Psychic Frictions: On Donald Moss’s “Psychoanalysis in a Plague Year” and Sharon Kivland’s “Abécédaire”

By Ed LukerJanuary 19, 2023

Psychic Frictions: On Donald Moss’s “Psychoanalysis in a Plague Year” and Sharon Kivland’s “Abécédaire”

Psychoanalysis in a Plague Year by Donald Moss
Abécédaire by Sharon Kivland

DONALD MOSS, a practicing psychoanalyst in New York City for over 40 years, recorded the words of his analysands in their online sessions over the course of one year of COVID-time. Whatever they shared with him — from the banal to the terrifying — became the aesthetic organizing principles of his new book, Psychoanalysis in a Plague Year (2022). Rather than an academic study that examines “unprecedented” times of COVID-time via theory, he arranged one remembered phrase from each of his patients’ sessions into a text. Each text stands as a record of that undated day across a total of 189 entries. By exploring what it means to trust an analyst to help one understand oneself, the book calls into question the authority upon which psychoanalysis depends — as well as our shared capacities to listen to and understand each other.

Across the texts that make up Psychoanalysis in a Plague Year, the rearranged and recalled utterances, presented in their sparkly new frames, appear as if they were poems: “I can’t stand the word ‘love.’” “You’re too much of a communist to get this.” “Eight hours of Twitter since yesterday’s session.” Certainly, the reader is asked to consider what this recontextualization from the clinic to the page might tell us about psychoanalysis more generally.

In Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), he wrote: “Writing was in its origin the voice of an absent person”; Moss elevates this absence to the level of style. All voices are unnamed. In the texts, Moss weaves a polyphony of absence into a kind of first-person plural voice. Here is “Day 123”:

There’s no evading scorn.
There’s online access on the boat.
No one ever spoke in my family.
Do you have tips for me?
I enjoy telling you about people.
Do you think I’m depressed?
We have so much on the table.
She’s dumping shit on my head.
I need somebody with experience.

Each line fights for space, straining to be understood while clinging to the context from which it has been removed. In a manner comparable to the distance of the online session, it is this lack of proper nouns, locations, and contextual referents that make this entry representative of each of the 189 entries.

While reading these texts that appear as a series of non sequiturs, one cannot help but construct each line into a singular voice. The reader knows that context is being withheld; attempts to read the texts as belonging to a singular voice cannot cohere. But from within these formal constraints, the project generates new frictions.

Psychoanalysis in a Plague Year makes conspicuous the psychic frictions that appear in the privacy of the analytic relationship. It is through the sheer extent of what is unavailable to the reader that the texts gesture toward the limits of understanding: “Maybe there was a little bit of terror.” What terror? In response to what? For whom? For how long? The work of the analyst is built around access to context, a capacity to listen, and the possibility of asking further questions.

By giving the reader access to these private utterances, Moss’s book makes manifest how the supposed authority of the analyst is not based on any kind of superior intelligence, but that the analyst, too, is contending with what they don’t know. In this new space for contemplation and meaning-creation, away from the supposed mastery and authority of the analyst, Moss’s book partially reveals the limits of this work of transference. It does so by recording the excesses, the surplus that Moss’s daily practice confronts. At these limits, Moss shows how precarious the task of understanding another person can be, especially when it relates to the way people make meaning. And, by doing so, he is repositioning the work of understanding as having to first contend with the reality of not knowing.

In the sharing of a substantial volume of textual matter, Moss has playfully destabilized the analytic session and elevated the things analysands say into an aesthetic frame. This creates a fascinating dialectical tension between everyday speech and their aesthetic recombinations on the page.

While this aesthetic work produces something that can appear, at first glance, boring or even embarrassing, its value is precisely in how it reveals the shared existence of psychic frictions: errors, fault lines, and pressure points of late modernity. In its demonstration of these psychic frictions, elevated into a poetic framework, Moss’s work is an active picture of the intense pressure that shapes our psyches, even in a world where “[t]here’s online access on the boat.”

Within laughter there is catharsis, and from within the banality of private expression — “I feel cared for in restaurants” — the constancy of the mind’s neurotic activity is revealed. By elevating the random things we say into the splendor of the poetic field, Moss’s project foregrounds the ridiculousness at the heart of the whole psychoanalytic endeavor.


Another intellectual diary — written in 50-minute sessions, roughly five days a week, across 257 days — is Sharon Kivland’s Abécédaire, published this year with Moist Books, which mirrors the psychoanalytic process as well as the diaristic practice of Moss. The author, an artist and writer based in Brittany, France, has worked on two former books that integrate psychoanalytic methods with an aesthetic practice: A Case of Hysteria (1999) and her Freud on Holiday series, of which it could be argued this latest book is a derivation.

The bearded Austrian father of psychoanalysis appears in a reproduction of a photo with his daughter, Anna, in the opening pages of Kivland’s book. On the subsequent page, Kivland explains how she would often present the photo of Freud on holiday at talks, saying that it was her with her father, before showing a photo of herself as a child on holiday with her own father, a clean-shaven, handsome man, with a cigarette in his mouth. Subverting patriarchal inheritance, on the next page is written: “Anna, my sister.” Family is inescapable; all fathers are fathers. Sisterhood still trumps the biological family.

Abécédaire takes all sorts of poetic license. Named after a reading aid that helps French children become literate, the title stands as a joke about the kinds of reading that cannot be taught. From the epigraph, the reader is further warned against taking the book as an academic exercise. “The many errors in this book are solely those of its author,” it reads, with an attendant list of errors attached: “misreading, misinterpretation, mistranslation, and misremembering,” the particle “mis-” inferring the feminine character of these errors.

Through associative analysis and fictive invention, Kivland interweaves Walter Benjaminian feminist readings with observations of various elements of European intellectual history with first-person narrative reflections and oblique personal tales, taking in objects, artifacts, and historical moments as broad as the work of E. T. A. Hoffmann, the correspondences of Freud and Sándor Ferenczi, and summaries of the work of poets Rosemarie Waldrop and Angela Carter. Wielding these many weapons, this is an Arcades Project (Benjamin’s lifework — a history of the development of Paris and modernity — through textual fragments on its shopping arcades and cultural history) fashioned from attentive listening and reconstruction — the kind one does in fitting rooms, corridors, and restaurant queues.

Her style is as punchy as it is beautiful: “Down to the marrow, the soft spongy tissue. I was tender to the bone.” In its diaristic composition, what Abécédaire shares with Moss’s book is the use of recomposition to shift psychic material into new contexts. With an added narrative dimension, what makes Kivland’s diaristic entries distinct from Moss’s is the clear engagement with history. The reader is told of young women trapped in dancing frenzies, rebellious maids gently washing their bloodied murder utensils, and “the tangle of the plans of seduction.” Kivland’s texts work through a circling choir, or gang, of maligned feminine figures, amplifying their unruly nature.

Standing against the wholesale rejection of psychoanalysis in parts of the women’s movement of the 1970s, Juliet Mitchell wrote in the introduction to her Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974): “I am interested not in what Freud did, but in what we can get from him.” Kivland’s book could be read as taking this statement quite literally, directly addressing the material histories of the discipline of psychoanalysis by focusing on Freud’s own family.

One of the book’s repeat figures is Freud’s daughter: Anna Freud, or “Ann F.” To give just one example of how this engagement with the feminine in psychoanalysis emerges, in entry XVII, one of Anna Freud’s male patients stresses over multiple sessions about the arrival of his newborn baby, while Anna sits and patiently knits. One day, he bursts out into an accusation that she is inattentive, knitting and not listening, at which point “Anna gave him the blanket she had been making for the infant” — the labor of the feminine stands as the act of undoing male hubris and its attendant fears of being ignored.

In its combination of historical investigation with fictive invention, Abécédaire is reminiscent of Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019), consciously using storytelling as a way of giving the focus to people or things usually discarded from matters of “history” proper. Narrative re-enchants the details, and so Kivland’s book imagines and recalls the daughters and wives of important men, the lives of working women, in the shadows: dancers, maids, and genius chess-playing aristocrats who devote their lives to pleasure rather than bearing children. At times, the book engages with the most frantic and free expressions of femininity, removing these psychic frictions from the pathologizing gaze of male authority. Often these acts are explored through theatrical spaces, such as the stage or the screen, because it is in performance that femininity becomes freed from the logic of the clinic.

Kivland follows explorations of the life of “Anna F.” with passages on “Anna K.,” “Ann Q.” “Ariana R.,” “Aimée,” and a whole litany of feminine first names, where the patriarchal identification of surnames has been suppressed. If Moss’s book cuts utterance out of history, Kivland’s book bears the half-severed traces of patriarchal authority and familial inheritance, examining the frictions in social relations as they compose lifespans and define epochs.

Cataloging all of these objects would be a sizable endeavor. The book itself shifts seamlessly from discussions of bisexuality in plant reproduction to accounts of the details on the rugs on Freud’s couch to close readings of lines of poetry, or descriptions of the poet H.D.’s facial muscles, to detailed accounts of weaving processes, how the harnesses and heddles “go up and down, in and out, incessantly pricking and pumping.” The perfect metaphorical account of Kivland’s style (inferring the word’s etymological root with needles and knives), the stylus of Kivland’s nib is one that absorbs ink, picks through threads and thought, provoking with little dashes and pricks: “She said there were threads between people, spider webs, the threads of desire, tugging at extreme attention.”

In The Book of Memory (1990), Mary Carruthers gives a conceptual account of memory in medieval textual culture. Before the existence of the printing press, she argues, a text was often seen among readers as a Platonic form whose spirit was best transmitted by interpretation, rather than mere copying. Acts of recollection that took poetic license with previous versions of a text were often praised for their use of invention and creativity. This distinction is a useful way of thinking about the many merits of Kivland’s engagements with textual authority.

Both Moss and Kivland utilize the practices of fiction to create space for speculation, as a way of revealing certain psychic tensions. While recollection is undertaken in the act of making new in Abécédaire, this is not just a monastic process that Kivland is undertaking. Her heretical invention is produced by acts of antipatriarchal subversion: screwing around inside the library, cutting parts out of the canon of psychoanalysis, sticking them elsewhere, getting all the details wrong on purpose, causing mischief in a way that makes self-important men very cross. Mockery as style becomes a way of loving men by loving women more, a practice that undermines patriarchal seriousness and undoes the need for vengeance. Kivland’s practice laughs at the father, which is a kind of love too.


Ed Luker is a writer, poet, and cultural critic based in London. He is currently working on a novel and a play.

LARB Contributor

Ed Luker is a writer, poet, and cultural critic based in London. His writing has recently appeared in Frieze, Plinth, Elephant Magazine, and Jacobin. He has published two collections of poetry and prose: Heavy Waters (the87press, 2019) and Other Life (Broken Sleep Books, 2021). He is currently working on a novel, a play, and a third book of poems.


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