Belongings

by Emma Lieber, PhD

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    Some people have offices and some people do not. Like other recognitions of difference, this realization was sufficiently traumatic that, as a child, I renounced it. When my preschool teachers asked what my parents did for a living, I proclaimed that my mother did housework and my father helped her, even though my school was on the same college campus where he was a teacher and administrator, just five minutes away from his office. 

      To me, the idea of belonging always has centered around this figure of the office: the space of official doings that announces your membership in an institution and your productive participation as a citizen, the place where you pronounce yourself necessary and wanted by the community and, by extension, the nation, world, universe. So, I presume, ran my fantasy of phallic wholeness. My father worked in the same office for 30 years, with the same framed Hopper prints adorning his walls, helping students through their various academic and personal difficulties. Everyone knew him on campus. My mother did not have an office. And so I grew up with some vague question about what women had and where they belonged.

      But no one can really have the office, so to speak. My father’s stable and long-lasting endowment belied a correlative anxiety about membership and one’s proper belongings – a game of possession and dispossession that I now live out in order to prove. I seem to shed offices almost as soon as I am given them, and the rooms themselves evoke this strange dance. When students walk into the university office I now occupy, transiently, as a postdoctoral fellow, they invariably comment on how weird a space it is: up two flights of a winding, steep staircase, one flight of which is divided by a door that periodically hits someone when you open it, in a small Victorian-era house that runs cold. The room itself is entirely bare except for a few books that I’ve left there after we’re done with them in class, and as the pile grows, I get more and more worried about how I’m going to get them all home at the end of the year, when my tenure in the office is up. Any fullness or accumulation seems to be a problem here. I sit perched on an uncomfortable chair, with my laptop on my knees because the table space is taken up by a desktop that I can’t get to work. In the winter I wear my coat. Whose space is this? students must think as they enter. What, exactly, is she doing here? How long will this place be hers? Who else occupies it? Who was here before? Like language, these spaces are the instruments of whoever happens to be inhabiting them, words passed along from speaker to speaker. Belonging to no one, retaining the residue of past use and the shadows of former occupants, they elicit the sensation that there are ghosts here.

      Psychoanalysts have offices. Don’t they? Their work hinges on the possession of an office, a private space, a piece of property with the proper adornments: couch, chairs, clock, tissues. And yet, my analyst’s old office was a museum, and the only thing that was clear to me about it was that its offerings long predated her arrival. On the walls hung relics, art works made of found objects—sea shells, broken bottles—and a photograph of a woman and child that only after four years did I realize also contained a man. Some of the works were labeled but I could never make out what they said, and the obsessional quality of those tallyings was offset by the fact that many of either the labels or the pieces hung askew. I had no idea who made those pieces, who hung them in that office, or who failed to correct their unevenness. I couldn’t figure out what the building was besides that it had a strange name and a cherished past, or who ran things, or who else occupied it from day to day. There seemed to be a set of men constantly coming and going, working on something in the back, leaving shaving equipment in the bathroom, and they showed up in my dreams as lumberjacks. Weird items would be left in the hallways by someone: something that looked like a surfboard, once, in some kind of protective carapace, and once a thin bouquet of flowers wrapped in a newspaper. I think that either the flowers were dead or the newspaper was the obituary page, but probably neither is true. This was a space with strange traces, communications from the beyond, that belonged to no one, although it’s only now that she’s moved – divested of her office as quickly and mysteriously as, it seemed to me, she acquired it – that I’ve made my own mark on the analytic space, staked my own transient claim on the environment in commemoration of dislocations past and future. Perhaps this also marks the beginning of my questioning of how to position myself, as an analyst, in an office, when the time comes.

      I say this because it seems to me that the question of belonging for psychoanalysts must hinge on the question of what belongs to psychoanalysts, and because the belongings most visible to analysands are and are in their offices. It is all too easy to see the office as some kind of visible essence of its owner; hence perhaps the impulse to photograph analysts in their offices.  Yet something like 50 Shrinks must, I think, in some way play on the disjunction between the desire to discern a symbiosis between shrink and surrounding and the very disjunction staged by the photographic medium – like language, the photograph evoking nothing so much as the absence of the thing itself, as well as the distance between audience and subject. For to whom, in the end, do the objects in these offices in these pictures belong; does not the work done there hinge on that uncertainty; and might not the colloquial “shrink” be understood as self-reflexive, that is, as referring to the kenotic self-emptying of the analyst, who disappears in space? Freud’s office may be said to have evoked this gesture in a kind of deferred action, the emptying out of Berggasse 19 retrospectively revealing the tenuousness of all those attachments in a room stuffed with books and over 2000 pieces from antiquity. One wonders what sort of heritage Freud was claiming by curating those pieces, creating what was already the Freud Museum, or in what way that affiliation was complicated by the fact of his exile, the result of another identity altogether.  The things were transferred to London of course and replaced, in the current-day Freud Museum in Vienna, by a series of photographs.

     In any event, it seems to me that if analysis is to make a space for longing, then the space of the analyst cannot be too cluttered with what announce themselves as belongings. If it is to teach us that we are not self-possessed – not kings of our own castles, not administrators of our own offices (or perhaps, only administrators) – then it cannot evoke any immutable attachments: to affiliations or ideologies as much as to places or possessions. Given the analyst’s ghostly presence, she presumably cannot operate on the register of having. Or, the operative organs that the analyst does possess are empty orifices – ear, mouth – and the fillings of the room must pay homage to these vacancies. If there is any affiliation, it is to the unconscious and to language: to the words that are in the analysand’s mouth for a moment, which are taken up and transformed, returned to them but not quite, in an ongoing circuit of passage, stealing, and gift. It seems to me that to claim the title of analyst is precisely to announce one’s fealty to language over titles. If the analyst belongs to anything, it is to language and the desire that accompanies it, which is forever moving and can be taken up by anyone.

     This is not to say that there can be no sense of community. I always think of Nabokov here, one of the authors I teach, although I am also chastened when I remember his invectives against Freud and Freudians as well as his smirking contempt for the notion of the unconscious.  Maybe I have something to prove to him, too, especially because one would think he would have been at home with the notion of self-exile. The consummate aristocrat, he lost his homeland, his house, and his stuff in the Russian Revolution and spent his life in perpetual expatriation. His gift for language may have been a response to all that loss, words becoming the only property, his astounding mastery of several languages marking the assurance of fitting in or settling down anywhere. Yet all of his books are about people who don’t belong, and every word resonates with its own self-insufficiency, the impossibility of getting back to one’s home and one’s things, as well as with a passionate pleasure that must, somewhere, admit the possibility of overthrowing masters, dethroning kings, and unseating authors. One of his greatest novels, Pale Fire – about a psychotic who, believing himself to be the deposed king of Zembla posing as an academic in America, steals a poem from his neighbor, a great professor and poet – features a vision of community founded on radical unhaving. The psychotic lives in someone else’s house and the poet is killed in an act of mistaken identity – so much for academics and their various fantasies of possession, royal or otherwise – and yet something beautiful is born of their neighborliness.  We are all exiles, bereft of our kingdoms by one revolution or another, thrust out of Majesty into language and desire and always on the move, and it is only here that we can register our allegiances. The poet and the psychotic take long walks and have long talks, because at least we can speak and listen to each other.

******

     The other night I had a dream. It was the night before I was to sit for my readiness for clinical practice exam, which will allow me, soon, to start seeing patients. In the dream, I walked down the street, trying to get home, pushing against an invisible force. I came upon a construction site, or perhaps it was a crime scene, and crossed underneath the barrier, where, below me, lay a peculiar creature – gray, spongy skin, elongated head, naked and sexless – on its back, looking up. It tried to speak to me and there was both a leisureliness and an urgency to its enunciation; but it murmured quietly and I couldn’t hear above the hubbub. At its feet lay another similar creature, smaller, unmoving, face down. I wondered whether the first had given birth to the second, and whether the second was dead.

      Is this the analytic space? The place was in ruins, and yet the construction workers – or maybe it was the police – could not help this thing. What a strange environment in which to do one’s work, open to the elements, broken objects all around, a half-formed alien lying supine, asking to be heard. The baby belonged to it and yet also didn’t, and I was out of place in the scene. I got nervous, ducked out, and continued home, to the things and people that I comfort, or, perhaps, fool myself, belong to me. I hope in the future I will have the courage to stay longer.

 

Address correspondence to:

Emma Lieber, PhD
164 Clinton Street, Garden Floor
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Elieber14@gmail.com

Emma Lieber, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Germanic, Slavic, and East European Languages and Literatures at Rutgers University and a beginning candidate at the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis. Her work has appeared in the New England Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Slavic Review, the Slavic and East European Journal, and the Nabokov Studies Journal.

 

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