Cézanne and the post-Bionian Field. An Exploration and a Meditation, Routledge, 2021... Reviews

Antonino Ferro, President of the Italian Psychoanalytic Society, training and supervising analyst in the Italian Psychoanalytic Society, the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the International Psychoanalytical Association

In Cézanne and the Post-Bionian Field: An Exploration and a Meditation, the author succeeds in conveying the idea of a living, "multiversal" field by bringing together elements pertinent to the field concept in painting, philosophy, and lit- erature, and by providing them with a space where they can breathe together. The fascination of the book lies in the way it constructs novel pathways and tools for exploring a temporal space in perpetual expansion. The structure of the field can be expressed in different languages, each bound by its own stockade that someone, like our author, has dared to break down, resulting not in chaos but in the sugges- tion of new concepts. Whilst reading Robert Snell's work, I was struck over and over again by his extraordinary capacity to juxtapose Cézanne’s visual concepts with Bion's oneiric models and field theory. I cannot overstate the value of this extraordinarily fecund meeting between art and psychoanalysis.

Giuseppe Civitarese, psychiatrist and training and supervising analyst of the Italian Psychoanalytic Society (SPI), member of the American Psychoanalytic Association, editor of the Rivista di Psicoanalisi and author of Sublime Subjects, Aesthetic Experience and Intersubjectivity in Psychoanalysis, 2017

The reading of this book absorbed me. I really admired Robert Snell’s writing style and the skill of the composition—the transitions from one perspective to the other, so as to always keep the reader’s attention. The book shows a deep under- standing of the Italian theory of the analytical field, and creates a perfect interplay of reflections and resonances between this theory, Cézanne and Merleau-Ponty. All three come out of it enriched, because each one is reflected in the other two (not to mention Bergson, Ogden and many others). It is a beautiful book.

European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling

European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling
Cézanne and the post-Bionian field: An exploration and meditation
Spyros D. Orfanos

To cite this article: Spyros D. Orfanos (2022) Cézanne and the post-Bionian field: An exploration and meditation, European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling, 24:1, 148-150, DOI: 10.1080/13642537.2022.2038877

In this illuminating study on Cézanne and analytic field theory, Robert Snell treats the reader to some compelling meditations and amazing colour illustra- tions of the master’s famous paintings.1 But there is more. This is not simply a book about art appreciation, which is not a small achievement in and of itself when done well. This book is also a worthy effort at applying psychoanalytic concepts to a specific body of artistic work. The author’s explorations and meditations are meant to evoke the simultaneity and spiralling of unconscious and field phenomena. Psychoanalytic concepts usually emerge from the clinical arena and are notoriously difficult to transpose outside of that arena. It’s an impossible task but the effort is an important one. The title of Snell’s last chapter is, 'The art of the impossible'.

Snell informs us that the stimulus for this schematic outline of Cézanne's journey was the 2017–2018 Cézanne Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London. I missed that London exhibit, but I have been to the current New York City (NYC) 2021 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art titled Cézanne Drawing. The NYC exhibition contains some two hundred and eighty works in pencil and kaleidoscope watercolour from across the artist’s career. If it is true that Cézanne once said he wanted to amaze Paris with an apple,2 then he certainly amazed me with his drawings. NYC art critics and many colleagues generally applauded the exhibit but felt it was overwhelming perhaps for its sheer vastness and aesthetic intensity.

Cézanne demands strenuous looking and deep exploration of his expression that is analytic in form and indifferent to style. He simultaneously paints deep space and flat designs. He paints by probing and conveying the dense texture and ultimate elusiveness of perceptual experience. His achievement is to draw us into the paintings as if inviting us to finish what he has started. Psychologists want to understand how different people see, and at the most fundamental level, seeing is, as Cézanne said of colour, "the place where our brain and the universe meet." I can understand why Snell might be inspired by the London portrait exhibit. Upon visiting a 1907 Paris gallery of works by Cézanne, Rilke (2005) repeatedly returned to the gallery and was moved to write joyful letters to his wife expres- sing his awe before the paintings and his ensuing revelations about the aesthetics of art and life.

Snell, however, does not stick to musings about Cézanne the man, his two subjects, Cezanne and post-Bionian theory, and he has invited his readers to the wedding. What music we dance to at this wedding may be related to who we are as psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, and/or philosophers. I mention philosophers because Snell makes use of Merleau-Ponty’s great essay, 'Cézanne’s Doubt'. Philosophy according to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology consists in relearning to see the world, to hold ‘the perceptual faith’ of our openness. Snell argues that in the repeated paintings of Cézanne’s Mont Sainte- Victoire there is an openness like that of a good analytic session. Recall the often-told anecdote that Bion once asked a psychoanalyst, ‘What type of artist are you? Are you a painter, a poet, a musician, a dancer, or some other type of artists?’ When the analyst said, 'I don’t consider myself an artist', Bion replied, ‘Well then, you are in the wrong profession’. 'It is very important', Bion states in his 1978 Paris seminar, 'to be aware that you may never be satisfied with your analytic career if you feel that you are restricted to what is narrowly called a 'scientific' approach. You will have to be able to have a chance of feeling that the interpretation you give is a beautiful one, or that you get a beautiful response from the patient. This aesthetic element of beauty makes a very difficult situation tolerable'. While the concept of the field is recognized much more frequently in psycho-analysis than it once was, most psychoanalysts still ground their clinical under- standing in the individual mind: the analyst studies the patient's experience, looking for unconscious roots, with the analyst’s responsibility being to grasp the shaping of the patient’s outer life by the inner one (Stern, 2020). It’s all inside the patient's mind.

In considering Cézanne, Snell relies on the field theories of Antonino Ferro and Giuseppe Civitarese and other Bionians who recognize the joint participa- tion of patient and analyst in shaping the clinical situation. Ferro's field theory emphasizes transformation through co-narration, dreaming the future, rather than interpretation. This field theory is unlike that of the interpersonal/relational perspectives which can be traced back to the 1930s. Post-Bionian field theorists do not view the clinical situation as a mutually constructed field. How could they if their starting model is Bion and his ideas of the container and the contained? The interpersonal/relational schools view the patient and analyst in a mutual influence process. The influence is not equal. As with Bion, there is a trust in unconscious process and a scepticism about understanding and explanation. More important, however, the interpersonal/relational position avoids what Steve Mitchell believed to be the 'spookiness' of the mechanistic metaphor of forces, vectors, and energies.

The relative weakness of this study is that Snell's writing is thick and intense.

As a result, it may require more than one reading to appreciate. This is especially true of chapter 3, Snell's core chapter, 'The painter and the field: Conversation with Cézanne'. But the thickness reminds me of an older child's complex play. Here, I draw on my experience as child therapist steeped in play. Snell is both commenting on the paintings of Cézanne from an outside view, but he is also exploring his metaphors from within. This is what a talented child therapist might do. That is, not disrupt a child’s play elaborations or interpret them but work within the play as if part of the drama. Which aligns with Winnicott's notion that, 'psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together'. Something that the post-Bionian field theorists are likely to agree with.

Snell takes up the matter of Cézanne’s artistic imagination as we might expect of any psychoanalytic exploration. He asks how deeply Cézanne went into his own interior without losing himself entirely, in some total regression or over- whelm. Naturally, this echoes the old Romanticism idea which equated genius with madness. Snell correctly implies that in the end, we are left with what Picasso calls the 'unease of Cézanne . . . that is to say the drama of the man'.

For Cezanne, 'Objects penetrate one another. They never cease to be alive'. It is this vitality that artists with the genius of Cézanne can communicate to others both materially and enigmatically, consciously and unconsciously. This is an elusive integration of the Apollonian and Dionysian. It may be why Freud wrote that, 'Before the problem of the creative artist analysis must, alas, lay down its arms’. The reader of this book will be rewarded by Snell's boldness in taking on the impossible: Cézanne’s radical project of painting people and nature in which all is related and interpenetrate, and you don't interpret what you've seen, you interpret as you see.


Cézanne, perhaps the most influential artist in the history of modern art, did not like to be referred to as a master.

One NYC art critic wrote that about Cézanne’s apples that they, 'stay delicious while acquiring the density of cannon balls.'


Bion, W. R. (1978). A seminar held in Paris. http://www.psychoanalysis.org.uk/bion78.htm Rilke, R. M. 2005. Letters of Cezanne (Joel Agee, Trans.). North Point Press. (Original work published 1952).

Stern, D. B. (2020). Field theory and the dream sense: Continuing the comparison of inter- personal/relational theory and Bionian field theory. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 30(5), 538–553. https://doi.org/10.1080/10481885.2020.1797416

Book Review, Psychoanalytic Quarterly 91: 433-440
Cézanne and the Post-Bionian Field. An Exploration and A Meditation by Robert Snell. Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 157 pages.
Howard B. Levine, MD

This is a remarkable book. Inspired by his visit to an exhibition of Cézanne's portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Robert Snell has combined his passions and his expertise as art historian and analytic psychotherapist to create "an exploration and meditation" that "juxtapose[s] Cézanne’s visual concepts with Bion's oneiric models and [Nino Ferro's] field theory." The result is a beautifully illustrated and deeply informative volume that works well on many levels – art historical or cultural commentary, introduction to Bion and Ferro’s Field Theory, applied psychoanalytic comparative investigation – as it invites readers to accompany the author in "an extraordinary meeting between art and psychoanalysis." Here, art "serve[s] to interpret psychoanalysis, in a collaborative meeting that can open up new meanings in both arenas… [as] multiple voices claim a hearing: those of artists, art historians, psychoanalysts, philosophers, some contemporaries of Cezanne and, … that of the painter himself" (p. xiv).

It is Snell's contention that "Cezanne was discovering and exploring – in the very act of painting itself - precisely the phenomena of human experience that post-Bionian field theory seeks to draw upon: our mutual and in the end 'aesthetic,' that is, potentially and profoundly pleasure-giving, participation with the world and each other." (p. xiv). For Cézanne, as for Bion, Ferro, Civitarese and others1, our being constitutes a world and temporal space of perpetual expansion. Thus, Snell writes that "if Monet and the Impressionists still essentially answered to Descartes, positing a world-out-there waiting to be apprehended by a sensitively calibrated eye… Cézanne, like Freud, puts us in the picture and challenges our claims to mastery. There is no magisterial perspective; depth must be sought by other means… Cézanne implicates us, not just as seeing eyes but also as experiencing bodies. In front of a painting by Cézanne, we find ourselves in and of the landscape, conscious of our immersion and participation in it. Cézanne, … helps us to an awareness that we are part of a field." (p. xvi).

Snell's assertion is congruent not only with the formulations of Freud, Bion and other prominent psychoanalysts, but also rests upon the work of non-psychoanalytic authors such as Heisenberg, Merleau-Ponty, Bergson, Husserl and Rilke, as well as the extensive writings of Cezanne, his close associates and a number of prominent art historians, all of who support the contention that: "the observer or experimenter [- i.e., the psychoanalyst or artist! -] can no longer claim to be outside the phenomena observed, but has to accept being part of the field, with an effect upon it." (p. xvii).

In psychoanalysis, this assertion aligns with the work of Bion, who offered a radically different perspective on the role of the analyst and aims of psychoanalysis, and with the increasing contemporary shift towards a focus upon process in addition to the uncovering of unconscious content. After Bion, the goals of psychoanalytic clinical work could no longer be confined to the uncovering of that part of the unconscious that was already formed, but not yet consciously known: "The analyst participates in a coming-into-being, not through the interpretation of unconscious, repressed contents, but by fostering the creation of the very capacity to dream, and thus of a 'contents' as yet only present as potential. It is transformation in vivo." (p. 95, original italics.)

After Bion, and with the added impetus of Ferro's Field Theory, we can say that "analysis … was now directed towards maintaining and enlarging the very channels of communication themselves, both intra- and inter-psychic: those through which the patient conversed with herself, and those between analyst and patient… Rather than a closed personal system and a repository of the repressed waiting to be made conscious, the unconscious … was [seen as being] something under constant construction and development. It was, at the same time, under constant threat of atrophy, for the mind was something that could also degenerate." (p. xviii).

As Ferro (2002)2 has emphasized, in addition to offering access to previously repressed wishes, emotions, thoughts, phantasies and defenses, this additional focus seeks to expand the patient’s – and analyst's - capacities to think new thoughts and dream new dreams. It proposes a view of the analytic encounter that prioritizes attention to process along with and often over content; a view in which "the 'unconscious' is something not individual but co-generated" (p. xviii). As a result, "Quality of attention becomes not just a necessary prerequisite for analytic work … but transformative in itself" (p. xviii, original italics). Consequently, we come to realize that "to work analytically … is to [help] develop both the patient's and the analyst’s capacity to dream, or, more accurately, to draw from and enrich the oneiric capacity of the interpersonal, intersubjective field itself." (p. xix). As Bion and Ferro have taught us and Snell reminds us, analytic interpretations not only heal splits and uncover that which is already formed but remains hidden because it’s content and meaning are anxiety producing or unacceptable, but interpretations "generate mental activity, conscious and unconscious, through the challenges they offer." (p. xx). That is, like Freud’s description of the drive, the analyst's intervention has the potential of not only making a demand upon the patient's mind for work, but can support, catalyze, co-construct and even function as alter ego in the emergence and/or production of that work.

This aspect of the analytic encounter is exemplified by analogy in Snell's descriptions of Cézanne's preferred way of painting portraits: "The patient/sitter is required only to appear, preferably in person, in whatever state. The [painter/]analyst's challenge is to find ways of registering his/her 'sensations', and there may be times when the 'sensation' requires the painter/analyst to shift position or to intervene more actively to adjust the position of the sitter. But this would not be to invent but to assist at the emergence and birth of 'personality' or 'personhood' – in the language of psychoanalysis, of a 'true self' (Winnicott) or of 'desire' (Lacan)." (p. 16).

Psychoanalytic readers will recognize the strong resemblance in this description to Bion’s (1970)3 container/contained, his discussion of reverie, emphasis on the here-and-now of analytic experience and his admonition to try to encounter and listen to patients and to ourselves without memory or desire. It also resonates with Ferro's (2002) description of unsaturated interpretations and adjusting one’s listening stance and level of activity according to the feedback offered by 'signals from the Field," as well as various other contemporary models of intersubjectivity in the analytic encounter. Thus, for example, Snell reminds us of the view, derived from Merleau-Ponty (1945c)4 that "There is no pure 'fact' outside the session and the field, and no unconscious 'other' territory, just as there is no primal purity, timeless and beyond culture, to the life of the unconscious as it manifests itself in the session. There is instead, in the here-and-now of the session, an 'inexhaustible reality full of reserves' …, the patient's, the analyst's and the field's, permeated by the active essence and inner animation’ of what is not yet known or experienced." (pp. 85-86).

From this perspective, the session "is not a place. It is a 'frontier of dreaming.'" (p. 85). And the analyst, "must be prepared, like the painter, to register and embody messages emanating from the field, to the extent that [he/]she is able to receive them, and to respond by finding metaphorical, interpersonally communicable equivalents for them” (p. 86); “to transform an overly concrete reality into a reality that can be dreamt."6 (p. 85).

Most importantly, we also learn from Snell that for Cézanne "les petites sensations” generated in the artist by the subjects that he was trying to capture in his paintings, not unlike the analyst's dreams or reverie, offered potential “access to an arena of primitive experience before or beyond words." (p. 34). These sensations are "the pinprick of light that is a point of access to the pre-spatial hinterland of the preconceptual, the realm of primal generativity out of which a world might authentically be born." (p.5 9). Compare this to Civitarese and Ferro (2013)7, who asserted that: "the subject is formed on the basis of a substrate of anonymous, prereflective, and prepersonal intersensoriality/intercorporeality even before any actual self-reflective capacity exists… Our sense of the world … stems from our fleshly existence and is present even before a consciousness of self forms." (p. 39).

Again, in parallel with currents in contemporary psychoanalytic thinking, the 'truth' that Cézanne was after in his paintings was not a truth that could be told about the empirical world as it could be depicted, but a world emergent, "some truth inherent in the very activity of painting …. A truth that cannot be assumed, post Bion, to reside solely in what is said or shown." (p. 34)8. As Merleau-Ponty (1945c, p. 13) noted: "Cézanne did not think he had to choose between feeling and thought, between order and chaos… he wanted to depict matter as it takes on form, the birth of order through spontaneous organization." (p. 43).

Snell further reminds us that "both the painter’s and the analyst's tasks are founded in respect for the inviolable otherness and mystery of the other. Who am I, each asks, to claim special knowledge of who, why, or how s/he is?" (p. 16). In this respect, Cézanne, like the philosopher Husserl, was a "radical beginner" (p. 51) who, "In his search for [the] absolute truth to his visual experience … left behind more and more of the received truths of perception or how to represent them on a flat surface. Any system such as perspective or tonal ordering, anything however basic, which was known to be true [a priori], which was believed to hold for all experience, would get between him and the absolute uniqueness of the particular experience he was giving himself up to in his attempt to paint it … he had to discover afresh each time he took up his brushes, what it was to see the world." (p. 51)9.

For the analyst, intersubjective co-construction is achieved in part by playing a Winnicottian Squiggle Game using words, emotions and gestures instead of line drawings. For Cézanne, the Squiggle Game was played out using color and brush strokes. Here is the poet, Rilke's (2002)10 account of how this was done: "… no one before him had ever demonstrated so clearly the extent to which painting is something that takes place among the colours, and how one has to leave them completely alone, so that they can come to terms among themselves. Their mutual intercourse: this is the whole of painting. Whoever meddles, whoever arranges, whoever injects his human deliberation, his wit, his advocacy, his intellectual agility in any way, is already disturbing and clouding their activity." (p. 62).

In the Preface to this volume, Snell cautions the reader that in trying to write this book, he inevitably came up against "a central problem, which is perhaps a problem of all analytic writing, how to use the discursive and sequential … to convey the simultaneity and spiraling of unconscious and field phenomena." (p. xii). This, of course, is not only a problem of psychoanalytic writing, it is the problem that each of us faces every day in our consulting rooms as we try to put something into words with and for our patients and ourselves. It is the problem that each of us faces, as we try to 'make sense' out of the raw, existential 'facts' of our being; as we try to put into the 3-dimensional frames of thought and language – perhaps 4-dimensional if we include the dimension of time -, the untamed and untamable multi-dimensional, perhaps infinite, qualities of raw existence.

In this sense, psychoanalysis, like Cézanne's ambition in painting, like thought itself, is, as Snell entitles his final chapter, 'The art of the impossible.' "In art as in an analysis, no point of arrival or resolution can claim to be final, although it may be profoundly satisfying or moving." (p. 111).

Merleau-Ponty (1945c, p. 15) observed that "'[E]ach brushstroke must satisfy an infinite number of conditions' and for this reason, no brushstroke can ever be the definitive or 'correct' one. The talking cure is not a quantifiable science, and the analyst’s choices, like the painter’s, can never, in the end be the result of following 'scientific' criteria." (p. 111). And as Ferro and Civitarese (2015)11 have noted, psychoanalysis is 'fundamentally an aesthetic experience.'

Snell's argument in regard to painting is that "late Cézanne provides the closest imaginable analogue – kind of rehearsal or repeat, in the experience of looking – for the process whereby the world comes into being out of primal, preconceptual, embodied sensation…. The brushstroke, like the word spoken in the session, aspires to generate air, space, capacity, and it can only show these to be always compromised and unstable. Yet … [b]rushstrokes and words provide the conditions within which an object, and desire, might come into being. In the end, the metaphysics of a Bergson or a Bion, in which intuition is central, and matter and mind are ultimately of the same substance, are not incompatible with the materialism of an account that grounds us in our proto-mental commonality, in a sublime network of intercommunicating underground spores. We are biologically creatures of 'durée' and co-becoming in an interpersonal field traversed by dream and desire." (p. 131)12.

1See for example the forthcoming book, The Post-Bionian Field Theory of Antonino Ferro, ed. by H.B. Levine, Routledge (2021).

2Ferro, A. (2002). In The Analyst’s Consulting Room London: Karnac.

3Bion, W.R. (1970). Attention and Interpretation. New York: Basic Books.

4Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945c). Cézanne’s Doubt. In: Merleau-Ponty, J. (1964c). Sense and Non-Sense. Translated with a preface by H.L. Dreyfus and P.A. Dreyfus, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, p. 20.

5Ogden, T. (2002). Conversations At The Frontier of Dreaming. London: Karnac, p. 1).

6Ferro, A. and Nicoli, L. (2017). The New Analyst’s Guide to the Galaxy. Questions About Conteomporary Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, p. 118.

7Civitarese, G. and Ferro, A. (2013). The meaning and use of metaphor in analytic field theory. Psychoanalytic Inquiry 33 (3), pp. 190-209, p. pp. 190-191).

8For a further discussion of truth in psychoanalysis, see Levine, HB (. (2016). Psychoanalysis and the problem of truth. Psychoanalytic Quarterly 85:391-410.

9Snell is here quoting the British artist Sargy Mann (2016). Perceptual Systems, an Inexhaustible Reservoir of Information and the Importance of Art. Thoughts Towards a Talk. London: SP books. (no pagination cited).

10Rilke, R.M. (2002). Letters on Cézanne. Translated by J. Agee. New York: North Point Press, p. 66.

11Ferro, A. and Civitarese, G. (2015). The Analytic Field and Its Transformations. London: Karnac, p. 62.

12In the philosophy of Henri Bergson, durée is the dynamic, rhythmical continuous process of change and growth that is part of the life process - Intuitive knowledge ‘installs itself in that which is moving and adopts the very life of things’ (Bergson, H. 1903. An Introduction to Metaphysics. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1912, p. 53) - and intuition is the means through which we can be in contact with durée. (p. 65).

Portraits of the Insane. Théodore Géricault and the Subject of Psychotherapy, Karnac, 2016... Reviews

Michael Parsons, British Psychoanalytical Society, French Psychoanalytic Association

The scope of this book is remarkable. Robert Snell's meditation on five portraits of mad people by Géricault is the springboard for a fascinating cultural investigation. He surveys two centuries of change in the understanding of human nature, and considers how this is reflected in changing approaches to the treatment of madness. All this is skilfully interwoven with its social and historical context. Underpinning this wide-ranging account is a psychoanalytic frame of reference, unobtrusive but ever-present. The book closes with the idea of psychoanalysis as a "Romantic science", which one wants to be the opening for a whole new discussion! The breadth and depth of scholarship on offer here is exceptional, and this admirable book is an object lesson in the relation of psychoanalysis to the history of ideas.

Anne Tyndale, Psychoanalyst, November 2016

I very much enjoyed this book and am immensely impressed by the amount of research you have done and the way you have used it to give the reader such a lively vision of Gericault and his time. The information about the changing treatment of the insane is fascinating and heartening and it was wonderful to feel so thoroughly plunged into the atmosphere of Paris at that time. Leaving the EU must make you feel split in half! … very many thanks for giving me all those enjoyable hours; I have already gone back over bits of the book and no doubt will read it all again.

New Reflections. The Magazine of the British Psychotherapy Foundation. Issue 4. May 2017, pp. 16-17
BOOK LAUNCH, MARY PAT CAMPBELL Portraits of the Insane by Robert Snell

Robert Snell, Art Historian, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Therapeutic Education at Roehampton University, BPF member and Analytic Psychotherapist, launched his most recent book Portraits of the Insane: Théodore Géricault and the Subject of Psychotherapy at the Freud Museum in early October.

Following a brief introduction, Robert showed us, the audience, a set of slides, five portraits which form the subject of the book, in silence. At the book launch, as in the introduction to the first chapter, he suggested that readers, and in this case the audience, might allow the portraits to speak to us, without words, at least initially.

I found myself looking at five, rather extraordinary, moving portraits, of three men and two women dressed in early nineteenth century clothing. These men and women looked out of the canvas, away from the viewer. They were close ups, heads and upper bodies, painted in dark browns, greys and off whites. Each figure is either standing or seated with a dark atmospheric background behind them. They seemed mysterious, powerful and at the same time ordinary, and slightly disturbing. There was a suggestion that the paintings were made quickly, perhaps in one sitting, without preparatory studies or drawings.

Robert told us that there were originally ten portraits, but that only these five have survived to date. All of them disappeared, and these five were found again, some 40 years after they were painted, rolled up in a trunk in an attic in Baden Baden. The portraits have only been exhibited together once, in Paris in 1924.

Some of the sitters for these portraits were inmates of the famous Parisian asylum, the Salpêtrière, also well known as the teaching hospital of the famous neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot, who worked with patients with hysteria and under whom Sigmund Freud studied in the 1860s. Salpêtrière is now a modern psychiatric hospital.

The titles of the paintings, 'monomaniacs', is a now defunct medical category of patient, describing a diagnosis of particular sorts of patients with very specific social and medical problems. ‘Mono’ refers to one type of illness or disorder, and the titles of each of the five portraits are; 'Monomaniac of theft', 'Monomaniac of murder', of gambling, of envy, and 'Monomaniac of an abductor of children', most likely the category/diagnosis of a paedophiliac today.

In Robert's view, the quality of these portraits is on a par with Rembrandt's self-portraits, such is their humane, emotional and psychological impact and resonance. Portraits had never been painted of such 'mad' people before. In the asylums of Europe, people paid to view the inmates, like visiting the zoo. In Géricault’s portraits we have madness not as a spectacle, but registering something different; modern, recognizable states of mind, of grief and suffering, painted in moments of intensity.

Robert quoted here from Foucault's (1961) analysis of an early 19th century 'Review of Care of the Insane', which described the delivery of the mad from one sort of confinement to another. And how do you decide who is mad? What do you do with the mad, and who is to do it? Physicians and alienists – not yet psychiatrists – became jailors and healers to the mad of the early 1800s.

The thesis of his book Robert summarised as containing two parallel stories, the life of a revolutionary figure in the history of modern art, Géricault, and the story of the beginnings of modern attitudes to insanity. These two stories intersected around 1820, and are brought together in the portraits that form both the motivation for, and essence of the book (p.xiv).

Using the story of the portraits as a starting point, Robert Snell's book is an important and timely study in looking at how madness has been understood, portrayed and treated from the 1800s until now. It is imperative to articulate again what we mean by madness today, understand how it is understood, treated and mistreated in our society, by the medical profession, and by the psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic professions. I look forward very much to reading this book properly. Robert Snell, Portraits of the Insane, Théodore Géricault and the Subject of Psychotherapy, Karnac, 2017.

Top Amazon.uk customer reviews - Stuart King, 5 out of 5 stars
A personality and great dignity mirroring the very beginnings of modern psychotherapy
22 October 2017, Format: Paperback|Verified Purchase

Portraits of the Insane straddles two disciplines which only occasionally come into close contact: medicine and the beginnings of psychotherapy and art history. Robert Snell, who is both a psychotherapist and an art historian has provided us with a very insightful book about the medical background against which Gericault's paintings were produced. France, at the time was suffering the lasting political effects of both the 1789 Revolution and the Napoleonic wars and struggling to come to terms with Enlightenment thinking.

We see how the mentally ill were historically treated with cruelty and shunned with fear and hostility. Gericault gives these five individuals each with their own mental problem, a personality and great dignity mirroring the very beginnings of modern psychotherapy. However the question remains: why did Gericault paint them and did he himself, in the sorry aftermath of and the establishment's embarrassed and pitiful reaction to his masterpiece 'Le Radeau de la Méduse' succumb to mental illness?

European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling

European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling
Portraits of the Insane: Theodore Gericault and the subject of psychotherapy
Neil Worman

To cite this article: Neil Worman (2019) Portraits of the Insane: Theodore Gericault and the subject of psychotherapy, European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling, 21:1, 85-88, DOI: 10.1080/13642537.2019.1565666

Portraits of the Insane: Theodore Gericault and the subject of psychotherapy, by Robert Snell, London, Karnac Books Limited, 2017, 204 pp., (Pbk), ISBN-13: 978-1-78220-247-9

Here we have a building to put madmen in; you will at once conclude that it is the largest in the town, but no, the remedy is completely inadequate to the disease. Presumably the French, who are much criticised by their neighbours, put a few madmen inside a building so as to give the impression that the ones outside are sane.’ This remarkable comment of Montesquieu, reproduced on p. 164 of Robert Snell's latest book, was written in 1721, yet it seems as up to date as if it was written yesterday, and can equally well be applied to the present day world. In the same way it might be said that we keep a token number of people in prison to convince ourselves that the rest of us are law-abiding, and a token number in hospital to convince the rest of us that we are healthy.

The relevance of the past to the present is one of the themes that emerge from this book, 'Portraits of the Insane'. It follows – without being a direct sequel – his earlier work on romanticism and the analytic attitude (Snell, 2012). To a reader – such as the present reviewer – who was in turn intrigued, mystified, impressed, and finally educated by the previous work this poses some questions: 'Can he rise to the same heights again? Will I be able to cope if he does?'

In declaring my own starting point in this way, I find I am on the same ground as the French alienist Philippe Pinel who, in engaging in traitement moral (a form of humane treatment derived from the philosophy of John Locke) with his patients 'made use of himself, his own feelings and observation of himself' (p. 79). Snell, too, declares himself, in this context at least, to be a follower of the French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche. His book does, of course, centre on a series of paintings, and in looking at these paintings we cannot eliminate our own point of view.

The paintings in question are portraits of five individuals diagnosed as mad by the medical profession of the day, painted in the 1820s by the artist Theodore Gericault who was one of the leading painters associated with the Romantic movement in France. The sitters are probably inmates of the two Paris hospitals which housed such people, one for men, one for women. It is also probable that the paintings were made within the hospital environment. It appears that Gericault was acquainted with Esquirol and Georget, the leading alienists of the time, which would have given him access to the Bicȇtre hospital for men, but the rest is an intelligent hypothesis. The lack of complete certainty is characteristic of much of the subject matter of the book where the capacity to accept doubt, ambiguity, and gaps in knowledge is an essential part of engaging with the subject.

The book places these paintings in an historical context, involving political and social history, the history of attitudes to madness and the mad, the history of philosophical thought, the history of medicine, and, of course, the history of art. The first decades of the nineteenth century were a time of turmoil in all of these areas with new and challenging ideas emerging, powerful forces released, strife, argument, social upheaval, alongside the intellectual world created by the poets and other writers of the Romantic movement, as well as artists and musicians such as Beethoven, Schubert and Delacroix, in England and Germany as well as France. Many of the works of these creative innovators were concerned in some way with alienation and the uncanny, which, of course, leads back to the theme of madness.

The resulting picture (the punning metaphor is irresistible) is a busy and complex one, and Snell packs a great deal of material, both from original sources and from later commentators, into his 204 pages of text. In this respect his work is highly scholarly. The result is a very dense text where ideas and perceptions follow each other thick and fast. But it is also well written, so that the complex and tightly packed ideas and references are presented in lucid, and frequently elegant, language. One outstanding example is the paragraph describing Gericault's painting of the ‘Raft of the Medusa’ on p. 178; it is fine writing by any standards, and also writing which packs a powerful emotional punch.

A central theme is the development of le traitement moral under the leader- ship of three pivotal figures, Pinel, Jean-Etienne Esquirol, and Etienne Georget. This, among other things, was happening at a time when the status of the medical practitioner was being raised into line with the other professions: as Snell puts it ‘Psychiatry came into being on the back of the interests of medical practitioners who wished to carve out a new sub-profession for themselves, in relation and in tension with the clergy and the legal profession’ (p. xxiv). They needed to clarify that establishments such as the two hospitals referred to were places of treatment and, hopefully, healing, rather than places of punishment, correction or detention for its own sake.

These three practitioners stood at the humane and liberal end of the scale. They introduced the category of monomania to describe a condition in which the sufferer was mad in a particular respect, but also had elements of sanity which the alienist could reach and work on. It was recognised that amelioration of the condition could not be achieved by reasoning alone: 'It was not reason and persuasion that would help, the appeal to the Cartesian cogito, conceived as abstract and free-floating...it was, rather, direct engagement with embodied affect.' (p103). This view received support from distinguished sources: the writer Stendhal observed that 'the great passions can only be cured by the means indicated by Ph. Pinel,' adding that 'to depict them you have to have felt them’ (p. 87); Hegel pointed out that 'once the patient learns to respect his doctor, he becomes conscious of his own subjective state and its collision with an external reality' (p. 88).

The portraits themselves pose a direct challenge. Each consists of a head and shoulders and the upper part of the torso, but that is all. All but one wear some sort of headgear. They look obliquely out with enigmatic expressions, apparently sunk in their own worlds. Each is labelled with his or her peculiarity – theft, envy, delusions of grandeur, child abduction, compulsive gambling. But they are not illustrations of a type: each is seen 'as a subject in her own right, aware or potentially aware of her own state, conscious of suffering it' (p. 90).

What were Gericault’s motives for making these pictures? This is another unknown. But it is possible to speculate that the painting may have been seen as part of the moral treatment the sitters were receiving, or possibly part of Gericault's own therapy (he suffered from some form of depression called melancholia in the language of the time). It could also have been seen as having some diagnostic function. That the act of painting was perceived as therapeutic, or diagnostic, was a thought fully in tune with the thinking of both Pinel and Gericault: ‘To observe was to make present... Vision and observation were central to the alienists' work, as of course they were to that of the artist. . .' (p. 70).

Snell moves on to make some observations linking the portraits with psycho- analysis as practised in the present: 'The portraits require us to take up multiple emotional and intellectual positions, and different ways of approaching them. . . invite us to find their counterparts in forms of analytic thinking, attitude, and orientation...Mobile in themselves, they cause us to shift in our moment-to- moment responses to them; they do not allow us to sit down and "grasp" them. . . Studying them can alert us to the involuntarily dynamic, kaleidoscopic quality of our own mental lives.' (p. 189).

Snell concludes with the thought that it might 'be more satisfying to regard the portraits as statements about the human condition and suffering in general, in this way avoiding the risk of over-identification and maintaining, rather like a Pinel, Esquirol, or Georget, or a well-trained therapist with her patient, a certain thoughtful distance.' (p. 191). ‘Therapy can above all lie in the analyst's and patient’s shared perceiving and thinking activity itself, with its own inherent yield of pleasure.’ (p. 194).

Despite some deficiencies in the indexing (the omission of such a major figure as Baudelaire, for example) this is a book which will richly reward those prepared to make the effort needed to engage with it.


Snell, R. (2012). Uncertainties, mysteries, doubts. Romanticism and the analytic attitude. London: Routledge.

Neil Worman

Research Centre for Therapeutic Education, Roehampton University, London, UK
© 2019 Neil Worman

British Journal of Psychotherapy

(2018).British Journal of Psychotherapy,34(3):505-508

Portraits of the Insane: Theodore Gericault and the Subject of Psychotherapy by Robert Snell. Published by Karnac, London, 2017; paperback
Reviewed by:
Lesley Caldwell

'Monomaniac of gambling', from the Louvre, one of a series of five portraits by Gericault, probably painted in the early 1820s, provides the cover image of Robert Snell's new book, a scholarly account of the artistic, social, medical and philosophical discourses through which the twentieth century subject of psychotherapy emerges and is established. The painting draws the observer immediately through the artist's rendering of the eyes and his lighting of the face and head. The quality of this image is particularly noteworthy, since all the other images are black and white, and of indifferent quality. The cover design itself is worth lingering over in that its juxtaposition of text and image anticipates some of the areas the author is attempting to bring together in his study. The text of the title partially obscures this one colour image; in doing so, it directs attention to the upper part of the sitter's face and its profound, clear-eyed melancholy, while indirectly challenging the author's close attention to this image and to the group of images he discusses so sensitively throughout. Given Snell's art historical credentials, the placing of the title across the mouth and lower face may be intended to further emphasize the sitter's anonymity and the obscure histories of all five of Gericault's subjects; a feature Snell notes as part of the artist's decision to portray their normality, their ordinariness.

For me, however, before even opening Robert Snell's fascinating book, the juxtaposition of image and word and the former's apparent subordination to the latter, registers an aspect of this book's overall shape, that is, the array of subjects being investigated is so dense and so compellingly addressed that the paintings themselves can sometimes seem at risk of disappearing. This would be to do Snell an injustice, however, because a close attention to these images and their complex history is certainly there. It does perhaps signal an occasional need to search for them amidst the mass of related scholarly detail that also confronts us. In compensation for the book's lack of images, Snell advises going to his website to view the portraits and associated images in better conditions. This is sage advice since his study of the emergence of the modern individual as also the study of the emergence of the subject of psychotherapy begins from these images, Gericault's portraits. In that lies both the artist's centrality and the book's distinctiveness. Snell proposes that through the decision about how to represent his sitters, the artist visually anticipates that quintessentially modern figure, the subject of psychotherapy.

Snell sets about investigating the conditions through and in which such an achievement was realized. Increasingly constituted through extensive scientific and therapeutic interest, the emergence of the modern subject is located in the evolution of accounts of insanity in a series of French texts whose authors, Pinel, Esquirol, and Georget, and their approaches to madness and its treatment are positioned in the context of post-revolutionary France and changing attitudes to the insane. Esquirol had introduced the word ‘monomania’ as a new diagnostic category in a lecture at the Salpetriere in 1818 (p. 135) and Georget, the representative of the third generation of alienists at the Salpetriere, was a friend and associate of Gericault; both are significant to the histories pursued in this wide-ranging book.

Snell's scope goes well beyond the paintings themselves to their relation to the artist's own biography, his relations with men of medicine and science, with his fellow artists, and with the inhabitants of the asylums that grew in the wake of the revolutionary and post-revolutionary ferment, and the immersion of discourses of madness in the philosophical and cultural concern with reason and its elaboration. Snell places the growth of the paradigms of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in the emergence of the modern thinking and feeling individual. In turn, the project of psychoanalysis itself will contribute a further explanation of what human life means, and how it is to be fostered.

The introduction identifies some of the questions his text seeks to explore and some of his more ambitious wishes about approaching the difficult contemporary arena through a particularly contradictory period of French history. This latest book is a further contribution to a continuing set of questions the author has set himself over many years in his earlier monographs: Theophile Gautier: A Romantic Critic of the Visual Arts (1982) and Uncertainties, Mysteries, Doubts: Romanticism and the Analytic Attitude (2012).

Snell's own passion for these portraits resonates through his attention to their sheer painterliness. Together with his recognition of the different ways different generations approach the art object and what these different histories and readings still have to offer to the reader of today, this amounts to a work of serious scholarship about a period with which the author is clearly at home. The references to the painter analyst and to the potentially similar stances of each professional are a further aspect that is richly developed. For Snell, the painter's investigation of the distinctive humanity of his subjects echoes the concerns of the latter-day clinician in our encounters with those who seek us out.

The sheer breadth and the contested nature of histories of the mad and their relation to us, the apparently sane, take up a much larger chunk of the book than the title would suggest. However, Snell's most insistent interests are given their due through his focus on how Gericault's sympathetic painterly rendering of five similarly entitled figures, augurs a new way of thinking about and embodying a challenge to any rigid division between sane and insane. None of the sitters meets the eyes of the viewer. What might we make of this and the painter's decisions about it?

The originality of his discussion of the history of the mad and their treatment especially lies for me in his detailed descriptions of the French innovators and their circles, though it is perhaps inevitable that he returns to the classic English language texts, Porter, Scull, Shorter, to bring us into the present. And yet one of Snell's most interesting claims for the alienists and for Gericault is their attempt to present the mad or ill as like us, interestingly reversing the direction of the claims of Foucault and later Foucauldians that we have approached the healthy and the normal through the study of their opposite, that the only way of knowing the mad and insane is by identifying what the sane are not. Snell insists that Gericault's portraits, precisely because ‘they are serious portraits in oil, confirmed a key aspect of the Pinelian medico-philosophical ethic, that the condition of being sane, in abeyance as it might be, was always an inalienable potential of the human being’ (pp. 128-9).

The Gericault of the portraits is a decisive move away from the heroic Gericault of the Raft of the Medusa precisely through the concentration on the human and its interiority. And despite the ease with which he introduces the array of psychoanalytic approaches to the art object and indeed the artist, it is Snell's own claim that is most convincing. The power of the portraits resides in their capacity to evoke a view of humanity and of human suffering that is distinctively modern, one which is achieved through the artist's mastery of his materials in the service of an art that captures the fundamentals of human subjectivity.

Lesley Caldwell

British Psychoanalytic Association



Snell, R. (1982) Theophile Gautier: A Romantic Critic of the Visual Arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Snell, R. (2012) Uncertainties, Mysteries, Doubts: Romanticism and the Analytic Attitude. London: Routledge.

Uncertainties, Mysteries, Doubts... Reviews

Howard B. Levine, MD (Psychoanalyst, Boston, Mass.), to appear in The Psychoanalytic Quarterly in 2016.

Romanticism emerged in Western Europe in the late 18th century in the context of the changing social and emotional landscape and political crisis that followed in the wake of the French Revolution. (p. 3). The latter was initially seen as the apotheosis of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment, but as its promise gave way to the Reign of Terror and the massive upheavals produced by the Napoleonic wars, man’s reason alone no longer seemed adequate as a guide for understanding the world (p. 3). This failure of the progressive march of rationality and intellect ushered in a “time of immense uncertainty and unforeseeable possibility” (p.3) out of which emerged a new sensibility “founded in a respect for the elusiveness of meanings and for ‘the hermeneutic principle according to which mystery and incomprehensibility foster understanding’ [Calhoun 1992:15]” (p. 4).

Romanticism privileged the Dionysian over the Apollonian, valorized the ineffable and the inevitable chaos of experience over finitude, organization and mankind’s attempted imposition of rational order and encouraged the cultivation and tolerance of an attitude of receptive incomprehension in the face of the inevitable mysteries of existence. It “was not so much a movement…. as a state of mind, a form of engagement” (p. 9), a “radically open-minded” (p. 1) engagement, with one’s world and experience based on the assumption that the conversation with oneself, the unknown and the other would be unending.

Like psychoanalysis, Romanticism, with its “openness to surprise and the unknown” (p. 4) operates at the boundaries of that which is comprehensible and the very process of what it is to make sense. It therefore evokes all the anxieties - of senselessness, chaos, the strange and the novel - that one is apt to encounter at the limits of one’s comprehension. It is the author’s contention that a Romantic sensibility pre-figured and informed Freud’s formulations of free association, evenly hovering attention and the unconscious and was therefore essential for the formulation and exercise of what we today call the analytic attitude. (Readers may also consider it foundational for Bion’s reverie, Winnicott’s descriptions of transitional phenomena, Kristeva’s semiotic and other psychoanalytic formulations of intersubjective connectedness and relating). According to Snell, “in its concern with self-exploration, relationship, eros, anxiety, terror and mystery” (p. 4), “Romanticism was psychoanalysis, avant la lettre.” (p. 4).

It is the convergence between the Romantic sensibility and the analytic attitude that is the subject of this beautifully written, historically fascinating and aesthetically framed treatise. Both mind states share an open receptiveness marked by a freedom and playfulness of thought that can – and in psychoanalysis, must – complement and even supplant a fixed and often premature intellectual judgment or sense of certainty. Indeed, Snell argues, there is a “cultural precedence” (p. 2) in the Romantic “listening, responsive, ‘not-knowing’ state” (p. 2) of mind, which serves as “the historical underpinning, without which it is hard to see how … [the analytic attitude] could have developed as a therapeutic resource.” (pp. 2-3).

Like the psychoanalytic process itself, Romantic works of art and literature “do (and did not) so much reward attempts to explain them as require us to feel, react, and try to find new ways to describe and reflect upon … experience. They set up new, dynamic and ‘dialogic’ relationships between themselves “ (p. 3) and their audience.
In fact, we learn that the very term, “psycho-analytical,” was coined not by Freud, but by the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1805, as the latter struggled with trying to understand “how the classical, pagan gods had survived as living presences in medieval Christian minds. He concluded that the modern reader would need ‘a strong imagination as well as an accurate psycho-analytical understanding’ in order to get a sense of this; it was an ‘anonymous hidden life’, active in the ordinary unchecked stream of Thought’ of the time like a kind of ‘Contraband’ (Coleridge 1961: para 2670).” (p. 1).

An anonymous hidden life active in the ordinary stream of thought, stowing away or hidden like a contraband! Could we imagine a more evocative description of “that which refuses to be assimilated, to become abstract or mere theory, to ‘speak’ to us as allegory or even in confuses paroles” (p. 137) or what in psychoanalysis was to be formulated as the hidden and disguised elements of the repressed unconscious?

Snell’s argument is presented in a series of chapters that contrast psychoanalysis and Romanticism, summarize the analytic attitude and then go on to look closely at major Romantic figures such as Goya, Holderlin and Novalis, Baudelaire and de Vigny, Poe and Keats. The works of each artist and writer is examined in his own right, with an eye towards the problems with which they were confronted, their responses to those problems and their implications for and potential contributions to our understanding of an analytic attitude. Thus, for example, Snell notes that in Goya’s famous etching of The Dream of Reason (Los Caprichos) the word, suenos, which Goya chooses for the title, can mean ‘sleep,’ ‘drowsiness’ or ‘dream,’ and asks: “Is it that this is what happens when Reason falls asleep? Or is it that Reason itself is a sort of dream? A dream that produces monsters like the revolution of the [French] intellectuals, which devours both its progenitors and its children?” (p. 81).

In speaking of Holderlin, Snell comments that: “In Freud’s Cartesian reversal, we are who we are because we are barely intelligible to ourselves; it is this intelligibility that defines and distinguishes us as human. The Romantic discovery, especially in Germany, was of the need to seek a language for this predicament: for the unknowability, unpredictability and ‘otherness’ of the individual and the collective ‘us’, and the problematic relation of the human to the natural world and the divine.” (p. 99).

And in describing Baudelaire, Snell says that: “He was … determined to find a way of translating the exceptional and the alien, not in order to reduce its quintessential strangeness, but to make that strangeness more approachable’ (Lloyd 2012: 192). It is an induction into an analytic attitude.” (p. 144).

Perhaps even more remarkable, and relevant to practicing analysts, Snell asks the rhetorical question, “What would supervision with Baudelaire be like?” (p. 145). Noting that Baudelaire believed that the ‘world works only through misunderstanding,’ that ‘Each person’s sensibility is their genius’ (p. 145) and that meanings and understanding are constantly evolving, accruing and remain in need of constant emendation, Snell imagines Baudelaire cautioning supervisees that “meanings in an analysis are fluid, provisional and open to constant revision. One has to accept this, and listen, constantly. If ‘the best response to a picture might be a sonnet or an elegy’, so might a response to a patient be a quotation, or a joke, anything that responds to and meets the other on a level which is not discursive or evaluative.” (p. 145).

Thus, when Lacan asserts that “There is something originally, inaugurally, profoundly wounded in the human relation to the world” and that “Life does not want to be healed” (Lacan 1988: 167, 233) Snell has us see him “speaking in a distinctively French idiom which Baudelaire helped shape.” (p. 146).

Coming away from this book, psychoanalyst readers will have had the opportunity to not only appreciate the cultural historical degree to which certain trends within Freudian and contemporary psychoanalytic thinking and theorizing rest upon attitudes that are rooted in the Romantic tradition, but to also recognize that many of our current theoretical battles and controversies, our psychoanalytic ‘culture wars,’ are being fought in familiar terms of the possibilities vs. limits of human reason. Think, for example, of the positivism and scientism of ego psychology vs. various relational or intersubjective views; early vs. late Bion; the relevance of infant observation, developmental theory and neuroscience vs. the uniqueness of psychic reality; etc.

One suspects that the Romantic sensibility is not only something that Snell has identified within the tradition and practice of psychoanalysis, but, as a preferred vertex of observation, that it has informed and even shaped his understanding of our field, as well. This observation should not be misconstrued as a criticism of his contribution, but rather an inevitable application of its author’s reasoning, with which this reviewer is in strong agreement. As Snell says in conclusion to his discussion of Keats, something that might serve as a coda for his book and an apt warning to practitioners:

“to regard immersion in the radical poetry and painting of the post- Enlightenment as interesting but somehow marginal to the serious, ‘scientific’ practice of psychotherapy might be to deprive ourselves of a vital resource in the struggle against all that which, including from within psychotherapy itself, does violence to the complexity of the human… Mechanistic representations of each other under the banner of therapeutic certainty can work to make us iller and madder” (pp. 174-175).

Or, as Wordsworth put it in his poem, “The Tables Turned” (1798, Lines 21-32):

“One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.”


Calhoun, K. (1992). Fatherland; Novalis, Freud and the Discipline of Romance. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
Coleridge, S.T. (1961). The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. (Edited by Coburn, K.) New York: Pantheon.
Lacan, J. (1988). The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book II, the Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-55. (Translated by Tomaselli, S. and Forrester, J.) New York: W.W. Norton and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lloyd, R. (2002). Baudelaire’s World. Ithaca, N.Y. and London: Cornell University Press.
Wordsworth, W. (1798). The Tables Turned. In: The Complete Poetical Works. London: Macmillan and Co., 1888; Bartleby.com, 1999. www.bartleby.com/145/. [Date of Printout=July 3, 2015].


Alistair Ross (Director of Psychodynamic Studies, Oxford University; alistair.ross@conted.ox.ac.uk), European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling, 2013, Vol. 15, No. 4, 412–414

The title of this book is drawn from Keats’ description of negative capability leading to a subtitle focusing on Romanticism and psychoanalysis. Yet it is the back cover that identifies Snell’s central questions, ‘What is it to listen? How do we hear? How do we allow meanings to emerge between each other?’ His main thesis is that the Romantic Movement expressed through the work of such poets, artists and writers as Coleridge, Goya, Holderlin, Novalis, Baudelaire, Poe and Keats evolved unique forms of listening and meaning-making that influenced psychoanalysis. They also provide a culturally located parallel process with which to understand the human condition. Snell is well placed to offer such insights as he has an academic background in art history, practices as an analytic therapist and has wide-ranging philosophical interests seen in his co-authorship with Loewenthal of Post-Modernism for Psychotherapists (2003). Yet, he sets himself a difficult task of conveying the aesthetic encounter and connections brought about by Romanticism for psychoanalysis.

Snell opens with the insight that Coleridge was the first person to use the term psychoanalysis to refer to an ‘anonymous hidden life’, binding Romanticism and psychoanalysis together from their very origins. Snell understands this as a free-floating attention and listening that offers a ‘radically open stance’ to experience and stay open to uncertainties, mysteries and doubts. In his first chapter, Snell expands upon the connections between Romanticism and psychoanalysis. He views Romanticism as a ‘state of mind, a form of engagement’ (p. 9), rather than as a cultural or artistic movement and details how Romanticism was a vital part of Freud’s background, even if unacknowledged by him. Snell argues psychoanalysis is ‘a marriage Enlightenment and Romanticism’ (p. 11) and holds the two in creative dialogue.

Having set out a panoramic view of Romanticism in chapter two, Snell proceeds to offer an inclusive overview of the analytic attitude focusing on Freud’s initial ‘free floating attitude’ and how this has evolved through the development and practice of psychoanalysis, including Laing, Lacan, Laplanche, Kristeva, Bion and Bollas, to name a few. This chapter alone makes the book worth buying as it is a masterly exploration of the many twists and turns in the development of psychoanalysis to the present day. It is as if Snell has put into words his ‘free floating attention’ with psychoanalysis as his patient. He has avoided being caught up in the complex and divisive narratives that haunt psychoanalysis, but discerned the unique insights psychoanalysis has to offer. In the following chapters, Snell attempts to do the same with various Romantic artists, writers and poets.

Chapter three begins with the great Spanish artist, Goya. Snell offers a brief portrait of Goya, setting him context, while touching on the depths of despair Goya felt and became represented in his paintings. My problem is that I find it difficult to grasp the sense of a picture simply in words. This may be because I need the visual stimulus as words do not sufficiently create an image in my mind’s eye. They need to be experienced as Snell argues, but the dilemma is that he can only offer us words. It is a huge shame that Snell cannot transport us to the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. Unless I had already seen Goya’s work there, this chapter did not connect sufficiently with me in the same way that his work did in his masterful brushstrokes and textures as well as stark etchings that conveyed a brooding intensity. I do agree with Snell that ‘Goya’s work can seem to speak directly to the viewer’s unconscious’ (p. 95), but do not see this as unique to Goya or the Romantics. I think Snell needs to argue his case rather more firmly in order to fully establish this idea.

In chapter four, Snell introduces us to German Romanticism through the writers Hölderlin and Novalis. He finds many points of contact between the experiences of Hölderlin confronting meaning and madness, and in the psychoanalytic process. Snell raises the fascinating subject of translation and sees this as a parallel to what happens in the analytic process itself. How do we translate the unconscious? What happens when one thing becomes another? Snell concludes with Hölderlin that ‘I have to accept the limits of my grasp. There is always another impenetrable text in a foreign language, a lived, breathed idiom’ (p. 113). Moving on to a less well-known German writer, Novalis, Snell builds on the work of Pontalis. Pontalis, an analytic colleague of Laplanche, did his doctoral thesis on Novalis, and he links the work of Novalis and psychoanalysis. Snell develops this, but in a manner that veers rather more into literary debate and criticism. It offers intellectual discussion that has a danger of distancing the reader from the central questions Snell is seeking to address and answer.

Chapter five presents the French poet Baudelaire, whose work Snell argues spans Romanticism and Modernism. Snell is attracted to the ‘intensified reflexivity, symbolic correspondences … the abstract, musical possibilities of language’ (p. 125). Baudelaire calls for the past to be mourned so we can embrace the new in a freeing way, not just by association but by what Snell calls ‘free reading, free listening’ (p. 134). Snell sees in Baudelaire a willingness to move beyond Modernism where ‘We must confront the terror of the “not-I”, our split selves, and the absolutely incomprehensibly Other’ (p. 146). He sees thoughts and idea from Baudelaire taken up indirectly in the work of Klein and Lacan.

In chapter six, Snell explores the Romantic contributions to psychoanalysis through two fictional characters, Dr Noir by de Vigny, the chevalier Auguste Dupin by Poe (fiction’s first detective), and the poetry of Keats. Snell suggests that Keats helps therapist by giving us the courage to bear the ‘impossibility of maintaining the analytic position’ (p. 149f.).

Snell’s grand vision is of the Romanticism’s contribution to an inclusive psychoanalysis, containing Lacan and relational approaches. He does this by a clinical focus on developing evenly suspended or hovering attention as a very particular form of listening and meaning- or non-meaning-making, whilst being open to remain in the impasse of not-knowing, recognising absolute otherness. This vision is illustrated through the specific contributions of various Romantic artists and writers ranging from the well-known to the obscure. There is something thought-provoking on every page, with new ideas ricocheting around. Snell invokes a free-floating attitude in the reader – if the reader is willing to stay with this process. Yet, a potential flaw is that this work cannot quite make up its mind as to whether it is art history, literary criticism, psychoanalytic history or reflection of psychoanalytic practice. In essence, it is all of the above. I value Snell’s ambition but at times found his detailed descriptions and scholarly examinations of various Romantic figures hemmed the subject in some way or rather framed ideas in a way that I found less accessible, as if the language itself became too dense. Another interpretation could be that I was too dense to make sense of something new. I am open to that possibility.

There is also a danger in re-reading historical and cultural ideas from our own context and applying our own sensibilities. Take for example Snell’s discussion of the feminine. He argues that the return to the mother puts this at the heart of psychoanalysis and yet Freud read in context says much less about the feminine. Psychoanalysis has been criticized for his neglect of the maternal, that feminist analysts have recovered (Benjamin, 1988). Snell’s argument makes perfect sense in the light of contemporary and relational developments in psychoanalysis, but not to the same extent in the Romantic and Enlightenment context. A surprising omission is the lack of reference to Kirschner’s Religious and Romantic Origins of Psychoanalysis (1996). Though wider ranging in its exploration includes developmental narratives, Neo-Platonism and mysticism, it offers another perspective that engages with Romanticism and psychoanalysis. It is a narrative voice that is missing.

I enjoyed this book. It succeeded in making me think and introduced new connections I had not encountered before. It put to words a desire for the artistic and aesthetic to be a form of reverie that offers psychoanalytic illumination
or psychoanalytic darkness, and in doing so, we find ourselves in good company in paths explored by the Romantics.

Benjamin, J. (1988). Bonds of love: Psychoanalysis, feminism and the problem of domination. New York, NY: Pantheon.
Kirschner, S. (1996). The religious and romantic origins of psychoanalysis: Individuation and integration in post-Freudian theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Loewenthal, D., & Snell, R. (2003). Post-modernism for Psychotherapists: A critical
Hove: Routledge.

Melanie Hart (Analytic Psychotherapist), LCP Reflections (London Centre for Psychotherapy 'Audiences with Authors', October 27th 2012)

This session of Audiences with Authors was perfectly timed. Robert Snell is a member of the LCP and was able to introduce his latest book at home, so to speak, while home lasts. How good for this small institution to have the chance to recognise the outstanding quality of the talent and knowledge it has helped to nurture over the years.
The book, thoughtful, erudite and accomplished, makes a real contribution to the psychoanalytic literature. Its writer has a double professional identity. As a psychotherapist, he focuses his interest here on the particular sort of open, intense therapeutic listening which is the fundamental and difficult basis of effective clinical practice. But his approach to this draws on his second identity as an art historian.

After the havoc of the French Revolution, European attitudes and intellectual life became increasingly estranged from their home base in the culture of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment certainty, its faith in rationality and suspicion of mystery, had provided new and exciting possibilities for understanding the material world of experience. Its vocabulary, however, seemed devoid of interiority and inadequate to the task of conveying what it felt – and feels - like to be alive as a vulnerable human being. This inadequacy was felt with especial anguish at a time when old certainties were being savagely dismantled. Where was rationality when tricoteuses were watching heads roll? What was happening to nature as the factory chimneys went up? What did it mean to be human, or a child, in the midst of such uncertainty?

This period, generically called the Romantic and roughly stretching from 1790 to 1850, was a time of repeated European crises, political and social. Writers, painters, philosophers – employers of the imagination – were forced to confront the insufficiency of their inherited tropes and to find fresh ways to articulate life as it is experienced on the inside - as emotion and sensation. They, and their new audience, were interested in feelings, in what could not be explained by measurement, and they developed a new interest in childhood, the source of it all. Robert makes the link with psychoanalysis unequivocally. ‘Typically,’ he says in his introduction to the book, ‘confrontation with art of the Romantic era demands .... an openness... to the indeterminate; to the unrepeatable quality of the present moment, as well as to the allure of the past; to feeling... to dream, desire and terror, the erotic and the life of the body.... It can help connect us to experiences that lie beyond our immediate experience, to irreducible otherness , to the inalienable mystery of self and other.’

He is right to say that ‘contemporary analytic therapists might recognise’ this stance. But who amongst us on that Saturday morning in October remembered that it was Coleridge who had first used the term ‘psycho-analytical’, ninety one years before Freud? Or, for that matter, that when he invents the term Coleridge is making marvellous use of the Greek foundation of the word ‘analysis’ to stress that it is the ‘un-binding’, or opening-up of the psyche ‘to make room for something else’ (p.2) in which the poet – and his compeers – are as interested as we are?

Robert’s talk was full of such intriguing and revealing bits of information, but his particular focus, indicated in the book’s title, is the way the creative work of this period prefigures, and has contributed to, what post-Freudian psychoanalytic clinicians have come to describe as the analytic attitude. He gave us a sort of experiential exemplar of what he might mean by this attitude. The last half of his talk was devoted to a prose poem by Baudelaire, ‘Mademoiselle Bistouri’ – ‘Miss Scalpel’. Robert read aloud this fascinating piece in his fine translation from the French, and invited associations to it from the audience. Such had been his skill in putting the audience at their ease, that there was a rich response. All sorts of ideas and suggestions emerged to which Robert gave interested welcome, sometimes elaborating a bit, but usually just letting them stand. Suddenly we had become a group, free associating to a previously unknown piece of ‘material’. Who knows what anyone might have made of ‘Miss Scalpel’ without this collaborative input. But now Robert had created an environment in which ideas could safely be played with. Our own first thoughts and feelings could open up to include those of others and so make fresh developments. In this simplified way Robert brought to life the underlying subject of his book – how the human mind grows in relationship with others if that relationship is mediated by an attitude that we call analytic. What does an analytic attitude mean, what is necessary for its provision and what does it let happen that cannot happen without it?

The morning at the LCP turned out to be just a toe-dip into a work of great interest. The analytic attitude – its history and development as a concept – has been exhaustively researched in this book and is given a chapter to itself which sets the psychoanalytic credentials and goals for the rest of the work. It is testimony to the clarity and vividness of Robert’s writing, and his quiet passion for his theme, that even when embarked on a project that may sound quite dull, as surveys can tend to be, he never ceases to enthral. He gathers together a remarkably wide collection of psychoanalytic writers whom he considers to have contributed in some way to the development of the idea (most prominently but by no means exhaustively, Freud, Winnicott, Bion, Racker, Milner, Leclaire, Green, Laplanche and Pontalis, Lacan, Phillips, Bollas, Ogden, Parsons, Israelstam). He pinpoints their individual input. He seems to agree with Roy Schafer (1983) that the analytic attitude ‘eludes monolithic definition’ and can only be comprehended rather as an emergent property is comprehended, synthetically and over time. His own aggregating approach works well for this and revealed clearly how the concept has gathered mass in the years since Freud edged in its direction. Now it can be regarded as the sine qua non of clinical psychoanalysis. Without the frame of mind that this chapter explores, Snell maintains, ‘there could be no psychoanalysis nor analytic psychotherapy......it is mandatory for analytic work in all its forms....Well maintained, it can be therapeutic in itself....’ I envy contemporary students of clinical psychoanalysis who have been rescued by Robert from the pervasive elusiveness surrounding the term and have had all this groundwork so painstakingly and brilliantly put together for them.

The chapters that follow explore his insight that it is artists and thinkers of the Romantic period, and their actively engaged audience, whom we must thank for beginning to articulate the ingredients of this frame of mind, one in which an analytic attitude may grow. ‘Goya and the dream of Enlightenment’, the first of these chapters, is a detailed contribution to knowledge of this artist. Concentrating particularly on three works – two from the series of etchings called Los Caprichos (1799) and a painting called The Madhouse (1816) - Snell describes Goya’s encounter with deep disturbance and his hard won capacity, movingly portrayed in a late portrait of himself in the arms of his doctor, to value compassion as, and Robert quotes Yves Bonnefoy: ‘the only thing that is real in a universe where all is illusion except suffering’. Here are the themes that dominate this new approach to human experience: how does humanity, as a quality, survive the darkness of cruelty, oppression, madness and pain? This is the same question that our patients ask us about themselves. Goya as Robert portrays him may help us think how to respond.

Robert’s affection for Baudelaire produces another superb chapter – ‘Baudelaire and the malaise of modernity’ . (Hard not to love the man able to skewer the changing attitudes of the time with his bitchy remark about an illustrious predecessor: ‘Voltaire, like all lazy people, hated mystery'. p.14. ) One section of this chapter is subtitled: ‘Supervision with Baudelaire’ and teasingly offers us the poet as a companion/guide on the treacherous terrain of the ambiguous self. Baudelaire is ‘a reminder for therapists of how patients can catch our vulnerabilities, those insufficiently analysed, worked-through and reflected-upon aspects of ourselves....’ But we need also his ‘active embrace of compassion and despair...to help us face what our patients require us to face with them..’

And of course there is Keats, whose ‘negative capability’ is now a therapeutic catchword. The phrase occurs in a letter to his brothers of 1817. He speaks of ‘several things [that] dovetailed’ in his mind and lead him to wish for a (Shakespearean) capacity to hold them there – painful confusing and difficult though that might be – so as to discover their meaning, rather than peremptorily reject them in a search for comfortable closure. The poet’s own work is the paramount example of this capability being mustered in the face of nearly overwhelming sorrow. But this is also a profound, and profoundly new, statement of respect for the potential of the human mind to deliver meaning. Keats was ahead of his time in so many ways. As Robert puts it, ‘Throughout his mature work he insisted on the sensuous, corporeal base to all thought and experience: thoughts are functions of sensations’ (p.168). It is astonishing to come across this early intuition of the body ego, the creative unconscious and the dependence of thought on feeling. Robert’s discussion of Hazlitt in this chapter also came as a particular revelation.

Through all these discussions – and the many others on, for instance, Holderlin, Novalis, de Vigny - the thread of the analytic attitude is kept in mind, surfacing and retreating, visible in its different aspects, developing in explanatory power as it goes. At times it has to push its way through very dense layers of information, and I sometimes wished I could hear more directly from the writer himself. But he keeps himself in the background in a truly therapeutic fashion, giving centre stage to other voices. As he organises these for us, however, we come to understand more not just about this period, or these artists, however fascinating they are. Through this approach we come to understand more about what the analytic attitude means in practice – its reticence, restraint, respect and its creative imaginative power. The book is a major achievement. It seems especially pleasing that it has been brought to press by Robert while the LCP is still a going concern, still offering members, students and patients a space for their own encounter with the analytic attitude.

Richard Morgan-Jones (Analyic Psychotherapist, bpf), personal communication, 02/01/2013

...inspired and brilliant book Robert, which I have been so much enjoying. Not often one gets a chance to totally re-orientate oneself once again in our profession, from a new perspective that is such a discovery for being unknown, but oddly familiar!

David Lavender (former theatre director), Amazon

5.0 out of 5 stars 'Art and Psychoanalysis', 13 Nov 2012

I found this book a revelation - Robert Snell explores the work of certain key romantic writers and artists to show how their emotional discoveries prefigured psychoanalysis. He provides compelling perspectives, and the book is a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in psychoanalysis, history, literature or art.


Gillian Ingram (Psychodynamic Counsellor), Therapy Today, May 2013

Therapy Today


John Rowan (Therapist), Amazon

4.0 out of 5 stars 'Deep and brilliant', 4 Feb 2013

"I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason..." (Keats, 1958: I, 193) This quotation, from a letter to his brothers, is the source of the title of this book. Negative capability is now a very popular idea in psychotherapy: last year I examined a dissertation entirely based upon it. It is very much in line with the relational ideas which are now so popular in many different fields. What Snell points out is that it is a Romantic notion.

What has Romanticism got to do with psychoanalysis? - I hear you ask. Well, the long first chapter of this book is entitled: `Psychoanalysis and Romanticism: crisis, mourning and the mysteries of the ordinary', and it is mostly about Freud. "It has long been acknowledged that Romanticism was an integral part of Freud's own cultural and linguistic heritage." As the chapter goes on, we become more and more convinced that Freud and Romanticism were by no means the strangers we might have thought. It can be seen at once how original this book is, leading us into fields we never knew existed.

We then proceed, in the second chapter, to examine the analytic attitude of free-floating attention. It turns out that this is far more subtle, and far more difficult, than is usually taught. "A British post-Romantic sensitivity to the aliveness of nature and landscape, to pastoral and agricultural metaphor, to art and a certain spirituality or mysticism, has led to a style of practice that is characteristic of the Independent school." (p.53) Again this is a long chapter, and contains a wealth of information from many difference sources and languages, showing that free-floating attention is a complex and deep notion, meriting deep and extensive study.

Chapter 3 is entitled - "Goya and the dream of Enlightenment" - and it lays more stress on the negative aspects of experience, and of therapy. Again it is enormously illuminating about aspects of psychotherapy which are more often passed over or ignored. And the fourth chapter is much shorter, entitled "Holderlin, Novalis, word without end". Again we get unexpected but illuminative comparisons between Romanticism and analysis.

The fifth chapter is all about Baudelaire - again very probing and stimulating - and here he comes out with this marvelous quotation: "The wonderful envelops us and rains down upon us, like the atmosphere. But we do not see it." (p.127) This is argued to be part of the Romantic attitude, and also a part of psychoanalysis, not often remarked upon.

In Chapter 6 we come at last to Keats. And here is a powerful quote from the book, in which the author become more specific about links between poetry and psychoanalysis: "There is an art which elicits and requires an analytic attitude in the viewer, which frustrates a search for meanings based on logical or discursive thinking, and which instead insists or nudges us into realizing that our attention to it must be free-floating. Only then is there a chance for meaning, often surprising and sometimes unwelcome, to emerge." (p.150)

And we end up with a clear plea: "The present book aims to add its voice in counter-warning: to regard immersion in the radical poetry and painting of the post-Enlightenment as interesting but somehow marginal to the serious, `scientific' practice of psychotherapy might be to deprive ourselves of a vital resource in the struggle against all that which, including from within psychotherapy itself, does violence to the complexity of the human." (p.174)
This is not an easy book. It is a book of immense scholarship and refined sensibility, and may be `above the heads' of many would-be readers. But for those who are up to it, this is a real treat, treating us like the sophisticated adults we hopefully are.

[The review above also appeared in the APC North London Magazine, May 2013]


Ian Cooper (University of Kent, Dept. of German), TLS, 25 October 2013



Ken Robinson (Psychoanalyst, British Psychoanalytic Society), BJP, May 2014

This is a book about what it is to attend, listen, be receptive psychoanalytically to patients. It is a subject not often enough approached directly in the analytic literature but one that is especially important, as its author recognizes, in the face of the current push towards the manualization and audit of psychotherapy which threatens to replace listening to the patient with an open mind with listening for preconceived material. The author is concerned with listening to, and takes a highly original approach. Instead of using clinical examples he explores works by carefully selected artists and writers that confront us with particular challenges: Goya, Hölderlin and Novalis, Baudelaire, Poe, Alfred de Vigny and Keats. The challenge represented by each is offered as a reminder of, or as a sort of refresher course for, an aspect of the analytic attitude that the author proposes.

The author presents Goya as requiring ‘us to endure our anxiety, as he finds ever more inventive ways of confronting us with what lurks in the shadows: the repressed and denied, rage, perversity, malignant narcissism, the power of the collective and social unconscious’ (p. 65). He sees the collision of reason and unreason as the generating impulse in Goya’s work. In the case of Hölderlin the collision is between a ‘striving for classical clarity’ and a ‘ “Romantic” … recognition that such clarity is no longer compatible with truthfulness of utterance’ (p. 97). Snell links Novalis with Hölderlin, presenting both as alerting us simultaneously to ‘the importance of the particular spoken word – this word and not that - and to the fact that the word is always contingent and inadequate’. But whereas Hölderlin struggles with the limitations of language, for Novalis language is ‘explosive’ (p. 97), the outcropping of an excitability that searches for an unreachable unknown, so that incomprehensibility itself becomes a stimulus. Baudelaire serves the book’s purpose as leading ‘us into a world that is decentring, full of dark humour and contradiction, and subject to its own unanswerable logic’ (p. 123). Baudelaire’s persona of the flâneur (‘an apparently aimless walker of the streets’) free-associates, his flânerie is ‘free associative wandering, a way of bearing lostness and disconnection at the same time as allowing experiences and a hope for meaning’ (p. 129). At the heart of the author’s use of Baudelaire is Baudelaire’s capacity to trap his readers into confronting both their own duplicity and their unavailability to themselves and to each other, a reminder to analysts of their own fragility. Finally, Alfred de Vigny’s Dr Noir and Edgar Allen Poe’s Auguste Dupin represent proto-analysts through whom the author can restate some basic aspects of the analytic attitude: the one, calm and disciplined, seeks to disillusion his patients in order that they might ‘allow the imagination which may inhabit [them] its free and independent flight’ (p. 156), the other is a master of free association whose acumen as a detective rests on his ability to enter into empathic, trial identification with his opponents. The author puts them together with Keats whose concept of negative capability contributes to the book’s title. Keats ‘in his very being as a poet’ embodies the analytic attitude (p. 6).

The author chooses these writers as representing a Romantic and late Romantic way of being in the world in which he sees psychoanalysis as having its roots. Psychoanalysis, he suggests, is a Romantic phenomenon, grounded like Romanticism in crisis and like Romanticism not so much a cultural programme as a state of mind. The analytic attitude requires an open receptiveness to the unconscious in both the patient and oneself as analyst just as the Romantic text or painting calls for a similar attitude. And this receptiveness, whether to patient or to poem, plunges us into ‘uncertainties, mysteries and doubts’ which we must live with rather than rationalize away. For the author, revolutionary change, continuous redefinition of one’s relation to one’s past, mourning, indeterminacy, awareness of contingency, and a decentred sense of never quite knowing oneself are essential markers of both Romanticism and psychoanalysis.

This is a rich and erudite book, perhaps too erudite – in its plethora of references and engagement with a vast canvas of intellectual debate, it has the feel of a doctoral thesis. This reader often felt swamped by detail, both in the opening chapters on ‘Psychoanalysis and Romanticism’, ‘The analytic attitude’ and in the chapters on Goya et al. Perhaps, however, there is a point in this way of writing. Throughout his book the author explicitly runs variations on the opposition between the Classic and Romantic, between, for example, the discursive and logical on the one hand and intuitive, contemplative vision on the other, or between ‘the analyst as phenomenologist and the analyst as theorist’ (p. 63). The book implicitly embodies that opposition. It itself is highly theoretical, but in its post-modern way it avoids closure, prefers indeterminacy and posing questions to answering them – it ends on one. The reader is challenged rather as the author’s chosen writers and artists challenge their audiences. The book’s prose style tends to be kaleidoscopic: one idea or interpretation of an art work is established only to be supplemented or displaced by another and then another, but at the same time it tends to the recursive, ideas and themes returning. The effect is a book that knows where it is going but it is also finding out as it progresses, though even then it ends on a question to underline its own openness as a text.

Readers will bring their own workings through of the Classic vs Romantic opposition. It is not for me here to advance mine, but I do find that, although the author argues for a complex dialectical relationship between Romanticism and the Enlightenment, in his enthusiasm for the Romantic he is less responsive to the Enlightenment’s struggle with how to bring together thought and feeling as modes of knowing. The challenges that the reader faces in, for example, responding to Jonathan Swift’s Tale of a Tub or Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad are not unlike those posed by Goya or Baudelaire. Both texts share the Enlightenment’s fear of subjectivity and madness, but in their fascination with madness they require the reader to enter into it without any easy retreat into reason. Of course, there is a difference between valuing Imagination as the prime agent of human perception and living in fear of it, but the effect of Swift’s and Pope’s fascination is to plunge us into a world where received bearings no longer serve us. The analyst might learn a lot about anality, depression and madness from the inside by immersing himself in the world of Pope’s dunces.

The author’s starting point for discussing psychoanalytic openness to the patient’s unconscious is Freud’s famous analogy of the telephone receiver. Although he offers a refreshing account of Freud’s radical approach to listening together with the questions it poses, he does not refer to Freud’s important correspondence with Ludwig Binswanger relating to the telephone analogy. When Binswanger asked him what ‘intellectual faculty’ he had in mind Freud explained that ‘the unconscious is meant purely descriptively. In a more systematic formulation, unconscious must be replaced with preconscious’ (Fichtner, 2003, p. 179). Binswanger’s letter is very germane to this book’s concerns in that Binswanger admires Freud for his ability to combine ‘rationality and romanticism…. “feeling and reason” not only quantitatively but also qualitatively to a most astonishing degree’ (Fichtner, 2003, p. 176). Freud’s reply concedes that there are ‘deeper problems’ in his concept of unconscious-to-unconscious communication but settles for a ‘rationalistic’ explanation of it in terms of the preconscious. The author (p. 61) understands Freud’s concept through the lens of Christopher Bollas as being concerned with ‘the receptive or descriptive unconscious’, with its ‘“categories of reception and representation” which have been brought into being by censorship or repression’ and through which it is possible to understand what has hitherto been dynamically unconscious. The ‘deeper problems’ that Freud has in mind might include how to conceptualize these categories. In a book of such scholarship it would have been interesting to read what the author makes of Freud’s explanation to Binswanger. I do not, however, want to diminish either the usefulness of his survey of the analytic attitude and listening or the importance of his reminder of Bollas’s radical return to Freud and free association.

In championing a Romantic psychoanalytic attitude, Robert Snell has given us a book whose effect is like that of a pebble in a pond: whatever attitude we bring of our own, questions and ever larger questions ripple out. It will send us back to Baudelaire and the rest, invite us to bring alternative or additional texts and works of art – an invitation accepted in my own references to Swift and Pope – and in its Keatsian way teases us out of thought. It is a book to be read, reread and savoured.

Fichtner, G. (ed.) (2003) The Sigmund Freud – Ludwig Binswanger Correspondence 1908-1938. London: Open Gate Press.