Psychoanalysis is not the only thing one can do, when something in life does not work. Still, it is one thing one can do: one can accept the invitation of psychoanalysis to speak the truth about what goes wrong in life.
Psychoanalysis addresses the psychical suffering human beings experience or, to put it in a way that takes us closer to the Freudian Unbehagen, their discontent. If we are to answer the question “why psychoanalysis”, then we should take into account how psychoanalysis understands discontent and what the implications of this conception are for the treatment.
For psychoanalysis, discontent is not a disorder. When it comes to psychical life and its vicissitudes there is neither order, nor norm that sets it in order. Psychoanalysis is open to the idea that a life ‘in order’ can be unpleasant, tormenting or even unbearable; and that an arrangement that works for a particular person is not necessarily in harmony with a preconceived view of how things should be. The person who suffers is the ultimate measure of what form of existence is viable for them. A psychoanalyst directs the treatment, not the life of the patient.
Psychoanalysis, therefore, does not try to control the force that drives human beings towards the repetition of experiences that make them suffer. Instead of attempting to domesticate what is by its nature untameable, it creates a space, in which the patient can address this force by speaking of the symptom that organises their suffering. The patient is invited by the analyst to produce their own unconscious knowledge instead of asking for the knowledge of the analyst. An analysis is possible, if and only if such a decision is made and the patient assumes responsibility for this knowledge. The very existence of the unconscious depends on an ethical decision.
If it is the patient who deciphers the symptom and reaches its truth, it also has to be posed that the truth, in psychoanalysis, has nothing to do with the accuracy of a narration or the correspondence between thought and thing. The truth emerges when speech and its meaning fall apart, because something that is impossible to say finds a place in speech, through speech.
If psychoanalysis receives this truth as a fortuitous event in therapy, by no means does it intend to silence the patient. On the contrary, the patient has to speak about what cannot be said. The truth that, from the point of view of meaning, dooms speech to failure is precisely what may make it possible for the patient to hear what they say in an unprecedented and original way that can have an impact on their lives.
However, psychoanalysis does not feed the expectation of a symptom-free life. Far from ignoring the importance that alleviation of psychical pain has for the person who suffers, it nevertheless opposes the ideal of an existence governed by the moralistic imperative to live “as one wants” or “as one should”. The symptom is not external to speaking beings; it is not a burden that unhappy and avoidable circumstances have forced on them, an obstacle to an experience of unbridled enjoyment, which would become accessible if they dispensed with it. The symptom is the very form of their existence.
If psychoanalysis encourages the patient to pursue truth and not give up on their desire, it also is aware of the limitations of the latter: the speaking being will not ever be able to say what the object of their desire is. Instead of promising fulfilment, psychoanalysis aims at the acquisition of some freedom in relation to the core of every form the symptom can take. In an analysis the assumption of the human condition and its constraints is what is at stake.