Darian Leader: Mysteries of the mind

The psychoanalyst Darian Leader has won acclaim for elegantly playful books about dreams and desire. Now he tells Christina Patterson why we're all sick

When you go to the loo in Darian Leader's flat, you're confronted with a photo of a glamorous woman peeing. Well, plenty of people have "novelty" pictures in their smallest room, but this, you're reminded from the piles of books and papers on the floor, is the home of a Lacanian psychoanalyst. Not just an analyst, in fact, but a serious intellectual - one who peppers his conversation with references to Freud, Winnicott and Lacan, of course, but also to Shakespeare, Tolstoy and the Brontës. So, a beautiful woman peeing over you as you do the same. What can it possibly mean?

"That was actually a gift," says Leader with a huge smile. "The person in the painting is the artist, Sophie Ricketts. She did a brilliant series called Women Pissing." Yes, but why did she give Leader that particular picture? No, this has got to stop. Even analysts are allowed to receive presents. And Leader, who has just finished a catalogue piece for Jane and Louise Wilson, is well known for his interest in contemporary art. He wrote a book, Stealing the Mona Lisa, which explores"what art stops us from seeing". While he was training as an analyst in Paris, he tried to sell sculptures by his friend, Marc Quinn. "I'm just not a sales person," he says with a shrug. "I would go and have lunch every day at the place that the art people used to go to, but no one bought anything."

Stealing the Mona Lisa is a typical Darian Leader book, an elegant and playful exploration of a cultural phenomenon, which draws on insights from literature, film, popular culture and, of course, psychoanalysis. Taking as its starting point the fact that more people rushed to look at the space left by the Mona Lisa, when it was stolen from the Louvre in 1911, than had previously gone to look at the actual painting, it is an entertaining riff on the pleasures, and frustrations, of art. Like all his work, it draws on an astonishing frame of references. Like all his work, too, it sparkles with intelligence and wit - even when it doesn't quite convince.

Leader first hit the literary radar more than 10 years ago with the memorably titled Why do women write wore letters than they post? Even women like me, who do post them, and feel sick afterwards, couldn't fail to appreciate Leader's ingenuity and panache - even if we couldn't necessarily agree that "people who cheat on the Underground do so because of their unresolved relation to castration", or that people fall in love with boring men because they are searching for "a dead man as a lover". On the vacillations of desire, however, he is brilliant. And he does end on a relatively upbeat note. One of the ways to breach the gargantuan gap between the sexes is, he says, "with some humour".

It is very hard indeed to disagree with the view, expressed in Leader's third book, Promises lovers make when it gets late, that "manuals for the use of electronic equipment are always more complicated than self-help books" and that "a human is somehow considered simpler than a stereo". It's hardly surprising, then, that his new book, Why Do People Get Ill? (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99), written with his old friend David Corfield, suggests that the roots of illness might be complex.

"It has been estimated that between 25 and 50 per cent of GP visits are for medically inexplicable complaints," say the writers in their introduction to the book, "and the most common diagnosis in general-practice medicine today is non-illness." Over the next 400-odd pages (of which nearly 40 are footnotes), they argue that "it isn't what we worry about that can make us ill, but the ways in which we worry". At a time when even the orthodox medical establishment is happy to bang on about stress, the idea that there are links between the mind's processes and the body's functioning is hardly revolutionary. Only diehard Freudians, however, would take for granted the fact that "a symptom may be a way of identifying with someone else", that we often "fall ill at symbolically charged moments" and that "certain physical symptoms may even be made from words".

Words are, of course, the linchpin of every Lacanian's work. Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, psychiatrist and doctor who died in 1981, believed that his work was an authentic "return to Freud", one in which the unconscious was to be understood as intimately tied to the functions and dynamics of language. Drawing on linguistics, philosophy and mathematics, his work has been hugely influential in the field of critical theory - and on a bookish young schoolboy called Darian, whose adolescent reading included Fraser's The Golden Bough and the Complete Works of Freud.

It was after reading philosophy at Cambridge that Leader went to Paris to train as a Lacanian analyst. At the same time, he did an MA (on the history and philosophy of science), a doctorate (on why Greek comedy changed between the fifth and fourth centuries), worked, first as a gardener and then as a lecturer in comparative literature, and did the research for his first two books. As you do.

His equally brainy friend and fellow student at Cambridge, David Corfield, went to Paris to train as a Lacanian analyst at exactly the same time. He went on to lecture in the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge and Oxford, has written two books, on philosophy and mathematics, and is currently researching something called "biological cybernetics". Really, it's enough to make you develop some crippling psychosomatic complaint - or at least to avail yourself of the little box of tissues placed next to the couch. Yes, couch. Lacanians believe in doing things properly. None of this beaming politely from a sofa.

"Since Paris, we've always had a dialogue about psychoanalysis," says Leader. It was, however, nine years ago that the idea for the book first struck. "We were interested in discovering this psychosomatic research of the 30s, 40s and 50s," he explains. "It just seemed, compared to stuff today, so sophisticated... Now it's all statistics and fashion-driven consensus and views. The debates then were much more lively." But most of all, he says, the idea came from his practice.

"I had a lot of patients with auto-immune disorders. It wasn't just the correlation between the emergence of the illness and an episode in their life that seemed charged. It was also the fact that talking about different things would generate improvements in their symptomology which were completely real... I thought if words and thought processes can actually have such a real effect on the tissue of the body, couldn't they have an effect on the illness in the first place?"

Leader and Corfield embarked on a task which was to take seven years (a nicely Biblical period, I'm sure Freud would approve), spending their Augusts going through the medical journals together and arranging to accompany people on medical appointments. (Not easy to imagine a GP sticking stolidly to their allotted six minutes with Leader flourishing his notebook, but who knows?) They would then do drafts, which they'd e-mail each other, and "go over the whole thing so it reads quite evenly". It does indeed. It's a cogent, extremely persuasive, exploration of mind-body links, which combines not just neglected findings from medical history, but also the discoveries of cutting-edge research. Every doctor in the country should read it.

At the heart of the book, and the argument, is the need for narrative, the detailed history which neither medicine nor the increasingly popular cognitive behavioural therapies are able to supply. Leader is fiercely opposed to all forms of CBT. "I'll say flat out that it doesn't work," he says. "I see people all the time who've had CBT and six months or a year later, the symptoms always come back... That is a therapy," he continues, "which serves market-driven societies, where the self is seen as an effort to get better, rather than having some kind of intrinsic truth.

"CBT is a practice and therefore it must be based on a theory of the human mind. If that theory of the human mind has got any value, it must be able to explain human cultural production. Show me a CBT reading of Shakespeare or Wuthering Heights! At least," he adds, "there is a theory which takes into account the complexity and contradiction and detail in human life, which sees human beings as fundamentally divided. These," he says, gesturing at the piles of books that cover almost every surface in his room, "are complex things and what world literature is about."

Biography

Darian Leader was born in1965 in California, but came to England when he was two. He grew up in Cambridge and London, where his father lectured in physics and his mother in modern languages. He read philosophy at Cambridge before going to Paris to study as a Lacanian psychoanalyst while doing first an MA and then a PhD. He has written six books: Introducing Lacan (with Judy Groves), Why do women write more letters than they post?, Promises lovers make when it gets late, Freud's Footnotes, Stealing the Mona Lisa and, with David Corfield, Why Do People Get Ill? A member of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research, he practises as an analyst in London - where he lives with his partner, Mary, and their baby son, Jack.

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