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In Treatment

In Argentina, psychoanalysis is as common as Malbec

Michelle Goldberg
November 11, 2010
Psychoanalysis texts displayed at a bookstore in Buenos Aires’ Villa Freud.(Sharon Frost)
Psychoanalysis texts displayed at a bookstore in Buenos Aires’ Villa Freud.(Sharon Frost)

Freud & Fahler, an airy, elegant café in Buenos Aires’ chic Palermo Soho neighborhood, is named for the original owner’s two greatest loves. Fahler, my waitress tells me, was the woman’s husband. And Freud? Well, that’s obvious—the whole city, it seems, is in love with the father of psychoanalysis. Indeed, just a few blocks away from Freud & Fahler is a neighborhood popularly known as Villa Freud because of all the psychoanalysts practicing out of the Spanish-style buildings that line its leafy avenues. Until recently, there was a restaurant there called Bar Sigi, a diminutive, of course, of Sigmund.

Argentina has more shrinks per capita than any other country in the world—around 120 for every 100,000 people, according to the World Health Organization,nearly four times as many as in the United States. In Buenos Aires, the Wall Street Journal reported last year, there are 789 therapists per 100,000 people. While Freud’s theories have fallen out of fashion in other countries, “in Argentina Freud’s works are still gospel,” wrote historian Mariano Ben Plotkin in his book about the country’s psychoanalytic culture, Freud in the Pampas. Plotkin’s own parents sent him to psychoanalysis four times a week, starting when he was 6 years old, something not uncommon in his upper-middle-class Jewish milieu. Kids “would go to football, they would go to swimming, and they go to analysis,” he told me. He, his family, and many other Argentines took it for granted, he wrote, “that lying on an analyst’s couch four times a week at great financial sacrifice was one of any normal human being’s activities.” It wasn’t until he left for graduate school in Berkeley in 1986 that he realized that outside of Argentina, this wasn’t very normal at all.

No one has a definitive explanation for the Argentine obsession with the unconscious. Like New Yorkers, Porteños, as Buenos Aires natives are called, have a reputation for anxiety, introspection, and gloom, but there’s no evidence that they’re more neurotic than residents of other metropolises. They are, however, certainly beset by complicated questions about identity. Argentina is a country of immigrants—in 1914, more than a third of the population was foreign-born—and many, particularly in the middle class, see themselves as more European than Latin American. For them, the years following World War II have been a series of shocks. “Argentines,” wrote Plotkin, “who were accustomed to believe that their country was a European enclave and therefore was immune to the problems that affected the rest of Latin America, suffered dictatorship, exclusion, violence, war and poverty. In the 1970s Argentina was ruled by one of the most murderous military regimes on the continent.”

Psychoanalysis in Argentina, not surprisingly, has been deeply rooted in the country’s Jewish community, the largest in Latin America. Ironically, though, it became entrenched in the broader society at times when Jews themselves were embattled. For Jews, Argentina can be a paradoxical place. It has Jewish gauchos and Hasidic barrios and even a town in the Pampas called Moises Ville, settled by Jews from Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century. It also famously offered sanctuary to Nazis after World War II, and it has a history of intense, sometimes homicidal anti-Semitism. (As the Buenos Aires Herald lamented in 1977, “[I]t is not easy to explain why such un-Argentine attitudes as anti-Semitism and xenophobia … should continue to exist with such virulence.”) But none of this has affected Freud’s standing. Indeed, psychoanalysis in Argentina is so mainstream that it’s “not perceived as a Jewish discipline, a Jewish science,” says Plotkin.

Still, to walk into the chambers of some Buenos Aires analysts is to step back in time to an earlier era in Jewish culture. David Rosenfeld, the former vice president of the International Psychoanalytic Association, practices out of what looks like the platonic ideal of an old-world psychoanalyst’s office. Persian carpets cover the floor, the complete works of Sigmund Freud crowd the bookshelves, and there’s a modernist leather couch for patients to recline on. Rosenfeld seems at once world-weary and playfully ironic. There’s a hint of Eastern Europe in his accent. A die-hard cosmopolitan, he reacts with half-feigned incredulity when he learns I can’t speak French

The first foreign translation of Freud, he tells me proudly, was made in Spanish in 1922, and Freud, who learned Spanish in order to read Don Quixote, corrected it himself. This translation—published as the first volume of Freud’s Obras Completas, or “Complete Works”—quickly made its way to Argentina, where it had a huge impact on the Buenos Aires literary world. “It became a beloved book for all the poets, intellectuals, what we call the intelligentsia,” says Rosenfeld.

Thus when psychoanalysts fleeing Europe during World War II arrived in Buenos Aires, “they were so well received, because all the intelligentsia—philosophers, painters, writers—they spoke about Freud in every discussion and newspaper or literary review,” says Rosenfeld. “Even my teacher, Jorge Louis Borges.” He studied with the legendary author, he explains, when Borges was working as a librarian and lecturer.

Psychoanalysis, then, has become more than a therapeutic technique—its theories and categories shape Argentina’s entire culture, high and low. A decade ago, the popular TV drama Vulnerables followed the participants in group therapy, while on the 2008 show Terapia (única session), celebrity psychoanalyst Gabriel Rolón put his famous guests on the couch. Tratame Bien,or “Treat Me Well,” a show about a struggling couple who have individual shrinks as well as a marriage therapist, recently won eight Martín Fierro awards, the Argentine equivalent of the Emmys.

Unlike in other countries, psychoanalysis in Argentina has spread far beyond the middle class. As Plotkin points out, his cleaning lady lives in a shantytown, but her daughter sees a shrink. When he taught at a suburban Buenos Aires university whose students come from the lower-middle class, all of them were familiar with Freud, “and 95 percent of them know exactly who Lacan was.” He’s talking about Jacques Lacan, the pioneering French psychoanalyst, who seems to be almost a household name among Porteños.

These days, very few Argentines still see their therapists multiple times a week—the economic crisis that wracked the country starting in the late 1990s made that impossible. But the culture of psychoanalysis persists. During the height of the crisis, Argentines formed mutual-assistance neighborhood assemblies and created small-scale barter economies. Shrinks, says Plotkin, were very much a part of these systems—they’d offer free therapy for the jobless, or trade sessions for other services.

Since then, the market for therapy has revived, and not just among Argentines. Laura Turner is a Buenos Aires psychoanalyst who, because of her excellent English, sees expatriates as well as locals. Some of her foreign patients come to her after moving to Argentina and finding the adjustment unexpectedly difficult. For others, though, therapy has become part of the Buenos Aires experience, like steak, Malbec, and tango. “What I find very odd, or astonishing, is that so many people come to make a consultation to start therapy even when it’s their first experience,” she says. “They do it here while they are traveling or studying abroad or living short-term.” There’s no easier way to start feeling like a local.

Michelle Goldberg is a senior contributing writer at The Nation. She is the author, most recently, of The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. Her Twitter feed is @michelleinbklyn.

Michelle Goldberg is a senior contributing writer at The Nation. She is the author, most recently, of The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. Her Twitter feed is @michelleinbklyn.