I want to take you on a journey. Let’s call it the nightmare and coffee journey. I often have disturbed sleep and low energy levels. I think these experiences despite,at times, being really annoying educate me about the symbolic experience. It is a really unusual experience to be so self-reflexive as to witness yourself at times as though you were another person but still unable to interfere with your associations and reactions to events. Albert Camus once said that the intellectual has a mind that watches itself and if that is true then I am most definitely an intellectual. Sounds better than a neurotic.

What I intend to do in this blog post is to provide a little bit of academic background or context and then,where I can, relate it to either my direct experience or to the experience of someone I know. But first, some background. Rollo May edited a book on symbolism in religion in literature in the early sixties. The books is good but it is in the first chapter, actually written by May, that I find the book most useful.

It was an unusual feeling for me to see the beginnings of thoughts of mine given much fuller articulation in a book that was put together over 5 decades ago. His introductory Chapter is entitled ‘The significance of symbols’ lays out a number of things that really connect with my experience. First of all it suggests that one can learn a lot more about psychology from literature than from a psychology course. A student ultimately wanting to become a psychoanalyst  should be advised, to his mind, to major in literature and the humanities instead of biology, psychology and pre-medical courses. This observation would extend, to my mind and May’s, to the study of mythology.

May’s reexamination of the Oedipal themes in the actual original plays sheds a lot of light on those themes in psychology. His focus on Oedipus at Colonus covers important themes like more of the importance of self-knowledge, acceptance and integration. Rollo May’s contribution also lends support for a number of points that inform my thinking on symbolism. The main symbol that Rollo May refers to is his introductory chapter is the cave. The symbol features in his analysis of an, at times impotent, law student who experiences women as being controlling. (Bar the impotence this is uncomfortably close to the bone!). The cave readily gives up it meaning as a vagina or womb. Caves and other symbols of the womb have featured in my dream. The hot baths that I take are, to my mind, in some way symbolically motivated by this symbolism.(Though there is some science to the bath taking too). Another friend wanted a washing machine from Christmas so that he could climb inside the drum. The imagery here again evokes the womb. For Rollo May though the cave is used as a symbol through which May more generally discusses the properties of symbols.

Dialectical operation of symbols

In my talks and writings on symbols I refer back again and again to the dialectical operation of symbols. This is the notion that the symbol represents some dynamic element and often an arrangement of opposites which represents a flux of psychic energy at the level of the unconscious. In his treatment of the law student May notes the contradictory associations this patient has with the cave. It is warm and comforting like a Kangaroo’s pouch but also it evokes the image of Plato’s cave the prevents him from seeing reality and threatens him like quicksand with a smothering death.

I could add to this patient my own contradictory associations with a cave dream I had. In it I am in an underwater cave trying to coax three lion cubs out from behind coral with pieces of cheese. In the dream I know it is important to get the lion cubs out of the cave but that my time beneath the water is limited. In May’s judgement this is the ‘distinguishing characteristic of genuine symbols which come up as the language of psychoanalysis is that they always involve this orientation towards action. His patient in the dream has one foot in the cave and one foot out of the cave. Similarly I wanted to be in the underwater cave to get the lion cubs but I also know I must get out of the cave before it is too late.

The outside world represents the internal world

Rollo May also discussed the work of neuropsychiatrist Kurt Goldstein who studies WW1 patients with part of their brain shot away. What he observed was the these patients could function properly if their world were shrunken in space and time to reflect their more limited capacities. These patients kept their immediate space in compulsive order and if they were placed in environments had objects in disarray they became profoundly uncomfortable. When asked to write their names on a piece of paper they were write their names at the extreme corner of the page because of the threat of the empty whiteness. May suggests that what occurred with these men was a breaking down of their capacity for symbolic behaviour.

He suggests that ‘ they could no longer experience the self over, against and in relation to a world, of objects. They had lost their ability to transcend the immediate concrete situation. May points to Kahler saying that metaphor helps us bridge the gap between our inner experience and our outer experience. I think that something more is revealed by Goldstein’s patients though. Their capacity for symbolic thinking is not completely gone but markedly reduced.

I further think that as with this dysfunction actually shows us that on a deeper level our environment is always symbolic of our internal state. Rituals and order impose security on a confusing environment. This is similar to the way in which lesions on the on a particular region of the frontal lobe led to Paul Broca’s discovery of the importance of Broca’s area in the articulation of language. In the same the unconscious relation Goldstein’s patients had to their environment when their capacity to think metaphorically deteriorated illustrated a feature which of symbolic thought which is not normally visible.

 I think there is probably a lot more to the relationship between the outside world and the internal world than is thought to be the case. Take one Yale study in the journal of emotion that suggests that hot baths could be a substitute for companionship.

It suggests that feelings of social warmth and social coldness can be induced by experiences of physical warmth and coldness. This area of research is known as embodied cognition. It indicates that cognitive processes like judgment and evaluation are influenced or even determined by physical processes. Our rational thinking processes are not independent from our physical sensations. In fact they are admixed.  An Emaxhealth article suggests that this work at Yale supports research coming out of Canada that people who are physically cold tend to report more loneliness. It reminds me of a chapter from Arnold H. Modell’s imagination and the meaningful brain entitled ‘Corporeal imagination’.

In that chapter Modell suggests that ‘the sensations arising from the interior of the body are subject to the same metaphoric transformations as are sensations arising from the external world.’ He talks of this as being the corporeal imagination. Another thing Modell talks about is that ‘bodily metaphors provide an illusion of constancy in the midst of change.’ I like my friend James and always drinking tea and coffee and it is motivated I would say be precisely this. It might be something like Goldtein’s patients keeping their environment in order. In the midst of uncertainty it helps provide an illusion of constancy and physical warmth (triggering feelings of social warmth) with a cup of hot stuff. This coffee addiction you might call it even informs the television shows that I like the most. One of my favorite tv shows would be Twin Peaks which fetishizes coffee and food but mainly coffee. The reason that show is so interesting to me is that the subject matter is so dark but the sets, habits and characters make the deliver so comforting.

The world is bad because young girls are murdered. The world is a better place because we can have coffee and donuts. The fetishization of food is another feature of the show and brings me more broadly onto the symbolization of food. Food is basically affection, love or emotional nourishment. In one 1958 article written by a ‘Hamburger, M.D’,(I shit you not!), he discussed four different patients and their dreams of food within the context of this association. I, being damned to remember dreams night after night, can recall many dreams relating to food. Mostly they involve searching for food (love/ affection), finding better food behind lower quality food, hiding food, refusing food or finding the evidence of food like a stylish cooler bag but with no food.

Now this is ripe for elaborate comparison with my attitude towards affection in all of my relationships and feel free to do so if you know me. I have learned from the commensality and food sharing of the Venezeulan Hoti tribe that food has this symbolic meaning and there actually provides a source of kinship rather than genetic heredity.

More important I have learned from my girlfriend that is it important to eat together at the same time. Even down to taking just one token bite of the same food.

This brings me onto the symbolic component of discussions and arguments over seemingly bullshit things. A fight over dishes in the sink may be over a lack of order or organization among the dishes as a sign of disorganization within one’s life. An argument over the movement of a lamp in a house could take on a whole new meaning when the arguer finds it important to find out whether the lamp is referred to as a ‘mother and son’ in the shop.


Perhaps this argument has nothing to do with the movement of a lamp and relates more to the underlying dynamics of relationships within the household. Perhaps a vigorous cleaning enterprise treats the house as symbolic of the self in cleaning. I have a number of symbols that I use that I am consciously aware of them when I use them. One is the daffodil. It being spring, (or at least it is supposed to be Spring), out you will seem them everywhere. The daffodil is interesting because it symbolizes rebirth it comes after the winter and is a flower of rebirth and renewal. It is also known as the narcissus. Narcissus was the man who, in mythology, died after becoming so obsessed by his reflection in a pool that he could not leave. The Greeks said that the gods turned his remains into the narcissus flower. So the daffodil is in one sense a symbol of narcissism and in another a symbol of unrequited love. I think the reason I choose to pick it is because it is an image in which an acceptance of failings of self-involvement and the themes of rebirth and growth are combined.



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