Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran
An exploration of the 'Persian psyche' challenges Western preconceptions, finds Shahidha Bari
Elegantly sleek and severe, the analyst's couch in Gohar Homayounpour's office backs on to a three-paned window from which is afforded a view of a remotely dilapidated Tehran, its craggy mountainous inclines and the stark, unlovely, ramshackle blocks that cluster at its foothills. The office is a neat and spartan affair in which one imagines the analyst carefully containing and ordering the complexities of the unruly city and its inhabitants. The day-to-day business of "doing" psychoanalysis in Tehran, though (as the faintly clunky title of this book indicates), is rarely such a graceful activity. The cover image of the austere office and the sprawling city emphasises the discrepancy between a seemingly controlled and serene authority and the more rebellious impulses and assertions it might seek to restrain and conceal. The officious marshalling of desire might itself be taken as a concise diagnosis of the trouble with contemporary Iran (or at least the forbiddingly religious political state we suspect it to be from the outside), but what's curious about Homayounpour's memoir is its recognition that the rift between authority and impulse might also lie at the heart of the analytical situation itself and of psychoanalysis more broadly.
Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran is a candid account of an analytical practice: it is part memoir and part clinical case study but also an unabashed riposte to the preconceptions of a traditionally Western psychoanalytical community. It is a slight, pocket-sized volume, confessional in style, accessible in prose, perhaps even a little undemanding in its argumentation. It is at different moments self-absorbed and startlingly naive but also remarkable in so far as that very self-absorption and naivety enables Homayounpour to turn an unforgiving lens on the complacencies and contradictions of psychoanalysis itself. The book confronts this most ambitious of therapeutic practices with an enormous challenge - that of probing the psyche of a nation that is burdened equally by its tumultuous history and volatile future. Within this context, the stakes of Homayounpour's analysis are high, and the book seems less addressed to any domestic Iranian audience seeking to patch together a psychoanalytical state of the nation than to English readers determined to discover the "truth" about Iran. Here, Homayounpour's obsessive self-inspection and delimited focus on a specific patient presents a kind of micro-resistance to the possibility of such macro-generalisations. When a Western colleague expostulates that "Iranians cannot free-associate!", Homayounpour refutes this by turning to the particularities of her own practice, while simultaneously swiping at the Eurocentric generalisations in which psychoanalysis trades. For all its small vanities and narrow self-focus, this is an important book that tells us less about an Iran that could be reducible to any simple analytical formulation and more about a faltering psychoanalytical discourse that necessarily falls short of its valiant ambitions.
In his introduction to the book, the Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami extols the virtue of the text as a "radiographic picture of the human condition in Iran" rather than "a touristic photograph of Iranians". Kiarostami notes that the Iranian women featured "do not narrate the injustices and oppression that they face in our society today, but talk about the internal paradoxes, conflicts, and dualities they experience...just like any other women in the world". Here, Kiarostami's assessment crystallises the dilemma of Homayounpour's analysis, which seeks simultaneously to refute and reinstate Iran as a state of psychoanalytical exception. Iran cannot be an exception to psychoanalysis, neither Orientalised nor excluded from the grand narrative of a "human condition", but it must also remain peculiarly Iranian and so not subject to psychoanalysis' denuding generalisations. Its women are both every woman and Iranian women. Certainly, the allure of Homayounpour's book is the possibility of accessing an account of Iran by Iranians. Such an account would attend intimately to the internal anxiety of the people, so much more mysterious than the societal injustices of a state avidly latched upon by a Western audience. What Homayounpour's analysis reaches towards, though, is a sense of how the injustices of any political regime are internalised, working in unthinkable and unexpected ways upon those subjected to it. The exposition of this is a challenge to which psychoanalysis may not be equal but it is to the credit of this book that it poses the question of how an analytical situation relates to the social and political frame within which it takes place.
Where Homayounpour excels is in her account of the often tense face-off between analyst and analysand. She is unsparingly frank on the subtle bruising and jagged sparring of clinician and client. When the glacially beautiful Mrs N glides into the room and assumes the analyst's chair, Homayounpour can barely conceal her hand-wringing horror. The confessional style suits Homayounpour here; we warm to the faulty and faltering analyst in a way that dissipates her claims to any overarching authority and balances her self-absorption. Later she confesses to "drifting away" mid-session, shaking herself awake, silently self-chastising: "I promise I will concentrate...; I straighten myself up, fix my glasses, and try to listen to her with a 'third' ear as an analyst must." The imperious Mrs N troubles Homayounpour, who recognises in their exchanges her own impulses not only to treat but also to triumph. On the verge of a conflagration, Homayounpour salvages the scenario by restoring an analytical "distance". Her claim that a psychoanalytical self-awareness immunises one from the errors of others is both unconvincing and provocative. What is so redemptive about psychoanalytical practice that it shores up and shields the ego of the analyst? Homayounpour exposes the analyst's endless egotism and psychoanalysis' all-too-human flaws. The client's crisis furnishes the analyst's remorseless self-reflection but the candour of these confessions flags up the way in which Homayounpour's Iranian analyst is like any other, and analysis itself a profoundly imperfect practice with which we struggle on, as falteringly in Tehran as elsewhere.
In its closing vignettes, the book stridently dispenses with the notion that Iranians could be subject to a psychic order any different to any other, but the question itself feeds into fascinating, broader and older debates about the nature of the unconscious as psychobiological phenomena that is or is not contoured by its socio-cultural context. Homayounpour's instinct is to reject the claims of difference if they seem to her to carry the freight of a cultural slight but she is tempted, too, into culturally specific observations - her speculation about an alternative Iranian Oedipal myth (where fathers kill their sons) makes for a fascinating interlude. Indeed, when she declares that "in Tehran, today's sexuality is still Freud's sexuality", one might wish to resist such insistent universality, but Homayounpour's assertion exposes the Orientalising impulses of a West that is perpetually curious about the Eastern sexuality it wishes to deem strange. Indeed, to designate an Eastern other, Homayounpour deftly intimates, is to displace the otherness of our own unconscious.
In a thoughtful moment early in the book, Homayounpour reflects that to accede to the strangeness of ourselves in the eyes of others also entails a certain pleasure, since to relinquish strangeness would be to concede instead to one's inevitable ordinariness. The challenge for any of us, Homayounpour intimates, is to dare to present ourselves as ordinary. This is an alluring book and one that insists on that ordinariness. It is as arresting in its flaws as in its flourishes, constantly opening outward from the analytical situation and reaching to a dream of the kind of work that psychoanalysis could do, imperfect and important.
Professor of psychology at Tehran's Shahid Beheshti University, Gohar Homayounpour was born in Paris to Iranian parents. She took her bachelor's degree at Queen's University in Canada and then a master's and a PhD at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis.
She now lives in Tehran with her husband, Mehdi Safavi, an alumnus of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York.
Modern Tehran, she says, "is the kitschest city in the world, both in what I find to criticise and in what fascinates me most about this paradoxical city. It does not betray a single aspect of the kitsch discourse."
Of Sigmund Freud's view of women, Homayounpour muses, "Freud admitted that women were a dark continent and that he could not figure out what (they) wanted; as a woman I do not think that we should ask more from a man than that he admits his bewilderment by us."
Asked for an expression that sums up Iranian culture, she offers: "'Bad az khande gerye ast,' which translates as: 'After laughter comes tears.' It beautifully elaborates on one of the most fundamental aspects of the Iranian cultural tradition: that we are a culture of mourning, that sadness is eroticised in Iran, and as one of our philosophers says: 'We breathe in the air of regrets.' We are obsessed with our past, the one we have lost. We are warned about being happy: a warning that foreshadows our tears."
Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran
By Gohar Homayounpour
MIT Press, 176pp, £13.95
Published 26 October 2012
Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism, Queen Mary, University of London.