Where art meets analysis

A new display of work by Louise Bourgeois provokes at the Freud Museum.

In some ways, the bringing together of Sigmund Freud and Louise Bourgeois is an unusual one. Freud had little interest in art and Bourgeois felt that Freud “did nothing for the artists”. However, as the curator of The Return of Repressed, Phillip Larrat-Smith, notes, “more than any other artist of the 20th century, Louise Bourgeois produced a body of work that consistently and profoundly engaged with psychoanalytic theory and practice”. Thus, in the context of Freud’s house, tucked away in a quiet Hampstead street, her work takes on a new significance.

The sheer magnitude of Bourgeois’ output - the endless doodles and lists, the range of processes she employed from stitch to sculpture - suggests an inescapable compulsion to purge herself of troubling thoughts and anxieties. In I am Afraid (2009) she lists her fears: "I am afraid of silence, I am afraid of the dark, I am afraid to fall down, I am afraid of insomnia, I am afraid of emptiness." Indeed, despite criticising psychoanalysis, Bourgeois undertook treatment for more than ten years. First, with Leonard Crammer in 1951, the year her father died, and later with Dr Henry Lowenfield, a disciple of Freud’s.

Bourgeois’ work presents a direct link between creative process and catharsis. Certainly, many of her pieces can be seen as physical embodiments of psychological states - maternal identifications can be seen in her womb-like cages, her many-breasted figures, the towering arachnid that looms over Freud’s back lawn. Then there are her dismembered bodies: Knife Figure (2003) sees a cloth body, devoid of head and missing a leg lying beneath a rusting kitchen knife, whose ominous shadow splits the doll-like mannequin down the centre. These themes are often revisited. “To be an artist involves suffering,” Bourgeois observed, “That’s why [they] repeat themselves- because they have no access to a cure.”

In a collection of previously unpublished writings, unearthed during the preparations for her 2007 retrospective at Tate Modern, Bourgeois constantly analyses her dreams, emotions and anxieties, in particular her conflicted feelings about being simultaneously a creative artist, a mother and a wife: “I do not deserve to be so happy” reads a playing card.

Freud’s study, a long, dark room which doubles as a library and front room, is crammed with dark furniture, heavy furnishing, Persian rugs, an array of books and a vast and expansive collection of Chinese, Greek and Roman artefacts. Bourgeois describes the room as “a pitiful place”. In her 1989 essay "Freud’s Toys", she dismisses Freud’s immense collection as a “pastime”: “the artefact is a manufactured object, a work of art is a language”. Suspended provocatively above his couch is her 1968 Janus Fleuri, whose drooping double-heads display unmistakable phallic symbolism. Like an enormous, insistent fly, the sculpture appears as a challenge from Bourgeois: “I simply want to know what Freud and his treatment can do, have tried to do, are expected to do,  might do, might fail to do, or were unable to do for the artists here and now”. The piece was one of her favourites.

On the landing, we see a softer side to Bourgeois’ work. The Dangerous Obsession's crouched fabric figure cradles a red glass sphere, her maternal stance and blue and white head scarf reminiscent of the Virgin Mary. There is a fragility to this piece, a vulnerability in the fragile glass orb,yet its ominous title and the aggressive red of the glass is suggestive of something darker. Here, perhaps, lies the crux of her work: the unrelenting search for self-knowledge consistently throws up conflicts. In this wide-ranging collection aggression sits alongside compassion, tenderness verges on danger, strength strives to overcome vulnerability. In a steel cage a double-sided flannel torso, on one side a pregnant female, the other a flacid male, hangs from a hook like a carcass in an abbatoir. Bourgeois described this suspension as a "state of ambivalence and doubt".

Overall,The Return of the Repressed is a thought-provoking exploration into Bourgeois’ production process inviting the viewer to delve deeper below the surface of her often disturbing sculptures.

The Return of the Repressed will be on display at the Freud Museum until 27 May.

Louise Bourgeois THE DANGEROUS OBSESSION, 2003 Fabric, glass, stainless steel and wood 143.5 x 61 x 50.8 cm. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth and Cheim & Read Photo: Christopher Burke, (c) Louise Bourgeois Trust
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Why do we talk to ourselves? A new book investigates the voices in our heads

The Voices Within by Charles Fernyhough is an ear-opening book – and an important corrective to myths about schizophrenia, the brain and even our self of sense.

You’re going to be late for that meeting; you haven’t even left the house. But where’s your wallet? It’s not in your pocket, it’s not in your bag – come on, come on, you’ve got to find it. Where on Earth could it be? If you’re like me, that “come on, come on” will be sounding vividly in your head as you stomp from room to room. You’re issuing a silent instruction to yourself. But how does this inner voice really work? What purpose does it serve? Does everyone hear something similar? These are some of the questions that Charles Fernyhough sets out to investigate in The Voices Within.

Fernyhough is an interesting fellow. A professor at Durham University, he began his career in developmental psychology, with a focus on social, emotional and cognitive development. But in recent years he has shifted his attention to the study of psychosis – particularly the phenomenon of voice-hearing, in which the inner voice is not the speaker’s own, helpfully assisting in the search for a lost wallet, but seemingly external, often frightening, dismissive or commanding.

People who experience this are often simply labelled “schizophrenic” – a “highly misunderstood term”, Fernyhough writes. The word, coined in 1908 by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, invokes alarm: “The sound of its sibilant label triggers fear and prejudice.” One of the aims of this book is to question that prejudice and to consider other ways of thinking about these “external” voices, setting them on a continuum with the dialogue we all conduct with ourselves.

But it is more than merely science that informs the author’s attention to how the sound of a word can influence its effect on its hearers. Fernyhough is also a novelist and not a little of this book is concerned
with another expression of the inner voice – the creation and consumption of fiction. When Fernyhough asked 1,500 people whether they heard the voices of fictional characters in their heads, 80 per cent said that they did; one in seven “said that those voices were as vivid as hearing an actual person speaking”. Many novelists report the experience of building their characters as being observational as much as it is creative. Fernyhough quotes David Mitchell describing his occupation as a kind of “controlled personality disorder . . . To make it work, you have to concentrate on the voices and get them talking to each other.” Fernyhough’s fine description of how it feels to read fiction is an expert blend of the scientific and artistic:

The voices we encounter in a novel can express our desires, threaten our safety, challenge our morals and speak of what cannot be said. They take us into a place of expanded possibilities where we can try on other identities. Through their expert control of these fictional voices, novelists lead us into a controlled dissolution of the self, and then bring us back safely to who we are.

What happens when that dissolution of the self is not controlled? Fernyhough introduces us to Jay, who hears the voices in his head as having different accents, pitches and tones. There is Adam, who lives with a voice he knows as the Captain; the Captain is a hard taskmaster, ordering Adam around, berating him, letting him know who’s boss. And yet, while Adam struggles with the Captain, he doesn’t long for his disappearance. “It feels like you’ve got a mate looking out for you as well,” Adam says.

The Dutch psychiatrist Marius Romme is a pioneer of the Hearing Voices Movement, which aims to remove the stigma often attached to the phenomenon of voice-hearing and instead pays attention to the information (about childhood trauma, for example) that those voices bring to the surface. Fernyhough discusses this approach with sensitivity and warmth.

The trouble is, as the author demonstrates, that discovering what is going on in the individual’s brain isn’t simple. Although voices, as he writes, can give us clues to “the fragmentary constitution of an ordinary human self”, the nature of that self – how my self makes itself distinct from your self, whether the voices in my head “sound” different to the ones in yours – is one of the central problems of both philosophy and science. Fernyhough doesn’t skimp on the science when demonstrating the difficulties that arise from “self-reporting”: inner voices must, by necessity, always be described by the person experiencing them.

The book traces in detail (the footnotes are just as interesting as the text) the various attempts to pin down inner voices, whether those involve MRI scans or something called “Descriptive Experience Sampling” (DES), by which volunteers describe exactly what they are thinking when a beeper goes off in their ears. Yet there is still a fascinating gap between science and experience: it remains impossible to express what those voices really sound like to each person who hears them.

The voices within have always been with us and this is a book of history as well as one concerned with science and art. In centuries past, our ancestors seemed rather more certain of the source of the voices that rang inside them. Fernyhough doesn’t neglect those who knew that what they heard was the voice of God – or the gods.

His discussion of Margery Kempe, the 14th-century English mystic whose recounting of her spiritual life lays claim to being the first autobiography written in the language, is particularly sensitive. And he is careful of the retrospective “reductionist dishing-out of diagnoses” when it comes to figures such as Kempe, or Julian of Norwich, or Joan of Arc. His role as a scientist does not prevent him from recognising Kempe’s experience as what it must have been for her – “an inner conversation with a very special substance: the relationship between a woman and her God”. The brain’s conversation was once perceived as mystic. Even if that is no longer wholly the case, much mystery remains.

The Voices Within: the History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves by Charles Fernyhough is published by Profile Books/Wellcome Collection (319pp, £16.99)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad