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Schwartz, A. (1953). The Esthetics of Psychoanalysis. Am. Imago, 10(4):323-343.

(1953). American Imago, 10(4):323-343

The Esthetics of Psychoanalysis

Alvin Schwartz

“… I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words.”

As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner


It is not a talent for insight that distinguishes the teacher of ethics, but a talent for attentiveness which enables him to guide the development of what only becomes insight at the moment of joint illumination. This is the meaning of Socratic ignorance. The pupil can only learn from the teacher when the teacher simultaneously learns from the pupil.


Ethical teaching begins with mere presuppositions about meaning. As in the psychoanalytic “free association”, it employs given words as feelers and then waits to see what encrustations of meaning they will acquire. Thus when one says “no” to a small child, the child reacts by apparently violating the injunction. That is, he seeks to continue in the forbidden act. But this is a struggle for meaning rather than an act of defiance. The child stakes himself utterly in his exploration at every possible point of the limits of the “no”. And it is required of the teacher or parent not to inhibit this “working through”, but to guide it so that the word is shaped mutually and then may truly be spoken.

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