When I was in Milan last year, I went looking for the former site of an experimental kindergarten. Founded by the psychoanalyst Elvio Fachinelli, among others, the school had become a fabled place for students of the Italian left, and I thought a visit to its headquarters, in the neighborhood of Ticinese, might bring the experiment back to life or reveal something about Fachinelli’s afterlife. Trained as a psychiatrist, he worked as both a clinician and a cultural critic and is perhaps best known in Italy as one of the cofounders of the magazine L’erba voglio. The magazine, which ran from 1971 to 1977, featured perspectives on the New Left and often focused on the politics of what Fachinelli called “dissident desire.” The title L’erba voglio already points to this interest: the phrase comes from a proverb that means roughly, “The grass called ‘I want’ doesn’t even grow in the king’s garden.” The expression is used to scold or gently mock those, often though not always children, who want too much or demand the impossible. Fachinell and L’erba voglio’s other editors reclaimed the phrase. If growing up meant graduating from demands (like “we want everything”1) deemed excessive by bourgeois common sense, then they’d stay young. Stubbornly, they’d keep wanting their grass and smoking it too. They’d keep demanding a currently unobtainable herb, whether or not others thought they could ever have it.
The psychoanalytic establishment was famously judgmental when faced with this insistence, which it pathologized. Fachinelli stood out by remaining committed to the practice of analysis while also taking the challenge of youth movements and their dissident desires seriously. Before traveling to Milan, I had been moved by his work, and I wondered whether something of the kindergarten, where so many of his theories took root, might still be visible. But there was no trace of the school or of Fachinelli there, at least that I could find. The building that once housed the kindergarten was now nondescript and gray. People on the street engaged in lively conversations, but they weren’t talking about politics, let alone revolution. For the founders of the kindergarten, revolution was the name for a real possibility, and wanting everything was a political strategy. By last year, the idea of a proudly infantile yet world-changing “dissident desire” seemed quaint, even embarrassing.
The kindergarten on Corso di Porta Ticinese opened on January 12, 1970, just under two months after a general strike in which twenty million Italians participated, and exactly one month after the bombing of a bank in Milan’s Piazza Fontana, which killed seventeen people. The bombing was part of the “strategy of tension” pursued by neofascists, who hoped to suppress the energies that had fueled waves of strikes, occupations, and uprisings culminating in the general strike, known as the National Strike for the Right to Housing. The kindergarten’s opening therefore came at a pivotal time. During the “Hot Autumn” of 1969, students, teachers, tenants, and the unemployed had joined factory workers in mass actions meant to counter exploitation and end political impasse. But the “Years of Lead” that the Piazza Fontana bombing presaged were marked by intensifying conflict, eventual demobilization, and left defeat. Italy’s current, far-right, fascist-sympathizing Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, is one bearer of this leaden legacy.
In January of 1970, the hot autumn had given way to winter. Against what he called, with a nod to Freud, a “background of discontent (disagio),” Fachinelli joined a group of parents, social workers, and feminists, including Luisa Muraro and Lea Melandri, a teacher, in undertaking an antifascist educational experiment. Top-down forms of schooling had come to seem obsolete, and the kindergarten’s cofounders sensed a “loss of prestige” among educational institutions of all kinds. The very value of formal education, like the value of work, had been called into question by recent events. With the kindergarten, which occupied a small, rented apartment in what was then a mostly working-class part of the city, they sought to support a broader effort to train a new generation to love freedom and to hate the late bourgeois world, which they would help to end one neighborhood at a time. “Self-management” had been a watchword of the recent protests, and the kindergarten was to be both “self-managed” and “non-authoritarian.” What this latter word meant was up for debate and would change over time.
At first, for Fachinelli and his collaborators, it meant leaving the kindergartners alone. Like generations of progressive educators before them, they withdrew from the center of the classroom, giving students space. During this initial, “abstentionist” phase of the experiment, the teachers tried to do away with “the figure of the adult” altogether, hoping to allow for the creation of an autonomous zone for children. But what happened next challenged their “abstract messianism,” meaning both their belief in themselves as saviors and their Montessori-like faith in the inborn pacifism of their pupils.
In an essay that records his experience of non-authoritarian teaching, published in a 1971 anthology that would give the journal L’erba voglio (and later a book series) its name, Fachinelli vividly recounts these parts of the story, as if he’s still reeling, exhilarated even while he’s processing. He and his fellow forward-thinking teachers thought that, by giving students free rein, they’d be bringing an antifascist environment into being, a laboratory for democracy and a micro-model of egalitarian community. But then the students turned against one another. “Iron hierarchies” appeared, with bullies lording it over weaker peers, devising humiliations to ensure their submission. Fachinelli describes the emergence of “a violent society,” like one presided over by fascists or mafiosi. (The comparisons are his.) He decries the students’ arrogance, their “destructiveness,” and their familialism. He describes the “excremental orgy” into which they descend—trashing the schoolroom, ruining the best-laid lesson plans, taking pot shots at already abject victims, turning against the adults who’ve absconded—like he’s anticipating Salò, but for schoolchildren, or a version of Kindergarten Cop in which the cops are the kindergarteners.
But as an analyst, he is trained to take an interest in conflict rather than flee from it, and so the whole situation intrigues him. The protracted war in the Milanese nursery opens onto questions that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life. Though by now these questions are old, they have become new again with fascism resurgent in many countries and psychoanalysis improbably trending.2 Where do fascist impulses originate? Where have these 3- to 5-year-olds learned to embrace hierarchies, given that their parents are presumably antifascist and their teachers resolutely non-authoritarian? If freedom defined as noninterference proves insufficient, then what understanding of freedom would be more conducive to collective flourishing? Is it possible to create conditions that prevent fascism and familialism, masculinism and mafiosi from returning after they’ve been banished? How, more generally, can any struggling collective ensure that its “after” isn’t just “like before”? How, if at all, can psychoanalysis contribute to the effort to reeducate former fascists and reorder recently fascist states?
In his observations on the kindergarten, Fachinelli offers some provisional answers: “Here the only politics that has a minimally liberatory meaning—a necessary politics, although it can seem impossible to us—is a radical politics in the Marxian sense of ‘taking man by the root.’” He remembers an exchange with a Milanese city official who calls what he takes to be the analyst’s bluff: “‘But according to you we’d, we would have to build houses differently, we’d have to change the city!’ Well, I think this really is our action’s premise.” In the face of the official’s incredulity—his appeal to grown-up good sense, his pointing to the limits of the politically possible—Fachinelli responds by refusing to give ground. It’s not enough simply to change what happens in Milan’s most under-resourced classrooms. If liberation is to mean anything, the whole city needs to be altered, he claims—from its infrastructure down to the psyches of everyone in it.
But Fachinelli remained committed to local projects as well as utopian visions, and, for all its sweeping ambition and avowed extravagance, his work consistently responded to local problems. Throughout his career, he studied the homegrown forces that thwart social movements, sap energies, stifle change, and compel repetition, both familial and political. He was a reader of Greek tragedy, and sometimes he called these forces “tragic.” For him this designation did not imply grandiosity. It could instead mean finding oneself, in the midst of a strike, still confronting the “embarrassing” everyday problems of “isolation, separation, death, dependency, and impotence.” Even the most maximalist radical politics cannot conjure these problems away or provide a quick fix for our embarrassment. There will still be addictions, relapses, traumas, betrayals, interpersonal dramas, and sudden deaths the day after the revolution. Comrades will still let us down, and we’ll still hold grudges and harbor resentments. Parents will still be uncomprehending or oppressive or worse, and we’ll still wish that we’d never said that to her or walked away that night or gone home with him again or fought with them or failed. This is why, in Fachinelli’s view, even revolutionaries need psychoanalysis—because it is one means of addressing relations of exploitation that begin at home, while understanding that they cannot be remade overnight.
Today Fachinelli is fairly well-known among clinicians and cultural historians in Italy, but his work is not read widely by others. This is a shame given that, there and elsewhere, neofascism has gone mainstream and not only among schoolchildren. Yet with antifascist and militant3 forms of psychoanalysis now returning to visibility,4 it’s possible that more readers will find their way to Fachinelli, even if his earnest talk of taking people by the root may cause embarrassment. For him, the uprisings of the late 1960s represented an opportunity and a proving ground for psychoanalysis: by sustaining honest, self-critical conversations with those who participated in these uprisings, psychoanalysts could reinvent the field as they relearned the art of asking questions.
This is also the lesson of the experimental kindergarten. In the school in Ticinese, among students turned belligerent, Fachinelli feels embarrassed, like someone dreaming he’s been made to repeat a grade. He realizes that it’s not enough for educators to be absent, as they were when they were all abstentionists, at first optimistic, then horrified by the violence the kindergarteners unleashed. The teachers have to be “different,” and becoming different involves arduous work. It is much more difficult than abstaining, but it is worth doing, Fachinelli concludes, because only this work will allow for the “loosening” of “paralyzed limbs,” for teachers and students alike.
All therapists have their tics, and this figure of speech is one Fachinelli favors. Across his writings, paralyses recur with arresting frequency. Patients’ bodies seize up, and their minds become static; their behaviors “congeal,” and their attitudes “rigidify.” Energy flows freeze; ideas are fixed; thoughts curdle; and institutions get stuck in their ways. Collective movements come to a halt, and arguments harden into orthodoxies as they’re rendered routine. Psychoanalysts, formerly curious, come to resemble the stone-cold Sphinx, unresponsive, unmoved, and unmoving. In his published reflections on the kindergarten experiment, Fachinelli calls the children of the Milanese bourgeoisie “catatonic,” noting that their caretakers hover over and comment anxiously on their comings and goings.
By contrast, the misbehaving students in Ticinese retain their exuberance. There’s hope for them even if they don’t yet pose a threat to the bourgeois state. Many of their parents have migrated to the North from Italy’s still-impoverished South. They speak in dialects rather than standard Italian, and they’re in touch with one another and with nature in intimate, unrehearsed ways that have become unavailable to the long-term inhabitants of industrial cities and their children. That these are projections—fantasies rather than facts about the working-class students’ earthiness and authenticity—is something Fachinelli would be quick to acknowledge. When teachers teach their students, he writes, they’re also teaching younger versions of themselves. They’re often providing the kind of care or lavishing the kind of attention or sponsoring the kind of play that their own parents withheld. “The child the teacher wants to free is also himself.”
Recognizing these dynamics can allow for what Fachinelli calls “reciprocal use” in the classroom. The teacher really does gradually free himself by helping the student to be free, where “free” does not mean unfettered but refers to a practice of solidarity. War had broken out in the classroom because the adults’ retreat had left a vacuum at its heart, prompting latent fascist tendencies to become manifest and leading mini-mafiosi to take up the space the teachers had vacated. By staying in this space, making themselves available for “use,” and at the same time “using” their students to change themselves, Fachinelli and his collaborators found they could interrupt ingrained scholastic habits—“imposed routines, predetermined roles, and conventional behaviors”—and reroute the desire for authority. They could work toward a collective refusal of the “institutionalized passivity” that resulted from uncritical reliance on and compulsive repetition of received social scripts. If, as the kindergarten teachers learned the hard way, fascist violence returned because of a sort of psychic muscle memory, reciprocal use was a matter of retraining. It meant acquiring new motor skills and sensibilities, as when someone prone to doomscrolling regains the long-forgotten ability to touch grass.
Though inevitably “asymmetrical,” the relationship between the adult and the child could allow for a kind of mutuality. To “use” people in Fachinelli’s sense is not to exploit them but to treat them as a means to the end of mutual “modification” on the way to a thoroughly modified city, a polis without police. Here again, he emphasizes that nothing about the process is easy, and no outcome guaranteed. Reciprocal use is risky, but he argues that without it collective paralysis will persist. Teachers will either absent themselves or revert to their old, authoritarian ways. They will enforce and reward passivity, and cops will continue to control kindergartens, whether because they’re the teachers or because they emerge from within the student body. There will be no loosening of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s stiffened limbs. All children will grow up to resemble him. We will be forever doomed to repeat the same grade, and not only in our dreams.
Despite his relative obscurity outside Italy, two of Fachinelli’s books have recently been translated into English. Their release, a welcome development, is timed to take advantage of a renewed interest in psychoanalysis and in theories of the psychosocial in particular, and they have the additional advantage of showing Fachinelli working in different modes. The Still Arrow: Three Attempts to Annul Time, first published in Italian in 1979, is a through-written study of individual and collective pathologies caused by the fear and denial of mortality. The book combines clinical material with the kind of wildly speculative thinking about “archaic societies” found in Freud’s Totem and Taboo, on which Fachinelli relies. On Freud is a posthumously published collection of essays that originally appeared in various venues over the course of two decades. Beautifully translated by Christina Chalmers, the volume attests to a long and tenacious labor of reading and rereading.
The Freud who emerges in On Freud is not a single, static figure; the book is not a tribute or a monument to him. Fachinelli’s understanding of Freud and Freudianism changes as the essays proceed chronologically. The first and longest essay in the book is a surprisingly riveting biographical study that is also a celebration of the Freudian legacy. Here Fachinelli offers a charmingly “Dickensian” portrait of Freud—first as a “boy who knows that he can only count on culture to fulfill his feats ahead,” then as an “untiring” student, scientist, doctor, and discoverer of the analytic method whose larger-than-life “lucidity” strikes us as “even inhuman.” But in later essays, this image of Freud as ego ideal gives way to an acknowledgment of limits. Daddy issues are dealt with, and the heroic, all but omnipotent parent figure is cut down to size as he’s shown to be flawed, all too human. As in Freudian mourning, the result is not total devastation but the creation of a new context, where different kinds of relationships can take shape. In this way, Fachinelli remains loyal to his Freudian formation even while he challenges Freudianism; he’s not asking analysts to make a clean break with their practices and theories but envisioning another, freer way for these to be put to work in a psychoanalysis no longer beholden to the bourgeoisie.
Fachinelli is especially cogent in his critique of “the total insertion of analytic treatment into the general exchange relationship” imposed by capitalism. This problem is at the center of a stand-out essay in On Freud, “The Emperor’s Gift,” which traces psychoanalytic institutions’ discontents back to Freud’s own fraught relationship to gift exchange. Neurotically, Freud hated receiving gifts and found it humiliating, because it meant incurring a debt. Gift giving was, in his view, an imperial prerogative as well as a pleasure, but receiving a gift entailed “purely coercive, subordinating obligation.” These are fun facts in their own right, shedding light on Freud’s surprising likeness to Larry David, who can’t stand being treated to a meal. But for Fachinelli, they also have far-reaching implications, both theoretical and clinical:
Freud certainly saw no other way to go about his activities, as we do not, usually. But today we are paying for the automatism of this obligatory choice, and we no longer feel it as universally valid. Every historical moment, individual or collective, in which the money relationship, the mercenary relationship, reveals its limits and is exceeded, even fleetingly, is also a moment when the institutional analytic relationship enters into crisis. . . . This is the moment when the ingenious situation invented by Freud reveals its essential deficiency—quickly covered up, but which persists, immobile, incurable, invisible until the next crisis.
Although in a sense this conclusion is ominous, it leaves open the possibility of reinvention: by insisting that the basic fault of psychoanalysis remains inert and “incurable . . . until the next crisis,” Fachinelli suggests that that crisis, like every previous one, will afford a chance to do things differently. What would it take to bring another psychoanalysis into being, one that could confront the crisis rather than cover it up?
Fachinelli is the author of another, famous essay, not included in On Freud, called “The Psychoanalyst’s Money,” and in “The Emperor’s Gift” he is obliquely envisioning—like someone calling for the grass he wants—a counterfactual version of psychoanalysis whose practitioners would be something other than “mercenary” because they would operate in rather than avoid the gift economy. Their services would be free, and so would they.
If this still sounds like what, in the context of the kindergarten, Fachinelli called “reciprocal use,” that’s because he’s still thinking through the student and worker uprisings that took place in Milan in the late ’60s and ’70s. “The Emperor’s Gift” was first published in 1989, by which point the energy of the revolts was long gone. But it did not follow that they could not be resumed or reprised. (As David Gutherz has emphasized, the ripresa, meaning resumption or reprise, is a full-fledged concept in Fachinelli’s work, the name for a repetition that is also a working-through if not a release.5) Fachinelli does not consider the stasis permanent; though disillusioned, he retains his belief in the possibility of our becoming different. Late in his career, “surprise” even becomes a term of art for him. In the last essay included in On Freud, also published in 1989, the year of his death, Fachinelli argues that there can be no psychoanalysis without surprises: “Otherwise, there is just a ministering and administering of knowledge, repetition of the already known.”
What kind of knowledge is at stake, then, in psychoanalytic treatment? In an earlier essay, also published in On Freud, Fachinelli offers a moving response. Here he insists that it’s not the search for answers in one’s past that “allows one to overcome its dead remnants, which have survived into the present”:
It is instead the dialogue arising between the patient and doctor, their working together, almost blindly, that is at first indistinct, then gradually clearer . . . I believe that I must search for my own private archaeological museum underground—and little by little I see that it opens up to the full light of my own present and the present of my witness.
The patient’s “own private . . . museum underground,” which is more like a dungeon or a fortress, “opens up,” but the sentence surprises by cutting the ground out from under this image. We arrive at a clearing or maybe a piazza where we thought there’d be a burrow, and rather than unearthing buried treasure or decrypting silent secrets, we come to see a shared situation differently, as it’s lit up “little by little,” while we’re talking.
The “dead remnants” of the past weigh heavily on the minds of the living in The Still Arrow, a challenging work deftly translated by Lorenzo Chiesa. Unlike On Freud, which will interest those who are new to or simply curious about psychoanalysis, The Still Arrow is addressed to the initiated; it presumes familiarity with Freud’s theories of group psychology and draws on a range of critical, philosophical, and anthropological sources. The book centers on failures to accept the fact of death: the “three attempts to annul time” in Fachinelli’s subtitle refer to the work of rituals in “archaic societies,” in fascist Italy, and in the psychic lives of Fachinelli’s obsessive patients. What these three defenses against time, historically distinct and in many ways incommensurable, have in common, Fachinelli argues, is a refusal to confront the inevitability of others’ disappearance and our own.
On one level, this refusal is understandable and even inescapable: “the irremediable disappearance of the beloved” is indeed unbearable, and this is “something we fully share with so-called archaic people; it does not divide us from them.” What does set us apart is the waning of ritual. Generalizing very broadly—so that the “archaic” includes prehistoric groups as well as indigenous peoples studied by twentieth-century anthropologists working in the Amazon or Bali—he argues that the societies called “archaic” think of time as cyclical and devise ritual ways of mourning and restoring order after the event of a death. These rituals show an annulment of time that works. By ritual means, archaic societies manage to “make the dead live so that the group itself is able to live”; the dead remain as ancestors, “absorbed into a trans-individual life” that sustains unbroken contact with the living.
In modernity, by contrast, time comes to be understood not as circular but as a linear, not as a wheel but as an arrow, and it is “no longer ritually annullable.” Individual attempts at annulment can only misfire. Fachinelli follows two sets of failed efforts: those of the fascists in Italy and those of obsessive analysands. His claim is neither that all fascists are obsessive nor that all obsessives are fascists, but that there is something structurally similar about the two groups, a “germinal configuration” that they share. Like the obsessive who, by rigidly adhering to a regular schedule of superstitions in an effort to forestall cruel punishments, “drags rituality into modernity, but from afar, in obscurity, through oblivion, and hence also with nostalgia,” fascism seeks to revive ritual. The regime works to resurrect ancient Rome, for instance, with the aim of denying the reality that, after the First World War, the death of the Italian nation has already taken place.
The Still Arrow is at its most interesting when Fachinelli returns to the clinic and to Freud. Here again, as in On Freud, he’s at his best when he’s reading with and against the founding texts of psychoanalysis. Maybe this is reading as reciprocal use: Freud is made newly relevant as Fachinelli reinvents him, altering his own approach to patients in the process. Fachinelli treats one obsessive patient in particular— “The Man Who Annulled Time”—whose case provides him with a point of departure in The Still Arrow. This “obsessional appears to be enclosed within his personal enigmatic endeavor, without any possible participation by others.” He lives unremittingly in “a situation of isolation and guilty solitude.”
Fachinelli works to show what this sense of isolation hides. Within the obsessive’s experience of miserable solitude and self-punishment, there are in fact whole hosts of others, generations of ancestral figures. Fachinelli is not referring to delusions or ghosts, and what he is positing differs from Freud’s theory of phylogenetic inheritance. It’s not that alienation and guilt are genetically transmitted and encoded in us; rather, they are socially produced—“by means of parents, teachers, friends, and every other ‘formative’ factor”—and internalized. Arriving at a general theory of the psychosocial, Fachinelli concludes: “in society, we find unfolded a series of positions that the individual necessarily concentrates within himself.” The pressure generated by this process of concentration accounts for why “every individual seems to be always ready to ‘flip out’” or lose it. Governed by the social, we’re all tightly wound, and at best a fragile truce sustains peace in the war zone that is the psyche. The striking corollary of this claim is that there is nothing inherently freeing about containing multitudes.
If “every individual” condenses a collectivity within, then the problem is not unique to obsessives or those diagnosed with comparable conditions. But Fachinelli suggests that these patients’ cases let us see the universally fraught dynamics of individuation and socialization with unusual clarity. In the lives of these patients, the truce is broken, and the formative factors remain openly at war. Inner victims and accusers, transgressors and persecutors, are pitted against one another, and their conflicts rule out release in the form of movement. For Italians, neither the fascist within nor his antifascist opponent wins. Instead, each of these figures fights the other endlessly, and the result is, again, paralysis. The patient can’t leave the house without completing an elaborate set of rituals meant to preempt punishment or to undo what has been done. But the rituals can’t fulfill their functions. Punishment keeps happening anyway, and what’s done can’t be undone.
In the preface to The Still Arrow, Fachinelli notes that, in his day, psychoanalysis—the clinical practice itself, not just its obsessive patients—could be seen as engaged in “another attempt to annul time.” He delivers the remark in an offhand way, but it shadily anticipates his critique of institutional psychoanalysis in the later essays in On Freud. Treatments had become interminable, analysands had become cash cows, and clinics had been converted into businesses. As Gioele P. Cima writes in his introduction, paraphrasing Fachinelli: “instead of setting subjectivity free from the constraints of capitalist reason, psychoanalysis has renewed and reinforced these constraints, thus completely disregarding its original vocation.” To my ear, that “completely” is too sweeping, insufficiently open; it suggests misleadingly that, in his late writings, Fachinelli left no room for the possibility of revision or reinvention. But think of the task that Fachinelli assigns in 1989: the task of imagining that there could be free clinics. Or think of the work that he assigned earlier, back in kindergarten: the work of becoming different in and through “reciprocal use” on the way to a radically altered city.
How we confront the figures, including the fascist figures, that we have been made to internalize is not an idle question or a matter of abstruse theorization today. On the contrary, the question could not be timelier—because it’s about how we can begin to abolish the cops in our heads. Fachinelli does not provide definitive answers, but his work is worth reading not least because of how he frames and reframes this question, in keeping with his insistence that analysts should learn to ask rather than to answer, to pose rather than pretend to resolve, questions. He called repeatedly for a “psychoanalysis of questions,” and at their best On Freud and The Still Arrow show us a version of what this other psychoanalysis could be. On the one hand, there is something bracing about Fachinelli’s recognition that psychoanalysis will not save us. On the other hand, this recognition is itself deeply psychoanalytic.
Last summer, I saw that the ground floor of the building that once housed the Porta Ticinese kindergarten is now home to a store called, in English, Gala on Mars. Catering to desires that were far from dissident, the store sold clothes that were much more terrestrial than its name suggested. Its mannequins wore what looked like the drapey garments long favored by US therapists who do not accept insurance. None of the outfits was especially eye-catching or even kitschily countercultural. On the Corso di Porta Ticinese, it was as if the anti-authoritarian teachers and the kindergarten cops had never come and gone.
I don’t know what I was hoping to find there. I went looking for a plaque or some other record of the self-managed kindergarten or of those who’d run it, or at least some aura still surrounding the building, some dead remnant. Maybe I thought I’d uncover my own private archeological museum. But there was nothing of the kind there. I’ve been looking at the photographs I took that day to make sure I didn’t miss anything: a telling bit of graffiti or a sign in an upstairs window or a poem of the kind one sometimes sees in Italian cities, pasted onto walls. It turns out the only thing I’d overlooked was another text altogether, a slogan scrawled onto a poster: “Dio, patria e famiglia.” God, Fatherland, and Family: a fascist motto brought back to life by Meloni. She promises supporters that together they’ll annul time, whitening Italy and restoring the nation to itself. But that day in Milan anyone could see that Meloni was not Mussolini, and time had not been annulled.