Psychoanalysis has a long tradition of delving into literature to illuminate analytic ideas, from Freud’s notion of the Oedipus Complex through to the analytic studies of fairy tales of which Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (1976) is the most famous. The idea that something other than fact might inform psychotherapy is anathema to many psychologists, particularly those who see therapy as a quasi-medical treatment and the NICE (the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence) guidelines on evidence-based psychotherapy as sacrosanct.

Those who practise psychotherapy, as I did for almost four decades, know that much of what goes on behind the consulting room’s closed door cannot be explained scientifically. The relationship between therapist and patient, between two people with particular personalities, attitudes, emotions and personal history, is crucial. The art of psychotherapy depends upon the personal. What is missed when people attempt to turn therapy into a set of evidence-based techniques are, amongst other things, humanity and wisdom, attributes that have nothing to do with science and everything to do with being human.

Neville SymingtonFrom Freud onwards, psychoanalysis recognised this and realised that there were other sources of knowledge – myth, fairy tales and literature – that should inform those who set up to practise as psychoanalysts. This was often to do with illuminating theory. Neville Symington, for example, explored Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, for insights into theories of narcissism (Karnac, 1993), something I also did in my analysis of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is not just about theory. Psychologists who work as psychotherapists would benefit from reading good novels as much, in my view, as they might gain from psychological science. I wrote about this in an article in a special edition of the journal, Clinical Child Psychology & Psychiatry in 2007.




(What Can Clinical Psychologists Learn from Reading Novels? Clinical Child Psychology & Psychiatry 2007 Vol 12(3): 393-401)