On the Couch is an extraordinary coffee table book for anyone interested in “recumbency” and how the couch became the icon of psychoanalysis.
On the Couch: A Repressed History of the Analytic Couch from Plato to Freud by Nathan Kravis, MIT Press, 224 pp., $29.95.
By Helen Epstein
When Nathan Kravis was a young psychiatrist and psychoanalytic candidate in New York City 25 years ago, he took the subway to his analyst’s office four times a week to lie on his couch and free associate. Waiting for a train on the subway platforms in the spring, he often saw “huge, glossy posters with the image of an analytic couch” with the text — in English and Spanish — “Some people find the same peace of mind sitting in a pew.” The advertiser was the Catholic Archdiocese of New York; its message was “Come Home at Easter.”
Why, he wondered, “was the Church so confident that subway riders would easily decode the image in front of them, and immediately understand the implied choice between couch and pew?” That, according to Kravis, was the inspiration for this richly illustrated, beautiful published volume on the history and significance of “recumbent speech.” It is clearly a labor of love that dips into psychoanalytic writings as well as art history, social history, furniture history, fashion history, the history of medicine as well as fashion and interior design.
I heard Kravis speak at a reading and was expecting to read a comparative history of couch vs. pew; lying down vs. sitting up or kneeling; secular vs. religious confession; free association vs. prayer; and the furnishings and circumstances assigned to each. But that was not what intrigued Kravis. He wanted to write about the evolution of the “very odd” situation of “a supine person speaking to an unseen seated one.” Although generations of readers of the New Yorker and other 20th century magazines view the couch as iconic, Kravis points to a dearth of psychoanalytic literature on the subject: ergo his subtitle.
On the Couch reads like a slim art exhibit catalogue. Of the 224 pages, about 100 are illustrations and 30 are devoted to reference notes. The text is divided into nine brief essays on overlapping themes, rather than a sustained narrative.
Why is the Couch Used in Psychoanalysis? opens the book and concludes that “situating the analytic couch within the social history of recumbent posture offers the only way to construct a coherent narrative of its use in psychoanalysis.”
The social history of recumbent posture is, of course, a huge subject; Kravis very briefly traces the origins of the bed and sofa (the oldest known beds go back 70,000 years, he writes). He defines reclining as a position midway between sitting and lying prone and explores its significance in antiquity — at the Greek symposium and the Roman convivium, for example. Reclining at meals was, at first, a sign of status and power, a mark of luxury, leisure, and pleasure. But, as Kravis writes, it was later widely adopted by ordinary men and women.
Depictions of recumbency during meals and ceremonial occasions appear on many funerary urns, wall paintings, pottery, and friezes. The author also notes, in passing, representations of sitting, reclining, and lying prone in religious iconography. He includes a 15th century painting of St. Ursula dreaming and alludes to Greek sleep chambers for the express purpose of dream interpretation, He leaves it to the reader to investgate further. Of the Christian iconography, my favorite image is one of the earliest surviving depictions of the Last Supper, a Ravenna mosaic dated circa 500.
We then catapult into the 18th century. “The Evolution of the Couch and the Rise of the Sofa” traces the evolution of furniture-to-recline-on from bed to daybed to chaise-longue to invalid chair to modern couch, with well-chosen illustrations of their design. Then, voilà, we are in the 19th century with a chapter titled “Comfort, Recumbence, Interiority, and Transgression,” with Jacques-Louis David’s famous portrait of Madame Récamier leading the way.
At this point even the most casual reader would feel the need for a more informed, in-depth narrator. The text is too superficial and too unfocused, raising many questions but leaving them unexplored, let alone explained. Although artistic representations of transgression while reclining have been around since antiquity (Kravis belatedly includes images from Roman murals circa the first century CE), it’s in 19th century portraiture that reclining naked women leave the realm of mythology (e.g. The Sleeping Venus) and enter mainstream painting and photography. Kravis does not discuss what the “male gaze” or changes in the art market or the long, parallel history of pornographic representation of women in similarly “transgressive postures” have to do with the cultural change. When he writes “The figure of the reclining woman reader, often highly sexualized, offers clues to understanding what recumbent speech represents: the affirmation in the presence of another of having a mind of one’s own,” I lost confidence in his reliability. The images Kravis selected speak far more eloquently and authoritatively than his text — in fact, they sometimes contradict it.
“The Medicalization of Comfort” juxtaposes more evocative and transgressive portraits of reclining women (Balthus and Bellocq) with technical drawings and photographs of patients in hospitals and sanatoria. Kravis’s aim is illustrate how “with the medicalization of comfort, recumbent posture became part of the technology of healing.”
The author notes in passing that in The Magic Mountain Thomas Mann describes in detail the “schlafsofa” that was a fixture of sanatoria throughout the world at the time. His aside made me wish he had quoted the passages in the novel as well as found other literary descriptions pertinent to his subject.
In “The Analyst’s Moral Interior,” Kravis contrasts Freud’s consulting room and couch with contemporary analogues. Again, all the images are well-chosen and interesting; the text, however, is often in need of an editor. Here’s some of his most effective prose:
Austerity in office décor among some contemporary analysts reflects a distancing from Freud’s exuberantly self-revelatory consultation-room motifs. By today’s standards, Freud’s professional interior seems gregarious and loquacious. With his furnishings and antiquities representing, enacting, and inculcating an archaeological truth quest (if also a topographically driven attitude toward analytic work), Freud stands in contrast to today’s more abstemious analysts, whose embrace of anonymity practiced so imperfectly by the master, now sometimes shades into an enactment of self-erasure and a denial of subjectivity.
The ambitious scope and richness of Kravis’ research often overwhelm the author. He footnotes, but does not summarize, the work of experts in the many fields he dips into. He lacks the writing skills to contextualize their findings. Still, On the Couch offers the reader an opportunity to contemplate over 150 lush and fascinating images from classical times to the 20th century. It’s an extraordinary coffee table book for anyone interested in “recumbency” and how the couch became the icon of psychoanalysis.
Helen Epstein is the author of The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma and nine other books of non-fiction including Children of the Holocaust, all available at Plunkett Lake Press. She has been an Arts Fuse reviewer since 2010.