On the Couch

On the Couch

A Repressed History of the Analytic Couch from Plato to Freud

By Nathan Kravis

How the couch became an icon of self-knowledge and self-reflection as well as a site for pleasure, transgression, and healing.





How the couch became an icon of self-knowledge and self-reflection as well as a site for pleasure, transgression, and healing.

The peculiar arrangement of the psychoanalyst's office for an analytic session seems inexplicable. The analyst sits in a chair out of sight while the patient lies on a couch facing away. It has been this way since Freud, although, as Nathan Kravis points out in On the Couch, this practice is grounded more in the cultural history of reclining posture than in empirical research. Kravis, himself a practicing psychoanalyst, shows that the tradition of recumbent speech wasn't dreamed up by Freud but can be traced back to ancient Greece, where guests reclined on couches at the symposion (a gathering for upper-class males to discuss philosophy and drink wine), and to the Roman convivium (a banquet at which men and women reclined together). From bed to bench to settee to chaise-longue to sofa: Kravis tells how the couch became an icon of self-knowledge and self-reflection as well as a site for pleasure, privacy, transgression, and healing.

Kravis draws on sources that range from ancient funerary monuments to furniture history to early photography, as well as histories of medicine, fashion, and interior decoration, and he deploys an astonishing array of images—of paintings, monuments, sculpture, photographs, illustrations, New Yorker cartoons, and advertisements.

Kravis deftly shows that, despite the ambivalence of today's psychoanalysts—some of whom regard it as “infantilizing”—the couch continues to be the emblem of a narrative of self-discovery. Recumbent speech represents the affirmation in the presence of another of having a mind of one's own.


$29.95 T ISBN: 9780262036610 224 pp. | 6.875 in x 9 in 124 color illus., 48 b&w illus.


  • An interesting and attractive perspective on the roots of an analytic tradition.

    Inside Higher Ed

  • On the Couch is in many ways a unique an exceptional book, offering the reader a richly informative, superbly written and beautifully illustrated study of an essential but rather neglected issue.

    Psychoanalytic Journal

  • Kravis's work is a unique and needed contribution to the history of psychoanalysis.

    Journal of the History of Behavioral Sciences


  • This trenchant, witty, highly intelligent, completely absorbing, often surprising, gorgeously illustrated volume was written and designed for any human being who has ever lain back to read, daydream, canoodle, or free associate on that sometimes opulent and sometimes plain piece of furniture we refer to as a couch. Bravo Nathan Kravis!

    Siri Hustvedt

  • In this penetrating, imaginative, witty book, Nathan Kravis traces the significance of the psychoanalytic couch, drawing on philosophy, history, Freud's own writings, and evolving fashions in decorative arts. What results is a penetrating commentary on how the eternal truths of psychoanalysis intersect with fashion and happenstance. This psychoanalysis of the couch itself is written with both humor and insight.

    Andrew Solomon

    author of Far from the Tree

  • In this original integration of psychoanalysis, art history, furniture history, and history of medicine, Nathan Kravis achieves an unexpected and entirely fresh perspective on the origins of the use of the analytic couch. A large number of beautiful and provocative images complement a text that manages to be both erudite and lighthearted. On the Couch is an exciting new cultural history of recumbent posture as well as a meditation on the central—and today much disputed—icon of psychoanalytic treatment. This book opens up and changes the way we think about the use of the couch in psychoanalysis.

    Otto F. Kernberg, M.D.

    Professor of Psychiatry, Weill Cornell Medical College; Director, Personality Disorders Institute, New York Presbyterian Hospital; Training and Supervising Analyst, Columbia Psychoanalytic Center

  • Although psychoanalysis has lost its former dominance of American psychiatry, and biology and psychopharmacology rule, the couch remains for most people the most potent symbol of the profession. How did it acquire its cultural potency, and what are the historical and cultural roots of recumbence as a therapeutic tool? Nathan Kravis's witty and wise examination of these questions reaches all the way back to the ancient Greeks, and his lively account of the vicissitudes of the couch is greatly enriched by a wide range of images, many of them rescued from obscurity. A fascinating volume.

    Andrew Scull

    author of Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine

  • With subtlety, acuity, and joy, Kravis's analysis of the analyst's couch reveals the aesthetic and relational conditions which make recumbent speech not only possible but fascinating. Intellectually sparkling and visually sumptuous, On the Couch invites us to look with new eyes at an enduring icon of intimacy and interiority.

    Angela Woods

    Associate Professor of Medical Humanities, Durham University; author of The Sublime Object of Psychiatry: Schizophrenia in Clinical and Cultural Theory