Reverie and the Creation of Self
by Antony Geralis
I had surgery on my right eye four months ago. The outcome was not what the ophthalmologist had expected. My vision was not improved. The doctor promised to “make it right.” I had no idea what that meant. He never told me that he had surgically implanted the wrong lens.
This text is not about the problem of the implanted lens causing a visual distortion, but about the emotional distortion caused by the doctor’s imposed view of the medical situation. He had an idea of the path we were going to take to “make it right,” which involved an additional surgery. Because we never discussed the consequences, possible risks, or any alternative options, I was in the dark. I was left behind as a participant in the whole decision-making process. Except for my eye, it was a path that excluded any of my interests or concerns. Caught up in his momentum, I felt paralyzed with confusion. I now know that I was responding to my unconscious screaming: “Stop!” This feeling allowed me to stop consciously and get off his train. It made me see how his non-acknowledged lens had eclipsed my own reality.
This is a final paper for a psychoanalytic course on Madness in Literature. My eye experience has allowed me to see the literature of the course and the drive behind this paper with a new focus. My methodology for the paper was to revisit all the questions that had somehow not been explored during the semester, questions that had gnawed at me. Having gathered all the quotes that mattered, I began to work through them and discover the mystery of their connections. I see now that I was removing the imposed filtered lenses of others, finding my own lens, and carefully noticing what I saw.
My anxiety of seeing through a different lens was evident from the first reading of the class, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. I was disturbed by the fact that Oedipus blinded himself when he realized that he had unknowingly lived out his fate. Nobody else in the class seemed to be concerned by this, but the Oedipus story mortified me. Our next reading was E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann. It’s the story of Nathaniel, a tormented soul who was traumatized by his mother warning him to go to bed early because the Sandman was coming. The book is filled with themes about eyes, including gory images of a terrifying Sandman that tears out the eyes of children. Freud (1919) writes about it in The Uncanny:
Although little Nathaniel was sensible and old enough not to credit the figure of the Sand-Man with such gruesome attributes, yet the dread of him became fixed in his heart (p. 228).
For Nathaniel, logic was a useless tool in helping him with the terror in his heart. Without elaborating on Freud’s ideas from The Uncanny, I will simply say that the timing of my eye problem was rather remarkable. It was during the course of reading Der Sandmann that I began to notice a distortion in the vision of my right eye. This incident led me to see a doctor and have surgery during the final weeks of the semester. I wrote this paper during the recovery process, waiting for my body to adjust to the incorrect lens. And now, after the experience with the doctor, I can use that perspective to redefine and reframe my experience of the course and the themes of this text.
What is Literature?
I am not interested in answering that question in fact, but I do want to wonder about it. Are works of literature reveries? Are they the writers’ attempts to put into words the chaos, elations, and tragedies of life? Is all of art, for that matter, that same effort to create a form out of an experience? Certainly, these works of art compel the reader toward his own reveries. And do the writers’ reveries provide containers that can give a sense of order and make the unbearable tolerable? This may allow the reader to enter a deeper level of experience, one that is longed for but has been too overstimulating for the self.
In the beginning of the course, I perceived literature as an intimidating, dangerous, and possibly annihilating other. The course title alone frightened me. My anxiety intensified when I saw the reading list and started to find my way through the literature. I cannot explain how this all became an annihilating other. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.
“…I tormented myself as to how to begin my account in a significant, original, gripping fashion” (p. 22), E.T.A. Hoffman (2016) writes of his struggle to express his complex and consuming inner experience. He has invited the reader into an intimate relationship with him and his process, which immediately allowed me to become a part of something that may be impossible to express in words. “…I could find no words to reflect even the faintest glimmer of the burning heart of the matter” (p. 22). He’s got me. I’m all in.
Have you, gentle reader, ever experienced anything that so completely permeated your heart, your mind and your thoughts that it supplanted all other notions? And your intimates asked you: ‘What is it, friend? What on earth is the matter with you?’ And then you want to describe your state of mind in all the glowing colors and shadows and lights, and strained to find the words, and didn’t know where to begin (pp. 20, 21).
I’m wondering if we all struggle with Hoffmann’s dilemma of how to put into words, how to communicate to another person, how to have a relationship, when what we are yearning for does not seem possible to express. I felt cared for as a reader by his including us in his process before he proceeded with the story. He let us know how important that story was to him, and that he was tormented by how to do it justice by putting it into words.
Back to Oedipus. J. Laplanche & J. -B. Pontalis (1973) write in In The language of psycho-analysis that “every new arrival on this planet is faced with the task of mastering the Oedipus complex” (p. 283). They begin by defining the Oedipus complex as an “organized body of loving and hostile wishes which the child experiences towards its parents” (p. 282). Freud (1966) wrote in Extracts from the Fliess Papers that all humans are Oedipus. We all must reckon with our own desires to love and kill.
But the Greek legend seizes on a compulsion which everyone recognizes because he feels its existence within himself. Each member of the audience was once, in germ and in phantasy, just such an Oedipus, and each one recoils in horror from the dream-fulfillment here transplanted into reality, with the whole quota of repression which separates his infantile state from his present one (p. 265).
If we all are Oedipus, I’m wondering if the core of most struggles is what to do with that internal ambivalence. We love and want to kill. How could another person possibly be able to hear that from us? How could that possibly be expressed? How do we keep from being isolated with that ambivalence? The feelings may not be at such an extreme level as wanting to murder, but the idea of how to broach what isn’t working in relationships is always a challenge that is mostly censored.
I certainly was battling my own ambivalence throughout the course. I had trouble processing the actual stories of the literature. In my mind, that deficiency put me in danger. At the same time, the themes from the readings that did resonate strongly with me went unspoken by the class, which left me feeling invisible. In the final class, I was able to express very clearly how I had needed to stay with the writers’ processes and had a hard time taking in their artistic work. A fellow student who was sympathetic to my message approached me after class and said something like this: “Why didn’t you just say what you said today at the beginning of the semester? It would have been so much clearer. I finally understood what you were talking about.” She wasn’t being critical in the least. She was celebrating clarity. I guess she was impatient with my vagueness and the time it took me to disclose something that, in her mind, could have been easily simplified and would have saved her having to witness my struggle.
I had a difficult time with Clara in The Sandman. She is the love interest of the complicated Nathaniel. She cannot tolerate Nathaniel’s inner torment. “Such mystical musings were altogether repugnant to the sensible Clara” (p. 25). Under the guise of love, she clearly loves only parts of him and wishes his complexities to be thrown out. She is not emotionally evolved enough to understand that those parts are also him and cannot be discarded. Hoffmann writes about Nathaniel:
His writings were dark, incomprehensible, shapeless, so that even though, not wanting to hurt him, Clara said nothing, he nevertheless sensed how unreceptive she was. Nothing was more deadly for Clara than this boring stuff; in every look and word she revealed her insurmountable intellectual ennui…so the two drifted inwardly further and further apart without noticing it (p. 27).
Clara responds directly to Nathaniel with: “Nathaniel - my dearly beloved Nathaniel! Throw that raving - senseless - insane fairy tale into the fire” (p. 29). Clara is not up to the task of loving this man. The label of “boring stuff” is revealing. She is defended against her own deficiencies and projects those inadequacies onto Nathaniel by telling him he is just too much. If only those aspects of him could be thrown in the fire. Don’t we all have Nathaniel in us, some complexity, our own Oedipal struggle that is just too much for others? In the case of both Oedipus and Nathaniel, they internalize and blame themselves for the inner complexities they experience as they work through life. They cannot accept the flawed human nature of themselves and others. Oedipus blinds himself for the fate he unknowingly acted out even though he did everything he could to prevent it. He could not accept that he was a flawed human being battling his fate.
After Clara’s severe limitations caused her to reject Nathaniel’s attempt to express his soul, his reaction is described as follows: “Whereupon, shoving Clara away from him, Nathaniel leapt up in a fury and cried out: ‘You lifeless, accursed automaton!’ He ran off, leaving Clara completely mortified, weeping bitter tears.” (p. 30). He then moves away from seeing her as the source of the problem and takes it all on himself. “Can you ever forgive me, my only, my ever so dearly beloved Clara!” (p. 31).
Neither of them can reconcile the ambivalence. They can’t integrate the negative feelings with the positive. In The Uses of Enchantment, B. Bettelheim (1976) writes:
In the myth there is only insurmountable difficulty and defeat; in the fairy tale there is equal peril, but it is successfully overcome. Not death and destruction, but higher integration - as symbolized by victory over the enemy or competitor, and by happiness - is the hero’s reward at the end of the fairy tale. To gain it, he undergoes growth experiences that parallel those necessary for the child’s development toward maturity (p. 199).
Myths and fairy tales have lived on for centuries and helped us to work through our developmental processes. I’m intrigued by the differences in how they function, being that the fairy tales give us hope and courage, while the myths result in the viewer experiencing the deepest tragedy. Why would anyone want to see or hear these tragedies?
There is a reason why fairy tales are geared toward children and the myths toward adults. The fairy tale offers a means of successfully overcoming seemingly insurmountable difficulties. It provides a kind of container for the child. The story itself is the container, the adult in the room, that makes the child feel safe and not alone. That container is a kind of psychic holding that can manage the unbearable.
F. L. Griffin (2005) writes in Clinical conversations between psychoanalysis and imaginative literature:
Bion describes containment as an active process whereby the infant’s/analysand’s sensory and somatic experience is projected into the mother/analyst (who possesses a containing function), whereupon it is modified —given a shape/form—so that it ‘has become tolerable to the infant’s psyche’. The act of containment and the internalization of the containing process/function promote growth by creating the capacity for self-awareness and for thinking (p. 458).
I’m reminded of a very minor character named Moddle in H. James’s (2010) What Maisie Knew. The main character, Maisie, is a child caught in the middle of her narcissistic parents’ bitter divorce. Moddle was Maisie’s first caretaker. Though her appearance in the book seems incidental, I’m now struck by the foundation of self she gave Maisie by containing the unbearable for her, giving her a model for a self that had yet to be developed. S. Brookes (2002) writes:
…by the time she went to the other house, Maisie had evidently taken in and made part of herself Moddle’s belief in a container: a place where thoughts (originally arising from the absence or loss of something) could be kept, in the hope that thinking and linking would give the experience meaning (p. 424).
In contrast to fairy tales, myths do not help us by offering a buffer from the horror of our unconscious drive. As adults we no longer need the relief the fairy tales offer. We have enough of a self to survive through our own struggle which we must all individually find, an uncharted course which can be designed only by each of our own unconsciousness. The myth gives us the greatest gift. It trusts our selves enough not to rescue us. It does not dilute the horror of the reality in any way. That is the gift that allows us to overcome our resistance to the next stage of the developmental process.
I remember meeting a film buff in Greece on one of my travels. He told me that he hated American films. He said he could not stand that they were always nicely tied up with an ending, and that European films didn’t do that. At the time I thought that he was a bit arrogant for categorizing all American films that way, but I wonder if what bothered him was this protection by the filmmakers of the audience, a protection that denied them the opportunity to sit through the unrest and allow the psyche to do its work. I’m thinking of my experience in class of wanting to introduce and stay in the world of uncertainty and questions and often receiving responses from the class that were resolutions and answers. What I wanted was to perpetuate my curiosity. In retrospect, I realize I was feeling a powerful elation from my reveries, a connection to self and life, and then an equally powerful deadness when these ideas were met with resolution. What I found satisfying was the state of being unresolved.
The teacher of our course, Uta Gosmann, (2015) writes in her paper, The analytic field and its transformations:
In Bion’s model of the mind, reverie is essential to the transformation of sensory experience into language… alpha-function (transforming sense impressions into pictograms), according to Bion, is “the mind’s first locus of creativity,” and reverie (transforming sense pictograms into narrative) is the second. The impairment of either creative capacity is considered the foremost cause of pathology (p. 101).
For me, the word “creativity” is synonymous with the self. When the process to creativity is damaged, the development of the self is impaired. Going back to my original question, are works of literature beautifully constructed reveries on observations of life? “Ferro and Civitarese believe that they are ‘the most profound form of thought of which we are capable,’ and that nothing helps a person live more than these living metaphors” (ibid., p. 102). Do these works help the creators construct an internal container for themselves, one that can bring an order to the chaos of life? “Reveries are conceived of as maximally charged with potential to promote growth of mind. Their combination of emotion and concept, feeling and idea, can achieve psychosomatic integration and confer meaning on life” (ibid., pp. 101, 102).
Are readers also then feeling a parallel exhilaration by hearing these struggles and tragedies of life offered in a form that is tolerable? It feels like the mother containing the impossible feelings until the child’s self can be formed enough to find his own inner container relationship. F.L. Griffen (2005) writes:
In instances where I have found works of literature useful to the conduct of my clinical work, there is no simple relationship between the experience captured in the work of fiction and that found in my experience with my patient. Rather, there is something in common between the unspoken language of the transference-countertransference and the way language is used by the imaginative writer in his or her work of fiction that brings these works to mind (p. 445).
It is not the identification of the reader to the manifest content of the story, but to the ineffable experience of the writer’s process that passes on this order, this sense of form, this container that can then carry the free flow of creativity from the writer to the reader. Again, I think of Maisie’s first caretaker, Moddle in H. James’s (2010) What Maisie Knew. S. Brookes (2002) writes:
Maisie was able to commit experience too difficult for her to Moddle’s maternal reverie, whence it was returned as thinkable. Together they create mental space for the storage of experience too hard for the child to think about and found ways to build “a guard within” Maisie to help her at times of crisis (p. 425).
Being very new to literature and entering into the semester with great intimidation before this art form, my experience of it has now changed. Prior to the class, I thought of it as an escape, a way to get away from oneself. I didn’t want that. As a matter of fact, it felt dangerous to me. So, I did all I could to prepare in an attempt to not to become lost. Now I think of literature as a container and a way to relieve us from being overwhelmed by making sense of the overwhelming. It’s a way of connecting, of not being alone. Through his depth of work, the writer is with us and has given us the reverie around his characters’ experiences.
In U. Gosmann’s Psychoanalyzing Persephone (2010), an American poet Louise Glück is quoted from Education of the Poet:
Analysis taught me to think. Taught me to use my tendency to object to articulated ideas on my own ideas, taught me to use doubt, to examine my own speech for its evasions and excisions. It gave me an intellectual task capable of transforming paralysis—which is the extreme form of self-doubt, I suppose, of dream analysis; what’s utilized are objective images (p. 221).
This quote touched me. I spoke about it in the final class. It was the container I needed to move to the next level of work. As I said in that final class, I am powerfully drawn to any expression of the creator’s process. I realize that I describe this desire to hear the creators’ processes in terms of a deficiency of mine. It feels that way to me. Others seem to be off and running, talking about the works themselves, and I’m wanting to know about the writers’ processes: If Glück has an essay about it or if Hoffman generously includes it in his novel, I need some time to take that in. This may have been what my classmate was responding to when she asked, “Why didn’t you just cut to the chase. It would have been so much easier?” I answered, “It took me this long to become this clear.” It does feel like a deficiency on my part. But I am inspired by Glück’s insight: “… taught me to use doubt…gave me an intellectual task, capable of transforming paralysis—which is the extreme form of self-doubt.” I do believe that what I yearn to focus on and what I take away from the readings is my way in to experiencing my reverie. Ultimately it is my gift, my strength. It is not easy to stay with that.
I feel very exhilarated by the ideas I am taking away from this semester. We all need containers, beginning with one outside ourselves, a maternal container. It gives us a clue that life is possible when it feels overwhelming. I’ve come to understand that all forms of art, including literature give us exquisite containers to inspire the observer to the possibility of living deeper, richer lives, lives that we may not dream to be possible. Reverie is the root of creativity; this creativity is the self. To experience that reverie is life itself. Foreclosing reverie is an injury to the self.
Writing this paper gave me a chance to find my own lens, and most importantly, to look through it and express in words what I saw. This is where the real work began. Looking through another’s lens, I felt invisible. It took some aggression to hear my unconscious screaming in reaction to my invisibility. This experience caused me to find my own lens. But the real transformation began after the aggression had done its job. Looking through my lens, I could experience reverie. That became the basis of building myself, creating myself, becoming.
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Freud, S. (1955). The ‘Uncanny’. In J. Stachey (Ed. and Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 17, pp. 217-256). London, England: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1919).
Freud, S. (1966). Letter 71, Extracts from the Fliess papers. In J. Strachey (Ed. and trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 1, pp. 263-266). London, England: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1897).
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Gosmann, U. (2015). Antonino Ferro and Giuseppe Civitarese. The analytic field and its transformations. London: Karnac, 2015. 204 pages. Modern Psychoanalysis, 40: 100-107.
Griffin, F.L. (2005). Clinical conversations between psychoanalysis and imaginative literature. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 74: 443-463.
Hoffmann, E.T.A. (2016). The Sandman (Penguin Little Black Classics). Trans. P. Wortsman). London, England: Penguin Classics. (Original work published 1816).
James, H. (2010). What Maisie knew. London, England: Penguin. (Original work published 1897).
Laplanche, J., & Pontalis, J.-B. (1973). “Oedipus complex.” In The language of psycho-analysis. (D. Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). New York, NY: Norton.
Sophocles (2008) Oedipus the king. In Antigone, Oedipus the king and Electra. Trans. H.D.F. Kitto, Trans.). Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford, England: University of Oxford Press, 1962.