The Couch and the Lamp

By Emma LieberApril 17, 2020

The Couch and the Lamp
When I woke up yesterday, a lamp caught on fire. It was early morning; I was up just a few minutes before my first Zoom meeting of the day and was turning on the lights in my living room while the coffee maker did its work. The one by the couch was the last one I approached; it burst into flames as soon I flipped the switch. They were huge, quickly engulfing the lampshade. Frozen, as I often am in the face of intense heat, I screamed for my partner sleeping in the other room. He bounded out of the bedroom, sensibly grabbed a pillow sitting on the couch, and stamped out the flames. One of his virtues is a disinclination for comfort in all its forms. This means that he is more attentive than I am to material, both inside and out: more prepared for its dangers, more open to its possibilities.

The crisis was over; he went back to sleep; I sat down to my meeting. Afterwards, I cleaned up the wreckage, moved the charred lamp into a corner to wait until the lifting of restrictions would allow me to bring it to the hardware store, and put a different lamp in its place. The only evidence that remained of the destruction was some ash that I couldn’t get out of a blanket that had been near the flames. The blanket was knit long ago by my late grandmother, an agoraphobe who never left the house, and it is now set on the floor to demarcate the space where my son likes to lounge with the various accoutrements that keep him occupied — Narnia books, a coin collection, index cards for jotting down ideas and making plans. This is what he calls his “nook”: a safe space carved out just for him in his mother’s home.

It was only hours later that I realized that I should have expected the fire. Weeks before, as reports about the death toll in China were becoming increasingly alarming, I had smelled something burning in the house and eventually realized it was coming from the lamp, whose socket was hot to the touch. I had turned it off immediately and headed out to work, figuring I would deal with it later. I don’t like domestic tasks, or the insistences of the home: the ways in which the material that surrounds us and for which we are responsible persists in breaking down. It never stops not working. I have a way of willfully ignoring this. Thus, by the time I had gotten home from work that day, I had forgotten all about the ominous scent.

Like almost everyone else at this point, I now am hardly leaving my home. I have meetings and teach my university classes over Zoom; I speak with my psychoanalytic patients on the phone, with my headphones in. During these sessions, frequently, I lie down on the couch, in the same position my patients take when they come to my office, or that I take when I go to my own analyst. There is something here about what happens to the psychoanalytic dyad — which relies, for better or worse, on an inherent hierarchy, you on the couch, me in a chair, you speaking, me listening, even though the players shift, and analysands become analysts, as I did, and analysts continue to have analysts, as I do — when we are all facing the same threat. One of an analysand’s quintessential assumptions (I know this all too well from my own analysis as much as from my work with patients) is that the analyst is immune to the pains and urgencies from which I suffer, and that she knows how I might become immune as well. There may be a leveling effect to our current position. And yet, when my kids hear anyone utter the contemporary banality — “we’re all in this together” — they balk. “We are not together at all,” they protest. “We’re all separate.”

This is the paradox of viral logic: everyone submitted to the same conditions, alone. Perhaps the virus makes clear what we’re all operating under anyway. This afternoon in my “Psychoanalysis and Literature” class, by way of discussing Daniel Paul Schreber (a German judge who wrote a beautiful history of his psychosis entitled Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, a document later analyzed by both Freud and Lacan), we talked about language as a virus. It comes from outside; it is not proper to us; it comes to inhabit us, as hosts, but it is never natural to us. It is a parasite on our bodies, a prosthetic, a technical form. Most of us are able to forget that language is a virus; this is a mistake, though it is frequently a fortunate one. The psychotic can’t forget the viral status of language. Instead, she experiences it as perpetually coming from the outside, as dangerously alien. This is what happens in some forms of paranoid psychosis, when everyday objects — lamps, coffeemakers, headphones — seem to possess a dangerous agency. But in the case of language, such suspicions are well founded. To be acutely aware of one’s submission to this alien body so close to home can be very isolating.


This isn’t to say that we’re all now living in a collective psychosis. Rather that, as in psychosis, the device has been bared. We can no longer ignore the technologies of our mediation, or the dangers of the social field. (If we really think that Zoom meetings and phone calls and viral memes can shield us from what is happening, we are precisely missing the point.)  At the same time we can no longer escape our domestic disturbances, if we ever could. Why did I allow myself to forget about the lamp? Why did we ever think the threat wouldn’t get to us? That the things that occupy us in the privacy of our homes couldn’t be contaminated or reduced to ash? Psychoanalysis was invented as a way of accounting for the symptoms that cohere around — are material expressions of — our sense of primordial danger, and that allow us to forget about it, for a time. We might take a kind of comfort in our symptoms — they are so familiar, so domesticating — but ultimately we suffer from the ways they screen what is at stake. And what is at stake is not only danger but also desire: the passions that are the other side of what we fear, and that inevitably register our mortality. You might just burn to the ground. Psychoanalytic cure, if there is such a thing, involves coming to recognize that the field of desire and its dangers is level, that we are all subject to it, and that it is precisely by registering our shared vulnerability that we might come to suffer less, or at least differently. If psychoanalysis has anything to offer right now — and in truth, at the moment, this is very little — it is that it has always insisted on precisely what we are now coming to understand: no one is immune.


Emma Lieber, PhD, is a literary scholar and practicing psychoanalyst in New York.

LARB Contributor

Emma Lieber, PhD, is a literary scholar and practicing psychoanalyst in New York.  Her articles and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Point MagazineNew England ReviewThe Massachusetts Review, Slavic ReviewSlavic and East European JournalComparative Literature StudiesDostoevsky StudiesNabokov Studies Journal, and The Candidate Journal.  Her current book project examines the Russian novel from a Lacanian perspective.


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