Giampaolo Lai, La conversazione felice (Milano: Il Saggiatore, 1984); Disidentità (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1988)

Franz Boas (1) published the autobiography of the Kwakiut shaman Quesalid, a young “free thinker” who scoffed at “medicine-men” (one need not wait for Voltaire or Hume to come across “enlightened thinkers” in any society, even an American Indian one) and decided to attend a school for shamans in order to unmask their tricks. There, he learnt to tuck a small tuft of hair in the corner of his mouth, to be coughed out full of blood at the right moment and presented to the patient as the successful ejection of his illness.

Quesalid became particularly adept at this trick, and gained such renown among the Kwakiutl, as to discredit his less up-to-date colleagues, who had simply used their saliva to represent the extirpated malady. However, Quesalid was surprised to observe that his devices often did heal, to the point that he reconsidered, at least partially, his conviction that everything in shamanism was imposture. His successes gradually softened his skepticism, his career as a medicine-man flourished, and he continued to unmask impostors, still contemptuous of his very own profession. Only once did he think to meet a real shaman: one who “did not allow those he healed to pay him” and whom he never once saw laugh. Quesalid may not have believed in shamans, but he was ready to believe in Shamanism.

I recommend this Native American autobiography, together with Lévi-Strauss’ commentary on it (2), as required reading in all psychoanalytic schools, because crucial issues for psychoanalysts (are they not in a certain sense shamans of the industrialized world?) are raised: should the analyst be not only a good practitioner, but also a believer? Should he believe that the success of his practice is due to the truth of his professed (psychopathological) theory and his model of the unconscious? Furthermore, what is the foundation of that success (therapeutic or proselytic) if it is partially independent of his theories and models of the unconscious? The expulsed tuft of hair could be likened to any new psychoanalytical theory which ousts others, insofar as it seems more plausible to both the analytic community and the public. What link is there between this greater verisimilitude and what I would call the ethics of a psychoanalyst (i.e., the relationship between an analyst’s theories and his “happiness”, or social success)? One problem would be the relationship between the theoretical beliefs of the shaman-analyst, the therapeutical and social success of his practice, and what we might call his happiness (i.e., his esteem of his profession, his enjoyment of his sessions, etc.). Quesalid believes that a true shaman does not profit from his art, and that he never laughs; the healer’s authenticity is directly related to his unhappiness and poverty, exactly the contrary of what Giampaolo Lai counsels in his work, La Conversazione Felice (“The Happy Conversation”).


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Lai has practiced as a psychoanalyst in Milan for decades. His early works-characterized by a strict formality, scrupulousness and a serious-serial use of logical-linguistic models borrowed from Analytic Philosophy-attempt to describe the analytical process in terms of the speech acts developed by a part of Anglo-American philosophy. He subsequently shifted from this stern, logical-linguistic “pleasure” to a funnier, more satirical vein, a “writing without quality” reminiscent of Musil, which was directed at his colleagues and some of their beliefs-or rather superstitions. Due Errori di Freud (3) (“Two errors of Freud”) is an amusing denunciation of the manipulation of an autobiographical work of Freud-”A memory disturbance on the Acropolis”-by a number of renowned commentators who had unwittingly falsified what Freud had narrated, not in bad faith but because of a pre-established model of psychic functioning.

Yet Lai, in his causticness, has a constant need for a rigorous coherence, because his project is undoubtedly radical. He sets out to purge the analytical practice of what I would call “theory hypnosis”, that is, of any attempt to guide analytical technique by means of a model of the mind, supposed “laws of the psyche”, or filtering patients’ words through a psychological theory. Lai, the editor of the journal Tecniche Conversazionali (Conversational Techniques), is satisfied with his practice which, unilluminated by the sun of theory, rotates in the dark space of simple technique. In short, Lai, as Quesalid, does not believe in his art, but he practices it. Unlike those who consider theoretical elaborations indispensable to make sense of interpretations, Lai recommends exclusive attention to the conversation between the analyst and patient. In the 1960s and 70s, a part of psychoanalysis in Europe was shaken by such concerns, and there was a major shift toward either linguistics or philosophical hermeneutics. Linguistics allowed limiting oneself to the immanence of language, without conjecturing any fundamental structure of the mind; hermeneutics gave full weight to the analytical dialogue, freeing it from metapsychological interpretations.

For Lai, even the linguistic metaphor is too “stained” with theory. He proposes stopping at words well before language. Yet his renunciation of metapsychology and the theories of the Mind is not a criticism of psychoanalytical scientism or of a “humanistic” return to a linguistic communion between subjects. Lai, while he sneers at the ambition to make psychoanalysis a Science, remains a great advocate of Technique: he intends to build a “technology without science,” a rather eccentric idea for an age in which most technology is introduced as an application of exact and sophisticated scientific theories.


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I said to myself, me, at the moment of going, leaving, it’s hard to say [laughter], for God’s sake, for her, but to leave someone, it seemed to me though (141-45) and perhaps this one is not mine, how to tell her, who stopped me from telling, well then, if you have to do it, you do it, like a, a need like, but perhaps it’s not even incomprehensible, I mean that, formally, if I, this thing of saying (…)

This is but one of the trancriptions of a patient’s recorded words which run throughout Lai’s Conversazione Felice-words and not discourses. Taking Newton’s motto hypothesis non fingo literally, Lai prefers the tape-recorder to explanatory theories. And when speech is recorded, its discontinuous filigree of cut-off sentences, random morphemes, break-offs and rethinkings are glaringly revealed in the verbal whirlwinds which Lai, a consummate empiricist, gives us tels quels. Compared to these faithful transcriptions, Freud’s reconstructions of his sessions with Rat Man or the Wolf Man, for example, seem polished, literary performances.

Lai is very fond of his tape-recorder. His supervision work with his students is based far more on these transcriptions than on analytical “free reconstruction.” Relistening to patients’ discourses is an integral part of his empiricist project of considering words in their literalness. He affirms, albeit jokingly, that the IPA forbids the use of tape-recorders during sessions (the penalty for doing so being expulsion) because if analysts were to relisten to their sessions, they would realize that their theory-filtered interpretations are imposed beauty treatments of “conversations”.

The impassive tape-recorder unhinges one of the cardinal precepts of Freudian analysis: the analyst’s fluctuating attention. Lai, the man, might lose concentration, thinking about the Chianti wine he drank the previous night, but the tape-recorder will not-it records everything, nothing “fluctuates”. Certainly, the principle of fluctuating attention does not imply prescribing arbitrariness; it is part of a project of filtering speech through a theoretical model. Freud appealed to the analyst’s “preconscious theory,” which presumably tells him when he can be absent-minded or when he must concentrate. This hermeneutical automatism secretly glorifies the Theory, and thus finds no place in the empiricist purism of Lai, whose passion for the tape-recorder is the sign of a more fundamental methodology.

Lai’s lively demolishment of the various interpretative commonplaces of traditional psychoanalysts prompts the question: “if any interpretation is a falsification of observation, what must the analyst do?” Lai recommends briefly summarizing the flood of words and discursive splinters-much like those daily summaries of cantoes by Dante required of Italian students-so that the motif or pattern of entire discourses or sessions emerges naturally. The analyst should not try to interpret or “know” the patient’s supposed unconscious, but to understand and verbalize the motif or the purport of the patient’s discourse, much like the motif running through a piece of music. A secular intelligibility of the other’s discourse should replace hieratic interpretations. Here Lai modifies not only the method, but the very object of psychoanalysis, which from the start has privileged not so much the meaning (the sense, or summary content) of the subject’s discourse as the senselessness of its break-offs, hesitations, blank spaces, slips of tongue, symptoms, etc. In this sense, fluctuating attention-which led to the exclusion of tape-recorders-was prescribed as the corresponding tool to these cracks in the discourse’s significance. Lai’s inverse strategy draws an overall sense of the text from the patient’s hotchpotch of “words, words, words”.

The subject’s fluctuating speech must become written text as soon as possible, unaltered by the prejudices of memory. Faithful recordings-tape-recorder, writing on paper-close that disturbing openness and fragmentariness of the discourse, transforming the oral fluctuation finally into a meaningful text.

The difference between Freudian and Laian techniques thus lies in implicit philosophical assumptions: realism versus empiricism. The empiricist does not believe in the reality of the mind, the unconscious and drives (just as the philosophical empiricist, for whom everything is sensation, refutes the reality of material objects, thoughts, numbers, etc.). But to avoid being flooded by words, sensations and perceptions, he must establish the testimony of the text, a “hard core” of traces to refer to as a last resort. On the other hand, the realist, whether Freudian or not, believes in latent realities which go beyond the manifest discourse, and, therefore, he can concentrate on the breaks in explicit discourse without being overwhelmed by them. The radical empiricist, for whom everything is always manifest (words, words, words), must concentrate on the meaning of an apparently disrupted discourse. If the realist aims at revealing the Truth, then the empiricist is the craftsman of a Meaning which appears to him only through a text which witnesses this meaning, and in some way guarantees it. But, as with Lai, this meaning must a) always be literal (as one of Lai’s patients exquisitely expresses, “It’s just that, for me: even in keeping silent one is silent”), and b) must have a conversational, interpersonal value, which constitutes an event in which the therapist is involved.

This reconstruction of motifs or meanings does not aim at revealing a hidden sense or unconscious reality, but leads the therapist to concentrate on the interpersonal value of the other’s speech. However, Lai does not side with the numerous fans of that ubiquitous transference-countertransference, who read into everything the patient says either signs of the first, or ways to provoke the latter. When Lai insists on the absolute immanence of the conversational relationship between two people, when he records speech acts, he follows neither transference theory as a repetition of archaic relations in the present, nor counter-transferential analysis as a means by which the analyst allows himself to be caught up in this reactualization. For Lai, all precepts on the use of countertransference are theory-laden. The patient’s actions should instead be seen as acts, in the sense that they somehow produce reactions, of whatever type, in the analyst. The analyst should record these actions and reactions.

But since the psychological knowledge of the other ceases to be the therapist’s guiding principle, the ethical and technical maxim dictating his/her own reactions will be, “try to be happy”-a maxim which at first appears altogether selfish and cynical, the opposite of the altruistic idealism of so many psychologists in the social services. In contrast to this philanthropic excessiveness which turns the psychologist into a secular version of the Sisters of Charity, Lai proposes that the psychologist pay less attention to the patient’s happiness and more to his own: “What can I do to make these 45 minutes I must spend with my interlocutor the happiest or the least unhappy possible?”. However, this maxim is a corollary of Lai’s empiricist philosophy, for which, in the end, there are no such things as a table, atoms, or the mind, but only my perceptions and sensations, which I then call table, atoms or mind. This ethics, so rigorous in its solipsism, does not necessarily imply the patient’s unhappiness. Lai’s maxim that “at every instant, you, the therapist, must reach the highest possible degree of happiness,” is a non-altruistic ethical principle, although Lai takes for granted that, if applied judiciously, it will also increase, as a secondary effect, the patient’s happiness. This should not necessarily shock us. “Realist psychoanalysis” has never had as its goal the patient’s well-being (in this regard, one might re-read Freud’s Laienanalyse (4): psychiatrists are usually bad analysts because they want a cure at any cost), although this is what the analysand is usually paying for. The cure, even for the realist, is something extra. Even for the “nominalist” Laiwho replaces an ethics of knowledge with an ethics of coexistence-the patient’s greater happiness is also an extra acquired not through the analytical recognition of himself, but as an after-effect of the analyst’s own efforts to be as happy as possible.

Yet the analysand’s experience in analysis is often marked by acute unhappiness. Kleinians, in particular, underline the depressive position in the analytical process, but even non-Kleinians know that analysis is not all milk and honey, for the very reason that it is an experience of metanoia. (By metanoia, Saint Paul meant conversion, but also penance, the price of conversion.) Insofar as analysis fosters change, it is inevitably painful, since any experience of conversion or self-transformation produces unease, anxiety, weariness. The “industrial conversion” of a country, for example, produces lay-offs, dramatic changes in work and mentality-in short, penance. Clinging to an old order-be it an individual neurosis or a social status quo-always involves a certain comfort, whereas “conversion” always involves, in its initial phases, discomfort. The analyst usually compensates the analysand’s suffering with “the pleasures of transference love”, but also with the prospect of a future well-being. What happens in the “Lai method”, where the greatest possible happiness is pursued in the here and now? Does his ethics of coexistence succeed in sparing the analysand the penitential metanoia of change? It would be interesting to find out.

Freud himself, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (5), wondered how people manage to tolerate analysis; for him, analysis escapes the Lustprinzip, the desire-pleasure principle. Analytic penance consists in the loss of one’s narcissistic omnipotence, or-in Kleinian terms-in the depressive relinquishment of the schizoparanoid position. For Freud, analytical suffering is endured in the name of knowledge. But what happens to Lai’s analysand, when analysis has been denied self-(ack)knowledge(ment)? There are few prizes-altruistic love and the search for Truth-which might entice subjects to accept pain and to pay the price of re-conversion.

But Lai’s insistence on coexistence-and no longer on knowledge-has nothing to do with the intersubjectivity so dear to those psychiatrists who embrace philosophical phenomenology. In fact, the “phenomenological” reduction of subjectivity to intersubjective relations still remains part of a “Knowledge is Power”-project, as in Freud. Lai’s insistence on coexistence derives from an empiricist philosophy always involving a theoretical solipsism, which presupposes that “to coexist with you means looking after my own happiness”. (Luckily this solipsism is not a practical one: empiricists are not empiricist-but empirical!-in everyday life, except if they are psychotic.)

Lai happily carries on his merry “conversation” between psychoanalytic technique and philosophy in Disidentità (Dis-identity), an all-out attack on another deeply rooted fundamental assumption among psychoanalysts: the myth of personal identity, according to which “mental health is the identity’s conversation, while madness is an accident along the way to identity itself”. Established analytical theories affirm and aim at the reunification of the Self and the coherence of the person, describing psychotic disorders in terms of fragmentation, breaking-up of the Self, multiplication of identities, split Egos, etc. Through commentaries on fragments from sessions-or rather, conversations-Lai shows how this ethical law of identity leads its first victims, the patients, to reject their dispersion into different multiple identities. Consequently, Lai says that “we should get rid of the straight-jacket of unique and exclusive identity in order to attain a better life.” Reversing the prevailing conviction shared by psychotherapists, Lai proposes a cheerful acceptance of subjective multiplicity as a way to become happier, and thus less neurotic.

“It is impossible to bathe twice in the same river.” For thousands of years, Heraclitus’ quip has evoked a dilemma that has never ceased to haunt us: “if everything flows, what constitutes the identity of a thing, a person?” Radicalizing his empiricism, Lai proposes a quiet acceptance of the Heracletian panta rei: a subject is never the same “river.” Fragmentation need no longer be seen as a pathology but as a cure.

Above all, the analyst must give up seeking a common causality between the three “universes” which appear relevant in analytical relationships: 1) the universe of physical facts (to which even the so-called psychosomatic symptoms, as well as the acts of the subject, belong); 2) the universe of mental facts (desires, fears, depressions, thoughts, etc.); and 3) the universe of rhetorical facts, that is, the conversation between analyst and analysand. This trio recalls Lacan’s three registers (real, symbolic, imaginary) and Popper’s “three worlds”-but Lai’s Heracletian empiricism is a long way from Lacan’s rationalizing labors. While Lacan takes for granted an intertwining of the three registers, Lai instead claims a complete disconnection between them, thus stressing what he calls the “illegal results”: the patients’ reactions (even improvements) which mock “psychological laws”. These reactions are illegal insofar as they cannot be traced back to the subject’s supposed single identity.

One must wisely accept the irreducible plurality of the “universes”, and abandon the idea of reducing it to a theory. Patients are no longer led to the secret truth of their identity but to the disenchantment of the “everything flows”; they must stop considering their every new identity as a betrayal of their deep subjectivity, as a cancellation of their former identities, or as a false mask: as Pirandello intuited, we are made up of many masks, but the true face consists precisely of the plurality of these masks. The more the patient accepts his/her own disidentity, his potential to be other and different, the better he will feel.

Lai’s theoretical and “Heracletian” iconoclasm cannot help but whet the philosopher’s appetite. Part of the philosophy currently in vogue-revived American pragmatism, for example-stresses this very point: the ideal of objective knowledge should be reinterpreted in terms of conviviality and solidarity between humans. From Feyerabend to Rorty (6), we are told that, even in physics, knowledge is not a “mirror of Nature”, a detached description of It, but a strategy of predictions inseparable from human cultures and needs. In keeping with this philosophical mood, Lai bets on a psychotherapy based on pure principles of conviviality rather than on knowledge and truth. This “convivialistic” reform considers a scientific-type formulation of laws for the human mind as doomed to failure. Contrary to what Freud believed, a “physics of the human mind” is no longer possible.

The so-called scientific approach usually refers to at least two distinct methodologies: one, borrowed from physics, aims at the formulation of universally valid laws; the other aims at the construction of models: a typical standard functioning is hypothesized, and an attempt made to describe the actual processes in reference to this model. Although actual processes never perfectly correspond to the model, it makes them seem comprehensible. Models, unlike laws in a strict sense, cannot be directly corroborated by experiments, yet in time can reveal themselves as being “suitable” for giving us a more or less convincing picture of what happens. Classical psychoanalysis, beginning with Freud, proposes certain models of the mental apparatus (the second Freudian topic, for example) rather than “psychic laws” imitating those of physics. But for Lai, the formulation of not just “psychic laws,” but models of the psychic apparatus as well, is already asking too much: he prefers the “poor” reconstruction of a speech motif. The demand for intelligibility, which underlies the great psychoanalytical models, is reduced by Lai to the bare minimum: it is accepted only within the restricted bounds of the text of the subjects’ words during sessions. Instead of building heuristic models, which help the therapist shape the verbal magma, Lai suggests a single, simple ethical-technical principle: to maximize the analyst’s happiness.
But, in accepting this ethics/technique, how can one exclude the fact that some therapists feel happier elaborating models of the so-called mental processes? Why does Lai think that resorting to paradigms and theories excludes the principle of maximizing the analyst’s happiness? Lai obviously works better without theories, but is this sufficient reason to condemn the “pleasure of theory” which animates other analysts? In a way, analysts have always sought to maximize their happiness. But isn’t it true that one’s happiness can be another’s hell?

For an empiricist and utilitarianist, only one ethical maxim is universally valid: “be happy!” (7). Between the ethics of the libertine and that of the ascetic, this kind of philosopher will at most find one common trait: the search for happiness. But that maxim is so all-embracing that it is of no help whatsoever in making ethical choices, or in accounting for the vast historical array of ethics. Similarly, a psychoanalyst’s happiness can be maximized through the “Lai technique,” or by attending countless conferences on theory in order to understand the fundamental structures of the Self. Some mystics or psychoanalysts even pursue their happiness… by giving up happiness. To such dialectical perversities is human life exposed!

On some deeper level, Lai is fully aware of the paradoxical significance of a maxim such as “be happier”. His ultra-empiricist and utilitarianist method conceals an almost Buddhist-like irony, as in certain koan of Zen monks, namely, those unsolvable enigmas put to pupils to demonstrate precisely the futility of rational explanations. One sometimes suspects, in reading Lai, that his sarcastic style aspires to a Buddhistic satori (illumination) through the koan “be happy!”.

On the other hand, Lai’s anti-theoretical empiricism, taken literally, runs up against the classical objection raised by many philosophers against empiricism. Lai is convincing when he denounces the falsifications of observation owing to theoretical prejudices. In fact, he believes that his humble technique of reconstructing motifs avoids any distortion due to theoretical assumptions, and that, in short, his interpretations are “objective and correct.” But, the greater part of philosophical thinking over the last decades-whether analytical or hermeneutical-refutes the classical empiricist distinction between “observational field” and “theoretical field”. The ability to observe reality or interpret speech free of any theoretical pre-conceptions is pure myth; even our most direct observations are laden with interpretation. Similarly, there is no such thing as an entirely literal and faithful reading of texts and discourses.

Lai rejects any theories of which he is aware, yet at the same time he admits that his listening might be conditioned and penetrated by theories unbeknownst to him. He is not so naive as to claim that his observations are the only objective ones. Rather, he suggests an unlimited de-theorizing diet consisting of an austere removal, as far as possible, of any known theories, and an asymptotic (and thus never accomplished) drawing closer to objectivity. But if some theoretical infiltration is inevitable-if it is impossible to “read” without some interpretative key-then why not choose a model which functions as a conscious Ariadne’s thread, a way out of the maze of words? Is it not better to adopt a theory consciously than to allow oneself to be dominated by it unconsciously? Lai does not choose this solution because, although he claims to value happiness more than knowledge, an empiricist ideal of knowledge persists in him. In fact, when he denounces the falsification of observation, in whose name does he do it? Certainly not in the name of the analyst’s happiness-because some analysts are more than happy to apply their theoretical pre-judices to clinical work-but in the name of objectivity, in the name, once more, of an ethics of truth and knowledge. His prescriptions, “do not seek truth, but happiness,” can in the end be justified only on the grounds of an empiricist conception of truth.

This de-theorizing puritanism certainly makes Lai happy, or at least as unhappy as possible, during his sessions. The reassuring guarantee of “objectivity” provided by the tape-recorder, which misses nothing, is certainly one way of being happy. This happiness consists not only in living better with patients, so often boring with their repetitive complaints, but-in Lai’s case-also in listening to the others’ words in their immanency. Unlike Quesalid, Lai enjoys his job, as his very recounting of his practice is enjoyable to read. But in Lai-who was trained in Lausanne, Switzerland-is there not a hint of Calvinist rigor? Otherwise, what need would there be to exclude other forms of happiness?


(1) Franz Boas, “The religion of the Kwakiutl”, Columbia University, ed., Contributions to Anthropology, vol. X, II (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1930.)
(2) Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Le sorcier et sa magie” in Anthropologie structurale (Paris: Plon, 1958), ch. 9.
(3) Turin: Boringhieri, 1979.
(4) Freud (1926), S.E., 20, pp. 182-260.
(5) Freud (1920), S.E., 18.
(6) Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (London, New York: Verso, 1988); Farewell to Reason (London, New York: Verso, 1987); Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980).
(7) See Jacques Bouveresse, Wittgenstein: La rime et la raison (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1973), p. 86-7.

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis