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Zusman, W. (1998). The Conversation: Psychic Reality, Neutrality, and Reaction Formation. Psychoanal. Inq., 18(2):251-256.

(1998). Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 18(2):251-256

The Conversation: Psychic Reality, Neutrality, and Reaction Formation

Waldemar Zusman, M.D.

Francis Ford Coppola's classic film The Conversation (1974) shows how Freud's fundamental concept of neutrality may be transformed into a defensive characterological system. It also reveals the great difficulties in distinguishing psychic reality and external reality, always intermingled in our daily life in different proportions. For Harry Caul, the main character played by Gene Hackman, that differentiation is impossible. Almost like an exaggeratedly “blank screen” classical psychoanalyst, Harry Caul, a professional spy, wants to cope with his tasks without getting emotionally involved with the content of the investigations. The spectator identified with Caul's struggle also must deal with those conflicts.

Soon after the beginning of the movie, he has a quarrel with one of his assistants who wanted to be informed about the meaning of the dialogues he has just recorded. Harry gets very irritated. “It's natural human curiosity,” says the assistant. But Harry doesn't retreat from his alleged neutral position and ends up losing his collaborator. One becomes convinced through the story narrated by Coppola that Harry's neutrality is nothing but a reaction formation. He wants to keep himself far from his emotional life, especially from a remote oedipal traumatic episode that he only refers to in his only dream in the movie.

As a spy, Harry is considered the best in the business. His work is highly praised by his colleagues and he feels very proud of this.

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