1 November 2021

For its fifteenth issue, examines the links that exist between language and the unconscious. Language allows humans to express their thought and to communicate thanks to a system of conventional signs that make up a language. Mother tongue, foreign languages – the very format of this psychoanalytic journal, published in five languages, poses the question of how they relate. Translation elicits the shift from one language to another, a source or original language and a target or final language. A translation cannot always render what remains hidden in a language or convey its intensity. While this applies to any translation, the translation of psychoanalytic texts further tackles the encounter of the linguistic matter with the unconscious, with the ‘language of the infantile.’ Is it in fact the language of childhood or the language of the infantile? A language runs through us unconsciously. And in the transference, the analyst acknowledges the force of this language, the power of naming, the fragments of the first language, the effects of displacements... 

J.-B. Pontalis refers to the translator's job as an ‘ever impossible’ profession. ‘Favoring the original language more or less implies mistreating the final language; preferring the latter implies sacrificing the former. I dwell in neither one nor the other, the translator tells us; I am necessarily between the two’ (2002: 261)[1].

The work of Jean Laplanche illustrates this. Following his project to translate the Freudian corpus as close to the text as possible, he set forth a ‘translational model’ on the basis of his theorization of the ‘primacy of the other’ in the genesis of the unconscious. The infans strives to translate the – non necessarily verbal – enigmatic messages coming for the adult who looks after him/her, messages ‘compromised’ by the infantile sexual of the adult.  

Such considerations lead us directly to the essays by Valérie Bouville, Juan-Eduardo Tesone and Michele Piccolo who, in their experience as analysts, all operate in a foreign language. According to Bouville, a language has a distinct relation to narcissism. Learning a foreign language could elicit a release from the drive-related force of the mother tongue. Juan-Eduardo Tesone wonders about the mother tongue. Is it really the mother's language? Not really: the language could not be the original language but the final language, extricated from the maternal incestual tied to the drives through the recognition of lack and the presence of a third. To Michele Piccolo, a language constitutes a space of creativity and conflict which he outlines well by referring to the case of Anna O who forgot her mother tongue and could only speak English. The analyst possibly seeks to translate the traces of the traumatic experience through a shift from visual language to verbal language.

Language is not only made up of words, claims Eliane Rache. Like the drives, it is rooted in the body, bodily language pertaining to the register of thing-presentations. The polymorphism of the patient's languages dictates a polyphonic form of listening on the part of the analyst.

For their part, authors Cinzia Lucantoni and Paola Catarci focus on written language, without which psychoanalysis could not exist. Writing enables the unfurling of thought thanks to a thread that ties together the clinical dimension and the theory, narration and speculation. Always addressed, written language bears the stamp of the transference.

According to Laurence Kahn, the action of words in the transference and the counter-transference, is what marks the work of the talking cure. The analyst aims to locate the effects of the patient's words within herself, at an unconscious level, in an attempt to propose a relevant construction. Yet, contemporary psychoanalysis leads to an intersubjective exchange that emphasizes the sharing and the understanding of emotions. The evacuation of all drive-related impulses of hate towards the analysis can perpetuate the patient's alienation in relation to the analyst, as a result of the compulsion to repeat.

‘One gives way first in words, and then little by little in substance too’ (1921: 91) [2]Volney Gay thus seems to evacuate the notion of the unconscious in reference to René Girard's scapegoat. He approaches the question of language from the perspective of aggressiveness, drawing a parallel between violence in the context of sessions and the violence of America at the time of slavery.

Nilofer Kaul is concerned with language in literature and, more specifically, with the use of punctuation in the work of Emily Dickinson. In her view, the large number of dashes reflects the author's psychic developments, which she refers to as ‘interiority conjunctions.’ This resonates with the reflection of Edmundo Gómez Mango: ‘Like dreams, poetic writing is another mode of expression: it is a kind of writing that involves image-words, sound visual images that strive to reproduce the original, the infantile lived experience, the sensory and psychic shock that seizes the child...’ (2010), [3] which is akin to dreams. We know the importance Freud ascribed to the literature he relied on when elaborating the theory of the unconscious. The Interpretation of Dreams demonstrates this: instrumental mechanisms in dreamwork, condensation and displacement are also featured among literary devices like metaphor and metonymy. Such references to style resonate with the content of Laurent Danon-Boileau's interview. He shows some appreciation of the quality of speech in sessions. The patient's style of expression grants some insight not so much into contents, but into the state of excitation and the position that patients may hold in relation to their unconscious perspectives. He distinguishes between compulsive language and associative language: the former could be seen as pertaining to action and the latter as affiliated to the register of dreams and poetry. 

We can let this final note on dreams and poetry guide our reading of the essays featured in this issue. 

Chantal Duchêne-González

[1] J.-B. Pontalis, (1988), ‘Encore un métier impossible’ (Yet another impossible profession), Perdre de vue (Losing sight) Paris, Gallimard, coll. Folio, (2002), p. 261.
[2] S. Freud, 1921. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. SE XVIII: 65-144.
[3] E. Gómez-Mango, ‘L’infantile en langues’ (The infantile in languages), Langues et courants sexuels, APF Annuals (Paris: 2010, PUF).

Translation: Dorothée Bonnigal-Katz