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  • Parrhesía
  • Sergio Benvenuto (bio)

A man who wants the truth becomes a scientist; a man who wants to give free play to his subjectivity may become a writer; but what should a man do who wants something in between?

—Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

As a reader and an enthusiast of psychoanalysis, I was very precocious. I read a work by Sigmund Freud for the first time at the age of fourteen: “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” of course. As a patient, however, my introduction came even earlier. My first experience as an analysand—this is the term I am accustomed to using, rather than “patient”—dates back to when I was eight years old, in Naples, the city of my birth. My parents took me to a child analyst—a woman who was to become a trainer in the Società Psicoanalitica Italiana-SPI (the Italian branch of the International Psychoanalytical Association-IPA)—because I was undergoing a depressive period. There at the clinic smiling girls made me play many fun games and draw lots of pictures; today I know they were mental tests, but at the time I thought they were the therapy. Instead I remember nothing of the analyst herself. All I know is that after a few sessions I refused to go back, because I found it all quite boring. After a while, my depression disappeared. Today I wonder: Was that brief psychotherapy a success or a failure? Did the psychotherapy or the games of the amiable testers cure me? Or was the remission of my depression spontaneous? In other words, the same, awful epistemological doubts that still arise today when we confront speedy or unexpected recoveries.


When in 1967 I joined the Psychology Faculty of the Sorbonne in Paris, my ideal was already to become a psychoanalyst. [End Page 435] Although I had read Carl Jung, Erich Fromm, Melanie Klein, and others, my preference was for Sigmund Freud. Some maintain that a good part of Freud’s success is due to the quality of his writing rather than the soundness of his theories; and, indeed, I have found Freud’s prose more exhilarating than that of other analysts. In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom included Freud on his list of the twenty-six most important writers of all time. Equally important, in contrast to the sciences, the ways we write and speak are crucial to psychoanalysis: the job of analyzing means to read what the analysand is saying and the right words must be found to express this reading. In psychoanalysis, as in art and in politics, one cannot separate form from content.

I went to Paris as a “structuralist” but I must add that I had already been an “existentialist.” What we meant at the time as existentialism were above all the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir. In the mid-1960s most of my Italian intellectual friends, all left-wingers, proclaimed themselves Sartreans and most likely smoked a pipe. I realized that French existentialism was a spin-off of philosophical phenomenology and I devoted myself to reading Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In other words, I became a phenomenologist. Once, during my first month in Paris, I found myself with no place to sleep and no money for a hotel. So I decided to spend the whole night in the cafés of Les Halles (the all-night wholesale markets), where I read Merleau-Ponty’s Signs in its entirety.1 The fact that reading Merleau-Ponty helped me stay awake throughout the night speaks volumes about the passion I felt at the time for this author.

With my conversion to structuralism—and to what then became known as post-structuralism (a term never used in France)—my attitude towards phenomenology became more and more critical. The reason would be too long to explain. As for phenomenological psychiatry—Eugène Minkowski and Ludwig Binswanger in particular—I considered it a praiseworthy literary exercise, a description from the outside of the mentally ill without the psychiatrists ever putting their relationship with the patient on the line. This sort of phenomenological contemplation of...


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