Here is how Dann Gunn begins his book, Wool-Gathering, or How I Ended Analysis: “We are all going to end some day or night: the problem being that, unless we are religious believers, we have no idea what this means.” And on the next page:

I had one month left to go in analysis. But what did that mean? I had one month left to go. But would I get out of it alive, let alone more alive than before? Would I ever get to an end, let alone THE END?

Making such an explicit link between ending psychoanalytic treatment, which occasionally happens, and dying might seem overblown, but it is surprising how common a thread it is in the literature on the subject. I am not going to discuss this in detail, but I want to invoke it, to alert us to the echo of this other ending whenever we talk about the more prosaic one; in every end, that other one is lurking around the corner, in the shadows. Will we get out of it alive? Sometimes this gets reversed: Melanie Klein, for instance, tells us that properly finishing analysis requires mourning, and this in turn means paying attention to negativity, to hatred and destructiveness as it emerges directed at that most precious object, the analyst. In "On the Criteria for the Termination of a Psycho-Analysis," she writes:

Even if satisfactory results have been achieved, the termination of an analysis is bound to stir up painful feelings and revive early anxieties; it amounts to a state of mourning. When the loss represented by the end of the analysis has occurred, the patient still has to carry out by himself part of the work of mourning ... only if persecutory and depressive anxieties have been largely modified, can the patient carry out by himself the final part of the work of mourning, which again implies a testing of reality. 

What Klein means by a "testing of reality" has to do with accepting the reality of loss – the thing that was treasured has in fact gone and cannot be fantasized back into existence, even if it can now be recalled through memory. Indeed, acceptance of the impossibility of recreating the lost object is a necessary step on the way to mourning it and allowing it to rest in peace in memory; striving unrealistically for a return of the past always stirs up ghosts.

If we are left with echoes and residues, then what constitutes them? I am not convinced that the end of analysis is a totally dissolved experience; or rather, I think there is evidence that the reconciliation we get at the end of an analysis can be marked by idealization, but also by a transformation that is linked to gratitude. It makes me think about the question of what it is that touches us when an event is over and how that touch remains and repeats and perhaps becomes some kind of gesture that stands for something in the world. What kind of evidence?

Let us take Jacques Lacan, in the form of the film made about his legacy by Gérard Miller, Rendez-Vous Chez Lacan. One example is a very short passage (about sixteen minutes into the film) from an interview with Suzanne Hommel, who had been in analysis with Lacan. This passage has received some commentary from Lacanians, who tend to see it as an example of Lacan’s insistence on intervening at the level of the signifier; but whilst I can see that point, it is something else that I take away from it. The story is about a memory, unrecognised at first, or perhaps an association or fantasy, which keeps breaking in to Hommel’s life as a wake-up call – it literally wakes her every morning at five o’clock. Lacan, for one so fixed on language, has an unusual way of responding to it; yet something linguistic happens here, and something more as well.

Hommel [16:11]: One day, in a session, I was talking about a dream I had, and I said ‘I wake up every morning at 5 o’clock. At 5 o’clock the Gestapo came to get the Jews in their homes.’ Lacan leaped up from his chair, and came to me. He gently stroked my cheek. I understood ‘geste à peau’, skin gesture… [Interviewer: ‘He’d transformed ‘Gestapo’ into ‘geste à peau’?Such a tender gesture! It was extremely tender. That surprise, it did not diminish the pain but it did transform it. Forty years later, when I tell you about that gesture, I can still feel it on my cheek. It’s a gesture that was an appeal to humanity, or something like that.


Gérard Miller, Rendez-Vous Chez Lacan (2011). This film by about the French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan takes a look at his day-to-day life, through accounts from his patients, pupils, and close friends and family. Suzanne Hommel appears at 16:10. 


"Such a tender gesture!” This seems to me to be an undiminishable truth, whatever analytic boundaries it might have broken. It is in language and outside it at one and the same time; its significance is definitely linguistic – the signifier that causes terror has been ameliorated; the pain it causes has not gone, but it is changed, over-written by the caress, the “geste.” “It did not diminish the pain, but it did transform it.” Lacan sees the urgency here, he ‘leaps up’ from his chair and comes over to her, but his “geste” is extremely gentle; it is both immediate and soft, it goes exactly far enough without reinscribing the tortured experience that she has already had. “When I tell you about that gesture, I can still feel it on my cheek. It’s a gesture that was an appeal to humanity.” Forty years later she can still feel it; this is a touch that stays present, that does not fade, that is always, she implies, as fresh as the moment when it came into being.

We do not know more about this from the film, how exactly it affected Hommel, what difference it made to her memories of Nazi times, even whether her dreams stopped and she could sleep on. We do see, however, that in the film she is still deeply grateful for this moment, this “appeal to humanity”; she clearly regarded it as an ethical act that took hold of something pernicious – “Gestapo” – and humanised it. Forty years later it marks her in the present tense, she can still feel it; surely it is a ghost (the wind blows, the curtains ruffle, something caresses us), a benevolent one that reminds her of human contact, again of a form of love. His gift to her; how can one describe this as exhaustion, even if it turns out to have been the case that she no longer needed him as her analyst, that any further gifts were empty or unrequited? Which is to say, Hommel remains in thrall to Lacan, yet I would not want to use this as evidence of an incomplete analysis. It is possible, after all, that he really helped her sleep.

—Stephen Frosh  is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Centre for Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck College, University of London. This is an excerpt of a longer essay called "What We Are Left With" which appears in Psychosocial Imaginaries (2015).