How a great psychoanalyst sees the future

He does not express himself on the future but sees in the past a tool to build the present and tomorrow Simona Argentieri, cornerstone of Italian psychoanalysis and protagonist of the new chapter of the column edited by Spazio Taverna

The relationship between psychoanalysis and language, but also between psychoanalysis and art, as well as prejudice, are some of the themes addressed by the psychoanalyst Simona Argentieri (Florence, 1940), invited by Spazio Taverna to answer a series of questions about the past and the future.

What are your inspirational references in art?
All. I have no fixed, much less linear, reference points. I would say that I have been ‘omnivorous’ since my young years. I have always enjoyed reading, listening, seeing everything – beautiful and less beautiful – in a free and capricious way well before organizing an identity, opinions or inspirations. The cinema of every time and country, then, has always accompanied me and is much more than a ‘distraction’. If anything, some more solid and loved reference has emerged backwards. When, for example, in the course of a study on the multiplicity of meanings of the self-portrait, I needed to revisit the history of painting; or when it was Mondrian who helped me understand the meaning of the “abstract” in figurative art and in the mind.
On the other hand, a painting in the grandparents’ country house by an anonymous artist from the end of the 18th century (perhaps not so valuable, but very dear to me), depicting a Holy Family where Saint Joseph takes care of the child, was happily casual. Madonna is sitting in a corner reading, which gave me the inspiration for the book The maternal father.

What is the project that represents you the most? Can you tell us its genesis?
Perhaps it is the investigation of what happens in the mind of those who speak, think, dream in multiple languages. I began to be interested in it many years ago in the clinical dimension, together with two friends and colleagues – Jacqueline Mehler Amati and Jorge Canestri – about the peculiarity of conducting psychoanalytic therapies in which either the analyst or the analyzed did not speak in his mother tongue. It was fascinating to understand, for example, how sometimes retracing one’s experiences in a ‘new’ language made it possible to avoid infantile knots of neurotic suffering; at the same time a defense and a resource. From this experience, studies, researches, seminars and books (The Babel of the unconscious – mother tongue and foreign languages ​​in the psychoanalytic dimension) on the historical events of the emigration of psychoanalysts to foreign lands; on the deep meaning for great writers – such as Nabokov, Canetti, Cronin, Beckett and many others – of having written in languages ​​other than those of childhood. And again it was possible for us to deal with the acquisitions of psycholinguistics, about the very precocious ability of newborn children to recognize the sound of the mother tongue well before language learning.

How important is the genius loci for you in your work?
A lot of importance. But he is a composite and changing genius loci. And even if the place may be the same, each one declines it in his own way. I can take for example the Tuscan countryside, where I spent some of the very first years of my life, in whose images the magic of childhood memories intertwine, then the stories told by others; as well as Emma Perodi’s delightfully scary stories about the Casentino legends; and finally the experiences of returning to adulthood. A mosaic or a puzzle, more than an integration. The same happens to many of us, when we have long dreamed and desired to know a place, prefigured in the imagination through films and readings; and then, once we finally get to really visit it, there is a feeling of alienation and unreality.


How important is the past to imagine and build the future? Do you believe that the future can have an ancient heart?
I would say that the investigation of the past, particularly of the individual remote past, is my job. It has become almost a psychoanalytic commonplace to seek the explanation of the adult personality, normal or pathological, in childhood vicissitudes. On the other hand, I am not at ease in making predictions. I am rather inclined to make prophecies backwards, to understand for which ancient paths our personality is built: the unconscious deformation of memory, the so-called covering memories, the compulsion to repeat. Without forgetting that the past is not the premise of an already sealed destiny; but the starting point for a development and a potential future that is in our hands; which is also the sense of care.

What advice would you give to a young person who wants to go your own way?
This is indeed a difficult question, because currently we are witnessing a progressive impoverishment of the theoretical-clinical heritage of psychoanalysis. Shortcuts and simplifications of the training course are preferred. There are fewer and fewer students who come from medicine and psychiatry and who have a lived experience of the relationship with the patient and his suffering. It is increasingly difficult to propose an in-depth study and a long commitment in a time and age that privilege the emergence and treatment of symptoms rather than causes. Too bad because, despite the undoubted limitations, the cognitive and therapeutic tools of psychoanalysis are incomparable and sometimes, with a slow, secular miracle, we can eliminate the useless suffering of neurosis and really change a person’s life.

In a definite epoch of post-truth, does the concept of the sacred still have importance and strength?
The theme of the so-called post truth has engaged me a lot, because it fits into my wider interest in the ‘false’. Not so much in the sensational forms of intentional lying, as in the intrapsychic dimension, whereby one also lies to oneself. I am referring to the defensive psychological structures that organize themselves with inauthentic shares of the personality (‘as if’, ‘false self’, imitative processes, ambiguity).
The sacred, as revealed truth or as an absolute transcendent value, on the other hand, does not belong to me. On the other hand, it can be something else if sacred is alluding to spirituality, symbolic thought, the ideal and perhaps utopia.

How do you imagine the future? Could you give us three ideas that you think will guide the next few years?
No, I just don’t feel like making catastrophic or apocalyptic hypotheses. Nor to propose consoling illusions. If anything, I would prefer to mobilize the positive and conscious forces of the ego that can make us less passive with respect to the events of fate.

Marco Bassan


How a great psychoanalyst sees the future