When Words Fall Short
22nd February 2017
“There’s something fishy about describing people’s feelings. You try hard to be accurate, but as soon as you start to define such and such a feeling, language lets you down. It’s really a machine for making falsehoods. When we really speak the truth, words are insufficient” (Iris Murdoch).
The great psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott devised a game in his work with children called The Squiggle Game. Winnicott would draw a squiggle on a piece of paper and then invite the child to add to the drawing in any way they liked and to make up a story about what they had made. This unstructured pencil-and-paper game was developed to elicit the thoughts and feelings of troubled patients too young to communicate verbally.
Winnicott firmly held the belief that, whether as children or in adulthood, through artistic expression we can keep in touch with our most primitive, intense feelings. Making sense of our experience can be hard. There are times it is difficult to put into words why we feel a certain way. This is often the case when people begin therapy. It is a reason why people enter into it in the first place.
Part of the work of a psychotherapist can be to help a person understand the unconscious meaning of their experience – to transform that part of an emotional experience of which s/he is unconscious into an emotional experience of which s/he is conscious. Sometimes this can be achieved by talking and being listened to, sometimes more oblique means are more beneficial to a client or patient.
A therapist’s role is to helpfully interpret the experiences a client brings to a therapy session – this may be old recollections or recent events. It could be something about the interaction between client and therapist. Another possibility for interpretation could be to wrestle with the meaning of a dream the client has had. This can be helpful because we don’t always work with the rational or the conscious. The deeper work is non-rational or unconscious.
Dreams are a way into this inner world – the royal road into the unconscious according to Sigmund Freud. They are fascinating because they condense and somehow liberate our lived experience. I mention dreams because they share something of the quality that exists within the pursuit of making art, of art as therapy.
Art as therapeutic expression, like dreams, offers a way to connect with places difficult to reach via language. The British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) state that “art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary mode of expression and communication” – art is used as a medium to address emotional issues which may be confusing and distressing.
Often these communications can be our earliest, unremembered experiences and the processes in the mind that develop within the individual from an early age into adult life, but they can be from any time in our lives. To access pre-linguistic places, or those unexpressed verbally, a capacity for symbolisation is needed – a capacity which artistic expression can provide.
Like language, to make art is to express oneself symbollically. But within art, it is less concrete. Making art is a sutained, forgetful self-listening. Its symbolisation provides links between experience, it cultivates a sensitivity to such things. One begins with a blank canvas and the feeling of something unresolved or confusing or stuck or unbearable and it creates the possibility to transform hopelessness and formlessness into new, emergent ways of thinking and connecting.
Sigmund Freud had the intuition that artists, in making their work, sought to awaken in the observer the same feelings that prompted them to make that piece of art in the first place. In Freud’s mind, the artist is simultaneously communicating the destruction of their inner world and their capacity to repair it. It may feel like an act of faith as the outcome is uncertain, but it is reached for nonetheless.
Similarly, Hanna Segal, a psychoanalyst who wrote extensively on art, dreams and symbolism considered it a function of art to act as a container, once remarking that “the artist makes the unbearable bearable by giving it expression”. Making art can connect senses of touch, vision, thought and feeling in a special way. By entering into a non-linguistic form of expression in this way we are entering into a new experience. Clearly, making can be transformative, just as makers transform materials.
And it is from this point that therapeutically, the art liberates the artist to articulate something new. Artistic expression can stir us into words, to call up language, to find the appetite to speak, to begin to understand. The visual can open up the opportunity for spoken description of experience, providing a rich source of clues and angles, bringing to light fresh traces and sentences. In this way, when the visual becomes the pretext for the linguistic, maybe words can become sufficient again.