The Americas 59.1 (2002) 135-137
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How many countries can chronicle their twentieth-century cultural, political, and ideological experiences through the lens of the psychoanalytic community? No nation in the Americas has a larger percentage of the population practicing psychoanalysis than Argentina; no city in the world, with the possible exception of Paris, has a larger percentage of psychoanalysts than Buenos Aires. Few societies in the world rival the Argentine middle and upper classes in their awareness of mental health and the subconscious in shaping their lives and the life of their country.
Mariano Ben Plotkin's history of Argentina's psychoanalytic culture reveals a story of intellectual ferment and narcissistic endeavors, involving a passionate cast of characters responsible for some of the most stimulating forms of social criticism. Yet, even while intellectually lively, their ferment, passion, and commitment—tinged on more than one occasion by deluded or conscious misreadings of Freudian thought—rent apart solidarities in the maelstrom of ideological excess. Jorge Balán's 1991 book, Cuéntame tu vida: Una vida colectiva del psicoanálisis en la Argentina, offered an overview of the more prominent practitioners. Plotkin's story is at once more institutionally-minded and more deeply-rooted on the cultural foundations of analysis as it threaded through the crevices of Argentine life, touching on politics, the arts, and competing perceptions of national identity.
Although Argentina was late in accepting psychoanalysis in comparison with Brazil and the United States, Argentine society, particularly in Buenos Aires, had shown itself capable of incorporating mental health paradigms since the late 1890s. By the turn of the century, faculty members of the University of Buenos Aires were observing the fast-changing character of urban life and using the language of mental health, specifically social psychology, to analyze the immigrants' behaviors. José Ingenieros and José Ramos Mejía, in their own ways, borrowed considerably from Gustave LeBon's Psychologie des foules in formulating theories of mass behavior and Cesare Lombroso's notion of degeneration and the atavisms associated with criminal behavior to explain unwelcome changes in Argentine urban life during the age of mass immigration. To be sure, the Social Darwinism that underlay these theories was left behind by the more scientific approach claimed by the pioneering Freudians of the late 1920s and 1930s. Still, they were following the earlier thread among Argentine intellectuals when, in their newly formed study groups, they focused on linking the individual with society as part of their explicitly meliorative objectives.
Plotkin presents the pioneering days of Argentine psychoanalysis through a web of individuals who were themselves not trained in the field; indeed, many were not psychiatrists. Over the course of time, intellectuals from a wide variety of fields would come to play roles in the development and criticism of the practice. At the beginning, influenced by a deeply-felt need to understand themselves and Argentine society in the context of changing identities, they gathered in small groups in their [End Page 135] homes where they discussed developments in the psychoanalytic field. Importantly, these pioneers found common ground in psychoanalysis despite their different ideological perspectives in the belief that psychoanalysis was a science capable of sharing insights—along with other health and social sciences—on the human dimension and its social configurations. This collaboration would not last.
Plotkin casts psychoanalysis as a historical actor responding to the nation's changing political culture. This actor, however, was hydra-headed, presenting itself as increasingly self-critical, divided, and self-destructive as Argentina underwent sequential periods of political crises. The commitment to progressive ideals had placed the psychoanalytic community in the 1950s and 1960s in a deep quandary, shared with the leftist intelligentsia: how to explain the continued failure to wean the oppressed and the laboring classes from Peronist hegemony? Despite Peronism's fascistic heritage, authoritarian practices...