Professor Peter Rudnytsky, the distinguished psychoanalytical historian and author, and Honorary Member of the American Psychoanalytic Association, has published a Festschrift in honour of the late Dr. Nina Coltart, edited in collaboration with Dr. Coltart’s sister, Mrs. Gillian Preston.
Here, in a special interview commissioned for the Karnac Books website, Professor Brett Kahr, Co-Editor of the Karnac History of Psychoanalysis Series, speaks to Professor Rudnytsky about Her Hour Come Round at Last: A Garland for Nina Coltart.
BK: Congratulations, Peter, on the publication of your book about the life and work of Dr. Nina Coltart. Now, you are, of course, a scholar who lives and works in Florida. How on earth did you first discover this most British of psychoanalysts?
PR: I’ve long been interested in the Independent tradition of British psychoanalysis, and I can’t remember whether I first read her famous essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem or whether I read the interview that she gave to Anthony Molino (published in his book Freely Associated: Encounters in Psychoanalysis with Christopher Bollas, Joyce McDougall, Michael Eigen, Adam Phillips, Nina Coltart), which then lead me to read the rest of her work.
BK: But as an historian, you read very widely. Why a book about Coltart in particular?
PR: Once I had read her three books, I felt that her work was important and personally moving to me. I learned from the interview with Molino that at least some of her writing had remained unpublished. I thought that any such work of Coltart’s merited being brought to the light of day. Through Neville Symington, I made contact with Coltart’s surviving sister Gillian Preston who lives in Sway, in Hampshire.
BK: And you approached Mrs. Preston about the prospect of a Festschrift for her sister?
PR: I think initially my interest was in collecting the unpublished writings of Coltart, but it soon became clear in collaborating with Gill that the book would be an opportunity for those who knew and loved Nina Coltart to pay tribute to her life and work. So as the book turned out, it has two parts: the first, the garland of tributes by patients, supervisees, friends, family members, and readers; and the second, all of Coltart’s unpublished or uncollected writings, now available to students of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.
BK: I have read all of the tributes to Dr. Coltart which you published in this Festschrift, and I found them all very moving, but none more so than the testimonials and reminiscences from her many former analysands. Clearly Coltart had a remarkable capacity to make deep, affective contact with her patients. How have you come to regard her as a clinician?
PR: I think undoubtedly one of the most remarkable features of Coltart’s writings is her series of case histories or clinical portraits in which her patients come to life with truly novelistic vividness, which has lead me to describe Coltart as the “Jane Austen of psychoanalysis”. So I believe that Coltart must have had an even deeper impact on her patients, in her clinical work, than she has had on me and on others who have read about these same patients.
BK: And Coltart, of course, became a much-loved practitioner, in spite of a very traumatised youth and adolescence.
PR: Indeed, it was precisely the extraordinarily honest degree of self-revelation in her interview with Molino (especially about the tragedy in which both of her parents died in a train crash when Coltart was only twelve years of age) that lead me to think about how a person with this terrible history could go on to become such an important and profound contributor to psychoanalysis.
BK: What saved her and allowed her to flourish as a psychoanalyst?
PR: That’s a hard question to answer. One of the main themes of Coltart’s writings is survival. She talks about survival, meaning, for her, survival with enjoyment. And I think that in large measure it must have been the discovery of psychoanalysis as a vocation – vocation is another of Coltart’s most important concepts – which became crucial, and this enabled her to feel, as she said, a round peg in a round hole, and hence to find meaning and fulfilment in her life through giving back to others the healing that she herself so badly needed.
BK: She had her long analysis with Mrs. Eva Rosenfeld, if I recall correctly, and Mrs. Rosenfeld had been one of Freud’s former analysands, and also one Klein’s.
PR: This is true. Mrs. Rosenfeld came out of retirement to take on Coltart as her final training case as I detail in my own chapter in the published volume. Coltart said that if she were to have had a second analysis, she would have liked it to have been with Wilfred Bion, who also exerted a deep influence on her thought.
BK: What do you suppose Coltart found so attractive about Bion?
PR: I think it’s undeniably the mystical element of Bion’s thought which Coltart understood to involve the capacity for faith (with a small “f”), and above all faith in the analytic process to allow that which lay inchoate in the mind of the patient – what Coltart famously called the “rough beast” – to be born. I think it’s also important to note that Coltart was also an active practitioner of Buddhism, and that the integration of psychoanalysis and Buddhism in her life and writing is one of the most distinctive features of her contribution to psychoanalysis.
BK: Now although the intersection between psychoanalysis and religion has flourished in recent years, many clinical practitioners still regard any manifestation of religious belief or practice as a neurotic manifestation, and I have certain heard colleagues condemning Coltart for being a crazy Buddhist.
PR: I think that’s ironic because when Coltart participated in a Freud Museum symposium on the subject of whether psychoanalysis is another religion, she answered the question in the negative, whereas Neville Symington, her close friend and colleague, answered in the affirmative. Coltart said that the loss of her Christian faith left her with a “god-shaped gap”, filled in part by her discovery of psychoanalysis as a vocation, but more deeply by coming to the practice of Buddhist meditation. But Buddhism is not a theistic religion; rather, it is a set of values that guide us in the practice of daily life. So whether or not one views religion negatively, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Coltart was a religious person herself.
BK: She had of course a huge reputation here in London for her work as a psychoanalytical consultant. And for many years, large numbers of prospective patients flocked to her Hampstead consulting in order to be matched with a psychotherapist or psychoanalyst. What have you come to understand about the details of her clinical practice?
PR: What you’re speaking about now, of course, has more precisely to do with her role as a consultant or as a referrer, rather than directly with her own clinical practice with ongoing analysands. Coltart believed that she had a singular gift for matching patients and therapists. In all likelihood, she frequently succeeded in finding good fits in people who came to her in that capacity. As far as her own clinical practice is concerned, I think she combined a mixture of rigorous, classical psychoanalytic practice with a degree of human warmth and flexibility that stemmed from her deep concern for her patients as people. One of Coltart’s central metaphors is of being on the tightrope, and there is a tension between her classical, austere side, and her warm and flexible side. She herself tried to walk the analytic tightrope.
BK: What about the famous story of Coltart shouting at a patient? This rather shocked London when she first presented this material at a conference.
BK: I always admired Coltart’s tremendous open-mindedness. All mental health professionals give lip service to being open, but few would have had the guts that Coltart had in later life to become a rookie, first-year student at the Institute of Group Analysis, something which many regarded as a bizarre undertaking.
PR: You’re absolutely right, Brett. Coltart differed from most other analysts in supporting and involving herself with therapeutic communities in London that were outside the framework of the British Psycho-Analytical Society. She was a close friend of the Arbours Association, and, as you say, participated in a training course at the Institute of Group Analysis. She describes that experience in what I have called one of her most autobiographically revealing papers, “Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd”, in the midst of which she experienced a breakdown that went back not only to the catastrophic loss of her parents in the train crash but to earlier experiences of disappearance of loved figures that formed what Coltart called the “preconditioning” of the great catastrophe of her parents’ death.
BK: I believe you mention in the book that Coltart is the analyst with whom you would have most liked to be in analysis. Is this really true?
PR: In all honesty, I’m quite happy with the analyst I’ve got, but in paying that tribute to Nina Coltart, I was indeed saying how much I was moved by her writing. Moreover, I was suggesting, and I mean this in a serious way, perhaps the best test of our response to reading an analytic author, is whether or not we think we would feel comfortable lying on that person’s couch. So I was suggesting that when I read Coltart, I have the feeling that here is a person with whom I could have a genuinely transformative analytic experience.
BK: Some of our colleagues would aver, however, that the experience of lying on the couch should not necessarily be too comfortable, and that a comfortable analysis might be a false analysis. What do you think about this allegation?
PR: I’m not sure I was asking for any extra pillows!
BK: But surely, you have an acute awareness of how group-riven the psychotherapeutic communities can be.
PR: Indeed, but that is a separate issue. Though it is noteworthy that Coltart herself, in addition to being highly supportive of groups outside the traditional analytical world, did in fact resign from the British Psycho-Analytical Society and retired to her garden in the rural seat of Leighton Buzzard.
BK: Do you know why she resigned?
PR: Coltart makes it clear that she had become fed up with the in-fighting and institutional politics that pervaded her organisation, even though she had held almost all the important positions in the Society in the course of her career. She famously described herself as the most independent of the Independents, and the logical extension of this attitude is that she emancipated herself from institutional structures altogether.
BK: Was this an act of emancipation or of disillusionment?
PR: I’m not sure that disillusionment is the antithesis of emancipation, but I know what you mean by the question. I think that we are now coming to the topic of Nina Coltart’s suicide, which, like the death of her parents, is a tragedy which must have an impact on all those who come in contact with her. As I suggest in my contribution to the Festschrift that I edited with Gillian Preston, to whom I would like to pay tribute for revisiting both the joyful and the painful aspects of her relationship to her beloved sister, Coltart’s suicide can be regarded as either an act of freedom or as an act of despair. Or indeed, perhaps it was both simultaneously. In the same way, her decision to resign from the British Psycho-Analytical Society was both emancipatory and perhaps also despairing.
BK: Of course she suffered from crippling osteoporosis towards the end of her life.
PR: Indeed, the medical woes from which she suffered were grave, and they undoubtedly contributed to her decision to end her life. Ultimately, however, I think more existential issues may have been at play. But suicide, surely, is a mysterious act, that one can never hope to understand completely.
BK: Thank you, Peter, for these sensitive reflections. You chaired a conference recently, in Nina’s honour, sponsored by the Freud Museum. How did colleagues grapple with her legacy?
PR: We had what I’m pleased to say was an extremely successful day in which we spent the morning listening to papers focused specifically on Coltart’s life and her work, whereas in the afternoon we enjoyed a roundtable discussion dedicated to the theme of what it means to be an independent psychoanalyst more generally. The conference coincided not only with the publication of our book, but also launched our history of psychoanalysis book series which I am delighted to be co-editing with you, and under the auspices of Karnac Books.
BK: Tell us what is next on the agenda for Peter Rudnytsky.
PR: Before I do that, I’d like to add one more word about Nina Coltart.
BK: Of course.
PR: And that is, our book and the conference that we held to commemorate its publication represent the first time that Nina Coltart’s enormous contribution to psychoanalysis has been given this kind of public recognition. It is my sincere hope that through Her Hour Come Round at Last, many new readers will come to discover Nina Coltart for themselves, and will want to read the three books she published during her lifetime.
BK: And you?
PR: I’m delighted to say that I have a second book with Karnac that I have entitled, provocatively, Rescuing Psychoanalysis from Freud and Other Essays in Re-Vision, about which I would be delighted to have a conversation with you on a future occasion. Having completed these two projects, my current work in progress concerns the novelist Philip Roth, about whom I am writing a book tentatively entitled ‘Philip Roth and Psychoanalysis’.
BK: How intriguing! From Coltart to Roth …
PR: I’m not sure that there is an obvious connection between the two, but Roth is certainly the writer in whom the encounter between literature and psychoanalysis plays itself out most intriguingly in not only his fiction but also in his life.
BK: We look forward to reading that. A final question if I may. You’ve been here in London for over a week, what is your impression of the British scene as compared to that in America?
PR: I have always been a big fan of British psychoanalytic thinking and in the course of this week I’ve had the opportunity to meet many people whose work I deeply admire. I think it’s undeniably true that even today British psychoanalysis remains at the forefront of worldwide psychoanalytic thinking, although this is not in any way to minimise the vitality of psychoanalytic culture in the United States, or anywhere else for that matter.
BK: That is very generous. Well, please allow me to thank you for sharing in this conversation. We look forward to your next books and to your next visits.
PR: It’s been my great pleasure. I think I can honestly say that I’ve never been blogged before.
Other titles in The History of Psychoanalysis series include: Sandor Ferenczi-Ernst Jones: Letters 11911-1933 (Karnac, 2013); Looking Through Freud’s Photos (2014); Freud in Zion: Psychoanalysis and the Making of Modern Jewish Identity (2012); The Clinic and the Context: Historical Essays (2013), and Rescuing Freud from Freud and Other Essays in Re-Vision (2011).