Interview with Vasile Dem Zamfirescu


by Beatrice Popescu and Andreea Enache

Our interviewee is one of the most prominent personalities of Romanian academic and cultural life. Starting as one of Constantin Noica’s disciples, he begun his carrier as a philosopher, but in time he grew more and more acquainted with psychoanalysis, so that he finally came to embrace it as a full-time profession, not only as a professor, but also as analyst and director of the main psychoanalytical publishing house in Romania. His research activity spreads out on more than 30 years, during which he worked in the research institutes of the Romanian Academy (The Philosophy Institute, The Anthropology Institute) and in several faculties of psychology, philosophy and educational sciences within the University of Bucharest and “Titu Maiorescu” University. As philosopher, psychoanalyst, professor and researcher, Vasile Dem Zamfirescu is a vivid example of professional and academic excellence and also an active model for younger generations, in a cultural area profoundly marked by the inevitable side-effects of about half a century of communism.

EJOP: Your writings constantly unveil as your main mentors Constantin Noica and Eugen Papadima. How did they influence you in both your profession and your spiritual life?

V. D. Zamfirescu: when one places the two names one next to the other the association seems at least striking, but most often quite contradictory. However they met and reconciled themselves within me, fore, once with Noica offered me an initiation in philosophy and more precisely in a certain way of “making” philosophy, Eugen Papadima initiated me in my own unconscious. And still things seem to reject rapprochement; but if I were to say that one can also build a philosophical vision on psychoanalysis, then we would have a point of convergence.

EJOP: In the same order of ideas I would ask you if you’d rather consider yourself a psychoanalyst or a philosopher, and if there is any kind of tension between the two vocations?

V. D. Zamfirescu: There was a tension, especially during my formation as a psychoanalyst; now, the tension is gone as I came to consider myself a psychoanalyst first of all.

EJOP: Do you somehow have the feeling of having betrayed Noica?

V. D. Zamfirescu: No, on the contrary! I see myself as a wandering son who definitely does a better job than those stuck at home…

EJOP: There is a problem that you have already signaled in your writings and that I would like us to briefly consider for discussion: is psychoanalysis a science or a hermeneutics?

V. D. Zamfirescu: I would definitely give another answer now to this question and probably dissolve the dilemma that you have proposed; I would rather say that psychoanalysis is a tremendous life experience both for the analyst and the analyzed, and that the question of it being a science or a hermeneutics is secondary.

EJOP: Elisabeth Roudinesco argued that psychoanalysis can by no means be subsumed to psychology; that the psychological discourse applied to psychoanalysis is detrimental or even lethal to it. How do you see the relationship between psychoanalysis and psychology?

V. D. Zamfirescu: If we were to consider psychology only as a psychology of consciousness, we could say we have the problem that Roudinesco had raised. My view is that psychoanalysis is a psychology of the unconscious, a different type of psychology if we were to compare it with the traditional one, yet, a psychology.

EJOP: Could we understand that you regard psychoanalysis as solely a psychoanalysis of the unconscious?

V. D. Zamfirescu: I would add a nuance to this statement and say that in psychoanalysis, that can be view as a sum of disciplines, there is a psychology of the unconscious as there is a psychopathology related to it. The psychology of the unconscious is complementary with the traditional psychology of the consciousness. In other words, I do not agree with Roudinesco!

EJOP: Another famous phrase of Elisabeth Roudinesco is that we live in a depressive society. Do you consider this to be true for nowadays society?

V. D. Zamfirescu: What Roudinesco says stands true for the Western society. In Romania there is indeed much depression, but it is different from the West in the sense that it is a depression that precedes consumerism; here depression is much more often caused by the strife for survival, economic shortages, earning a living… Therefore we should see how we could apply what Roudinesco says to Romania. As statistics show, we do have a lot of depressed people, but their depression is not caused by a sense of alienation, by the society’s atomization; instead, poverty plays a crucial role.

EJOP: In other words, could we say that we are depressed because we cannot be depressed in the Western style?

V. D. Zamfirescu: We are depressed in a Romanian style, which means in a way that is specific to developing countries. We rather suffer from a neurotic type of depression, that is, a milder type…

EJOP: In your book “In cautarea sinelui” (“Searching for One’s Self”), you wrote that : “In Romania , every discussion on psychoanalysis has to begin with a negative operation: that of deconstructing its bad and unfair name that almost invariably transform this orientation in some kind of pornographic literature.” Do you think that such an operation is still needed?

V. D. Zamfirescu: Unfortunately, it is still needed, and I would even say that, surprisingly as it may seem, the self-labeled elites of intellectuals still indulge in some long ago out-dated preconceptions about psychoanalysis that would finely suit the ’20. Knowledge about psychoanalysis in Romania in elder generations is still limited to what psychoanalysis was before 1915, when Freud discovered the unconscious in relation with the neurotic dysfunctions caused by repressed sexuality. Therefore, in Romania this kind of speech is still needed but less than 10 or 15 years ago. Now we have a fairly rich psychoanalytic literature that makes it possible for those willing to know to adjust their representation and correct some preconceived ideas.

EJOP: At this moment we witness a great enrichment in psychoanalytic theory in general, not only in the Freudian, orthodox stream, but also in the dissident movements. All in all, we came to have a very diverse range of sometimes contradictory “psychoanalyses”. Which one would be, in your view, the dominant discourse?

V. D. Zamfirescu: At this moment the dominant trend is traced by the Anglo-Saxon psychoanalysis, mainly the North-American one. Although we are much closer to the francophone area, I must admit that America produces most significant advancements in psychoanalysis. In terms of trends and schools, the dominant movement is that of object relations, a theory initiated by Melanie Klein and developed by many contemporary disciples.

EJOP: The authors of the “Treatise on Contemporary Psychoanalysis” (H. Thoma and H. Kachele) anticipated a paradigmatic shift in nowadays psychoanalysis. Do you consider the object relations theory to stand for it, or are we still expecting a “revolution”?

V. D. Zamfirescu: The paradigmatic shift has already taken place, is taking place and will be, as psychoanalysis gives up some parts of the Freudian theory (especially those related to metapsychology, the more philosophical ones). Freud had an inclination for philosophy and he had exercised his philosophical ambitions in his psychoanalytical writings. However, contemporary psychoanalysis is much more pragmatic, more oriented towards psychotherapy and more eager to give up philosophical speculation.

EJOP: Do you consider this to be an advantage or a loss?

V. D. Zamfirescu: It is a loss in case no one pays attention to the anthropological implications of new theories. However, it is also an advantage as long as, in comparison with traditional theories, the new ones have directed our attention towards new aspects of the unconscious that have become the focus of theoretical and practical interests.

EJOP: Psychoanalysis is a long-term therapeutic and self-initiating act that requires a certain amount of effort (financially, time wise, and psychologically) from the subject that embarks on this experience. Do you think that the current time economy and the general social formula for evaluating profitable actions would still allow for such a “sacrifice”?

V. D. Zamfirescu: It depends on what each of us looks after: if one is only interested in the immediate results, such as the disappearance of symptoms, it is sure that he will view psychoanalysis as obsolete and, ultimately, as a sacrifice. But if one thinks that in time the symptoms reappear, than, of course, psychoanalysis turns out to be a much safer investment.

EJOP: We have all been witnesses to an epidemic of alternative therapies (from aromatherapy to hydrotherapy, litho therapy, and so on) that have sprung like mushrooms in the last 10 or so years and that perfectly fit the neurotic symptoms of nowadays society diagnosed by Bruckner in his books: infantilism, consumerism and the need for innocence. Do you think that, in this context, psychoanalysis could become exclusively an elites’ therapy?

V. D. Zamfirescu: Psychoanalysis has always been a therapy or an experience of the elites, first of all, of financial ones, then of both financial and intellectual ones; it has been and probably it will remain a type of experience for a somewhat limited category of people with good financial support and with a proper understanding of its efficiency.

EJOP: Don’t you think that there is the possibility of increasing its availability without harming its quality?

V. D. Zamfirescu: There have been attempts to broaden psychoanalysis’ target, we already have several examples, especially in the West and in the Latin America countries – they are not very rich countries but psychoanalysis is very well represented there, and they have made some efforts to modify the therapeutic framework (for example, the psychoanalyst would visit the client at home for their sessions, that are still held observing the basic principles of classic psychoanalysis). However, it is hard to ascertain the success of such attempts, but it is not without meaning that they have taken place.

EJOP: The Romanian “case” is in many ways different. How would you explain the precariousness of clinical psychology in our country?

V. D. Zamfirescu: It is a direct outcome of the devastating effects of communism on psychology in general, on psychoanalysis and clinical psychology, and, at large, on every form of humanistic science at that time. The “fury” went as far as dissolving their support institutions and professions, as is the case with the disappearance of psychology from the academic area around 1980. Therefore, the guilt for the present situation is mainly bore by the communist system, on the one hand, and the communist ideology, on the other, as it promoted materialism and denied categorically the importance that soul and spirit might have in a person’s life. Everything was material, and everything stem out from it as simple epiphenomena.

EJOP: Let alone the impact of communism, do you think that there might be some kind of fundamental in-appetence specific to Romanians in relation to psychoanalysis? Is there a greater tendency to dismiss the idea that the human soul is not entirely bright and sunny, that we all bear our shadows within us? It has been said in theory that the West has already gone through disenchantment, while the East still clings to a phantasm of innocence.

V. D. Zamfirescu: Given my experience as a university professor – I have been teaching psychoanalysis since 1990 – I can say that there is a great interest in psychoanalysis amongst students in Romania. In 15 years I had generations after generations of young people who, properly informed (neither apologetically, nor with excessive criticism) on psychoanalysis, reacted positively by either maintaining a vivid interest even after graduation or by engaging on becoming psychoanalysts themselves. I do believe that this phenomenon that I have been witness to along so many years is relevant for Romanians’ psychological willingness to develop an interest in psychoanalysis.

EJOP: What could you tell us about contemporary Romanian psychoanalysis in a European and international context?

V. D. Zamfirescu: I think that it is much better positioned then it was between the two World Wars, when, and this is a fact commonly not known by many, Romanian psychoanalysis had a very good start. At present there are many things that justify our belief and hope that the new beginning of psychoanalysis in Romania will bring about is stability and enforcement. First of all, psychoanalysis is now a study object in universities, a situation that we have never before encountered and that allows young people to become acquainted with psychoanalysis during their first stages of formation. We also have a publishing house dedicated to psychoanalytic literature. Thare is a Psychoanalytic Society, already 15 yeas old, that functions in full conformity with the formal standards of IPA to which it is affiliated as a Study Group (being on its way to becoming a full member). At present, there are 8 Romanian psychoanalysts recognized by IPA which makes it possible for young people interested in psychoanalysis to benefit from accredited formation. All in all, even if well behind the West, Romanian psychoanalysis is very on the right track and has an advantage: whereas in the West psychoanalysis is undergoing a reflux, in Romania we expect a period of flourishing and free ascension.

EJOP: Speaking of the reflux … what do you think that its causes might be, and how do you see the future of psychoanalysis both as cultural orientation and psychotherapy, especially given this context?

V. D. Zamfirescu: The reflux should mainly be understood as a coming out of fashion. All along about 20 years, psychoanalysis “filled the first pages” of the media, literature, culture and science. Therefore, cultural life in the West, and especially in France and the USA , was impregnated with psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is no longer on the first page; it has become normal, customary. This is the first meaning of the reflux. There are countries where psychoanalysis is still powerful, such as France and countries in Latin America, where psychoanalysis is in a position similar to, let’s say, the one it held in Europe 20 years ago. We should look at the nuances of the situation, as we definitely cannot talk about disappearance or oblivion as long as psychoanalytic concepts are deeply impregnated in the texture of Western culture. This is why I think that this is a normal phase in the life of a discipline and of a culture as we cannot have one leading orientation lead forever; it is a natural turn and I think that psychoanalysis’ existence is not endangered for as long as there is the unconscious psychoanalysis will be of great use.

Vasile Dem Zamfirescu, February 2005