“The Essential Other:” Robert Galatzer-Levy’s Keynote Address at the Conference Honoring Bertram Cohler

On Saturday, September 21, Dr. Robert Galatzer-Levy gave the keynote address at a conference entitled “The Essential Other: Generativity, Resilience, and Narrative, A Conference Honoring the Life and Work of Bertram Cohler, Ph.D.” The name is a mouthful, but the conference delivered plenty of nutrition–cheers to conference organizer (and panel presenter) Dr. Christine Kieffer and host (and panel presenter), at Francis Parker School, Dr. Daniel Frank.

Dr. Galatzer-Levy, a psychoanalyst and teacher, had been a long-time colleague and friend of Bert Cohler’s, who died in May of 2012. They had written a book together, entitled “The Essential Other,” published in 1994, thus the title of the conference. Dr. Galatzer-Levy gave the keynote address.

“Why,” he asked, “are people important to each other?” Aristotle’s answer, because man is a political and social animal, is circular. Freud’s “beautiful theory” is that people have drives which can only be satisfied by others; for example, the infant’s need for food and the more mature person’s need for sex. Renee Spitz found that the infant’s needs go beyond merely being taken care of physically. Heinz Kohut noticed that people have an experience of living that is disorganized, so people need “selfobjects” (difficult word) who provide functions like the mother who soothes and calms the child. This experience with the mother, and/or with other selfobjects, including the therapist, is the precursor to the child’s later experience to organize itself. Self = the experience of being in the world. Objects = other people, the focus of drives.

In the late 1980s, Galatzer-Levy and Cohler were very recent grads of the Psychoanalytic Institute and students of Kohut. The then current psychoanalytic concepts didn’t capture the aliveness of being in the world, in relationships with other people and institutions. For Freud, development ends with adolescence, more or less, with the ego and superego in place. Galatzer-Levy and Cohler weren’t satisfied with that and wanted to develop a theory that development continued across the life course. “We were driven by the wish not to be dead at 50.” Their collaboration on “The Essential Other” was easy and productive.

Other people are best conceptualized not as abstractions but as concrete expressions of bodily alive relatedness with someone doing something. The experience of other people combines these things. Cohler and Galatzer-Levy “didn’t have an abstract relationship, we wrote together, did things together.” The idea of the essential other combines the vigorous activeness of actual people with the need for others to meet our needs.

Galatzer-Levy criticized the idea that development means that one moves from dependence to independence. There is, instead, “a shift from a very narrow focus of dependence to an ever wider spectrum of essential life and functioning.” Llinear developmental sequences fit neatly on charts–oral, anal, etc.–but life is not a sequential unfolding, and pathology is not a deviation from that sequence. “Life is continuing transformation across the life course. The only thing abnormal is stasis.”

Theresa Benedict noticed that development is a mutual experience in which there is a change in the caretaker by virtue of the process of caretaking, a mutuality. Cohler would say, to freshman at the University of Chicago, when he was teaching Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams,” “We are all equal before the text.” The benefits of teaching, of caretaking, go in both directions. Memories can serve “essential other” functions, entities can be present in a way despite the fact that they are not physically present, even no longer here, as is the case for Galatzer-Levy with his friend and collaborated, Bert Cohler.

Galatzer-Levy emphasized the importance of friendship, “about which psychoanalytic theory has little to say.” Kids who are happy have friends who matter a great deal to them. Most people, asked who the most important people in their lives are, will include their friends. Galatzer-Levy recommended Huckleberry Finn as a study in friendship, in which Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were essential others to each other, as their dialog moves both boys forward.

In addition to “essential other” relationships between people, there is the relationship of the individual with institutions. Cohler’s relationships with the University of Chicago “played a central role in his psychological life,” beginning as a patient/student at the Orthogenic School. “The University of Chicago’s values were his own,” including “close reading of text,” and within the University framework Cohler taught classes of freshman “year after year.”

Noting that “The Essential Other” is 20 (or so) years old now, Galatzer-Levy considered what changes he and Cohler might make were they to do a revised edition today. “The work of developing coherent narratives is a lot of the process of psychoanalytic work (and) the editing of narratives is a large part of psychoanalytic work.” Another difference: “We described a 1:1 relationship between individuals, and between individuals and institutions.” But today’s models for analyzing networks provide a richer way to see the individual’s role within a network.

Galatzer-Levy noted that fractals provide another way of looking at people. “Fractal structure separates the inside from the outside in a complicated way, you can’t specify what’s inside and what’s outside. The fractal vision of boundaries doesn’t fit with the issues of one person interacting with another as analysts usually think of it. The boundaries (between inside and outside) are much richer.”

I very much appreciated and enjoyed the clarity of Dr. Galatzer-Levy’s overview of a stream of psychoanalytic thought beginning with Freud and going through Kohut, with significant contributions from others. His jump from Aristotle to Freud did overlook a few significant developments in understanding human nature between the one and the other, but, as Doris Lessing pointed out, this is typical of the Western academic tradition. I was delighted to hear Galatzer-Levy consider the implications of fractals for understanding, or at least modeling, metaphors of human behavior, since I’m interested in the question of whether fractal math can complement the math of probabilities and the normal curve upon which all of psychometrics (the math underlying psychological testing), and most if not all of science, is currently based. I was especially impressed with the concept of “the essential other” in our understanding of human nature and development through relationship. Certainly therapists become “essential others” for clients or patients, when the therapy is working. The concept of “the essential other” is also powerful in relationships between individuals and persons no longer physically present, and with institutions.