Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Jew and an Irishman walk into a psychiatrist's office . . .

"There is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever." Sigmund Freud, speaking about the Irish.

This sentiment is paraphrased in The Departed, the great Italian’s look at the dark complexities of Boston Irish. Seems the quote is apocryphal, although not entirely unfounded, as someone posted on a psychiatry message board:

“One of his followers said that Freud categorized people as "Irish and non-Irish." He did in fact have a dilemma with the study of Irish people but it’s not evident outright in his writings.”

The Hibernians confounding Sigmund. Sometimes I am just so damn proud of my people.

And yet with In Treatment, HBO has delivered us quite an Irishman, playing a psychiatrist. (Perhaps he’s Jungian—it’s not yet clear.)

What is clear is what a superb actor Gabriel Byrne is as Paul, a private practice psychiatrist in the middle of his years. In Treatment brings us into Paul’s sessions all week, through a range of patients, and then with his old supervisor, Gina, now his therapist again.

The series has very mixed reviews. Nancy Franklin (The New Yorker) and Tim Goodman hate it. Here’s Goodman: “The writing is forced and thin, some of the acting stagey, most of the characters unlikable and—the show-killer quality that HBO execs apparently failed to see—profoundly boring.” Tim Goodman

I categorically disagree.

Franklin thinks it’s not realistic enough: “. . . the writing itself rings false to an almost bizarre degree, with the result that the world created in the show simply isn’t credible.” Franklin doesn’t like that the patients are all very articulate.

But Nancy, this isn’t cinema verite. It’s theater.

Alessandra Staley (The New York Times) sees it my way: “This show is smart and rigorous, with a concentration that bores deep without growing dull. . . . In Treatment is hypnotic, mostly because it withholds information as intelligently as it reveals it.” (Interesting that Staley uses the homonym of “bore,” the harsh putdown of her fellow critics.)

I like to think what separates these reviewers from each other is the Celtic soul. Staley has it; Franklin and Goodman don’t.

In Treatment is based on the tv series Be’ Tipul from Israel created, produced, and mostly written by Israeli filmmaker Hagai Levi. The executive producer for the HBO version is Rodrigo Garcia, the son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, along with Levi, but I think that Levi’s underlying creative spirit still comes through the cultural transliteration and is given perfect resonance by Gabriel Byrne.

And we all know about the special affinity between the Jews and the Irish. It’s hard to put your finger on, but there is some deep-seeded soulful connection. The greatest story of the 20th century, Ulysses, features a Dublin Jew. (Leopold Bloom technically isn’t a Jew because his mother wasn’t Jewish, but on the surface, that’s his place in literary history.)

The Jewish population in Ireland has always been tiny. At its peak in the late 1940s it was around 5,000. In the 2006 census, it was around 1,500 in a population of 4 million. But both Cork and Dublin have had famous Jewish mayors, and Chaim Herzog, president of Israel 1983 to 1993, was born in North Belfast and grew up in Dublin!

Part of what joins the Irish and the Jews is their deep understanding of the supreme power of language, and by extension, a love of storytelling and theater.

And that’s what brings us back to Paul’s sessions. They are half hours of pure language. Just 2 actors (or 3 for the couple) on a stage with nothing but words. I find great beauty in a television show stripped down to that bare essence. Like Staley, I see the real subject of the series as Paul, whom we learn a little about each session by his reaction to his patients.

It is a real treat when Byrne is in session with Dianne Wiest, where we catch him bending the truth of his week. For instance, he called to his wife Kate to help him clean the blood stain when Amy began miscarrying. But when he tells about it to Gina, he says that Kate barged into the room on her own. Where Franklin sees language that isn't credible, I see incredible life-like details like this.

This series requires a high level of active listening on everyone's part. There's no noise or visual distractions in it. It's a unique place of quiet intensity on the tv landscape.

As for psychoanalysis itself, I’m with my people on that point. I have been in treatment at a few points in my life, and found no help there. Maybe if I had tried an Irish therapist, it might have been different. But if there had been a Paul, erotic transference would have occupied the whole session. C’est la vie.


kathleenmaher said...

Unable to catch "The Treatment," I'm commenting here in the dark.
Your take on the Irish and the Jews, though, speaks to a cherished, childhood conceit.
Growing up in a family proud of its Irish heritage, I heard my relatives often suppose that the Irish composed "the Jew's lost tribe."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post; I haven't been tuning in to HBO - not sure why. Last night I happened to catch two back-to-back episodes of
Treatment,and found it to be quite compelling.


M.A.Peel said...

Kathleen--that is exactly it. Thanks so much for offering such an illustrative comment.

Anon, many thanks for your note. I've discovered many wonderful things myself from blogsphere pieces.

Note: I just watched the third "Laura," and I heard Paul refer to himself as a psychologist, not psychiatrist. Very interesting. No one has written about him as such. In fact, on Franklin's long list of what seemed unrealistic is that he hasn't proscribed medication for anyone. Well, turns out he's not a medical doctor.

I perfer the cadence of psychiatrist to the harsher consonants of psychologist, so I'm leaving the post as is.