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.