Imagining facts: Dealing with the facts of imagination

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Imagining facts: Dealing with the facts of the imagination Psychoanalytic knowledge is not communicated in the same way as medical knowledge. Often, the writing is vague, open to interpretation, hard to understand, full of metaphor, and maybe even reminiscent of poetry than anything else. Reading Bion, Ogden, Winnicott or Eigen the sentences are often ambiguous and labyrinthine, meaning is dense and layered, the opposite of the clear and simple style that scientists so admire. In psychoanalytic texts, readers not only look for new knowledge or an interesting solution to a clinical issue – they have an aesthetic experience, attended by powerful psychological sensations which, we might say, cause hitherto unfelt deep layers to resonate. And so canonical texts, much like poetry, constitute difficult, mysterious objects, deserving of critical attention in their own right. "As regards the beauty of Nature", writes Freud in On Transience (when he was preoccupied with the losses of WWI, "each time it is destroyed by winter it comes again next year, so that in relation to the length of our lives it can in fact be regarded as eternal. The beauty of the human form and face vanish for ever in the course of our own lives, but their evanescence only lends them a fresh charm. A flower that blossoms only for a single night does not seem to us on that account less lovely" (1916, pp.304-305). But with its greater commitment to fact, psychoanalytic thinking is, nevertheless, quite unlike poetry. As psychoanalysts we are committed more fully than poets to understand what it was that happened in the past, or in the present, how a certain mental constellation brought into being the contents that now preoccupy the patient. The very formulation of the psychic fact often carries strong emotional significance. This is the reason for the family resemblance between psychoanalytic theory and literary writing. And yet there is a connection with scientific research too: A previously inaccessible mental phenomenon is now a lot more understandable, much like in the case of natural phenomena. Psychoanalytic theory at its very best, therefore, is a genre in its own right, combining psychic fact with the representational means that are the province of the symbolic. Very often psychoanalytic innovation renders universal themes, always by singular means of expression, and it is this articulation between the singular and the universal that makes it so potent. All psychoanalytic writing is marked by the tension between these components. Scientific writing aims at solving empirical problems; it is systematic, disciplined, and clear-cut. It directs us how to think of a phenomenon but it also narrows and restricts us. Poetic or literary writing is undisciplined, unpredictable and full of subjectivity; but it is passionate, spontaneous, and it rather seeks to create what Bollas calls "psychic intensities" (1995, 60). We need both modes, and they seem to imbue each other with a certain energy that exceeds their separate meaning. And here is another crucial difference between psychoanalytic and scientific writing. While new knowledge about a so far unsolved scientific problem reveals what we did not know before, psychoanalysis, like art, often adds meaning to something we already knew. Maybe this is what characterizes the epistemology of psychoanalysis: psychoanalytic writing is at its best when new “facts” about some psychic phenomenon come to light – but we recognize them as such, as facts and as right, because we already were familiar with them. It is the poetic or literary quality of a clinical description that serves as a kind of muscle supporting its truth perception: This is what triggers a powerful emotional engagement with the newly accessed facts. We have experienced this knowledge, but it was unconceptualized so far. For the discovered facts to ring true, the poetic quality of the text is crucial. Should facts about the mind be communicated in terse scientific language, the reader would be unable to connect with the actually lived experience. In Little Gidding (1944), T.S. Eliot wrote:"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time". Meltzer and Bion emphasize that psychoanalysis has not discovered any new ideas about its subject, the human mind, and that it is unlikely to do so. But through the psychoanalytic method, old ideas can be rediscovered in a new context of helping ‘rescue the lost children of the personality' as Meltzer puts it (1983, p. 98). And Freud writes: “I find myself for a moment in the interesting position of not knowing whether what I have to say should be regarded as something long familiar and obvious or as something entirely new and puzzling” (1940b, p. 275). What Does this Imply for Psychoanalytic Technique? Things become a lot more complicated once we take this interplay between the poetic and psychic fact into the clinic itself. Now we are not talking about a written text. Here it is a matter of a therapeutic relationship in which each participant entertains elaborate relations with both the poetic and psychic facts. The analyst aims for psychic facts, or in other words: seeks to conduct a patient's awareness toward a certain truth regarding his life. The analyst however does not do this in a merely technical way, like a scientist producing her research results. Instead she uses the poetic, the symbolic, a whole range of expressive tools so that the psychic fact may somehow reach the patient's consciousness and reverberate significant experiences which have not yet been put into words. Ogden writes: " It seems important to me that we develop a capacity to use language that does justice not only to the task of understanding and interpreting the conscious and unconscious meanings of our patients' experience; in addition, our use of language must be equal to the task of capturing and conveying in words a sense of what it is ‘that's going on here' in the intrapsychic and intersubjective life of the analysis, the ‘music of what happens' in the analytic relationship". Here however the connection with the psychic fact works in favor of a present experience centering around the therapeutic relations. Does the poetic necessarily impede contact with the psychic fact, with a meaningful experience of past-present, that is? And is it only possible to preserve the connection with the psychic fact at the cost of removing the poetic, as though it stood in the way, as though all it did was fending off contact with that fact? I would like to suggest a third, complementary option. This option, I stress, does not clash with the classical approach according to which the symbolic functions as a defense mechanism, and nor does it contradict Ogden who believes the symbolic offers a way to focus on the here and now rather than revealing something real that happened. My option first and foremost establishes the importance of the psychic fact, what Bollas calls "the real". According to Bollas (1995) the real is not an actual occurrence that happens to us, because our view of reality is colored by our own subjectivity –directed as it is by its imaginative capacity and the underlying rules of the symbolic order – but we do remember the firm moment. We remember that something occurred from the real (not the imaginary not the symbolic) that deeply touched us. (1995, p.104. Bollas writes: "It might be viewed as comically ironic that psychoanalysis simultaneously is turning away from the value of history, removing itself from adjudicatory actions in relation to past facts too high: more and more analysts are losing their right to consider their patients' internal worlds precisely because of a disclination to take the factual past seriously…" (107) In my view, psychoanalysis errs if it turns away permanently from the presentation of the factual reality, taking refuge either in a theory of narrative or in misplaced empiricism, where the only facts recognized are those enacted in the transference" 113 Bollas and Ogden offer us two different things. While Ogden seeks to focus on the here and now of the patient-therapist relations, Bollas aims for the psychic facts, on what really happened in both the internal and external world. For Ogden, the poetic can serve communication of the here and now, but can it also be useful when the aim is to say something meaningful about psychic facts? My suggestion is that we consider the poetic as an expression of primary processes with which we lost touch a long time ago. A poetically formulated conceptualization therefore is a truth about psychic facts. When an interpretation ‘passes', so to speak, it includes two elements: positive, empirical knowledge regarding for instance the link between past and present, and knowledge concerning the psychic fact, together with the means of its expression – which is the element I have been calling poetic. There is an enduring tension between these two, an interesting choreography. No positive knowledge (a kind of truth statement about the psyche) can appear right or ring true if it fails to emotionally resonate with something from the past, something non-verbal. The latter can only be achieved through what I call poetic means. At times it is communicated well, like in the following case of Parsons. A patient says he feels wonderfully, relaxingly dumb, like a cow; he just wants to lie there and be comfortable, nothing to say. He feels he can relax and not have to entertain me or produce material so that I don't feel deprived. His pleasure and relaxation are tangible. I sense a historical transference interpretation is needed about how such an atmosphere was not possible with his parents because he always felt he had to meet their expectations or look after them in some way. I have a problem now: In the present context, any interpretation may feel to him as if I require something of him—insight or understanding—and break the atmosphere, replicating his parents' demandingness. (This would itself be part of the transference, of course, but I do not want to interpret myself as a demanding parent when he is exploring a different experience.) I say nothing, not seeing how to get round this. Fortunately it is early in the session and I simply wait. He says, out of silence: ”Two active minds … in companionable silence … with no upsets”. I like the phrase and find myself thinking of an almost blank canvas, with an ambiguous but satisfying design somewhere off center. Should I say something about that? Probably not. It seems frivolous and self-indulgent, very much my association not his. But it doesn't go away. I let it stay around and it goes on seeming somehow true. So I say: ”That sounds like the title of an abstract painting”. We both laugh a bit. The silence goes on and I suddenly realize I can say: 'But I don't suppose abstract art would have had much place in your family'. 'My God, no!', he replies. More silence, intensely Then he says: ”Each single element in what I said was impossible. Our minds weren't active, silence was never companionable, there were no upsets, ever”. More intense silence. The interpretation evolved without breaking the experience of the session. My next illustration is from my own clinic. A patient who absolutely did not want me to take a reflective or interpretive stance vis a vis the psychic facts. She responded with anxiety and anger to any interpretation. She did not want me to tell her anything about herself, nothing she didn't know anyway. She asked me explicitly not to do it. When words are part of secondary processes they seem to threaten her. They accentuate the distance between us and confirm me in my role of omniscient authority, with her featuring as a helpless girl, exposed to her sadistic mother. She was willing to hear me curse, read poetry, do all sorts of role play – anything, as long as I wouldn't give interpretations, didn't come up with insights, didn't tell her things about herself. In this case, the poetic was a life-saver, while the attempt to uncover psychic facts was a mortal threat. I did almost everything she wanted: I tried to avoid interpretations; when she asked for a curse, I cursed; when she wanted me to laugh, I laughed wholeheartedly; when she wanted me to read her a poem, I did that. This patient often wrote me her impressions in-between sessions. "I told you, aner, told you that when we sit there in that room, the two fucking adults reflecting, interpreting, being balanced and judicious and wise, using our fucking minds to reflect, to understand, to analyze… again we're in that fucked up sick patient/healthy therapist syndrome - again we're with that fucked up isolated mind - i've fucking had it - can't say i didn't fucking try again and again to bring the warm, human, validating gleam into the room - instead your gaze destroyed the session, is inimical to my well-being - fucking, fucking out what soothes me is that image of u reading me those poems of david avidan when i think of that image i know ur my friend i know that u don't want to hurt me and i hold onto that image it helps me it helps me a lot it's a moment of vital, human presence i hear ur voice reading those poems and it makes me feel safe. i need my excess, "badness" - and i need to feel yours, as well - no longer there in the room - something has been lost - too contrived, too contained, too formulaic, too safe - sorry, aner - know you're disappointed - take good care". While the first illustration involves a subtle and gradual exploration of the possibility to reach psychic facts through metaphor as a bridge to secondary processes, in the second one the patient is looking for experience, not knowledge. Only primary processes can touch her, she feels, not secondary ones. This patient finds a way through poetic language. What she wants is curses and poetry, not explanations. She asks of me not to communicate like two reflective adults, secondary language repulses her. Her attitude to psychic facts is complex. From time to time she makes speculative comments about her past, but when I do the same she is annoyed. She's allowed, I am not. My patient only loves the sensations of lived experience, she does not like to discuss it, talking about it makes her feel dead. She wants our conversations to be alive and fresh and suggestive of movement. My patient's inclination to poetry rests on her preference for the excess of unintegration. She likes to float or drift between organizations, to dip into formlessness or chaos or nothingness. :” Often she wants time off from reality . This does not mean she does not respond to the real. I believe the real is there waiting to be explored but she uses poetry as the window to reality.
Original languageAmerican English
StatePublished - 2019
EventImagining with Eyes Wide Open - IARPP, תל אביב, Israel
Duration: 20 Jun 201923 Jun 2019 (Website)


ConferenceImagining with Eyes Wide Open
Cityתל אביב
Internet address


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