New York: A city psycho-analyzed

by Jean-Baptiste Mauvais

2016 has confirmed the trend of the past two years: New York’s architectural dynamism is back. The One World Trade Center, 0ne57, 432 Park Avenue, the Steinway and the Nordstrom Towers; between now and 2020 a whole band of skyscrapers will have redrawn the Big Apple’s skyline. And at a height and a speed that challenges, that poses questions.

Behind these skyscrapers is there an Unconscious?

Freud and Jung in A Dangerous Method (2011)

New York at the psychoanalyst: it’s an incongruous hypothesis. An uncomfortable horizontality for such a vertical city? An enervating pause for such a driven personality? An intolerable solitude for this habitué of crowds? An impossible introspection for this city so demonstrative, so exuberant, even exhibitionist?

A truthful interview (well, nearly) with Dr Sigmund Freud.

Doctor Freud, New York was the capital of the 20th century. Despite the decline that many, wrongly, forecast following 9/ 11, and despite the shift in the world’s centre of gravity to India and China, New York rides high in the firmament: rents, salaries, and skyscrapers. 

New York has kicked off well to retain its position as the capital of the 21st Century. But why New York?

New York, it’s instinctive. True, an acceptable instinct, one that’s transfigured. You might even say the instinct is universal . . .

Instinctive ? Universal ?

New York is the libido that torments us. All of us. Without exception. But it is reshaped and expressed in socially and culturally acceptable forms. More accurately, valued forms. In other words, ones that are sublimated . . .

Sublimated ?

Professional success is brandished like a trophy - admire my suit, be jealous of my dinner party. There’s the permanent innovation, the creativity, from the latest Cupcake of the day to the exhibitions at the MOMA or the Guggenheim. And don’t forget those supersonic joggers in Central Park! Laughing. OK, I’ll try to stay calm!

And where’s architecture in all of that?

The skyscrapers, those phallic contrivances, virile and conquering, hard, solid and rectilinear, are a commonplace. But New York is also feminine, its generous breasts rising with desire. The financial flux of Wall Street, gushing and liquid, in a permanent and perpetual merry-go-round. Without us being fully conscious of it, all that expresses the imperious power of our libido, be it pedestrian or creative.

Take the most celebrated of those skyscrapers, or just the most celebrated of them all, the Chrysler Building. What is it but a meticulously ornamented phallus? Or, better, the voyeurist transparency of the glass buildings of the Bank of America and One57, inspired by the dress of Adele Bloch-Bauer painted by my illustrious compatriot Klimt. A see-through dress for an erect construction, what an intriguing mingling of the sexes!

Mingling of the sexes?

New York is the duel between the masculine and the feminine, the solid and the liquid - aquatic and life sustaining - sexual, amniotic, and milky. Nestling between the East and Hudson Rivers, Manhattan, a hyper-sexed island, oblong, is as much a gigantic, swelling phallus amidst the feminine curves of the other boroughs, as it is a woman’s sexual organ. If not a woman’s body enveloping in her belly that original uterus, Central Park.

The successive waves of immigrants who forged New York, say that for them, well ahead of economic considerations, was the clash of cultures and the hope of a better world. That’s the primacy of the life instinct over the death drive. Eros sooner than Thanatos. The preservation of the self and of the species. Relationships, creation, persistence and extension rather than destruction.

New York, where we penetrate America, fertilized and creative, replays without us consciously noticing – though we are actually well aware – every sexual encounter, real or dreamt, possible or fantasized. As well as the primal scene of the exciting and terrifying sexual union of the father and the mother, always out of sight, there are those from the past, or the future, with one, or several, possible partners, all the sexes intermingled.

The libido in all its forms. New York, a city in rude health?

Yes and No. The New York that leads in the global rankings of world cities on the most serious of issues but also on the most trivial – what is the most expensive avenue in the world, and so forth – this New York, is the capital of America and, who would say otherwise, of the planet. The obsession with performance, with coming first, with permanent innovation, with height and with speed, emulation and competition, there is in New York something in the order of an oedipal conflict that has never been resolved.

An unresolved oedipal conflict?

The persistent desire to become the father in place of the father (or of the mother), the capital of offices in place of that which has the office of capital, to be above, to push to the front, to elbow past, to replace the predecessor and suppress the rival or the brother in the fraternity (the Duke of York to whom the city owes its name did not go on to become king) or, much more obviously, the father. Washington, is the actual capital and the symbolic father, but is too feeble in face of a city in the fast lane.

Paradoxically, the father, Washington, and the mother, America, even while guarding their own power, need that economic, financial, media and cultural weight that is New York. Otherwise the symbolic castration, the emergence of a superego and the incorporation of those laws and limits on the practices others judge deviant - such as the Wall Street salaries and bonuses - could never have been imposed. The mother, the America incarnated in the Statue of Liberty, is a spectator to this scene, desired but out of reach. The father, a rival who is out of the race and out of play, is elsewhere, absent, so restraints are wanting. Defiant, New York declares: Stop me if you can.

Hence a race toward performance without limits?

Quite so. There is a malaise or at the very least an unsettling vertigo: Who am I? If I am forever New, forever condemned to be new, even more so than before or than others, who can I be? More the capital than all other cities; bigger, more Big Apple, more everything than all other cities, yet not the Capital. Denied the role of capital city, it becomes the city of capital. Blocked from being the head (caput, capitis in Latin), it becomes the body.

Cash and the skyscrapers, the recent resumption of the hustle to the heights (One57, 432 Park Avenue), the ever-present sky-high salaries and rents, consequently blend into one unconscious function: the foster mother’s inexhaustible breast that suckles until there is no thirst, yet does so in vain; or above all, that denial of a symbolic castration and that fantasy of omnipotence. Such a public display provokes an insecurity, a doubt, the feeling of an effort made in vain: Was it all just for this?

Creativity and sublimation are not sufficient?

The theatrical staging, with its frenetic rhythm, the neon strip and XXL exhibitionism, ought to alert us like an alarm bell. The skyscraper does not only express (preponderant) power. In a moment that is at once the same and contrary – though not in contradiction - it represents the looming, totemic figure of the father, as I evoked in my book Totem and Taboo (1913). The father, an object of love and hatred, a source of ambivalence, whose murder by the primitive horde led to the emergence of the sentiment of guilt, to a Superego: self-observation, self-criticism, repression, prohibition . . .

Prohibition, that’s another epoch, one that’s long gone!

Severely. You are deceiving yourself, dear friend. The conflict between the seething Id, the reservoir of the instincts, and the rigid Superego (think of Puritanism and Prohibition) leads to recurrent neurotic episodes, one minute hysterical, the next obsessive. The multitude of sky ‘scrapers’ represents the irruption of an urgent and shameful desire like a maddening skin rash.

Moreover these self-same constructions represent, unconsciously, the accumulation of stools given to the parental figure, not as a treasure but as an aggressive, recurring anality: the obsession with hygiene, with smooth and aseptic surfaces, with a paradoxical propriety, clean to the point of killing. The obsessive neurosis of the perfectly quadrilinear grid of Manhattan, still being built up in a constantly compulsive manner, tells us everything in vainly channeling the compulsion which repetitively bursts out in a conjoined movement of blockages (as with Wall Street, the walls and the ramparts) and of discharges (look at Broadway and those great thoroughfares of orgasmic joy).

These are very dismal observations …

Absolutely not! In 2016, New York still fascinates. Like no other city on the planet, it expresses and transposes our psychic life, whether intimate or universal, into reality. In its protean density, its complexity, its contradictions, none more than skin deep, it incarnates a perfect space for the projection of our desires and our fears. It offers to each of us a possibility of identification, partial or total, all the more powerfully so because it is proffered unconsciously.

I even see in New York a hope for the years to come. Contrary to all expectations, this city is shaping the interrogation of the relationship between life and death through an answer that is not strictly speaking materialist but, on the contrary, spiritual, albeit non-religious. The skyscraper, so emblematic of New York, restricts neither the city, nor those who live there or visit, nor indeed who dream of it, to a phallic or an anal dimension. It’s only a short step from the stool to the stick - well a few steps on a staircase. As a particularly lively and animated cemetery, peopled with tombstones reaching skyward, New York leaves behind life’s banality, however intense that may be, envisaging death: the city’s crowding forefingers signaling toward the infinite.

Originally published at

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