On Seeing the Forest for the Tree-Dwellers
Perhaps you will have noticed that one of the most disturbing aspects of anxiety or depression is that they proceed in the direction D-->PS. In the case of depression, it is as if reality loses its third dimension and one is reduced to a flat and depthless existence. Things that once brought joy, passion, pleasure and meaning are indistinguishable from anything else. In the case of anxiety, one is persecuted by unthought fragments that cannot be tamed or brought together. Suddenly -- as in the case of panic -- one’s psyche is violently rendered into persecutory bits.
This necessitates the introduction of another pair of symbols used by Bion, ♀ and ♂, standing for “container” and “contained,” respectively. When you think about it, we come into the world with virtually no psychological boundaries, or “containment” for our “content.” In fact, this is precisely what makes infancy so terrifying. In the absence of a psychotic episode or a bad LSD trip, it is almost impossible for us to imagine a completely unbound consciousness with no means to limit it. It is equivalent to being suddenly dropped into a zero point of infinite dimensions.
Pascal captured this experience when he wrote of the terror of the eternal silence of these infinite spaces. You might think that the body would serve as a sort of “boundary” against the formless infinite void, but that is not true. It eventually serves that purpose, becoming a sort of “membrane” between infinite nothingness and meaning, but not without first enlisting the services of the (m)othering One.
First of all, in early infancy our bodies are not yet our own. We have almost no control over them. Furthermore, most of the body’s systems are in a state of dysregulation -- or perhaps we might say “pre-regulation.” This is why the baby’s first and only task is to seek out maternal containment in order to down-regulate various bodily functions. And clearly, in the absence of speech -- a way to symbolize, store, and and communicate experience -- the baby is subject to what you might call the ultimate PS, nothing but constant impingement of internal and external phenomena that it must somehow make sense of.
How do we know this? First of all, we can know it by what happens to a child or adult who did not have adequate maternal containment and bears the visible scars of such. We can detect it in any number of ways. For example, I am thinking of a particular patient who happened to be an accomplished medical doctor. And yet, her mind had a sort of “lacunae,” a large, primitive area that could not be symbolized and therefore communicated or contained. As such, every day after work she engaged in the ritual of violently rocking back and forth in a rocking chair for an hour or more at a time. The purpose of the ritual was to contain primitive anxiety, or what you might call “cosmic dread,” a completely persecutory emptiness.
Another patient would cut herself. She would make dozens of small cuts in her arms and legs as a way to contain her anxiety. The physical pain of the cutting was preferable to the psychological pain of infinite and unbound nonexistence -- of her mental contents dispersing endlessly into space. Again, the key is that the person is desperately looking for containment of primitive anxiety that cannot be symbolized and therefore ”thought.” As such, therapy for such an individual involves containing and giving voice to the anxiety so that it may become thought instead of action.
People use all kinds of things for primitive containment: food, thrill seeking, sex, television, work, education, religion, drugs and alcohol. This is why Bion always made a distinction between a mental function or object and the use to which it is put. Take an obvious thing like education. It is possible for two people to have roughly the same education -- the same content, as it were -- but to put it to entirely different uses.
I am thinking, for example, of a very bright man I know, whose education -- which is considerable -- is almost entirely in the service of his aggression and his narcissism. Therefore, although he may say something that is technically true, he does not say it because it is true, which makes all the difference. Instead, the purpose of his knowledge is not Truth, but something far more primitive and aggressive, including the exercise of contempt for an internal object that is projected into his interlocutor, and a kind of omnipotence that actually serves the purpose of containment.
As such, this person cannot actually “learn.” Rather, he can only acquire. He can only pick up another factoid to place in his mental armamentarium to use as a weapon of war. This primitive use of education is quite common -- especially among the educated! -- and it is very easy to tell when one is dealing with such an individual. Con-versation -- which is to say flowing together -- is impossible with such a person.
This is what makes politicians and MSM talking heads so tedious. They are not there to teach, much less to learn. Rather, they are there to use speech as a primitive object with which to paper over reality or to vanquish their adversary. In fact, I am always surprised when I see someone in the MSM who is not doing this. However, what is so frustrating is that a person who does speak truthfully is treated identically to the person who doesn’t. There is a kind of utter cynicism, so that the truth is regarded as nothing but another form of “spin.”
For the thoroughly ironicized secular left (which should always be distinguished from any form of liberalism), there is no truth but no truth. The con artist thinks everyone “has an angle,” and cannot imagine someone who is innocently motivated by an agenda-free love of truth, with no strings attached. This is why you will have noticed that the left is inherently suspicious and paranoid, and therefore habitually attributes motives to positions. Since it is often the case that their positions are actually cynical motives in disguise, they think this is true of everyone.
Therefore, you can’t possibly be against judges tinkering with the basic unit of civilization and redefining marriage. Rather, you are simply using this as a cynical ploy to get more redneck homophobes to go to the polls. You can’t possibly think that racial quotas are bad for blacks. You must be a racist. You can’t actually believe that raising the minimum wage causes unemployment. You just hate poor people. You don’t really think that global jihad is a genuine threat. You just want to frighten people so that you can maintain control over them. You can’t possibly believe that Darwinism is logically self-refuting. You just want to teach Genesis as science and impose a theocracy. You can’t simply believe that Roe vs. Wade represents atrocious legal reasoning veering on judicial tyranny. You just want to “control women’s bodies.” You don’t want to harshly interrogate known terrorists. You just enjoy torturing people. You don’t really want to intercept their phone calls either. You’re just spying on Americans. And of course, if you do not accept all of the dubious speculations of the global warming theorists, you hate the earth.
And on and on and on. Again, Truth is reduced to motive, which represents nothing less than an attack on reality. It reminds me of when I used to enjoy watching wrestling on TV when I was a kid. The bad guy would turn his back to the clueless referee, reach somewhere into his tights, and throw a substance of some kind into his superior opponent’s eyes. Now, instead of “may the best man win,” it was merely two beasts struggling in the dark, as it were.
Likewise, if you can sever the sacred covenant between language and truth, then language is reduced to a battle of wills.
Hmmm. I’m not sure how I got to this point. What does this all have to do with the title of this post? Allow me to explain. Language, as we have said, is a container. But it makes all the difference in the world to discern the use to which the container is being put. For language can serve a range of psychological purposes, both high and low. Someone once said that language was given to man to conceal his thoughts, which is without a doubt one of the uses of language. But it has many other uses as well.
For example, for reasons completely unknowable to the secular mind, language can be a container of great transcendental beauty. Words can somehow be arranged in such a way that they radiate a noetic light that far transcends their literal meaning. Great poetry or prose is a kind of containment and non--containment at the same time, as the beauty radiates from, or “shines through” the container.
At the same time, language can be used to convey ugliness and depravity -- i.e., most contemporary literature -- or to kill thought. Instead of radiating or elevating, it "drags down." Alternatively, it may be used to transmit celestial messages to those with ears to hear them, or to arouse satanic collective energies, as it does in so much of the Islamic world. It may be used to memorialize and communicate self-evident truths, or it may cynically use the Truth to advance the Lie.
We go back to the helpless infant who struggles to find the means to symbolize a reality that is otherwise a bewildering impingement on the smooth surface of being. “Infant” actually comes from the old French en-fant, which literally means incapable of speech. Some babies use speech as a means to grow and colonize reality. Many adults use it as a defense against growth or as a means to paper over psychic damage. In extreme cases, they will see no forest, only trees. In other cases, they will superimpose a fake forest over the real one. How to tell the difference? I’ll have to get into that tomorrow. Suffice it to say that one of the purposes of religion is to see the real forest for the trees (and tree-dwellers).