University of California-Los Angeles
In many parts of the academy, psychoanalysis and the social sciences are thought of as two entirely separate enterprises; the former having to do with the relatively private, intrapsychic desires and imaginative wishes and fantasies of individual people, and the latter having to do with the social, cultural, political, economic, gendered, and racial factors that shape and constrain people’s actual behavior with others in the world. But, of course, desires, fantasies, and imaginative thought are themselves significant if underappreciated and understudied types of human behavior. This parting of the ways has gone so far that psychoanalytic literature is rarely cited in social science work these days, and, if it is, it usually references some of Freud’s seminal work, glossing over, if not ignoring, vast changes that have been occurring in psychoanalytic theory and practice over the last hundred years.
In The Doctor and Mrs. A: Ethics and Counter-ethics in an Indian Dream Analysis, Sarah Pinto shows just how impoverished this perspective has become. Based on a published account of a psychoanalytic encounter occurring in the early to mid-1940s between a 21-year-old, urban, upper-class Indian Hindu woman and her University of Edinburgh-trained psychoanalyst friend, Dr. Dev Satya Nand, the book demonstrates how no person’s desires and imaginative capacities, ethical or otherwise, can be appreciated apart from the social, cultural, and historical contexts from which they emerge, and, conversely, that historical and structural configurations of any kind are always being transformed through the dynamic flux of individuals’ memories, desires, and aspirations. Pinto gives the clear impression that psychoanalytic and social scientific perspectives are more complementary than usually thought, and that each perspective taken alone has clear limits.
Pinto’s analysis is focused on the way Mrs. A uses the Hindu mythical figures of Draupadi, Shakuntala, and Ahalya to think through the conflicts and contradictions of desire and ethics she finds herself immersed in, especially those surrounding her unhappy marriage and her upper-class life of privilege in the heyday of Indian nationalism and anticolonial aspirations. Throughout her conversations with Satya Nand, these mythical figures clearly become crucial resources for Mrs. A, enabling and amplifying her ability to express and comprehend the quandaries in her mid-20th-century life. Indeed, any analysis of Mrs. A’s emotional experience that did not take the significance of these figures into account, as do Satya Nand and Pinto, would be a miserable failure. But just as importantly, we also see that it is through the cauldron of Mrs. A’s desires and imagination that the mythic figures and other cultural and historical material become creatively combined, opposed, and reshuffled in ways that potentiate them and enable them to capture and express the ethical dilemmas of a woman who comes across as very modern and contemporary.
It is the psychoanalytic methodology of Satya Nand, with its emphasis on free associations, day and night dreaming, and relaxed states of “reminiscence,” “contemplation,” and “musing” that illuminates these imaginative transformations, showing how dynamic and ubiquitous they are. Pinto emphasizes the significance of these transformations for ethical thought, suggesting how they may bring to light the limits of conventional ethics while contributing to the development of what she refers to as “counterethics” in response. More generally, Gananath Obeyesekere, another anthropologist of South Asia with interests in psychoanalysis, has made such transformations and flows of consciousness central to human thought and culture. Through the process of what he refers to as “subjectification,” humans are always bending and manipulating preexisting cultural materials to fit their own states of being and positionality, thereby changing and making culture as both an intended and unintended consequence. His works, especially Medusa’s Hair: An Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience and The Work of Culture: Symbolic Transformation in Psychoanalysis and Anthropology, offer interesting similarities and differences with Pinto’s book and could be profitably read in conjunction with it.
One of the most interesting aspects of Pinto’s exegesis and analysis is how it unfolds as a type of Batesonian metalogue, in which she breaks up the chronological flow of Satya Nand’s account of Mrs. A’s analysis to reference and gesture toward a variety of topics and issues related to ethics. This approach parallels the way Mrs. A freely and spontaneously associates, condenses, and superimposes mythical figures, ethical dilemmas, and Indian nationalism throughout the course of her analysis. Pinto thus is able to connect, juxtapose, and oppose ideas about ethics and many other things in creative and stimulating ways and to use artwork by Shahzia Sikander in the postscript to think through the mobile forms and temporalities of ethical actions and reactions.
There is much to be gained from such analytical verve and creativity that goes well beyond the study of ethics, the social sciences, or psychoanalysis per se. Of course, there are some risks to such daring as well: Pinto herself ponders at points throughout the book whether some of her interpretations and extrapolations are imposed on or getting ahead of what Mrs. A was actually saying or expressing. And her breaking up of Satya Nand’s account of the analysis to slowly reveal what transpired between him and Mrs. A—though allowing Pinto to expand on bits and pieces of the account for her own analytical purposes—can leave readers wondering how their evaluations of some of Pinto’s interpretations might have differed had they known the whole story of the analysis in advance.
Yet nothing is gained if nothing is ventured, and The Doctor and Mrs. A: Ethics and Counter-ethics in an Indian Dream Analysis ventures to show us not only the relevance of intimate thoughts and emotions for the development of social and ethical theory, but also what a more liberated and creative form of social analysis might look like. It is a book that should be of interest not only to South Asianists, but to anyone who is interested in how culture and history gets under the skin and or how people are capable of reimagining the worlds into which they have been thrown.
Obeyesekere, G. 1981. Medusa’s Hair: An Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Obeyesekere, G. 1990. The Work of Culture: Symbolic Transformation in Psychoanalysis and Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.