Dagmar Herzog on John Forrester

Many H-Madness readers might be interested in Dagmar Herzog’s “John Forrester (1949–2015): An Appreciation,” which has just appeared in the latest History Workshop issue.

The first Forrester essay I ever read was his fabulous dissection of and homage to the 1970s work on sexual excitement by the magnificently creative and sorely underappreciated Los Angeles psychoanalyst Robert Stoller. The essay, published in 2007, had all the hallmarks of what I came to see, in the years since, as distinctive features of Forrester’s method and style (the two being inseparable). Reading, and now again rereading, my way through Forrester’s oeuvre – an activity not for the faint of heart, as his output was prodigious and ingenious, and all of it chock-a-block dense with evocative shards of evidence and sparkling, iridescent insight – key recurrent features become clearer. In the essay on Stoller, Forrester homes in from the start on the issues of verifiability, intersubjectivity, scientific thinking, and ethics – indeed the perpetual instability of all human knowings – that made the historical study of the psy sciences, and psychoanalysis in particular, the privileged focus of Forrester’s academic career. But Forrester also plunges directly into an exposition of the most crudely graphic, complicated, and existentially primal issues that turned out to be at the heart of the particular multi-year analysis-collaboration between Stoller and the patient he named Belle and that, simultaneously, had served as the basis for the enormously generative theory of sexual excitement that Stoller eventually developed. (To this day it remains one of if not the most provocative and useful theories extant.) Along the way, by restaging the Stoller-Belle relationship (arguably, as he proposes, a co-authorship), Forrester explicates numerous larger points: about transference and countertransference in processes of meaning-making; the constant evolution of what counts as truth; and the limitations of language to communicate the past to readers in future presents. A check of the footnotes shows that Forrester first presented material on Stoller to audiences in 1996, so that the essay is revealed as the product of a decade of gestation and recursive reworking. But also in the essay text itself, Forrester demonstrates by example how a tiny detail, seemingly insignificant in the moment it was first shared, ends up – over time, upon repeated revisitings – accruing revelatory force (even while, in accumulating that force, it has already changed the persons who discovered it). Briefly, in these and many more ways, while the focus of the essay is on psychoanalysis, it also serves as a meditation on the craft of the historian and should be received as such.

To read the rest of the piece, click here.

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