or sofa (a gift from one of his former patients), positioned, according to Kravis, somewhere between the daybed fashioned for the open-air rest cure of the tuberculosis sanatorium and the divan à la turque replete with Romantic and orientalist symbolism. As this entertaining story unfolds, we are led to believe that the largely unstudied and ill-considered icon of Freudian psychoanalysis – the analyst’s couch – remains not only repressed but also subject to a fundamental split. The lavish orientalism of Freud’s plush Turkish divan appears to be at odds, stylistically if not clinically, with the more spartan or austere furnishings of contemporary consulting rooms. The copious illustrations come into their own at this point and it is interesting to compare E. J. Bellocq’s New Orleans prostitute, perched brazenly on the type of chaise longue we associate with Freud, with the remarkable ordinariness of psychoanalyst Pearl King’s couch and assorted homely clutter. These contrasting images provoke an interesting line of argument. In the most audacious of his many far-reaching proposals, Kravis attempts to map the analyst’s moral interior, his or her internal setting, on to the repressed and fractured representation of the external decor.
How far do these bold claims stand up to scrutiny? It isn’t possible to say on the strength of this book. Kravis hasn’t set out to write a serious work of historiography, nor has he achieved anything of the sort. The book would be better placed, I suspect, on one of the increasing number of undergraduate courses dedicated to students’ well-being, where a more relaxed and lenient approach to the curriculum welcomes the sort of beguiling tale that Kravis has woven from a patchwork of hints and suggestions. The book is enjoyable enough and, if we accept it at face value, provides a lively sketch of the couch as an evocative cultural object.
Steven Groarke is professor of social thought, University of Roehampton, and a psychoanalyst.
On the Couch: A Repressed History of the Analytic Couch from Plato to Freud
By Nathan Kravis
MIT Press, 224pp, £24.95
Published 24 November 2017