I would like to share some perspectives from infant psychology. These perspectives relate to questions Siri Hustvedt raises in her essay (2016), namely about “what happens underground” inside the author, why a reader feels novels to be true or lies, and what a reader brings to the text.
An important topic around literature and the unconscious are the nonverbal contributions into the writing and reception of texts. This topic is shared by infant psychology, which is interested in that which is mainly embodied and not (yet) symbolized, both from the infants and from their caregivers (Schore, 2012).
The writing of a text, the reading of a text and the exchange between child and caregiver all have intersubjective aspects. As Hustvedt says, for the writer, the telling of ideas and stories “is always directed at another”, it is relational.
She places fiction on an “axis of discourse” from inside the “realm of the I” into the domain of the “you”, a sort of “between-zone” which is shaped by our earliest relational experiences.
We have today convincing evidence that, right from infancy, all human beings are oriented towards relating to each other, and that our Self cannot develop without the Other. Long before we begin to symbolize, we make contact and build a sense of Self through bodily experiences, which we do not forget (Ammaniti 2014). These early experiences are woven into our bodies, in how they feel, how they are regulated and how they join the rhythm of exchange. To look more closely at the between-zone, we have to look at these implicit processes of the body.
Hamsun describes embodied processes in his article From the unconscious life of the mind (Hamsun & Slavin, 1994). They “can be most inexplicable perceptions” he says, “a bliss without words or reason; a gasp of psychic pain; […] an apprehension of impending danger in the midst of a sorrowless moment”. These phenomena, he says, “…are often too fleeting to be grasped […] but they have left a mark… before they disappear. And out of these subliminal … movements in the soul… there can arise thoughts that later become conclusions and actions.”
Hamsun links “states of the mind […]” to the “…strange processes of the nerves, the whisper of the blood, the pleading of the bone marrow, the entire unconscious mental life.” He thus places the subliminal processes in the body and sees in them a starting point for thoughts and actions.
The idea that mental phenomena arise from the body has been confirmed by modern neurobiology. The late eminent neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp saw “our mental life critically linked to primal viscero-somatic representations of the body situated …in the brain” (2005; my italics). As his colleague Antonio Damasio put it “The brain is constantly receiving signals from the body, registering what is going on inside of us. It then processes the signals in neural maps... Feelings occur when the maps are read and it becomes apparent that emotional changes have been recorded—as snapshots of our physical state...” (Lenzen, 2005).
Hustvedt makes the most crucial observation that “meanings in a novel are not limited to dictionary definitions. They are also found in the muscular, sensory, emotional realities of the human body. And it is from there that we recognize the rights and wrongs of fiction.” Her statement places the body in a central position. This position would traditionally be held by reason. Her statement mirrors the current paradigm shift from the dominance of cognition, towards the central function of the relational, embodied unconscious.
The body has a capacity to hold reality and can make meaning. It can discern, as Hustvedt puts it, “the rights and wrongs of fiction”. So we not only have the body, or the brain-body axis, as a central participant in early experiences, into which those experiences become woven, we also have the body as an agent to make meaning.
Traditionally, we would see individuals as minds inhabiting bodies, looking at the world, or other people, or texts and understanding them through reasoning. But it seems that this is just a small part of the human picture.
The very skin around our bodies is wired to touch that which is not us, to explore, and to make contact. A soothing hand on our skin is touching us on the outside and deep inside, but it also makes our reasoning function better.
Provocatively, neuroresearcher Ian McGilchrist describes the relation between our implicit meaning-making and our intellect as that of a “master and his emissary”, the master being our largely nonconscious, body-connected functioning, while reason merely has a specialized task in this framework (2009).
Our networks between brain and muscles are wired not only to act, walk, grasp, but also to understand other people acting, walking, grasping, and to grasp their intention of doing so. Thus, our brain-muscle networks can actually make meaning of what other people intend to do, not on a symbolized, but on an embodied level.
In a similar way, our own brain-body systems for having sensations and emotions are also wired to understand what other people might experience and feel. This means that our body has a relational understanding that is unconscious and non-verbal. Our own experiences and those we understand in other people are intertwined, and out of them we make meaning, and develop and construct important parts of our Self (Ammaniti 2014).
Modern neuroscience calls this ‘intercorporeality’, a term originally coined by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau Ponty. Vittorio Gallese, a leading scientist on mirror neurons, calls it a “shared we-centric space” that takes place on a pre-verbal bodily level (2010). We see the parallels to Hustvedt’s between-zone.
As I pointed out, right from the beginning when our Selves are being formed, we always have a relational turn. When we get the chance, as some twins do, we have social intentions even before we are born. We need to experience another being, its rhythm, its smell, its voice, and centrally, it seems, it looking at us, to develop a sense of Self.
Prolonged, mutual gaze contact between infant and caregiver stimulates the growth of nerve cells, stimulates hormones of attachment, increases and releases our internal opiods and makes us feel intensely happy in our entire body (Schore, 2003). We learn and get wired to remember that contact is good. Gazing at another’s face makes our facial muscles become more alive, and aware of expression and feelings. We learn about feelings by feeling, by experiencing other’s having feelings, and by sharing this experience. This takes place before we attach symbols to our feelings. These early experiences form internal models in the body, models of our encounter with the world, and of the other. It is from these models that we make our inferences (Ammaniti 2014).
Time is too short to go into this more deeply, but I would like to touch briefly on two aspects of our embodied development of the Self. The first aspect is vitality, the second is coherence.
The concept of vitality describes the experience of intensity, shape and temporal structure, and the innate musicality of interaction. From it we can draw an important line into creative expression. Vitality forms “characterize [both] personal feelings and dynamics of movement”, as psychoanalyst Massimo Ammanitti points out (Ammaniti & Ferrari, 2013). They develop as a co-creation out of the rhythm of the infant and the rhythm of the caregiver, to a joint dynamic of interpersonal happenings in the between-zone.
Vitality affirms the sense of identity and coherence, and that of agency. It is a “constant and underlying lived experience” which, as Daniel Stern put it (2010), “emerges from the theoretically separate experiences of movement, force, time, space and intention” . Because infants have a so-called amodal capacity, they can connect experiences appearing in different modalities - like sound, location in space, direction, contour and tactile structure. These experiences become woven into their core Selves.
When infants begin to develop symbols, their amodal capacity still remains an underlying function throughout their lives, and we can imagine that they shape how structure, rhythm, prosody, onomatopoiea and images both flow into a text, from the writer, and are experienced, by the reader.
Hustvedt says, “The reader animates a novel…[he] feels a work’s meaning in his body.” I can relate that when reading Hustvedt’s book “What I loved” (2003), I experienced one scene of sudden, but subliminally not unexpected, disillusionment as a jolt and a sense of nausea and confusion in my body.
I wish I had more time to connect what I have talked of to Hustvedt’s writings, as I find many things we discuss here also woven into her texts. But I have just enough time to touch coherence.
In her essay, Hustvedt describes how while writing fiction she is steered by feeling what is “right”, and how the characters she writes about direct her and refuse to be forced into what is not right. She tells of “states of extreme openness and relaxation to whatever comes along…a permissive fearless state in which one gains access to stuff one didn’t know was there”. She cites the concept of ‘aesthetic illusion’ by Ernst Kris. Aesthetic illusion allows access to different subliminal internal states “without ego disintegration”.
This can be linked to ideas by Philip Bromberg, a psychoanalyst who has written about traumatic disintegration of self-aspects (2008) . He points out that a “multiplicity of Self [is] normal”. There is “an ongoing dialectic between separateness and unity of one’s self-states, allowing each self to function optimally without foreclosing communication and negotiation between them”. Bromberg coined the term of “standing in the spaces” as the ability to move between and share different self-states, in the interface between one’s own experience and that of the other (Bromberg, 1998).
Connecting this to Hustvedts between-zone, one can think that in the permissive writing state she describes, an author can explore the length of this “axis of discourse” through several self-states without losing the connection.
This may enable the reader to follow and explore his own between-zone, in what Bromberg calls a “safe but not too safe way”. Reading could be seen as an intersubjective venture in the spaces of own and other’s self-states.
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