World, Affectivity, Trauma : A Book Review

"Interpretation does not stand apart from the emotional relationship between patient and analyst; it is an inseparable and, to my mind, crucial dimension of that relationship."
-- Robert Stolorow, Ph.D

For almost five years, I was a member of Dr. Robert Stolorow's weekly supervision group for psychotherapists, psychologists, and psychoanalysts. As many clinicians know, Stolorow was one of the pioneers of intersubjectivity theory, which pretty much occupies center stage in the world of contemporary psychoanalysis.

Even though I'd been a licensed psychotherapist for many years when I joined Stolorow's group, I found soon enough that I would benefit greatly from his insights into the psychoanalytic process, his beliefs about the relational nature of good clinical work, and, especially, his views on the origins and treatment of trauma.

As I came to learn, Stolorow's interest in trauma was not merely professional: he often shared with members of the group his profound feelings of pain and heartbreak at the untimely death, some years earlier, of his beloved wife DeDe. In fact, as he's written about elsewhere, it was this shattering loss that propelled him into a traumatized state, and led to his exploration of trauma's causes and treatment.

Now, many years later, supported and encouraged in his work by his wife, Julia Schwartz, Stolorow has become, in my view and those of others, one of the country's pre-eminent thinkers on the subject of trauma.

Moreover, his writing on the subject now weaves together both analytic theory and philosophical inquiry. Hence, his recent book, World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2011).

In this short, trenchant book, Stolorow shows -- in the words of Richard Polt, Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Xavier University -- "how today's psychoanalysis can be deepened and transformed by an encounter with Heidegger's thought -- and vice versa."

Thus, in Stolorow's own words in the Introduction, his book is "intended as a contribution to both psychoanalysis and philosophy."

The fact that the book manages to accomplish this goal is due, in my opinion, to a number of factors: first, the depth of Stolorow's understanding of both current psychoanalytic theory and Martin Heidegger's existential, contexually-based philosophy.

Second, Stolorow's role as a kind of "psychological biographer" in detailing the salient points of Heidegger's passionate affair with his student, Hannah Arendt. He shows that Arendt "served as a sustaining emotional support and muse for Heidegger during the period of his greatest creativity." Moreover, that his relationship with her "was from its inception experienced as magically transforming his previously solitary intellectual explorations." And, finally, how the couple's eventual break-up and her "emotional withdrawal" from him contributed to "a psychological disaster... with lifelong consequences."

Here, Stolorow is both insightful and compassionate as he relates how poorly Heidegger -- despite his devotion to Hannah Arendt -- understood her inner conflicts and moods; how, in fact, he denied her own experience with and poignant descriptions of her deep depression. Like many serious thinkers, we learn, Heidegger had his blind spots, never more glaring than in his well-documented, lamentable attraction to Hitler and the Nazis. Even in this instance, however, as Stolorow maintains, Heidegger "seems to have understood as little of the actual reality of the Nazi movement as he did of his beloved Hannah."

However, as laudable and intriguing as these investigations into Heidegger's life and thought are, I believe the third and most compelling evidence of the book's persuasive blending of the analytical and the philosophical lies elsewhere: namely, it derives from Stolorow's honesty in describing his almost intolerable feelings of loss and desolation at the death of his wife.

For example, he relates vivid dreams and occurrences at professional conferences wherein his feeling of estrangement from others -- his acute sense of living in a different world than those who haven't suffered severe trauma -- becomes his primary way of experiencing life. The manner in which he weaves this perspective into an explication of aspects of Heidegger's concept of "Being -in-the-world" is both psychologically satisfying and intellectually compelling.

This painful, vividly described self-disclosure, with its wedding of personal experience and philosophical acuity, is not only the prime vehicle for the book's exploration of its themes. Intended or not, I believe it's actually the main reason for its existence.

For those interested in how Heidegger's existential philosophy can enrich psychoanalysis, or those alternatively intrigued by how contemporary psychoanalysis can deepen an understanding of Heidegger's thought, I can recommend World, Affectivity, Trauma without reservation. For both the professional clinician and the motivated general reader, it is a bracing, challenging and, ultimately, deeply rewarding work.