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Psychoanalysis as Epistemic Frontier Between Postmodern and Religion's Authority

Authors:
  • NewPsy Psychoanalytic Institute

Abstract

The scientific world view, which obviously prevails in today's Western culture, contains a very specific, still not broadly acknowledged value system. One of its most cherished values is rationality. However, when introduced as moral criteria, rationality soon reveals its etymological meaning-relativity: the value of things is relative, it depends on their ratio. Rational/relative-scientific World-view creates a new kind of Episteme and implies a new mode of Authority. Psychoanalysis applying rational reasoning and determinism to the human mind has contributed substantially to the building of these new Episteme and Authority yet lost its medical and political orientation in the rapidly changing moral environment. As social institution it has to comply with the postmodern Episteme and has to revise some of its charts of the human mind and relational patterns it has produced more than hundred years ago, in the age of early modernity. At that time some charts were bound to the self-evident (epistemic) concepts-family, child, social rules, sanity, maturity, sexual normality, clear cut gender identity, self-evident attribution of guilt and shame, causality and matter. On these "facts" of human life the coordinates of good-bad and normal-abnormal could be easily superimposed. As valuable social practice Psychoanalysis and psychotherapy were supposed to move the person along the coordinates of insane-sane, bad-good, abnormal-normal, immature-mature, inhibited-free. These "facts" as well as coordinates hardly exist anymore in the postmodern society ruled by postmodern Authority. While Psychoanalysis is trying to reconsider its findings, aims and place in society, religions are fighting back offering the group-based security, clear-cut attitude toward sexuality and magical thinking.
Psychoanalysis as Epistemic Frontier between Postmodern and Religion’s
Authority
Abstract
The scientific world view, which obviously prevails in today’s Western culture,
contains a very specific, still not broadly acknowledged value system. One of its most
cherished values is rationality. However, when introduced as moral criteria,
rationality soon reveals its etymological meaning relativity: the value of things is
relative, it depends on their ratio. Rational/relative-scientific World-view creates a
new kind of Episteme and implies a new mode of Authority. Psychoanalysis applying
rational reasoning and determinism to the human mind has contributed substantially
to the building of these new Episteme and Authority yet lost its medical and political
orientation in the rapidly changing moral environment. As social institution it has to
comply with the postmodern Episteme and has to revise some of its charts of the
human mind and relational patterns it has produced more than hundred years ago, in
the age of early modernity. At that time some charts were bound to the self-evident
(epistemic) concepts family, child, social rules, sanity, maturity, sexual normality,
clear cut gender identity, self-evident attribution of guilt and shame, causality and
matter. On these “facts” of human life the coordinates of good-bad and normal-
abnormal could be easily superimposed. As valuable social practice Psychoanalysis
and psychotherapy were supposed to move the person along the coordinates of
insane-sane, bad-good, abnormal-normal, immature-mature, inhibited-free. These
“facts” as well as co-ordinates hardly exist anymore in the postmodern society ruled
by postmodern Authority. While Psychoanalysis is trying to reconsider its findings,
aims and place in society, religions are fighting back offering the group-based
security, clear-cut attitude toward sexuality and magical thinking.
Colliding epistemes
Sexuality and gender. At the very beginning of my psychotherapeutic carrier in the
mid 80’s in soviet Lithuania, I was shocked in my observation of how ignorant and
misguided some of my patients were in sexuality matters. The lack of basic
knowledge about sexuality mixed up with false beliefs and unfounded fears went
hand in hand with neurotic suffering, striking perversions and sometimes psychotic
breakdowns. At that time sexuality was a taboo subject throughout the Soviet Union,
including Lithuania. I felt compelled to do something (doing psychotherapy one
cannot simply ignore it). So I wrote a few sexually-educating articles for youth
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magazine, and began to publish excerpts from young peoples’ letters and answered
their questions in a matter-of-fact manner. The magazine received encouraging
feedback. Very soon I was publically reproached in a leading newspaper by a chief
Soviet Lithuanian neurologist for “spoiling” my innocent compatriots (women
compatriots were especially mentioned) with “dirty” ideas, which as the chief
neurologist put it “contaminated our cultural ground”.
30 years later, in 2014, I find myself in Finland leading a so called Identity group for
university students suffering from mild symptoms of anxiety and depression. The
idea of the group is to reflect on peoples individual ideal-representations as a group in
order to trace their history and thus facilitate a more conscious and less rigid
approach to the demands of one’s superego. In the group I offer 10 ideals such as
“good student”, “good friend”, “good citizen” etc. for discussion. Each session starts
with a 5 minute biosocial and psychodynamic introduction on how this part of a
person’s identity is supposedly built by genes, body structure and early social
environment and how it was traditionally reflected in social stereotypes. This
approach works quite well until we reach the subject of sexual identity and the ideals
of “good man” and “good woman” are offered. Immediately after my short
introduction two young women fiercely attack me with the notion that I am out-dated
and narrow-minded in my beliefs and even represent malicious racist views. These
women think that nowadays everybody should know that there is absolutely no
difference between men and women. The discussion starts. I try to be careful and
refrain from supporting any offered opinion by therapist authority. At one point
however, another young woman states that she feels herself more of a woman when
preparing supper for her boyfriend. Few other members of the group smile and nod
approvingly, but this statement is forcefully discarded by the two previously
mentioned women as having nothing in common with a female identity. The group
remains silent and I intervene by saying that contrary to our earlier discussions this
one seems to provoke strong controversy and feelings. I continue by saying that
perhaps after all, preparing a meal for others might be consider a psychological
marker of female identity since all mammals and the vast majority of human babies
literally eat from their mothers and cannot, at least so far, eat from their fathers. After
the group finishes, both dissatisfied young women write a letter to the students’
magazine in which they accuse me of being offensive in my gender views. The
magazine publishes their opinions and the chief psychiatrist recommends that I be
more politically correct in how I express my views and that I adapt more to the
normative attitudes of our time.
Clearly, in both instances I was politically incorrect and missed the prevailing
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paradigm of sexuality. I was also wrong in my assumption that gender and sexuality
issues are less sensitive in 2014 than they were in 1984 or in 1953 at the time of the
Kinsey Report, or in 1935, when Freud wrote his famous letter to the mother of a
homosexual [2]. However, more important I feel is the fact that in both cases the
moderate statements “we need more knowledge” and “women and men are equal yet
not interchangeable” were perceived as provocative and were dismissed by
authorities.
The dynamics of colliding epistemes and the modern society.
In his book titled the New Criterion, the philosopher Roger Scruton, bewildered by
so-called leftists’ promoted views, exclaims:
“Those who confess to their Christianity are Christian fundamentalists; those
who express concern over national identity are far-right extremists; who
question whether it is right to advocate homosexuality to children are
homophobic; defenders of the family are right-wing authoritarians; while a
teacher who defends chastity rather than free contraception is not merely out of
touch but offensive.” [3]
Family. When my daughter was fifteen only six out of her twenty four classmates
were living with both their biological parents. Others were alternating between the
new families of their parents’ on a weekly basis or living with one parent only or in
some other arrangement. This was considered normal in the late 90’s in Finland.
Today almost every second marriage ends in divorce. So much for normal family.
Child. Historically, a child was rarely if ever viewed in line with its current
psychoanalytic ideal of a creative, unique entity of body and soul which, in order to
develop into “normal” adult, must to be cared for, protected, educated and treated
with respect. A child’s physical weakness, emotional frailty and limited intellectual
capacity has been always self-evident and defined a child’s inferiority, so that it
would hardly occur to past educators that in order to develop into a “good” adult the
child should be spared physical and psychical insult.
Invalid. The same could be said about disabled people or as they used to be called
invalids, be their disability physical or mental. We can hardly imagine Paralympic
games in ancient Greece or competitions arranged for crippled knights in Medieval
Europe. A 100 years ago a group of deaf people could hardly think and say aloud that
deafness is a virtue and that deaf people’ community represents a valuable culture
which their children should be a part of and use this as a reason against a curing
treatment [4]. It is highly doubtful that some hundred years ago a woman with limb
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atresia would be encouraged to give birth [5].
Maturity. Whatever ideals of maturity our culture has produced from Plato to Freud
on thereafter, philosophers of the past could hardly approve of a couple in their 40-
ties spending their days on endless computer gaming while being supported by state
welfare. Of adults dressing as adolescents, refusing to have children of their own or
even pets as this would disturb their present life. People like this really exists these
days and who say that they represent the culture of the future since in the future the
vast majority of people will be forced to live their lives consuming yet creating
nothing. [6]
Transculturality. When a boy from a northern Finnish family, with a very religious
background, enters Helsinki University he can either accept Darwinism or stick to
Creationism. Fortunately for him, both beliefs are supported in present day Finland.
Creationism by his family and religious community, which however tiny, is still a part
of the Finnish social reality and Darwinism by teachers, new friends and future
profession. The choice however, is quite different for an illiterate Somali boy, whose
psychotic mother’s forehead was burned in order to drive the evil jinns away from her
head. This boy also has his family around him but no alternative group, no income
and no Finnish friends. Moreover he believes that the Finnish authorities are his
enemies. Here the question is not about collision of paradigms (thinking systems)
but of epistemes (the arrangement of knowledge, which supports and itself is
supported by social power relationships). Behind this boy’s beliefs resides a social
organization as huge as the one behind ours with its modes of relationships between
man, women and children, tribal and clan-based obligations, particular shape of
particular religion etc.
Transculturalism and sex. Two years ago I walked into a big mall where an
advertising show was taking place on a stage. A few young girls with a colourful
makeup, dressed in pink bikinis danced on the stage teasingly stressing the erotic
meaning. People hardly reacted, some smiled or passed by without paying any
attention, one drunk nodding approvingly tried to repeat the girls’ movements. On the
other side of the stage I noticed a group of teenage boys clearly of middle-eastern and
African descent. Their reaction was absolutely different: they were excited and
followed the girls with shining eyes, some looked confused and followed other
people’s reaction. They read the whole situation completely differently.
Clinical examples. Before progressing to psychotherapy proper I shall clarify my
point with a few more clinical examples:
When I was taught psychiatry in the beginning of 70’s I was taught among others
such symptoms as dysmorphophobia or dismorphomania. Dismorphomania refers to
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the conditions where a person perceives parts of his/her body as strange, not
belonging to him/her or in some other way possesses delusional views about his/her
body. Now when a young boy or girl sits before me and suggests that s/he is of
different gender than s/he looks and requests to be immediately sent to transsexual
clinics I am supposed to perform careful psychiatric assessment and if I do not find
signs of psychosis or other psychiatric disorder, send him/her to the transsexual clinic
so that the process of gender change could begin. A perception of this nature is no
longer considered a symptom of an ailment. While we know this is not the whole
truth, in all such cases a professional attitude demands high respect for personal
reality. I have been presented with a case in which a person’s perception of being
born to a physically wrong body disappeared after two years of supportive
psychodynamic therapy. As prof. Kari Pylkkänen once noted “it seems that by
claiming to be trans-sexual some of these youngsters do the same that some people
did in my youth by trying narcotics, namely terrify their parents”. At the same time,
as we all know for some transsexuals the feeling of wrong gender may be very deep
rooted and genuine. I have been treating a woman, who was deeply in love with a
man, who used to be a woman and who now lives in a family with a wife and adopted
child. The man seems to be quite happy with his life.
Another example could be told of a case in which a family doctor reports in a Balint
group about an anorectic girl, who is going to die soon if her anorectic behavior does
not stop (she has been treated in a psychiatric ward and is now in psychotherapy with
an experienced psychotherapist). The doctor feels helpless, desperate and enraged by
the actions of a private medical center, where another doctor continues to prescribe
her patient special diets and thyroxin, while her personal trainer (“the best in our
country” according to the girl’s report) continues to train her even harder for he
believes she needs more muscular mass (the girl moves or contracts her muscles
constantly). In the end eight physicians and two psychotherapist reflect upon whether
the girl’s condition might be considered psychotic and come to the conclusion that
her private rights should be respected as much as say the right of an alcoholic to drink
himself to death.
As a final clinical example of moral and cultural norm collision in modern society I
can note, that almost every time I meet a young homosexual in my consultation room
in the students’ policlinic I hear of his/her fear and resentment of the possibility that
his/her parents will not accept his/her sexual orientation. But as I often repeat to my
students: “when a patient like this discloses his/her sexual orientation to his/her
family, your therapeutic job can be considered almost done”. What these patients are
usually unwilling to acknowledge is that as much as they feel justified in their
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homosexual orientation, their parents feel justified in their expectations of their
children’s heterosexual orientation. I frequently say to these patients: “Is it not on
some level contradictory that while you feel justified in your wish that your father
would accept you with your boyfriend, you feel that his wish to see you one day at
their Christmas table with a girlfriend is unjustified”.
These days it is considered professionally important not to question the motivation of
our patients’ sexual orientation we can ask about the orientation but we are not
supposed to question its origins. We are obliged to take gender-identity and sexual
orientation as a matter of fact. An attitude like this is rooted in a deep respect for the
patient’s individuality. We are not supposed to confront him/her with another opinion.
This attitude is supported by a desire to treat a patient’s mind with respect in all its
individuality and approach all instincts as individual instincts (the boys from the
Middle East I mentioned above would no more agree with such an attitude than
medieval inquisitor), his life style (e.g. playing computer games), his body-image, his
eating habits and so on and so on. As representatives of the medical profession we are
supposed to respect a patient’s reality as much in the office as we respect it outside of
the office.
However, if this approach of unquestionable subjectivity is taken further the concept
of delusion loses its meaning. Reality has also changed though: man literally can be
changed into woman and vice versa, homosexual pair can have children, people can
live on welfare playing computer games, almost naked girls can dance on the stage
without attracting erotic attention, people can fly, speak to each other while being on
different continents and see in Lithuania what happens in Australia at the moment it
happens. The question is how should reality and normality be defined in the modern
western culture? And more particularly how should these concepts be defined,
approached and used in their work by psychiatrists, psychotherapists and
psychoanalysts?
Postmodernism – a reversion of the causal direction between belief and reality?
I think that while listening to me now, some of you may have experienced a feeling
which could be described as “unheimlich” which means estranged, cautious, unsure.
A kind of urge to get some answers in order to be able to regain cognitive control in
the middle of an epistemic collision. Freud considered unheimlich so important that
he wrote a special article on its psychodynamics. He believed that unheimlich reveals
the link with previous developmental stages, when things have had opposite
meanings to those now ascribed to them. Heidegger quite independently from Freud
considered the same feeling to be the most one in all human experience. Philosopher
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John K. Bramann explains Heidegger’s concept of unheimlich as follows:
“To experience things as unfamiliar and strange is a specifically human
capability. Animals are in no position to develop this sort of distance between
themselves and the world in which they live. The capacity to wonder and
inquire, grounded in that distance, is a manifestation of a fundamental freedom,
the freedom to conceive and re-conceive the world in many ways, and to change
one's relation to it accordingly. Instead of being locked into a particular cultural
tradition, for example, with its fixed and established ways of looking at and
relating to things, human beings are endowed with the capacity to take a step
back from everything and to look at the world at any time as if it were entirely
new, i.e., strange. This capacity constitutes a unique way of being in the world,
and it is the basis for the possibility of taking a hold of one's life in a way no
other kind of being has.” [7]
Now to put this back into the context of the collision of epistemes, I would put
forward that the experience of unheimlich is precisely what we experience when
confronted with a change in “authority”. By authority in this respect I mean the
authority, which in human experience molds reality and gives meaning to the reality
itself. What I have chosen to call authority here may consist of different sources:
society and its institutions, religion, media and so on (including psychoanalytic /
therapeutic culture). In any case, whether due to the technological progress or cultural
collision, when epistemes fail in their function fail to be a self-evident, shared
understanding of things and ways to deal with them people experience uncertainty
and the feeling of unheimlich.
Postmodernism may be defined as an era of multiple coexistent yet at the same time
contradictory epistemes. It has also been defined as a totally new episteme, the “on
of” episteme. This “on of” episteme is based on rationality and it claims that
everything is relative and thus any episteme should be questioned and used only
inasmuch as it is helpful. It sounds very good until we ask: “Helpful for whom?”
To sum up the definitions given in various dictionaries, Postmodernism can be
defined by three essential properties:
1) skeptical interpretation, deconstruction, rejection of dogma, a general
distrust of theories, running counter to generally accepted style,
2) self-conscious use of conventions and mixing of different styles and
3) use of vulgar, popular elements, playful illusion, decoration, and
complexity.
Levas Kovarskis, 2014 Helsinki
Translated into psychodynamic terms we could say that the Postmodern episteme
contains:
1) negative attitude toward authority,
2) individual consciousness’ priority at the expense of social convention and
3) reduction of the levels of abstraction, causal attribution and refinement. I
call this de-sublimation.
To put it very shortly: Postmodernism is an attempt to reduce the executive power of
social convention in constructing common reality, shared consciousness and value-
systems. It offers the deconstruction of group authority, calls on to deprive the group
from the right to decide what reality is and how it should be interpreted. By doing this
Postmodernism inevitably demonstrates how essential discourse and convention are
for any social attitude and action. As Israeli modern historian Yuval Harari shows in
his recent bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind [8], the shared belief
creates human reality, enables and encompasses meaningful social action.
To the best of my knowledge such an episteme, which in many ways seems to call to
question the very basic structures of society and human life, has never before
prevailed. Since Socrates and Plato society has been considered a self-evident
authority and leader of the discourse. In the past individuals have been able to switch
paradigms, most often by changing their reference group and political or personal
identity. Examples of such cases include Alcibiades in 400BC, Nicolaus Copernicus
in 1500th century, Baruch Spinoza in the 1600th century, Erich Maria Remarque in
the early 1900th century and any ordinary man and woman who left their own family
for another, changed political party or migrated to another countrythey all have to
deal with the conflict of beliefs and paradigms. Until Postmodernism however,
nobody claimed that individuals as opposed to the group has the right to define reality
relying only on his/her personal experience. The group was not asked to comply with
an individual’s reality and individuals as such were not considered the creators of
reality and the author of its interpretation. In Postmodernism each individual can be
considered the highest authority on reality. In this sense, Postmodernism in a way
changes the causal direction between reality and belief. Where earlier we believed
that our beliefs are about reality, which at least to some extent exits as independently
from peoples’ minds as matter does, now we come to appreciate that common belief
creates the human reality. Hard science as well as soft one supports this view. Modern
physics and astronomy claim the existence of multiple universes and support the
notion that matter cannot truly be known (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle), while
Yuval Harari claims that common belief has actually created humankind.
Levas Kovarskis, 2014 Helsinki
My essential claim is that globalization and especially Postmodernism as its
intellectual frontier represent a continuing assault on the perception of personal
identity and reality-testing. This directly affects our theoretical background and
practice inasmuch as we used to imagine that our practice aims at strengthening
reality-testing and helping individuals adjust to reality, as much as we used to believe
that human beings develop from immaturity toward maturity, from dependency
toward independence, from non-specific sexual orientation toward genital sexuality
and from social impotence toward responsible social functioning.
Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis
Today’s psychotherapists find themselves confronted with the very basis of human
nature, changing societal structures and perhaps even a new concept of reality. We
used to teach our pupils: “Bear the uncertainty”. We hardly imagined that it actually
means “You can never be certain about anything”. We didn’t mean “remain in
unheimlich all the time you work”. After all don’t we teach technique, setting,
defenses, levels of personality-organization etc.? Don’t we continue to believe that
the process of psychotherapy can and should be controlled and psychotherapy itself is
teachable? Or are we supposed to treat our patients exclusively with Bion’s “without
memory and desire” in order as he puts it "to prevent someone who KNOWS from
filling the empty space"[9]? Postmodernism could be called an era of moral and
cultural relativity, ultimately the era of relative reality. The question of how to adapt
one’s work to this relativity is one every therapist must answer personally by his or
her understanding and style of conducting psychotherapy.
Fortunately there are many of us around the world working in the field of
psychotherapy, choosing different attitudes. However, our profession as a whole has
perhaps failed to respond to the challenges of Postmodernism. There is a danger now
that under the pressure of postmodern relativity it will split into two separate and
competing modes psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Once (against Freud’s will
yet for understandable reasons) being established as a medical profession
psychoanalysis used to enjoy scientific authority and access to medical recourses.
Psychotherapy sticks to this authority and recourses, fully utilizing psychoanalytic
discoveries (often without mentioning its origin) and in the field of medicine has
obviously offshot psychoanalysis proper. Modern psychotherapy measures symptoms
and treatment outcomes by specifically designed tools, develops treatment templates
and manuals, claims the ability to improve certain psychic functions such as
attribution of thought, mentalisation, sensitivity, self-awareness and others. Its overall
advertising message is modest and self- contained): “Our aims are strictly defined
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and measurable, so our profession/method can be considered scientific and used in
medicine.” In other words: “We fit medical discourse, we comply with the medical
episteme”. No doubt this is the welcomed development.
Yet I feel that if this will remain all psychotherapy can offer, psychotherapy will lose
something more essential its psychoanalytic ethics. Psychoanalytic episteme
(ideology, metapsychology and technique) in a way is similar to that of the
postmodern in its claim that there is no other truth but the personal one. But its ethical
response to this statement is very different from the postmodern. Contrary to
Postmodernism psychoanalysis doesn’t believe a personal truth is the only
correct/possible one. Explicitly or implicitly psychoanalysts believe that a way of
reaching a person’s individual universe, a universe in which each of us is
encapsulated by our unique personal experience is psychoanalytic procedure. This
procedure enables the common search for truth and brings together the realities of
two participants. Sure, this search exposes us to the unknown and the unheimlich and
it requires skill to contain the anxiety on a tolerable level. However if we succeed we
will be able to share our experience and knowledge meaningfully, in other words we
will become conscious. Psychoanalytical ethics in a way claims: “Yes, everything is
relative until we humans agree on the meaning of our shared experience and trust our
agreement”. The shared experience and trust brings about consciousness proper, and
with this comes to existence a shared human understanding, a shared dream, a
shared belief and at last the possibility of common action, which can meaningfully
change the world. Compared to the postmodern, there is hope and human dignity in
this ethical approach.
I for one believe that the consciousness psychotherapy can offer is all the more
necessary and valuable in the Postmodern world. I also hold that in order for
psychoanalytic psychotherapy to function consistently and effectively in the
nowadays world, both psychoanalysis and psychotherapy should confront the issues I
have touched upon here on a wider scale, should in fact redefine the identity of our
profession.
1. RATIO is a direct adoption of the Latin word ‘ratio,’ which meant
literally ‘reckoning,’ ‘calculation,’ ‘computation,’ ‘reason.’ The first recorded use of
‘ratio’ in English was in 1636 in the sense of ‘reason’ or ‘rationale.’
The first appearance in English of RATIO in the mathematical sense of proportion
followed just a few years later in 1660 in Barrow’s translation of Euclid’s Elements
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from the Greek (he had published his Latin version 5 years earlier). (Oxford english
Dictionary, Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, An Introduction to the
History of Mathematics by Eves)
2. Freud, Sigmund, "Letter to an American mother", American Journal of
Psychiatry, 107 (1951): p. 787.
3. Roger Scruton,”Why I became a Conservative”, The New Criterion, Volume
21 February 2003, p 4.
4. Megan A. Jones, Deafness as Culture: A Psychosocial Perspective,
Ph.D.,Center on Disability Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa Disability
Studies Quarterly, Spring 2002, Volume 22, No. 2, pages 51-60
5. No Limbs no Limits star Joanne O'Riordan on making the ... Mother With No
Arms - YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-J6wpM1E_f0)
6. Christie W. Kiefer, Mantle of Maturity: A History of Ideas about Character
Development, published by State Univ of New York Pr(1988-08-23), ISBN 10:
0887068227 / ISBN 13: 9780887068225
7. Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies, Jorn K. Bramann, Nightsun
Books, 2009, ISBN 0-945073-23-2.
8. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari, London 2014
Harvill Secker,
9. The Poetics of Psychoanalysis In the Wake of Klein. Mary Jacobus, 2005,
(Bion, quoted p. 259.).
Levas Kovarskis, 2014 Helsinki
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