“Meaning”: Part-1: self-image, metaphor, mysticism, and poetic images: a psychoanalytic perspective

In a very interesting study, the psychoanalyst Gisela Pankow (Pankov & Synodinou, 1989) refers to a case of a psychotic patient who eventually was cured through her psychotherapeutic intervention.

Pankow describes Psychosis as a “lack of body,” meaning that the psychotic subject cannot acquire an image of his own identity and body, which will allow him to define and delimit himself into a mental shape and, thus, separate the “internal” subjective qualities from the objective, “external” experiences. We can describe a parallel phenomenon in the case in which a psychotic person feels as if he “leaves his body” (Pankow & Synodinou, 1989). To most people, this phenomenon works as a defense mechanism; for example, in times of intense stress, the person seems to be “removed” from reality. In more extreme cases, abused individuals describe that they felt as if they were leaving their bodies during their abuse experience. In that case, the body-image, and the overall “sense of a body,” symbolically refers to being a “subject” and to “subjectivity”: a mental limit of the self, or a form through which the self separates itself from alterity (from the “outside” of this limit) (Pankow & Synodinou, 1989). We can parallelize this mental area with a playground (Winnicott, 1971), where the subject gathers information from the outside world and tries to manage it by using his or her phantasy. A key term related to phantasy is “metaphor” because, as we will see below, phantasy is a meaning-making process in which the experience of reality is interwoven with subjective qualities. Subjective qualities are ascribed to reality through “metaphors.”

To acquire a sense of self-image, one must ascribe metaphoric meaning to his or her subjective memories and experiences, which would enable the subjective qualities that characterize memories and experiences to relate to the “external” reality. This will in turn, delimit the subjective, and enable the subject to reflect upon an “alterity” that exists in opposition. Without an ascription of meaning to subjective memories and experiences, no relationship between the “subjective” and the “external” reality could be defined (definition=setting limits 1), thus creating the sense of lacking a body or shape described by psychotics.

In Pankow’s study, she describes how, during the sessions she had with patients, she tried to ascribe meaning to their chaotic pool of memories and experiences. As she has found out, psychotic patients had all their memories and experiences scrabbled in a chaotic, meaningless way, thus disabling them from having a coherent, delimited and defined sense of themselves and their subjectivity. Nevertheless, their memories and experiences were there. In other words, they needed a meaning; a form that would enable them to arrange their experiences and views in a defined way. That did not mean that this formation and definition of memories would need to be arranged in a “logical,” linear” or “objective” order, but that they would need to ascribe to their memories a “metaphoric” meaning that would enable internal coherence, while also work as a ligament associating the “internal” – subjective qualities – with the “external” experiences. This structuration of the patients’ memories would enable a delimited sense of self, a defined subjectivity vis-à-vis the alterity.

The healing process included a series of drawings on a piece of paper created by the patient. The therapist would interpret the drawings, thus intervening to the way the patient ascribes meaning to his memories and experiences. According to Pankow, the therapist’s intervention and the patient’s paintings’ interpretations by her were not meant to be used diagnostically. However, they would be used as a framework to define the patient’s memories, thus creating a delimited shape of himself vis-à-vis the alterity as described previously. The analyst’s intervention intended to integrate the experiences and the memories of the psychotic patient into a narrative that would essentially give him a sense of being. Pankow mentions how, in months, the patient created four sketches on paper, gradually, and through the analyst’s intervention building a narrative for their projected memories, thoughts, and experiences.

Three of the four images created by Gisela Pankow’s patient with Psychosis. The images represent the patient’s subjective experiences and memories in a chaotic way. Pankow tried to give a narrative – a meaning – to these subjective experiences by using the images as references. That way, she would structure a coherent sense of self for the patient.

From the above study, we can understand that meaning works as a ligament that connects and associates the “internal” subjective qualities with the “external” experiences and memories of a subject. The metaphor (and the metaphorical) is that link. Julia Kristeva uses Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu to refer to this phenomenon. She says:

The narrator speaks of dreams without images […], woven with pleasures and/or pains that “one” “believes” […] unnamable, that mobilize the extreme intensity of the five senses and that only a cascade of metaphors can attempt to “translate” […] (Kristeva, 2012, p. 7-8).

Similarly, Kristeva sees mysticism as another form of understanding reality through imagination. That is not to say that mysticism describes reality accurately or that we can base our understanding of reality on mysticism, but rather that mystical narratives and images work as metaphors that link subjective qualities with objective experiences. This idea is similar to the idea of Carl Jung in his book Mysterium Coniunctionis (Jung & Adler, 1970), in which he describes mysticism as a poetic state which is accessible through metaphor.

Mystical images, non-linear and poetic narratives, can be the interface onto which the experiences and memories we have, collectively and individually, meet our subjective qualia, our subjective disposition towards reality.   

Imagery of mysticism. In the left one is inscribed: Figura Iohannis Tercia and the right one: duos caputis melior quam unus est. Alchemical and mystical Images such as these, were used as tools by Carl Jung and James Hillman to understand the human psychology.

Book references:

Winnicott, D. (1971). Playing and Reality. New York: Routledge.

Kristeva, J., & Brahic, B. B. (2011). This Incredible Need to Believe (European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism). New York: Columbia University Press.

Jung, C. G., & Adler, G. (1970). Mysterium Coniunctionis (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.14). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Πανκόφ, Γ., & Συνοδινού, Κ. (1989). Ο άνθρωπος και η ψύχωσή του. Αθήνα: Πύλη.

References within the text:

1 Definition etymology: diffinicioun, definicion, “decision, setting of boundaries, determination and stating of the limits and distinctive nature of a thing,” also “limitations,” also “a statement of the meaning of a word or phrase,” from Old French definicion, from Latin definitionem (nominative definitio) “a bounding, a boundary; a limiting, prescribing; a definition, explanation,” the last sense most often in Cicero, noun of action from past-participle stem of definire “to limit, determine, explain,” from de “completely” (see de-) + finire “to bound, limit,” from finis “boundary, end” (see finish(v.)). In logic, meaning “act of stating what something means” is from 1640s. Meaning “degree of distinctness of the details in a picture” is from 1889 [from: Online Etymology Dictionary: source: https://www.etymonline.com]

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