Long ago and far away, a friend (and now fellow RS worker) and I shared an apartment not far from where George Washington had whiffed his strike two as a general. My friend and I were newly single, keeping company in the classic divorce limbo of male late youth. He worked all night and slept all day, and I worked all day and watched Star Trek at night.
One episode in particular stayed with me. There is a diplomatic crisis that the captain and crew of the Enterprise must resolve, but the speech of the aliens with whom they must deal is impenetrable to the language computers. Of course, almost all the aliens in the American universe speak English, so intergalactic cultural misunderstandings look like the minor disconnect between the falafel guy and the hotdog guy at the end of the block. But this is theater, and conflict is conflict, right?
After a series of bad turns and, of course, with seven seconds to go before the last in-show commercial break, the captain realizes that the aliens speak entirely in metaphors. Their term for “friend,” for example, is “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” — a reference to an ancient battle in which the two named characters were comrades. It’s cumbersome, but it works if you have the vocabulary. This is metaphor, association by likeness, substituting something that resembles the case in point for the name of the thing.
After a year or so in divorce limbo, Darmok moved downtown and I got a girlfriend. She was a magical being who seemed to attract all sorts of good luck, and her fairy dust rubbed off (very pleasantly, I might add) on me. Some months into the affair, she decided to go back to school and got a graduate fellowship at a very good university, and a few months later, I got one too. I stopped watching Star Trek and started reading structural linguistics and psychoanalytic theory.
My immediate impression was that my professors and the spiritual teachers whom I’d had the great good fortune and privilege to meet over the years seemed to be saying the same thing.
There tends to be some discord around this sort of assertion. Many spiritually-inclined people dismiss what they call “Western philosophy” as inferior to what they designate “Eastern thought,” or “indigenous spirituality.” But I would offer that this dissonance and dismissal, to borrow a phrase from Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, “does not reflect correct understanding.” Those who dismiss out of hand their own culture’s traditions in thought have not thought enough; they have not understood mind as metaphor.
My first key in to mind as metaphor came from Sigmund Freud who, in 1900, announced that he had founded a new science. He called it “psycho-analysis” (the hyphen has since gone away, like a dissolving suture), and he announced it in his masterpiece, The Interpretation of Dreams.
He said that a science is defined by its object: new object = new science. (Genetics, to take a recent example, comes into being with the discovery of the gene.) Various poets had been dancing around the idea of an unconscious mind since the early nineteenth century, but it was Freud who made it into an object of scientific inquiry.
He did this by acting on the hypothesis that “there is a psychological technique which makes it possible to interpret dreams, and that on the application of this technique, every dream will reveal itself as a psychological structure.” This points to the underlying principle of psychoanalytic theory, that there is a basic structure of mind that is revealed in all psychic expressions. The dream, the slip of the tongue, the forgotten name, madness and normalcy are all expressions of the same processes, the same structures, only differentiated in scale or intensity, relative tolerability, or social acceptability.
This method that allowed Freud to theorize the structure of mind on the basis of the apparently disturbed or diseased mind is common to many fields. We learn how the immune system works by observing what happens when it doesn’t, and we learn how the brain allows us to speak by observing people who can’t.
In order to understand the significance of Freud’s achievement, and before we proceed to the dream as revelatory of the structure of mind, we need to back up a couple of notches.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the mind/body was thought to be a kind of machine animated by electricity. It was the machine age, and things tended to be described in terms of engineering. Even problems of behavior and mental health were thought to have physical, mechanical causes. So, for example, “hysteria” (from the Greek hystera, uterus) — a kind of catch-all category of neurological or psychological disorders thought to be exclusive to females — was sometimes treated by hysterectomy or by packing the ovaries in ice. (Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, etc.)
Freud’s achievement was to recognize that psychological difficulties did not necessarily have mechanical causes. His patients, he realized, were “suffering from reminiscences.” Their maladies, in other words, came as the result of experience and memory, not failures in the wiring. This was new. This breakthrough was inspired, in part, by the new science of thermodynamics, which may be broadly described as the study of energy in motion. Rather than seeing the mind as a physical apparatus, like a bodily organ or a part of a machine, Freud saw the mind in a new way, as energy, movement. And he saw the basic structure of this movement not only in dreams, but also in literature and myth.
It is necessary to understand something of Freud’s personal history in order to see why and how he arrived at this. As a young man, Freud had wanted to pursue an academic career, to be a professor of philosophy or literature. Early in his university career, however, it was made clear to him that as a Jew, he would never achieve a full professorship. In the anti-Semitic climate of Vienna at the time, there were few professions available to Jewish men. His choices were more or less business or medicine. He chose medicine because science was as close as he could get to a career in the humanities. At least he would be able to pursue research, or so he thought. As it happened, economic pressures — his need to establish a household with his beloved and his father’s business difficulties — forced him out of research and into practice. He set up shop as a neurologist, seeing patients in a room in the family apartment.
His aspiration to do literary research provides an important insight into his later accomplishment. In effect, since he had to pursue science because he could not study literature, he invented a new science that has the form of literary studies. He conceived of mental life as a narrative populated by characters from the classics of literature (first among them the great tragic character Oedipus). The patient, or “analysand” becomes, in effect, a profound work of literature to be decoded by the doctor as literary critic. This was the system that would move the Freudian theorist Jacques Lacan to note, “the unconscious is structured like a language.”
Well, we might ask at this point, if Freud’s system came about as a result of his frustrated literary ambitions, isn’t it possible that the whole thing is pure projection on his part and therefore untrue? The answer is, it is certainly projection on his part, but it is also true. I will return to this theme later; at the moment there are more historical details to attend to.
In the late nineteenth century, most medical doctors regarded dreams as little more than discharges of static. Again we see the mechanistic paradigm here: the machine gasses off at night, that’s all. Dreams are irrational, therefore meaningless. Of course, various mystical and shamanistic traditions attributed meaning to dreams, but for the scientists of the period, this was quaint superstitious nonsense.
Freud, on the other hand, argued that dreams have meaning, and the meaning can be investigated and understood. He described dreams as having two types or levels of content: the manifest content: the bizarre, apparently nonsensical series of dream events, and the latent content: the hidden meaning or real story.
The first law of thermodynamics says that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, and this is the principle upon which Freud theorized the mind, which he called the psyche. (“Psyche” is Greek for the soul, personified in mythology as a nymph whose beauty enraged Venus, so that she ordered Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with some vile thing. Cupid, of course, falls in love with Psyche, and after a series of persecutions by Venus, psyche is made immortal.)
Life, in the biological sense of the term, is here conceived as a process of energy. I visualize this as a straight dotted line moving from left to right across empty space; this represents life at its minimal, fundamental level, moving through time from conception to death. This energetic motion seeks only to continue, and in order to do so, it must have certain conditions, such as sufficient warmth and sufficient nourishment. The basic set of biological necessities gives this energetic impulse which is life the form, movement, or expression of desire. Freud named this basic impulse “libido,” which is Latin for desire.
This is where so many casual observers of Freud get sidetracked. Libido is not sex drive, it is at once larger and smaller than that. It is life as desire. We could look at it this way: at the most basic level of existence, all the biological needs come down to the same drive; to want food, warmth, comfort, and sex are, at this level, the same thing. All desire is a series of yearnings that want fulfillment.
Freud, or the popular understanding of Freud, has always suffered from two huge obstacles. The first is that he had to patch together a new language out of what he had to hand — the vocabularies of nineteenth-century biology, physics, neurology, and literature. The developments in linguistics that would lead to a revaluation of his work didn’t come forward until after his death. The other obstacle to understanding Freud has been his popularity. The magnitude of his success was matched by the degree to which he was misunderstood and/or twisted to suit various interests. Never before had a medical theory so infused, influenced, and been misread by popular culture. Is it any wonder that once Hollywood got hold of him, he was all about sex?
As the human biological entity develops, and experience becomes more complex, the basic life impulses express themselves in all of our thoughts and doings, sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly. Quite early in life, we learn that our desires can’t always be fulfilled exactly as we would wish. We are prevented by people or mechanisms of authority from attaining our desire; over time, we internalize the authorities, and know that to act on a particular desire may be dangerous. In both cases, the desire is repressed. Here’s where thermodynamics comes back into it. If desire is a form of energy, it must express the law that says energy can not be destroyed. Desire remains stored up and repressed until it can get out and exhaust itself. Dream, in this sense, is the expression of a desire. Freud says a dream is a “wish fulfillment.”
The repressed energy can also be fed into things like making paintings, writing books, doing good works, etc. Any activity that is fulfilling can be a channel for the uplifting of the repressed energy in socially-approriate, non-dangerous ways. Freud called this “sublimation.” The term is often confused with repression (perhaps because of the “sub” prefix). Subimation doesn’t mean pushing down, it means lifting up. Repressed desire can be released in sublimation. This is Freud’s theory of art.
I noted earlier that the dream content is of two kinds, latent and manifest. The manifest content is the latent content distorted, and the mechanisms of distortion are condensation and displacement, which correspond, in language, to metaphor and metonymy. Metaphor is association by likeness, and metonymy is association by proximity. Here are some examples.
I enter a room and see a picture of my friend Rose, and I think of her. This is association by likeness. Again, I enter a room and see a beautiful rose in a vase, and I think of Rose, my beautiful friend. This is still association by likeness. The statement, “My love is a red rose,” employs a metaphor, as does the more powerful association, “Juliet is the sun.” (She must have been some powerful looker.)
Now, say I enter a room and I see Rose’s coat hanging over a chair. Again I think of Rose, but the coat is not a metaphor, it is a metonym, an association by proximity. The coat is something that I know is often next to Rose.
All of these examples describe waking consciousness. We string together chains of association via metaphor and metonym. Now let’s take it to dream.
Let’s say I dream of a fur hat. Dr. Freud will question me about the fur hat until something I say tips him that the hat stands in for a dear friend of mine who passed away some years ago. The hat is a metonym for my friend Allen, who used to wear a fur hat. And in fact I will acknowledge that whenever I see a fur hat, I think of Allen, I am aware of this. In “the dream work,” or process of analysis, Allen will in turn be revealed as a metaphor or metonym for some other, more obscure content closer to the real impulse of the dream, probably something to do with my mother.
Once Freud had associated dream with literature, which is to associate literature with the structure of the psyche, all kinds of interesting investigations became possible. For example, fifty years after Freud declared that a dream was the resolution of a wish that could not be realized in normal waking reality, Claude Levi-Strauss said that a myth is the resolution of a paradox that can not be resolved in normal practical reality. Myth is a system of metaphor and metonym for making sense of an apparently contradictory situation. For example, how do we make sense of the contradictory conditions of life and death? We use a myth, often employing a trickster character who reconciles life and death, like a coyote, who is alive but who eats dead things, and so makes life out of death. Jesus the Christ does the same thing, he makes life out of death, thus reconciling the paradox. Is Jesus then purely mythic? Yes and no. The real and the mythic are not two conditions. They are the same thing. Reality doesn’t get any more real than the stories we tell ourselves. Reality is the stories we tell ourselves. Mind is metaphor.
Let’s say there is a mountain range in the territory of a tribal group. And I am a geologist investigating the area. I ask the tribal historian about those two peaks over there, and he says, “in the old days, it was one peak, but a giant red snake stirred in the mountain, and blew a big blast of hot breath, and split the peak in two, and then he and his people slid down the mountain and disappeared into the sea. I might think, well, that’s just a metaphor for what really happened. What really happened is there was an eruption, and a flow of several streams of lava. But I’m not a geologist, I’m a student of mind, and I say that the geologist’s version and the tribal historian’s versions are equally real. Both are employing symbols to represent an event at a distance. Some might argue that the scientist’s version has more value, but value for what? Mining, maybe, but truth? Truth value is equal in both versions because the mind of the scientist and the mind of the “native” are equally dealing in representation, in metaphor. Theodor Adorno said, “only those thoughts are true that do not understand themselves.” The idea that the scientist’s version is true and tribal historian’s is not true is an idea that does not understand itself.
The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure was a contemporary of Freud’s (they were born a year apart, though Saussure died 26 years earlier than Freud did). Linguistics in the nineteenth century had grown out of the field of philology, which was largely concerned with authenticating historical texts. After the “discovery” of Sanskrit by the orientalist Sir William Jones — who in 1786, published a book theorizing that Sanskrit represented the remains of a much older language from which it and European languages had descended — linguistics came into its own as a field. By Saussure’s time, all sorts of research had been done about how languages were related to one another, but Saussure was dissatisfied with this. He said, in effect, OK we know that Greek and Latin are related back, through Sanskrit, to some lost ancient mother language, been there done that. The question is how does language work? How does meaning happen in the mind? So, at the same time as the birth of modern psychology, linguistics became a branch of psychology, even though the two scientists involved were probably unknown to one another.
Saussure broke language down along two axes, like the classic algebraic diagram given below.
The Y axis he called “la langue” which is the language as a system, all the elements — the vocabulary, the grammar, etc., — that have to be in the mind as a whole system in order to generate meaningful speech. The X axis he called “parole,” meaning actual utterances or instances of sensible speech. We may visualize this diagram as appearing in space every time a word is spoken, like a beat or pulse that manifests with every word that is thought or sounded in a sequence. (Each word would appear at the “origin” point, and the diagram would move from left to right through time as our utterance came into being.)
Saussure used the diagram to show that there are two main approaches to studying language. One can either study the X axis, like philologists and etymologists who study actual instances of language, historical documents, or the mutation of words over time, or one can concentrate on the Y axis, the mechanism of meaning itself, apart from its particular instances.
This model of scholarship became widespread. For example, as Charles Seeger pointed out, as a scholar of music, one can specialize in either music history or music theory — music as a series of particular events, or music as a system apart from its particular instances. Saussure chose to study the Y axis of language, the system itself rather than particular documents or instances of speech. We will return to this X/Y diagram later.
Saussure said many things that had important consequences for subsequent study in linguistics, psychology, and literary theory, but for present purposes, I will note only one. He said that thought and language are inseparable.
This does not mean that all thought is speech. It means that thought is a series of associations, manifest in time, that instantiate a basic, dynamic structure or grammar. Lacan, as I said earlier, noted that the unconscious is structured like a language. I will go a step further and say that mind is language. But I’m not ready to go there yet. There is one more application of the metaphor/metonym function to discuss first.
Freud had found that dream distortion operates by two types of association, by likeness and by proximity, employing metaphor and metonym respectively.
The linguist Roman Jakobson, who named what Saussure had started “structural linguistics,” adapted these terms to ordinary speech. He took Saussure’s diagram, and renamed the axes. The Y axis, the axis of la langue, he called the axis of selection, which is associated with metaphor. The X axis, that of parole, he called the axis of combination, which is associated with metonym.
Remember that metaphor is association by likeness, and metonym is association by proximity.
The axis of selection, the Y axis, at any given moment of speech, represents every possible term for that which is like (or unlike) the idea we wish to express. This is the metaphoric function. Here we select the word we want. The axis of combination, the X axis, represents the sequence of words in time, and which things need to go next (proximate) in the sequence. This is the metonymic function.
Suppose I am speaking to my sister on the phone, and I look out the window and see a little girl riding her bicycle, and I want to describe this to my sister. I must select “girl” from among all of the possible names for a living being. I do not select boy or goldfish or gorilla, I pick girl. It’s as if all these terms for a living creature are stacked up along the vertical axis, and as I approach it along the timeline of the horizontal axis, I must pull the right one off the shelf — “girl” — then place it on the horizontal axis. Next to that, I need to place a verb, so I select from the stack of all possible verbs — is flying, is walking, etc., — and select “is riding” and place that next to “girl” on the horizontal axis. I have now made a simple sentence, which I elaborate through more selections and placements.
Jakobson arrived at this model of speech construction by observing patients who had speech handicaps due to brain injuries. These “aphasic” patients suffered one of two types of aphasia. Either they could not select the right words to express and idea, or they could not sequence them.
Research has shown that normal language users tend to favor one of the two basic functions, selection or combination, likeness or proximity. Here’s what I mean: You come into my lab and I sit you down and we play a word association game. I say a word, and you say the first word that comes to mind. I say “bomb” and you say “weapon.” Another person comes in, and I say “bomb,” and she says “exploded.” You have favored the vertical axis, the metaphor — likeness. The other person has favored the horizontal axis, the metonymic — what comes next. A series of association games would probably show that you have a habit of going for the metaphoric, and she tends to go for the metonymic.
Jakobson says that authors, and styles of literature, tend to favor one type of association over another. Realists go for metonym; Romantics favor metaphor. Many film makers favor metonymy. A tragic character has thrown herself out of a tenth-story window, but the camera doesn’t show it. All we see is the woman’s pocket book on the ledge. This is metonymy.
I said earlier that mind is language. Let me try to elaborate on this. Mind is not separate from its object. Mind comes into being in relation to its object. Consciousness is always consciousness of. This, I believe, we can find in the phenomenologists and existentialists and in Buddhism. Objectless consciousness is not possible. (What is possible, perhaps, is consciousness as its own object. This is made a practice in meditation and in certain arts, and is addressed in European philosophy from Kant on. I may return to this theme later, I don’t know yet.) The point is that my minimal definition of language is relation. As soon as there is consciousness of, there is relation, which is language at its most basic.
One stumbling block that comes up in relating Buddhism to “western philosophy” has to do with the ego. A colleague of mine, an accomplished scholar of Buddhism, put it this way: “The trouble with western thought is that it has not dealt with the problem of the ego.” I believe it has. For starters, Freud dealt with it. The ego, for Freud as for the Buddhists, is a kind of gatekeeper or necessary mechanism for navigating the world. It is not the entire field of mind. The ego that my colleague wanted dealt with is the inflated, bourgois-romantic self, the narcissism that Freud, like any Buddhist teacher, would recognize as a problem to be dealt with via practice of analysis or meditation. Again, I sense here the impulse to dismiss rather than to recognize mind as metaphor.
In modern philosophy, the “transcendental ego” is the necessary condition for experiential self-consciousness. For the phenomenologists it is pure consciousness, for which everything that exists is an object, the ground for the constitution of all meaning. For some thinkers, it is the self that comes to consciousness when one expresses one’s thoughts in language, whose being is pure act.
The linguist and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva has taken this latter angle, arguing that “‘I’ is quite literally the subject of a sentence.” Recently, I heard a Buddhist teacher say the same thing. The ego is not constant, it comes into being as an instance of thought or language. The I, like a poem or a story, exists only in its utterances.
What’s in between? Philosophers have gone there also. What’s in between is what Plato, in his creation story as related in the Timeus, called the “chora,” a word originally meaning the countryside surrounding a city, but which Plato calls “the nursemaid of being,” and describes as the necessary condition for the creation. In this sense, it is close to our idea of empty space.
Kristeva describes signification (speech) as a series of eruptions (she says “irruptions” — a botanical term meaning an explosion inside of something) of desire in the space of the chora, which move across the threshold of “the thetic” — the point of assuming a position — and into the realm of signification (speech or writing) where meaning is made.
If we map this onto the earlier visualization of the basic biological drives as a series of dots moving horizontally through space, an instance of speech would begin with an impulse of the basic life drive moving in the field of all possibility, up through the unconscious and into consciousness as, say, a verb or noun. The series of these impulses or blips of desire would be separated by empty moments — analogous to blank spaces on the page between letters and words — blank moments in consciousness into which basic desire sends another impulse to join in the chain of words to express at the level of manifest content whatever is going on at the level of the latent or unconscious content.
I tend to visualize this on the model of a sine wave.
Here, the horizontal axis represents the forward motion in time of the libido, and the wave represents the rising of desire to the level of speech and then falling off into pre-speech mind, where the energy of desire irrupts again to lift itself once again to the level of expression.
We could compare the idea of blanks or spaces or “down time” between instances of manifest desire to Chögyam Trungpa Rimpoche’s description of the bardo, the space between incarnations, in which he says that the bardo is more than a period of transition between lifetimes; it is also the micro-seconds of dead air between instances of thought.
I attended some of Trungpa Rimpoche’s teachings, and read his work with interest for years, but for a long time I couldn’t get comfortable with the various beings depicted in Tibetan Buddhist iconography. I knew they were supposed to be both very real — as what my comrade Darmok calls “higher entities” — and also unreal as anything other than one’s own self-projections. I could understand them as projections, but I couldn’t see myself in those outfits.
Recently, though, having taken to the practice of visualizing these beings in detail, I see that it’s not a matter of taking them on. It’s not the Buddha with my face, or me in a funny outfit, because it all dissolves. That’s the part I was missing. The practice is the apprehension of the nature of mind as metaphor, and then dissolving that. It may be possible to finally clear the field of consciousness, to stop desiring and so end suffering, but I’m not there yet and won’t be for a long time, because I’m incompetent, for one thing, and anyway I’m supposed to be hanging out with everybody until we all get free. So for now, and maybe forever, there is a modicum of liberation in the knowledge that mind is metaphor.
I hope this has been entertaining. I have to go now, Darmok needs me to work on the zine. I wonder if he knows that all those snakes and eagles and bush entities that he hangs out with are metaphors . . . .
Image by SnoShuu, courtesy of Creative Commons license.
 Brill, A. A., tr. and ed. 1938. “The Scientific Literature of Dream Problems (Up to 1900)” in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud (New York Random House) p. 183.