Unlit Corners

Salman Akhtar, MD, is Professor of Psychiatry at Jefferson Medical College and a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia. He has served on the editorial boards of The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the Psychoanalytic Quarterly. His nearly 400 publications include over 100 books, of which 23 are solo-authored. Dr Akhtar is the recipient of numerous awards and, a true Renaissance man, has published nine collections of poetry and serves as a Scholar-in-Residence at the InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia.

Salman’s latest book Unlit Corners: Dirtiness, Miserliness, Shyness, Outrageousness, Shallowness, Indecisiveness, Restlessness, and Cowardliness explores eight neglected character traits using philosophy, literature, psychiatry, social anthropology, and psychoanalysis to deepen understanding and empathy for those struggling with such issues.

The shift of attention from neurotic symptoms to maladaptive character traits was a natural consequence of deepening psychoanalytic interest in transference and countertransference developments during treatment. However, this change in clinical focus did not find a parallel in psychoanalytic literature. With the exception of borderline and narcissistic syndromes, a vast swath of problematic personality attributes remained neglected or sub-optimally studied. This is especially trues of character traits that were embarrassing to talk about (e.g., dirtiness), evoke scorn (e.g., miserliness), are slippery to conceptualize (e.g., shyness), socially untroubling (e.g., cowardliness), or easy to ignore (e.g., shallowness).

The consequence of such lack of attention was the unacknowledged weakness of knowledge about the nature, origins, and interpersonal impact of such behavioral tendencies and the unconscious fantasies that undergird them. What, for instance, do we know about ‘outrageousness’ besides that which can be deduced from Winnicott’s 1956 paper on ‘antisocial tendency’? Is there nothing more to learn about ‘cowardliness’ after Meltzer’s 1973 speculations about it? Do we really understand ‘restlessness’? Have we given any serious thought to ‘dirtiness’ or do we remain smugly satisfied with the summarization of early psychoanalytic literature on the topic, which incidentally, was in 1945 ? How is it we proudly declare our enterprise as ‘depth psychology’ but cannot speak more than a few articulate sentences about ‘shallowness’?

And yet, the traits mentioned above (and many others like them) form an integral part of our patients’ characters, continuing to be a source of both personal and interpersonal distress.

Sensing the need to do something about the paucity of resources about such traits, the prolific analyst and poet Salman Akhtar recruited his distinguished colleagues and, adding his own scholarly yet user-friendly voice, produced this edited volume titled Unlit Corners. The book contains essays on eight character traits including dirtiness, miserliness, restlessness, shyness, outrageousness, indecisiveness, shallowness, and cowardliness. While bearing the stylistic stamp of its author, each individual essay addresses the topic at hand from the perspective of descriptive psychiatry, social anthropology, fiction, and clinical psychoanalysis. The result is a portrait of each character trait that is deep, multifaceted, and, by its potential for enhancing empathy, of fundamental help and relevance to  mental health clinicians.

Salman Akhtar

Pre-order your copy of  Unlit Corners: Dirtiness, Miserliness, Shyness, Outrageousness, Shallowness, Indecisiveness, Restlessness, and Cowardliness now! Due to be published June 2024. View other books by Salman Akhtar here.