Argentina has more psychologists per capita than any other country in the world, a situation which many accredit to its history of immigration: when you’re an immigrant, one psychoanalyst told me, you start asking questions about who you are, and psychoanalysis is one place where those questions act as a starting point.
Indeed, the more people I spoke to in Buenos Aires, the clearer it became how normal it is to think about these questions with a therapist or analyst every week. One researcher I spoke to, Guido Kormon, told me that in Argentina, people think ‘if you have not been to see a psychologist, what has happened to you? It’s the reverse of Europe.’ As the daughter of a British psychotherapist, I was interested to find out why it is that Argentina has such a unique, open relationship with its mental health. Here, Felipe Muller, a top psychoanalyst in Buenos Aires, tells me about his own practice.
Working from his leafy Belgrano office, Felipe splits his time between Freudian psychoanalysis and academia, researching collective memory, looking in particular at memories of the military coup in Argentina during the 1970s. During the first five minutes of our conversation, I can feel the psychoanalytic presence working on me. Like other psychoanalysts I’ve encountered, he has a kind of cool warmth; a seriousness that is not harsh but respectful, un-judgemental.
Firstly, we discuss the room in which we sit: ‘the space for me is very important’. The office is presided over by a large Mariano Bior painting of Europa, the Greek goddess and Zues, disguised as a white bull in an attempt to trick Europa into trusting him. ‘I like the historical position’ he says. As a tale of forbidden desire, disguise and eventual revelation, it seems a usefully provocative presence in a space designed for truth seeking. ‘And the colours’ adds Felipe, the room needs them: ‘after midday it gets kind of dark…the amount of light I mean.’
A low black leather couch lines one wall, and french windows look out onto a sea of greenery. More than half his clients choose the couch over the chair, Felipe tells me. Does he notice a contrast between sessions in the chair and on the sofa? ‘There is a big difference’ he says, ‘to start with, they stop being attentive to my little gestures, my expressions, my little signs of confirmation, approval, disapproval.’ And, he adds, when they are looking at the ceiling, or the bookshelf, they start free associating (a technique used in psychoanalysis, whereby patients say whatever comes into their minds, uncensored): ‘free association is the way to get to other things, dreams, slips of the tongue, whatever. It’s not easy, to free associate. Sometimes they [the patient] will stay quiet, until something comes up that will opens things out, and something related to the truth is produced’.
How are dreams used in the work? Firstly, his patients say “oh I never dream” and then they say “oh it was curious I had one dream the other day” and they will start talking about them. ‘It’s interesting because dreams are a unique production there, you have a whole scenario, a whole thing, all the characters coming in.’ They are, he adds, an insight into ‘dormant subjectivity’.
I ask if he makes use of symbolism in his dream analysis, adding that my mother always reads the state of buildings and houses as representative of the dreamer. ‘You can find that in Freud too – a bed has to do with a woman. But’ -he adds gently – ‘I try not to fixate’. But ‘if someone is dreaming of a big snake, well’, he laughs, ‘you can see the symbolism there. Where it goes depends on what the patient says. It’s always like that: you never impose, you just point things out and it’s the patients response that is going to make that pointing out produce something. It’s not that you make this ready-made construction about the symbolism, it is the other way. Which is the representation that psychoanalysis has in certain places: that *this* means *that*’.
Moving the conversation onto psychoanalysis in Buenos Aires, and Argentina as a whole, I ask him his opinion on the use of ‘other’ therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and a relatively new phenomenon here, ‘psychotango’ (a combination of psychotherapy and tango whereby dancers use tango to build trust with a partner).
‘The field can be very generous’ he tells me, implying that Argentina has the quantity (194 for every 100,000 inhabitants) but not necessarily the quality. One incident sticks in his mind: ‘I went one day to see this play, Dr Lacan, and the actor playing Lacan asked in the beginning act “who here is a psychoanalyst” and I see other people raise their hands, and then he asked “who has never been through an analytic experience” and I saw one of those people raise their hand too. I was furious. So you could see there that is something problematic. I don’t know what that is, how to judge it, but the problem is there’.
‘One thing – and this is very important – psychoanalysis is about something related to the subject and the truth. No other form of psychotherapy addresses that. And in this moment of the post-truth era, that is a very important thing.’
Finally, why psychoanalysis, why not other forms of psychotherapy, CBT? ‘If there is a symptom, this is the opportunity to address it, not to erase it as a symptom, and just keep adjusting yourself to life and no questions. I know the experience is demanding, the experience can be frightening, and it is expensive. But it is worth it. This is my position. So CBT, its ok, but they are not different parts of the same thing, which is talking with one another. They are different experiences, completely different… and I like this one’ he says with a chuckle.