Australasian Journal Of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
NO.1&2 - 2022
Australasian Journal Of
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
NO.1&2 - 2022

All Good Things Must Come to an End:

A review of John Steiner’s Illusion, Disillusion, and Irony in Psychoanalysis

Illusion, Disillusion, and Irony in Psychoanalysis, by John Steiner, London, Routledge, 2020, 180  pp., $69.99 (paperback), ISBN 9780367467012

Adam Becker

John Steiner’s latest book is a collection of essays concerned with three central themes. Firstly, that “illusions are universal and ubiquitous” (Steiner, 2020, p.1) and people (patients and therapists alike) use Garden of Eden illusions to escape reality. The second theme concerns the often painful and never finished process of disillusionment where illusion is relinquished, and reality and truth are once again engaged with. The last theme concerns how irony can assist the therapist to approach truth with kindness and with an acknowledgement that they are a fellow sufferer.

Garden of Eden illusions are universal and involve a phantasy of blissful satisfaction and of not being impinged upon by waiting, frustration and separation. The illusion, Steiner suggests, is based on an idealisation1 of the infant at the breast in union with the mother. In this blissful union, the existence of the dyad has not been shattered by the arrival of a third including the realisation that the mother has a relationship with others and with her own mind and thoughts which the infant does not have access to; as Steiner says, “the mother’s mind lies outside the omnipotent control of the infant” (ibid, p. 5). The extent and persistence of these illusions depends on the child’s/patient’s capacity to bear disillusionment, mourn the loss of his omnipotence, and face the guilt of phantasised or actual attacks on his good objects. Steiner suggests that “the mother’s love can save the day if she can persuade the child that he does not need to be admired because he is loved” (ibid, p. 133). Steiner’s book helps us to grapple with the universal fact of life captured in the adage ‘all good things must come to an end,’ and that trying to hold on to good things in an illusory way will keep us stuck.

Steiner tells us he’s retired from clinical practice and for this reason he primarily uses literature to illustrate his ideas but does refer to clinical material in a couple of chapters. He traverses Milton, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Keats, Ibsen and others, and in the foreword, Jay Greenberg suggests of Steiner’s use of literature that, “we find ourselves surprised and enlightened by the way he develops his theme in the context of works that are long familiar to us” (ibid, p. x). Unlike Greenberg, I wasn’t familiar with most of the referenced works and had a mixed response to Steiner’s use of literature. At times, I did find myself ‘surprised and enlightened’ by the use of literature and felt it illustrated his ideas excellently, such as using Milton’s Paradise Lost to illustrate the different courses one can take upon disillusionment where, on the one hand, Adam and Eve are able to bear the pain of disillusionment and embrace the facts of life while, on the other, Lucifer/Satan cannot bear his fall and in hatred and envy mounts a rebellion. Steiner suggests, “Lucifer’s fall evokes the image of an infant who is abruptly confronted with the reality of a third object in the Oedipal triangle” (ibid, p. 46). However, at other times, I felt that the literature also detracted from his ideas, and this was especially the case where the poetry felt more obscure, often due to language. Furthermore, Paradise Lost is referred to on so many occasions that it does come to have a feel of religiosity, or perhaps preachiness, such as when he talks about God as a symbol of greatness to be aspired to and not concretely achieved. I appreciate that he is talking about the many gods humans create which can become symbols for aspiration, but this more general point felt somewhat lost in the continued focus on Paradise Lost. I also understand that most will not read the book cover to cover, and so this experience will be diluted. Lastly, I found myself wishing for more clinical material, wanting to hear more about how Steiner would speak to these ideas with his patients. His thoughts about illusion, omnipotence and disillusion illuminated the myriad ways patients try concretely to achieve a perfect life of satisfaction and try desperately to control and rail against experiences of pain, frustration, and disillusionment, but I wanted to hear more from Steiner on the clinical application of these ideas.

A theme which runs through the book which I valued very much was how Steiner spoke about truth and reality. He suggests that truth can be cruel and brutal and that we all need both illusion and disillusion and so, as therapists, we need to be careful and thoughtful about when and how we disillusion the patient. It leaves the reader wondering, when is the right time to disillusion the patient? But, of course, this is an unanswerable question, and we can only hope that we might sense when our patient is open to some experience of disillusion. And in the end, we can only hope that in our attempts, as Casement (2017, p. 241) says, “we succeed by failing – failing the patient’s way.” Steiner suggests that irony is a helpful position for the therapist to take and can guard against the therapist as zealot who pursues the truth at all costs. He beautifully acknowledges that “truth without kindness is not fully true” (Steiner, 2020, p. 57), and that “with the help of irony the patient feels that the analyst is a fellow sufferer and that together a gradual appreciation of the value of truth can be set alongside a need for illusion” (ibid, p. 59). A capacity for irony involves embracing contradictory views and “doubt as to the truthfulness of any statement of fact and adds an element of humour that softens the severity of truth” (ibid, p. 145). I wished that Steiner had talked more about the value of irony, and again I also wished I could have heard more of Steiner’s voice in the consulting room.

Generally, I found Steiner’s writing very approachable. There are several points however, where he does veer into more classical Kleinian interpretations, and this is particularly evident where he’s writing about “male and female components of the creative link” (ibid, p. 91). It’s important to acknowledge that Steiner readily admits that we all have feminine and masculine capacities, which he refers to as “male and female elements” (ibid, p. 92). However, Steiner suggests a reluctance to take a receptive feminine position and/or a desire to hold on to an omnipotent phallic masculine one may be important factors in resistance to therapy, and he says: “here the nipple, the penis, and the analyst’s thoughts can be viewed as “entering”, “inserting”, or “giving”, while the mouth, vagina and the patient’s mind are “receiving”” (ibid, p. 91 – quotations in original). This use of language had a marked effect upon me as the reader, I felt excluded and that the dialogue and exploration was closed off and shut down. It could be suggested that I was experiencing something of the very thing being talked about, being closed out of the “supremely creative act” (ibid, p. 48) of the couple, however, it could also be that the language is exclusionary and had the effect of closing a creative link with the reader. I feel at base there are so many ways that creative couplings occur which, without argument, involve giving and receiving. I suspect Steiner would suggest that it’s a “fact of life” that the sexes are different and that we cannot deny this, but I would contend that when we’re thinking symbolically and psychoanalytically, there is no need to collapse the thinking down to concrete symbols of ‘male and female elements.’ To my mind, it would have felt more inclusive to speak of the human capacities to give and receive and how impairment in these capacities is likely to impair therapeutic progress.

In closing, I found Steiner’s Illusion, Disillusion and Irony in Psychoanalysis to be replete with rich ideas and written mostly with a refreshing quality of humanness; for example, he says “we are all patients, and all have serious problems with reality” (ibid, p. 129). I think this book will be valuable reading for psychoanalytic practitioners and those who have a special interest in the psychoanalytic exploration of literature.

1. An illusion in that no experience of infancy is without frustration and disappointment but can only involve moments of this blissful state.

Casement, P. (2017). Some pressures on the analyst for physical contact during the reliving of an early trauma. In. Lemma, A. & Kohon, G. (2017). British Psychoanalysis: New perspectives in the independent tradition. pp. 232 – 243. London: Routledge.

Steiner, J. (2020). Illusion, Disillusion, and Irony in Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.

Adam Becker

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