At one time I would have said that Woody Allen and psychoanalysis went together like peanut butter and jelly-or, maybe, coffee and cream. But then he got kind of creepy, and -at least for me-the affair was over. Well, last night I saw his latest movie, "Midnight in Paris," and it was love all over again. For those of you who haven't heard,"Midnight..." is about a young, nostalgia obsessed writer who yearns to return to the Paris of the 1920's. And then, magically, he gets his wish to go back in time. I think it's a minor masterpiece.
Now as it happens, I myself have been thinking a lot about the human wish to go back in time, instead of forward. Even more precisely, I've been thinking about my own wish to go back in time, instead of forward. (Please refer to my "Riddle of the Sphinx" entry about turning 60 for additional context). Sometimes it's hard to know which direction is which, n'est-ce pas? And sometimes knowing doesn't make a difference.
Psychoanalysts have a name for the mental tendency to turn backward that afflicts us all. It's called "regression." Regression can be a source of joy, as when you can let yourself go and have fun like you did as a child. That's adaptive regression, or what we call "regression in the service of the ego." But regression can also be a source of misery, diverting one's best energies toward an impossible (and typically unconscious) quest to return to an earlier time, where old wrongs can be righted, traumas prevented, and all is right with the world. This is maladaptive regression, for individuals and for societies. Did somebody say "Tea Party?" (Please refer to my "Is It Time for a New Social Contract" entry for additional context).
When it comes to the psychoanalytic treatment of humans burdened with maladaptive regression, the name of the game is something we call "working through." Basically, this means coming to recognize one's own wishes to turn the clock back, and reconnect with the self that is trying so desperately to turn it. Often, that self is our best and truest one. Given the right opportunity, that self can come out of hiding and find a home in the present. Or, at least, try.
And that, from my perspective, is what Woody's movie is all about. A love letter to Paris? Sure. But I think it's also a love letter to psychoanalysis as it exists in the ideal. And a profound, beautiful, wise and funny creation from a comedian who knew he could make a great movie, and finally did. I feel like we're friends again.