I have been fascinated by images ever since I can remember. How embarrassing for my mother, proudly introducing her three-year-old son to the principal of the school at which she taught only to have the little one say, “You’re a whale.” To this moment, I can see myself seeing this good man as a whale as vividly as the instant it happened. His body and demeanour became a prompt for a waking dream image selected from swarms of inner possibilities, seas of images within. For the little boy, people were not only people. They also were these images and, at times, this led to trouble.
Wilfred R. Bion wrote a good deal about “verbal images” and for a poet, verbal images can create experiential realities. I’m no longer sure when I became aware that words were packed with colour and tone. I could actually hear music and see colours when writing and sometimes speaking, as if words were colours and tones and the latter words. The separation ordinarily made between such media did not hold for me. Later in life I was drawn to and profoundly influenced by psychoanalysts who painted, drew, and had a feel for poetry and music – Marion Milner, D. W. Winnicott, and Wilfred Bion.
Sense is a word that spans many dimensions of experience, a kind of unifying word: e.g., the five or six senses, proprioception and kinaesthesia, common sense, animal or vital sensing, sense as meaning, intuition, a felt sense, a self-sense, a sense of self and other, God-sense. A lot of sensing goes on in psychoanalytic sessions, with one’s self, others, art and writing. One senses mood, atmospheric conditions, feeling.
Sensing often gives rise to images acting as expressive “feelers”, touching and opening experiential worlds moments convey. Herbert Read felt that image preceded idea by about two hundred years. Hopefully, in a particular life the situation is more condensed. It is a real issue, how we sense our life and our images of it. Identity fields flow from them.
In Western epistemology, sensation and image have been second-class citizens until the Romantic Movement, but poets and mystics have always valued them. As I point out in The Psychotic Core, Freud used images drawn from spiritual experience to describe creative processes.
The first chapter of my new book Image, Sense, Infinities, and Everyday Life explores birth as an image sense used to describe feeling. Literal, physical birth turns into an expressive verbal image for sensations of change and transformation. Bion spoke of psychoanalysis as embryonic, not yet born or in uneven aspects of birth. Similarly, human personality. There are ways we are born and fail to be born all life long. Biblical psalms and prophesies link states of birth to mood. When God is gone, the psalmist may die out emotionally. When the Divine Presence manifests, the psalmist comes emotionally alive. We repeatedly undergo variations of death-rebirth experiences emotionally. The prophet promises God will give us a new soul, a new spirit, fresh as snow. Spiritual texts throughout the world supply colorful language to express affective dramas.
Bion links a sense of empty-full with the feeding situation, the infant’s full and empty states at the mother’s breast, sensations that turn into a vocabulary for emotional and spiritual states. Emptiness-fullness expand in meaning as one grows. They take many turns in Bion’s work. For example, Bion values a space unsaturated by meaning so that meaning can grow, in contrast with over-saturated space with little room for more. We develop a sense for the rise and fall of affect in sessions, the interplay of good and bad feeling, and a kind of internal psychic “body English” towards tipping the balance for the better.
The next two chapters, “Image from the Bushes” and “Fermenting Devils in Psychosis,” take up psychotic states in two individuals who underwent repeated hospitalizations and through therapy became hospital free. We follow descriptions of waking and dream images that beset them, often expressing catastrophic states. At times there is a hairsbreadth between evil and benevolent infinities. One envisions finites in infinities and infinities in finites. The poet, Thomas Traherne, called perception a form of imagination, an expression that touched Marion Milner, sensitive as she was to the life of images, how loaded they can be with opposite feelings and values, yet also stillness, null moments, creative void.
Chapter four, ‘Where is body?”, focuses on body experience and related sensation-images. Body work has been a significant part of my life since my twenties. There are times body becomes part of a process of debasement and times it is part of grace. There are moments Saint Paul feels so filled with grace he does not know where body is.
I trace variations, ins and outs of body states, that not only enriched but changed my life, as well as tracing important moments for patients. Body experiences are part of spiritual systems and language (good heart, bad heart, organ sensation, emotion, spirit). One only has to think of Kabbalah’s sephirot or Hindu chakras to open fields of experience that include yet go beyond what we normally call body to the body ineffable. Bion speaks of infinities of emotional life, furthering dialogue between psychoanalysis and mystical dimensions of living.
Chapter five, “There is no no,” playfully varies ways that ‘yes’ and ‘no’ interact and see what we find in no worlds and yes worlds. We travel through Freud, work with one of my patients, Jodorowski’s El Topo, Biblical stories, Tao, Lacan, weaving dimensions each opens.
Chapter six, “Shame,” explores cultural and individual images-sensations associated with shame. The main part of the chapter involves interactions between my patient, Peter, and myself. Shame is often associated with body parts but permeates psyche. It is one of the basic human responses noted in the Bible. Session dialogue brings out positive and negative values of shame, which play a role in stagnation, self-decimation and transformation processes.
Chapter seven, “My session with André”, recounts my session with André Green when he was in New York and its aftermath. I felt he was the real thing. Later, when I became Program Chair for the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, I invited him to speak and we had further interactions described here. The chapter moves into seminal aspects of Green’s thought, drawing especially on a paper he gave 1975 in London, which Anna Freud responded to. It does something to come into contact with people who can stir life in complex ways.
In Chapter eight, “Figments, facts, interruption, hints, and…” I take up themes in James Grotstein’s work and weave tapestries with them and an unfinished movie directed by Kumar Shahani drawing on Bion’s A Memoir of the Future, which Bion describes as “a fictitious account of psycho-analysis including an artificially constructed dream”. One could say, a dream of psychoanalysis or a psychoanalytic dream. Meg Harris Williams co-wrote the script. In addition to writing about some of my meetings with Grotstein, I include excerpts from a play of my own that touches “indistinguishable” aspects of emotion and metaphor growing from the navel of dream.
Chapter nine, “Changing forms”, is made up of session excerpts with a patient I call Tom. Sessions gravitate to crises of faith. Is life worth living? Am I worth living it? With what quality? We want life to be good, not evil, and go through all kinds of situations and feeling. Tom and I, with each other and inside ourselves, go through experiences dense with wound, hope, desperation, peace, trying to find ways to affirm the human spirit and creativeness we so value. There are moments the crowded search itself becomes an opening.
Chapter ten, “Some biographical notes” traces experiences that led me to become an analyst. It covers early life, college, trying to find myself as a young man, influences, and significant moments. As the life of analysis and therapy opens, moments go beyond anything we read or heard or thought about.
Marion Milner is one of the people who played an important role in giving me permission to be me. We met in 1975 and corresponded until the end of her life. In homage and because of intrinsic interest, I am including an Appendix with two book reviews of her work I did, separated by almost forty years. The first in 1977, On Not Being Able to Paint. I felt the Appendix in that book a psychoanalytic masterpiece, a condensed treasure of images related to creative processes that I taught for many years. I also taught André Green’s 1975 paper on changes in psychoanalysis many years and write about it in the chapter on Green noted above.
The second review was published in 2014 on Bothered by Alligators, which she wrote towards the end of her life and was still working on the morning she died at the age of ninety-eight. She writes on pictures her son drew as a child, relating them to her maternal depression. She covers a wide range of topics in a short time, including her critique of what she considered her failed analysis with Winnicott. A concern that runs through her work is the creative spirit, particularly creativity and psychoanalysis, psychoanalytic creativity.
I once wrote psychoanalysis is a form of prayer. Recently, Isolde Keilhofer sent a note to my online Yahoo workshop quoting Denise Levertov:
“I’m not very good at praying, but what I experience when I’m writing a poem is close to prayer. I feel it in different degrees and not with every poem. But in certain ways writing is a form of prayer.”
To which Isolde adds: “Perhaps reading, too, is an act of shared faith.”
Reading is a pipeline to the soul and minds of writers throughout the ages, people who were reading life and sharing it with us. Sometimes I’ve felt like my books are messages in a bottle in a vast, unknown sea – meant from soul to soul, often a matter of chance as to who happens on what. In response to this image Isolde wrote, “Imagine messages in bottles found on the seashore of endless worlds, where Winnicott’s children play.” She is referring to a passage by Tagore that Winnicott quotes: “On the seashore of endless worlds, children play.”
A sense of a deep mystery, an aura of the sacred and profound, touches many of us. William James wrote that many people have moving, numinous experiences they do not often speak about. If I can build on Isolde’s messages, “Therapy, too, is an act of shared faith” – or sometimes can be and sometimes is.
Michael Eigen is a psychologist and psychoanalyst, and the 2015 recipient of the NAAP Lifetime Achievement Award. He is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology in the Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis at New York University, and a Senior Member of the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis. He is the author of a number of books, including Toxic Nourishment, The Psychoanalytic Mystic, Feeling Matters and Flames from the Unconscious. His latest book, Image, Sense, Infinities, and Everyday Life, is published this week by Karnac Books.