A Web of Sorrow: Mistrust, Jealousy, Lovelessness, Shamelessness, Regret, Hopelessness

ISBN 978-1-7822056-6-1, £23.99, Salman Akhtar, Karnac Books Ltd

Words seem like disgraceful pretenders when it comes to pain and loss. They purport to offer comfort and understanding, yet inside a suffering person is often inaccessible anguish and inconsolable despair.

Take the man or woman who has had love taken away from him/her – an erotic union, foreplay, spontaneity, acute fun or a deep, deep friendship. How can this possibly be substituted by a normal life? How can such a delightful leitmotif be replaced when it is unparalleled?

Salman Akhtar attempts to grapple with several emotional states whilst reviving and resuscitating the seemingly forgotten word ‘sorrow’. He unapologetically endeavours to thrust its components back into linguistic exchanges particularly given the “hapless…and chronic” human condition he witnesses in his patients.

Sorrow has evidently been buried by smarter expression and “catalysts” yet the grand umbrella of sadness lingers. Through Akhtar’s impressive and healthily insistent prologue we get a sense of the distress that must be laid before us and allowed to truly breathe.

Clear in his exposition of such a fraught subject, Akhtar – psychiatrist and psychoanalyst – surprisingly engages not just fellow professionals but a wider audience in my opinion: counsellors, psychotherapists, anthropologists and literature buffs.

He achieves this by honestly conveying the little known elements of his métier: “The analyst must make gentle remarks that validate the patient’s stance…[He] must remain respectful of the patient’s psychic ‘soft spots’…He must avoid a quick unmasking of the patient’s material…He must resist ‘the compulsion to interpret’…The analyst’s emotional response to his patient represents one of the most important tools of his work.”

These similarities with counselling coupled with Akhtar’s narrative flourish (“expedient mendacity…callous solipsism…existential imperative…therapeutic impasse”) draw in the reader and provoke increased respect for hard Freudian theories and the like. Indeed, one is attracted not just to Todesangst (death anxiety) and Wunderglauben (unrealistic hope of a magical event) but to striking Sigmund sentences from a century ago: “A person who loves has, so to speak, forfeited a part of his narcissism.”

What better way to dim excessive self-interest than to celebrate the idealisation of another – the “merger of ‘affectionate’ and ‘sensual’ currents”. However, for some, “the dual terror [or risk] of abandonment and engulfment” is too much (such fear characterising the core of this book).

Jealousy, lovelessness and hopelessness are front stage in this elegant production and the subject of suicide as a “remedial act” is incredibly poignant (being unable to treat one’s perceived failure in life “with the energies…left”).

There is unfortunate self-aggrandisement from Akhtar given the unnecessary inclusion of his own poetry which is meant to denote symbolism of some kind, but is less W.H.Auden and William Wordsworth and more amateur bard. Overall though, this is a worthy read.

This review was first published in Private Practice, June 2018 issue & Therapy Today, May 2018 issue (abridged version),  © BACP

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