Psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy in Dublin

I went to see the film “Calvary’ yesterday and a remarkable thing happened. As the credits rolled at the end of the movie, there was utter silence in the cinema. After a minute or two, a small number of people gathered their coats and turned on their phones and left. Many, like myself, stayed until the last credit rolled off the screen. It was a small tribute to a great film.

I do not want to spoil the film for anyone but if you have not yet seen it, go now. Do not pass ‘Go’, run. And see it again. I will, I will go again and I will bring others with me.

If I sound passionate about this, I am. This is a passionate movie. This is a movie about passion, the passion of a simple man.

This is the Passion re-told in the magnificent vibrancy of the green and golden west of Ireland. Bounded by the rolling waves of Sligo’s Atlantic shore, all the action takes place in the shadow of that colossal glacial artefact, Ben Bulben. It looms over each character’s anguish, as if to remind us that our time is a very short one indeed, in the glacial scheme of things. Surf and ride and fight all ye like, what does it matter in the end? As the movie demonstrates admirably, it’s not the ‘how much’ we suffer that matters but rather the ‘how’. Only the ‘how’.

The movie is paced over a week in the life of a singular, though simple, priest, played with exquisite poignancy by Brendan Gleeson. We learn quickly that this passionate priest has lived and loved and lost, that his has been a life marked by passions: for a woman, for the drink, for God.

His life has been abruptly threatened; he is to die next Sunday, a martyr to redeem a de-idealised Church. Over the next few days we observe the failure of these ideals for ourselves as each Commandment is challenged and found lacking in turn.

As analysts, particularly Lacanian analysts, we know that the subject is that point designated by the perspective of one’s Symbolic co-ordinates (family, peer group, culture). Undo those and what is left? The thin line between Real and Imaginary, usually bridged by identification and fantasy, is masterfully subverted in this movie. Our silence, our inarticulacy, was testimony to that.

Other audiences applauded, the body substituting a signified where no signifier emerged. For all there had been a shift at the level of meaning. A quilting point. ’Here endeth the lesson.’

The signifier, ‘Father’, reiterates throughout the movie with obstinate obduracy. There is a moment, a crystalline moment, when ‘Real Father’ confronts ‘Imaginary Father’ and that moment is a turning point in the movie. The signifier is not articulated but the moment is saturated with signification.

This is a movie about perspective.

It is the perspective offered by that Ben Bulben landscape, an ancient monument to the Earth’s power to move and create mountains, to act without compunction, egregiously.

It is the perspective of a life lived most passionately – childhood, parenthood, widowhood, priesthood – now at stake precisely because it has been a life constrained by ideals.

It is the challenging perspective of Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’. What is it we see: phallic splendour or the stain of the Das Ding, ego or lack? In his garden, His Excellency smells the roses and anticipates redemption by donation.

Above all it is the perspective of Lacan’s privation: that of “a hole in the real, where the object that lacks is either the phallus…in its symbolic dimension or the (priest) as symbolic substitute for the phallus… a lack of a symbolic object”. (1) In each encounter the priest is tried and taunted as representative of his failed Church. Is that all he is to be, a representation, the signifier ‘priest’? Is that really all he’s ‘good for’?

The act in which the film culminates is shocking, traumatic, disturbing. For this priest, it is an ethical act. It could even perhaps be called an act of com-passion. Not acting out of an ideal, out of any belief. Acting rather out of doubt and suffering, out of a resolute not-knowing, an ethical ignorance. It is a passing to the act, a submission to the ultimate ethical gesture. Not divine, only human.

When the lights came on, we were stunned, silenced. Like the boy’s abandoned painting, we were left with blank spaces, lacking and desirous. This registration of lack, a Symbolic registration, is worth more than all the Imaginary castigation and complaint of heretofore.

I must add that I did not know until now that the word ‘passion’ has its origins in the Latin word for ‘suffering’. It gives me cause to re-examine Lacan’s term ‘jouissance’, a term notoriously difficult to translate into English. I have discovered a new Symbolic co-ordinate, if you will. A fresh perspective.

(1) Grigg, R., “Lacan and Object Relations”, Analysis 2, Melbourne Centre for Psychoanalytic Research, Australia, 1990. more than all the Imaginary castigation and complaint that has marked contemporary discourse on belief in Ireland