Presence, absence – and inner objects

By Lene Auestad

During these strange times, when most of us are separated from each other, and when every event has been cancelled for months to come, losses occur on several levels. Losses of prospects for the future, of knowing what will happen, and the absence of people we hold dear. These subjective reflections on inner objects arise from this situation.

There’s a text I have returned to and read several times, a short text by the author Vigdis Hjort, whom I don’t know personally, in the journal Agora, in Norwegian. It is a special issue devoted to Freud, and in it she describes her experience of psychoanalysis. I found the text very moving, and as a reader, engaged in a dialogue with the text, I now realise that the image which made the deepest impression on me was in fact not in the text at all. It must have been that the author recounted it at an event in which I took part to celebrate the special issue. As I have noticed myself doing before, the reader selects some parts of the text that seem particularly significant, and then adds to them with her own imaginative elaboration so as to create a memory of the author’s words which is in fact a composite of the author’s statement and the reader’s own elaborations. However, in this case, I think she told a story that went as follows: She dreamt that she was lying in bed trying to sleep, but in the hallway outside there was an animal, an elk, lying there howling. She put the pillow on top of her head, trying to shut the noise out, but was unable to ignore it. And then she realised, it wasn’t an elk, it was a deer. This contains a play on words, as the meaning of her last name, “hjort” is “deer”.

At the same time as being very moved by her short text, I am also struck, in reading it, by how very different so much of it its from my own experience. Nearly everything is different. It is an account, or a sketch, of an analysis that took place in a different country, perhaps with an analyst of a different school, though at least there would have been two different individuals involved, which means that every analysis, and every story someone tries to tell about it, would be different from every other. What is most recognizable to me – and this bit is actually in the text, not outside it – after recounting the interpretation of a dream, the author quotes Freud’s statement, “It is a regrettable fact that no account of a psychoanalysis can reproduce the impressions received by the analyst as he conducts it, and that a final sense of conviction can never be obtained from reading about it but only from directly experiencing it”. I too agree. There are these moments when something completely unexpected makes its appearance, and these are moments of shock. No written account could do justice to them. New meaning appears so as to affect fundamental change. These configurations of meaning are something I could never have thought of on my own – and I am someone who traditionally would have tried to solve all manner of problems by thinking them through on my own. These radical shifts in meaning may come about via metaphors. The word derives from Greek, metapherō, “to carry over”, “to transfer” – hidden meaning is transferred, carried over, from an unknown place and onto a known object in the open, so as to combine with it and thus transform it. These are moments of brilliance and disaster, performed through words, though in this context I would like to dwell on something else.

Hjort writes, “What is fascinating about psychoanalysis, as opposed to many other forms of therapy, is, in my opinion, that it is exclusively based on language” (my translation). I found this statement puzzling, and I would disagree. This is not to say that the author is mistaken, but rather that my experience is different. It may even be because I am more primitive. One of the things I thought about early on was the interiors of the analyst’s consulting room. It had carpets on the floor, paintings and prints on the walls, many books and figurines in the bookshelves, reminiscent of Freud’s room in Maresfield Gardens. Thus it gave an impression of warmth and aliveness which I contrasted with how I had often been met with coldness and rejection as a foreigner in Britain, and with the cold, frugal buildings of the university. The room seemed to signal that I was not just some piece of garbage to be chucked into a container by the roadside. Since then, in connection with attending the Introductory Lectures and the Foundation Course at the Institute of Psychoanalysis, I have seen several other consulting rooms. There does not appear to be a link between the school of psychoanalysis and the character of the room decoration. To my knowledge, hardly anything has been written on this subject, which is perhaps why, due to the lack of instruction, each analyst adheres to their own vision of what the space should look like, and that it therefore reflects their personality. I thought later, when seeing some of the more stripped consulting rooms, that those, to me, would have represented a repetition of coldness rather than ‘neutrality’. What ‘neutrality’ looks like, in this sense at least, appears to be quite different from one individual to another, as well as between cultures and geographies.

Then there’s gestures, facial expressions, intonation. Looking for signs, reactions; was something understood? How was it understood? Is there a negative reaction? This is harder when you don’t see the analyst’s face than when you are sitting opposite him or her, and it may sometimes be necessary to cheat, to turn one’s head to check for important reactions. Though the tone is still there, determining the meaning of what is being said. Nuances of tone give rise to a rich variety of shades of meaning, and differences in intonation may alter the meaning of what is said entirely. One would listen carefully for the muscial quality of an utterance, and the tonality is sometimes more important than the words spoken.

There is presence and absence and doubt and loss. I remember expecting that the analyst would not be there, that the door would not open, that I would be thrown out. That doubt only faded gradually, with repeated experiences that I was allowed in and could take up some space without major injuries occurring on either side. This is a reason why I haven’t understood the logic of short-term psychotherapy; it appears to only confirm the suspicion that you would get thrown out early. Perhaps the best description of what happens is by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I believe the author preferred animals to people, so that he lets the best words be spoken by a fox:

‘Come and play with me,’ invited the little Prince. ‘I’m so sad.’

‘I can’t play with you,’ said the fox. ‘I’m not tame.’ […]

If you tame me, it will bring sunshine into my life. I’ll be able to tell your footstep from all the others. The other footsteps drive me underground. Yours will draw me out of my lair, like music. And look! See the wheat fields over there? I don’t eat bread. Wheat is no use to me. The wheat fields don’t remind me of anything. And that’s sad. But you have hair the colour of gold. So it will be wonderful when you’ve tamed me! The golden wheat will remind me of you. And the sound of the wind rustling the wheat will make me happy.’ […]

‘You must be very patient,’ replied the fox. ‘Sit down in the grass a little way away from me, like this. I’ll watch you out of the corner of my eye and you won’t say a word. Language is a source of misunderstanding. And each day, you can sit a little closer.’ […]

And so the little prince tamed the fox. And when the time came for him to leave: ‘Oh!’ said the fox, ‘I’m going to cry.’

‘It’s your own fault,’ said the little prince. ‘I didn’t mean to cause you any sorrow, but you wanted me to tame you.’

‘That’s right,’ said the fox.

‘But you’re going to cry!’ said the little prince.

‘That’s right,’ said the fox.

‘So you’ve gained nothing!’

‘I have gained something – the colour of the wheat.’

In our inner dialogues there is sometimes such a thing as the dry voice of reason, telling oneself that this fear, this imagery is all nonsense – like in the dream recounted in the beginning, where the author tries to stifle the voice of the howling animal by covering her head with her pillow. To the suffering animal this dry voice is like a tune played in a very different key; it is either not heard or not noticed. By contrast, the fox describes how you can sit down in the grass with it – and wait. In Enid Balint’s words, “Perhaps he is up against a void, or at the edge of a cliff, or just about to fall into a torrent of water. Pain of that kind cannot be suffered. […] When neither patient nor analyst can understand or verbalise, what then has to be endured by both of them is the not being able to be helped or give help to rescue or be rescued; and instead, having to stay there and not be terrified and so pushed into activity, during the time when it is not possible to do anything useful. […] But the recognition of the uniqueness of each experience is what really matters, as well as the ability to endure it and allow the patient to feel he is unique, and yet not utterly different from any other person.” Many years later, when a crisis occurred nearly ten years after ending analysis, I noticed the presence of another inner voice; not the kind that tries stifle the voice of the howling animal, not the kind of super-ego that is trying to kill you, but a softer, more supporting kind, stating that it is possible to do some very small, simple things, to keep going even if minimally, and to maintain a glimpse of hope in the midst of darkness.

Balint, E. (1993) Before I was I. Psychoanalysis and the Imagination. Edited by Juliet Mitchell and Michael Parsons. London: Free Association Books, pp.122-123.

Freud, S. (1909) Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy. SE, vol. X, p. 103

Hjort, V. (2014) “Språkets lekkasje” in T. S. Madsen/ K. S. Mollerin eds. Agora, Freud, no. 1-2 2014.

Saint-Exupéry, A. de (1943/2010) The Little Prince. Translated by Ros and Cloe Schwartz. London: Collector’s Library.


Lene Auestad is Dr. of philosophy, author, translator and founder of Psychoanalysis and Politics.