• Beam of Darkness

On Simplicity

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

In an episode of Black Adder Rowan Atkinson insults Baldric by accusing him of making complicated things seem simple. I remember as a teenager publicly repeating this insult only to find it creating an unintended chaos. The room was split, was this an insult or was it a compliment? I remember the confusion and my regret in using, what at the time, seemed like a pretty sure fire insult. Truly which is it? Is to reduce something's complexity the insult, and to find your way through the complexity to the simplicity perhaps the compliment? There is a seduction in complexity, a valorisation of it, a vanity in it too. As if complex means intelligent. That intelligence can be a phallic stick with which to beat yourself and others. Unsurprisingly, as a young man I was certainly enamoured by complexity. I can’t confess to have totally shaken it off or to have found my way through these illusions. I find at times I have equated something simple to mean easy, when it would seem the opposite is true. In the process of psychotherapy training, one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is learning to be a beginner. To learn how to begin is to learn how to start simply. To be simple is to undo the layers of our own complications.

In a public talk, Adam Philips described psychoanalysis as concerning itself with simple things. It takes an interest in the simple. Perhaps psychoanalysis is itself one of the simplest things. As a practice looked at from the outside it must seem very simple. What could be more simple than two people agreeing to meet in a room where one speaks and the other listens? Within this simple arrangement something specific begins to happen. Our modern culture of choice at the speed of light helps furthers the confusion of multiplicity as complexity, multiplicity as intelligence, valuable, rich. Does this not then make a thought of specificity as shallow? There is something radical in the psychotherapeutic offer of the specific, of the simple. For something to take time. For someone to speak and say anything and the other to listen. To do something simple, or to do something simply, does not mean it is a simple undertaking. To really talk and really listen is difficult. It is a difficult undertaking to carry out something properly and simply.

Da Vinci called simplicity the ultimate sophistication. Maybe this is because to be simple is to have to choose and be clear in that choice. To decide. So to choose is to exclude. But how does one exclude without a longing for what has been left out? Without a desire for what has been excluded? Perhaps this is the sophisticated move. I wonder if there is then something oedipal in simplicity? In this exclusion, in this choice, because there might be a worry to have it all? That we must include or be included in everything? Or at least 'have the option' (as people so often say). What does it mean to know that you can’t have it all? Furthermore that you do not need it. Maybe then you might know what you need and to know what you need could be difficult or too painful. Because we might find that we need people or a person and to need someone means to have to accept a relationship with all it’s complexities of love and hate. With all it’s feelings and vulnerabilities.

Chiefly because our pauper-speech must find strange terms to fit the strangeness of the thing; - Lucretius

Language too is an exclusionary process. A good analytic interpretation must necessarily leave a lot out. It must, in one sense, be simple; something a child might be able to hear. There is often talk in the literature of timing and dosage; of when to speak and at what level. My supervisor has been guiding me to simple speech. She notes that an interpretation that is complex or lengthy activates something cognitive. Of course in order to carry out something simply we cannot avoid complexity, we have to work our way through it. It is not about the reducing of complexity but a distilling of it. To speak simply can gather things up, it can speak to deeper recesses, to more ancient places.

Perhaps a simple interpretation, a piece of simple speech, is like music. The tone and rhythm carry, certain words are chosen and, in their choosing, there can be a grounding and gravity. With something simple spoken maybe only one or two words are heard. Maybe this is all we can ever really hear at any one time from the other before a muddle is made with the words. Here maybe the muddling of complexity and intelligence; of verbosity and fluency. To speak with clarity, with directness, to what is being felt at a given moment, is to do something that we once all did. Something that has somehow got lost in a series of defences and personal full stops.


It seems to me that one of the uses of psychoanalytic theories, all of the metapsychology, the clinical papers, the rumination on what things could mean and why, is that so that the active clinician, the participating psychotherapist at any given moment will listen more intently. The theories are there as a way to make sure we pay attention. Because what do all these theories tell us other than there’s something going on beyond the surface. That if you don’t listen properly you might just miss it. And so all the theory and all the theorising helps the clinician focus their mind, both outside of the room and inside. It is a reminder of the complexity of communications, the mind and human dynamics. It helps sustain our curiosity, it reminds us that there’s more happening than meets the ear. It means we listen in a way that will be different to the way someone has been listened to before or perhaps in a way that they were once listened to. This can make people afraid. Perhaps afraid that they might be not be understood but maybe afraid that they will be. It is scary to think that someone listening might just hear something you’d rather not be heard. Because then you might say something that you’d rather not hear which may mean to know something you don’t want to know. Which may mean something might have to change.

How to listen with a simple ear is difficult. To listen with possibility, without assumption. How impossible. A simple way of listening allows something unknown to arrive. Something new. It’s a way of listening that tries to listen without pre conceiving or anticipating what the other might say. Someone once wrote that psychoanalysis makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange. The analysts points us to the strangeness of things we think familiar when we speak. Only when you know that you are a stranger to yourself can you know that the things somebody says to you are not what you assumed. That you don’t know what the other is going to say is crucial in this way of listening. The patient must learn to listen to the analyst the way the analyst listens to the patient. To not anticipate, finish sentences, read minds. To face your own not knowing. The sooner you discover that you don’t know what the other is about to say, the sooner a surprise can occur. The shock of the new. The sooner you can get down to the task of listening.


We spend our lives not listening. We are all amateur psychics, we are all reading minds. By mind reading I mean how sometimes people celebrate how they are able to finish one another's sentences. Is this a good thing? Is it really a moment of cohesion before the other speaks or a moment of domination? Was a mind read or was something simply stopped from thinking, was a thought foreclosed? If one was to wait and not finish that sentence what might have happened? Is speaking a way of not allowing something to happen? Is to finish a sentence a way to make a cohesion before a division might have taken place? Perhaps it is to see off the difficulty of difference before it arises. Like a blind soothsayer we see the future but only because we make it.

We fill in spaces of things with things we think we know before we have experiences of not knowing. We make things familiar before their strangeness can take us over. Take for example the moment when you meet new people for the first time, say you enter a new group of friends. Immediately points of sameness are looked to be found, I like that tv show, I like that film, those politics, that band. Sameness make us feel cohesions and safeties and there’s nothing wrong with that. Except that symptoms are also places of safety and some of those we’d like to get rid of (or so we think). Knowledge or knowing can be a place of safety. The undoing that takes place in psychoanalysis is terrifying, to know that you do not know yourself. Perhaps then this is an old way of listening, the way a child might listen. For some this way of listening comes easy, for many it is rare. Neville Symington tells a story of a cab driver who drove a man to a famous bridge where people commit suicide. The driver asked the man if he was going to kill himself and the man said he was. They talked for a while then the driver drove him home.

Perhaps to listen simply is childlike but then, on the other hand, to be with difference isn’t necessarily something children do well. Children hate difference. For them different might mean better, which could mean more lovable. As children (and adults) we are worried about who loves us and by quite how much. Some of us hold beliefs that we must always delight in order to be loved. As children we would rather destroy difference than suffer someone unknown. Perhaps for fear of losing love, of being rejected and made to feel wanting. It is a fear of not being loved, a fear of how much love we may have to give that can make us do this. Better to flatten the difference, destroy the mystery of the other than suffer their unknowableness, to encounter our envy. What a feeling to be with: that the other might be more lovable than ourselves.

When Adam Phillips describes psychoanalysis as concerning the simple things, I find my thoughts go to a faulty equation of simple = basic = valueless. Is simple thought of as something known? I wonder if others think this too? Perhaps others might wonder ‘well two people talking in a room, I know that, I do it all the time’. Perhaps it flattens difference to think that the thing that happens in psychotherapy is something ordinary, banal, something that can’t be profound or disturbing. Perhaps this makes it safer. It makes it easier to avoid. Perhaps it allows someone to then to write it off, to pretend they may be above help or deny their fear of how much they might need it.

New experiences are scary. Better to flatten the difference like a child might. It might feel easier to categorise an experience as ‘already known’ rather than embark upon something unknown. A patient comes to psychotherapy: upon first meeting their therapist they instantly associate to a colleague, to their work, they remark how similar the shoes of their therapist are... they note a computer on a desk, a picture on the wall. I know this person, they may think. I know this place. The familiar is established; the anxiety of the encounter placed into a matrix of categories known and assumed. It’s as if it has all taken place before and, of course, it is about to. Psychoanalysis isn’t about telling people things they want to hear or already know. It is not about making things the same. To then describe it as simple for some, for me at times, might sound as if it’s known and easily done so therefore not worth thinking about. Which is of course one of the many difficult things about psychoanalysis: it is concerned with things that are unthinkable, unbearable, things that we do not want to think.

All images are photographs I took of Amish Kapor and James Tyrell's work at Haughton Hall

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