Robert Winer, M.D.

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On Time - Chapters 3 & 4


Roy Schafer linked the cyclic and linear psychoanalytic visions of reality to two of Northrop Frye’s mythic forms, the comic and the tragic. The comic vision, Schafer points out, is founded on unqualified hopefulness, the fantasy of rebirth, the prospect of another chance. He writes:

The view of cyclic return implies that the past can be redone, if not undone. Thereby it implicitly denies the passage of time. It cancels out pastness. Its perspective is timeless. There can be and there is, again and again, what Balint (1952) has termed a new beginning. (1976, p. 29)

By contrast, the tragic view is linear, expressing the idea that a choice once made is made forever, that the past can not be unmade, that “a truly cold mother, a savage or seductive father, a dead sibling… years of stunted growth and withdrawal, and so forth, cannot be wiped out by analysis (p. 38).” Psychoanalysis positions itself between these two perspectives. Without a comic vision, it would be pointless; without a tragic vision, interminable.
We can reframe this from a clinical viewpoint. In mania we obliterate the past: everything that matters is present in the moment, imminent. When mania dissolves we are left with its underside, reflected in Macbeth’s defeated observation:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

In depression we are chained to the past, prisoners of that which has befallen us. In the depressive position, in mourning, we try to transcend these polarities – try to be guided by the past and not controlled by it, try to live in the present, try to imagine a future that is not only determined by that which has gone before. We try to use life’s cyclicity for our ongoing benefit.


It’s in the nature of psychoanalytic treatment that time is both inescapably present and elusively sempiternal. Sessions begin punctually at an appointed time and end on the dot. We actually call these meetings “hours,” although customarily they don’t last that long. This locution may reflect our sense that we need to hold back a bit of the hour, take a pause between patients to reclaim ourselves, so that we do not live entirely at the mercy of their time. It is our own ten or fifteen minute hour. Nonetheless, perhaps out of greed, or obsession, or restlessness, the discomfort of time-on-our-hands, we may skip this intermission. Firmly ensconced in time, the session will take on a rhythm of its own, and yet often both parties can intuit, without looking at the clock, when the meeting’s end is drawing near.

At both edges we protest the clock’s control, time’s arrogant claim on us. A patient’s habitually late arrival may express a variety of meanings. I can’t come early because longing for you is too painful. I can’t come early because it gives you too much power (See? I stopped at Starbucks on the way!). I can’t stand your having other patients – I am late and I do not see them, I’ve make them disappear. But buried in all of this: the session begins at a time of my choosing, not yours, and not the time of chronos. I am my own clock (and perhaps, ultimately, I take exception to death). On the other end, as a supervisor I have encountered clinicians who routinely do not stop their sessions on time. Not licensed to analyze my supervisees, I’ve made do with my own speculations about their motives. Perhaps it’s not being able to bear being the patient’s bad object, the mother who turns her back. Perhaps it’s her fear of her own aggressiveness: every ending is a petit homicide. But, indeed, for both therapist and patient, the session’s ending is a little death, a moment of mortality, and prolonging the hour can be an attempt to deny that. We are so ambivalent about the need to maintain boundaries in treatment that we have had to install a host of safeguards for ourselves and our patients. We make our professions mandate loyalty oaths. Surely part of the problem is forbidden desire and incestuous longing. But buried in all this is the pain of limit, of the inevitability of the march of time, the unbearable nature of loss. Refusing to let the stroke of time end the hour is our form of protest. Apropos, I read from the libretto of a theatre piece, “Lost Objects:”

It’s not our darkness that we fear
not our darkness that we fear
but our light

our darkness that we fear
our light

our darkness we fear

darkness fear


And yet (or, perhaps, and so) the chronos of the hour is offset by an aura of timelessness. The end of each session isn’t “good-bye,” it’s more like “auf Wiedersehen” – “until we see each other again.” We have breaks in our schedules – weekends, professional meetings, holidays, vacations – but even these are generally predictable, and cyclical, and our return after the absence reminds both of us that the treatment is indestructible. And we’re extremely reliable about keeping our appointments. It takes an encounter with general anesthesia to get an analyst to cancel a session. The difficulty so many of us have canceling when we’re ill probably has a lot to do with our unease with being vulnerable. The nuance is that we can’t bear having our patients see us that way. Our sense of wellbeing attunes to their idealization of us: we are unbreakable, eternal. The press to reschedule the missed session, coming from either side, may mainly be about denying the loss.