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Stein, M.H. (1985). Irony in Psychoanalysis. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 33:35-57.

(1985). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 33:35-57

Irony in Psychoanalysis

Martin H. Stein, M.D.


Irony is a more important element of analysis than we generally recognize. First, verbal irony characterizes the discourse of certain patients who employ it as a defense, both adaptively and as a resistance, especially against the expression of intense affect associated with the transference. The frequent employment of irony reflects a significant character trait, an habitual mode of dealing with conflict. It is also a frequent manifestation of a particularly active self-critical faculty. Ironic employment of a "double audience" is also relevant to analytic technique.

Second, situational irony is inherent in many aspects of psychoanalysis, as a process and a point of view. It implies the acceptance of the inevitability of conflict, ambiguity and paradox, never quite capable of perfect resolution. It emphasizes critical examination of mixtures of motives of both analysand and analyst, and it requires perpetual questioning of what might otherwise be taken as accepted doctrine, including the principles of psychoanalysis per se. An ironic stance requires some degree of detachment in conjunction with deep commitment, itself an ironic circumstance.

Third, the capacity to understand and employ irony can be traced to childhood, relatively early in the course of development of speech and sphincter control; some of its early determinants are to be found in the anal phase of psychosexual development; it reflects as well the capacity to use certain early defenses and mechanisms originally described as characteristic of the dream work. Its later fate as a prominent feature of character is very much a matter of ego and superego development, including such components as intelligence, verbal

skills, the capacity for joking and for play, i.e., controlled regression. Sources of identification in the family and the culture are of obvious importance.

Finally, an understanding of irony has an important place in the theory of technique, especially with regard to transference and resistance. An ironic stance and understanding on the part of the analyst are valuable, even essential; but irony may become a questionable defense for him as well as for his patient.

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