WHEN TIME STOOD STILL
THOUGHTS ABOUT TIME IN PRIMITIVE MENTAL STATES
Paper Presented on November 8th, 2008 at the Twelfth Annual International Frances Tustin
Memorial Lectureship, The Psychoanalytic Center of California, Los Angeles*
“Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late.” (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again” (Lewis Carroll, 1865; 1996 edition).
It is not only the rabbit’s watch in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that hints at the dimension of time which will be one of the tale’s themes, but also his constant rushing to get somewhere symbolizes time’s linear arrow, the linearity that will contrast sharply with all the things that will happen in the course of the story, in which time, space and the logic of events proceed according to other laws of ‘time’ (Perroni, 2004). This other time, time in the sense of perceived duration, and in the sense of one's perspective on time as a process, integrating within it past, present and future (Colarusso, 1979; Hartocollis, 1983), this other sense of time has preoccupied man since the beginning of existence. Since the watch in my own waistcoat pocket is also ticking, and the subject is vast and complex, I have chosen in this lecture to pop down my own rabbit-hole made up of that particular cluster of aspects of the subject that intrigue me.
* First presented in June, 2007, at the Tel Aviv University’s Psychotherapy Program, and in July, 2007, at the Israeli Psychoanalytic Society’s 'Hidabrut' Program
I shall be looking at the subject from two complementary points of view: first, works of art which aim to decipher the experience of time and capture its elusive and contrary qualities in visual images; then, clinical states in which time figures prominently, making the subjective experience of time an affect in and of itself (Hartocollis, 1983) and being a window through which we can enter, study and understand other facets of inner experience. In my opinion, one's subjective experience of time becomes a metaphor for a more far-reaching inner reality, the layers of which are less accessible at a given moment. Recognizing this subjective experience of time can deepen our understanding of these deep layers of the psyche, while, at the same time, can more easily create a channel through which the patient can be in touch with these layers.
Of all the many works of art that have taken time as their subject, I have chosen to pause in front of some that, at different chronological times, have confronted the issue of time directly. Let's stop first at Magritte’s Time Transfixed (1938) (Fig. 1).
It features a powerful juxtaposition of a motionless clock, its hands pointing to a particular moment in time, though one cannot know whether they are moving or have stopped, and a locomotive speeding forward, yet stuck in a wall, which in effect denies it any forward motion. The picture’s title has also a double meaning: transfixed means time held still or speared through, as an arrow cleaves through the air. Thus we have the condensation in that one word of two polarized aspects of time: time as movement (trans) and time as frozen still (fixed).
In 1990 the Polish artist, Jacek Yerka, inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe's story, painted a hair-raising painting, Twilight in the Nursery (Fig. 2), about which he writes (in Cowan, 1994): “This is a painting which foretold the future. I did this piece right after the birth of my long-awaited son. It was intended to be a painting depicting the evening quiet in a child's room. Only the rustling of leaves and the ticking of clocks can be heard. At the time, I didn't realize that the pendulum from the ceiling was slowly descending, just as in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum". The pendulum touched my son on August 9th, 1993. The room has since become forever silent". This is how Yerka presents the time of trauma, time as inquisitor-executioner, who brings about death and leaves an affective experience, in which, following loss, time stood still, its flow froze.
We now jump forward into the new millennium to stop by the work of Darren Almond, an English artist most of whose work centers on trying to document experiences of transition and duration of time, while holding the spectator inside the very experience he creates. In A Real Time Piece, 1996, he constructed a video link between his studio and the exhibition hall, which displayed the passing of a 24-hour period in his empty studio, the only change being the shifting shades of light that fall on his studio as the day passed. In a similar effort, he linked up an empty prison cell and London’s Institute of Modern Art, to illustrate how slowly time passes for a prisoner, while the spectator becomes a sort of prisoner of the work itself (Grosenick & Riemschneider, 2005). For his work called Meantime (2000) (Fig. 3) he built a huge digital clock inside a giant shipping container in which he sailed from London to New York in six days as the watch showed the elapsing of Greenwich Mean Time.
Very different again is Hanne Darboven, a German artist who creates a very meticulous, even compulsive art.
Her main concern is to catalogue, count and organize time. In a series of works called Writing Time (Figs. 4,5) she has assembled and organized dates from the calendar, finding mathematical laws linking them together. She creates vast surfaces and gigantic structures, painstakingly identical, which envelope within themselves different representations of time?personal time and social time?as though in an attempt to preserve every passing moment and so find a sort of illusion of control and lawfulness in individual and interpersonal processes.
In the exhibition called A Matter of Time held in 2007 at the Hertzlia Museum of Art, in Israel, one of the works to catch my eye was Olive Green, 2003, by Narda Alvardo of Bolivia. For this work, (Fig. 6)
Alvardo asked a group of traffic policemen to block a busy main avenue in the bustling capital city, La Paz, by marching across it, each of them holding a plate with one green olive on it. The blockage lasted only a few minutes, just enough to allow the policemen to stand in a line and each eat the one olive on his plate. Having eaten (Fig. 7),
the policemen left the road and the traffic resumed its normal frantic pace. This humorous polarization displays the enormous tension between the pace of the individual and of socio-political developments, as the guardians of order turn into the disturbers of order for the sake of a private need. The work emphasizes how the experience of time's flow stopping is so contingent on the context in which this stopping occurs.
This confrontation of different speeds and rhythms is taken to the extreme in the same exhibition in
a video installation by the Israeli, Ohad Fishof (2005), entitled Slow Walk to Longplayer (Fig. 8). On 21st of June, 2005, the longest day of the year, Fishof walked very slowly across the frantic London Bridge, so slowly that beginning in the morning rush-hour, it took him 9 hours 43 minutes and 25 seconds to get to the other side. Fishof’s slow pace, in stark contrast to the rapid and purposeful pace of all the other people crossing the bridge, was intended to mark the fifth year of Longplayer, a work of music by Jim Finer lasting a thousand years. This piece has been playing since 1st January, 2000, in five locations around the world and is due to continue playing without pause or repetition until it ends on 31st December, 2999.
Most of the works I have mentioned illustrate, I feel, the primitive fear inside us that (linear) time is like a creature possessing magical powers, whose lawfulness and ever lasting presence threaten to swallow us up. In my opinion, the death anxiety awaiting each of us often sets in motion attempts to capture the moment, as though such attempts could make it eternal, and so deny the danger of time moving on to its end. Some artists have gone the way of constructing devices to control the movement of time, as though it could be frozen or endlessly prolonged: they have constructed elaborate mechanisms for the organized watching of happenings in time or tried to meticulously organize, catalogue and find laws in human continuities and happenings. And lastly, some of the works I have presented have focused and magnified the contrast between temporal modalities and rhythms that exists between any two individuals, a topic which is of great relevance developmentally and clinically, as I hope to emphasize later on.
In the works I have shown you the focus on time is at the very forefront, but in our analytical work, although our theoretical thinking is riddled with concepts having temporal connotations (regression, recall, progression, fixation, repetition-compulsion, developmental stages, transference and so on), we and our patients make only peripheral reference to time, which is on the edge of our consciousness, but not at the centre of our thinking. The therapeutic situation we construct is also saturated with aspects of time: we work mostly in 50-minute sessions which follow each other at fixed intervals, each session a fixed unit with its own clear boundaries of time and payment, whereas the process as a whole is open and timeless, as though it moved back and forth on the axes of time without let or hindrance. In my estimation, the essential quality of the analytical process lies in our ability to be with our patients in a state of unfelt and unvoiced movement between different times, not in linear time but in a sort of suspended time. The power of therapy certainly takes place in the present time of the analyst-analysand encounter, but the experience of that present time is not only shaped and determined by the relations each of the participants had in his or her past, but shapes how they perceive that past and even rewrites it (retranscription). These après-coup processes (deferred action) which construct meaning retroactively, have been described so well by Freud (1895, 1897, 1918) and others like: Modell (1990), Green (2000), Birksted-Breen (2003), Pine (2006). Thus, our changing perception of the past, together with the content and processes that each session brings into being, create a new experience of the present which, in turn, serves as a new past for future moments.
It is my opinion that the analytical framework, by embracing a contrast of temporalities (Namnum, 1972; Sabbadini, 1989) and processes which develop simultaneously in different time strata, invites us into the fabric of our patient’s time-relations. Sometimes it even spreads this fabric out before us, opening a non-verbal window into a highly complex, highly condensed psychic reality. The way a person becomes aware of the dimensions of time and the way he lives them provides a sharp, precise and unmediated mirror into the way he exists with himself and with the other, and does so, moreover, in strata of the psyche inaccessible to verbalization, even to thinking. In my estimation, it is precisely when the issue of time moves to the center of experience as a separate and predominant aspect of existence, that there then occurs a disturbance in our continuous and natural transition between various temporalities, one that often exposes an inner rupture, many times of a very early origin.
I will now bring a number of clinical examples which allow us to focus on time experienced as fractured, fragmented and meaningless; on experiences of timelessness, and, lastly, on stereotypical, ritualistic, autistic-like relations to time, perceived as frozen still.
Noga, a young woman of 28, sought treatment because of a lack of interpersonal relationships, an eating disorder in which binges of guzzling huge quantities of food were followed by self-induced vomiting, and a feeling that she was incomprehensible to others. Her life was very much centered on herself and her different spheres of functioning, especially her bodily functioning and her creative work, as though her life were a sort of closed circuit, with very little external connectivity. Relations with her family were few and far between: she was weighed down by the feeling that her language and that of her family were badly unsynchronized.
In analysis, Noga filled her sessions with a flooding flow of talk which I often found hard to follow. She had rapidly established relations with me, their key element being an intense staring at me and questioning of me, as though trying to pierce me through and assess how far I understood the nuances of her descriptions, and in particular how far I appreciated what was unique in her. During the sessions she would tell and retell the quantities of food she consumed and gradually I became surprised by my emotional reactions to these descriptions. At first I felt deep revulsion, as though I had been stuffed all at once with a mass of stifling, choking, rotting material. Then, gradually, there occurred to me visual images from movies, such as 'La Grande Bouffe', but one particular image kept recurring: as Noga described a bout of eating I saw myself arranging the meals in orderly piles, layer on layer, like a waiter piling up plates on one arm. My great fear in this self-visualizing was that I would drop one of the meals but even more critical was the arranging of the dishes in layers, as though I was engaged in a juggling act. At this stage of the analysis this self-image would be evoked almost automatically every time Noga entered on one of her gourmandizing depictions, but what it meant to me was very elusive and made sense only gradually. The central and most significant aspect of the interaction between Noga and me was her desperate thirst to feel me thinking about her ('thinking her') and especially to hear me describing in words, as plastic as I could make them, what I understood about her at every moment of our interaction.
A considerable way into the analysis, Noga began to talk about a time in her childhood when it was suspected that she was retarded (it should be emphasized that Noga had excellent intellectual abilities). This suspicion was aroused especially by her silence when asked simple questions, which made people wonder if she could understand the questions at all or could cope with answering them. For example, if asked “What time is it?” she would not reply, since she felt that by the time she gave her answer time would have already moved on and would be different from the time when the question was asked. (Likewise, when asked how old she was.) Later on in our analysis she recalled a game she would often play as a little girl: she would lie on the ground as though dead and stop breathing, trying each time to hold her breath for more and more time, to prolong this imagined death. On one occasion a doctor had to be called.
As an adult, her main activity was photographing herself moment by moment, the photos following each other as closely as possible, as though trying to capture each second, to leave no gap in between. With these photos she would create displays of self-surveillance, infinite sequences of herself looking at herself looking at herself.
Gradually, a few thoughts became clear for me. First, that her descriptions of her relation to time as, layer by layer, they emerged into therapy, altered my understanding of her, as compared to the early stages of the therapy. From her difficulty as a child in answering simple questions and her self-documentation as an adult I could appreciate the depth to which she sensed time as fragmented, each moment existing of and by itself, with no sense of connection and continuity from moment to moment, between past, present and future. The way she experienced temporality revealed the depth of her fragmented and perforated experience of herself, as though she lost her identity in the interval between each second and the next. I began thinking that all the food she consumed was a means to compile an infinite, concrete continuity, a means of filling all the holes and gaps in her self experience. My own self-image, as a waitress balancing all those meals in layers on one arm, worked simultaneously on several levels: it embodied the sense of a fragile equilibrium in her world, and my own fragile equilibrium under the “pile” of undigested parts she piled/ loaded on me while I was struggling not to “drop” her; at the same time the image built in me an orderly stratigraphic sequence, in a world experienced as overwhelming and devoid of logical sequence. Looking back, I think there was also in this image a degree of dissociation from the feeling of overwhelming revulsion itself, that I felt at times, as though the acrobatics I was imagining carried me away from sinking into something one could only escape by vomiting it out. Noga’s pretend deaths served as a primitive means of coping with her sense of discontinuity: paradoxically, this death, whose duration she had in her control, became an experience of sustained alive-ness, because this death was her own sustained doing and its time was no longer fragmented. It created, on the one hand, the illusion of timelessness such as there is only in death, and on the other hand, of continuity, since the experience she created lasted for a substantial period of time. Without revealing Noga’s family background, for confidentiality reasons, I shall only say that it was no wonder that it was this pretend death that created a sense of continuity, since it reconstructed, I believe, Noga’s sense of death within and in the presence of her mother, a prolonged emotional void, the consequence of which was the loss of all sense of a continuous inner self.
At this stage of the analysis, as I came to a clearer understanding of my recurrent self-image and worked through various memories, it became steadily more obvious how much Noga needed to construct a continuity of experience via me. Time after time after time I recalled, gathered together, sorted out, translated, connected, made associations between one experience and another, one moment and another, between my reactions and hers, between what was happening in our present relations and her relations outside analysis or her memory fragments from early childhood. This wide compass of interventions served, in my estimation, to stitch by stitch sew up Noga’s memory envelope, which for years had had such huge holes in it that it was as though her experience was composed of unconnected and meaningless shreds and patches.
Before I talk about some of the characteristics of such a sense of fragmented time, I would like to say a few words about the developmental aspects of the sense of time. Having understood these, we shall be able to better appreciate the developmental roots of fragmented time.
All schools of analytical thinking agree that the experience of time is a product of interpersonal interaction during the earliest stages of life (Priel, 1977, 2004). Both the sense of duration and the experience of time as a process that constructs meaning by connecting inner to outer events are perceived as deriving from the ongoing synchronization, adaptation and transformation which gradually differentiate between self and other. We even have, nowadays, the fascinating notion that the first representations of time are created in the womb, through the first sensations of rhythm, constancy and regularity. Rhythm, in itself, is composed of sequences of presence and absence, of ‘is’ and 'is not’, and so forms the primary basis for the ability to tolerate change and difference. From the age of 3 months, the fetus in the womb hears the rhythms of the mother’s body sounds (her heartbeat, the sounds of food digestion ? varying according to the mother’s eating rhythms), the sound of the mother’s voice and of other people approaching and retreating at different rates. The memory traces of these rhythms create what Suzanne Maiello has termed a ‘sound object’ (1995), and constitute one of the first representations of the maternal object, the first representation of process and continuity. This constancy and rhythm form the basis of fetus-mother interaction and become the earliest biological clock that is absorbed in the nucleus of the prenatal psyche (Mancia, 1981; Maiello, 2001). After birth too, sensations and experiences of rhythm continue to take root and expand, to now include the rhythms of breastfeeding, of stretching and relaxation, of breathing, of sleep and waking, of hunger and fullness, of presence and absence, of being with and away from the object (Arlow, 1986; Birksted-Breen, 2007; Colarusso, 1979; Fraser, 1981).
Gradually, the chief axis of a baby’s post-natal development establishes itself through coping with the lapse of time between the awakening of a need and its satisfaction by the object (Freud, 1920; Bion, 1962; Birksted-Breen, 2003). The experience which this period of waiting generates depends on the object’s ability to adapt to the baby’s stage of development. In Winnicott's thinking (Winnicott, 1956, 1960, 1962), during this time of ‘unintegration’, the mother’s total adaptation to her baby’s needs allows a sense of ‘going-on-being’, a concept saturated with temporal connotations. This total adaptation makes possible a developmental process without any sense of ‘impingement’, liable to engender feelings of severe fragmentation. In the earliest developmental stages, present and future are simultaneous, since the baby’s illusion of omnipotence and the mother’s consent to this make the wish for satisfaction co-existent with the satisfaction itself. In effect this is a period of fusion, of timelessness. Gradually, frustration becomes possible, in doses adjusted to the baby’s capacity to bear it. There come moments of waiting, which form the primary basis for separateness and thinking, as the baby pictures the object in its absence by recalling its presence. Of course, the capacity to wait without being filled with disintegrating anxiety depends on the inner knowledge that there is a reasonable time limit to the period of frustration, that a conception of process and a primary recall of the object’s presence exist, and that the first buds of the integration of past, present and future have come into being (Priel, 1997). If need satisfaction at this stage continues to be total some of the excitement inherent in baby’s expectancy fades and less recourse to object recall occurs. If, on the other hand, the waiting time is prolonged more than the baby can bear, then disintegrating anxiety sets in, beyond the baby’s mental capacity to digest. To sum up, in the terminology of Green (2003), this complex interaction between two others contains within it what he calls a ‘conflictual heterochrony’: the temporal encounter of mother and baby includes the time dimension of both, and although the time of each contains similar elements (drive time, ego time, future time shaped by the prohibitions of the superego, the time of the encountered other) the time of each is regulated differently. Mother and baby are engaged in intense negotiation with each other, the baby moving progressively towards identifying with his mother’s time, while the mother regresses to identifying with her baby’s wishes. Fantasy time regulates the interaction between the two when they are not together. As a result of the negotiation between mother's and baby's time there emerges what Green calls ‘transitional time’, analogous to ‘transitional space’, which turns waiting time into a time of expectancy of renewed joining. When waiting time extends beyond the baby’s capacity to wait potential time turns into dead time, analogous to empty space, in which there is a “representation of absence of representation”, of death, laying the ground for negative trauma. In other words, it is from such a state that there emerges that permanent experience of absence which destroys the capacity of expectation, and even the capacity to perceive the presence of the object when it does eventually arrive (Green, 1999, 2003; Eigen, 1996). In fact, the traumatic element in these states is neither the prolonged waiting nor being cut-off from the object, it is the loss of the capacity for object representation (Bottela & Bottela, 2001). Thus, instead of the mother-baby interaction engendering a fantasy of shared memory (like Anzieu’s fantasy of a shared skin (1989)) and a memory envelope which holds a sense of a continuous self, stretching across individual moments and events, there is engendered a perforated memory envelope riddled with holes (Enriquez, 1990).
In Bionian language, in the primary stages of development, the primary representation of time is in the mother’s psyche, which by means of reverie brings about a transformation of the baby’s mental and physical materials (Bion, 1962). It is this reworking of materials in the mother’s psyche which enables the baby to wait. Dana Birksted-Breen (2003) calls this time “reverberation time”, that time needed for all the developments taking place within the mother, as her baby’s experience of present time reverberates within her and from within her. Thus, the mother digests her baby’s mental materials in a sort of temporal spiral. It is this reverberation time that little by little enables the baby to internalize a primary sense of process and waiting.
To return to Noga, what had formed inside her was an experiential world composed of an infinity of moments, each one void of meaning or of any sense of historical agency, as though she were wholly made up of meaningless particles of experience (like Loewald’s description of fragmented time (1972)). In my estimation, Noga’s waiting time as a baby was as I have described above: never in her life had she encountered an emotionally-alive object. Her waiting had become a sort of dead time, the same time she learnt to reconstruct in her ‘pretend death’ game, with the difference that this time she was in control. Her inner world had filled with that ‘representation of absence’, a representation which led to spend her time in innumerable rituals of painstakingly assembling and cataloguing details and memory fragments; in effect what developed was a narcissistic withdrawal and severing of contacts, as she created a world ruled by her omnipotently, where she seemingly had the power to kill and revive herself at will. But this ceaseless activity had not healed her lack of a sense of continuity and meaningful personal history and that is why she periodically had recourse to binges of eating ? to materially fill up the holes inside her. For some time, the essence of the therapeutic effort was me acting as a sort of sound-box, letting the fractions of her experience reverberate inside me and, afterwards, in dialogue with her. In such a state there was no capacity of symbolization, for this is a developmental achievement, which can only build on the ability to bear separateness, which in turn rests on the bearability of space between self and other, between concrete and symbolic. In my understanding, much of the therapeutic work in this analysis operated on a pre-symbolic level, which Spero (1995, 1998) calls “symbolification”, that lays the ground for work of a more symbolic character, able to move freely between past, present and future. For example, I would say that the visual image that emerged within me, where I was balancing a precarious column of plates of food on one hand, had figurative potential (Enriquez, 1990) and that all the effort I made to translate that image was a work of “symbolification”, laying the ground for later, more symbolic work. During these stages of the analysis I had to act as a breach healer and connecter, until Noga could develop these capacities for herself and her sense of fragmentariness became less acute.
I would like now to illustrate a completely different sense of time than the fragmented one which characterized Noga. Yoav was a man in his fifties who came to analysis out of the desire to cope with the relations within his nuclear and extended families and to understand himself and the decisions he had made over the course of his life, in particular in his professional life. To avoid any possibility of identification I shall only say that we are talking about a successfully functioning man, with an active social life, successful in his work in one of the free professions, pleasant to know, warm, possessing a rich inner world and an excellent verbal facility. The analysis seemed to progress smoothly on a wide and easy stream of association. But gradually it became clear that there was a region or stratum in Yoav’s psyche functioning on a much more primitive level and which revealed itself chiefly in his relation to time. Yoav would spend long hours doing nothing, not knowing clearly what he was feeling, but feeling that he was living the moment and was incapable of moving forward with any sort of clear intention. The professional work he should have been doing would come to a halt and he would spend long periods of time floating in a sort of day-dreaming. In precise phrases he described how in his heart of hearts he took pleasure in feeling that moment going on and on, that the present would never end, as though there was nothing before it and there would be nothing after it. In effect, he was describing a world of no future or changeability, a world made even more extreme by daily drug use, which made this sensation of an ever-lasting present all the more intense. He also revealed that another aspect of this long-standing pastime was composing music but of a deliberately monotonous compass, minimizing any sense of variation or transition. Listening to the music, I heard how his rhythms changed so slowly that the listener only noticed after the fact that he had entered a new melodic passage. (In another context he told me that he would buy lottery tickets and usually not bother to check the results as that would spoil his pleasure in his ongoing fantasy of winning.)
The experience of timelessness was described by Freud as early as his 1915 paper on the unconscious (Freud, 1915), mentioning that unconscious processes do not change as a function of time, do not follow any chronological order and make no reference to time. In his correspondence with Romain Rolland and in 'Civization and its Discontens' Freud (1930) also referred to experiences which lack any time-reference, any sense of boundary or demarcation, as ‘oceanic’. The experience of timelessness is known to all of us from moments of great emotional intensity, from orgastic experiences, from religious experiences, ecstatic experiences, creative activities; in all these we lose the sense of time and sink deep into the happening itself, cutting ourselves off from our surroundings and from other passing routines of the day. We remember these moments for their intensity, for the sense of power and energy they gift us. But here I want to concentrate on states when a sense of timelessness is a frequent occurrence (O’Shaughnessy, 1992) and where there is a degree of attraction and addiction to the experience, a sort of imprisonment in the moment, as with Yoav. Many questions arise as to the meaning and function of these periods. Their nature denies in effect that living is a steady, endless flow of time. This sinking into the present moment disguises a denial both of the past, with all its losses and traumas, and of the future, which carries the fact of death. Yoav’s life, as it began to transpire, was riddled with severe losses, which he appeared on the surface to be reconciled to, but under the surface his addiction to timelessness revealed a severe and paralyzing anxiety of death and hidden components of depression, all concealed under a rich inner world and under his ability to describe this world with great vividness. His sinking into an endless present, reinforced by daily drug consumption, the music he composed, his floating and day-dreaming, all combined into a manic defense against the threats of terminality, loss and death (Winnicott, 1971; Loewald, 1972; Birksted-Breen, 2003). In this state, in which the flow of time is denied and the present is experienced as lasting endlessly without ever changing, the blows of the past and the threats of the future are alike repudiated (Pollock, 1971; Hagglund, 2001; Lombardi, 2003).
We have here, in effect, another fantasy of omnipotence (Modell, 1990; Bronstein, 2002), this one engendering a powerful oceanic experience, whose key characteristic is the sensation of eternal fusion, of a sort which denies any possibility of difference, separation and change, and whose qualities recall the period of fusion between mother and baby in the first weeks of life, also characterized by a sense of omnipotence, as I described earlier (Winnicott, 1956, 1960, 1962; Arlow, 1986). Yoav's desire for a renewed fusion, repudiating all change, difference and separateness, gave rise to an interesting interaction between him and myself: he would often imagine thoughts of mine as exact transcriptions of thoughts of his and would sometimes hear my words quite differently from what I had actually said, attributing to me the ability to guess exactly what he was thinking or feeling. Other times, he would interpret my movements in the room as setting up a total defense and protection around him. All these situations aroused him strongly, as though for a moment the two of us had become one inseparable whole and experienced a powerful sense of oneness.
Sometimes this sensation took on for him the qualities of a déjà vu experience, as if we had already lived a given moment or he himself had already been in the new situation he found himself in. This was another way of denying changeability, another indirect defense against death anxiety, as if he was saying to himself: “You’ve already been in this situation, it is familiar to you and you have come out of it, and so it will be with every future situation, including your own death” (Orgel, 1965; Arlow, 1959; Birksted-Breen, 2003; Rustad, 2001). This self-enfolding in the present attained not only the quality of eternality but also blurred the recall of past events. In contrast to Noga, who all her life struggled to connect up the scattered shards of her life and invested every effort into collecting and assembling fragments of memory, Yoav lived in a constant attempt to blur memory traces, especially the pains of loss, and his severe anxiety of death. His deep seated separation and death anxiety and his masked depression showed themselves also in the unease I felt whenever I sensed pressure from him to enter into a sort of prolonged state of nirvana, void of any possibility of emotional or mental movement, and where both of us profoundly experienced any differences in thinking as discordant, jarring. I found myself making an effort to stir myself into movement, to concoct a story, to look at the situation from the outside, and more than once, apparently in complementarity to Yoav's feelings of déjà vu, I felt moments of estrangement, as though I were not part of the situation. I suppose this was my way of freeing myself from the pressure to dwell only in a totally happy present.
This tension, between Yoav's déjà vu and my jamais vu, helped us construct the beginning of perspective on Yoav's life. However, this movement on the various dimensions of time was met by Yoav with anxiety, at once disguised by his intellect. The analysis became my constant search for ways to enable Yoav to be not only in a symbiotic state of total mutual adaptation but also to remember his past and use the richness of his life experience without being overwhelmed by depression, and to enable him to cope with the fact of his being separate, with all the pain inherent in this state. Recently, as part of his attempts to touch the death anxiety central to his perspective on the future, he described how although he still feels that he will not leave a trace behind him and will be wiped away with a completeness hard to put into words, he nonetheless also described how he felt himself to be floating on the surface of time, with time as it were a river carrying him along. This was, in effect, his way of describing how for the first time in a long time he did not feel himself to be stuck and cut off from life, but instead felt a sense of movement and alive-ness.
Lastly, I want to give a brief account of a third experience of time, time as frozen, ritualist, stereotypic, characteristic of psychic states having a prominent autistic encapsulation (Maiello, 2001, 2004; Spero, 1998; Tustin, 1986, 1990). Keren, a young woman in her thirties, came to me after a long period in therapy with another therapist who had to end that therapy because of her life circumstances. Keren couldn’t really say why she wanted to continue therapy. She defined herself as being depressed whereas my impression was of some sort of frozen inner panic, in which any attempt to cope was all but impossible, as it overwhelmed her with a sense of disintegration and intense anxiety. Married and the mother of two children, she had never worked in her life and only extensive external human support services enabled her to function within the family. She was engaged in no sustained activity, other than preoccupation with her external appearance, and had no ambition or wishes for the future. As to her body, she knew precisely how it should look and what clothes she should wear and spent a lot of effort in buying incredible quantities of jeans from a selected and specific clothes company. The therapy began with her telling me about herself as though we were old acquaintances or as though it did not matter who she was talking to. Very soon she developed a strong clinginess on therapy and would come very regularly and exactly on time, so that my feeling grew that her sessions of therapy had become a framework holding her together, just as clinging to autistic objects gives a sensation of border and demarcation. The relationship between us was similar to the adhesive equation that Tustin speaks about (Tustin, 1986), or a sort of pseudo object relationship in Mitrani's language (Mitrani, 1994), in which the main characteristic is that of being stuck to the relation, with no real and alive relation, no real sense of separateness and no real mentation processes going on. During the sessions, Keren alternated between, on the one hand, empty silence, as though she was suspended in time, in a motionless state, a void of emotional and cognitive movement, and between, on the other hand, moments of very concrete speech, extremely repetitive and stereotypical, every statement being repeated several times with only slight modifications of word order. Her daily life too was composed of recurrent procedures and rituals. The contents of the sessions were very limited, mostly focusing on the immediate past, that day or the one before, and on some incident that had seriously disturbed her. Every such incident expanded into huge proportions since it took place in a sort of limbo, aroused no thought beyond its concrete aspect and was experienced as having no connection to any other event, past or future, as though there were no story or history to her life. Keren’s capacity for reflection was that of someone who lived without mental space, without the ability to relate to the multidimensionality of a situation. What she expected from me was orientation, to give her a lead. Indeed, when I spoke without doing this I noticed that she often took my words, whether I had actually said them or not, as an organizing thread, which demarcated and affirmed her existence. At any break in our sessions, mainly due to an absence of mine, she at once called up other therapists, as though this interval of time was a huge black hole (Grotstein, 1990) rapidly sucking her in ? yet she would rapidly forget all this occurrence when we resumed meeting, once again as though the drama that had occurred during the break had generated no history of experience.
In contrast to Keren's experience of her life as lacking any coherent sequence and meaning our sessions gradually created an external orderly rhythm which lent her a rudimentary sense of continuity that she lacked. In parallel, my experience of session time was hard to bear: for the most part I felt as though time stood still, stasis, everything was known in advance, nothing moved, there was no memory, and the main continuity created was merely the sequence of the sessions. This was a state of emptiness of time and space, where repetition/cyclicality was the key thing happening, where there was no third dimension, neither of space nor of time, exactly as described in autistic encapsulations by Tustin (1996, 1990) and Meltzer (1975). The personal and family history that Keren could recount was also very limited, comprising the most one-dimensional perceptions, which only went to emphasize how large and deep was the region in her psyche which had failed to absorb/digest the severe and extreme experiences of finding herself, for long stretches of time, not to be part of her parents’ mental space. This absence of any sense that she reverberated in her parents’ psyche began during her mother’s pregnancy and continued from there, despite the fact that she was much loved. This had made it impossible for her to internalize any sense of continuity of holding, of process. Instead, there developed a world of circular, ritualistic attachment, devoid of all perspective of time. This rigid attachment, to times, to persons, to things, successfully protected Keren, at least partially, from her catastrophic anxieties of annihilation, but one result of this lack of a sense of process was an almost total lack of internalization. Today, some four years since the therapy began, a new and exciting development is that she is beginning to dream and recall her dreams. For now, the dreams are experienced as assaults on the even tenor of her life, almost as intrusive objects. Their recall and their meaning is, for the time being, kept to myself, while in the sessions, Keren still brings up her dreams as if they were a sort of ‘bizarre objects’ (Bion, 1957, 1958): material she needs to get rid of and which apparently has no meaning or relation to herself.
With the help of Noga, Yoav and Keren I have tried to take you on a tour of time as it can be experienced, across all its polarities and intensities, in some primitive mental states. For the most part, time is not a major part of our awareness, yet on occasions it becomes central and sheds important light on one’s psychic structure. As I said before, it is precisely when the issue of time moves to the center of experience as a separate and predominant aspect of existence, that the disturbance in our continuous and natural transition between various temporalities becomes evident and exposes a deep inner rupture, many times of a very early origin.
In my experience, deciphering the way the patient experiences time (and space) gives us an additional key to primitive areas of the psyche which do not express themselves in the usual verbal or symbolic ways, be they part of a highly developed psychic structure such as Yoav's, or of more pathological states, such as Noga’s and Keren’s. In all three cases we are witness to the human struggle to save oneself from the dread of losing continuity and memory, and, at the same time, from the dread all of us have of encountering the traumatic parts of our remembered lives.
Paul Auster’s latest book, Travels in the Scriptorium, (2006) depicts a man, Mr. Blank, in a room, imprisoned or free it is not clear, and remembering nothing as to why he is in the room or about his own identity and life. In the room are objects, each with their name on a label attached to the object, aids to identification and memory as it were. Mr. Blank does not recognize the series of persons who visit him, except for noting the sensory qualities of their presence. For the whole length of the book Auster plays his usual games with the reader’s perceptions, as he (the reader) tries, together with the hero, to connect up his fragments of knowledge and memory. It is interesting that for all his lack of memory of events and people, Mr. Blank has not lost the capacities of thought and feeling and he is capable, when asked, of using them to imagine and write a sort of book, a novel within the novel, about a man imprisoned because of an injustice he has committed against others. Auster, who has in several books struggled with the experience of loss of identity and memory, peoples this latest novel with characters from previous ones, as though weaving a tissue of oblivion perforated here and there with resuscitations, resuscitations which allow these selected figures to exist in the eternity of literary time, beyond the span their conception originally allotted them. Towards the end of the book the reader begins to realize that the riddle of Mr. Blank is going to remain unsolved and that, together with him, we are going to be left in a space of not-knowing and discontinuity, yet at the same time, says Auster, though it is true that Mr. Blank is an old and confused man, he shall not disappear or die as long as he, Auster, keeps him alive on the page by the act of writing.
To my mind, this book illustrates Auster’s effort, and others’ (Borges and Beckett, for example), to find words and meaning for the holes in our experience, for our existential need to make disconnections and not remember (if we think of the concept of the toxic function of the memory envelope, as described by Enriquez, 1990), for those places where we fall into pockets of experiential blankness, blank like Mr. Blank’s name, where we lose the continuity of experience and lose ourselves in the maze of time. I conclude that, just as Auster in his writings follows in detail the fracturing of the continuity of experience and the draining away of memory, so it is our call to actively accompany our patients in the work of writing and re-rewriting every moment of their lives, of the past and the present, and thus to fight with them the battle of building a better past for the future to come. This role of ours is not made any easier since the phenomenon of conflictual heterochronicity, described by Green (2003), not only afflicts mother-baby relations, but any human relation. Thus, the therapist/analyst must cope with the complex disparities between his emotional rhythm and the patient’s, with the disparities between, on the one hand, the tendency to forget and to deny the meaning of time and, on the other hand, the vectors which push us to remember. From my point of view this lecture is an attempt to move one small step closer in time and space to that region within us where we remain forever a stranger to ourselves and lose forever something of what we have experienced.
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