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Born into a World at War: Listening for Affect and Personal Meaning

From: American Imago
Volume 59, Number 3, Fall 2002
pp. 297-315 | 10.1353/aim.2002.0015

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American Imago 59.3 (2002) 297-315



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Born into a World at War:
Listening for Affect and Personal Meaning

Nancy J. Chodorow

"Problems of patienthood are caused by outer and inner conditions," Erik Erikson tells us (1964, 89). Outer conditions of war, politics, economics, and culture affect our thoughts and actions, but they do not, without being filtered through inner life, cause them. Inner conditions of temperamental propensity, affect, fantasy, and conflict predispose us to behave in certain ways, but they do not, apart from encounters with external reality, cause us to do so. This is a duality that challenges psychoanalytic theory and practice, from work with individual patients to psychocultural, psychosocial, or psychohistorical analysis. In another duality, psychoanalysis begins from the individual and provides, in fact, the most comprehensive theory of individuality. Yet from the beginning, in both its accounts of patients and the self-analytic writings of its founders, psychoanalysis has focused on patterns of fantasy, neurosis, character, and development that are widespread and has brought cultural, social, and historical factors into its theoretical and clinical reflections.

My own work follows the Eriksonian precept. In The Power of Feelings (1999), I suggested that people create and experience social processes and cultural meanings not only materially and discursively but also psychodynamically—in unconscious, affect-laden, nonlinguistic, immediately felt images and fantasies that everyone creates from birth about self, self and other, body, and the world. Social and historical processes are given, and they will certainly lead to some patterns of experiencing (including those shaped by the family unit) in common, as I documented in The Reproduction of Mothering (1978), but this experiencing will be refracted through personal [End Page 297] individuality and be as much affective and nonlinguistic as it is cognitive and verbal.

Psychoanalytic listening, likewise, begins from a duality. In clinical work, the goal is to understand, and to help a patient to understand, his unconscious life—defenses, conflicts, fantasies, and affects that are importantly and by definition nonlinguistic—but even listening with the third ear must begin by attending to spoken words. The psychoanalyst then uses her own affects, as well as observation of the patient's nonverbal behaviors and communications, to find meaning. Secondary process language and narrative are only indicative of what is beyond and before in primary process feeling and thought.

In this paper, I describe how I have worked within these dualities of internal and external reality and primary and secondary process thinking to listen to and interpret stories of a group of people born toward the end of World War II. I point to the ineluctable individuality of historical experience while also emphasizing the consequences of belonging to a particular generation or age cohort. I suggest that history affects people psychologically no less than it does physically and materially, and that this psychological impact is registered emotionally and unconsciously as well as consciously and cognitively. Complementing a sociological insight into the relevance of cultural and historical conditions to an understanding of the inner life, the psychoanalytic study of individual subjectivities affords an enriched and fuller understanding of history and culture.

Specifically, I have explored affective and familial themes in first-person narratives about being born during World War II (Tymoczko and Blackmun 2000). These narratives were all written by members of the Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1965, who were at the time of writing in their early fifties. As a member of this class, I furnished an epilogue to the book. 1 The contributors form part of a classic sociological generation, having been born almost without exception in 1943 and 1944, and then finding themselves at a particular time of life at the same institution, and having been affected by the social and intellectual currents of both the societies and period in which [End Page 298] they were born and those in which they came of age. I hope to show that by listening for affect we can find, within the wide variety of stories told by people from different backgrounds and countries, strikingly similar emotional themes and tonalities...