by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on December 6, 2010

As a psychoanalyst I believe in the power of words – spoken, written and thought. So at first, it may seem paradoxical that I should think of language as limited in helping us access and interpret our experience. It is, after all, our way of being conscious- we think in words, we articulate our thoughts in language. We communicate with ourselves and with others through language. And yet, while being a proponent of the talking cure, I am keenly aware that words and language are not enough to capture the complexity of human experience.

Take for instance, the experience we have when we listen to a piece of music. Whether the piece is a piano sonata, or a contemporary song, the emotions and memories that it may elicit are beyond what a semantic register can capture. It is the music itself that moves us, through its particular rhythms, tones and cadences, touching us deeply and stirring us from the inside. Music moves us beyond words to a visceral, deeply internal experience. While this experience can be shared, say in a concert hall, it remains particular in what it stirs in each of us. The same can be said for a work of art: a painting can capture and provoke a deep reaction in all of us. Art, in its various forms is a form of aesthetic communication that bypasses language while accessing personal experience. It dwells in an area of experience where words are not enough yet deep meaning is present. The aesthetic experience speaks through rhythms, tones, and traces that are not yet coded through language but are perceivable through colors and frequencies, a sensorial register if you will, that is yet to be defined by language and defies a particular meaning.

Poetry, despite the fact that it is a form of the written word, is an excellent example of how we “fill in” for the limits of language, “reading between the lines”. The poetry invites us to project our own forms and ideas onto the place of meaning. When we are moved by rhythm, intonation, vocal gesturing -we are deeply stirred in the poets sensory crucible, the writing has the power to use, disrupt and transgress language evocatively and convey meaning. Poetry creates a temporal experience through the use of ordinary words, which evokes extraordinary responses that cannot be made to stand still and cannot reproduce themselves in the same manner again. We feel what we feel in that moment – the life of the poem is the experience. Perhaps, as my colleague Philip Bromberg has noted, poetry is language evolved.

In his essay on Poetry and Psychoanalysis, Adam Phillips (2001) views poetry as “a way of talking of our doubts about language, skepticism inevitable in a profession committed to language as therapy- about words and the value of meaning… The privileging of poetry and poets is a counterforce to the fear that language and meaning don’t work. Or don’t work in quite the way we might want them to.”  As psychoanalysts we rely on the word to reach, translate and extend meaning to our patients. We speak, and through our speak we make it so. Sometimes my patients refuse my words, momentarily enraptured in meaning so personal and profound, that it resists words. This is the area where language breaks down and experience moves us.

Christopher Bollas (1987) identifies the aesthetic experience as that which reaches the true self and promises the elaboration of its numerous possibilities. Such a moment is an occasion when “ a person is shaken by an experience into absolute certainty that he has been cradled by, and dwelled with, the spirit of the object, a rendezvous of mute recognition that defies representation.” He refers to those moments when we are enraptured by a piece of music which makes us cry, or captured by the beauty of a painting or a sculpture, which speaks to only us in a silent personal language that stirs us deep inside. These moments are noteworthy in their intensity of feeling and their non-representational knowledge. It is often the case that the self finds expression in objects that speak to it- books, paintings, music, and dance. These objects appeal to the senses and perhaps by-pass language, reason, and cognition. Such objects are enlisted in the creation of personal meaning, and likely operate on multiple levels; language encoded and purely unformulated ones.

I think about the times when words fail to capture the intensity of a feeling or experience, when that experience remains dissociated from language and takes shape in the form of a symptom, precisely because it cannot be accessed through words. This dissociation from language allows affect to be mobile and free from the restrictions that govern language. When affective experience is deprived of its investment for verbal expression (to think, to know, to understand), it takes up residence in the senses -the gaze, voice, smell and touch, which are then experienced as intensely powerful because they remain unmediated by language. Without words to assign meaning, affect seeks an object for expression and articulation. Thus we can think of over affectation, those moments that are so powerful they overwhelm us and lead us to believe that some sort of magic has happened, as an experiential attempt to achieve symbolization. Artists circumvent semantics and language, precisely because they can communicate, capture and mediate experience through multiple and different registers. Where an object is drawn in as a co-conspirator and a potential mediator of experience- a found object to help elaborate parts of our self.

Of course, as psychoanalysts we know better than to become wedded to our verbal interpretations and technique. We know that silence, the experience of being with a particular patient, our experience of them, is a powerful carrier of meaning. By implication, we are in a position of being the object of elaboration, the container of many experiential moments which convey a meaning of their own through their powerful affective pull and challenge us to find words over and over in our sessions. Perhaps, this is the art of psychotherapy: the chance to move with another into spaces that defy language but are nevertheless steeped with meaning and experience which strives to be understood and articulated through and with another.

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