Walk on air against your better judgement

Freud loved and respected literature. He not only read the classics for inspiration, but credited novelists, such as Lytton Strachey, and Arthur Schnitzler, (upon whose writing Stanley Kubrick’s film, Eyes Wide Shut, is based), as best grasping his work.

Despite striving for scientific precision, Freud famously admitted that his case studies read more like novellas, but most of all, the inventor of psychoanalysis admitted that it was poets, not him, who first discovered the unconscious. It happened by doing things with words, words that formed sentences like this one from Irish poet, Seamus Heaney. Accepting his Nobel Prize in 1995, Heaney spoke of instructing himself (and whoever else might be listening) to “walk on air against your better judgement”.

It is not immediately clear what these words mean, but that is part of their appeal. Unlike numbers, which can be exact and unambiguous, words bend and break and leave space for our imagination. Not just that – as Freud found, their very flexibility allows us – people or patients – to invent new meaning. It is this inventiveness that both Freud and his French interpreter, Jacques Lacan, felt constituted a clinical cure.

This can take place because, as Seamus Heaney, explained, poetry is able to craft an order as true to external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of being as are physical events. It is an order, “where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew; an order that satisfies all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections”. Heaney, who wrote rather than treated, credited poetry for “making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference.” It is an elegant phrase, and reflects poetry’s links to therapy.

As La Trobe University Professor Judith Brett, remarks: “Psychoanalysis, like poetry, is one way of attending to the inner life, one way of understanding emotions, a way of approaching the self as it is constructed and deconstructed in language.” This is not something that is readily embraced. We are constantly turning away from the inner life, and while it is tempting to see poetry as a corrective, it is not that simple.

While poetry’s way with words can take us out of our rut and toward a higher truth, can that truth be relied on, or does it perhaps lack what Samuel Johnson called “the stability of truth”? Heaney wondered about this, and so did Freud and Lacan. For Heaney the slippery nature of truth was revealed in the way that the mind – rather than being itself stable – was the site of contending discourses. For him, these were the “child in the bedroom, listening simultaneously to the domestic idiom of his Irish home and the official idioms of the British broadcaster while picking up from behind both the signals of some other distress.” For Freud the trickiness of poetic truth lay in the uncanny way that metaphor both alluded to, and yet sidestepped, trauma. Lacan took it further, seeing truth, like facts, as constructed rather than pre-existing, and preferring what he called the real, a kind of unspoken truth that emerged in action.

This notion is hinted at in poet Archibald MacLeish’s insistence that a poem should be “equal to/not true.” There are times, in other words, when we want the poem to be not only pleasurably right but compellingly wise – as Heaney persuasively says: “Not only a surprising variation played upon the world, but a re-tuning of the world itself -like the impatient thump that unexpectedly restores the picture to the television set.”

It is a thump that brings to mind the blow delivered to Zen monks to awaken their awareness, or the jolt that Lacan advocates – by way of a more literal interpretation – to shake the analysand out of his comfortable metaphors. Something like this also struck the American poet, Joy Katz, when her mother died, and she realised poetry was not going to banish the pain. She became suspicious of metaphor – metaphor that tried to equate her mother with the sea, or the trees, when she was neither.  “I tried to feel around in my soul for whether my mother could ever become the trees. But I couldn’t. Metaphor said: you are deficient, you have not found a place for her”.

It was only later, watching a play, that Katz realized elegies are false. “They think they can talk to the dead but dead people speak in the language of the dead; we can’t”.

The play drew on the classical story of Eurydice going to the underworld after death -where she sees her father, but does not recognize him – to talk about bereavement. The play understood that loss is something to grieve, not avoid, and that mourning may give way to new possibilities, but not to the fantasy of closure. As Katz writes, the vital part of grieving was not trying to reach “resolve” or cross the distance between her mother alive and her mother dead. Grieving was the distance. Eurydice then, led her back to poetry because it is not an elegy. It is “about being left behind”.

Left behind, not because Katz did not know where her mother was, nor because she had too little faith or imagination to envision where her mother was, but because she could not recognize the “her” that her mother had become. This led Katz – as it did Freud when his beloved grandson died – to see that, unless you mourn, actually feeling and acknowledging the loss, the deficit will go on, and lead to melancholia.

Katz returned to poetry, but not the sort that strives to be “like” grieving – the poems she sought were not lamentations, but ways of opening up the isolating process of mourning. They translated sorrow through poetic form rather than confining it to a metaphor. An example was Ai’s Cuba, 1962, in which a plantation hand who discovers his lover dead in the sugar cane, cuts off her feet with a machete — “what I take from the earth, I give back.” Then he takes her body to market with the crop.

Whoever tastes my woman in his candy, his cake,

tastes something sweeter than this sugar cane;  

it is grief.

If you eat too much of it, you want more,  

you can never get enough.”

As with psychoanalytic interpretation, this worked because it was surprising. In rhyming grief with greed, it showed Katz a stage of mourning she passed through without realizing: “punishing aboundingness.”