Monday, August 7, 2023


The German psychiatrist Gisela Pankow was impressively adept at intuiting, at a visceral level, and empathically relating to, the experience of her seriously psychotic patients. And her case studies show that, as a clinician, she was able to help many of them find a considerable measure of solace... Her key insight was that, fundamentally, what they laboured under was a distorted perception of their own bodies. They experienced themselves as cleaved, incomplete, disconnected. For her, their hallucinations and their warped perception of the world was merely the consequence of this fateful primary disjointedness: they struggled to discern a clear limit between inside and outside; they reported feeling fragmented - with limbs, organs, whole sections of themselves somehow experienced as free-floating, riven from the rest -, their parts failing to add up to a cohesive whole. And because of this confusion, of this absence of distinct boundaries, all sorts of wild, alarming affects were let loose: anxiety, despair, dread, fury, the feeling of dissolution, of depersonalization, of annihilation… Haphazardly, unfettered emotions seemed to surge through the outlandish bodily wasteland that was their awkward abode - with its alternations of arbitrary concentrations and absences, its erratic tensions, its asperities, its adherences, its discontinuities.

    As a psychoanalyst, she thought that her patients’ predicament must be the result of some profound developmental mishap - of a trauma, of a deep disconnection to the mother (or other primary caretaker) in early childhood. In the context of the treatment, she had both children and adult patients use plasticine to express themselves, to help them explore and integrate the relevant, very primal layers of experience. She made a space for wordless forms, so that raw, inchoate psychological flotsam, which until then had been unable to surface and find expression, might now be revealed and made available to interpretation and assimilation. In this way she could encounter her patients at the place from where she was convinced the trouble must stem: the shadowy depths of their early vital misadventure. The suffering infant had had no words with which to get a handle on experience, and something had halted its normal progression to a fully integrated subjective sense of selfhood, condemning it instead to estrangement, dissociation, and repetition - its trauma not so much repressed as unassimilated and inarticulately entombed in the unconscious.

    There is something of the miraculous in her accounts: an uncanny quality, which might invite caution… But somehow I don’t doubt she really did possess the extraordinary capacity she claims, to reconnect very broken souls with the fullness of life.

The Almighty

Every day, I practice a kind of homemade propitiatory magic to ward off catastrophes: little obsessive rituals that help me cultivate the illusion that I actually have some control, some purchase on my life. When I close a door, I must make sure to think good thoughts… When I touch one of my wife’s breasts, it’s important that I also, symmetrically, touch the other. When I leave the house, I must check the taps once, twice, three times - sometimes more… I conjure make-believe force fields to protect my loved ones. Before I can fall asleep, I must utter enigmatic words of power... Tirelessly, I insist on inventing private superstitions: they are the makeshift hoops I jump through to appease my ordinary anguish.

The British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott thought that there was a short, crucially important period in a newborn’s life when it could feel all-powerful - provided its needs were met by “good-enough” caretakers. If, when it was hungry, it was soon fed; when it was soiled, it was soon changed; when it was worried, it was assuaged; when it was tired, it was allowed to rest; when it sought connection, it found welcoming love and attention… The child could actually believe that it was its own sheer will that caused all these needs to be met. For Winnicott, this illusion of almighty power is an essential developmental moment. He was convinced that this fleeting, extraordinary satisfaction experienced by the infant would shine on throughout its life as a kind of glow:  a secret buoyancy,  quietly underlying the bustle of experience - a vital, warm, inviting sense that life really is worth living, and that fulfillment is possible. Of course, soon enough, even with the best care, small failures, miscommunications, discrepancies inevitably end up shattering the child’s illusion - and it comes to discover that, all along, it had been dependent on its parents’ assiduous care. This confrontation with reality is always deflating, but also salutary: it helps nurture a healthy sense of selfhood, adapted to the world - but without spoiling the deep satisfaction and security that the initial illusion provided. 

In a similar vein, another famous psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson (who also famously invented his own name…), came up with the notion of “basic trust” to describe the emotional stability that an infant is able to develop in the first months of its life, provided it be given stable, constant care - especially by its mother. He thought that if this condition was met, the baby would come to believe that the world is fundamentally welcoming, predictable and orderly: in other words, that early security is the necessary basis for a confident, reliable sense of identity. If anything were to seriously disturb the initial connection between the mother and child, then, according to Erikson, it could compromise the child’s basic trust, and give rise to often intense, pernicious feelings of anxiety. This, in turn, would likely undermine a healthy emotional development: finding itself adrift in a dangerously inconsistent and inhospitable world, the child would experience life with a low-key but constant and ultimately debilitating state of alarm.

For me, “basic trust” seems to be in rather short supply, and I’m not sure why. I keep apprehending terrible catastrophes: calamities that need, over and over, to be exorcised by my leery, tiresome, repetitive, obdurate casting of spells. I seldom dare to walk out in the open, and instead cower uneasily under this myriad of paltry, improvised shields. What short circuits must have occurred? What slight, nameless, but also somehow cataclysmic maternal unavailabilities? My parents were both very loving. They cared for me as best they could, which, as far as I can tell, was quite well indeed. And yet, for as long as I remember, a cold fog of melancholy and anguish was ever ready to engulf me in its noisome pollution. And I wonder, did I simply never enjoy my measure of almighty power? And could these looming, ominous disasters I keep anticipating not have already, for me, long ago, taken place? 

If they did, perhaps - sweetly, lovingly, with deep fellow-feeling - now that I am grown, I could suggest to the unconsolable baby they must have so afflicted - to that insecure, forlorn child within - that it might finally rest; that it has been seen, and will be tended to; that its wail has been heard and its truth recognised; that it need not forever trap me in repetition - so that today the golden, the solar, the manly, the bountiful, the magnanimous, the invincible part of myself may freely, at long last, find expression.


In the lovely Tintin comic books my dad used to read to me when I was a little boy, everything is always in its rightful place. All the people and all the objects are self-contained; they are clearly set apart from everything else in the world by an unambiguous descriptive line. The colors are beautiful, vibrant, and flat. The compositions are always perfectly legible: the succession of images skillfully crafted to breathe and lead the reader to a sharp, precise, untroubled understanding of the story’s space and the action meant to be unfolding. There are no shadows here to obscure the pictures’ trim, orderly clarity. Tintin goes around the world on adventures that his bravery and righteousness allow him to face with little self-doubt. He seems a sort of sexless child but nevertheless possesses the freedom of movement and autonomy of a very capable adult. A proxy, a blank vessel for the young reader to identify with, he is a dream of freedom, of agency, of exploration, of curiosity, of excitement; he embodies the thrill of facing new, wide open spaces with confidence and optimism. And these territories, as far-flung and unfamiliar as they might be, remain ultimately welcoming because their formidable span is reassuringly held by the candid lines and by the forthright color fields. Tintin runs, jumps, climbs; he finds secret passages inside the pyramids; he crosses deserts and jungles; he rockets to the moon; he scours the oceans and scouts the continents; he walks, he shoots, he swims, he decides, he believes: he is totally active, and his motivations are wholesome and uncomplicated. He lives in a world much like our own, but one where reassuring boundaries (graphic, narrative, conventional…) exist to explicitly define situations and clear up their meaning. Though the characters can at times experience fear, and find themselves in real jeopardy - they are free from the murky, formless corrosion of anxiety. And while evil may manifest itself in the personalized, circumscribed form of ruthless, selfish, unpleasant, or insane individual villains, Tintin never doubts the overall goodness of humankind - because he takes it for granted that the bad people doing bad things must always, in the end, be thwarted.

    They’re a bit tattered, but I still have all the old, brightly coloured volumes. And, from time to time, I enjoy letting myself be drawn again by their tidy, precise charm into a restorative mood of trustful composure. It occurs to me that when Hergé first started publishing these travel-themed children’s stories in the 1930s, the Great Depression was already taking its toll and the Second World War loomed ominously; the Soviet Union was a beacon of hope for some and a terrible threat to others; the Spanish Civil War was being fought; colonisation had confronted the West with the great variety of human arrangements, and, in some quarters, given rise to the uncomfortable, creeping suspicion that “the white man’s burden” might be a rather flimsy pretext for naked exploitation. There is no question that the world was already a mess; and yet I note with a kind of melancholy longing that the Tintin stories could still, unselfconsciously and authentically, with great artistic vigour, express a naive, buoyant, winsome self-confidence - an open hopefulness that seems inaccessible to us in our own rather odd, discombobulating, age of helpless disquiet. Most of us can’t really believe in a promised land anymore, or in salvation (of either the supernatural or even the technological kind); we no longer look to a reassuring, benevolent father-figure in the sky, or take comfort in His promise of an agreeable afterlife for the righteous; nor do we seem to be able to give ourselves up anymore to some grand, appealing collective vision - one that, together,  we could work to bring about: a future of mutual respect, of security, of justice for all... Instead we multiply escapist gestures in everyday life; we hypnotise ourselves by staring at screens and indefinitely postpone the imaginative, structuring, adult engagement with each other and with the broader world that would be necessary to make sense of our lives. As the world burns, we all look for comfort where we can, and sentimental nostalgia is fashionable. Since we can’t seem to imagine a future for ourselves that wouldn’t take the form of a series of grim catastrophes, of, sooner or later, scarcely conceivable mayhem, we take refuge in soothing fantasies of the bygone. We constantly rework a half real and half made-up past, concocting a kind of dream continuum where we can exist, despite the gloomy reality of the present, and the dire threats of the future... Like everyone else, I’m constantly seeking palliative distractions. On occasion, this involves contemplating mild, artful, hopeful pictures from another age, and longing for the security and comfortable certainties of my childhood.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

“The cup is always already broken.”

Small and delicate, a pleasure to handle, to pick up, to hold,

for years, it has delivered the day’s warm assuagements.

I do struggle to accept that its splendour, like our own, must inevitably shatter.

I prefer to dream of perfect care and unassailable security forever and ever;

to ignore the astonishing chasm I’m standing at the edge of;

to overlook that there is no edge and that I’ve already fallen in,

that the cup and I are indistinguishable from the fall,

that we have no words, no hope, no fear, but subside 

— have, perhaps, already subsided.


Again, she’s inspecting the cracks in the ceiling:

Have they spread? 

Are there more now than there were before?

And must every one of her hopes, so tightly clutched, be thwarted?

She is a restless decipherer of omens.

When for a moment she contrives at last to shed her vigilance,

she dreams again of the rambling and familiar ruins,

and of the spacious chamber within, long unnoticed,

intact and welcoming amidst the wreckage.

She wonders if she will ever dare to enter 

or if forever 

remembering and forgetting her grief, 

she is condemned helplessly to track the jagged paths

that savagely fissure, yes, and threaten to cleave,

the tumbledown shelter where she keeps her heart.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Saint-Simon chez le toubib


Fin trentaine, mon médecin est un peu plus jeune que moi. C’est un petit homme sans grâce ni profondeur, moite, bignoclard, un peu boudiné, et sapé avec l’élégance délicate d’un ingénieur informatique. Pourtant bien dodus, ses doigts pâles, à la course impétueuse, volent sur le clavier de l’ordinateur qu’il scrute obstinément tout le long de chaque consultation afin d’éviter mon regard. Réfugié dans mon dossier, je ne doute pas qu’il croie sincèrement pouvoir y puiser des vérités plus salutaires qu’il ne le pourrait en daignant reconnaitre en moi un individu à part entière. Cela étant, il se garde bien de se plier inutilement aux incommodes simagrées de la bonne éducation, et me maintient en mon état de faisceau de symptômes, d’échantillon statistique et, bien sûr, de justificatif à la facturation. Accommodant, robotique, bon garçon et sans malice, mais complètement insouciant de ce qu’il pourrait bien advenir de moi — je m’en contente faute de mieux.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Haïku pour Teo


Douce et enivrante nuit de printemps

Où j’ai scruté les lignes de ta main

Sans savoir les lire