The psychoanalytic voyage of discovery is probably impossible to capture in words. If every analysis is unique, the signature of each human mind more identity-laden and whorled than any thumbprint, a verbal account of the process must fall short of its mark. Rensal the Redbit addresses the complex innocence of communication as two beings, a “tall one” and a “small one” fling the bridge of language across the chasm that separates them.
In this book the beings and their doings are represented in a mythical place but the timeless co-ordinates of communication, the relentless definition of Self in communion with the Other is the irony that informs this poetic fable of the human condition from start to finish. Analysts and analysands will identify some of the signposts depicted in Mytherranea, but any reader who was once a child and can recall echoes of the world before all its wonders were worded will probably recognize Rensal’s psychological adventures as not too different from his/her own.
A child, not long into his psychoanalytic treatment was playing with a boat that was being buffeted by great storms at sea. The boat eventually made it home safely to the port, or terminal as the child called it. Turning to his analyst and stepping out of the play, so to speak, the child said: “Maybe you can become a person terminal for me.” This was most significant since for months the child had ridiculed the analyst as a useless presence in his life. Now he was contemplating the idea of “using” the analyst, as Winnicott would say, as a mentor of insight and development.
Childhood is a kind of private madness, neurosis a kind of perfect storm, inside all of us. Reality is drenched in magic even though we all try to behave as if that were not so. Words are very unreal things that we all treat as pillars of a reality we have been constructing since childhood. We convince ourselves that the word for sky in some way captures the perceptual vastness of what it is we have designated as the sky. It certainly does not, but we need to go about our daily rounds convinced that that which we call the sky will not fall as long as our word for it keeps it aloft. We all endorse this peculiar contract we have with reality even when dreams or strange memories of childhood remind us that underneath conventional reality lies a subversive world that literature and art constantly exploit to remind us all of the womb of childhood we emerged from. A psychoanalyst lives with this paradox daily. I wanted to find a way of capturing this in simple poetic language: I came up with the idea of Rensal the Redbit, a tiny animal who enters into a strange dialogue with a mysterious but sympathetic tall one.
Such dialogues are, after all, typical of child analysis. A child, contemplating his therapeutic progress and his impending readiness for termination of child analysis, looked out the window of the playroom and seeing some flowers said: “Flowers grow so fast. Children take a while.” In eight words he seemed to have captured all of childhood conflict, the wish to grow up fast, and the wish to slow down and remain a child forever. Rensal was an attempt to capture this conflict, at the heart of childhood, and dare I say at the heart of adulthood as well, in a once upon a time sort of atmosphere.
I have called Rensal the Redbit a psychoanalytic fairy tale for want of a better way of naming it. I wanted the story to be surreal and quite real all at once very much like the way childhood is surreal and real all at once. If you ask me where the name Rensal came from I would have a hard time coming up with an answer. When I was a child a red scarf that I wore seemed to have magical properties as if all perception and all of memory were contained in it, as it not only kept me warm but was the wind’s plaything as well. The mysterious wind rode like a genie on a little carpet I wore around my neck! I was protected by a red bit of cloth that had magical properties. That may explain the origin of redbit but what about Rensal? Was it the word rental, with only one letter changed, a reference perhaps to the transient nature of life itself, a frail domicile of breathing and heart beats we do not own but merely rent for the brevity of a life span? Did it come from pencil with the first letter changed, a tribute to the magic of writing itself perhaps? Was there something of Wenceslas and the Feast of Stephen in it, the snows of childhood Christmases falling forever on fields of memory, like Dylan Thomas’s snow that fell for “six days and six nights when he was twelve, or was it twelve days and twelve nights when he was six”? I suppose it came from where all associations come from, that aesthetic cave that opens and closes so mysteriously, revealing glimpses of unconscious reality and then just as quickly cloaking itself in darkness once again. The first chapter of Rensal flowed out of my imagination effortlessly as if the words were merely clothing for an emotional reality that had needed to express itself for a long time. Having finished the first chapter I thought at first that I was done: Rensal had met the tall one, they had talked about shadows and night fears and dreams and even death itself. What else was there to talk about? But an emotional rhythm inside me would not rest until it found more words to clothe itself with and express the urgency of all that Rensal needed to blurt out to his most engaging and mysterious listener. Fifteen more chapters seemed to clamor for expression as Rensal’s questions demanded answers. Where did play come from? And games? And prejudice? And who was your first friend? And is a stuffed animal a friend if you love it? And would god laugh up his sleeve at credulous redbits? And what is war? And what is sex? And what are stars? And what is development? And do questions eventually end? And answers? And do relationships change as we age and die?
I wanted to capture some of these mysteries and questions and even question the answers that seem to plug the dyke of mystery briefly, like a child’s finger, until the mystery flows and overflows all over again and we are all awash in the wonder of life as long as we live. We have learned how to swim on the surface of reality to be sure but only a fool believes that the ocean of knowledge can ever be completely fathomed. Rensal seems to know this as he grows and questions everything under the sun. If man is the “the measure of all things”, a small finite creature in awe of the infinite, I have imagined Rensal pressing his tiny frame against such infinite vastness and becoming more and more human as he does so. “Flowers grow so fast. Children take a while.” Rensal discovers that a while can be a lifetime and that even that span of time is not enough to decode the mystery of the life of flowers or the life of children. Rensal discovers the mystery of himself, the mystery of his heart and mind, and that is a lot for one tiny creature to learn.
Eugene J. Mahon, MD, is a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Columbia Psychoanalytic Center for Training and Research and at the Contemporary Freudian Society. He is also a member of the Center for Advanced Psychoanalytic Studies, Princeton, New Jersey. He won The Alexander Beller Award of Columbia Psychoanalytic Institute in 1984, and has been on the editorial boards of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, the Journal of The American Psychoanalytic Association and he is currently on the editorial board of the Psychoanalytic Quarterly. He practices Child Analysis and Adult Analysis in New York City.
His book Rensal the Redbit is published this week by Karnac Books.
‘Eugene Mahon has written a dreamily whimsical, charming little book that is lovely to read and a delight to review. It is as poetic as it is philosophical, as undefinable in purpose as it is recognizable in the array of concerns expressed in it, as private as it is broad in its appeal.’ – Martin A. Silverman, from the The Psychoanalytic Quarterly Review