Trust scientific meeting: ‘And so of larger—Darknesses—’ Living with dying – the containing function of meaning
The first line of my title is taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson. It begins, ‘We grow accustomed to the Dark —When Light is put away—’
Presenter: Margot Waddell
Chair: David Bell
I quote the poem as an Epigraph to this paper for I am drawing on form in art, in this case prose and poetry, to trace a commonality between literature and psychoanalytic thinking and practice. This will be in relation to life's hardest experiences – among them, those of life-threatening illnesses and death. I am thinking from the points of view of those who are themselves faced with dying and of those who treat and care for the dying. How do we, or can we, experience, understand and deal with life in death and death in life, a bit better?
The paper focuses on the centrality of meaning and on exploring the human capacity to learn from experience. This was something that my own training emphasised in particular. Mrs Harris, then head of the Child Psychotherapy training, was a friend of Bion and much affected by his work. This deep understanding was passed on to us. More important than the 'correct' interpretation was, she felt, attention to understanding what may be behind or beyond, words. Words, Bion believed, 'pinioned' meaning and for him literary form could help in escaping the 'Satanic Jargonieur' of conventional psychoanalytic parlance. The philosopher, Susanne Langer, describes how an Artist's capacity to enter a symbolic relationship with his subject evolves 'a container of meaning which transcends any preconceptions'. The symbolic form may be thought of as providing a container of feelings which enables the turbulent experience of art or life to be undergone.
I examine in detail a patient's dream and also a poem, by Carole Satyamurti, 'Passed On'. This poem beautifully captures the creative process of the formation of a container of meaning, while also, in itself, providing one, such that the reader has the experience of being contained. Enshrined in psychoanalytic thinking is the crucial insight that the capacity for symbolic thought is lodged in the prior capacity, hard won from the earliest of human encounters, to undergo separation, to suffer it and to mourn loss with the recognition that all of us must also bear the other having an equivalent centre of self whence, as George Eliot put it, 'the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference'.
Margot Waddell is a Fellow of the Institute of Psychoanalysis and a Child Analyst. She has a background in Classics and English Literature. She has taught at the Institute over many years and is currently the Chair of Publications there. She has worked for over 30 years as a Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist Tavistock Clinic, London where she continues to contribute as a Visiting Lecturer. She has edited the Tavistock Clinic Book Series since its inception in 1998. An extended version of her book Inside Lives: Psychoanalysis and the Growth of the Personality was published by Karnac in 2002, and understanding 12-14 Year-olds was published by Jessica Kingsley in 2005.