A COUPLE OF YEARS OUT OF COLLEGE, I was at a bar on Seventh Street in the East Village in New York with my boyfriend at the time, a novelist who carried a small notebook with him that he would suddenly take out of his pocket and write in during conversations. We were breaking up, although that didn’t become clear until an extremely drunk woman stumbled over to our table and asked, What does arbitrary mean?
Random, I said. Like if you decided to move to Montana but had no real reason for doing so, the choice would be arbitrary.
I see. She nodded, then turned to my soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend who was half listening, because he only ever half listened to anyone. You keep using that word, she said to him, then paused longer than was comfortable. What’s wrong with you? Have you stopped feeling?
ONE OF THE FIRST STEPS IN CHANGE, from the perspective of many psychoanalysts, is to recognize your patterns of thought and behavior, to make the unconscious conscious. That way you can pause in the moment rather than act on autopilot, take in the information before you, check in with yourself, and decide how you want to behave. The ability to make conscious choices is the crucial freedom that psychoanalysis can offer.
Psychoanalysis posits a continually evolving self: we are each “[a] poem that is being written,” as psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan has it, "even if it looks like a subject," even if the living text of our unconscious is inscribed in an indecipherable code. To take responsibility for who we become, for the poem that gets written, we must understand our unconscious. Deciphering the unconscious is what makes it possible for us to become the one we are and, from that position, direct our choices. “The analyst,” writes psychoanalyst W.R. Bion, “is trying to help the patient to dare to be himself, to dare to have enough respect for his personality to be that person."
GENUINE FEELING IS PERHAPS THE MOST IMPORTANT TOOL for change because it helps us distinguish between what we desire and what we have been taught to desire by others. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek describes Freud describing his young daughter fantasizing about eating strawberry cake because, in the past, “while voraciously eating a strawberry cake, the little girl noticed how her parents were deeply satisfied by seeing her fully enjoying it.” The desire in her fantasy is not her own, Žižek explains, but that of her parents, which exposes “the original question of desire”—“not directly ‘What do I want?’ but ‘What do others want from me?’” The little girl’s fantasy of eating a strawberry cake—which may, in fact, be Žižek’s fantasy also, as I have yet to find this anecdote in Freud’s writings—expresses the wish to see her parents’ pleasure in watching her voraciously enjoy what they had given her rather than the impulse to experience pleasure of her own in eating the cake.
When we are in touch with our own desires, with the wellspring of energy and impulses that psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott termed the True Self, we feel present and alive. “Only the True Self can be creative,” writes Winnicott. The hallmark of a False Self, on the other hand, is a lack of “creative originality.” Accessing the unconscious—the realm of the True Self—cannot be approached directly. Instead, you must attend to unintentional manifestations that slip through in the form of linguistic displacements, bungled actions, spontaneous outbursts of laughter, or other forms of parapraxes. When the unconscious slips out of repression, it most often does so in an altered form, through a process seen most clearly in dreams.
Bookmarked tabs are the personal myth we prepare for an imagined Other.
Freud observed that dream images work through condensation and displacement. For example, you can condense the characteristics of two people who remind you of each other (say, your mother and your lover), or displace one person with another who is somehow associated with the first (Sam, the neighbor who stole your package, with your best friend, who shares his name). Both scenarios allow you to circumvent a direct thought that has the potential to be disturbing (I’m sleeping with my mother; my best friend is stealing from me), offering a way of dreaming about emotionally charged figures or scenarios in low-stakes form.
Lacan noticed that such condensations and displacements, which are central to Freud’s dream theory, function very similarly to the linguistic devices of metaphor and metonymy, which led him to conclude that the unconscious is structured like a language. A metaphor condenses two things in such a way that a similarity is brought into relief—for example, the world and a stage, as in William Shakespeare’s line “All the world’s a stage”—while a metonym displaces one term with another that is different but associated.
I LEARNED THE DEFINITION OF METONYM in graduate school. The professor wrote on the blackboard: All night long. He then asked, What is associated with the night? Someone called out, The moon! The professor then added a second sentence: All the moon long. The moon, he explained, was an association with night that then displaced it. You can build a chain of metonymic associations, he continued, with each new word linking to and displacing the last: All night long. All the moon long. All the stars long.
The definition of a particular literary device is easiest to remember through example. Whenever I think of a synecdoche—a part that stands in for a whole—I recall the illustration from the anthology we were assigned for that class: “All hands on deck!” People often confuse metonyms and synecdoches. The clearest way for me to distinguish between them is through example—curses, in particular. A synecdochical curse, for instance, substitutes a part of a person for their whole (asshole, dick, heel), whereas a metonymic curse displaces the entire person with something outside of them that is somehow associated (douchebag, bitch, pill).
My ex sometimes called me a pill. You’re such a pill, he would say, and I would assume he meant pill bug, because that is how I often felt: rolled up inside myself, retracted, disappeared. You’re such a pill bug! I would hear and feel guilty for my emotional withdrawal.
One of the challenges of growing up with parents who aren’t native English speakers is grasping figures of speech. Why, for example, can’t you have your cake and eat it too? Can’t you have a slice, pack up the rest, and save it for later? (“Because I’m human,” writes poet Adélia Prado, “I zealously cover the pan of leftover sauce.”) Is the visual pleasure of cake—the perfectly iced, untouched object placed on a stand for all to see—more important than the pleasure of eating it? Why have a cake, if not to eat it?
As a child, I thought “by the same token” was “by the same talkin’,” which condensed in my mind with the expression “talking out of both sides of your mouth.” This composite phrase made sense to me because I always imagined the token as a coin with two sides that could not be viewed at once, like the optical illusion that lets you see only a beautiful woman or a hag but never both at the same time. “By the same talkin’,” then, comes to mean talking out of both sides of your mouth in two streams of speech that cannot be perceived simultaneously, much like the psychoanalytic term vertical splitting—a kind of compartmentalization that allows you to hold two contrary thoughts in your mind in an unconflicted way because they don’t enter your consciousness at the same time (a way of having your cake and eating it too?).
My first piano teacher, Mrs. Muselmann, had her couch and sat on it too. I would step out of the elevator into the overheated hallway on the nineteenth floor of her building and enter her apartment through a foyer that led directly into the living room, where the piano was, along with a white couch and an armchair, covered in thick plastic. During the summer, when I sat on the couch waiting for someone else to finish their lesson, I remained perfectly still, having learned that when I moved, the skin on my legs would stick to the plastic and make a suction sound that I worried would be mistaken for a fart.
On one side of the living room was a kitchenette and dining room, with a table where Mrs. Muselmann occasionally invited me to sit and eat cookies. On the other side was a small hallway that led to a bathroom and a bedroom, the door of which was always shut. Her husband, who my mother told me had had a stroke, was always in the bedroom—or so I assumed, sensing his presence through the closed door regardless of whether there was evidence of his being there.
Never in my six years of lessons in Mrs. Muselmann’s apartment did I set eyes on Mr. Muselmann, but sometimes, as I was playing my arpeggios, I would hear a moan from the bedroom. Mrs. Muselmann, an upbeat older woman with a high-pitched voice, would continue singing the rhythm she would use for triplets—tan-ti-vy, tan-ti-vy, tan-ti-vy—as though she hadn’t heard a thing. My entire being would halt, even as my fingers went on without me.
Our minds enlist various maneuvers that allow us to keep our hands moving across the keyboard, to remain composed, regardless of our emotional state. As we become better able to clear our histories, act through avatars, and tweak our profiles, we live in the fantasy that we are expunging the unconscious, deleting it, seizing the blank moment with a cleared past, tabula rasa. Bookmarked tabs are the personal myth we prepare for an imagined Other—not necessarily the sites most visited, but the ones we identify with ourselves, the outwardly directed persona we would tolerate another person apprehending if they were to catch a glimpse of our screen.
Some people refer to the emotions and perceptions they signal about themselves to others as their “brand.” A personal brand is maintained through a set of consistent choices that signify corresponding character traits—an approach that shows how an essentialist idea of identity can be manipulated for strategic purposes even as it blocks out information from the external world and calcifies habitual patterns of behavior.
Focusing on the surface, lining up your external chips, often results in immediate social reward, yet it can also cause you to lose sight of your interior. In extreme cases, the surface may even become the interior, like the map that comes to stand in for the territory, as philosopher Jean Baudrillard describes it: a simulation that takes the place of the real. The virtual can even feel more real than the real, as happened to a couple in Korea who left their infant daughter at home while they camped out in an internet café playing a video game in which they successfully raised a virtual child. Their daughter starved to death.
Humor that expresses healthy forms of aggression can protect against the wilder kinds.
When a person becomes a simulation—when it is difficult to distinguish between their self and their role in the game—they may be said, in psychoanalytic terms, to have an “as-if” personality. An as-if person, according to psychoanalyst Helen Deutsch, who coined the term, appears “intellectually intact,” able to create a “repetition of a prototype [but] without the slightest trace of originality” because “expressions of emotion are formal . . . all inner experience is completely excluded.” She likens the behavior of someone with an as-if personality to “the performance of an actor who is technically well trained but who lacks the necessary spark to make his impersonations true to life”
Anyone who has lost contact with their True Self—their inner world—and merely repeats a prototype that has been internalized from outside, a False Self, will also lack that true-to-life spark—Winnicott’s “creative originality”— and lose the ability to seem or feel real.
During our waking lives, according to psychoanalyst Jacob Arlow, a constant stream of data from the external world passing through our outer eye is met by a stream of data from our internal world, or inner eye, like two motion picture projectors flashing a continuous stream of images simultaneously from opposite sides of a translucent screen. One projector screens images from the outer world, while the other plays an unremitting stream of inner fantasy thought.
Each projector, as I imagine it, has a power knob that can be turned up or down. When sleeping, our internal projector is on high, particularly when we dream, while the external, even though we have our eyes closed, streams on low (we know because we hear the car alarm outside our window, the dog scratching at the door). On the other hand, when we are focused on a practical task, such as setting up a wireless router, our external projector is on high, whereas our internal projector is set to low. These two streams of input—the inner eye and the outer eye—are negotiated by the ego, whose job it is to judge, correlate, integrate, or discard the competing data. The ego, therefore, operates in two directions, causing perception and fantasy thought to mingle, sometimes making it difficult to recognize the difference between what is before us and what we see, what is said and what we hear. Or as Charles Baudelaire puts it, “Feelings of contempt for other people’s faces are the result of an eclipse of the actual image by the hallucination that arises from it.”
Donald Trump’s inability to feel moved in the face of others’ suffering likely results from his internal projector streaming at a much higher level than his external one. Upon meeting Nobel Peace Prize winner and Yazidi activist Nadia Murad, who was asking him to communicate with Kurdish and Iraqi leaders so Yazidis could return to their homeland after being driven out by ISIS in 2019, Trump seemed to be half listening, avoiding eye contact, indifferent to the trauma she relayed:
MURAD: They killed my mom, my six brothers, they left behind— TRUMP: (Interrupting) Where are they now? MURAD: They killed them. They are in the mass graves in Sinjar. And I’m still fighting just to live in safety— TRUMP: I know the area very well that you’re talking about.
Murad tried to redirect the conversation toward important life-or-death matters, and Trump, unmoved by her account, slipped in a non sequitur: “And you had the Nobel Prize? That’s incredible. And they gave it to you for what reason? Maybe you can explain.”
The conflict behind Trump’s response seems to be a sense of competition that makes him unable to empathize with the horrific experiences she describes because they led to her being given a Nobel Prize, an honor he felt he should have received. As the Washington Post reported: “Trump has said that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on Syria and North Korea and has lamented that President Barak Obama received the honor during his first year in office.” Trump focuses on what is already in his mind over what he might perceive were he to listen fully—keeping his internal projector on high, his external on standby—until all the world is a simulation supplanting the real and, like Mr. Arbitrary, he loses the ability to feel.
Thinking metonymically offers us a roundabout way of getting at what is too difficult—or impossible—to approach head-on. Unconscious processes that operate metonymically are all structural variations, for Freud, of how dreams function. Because one can get at the contents of the unconscious only through its derivatives, Freud’s theory of dreams offers a way of understanding deeper meaning by way of the surface. In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud proposes that jokes operate by the same process as dreams, in that they hide a powerful unconscious “kernel of thought” in what he calls a “joking envelope,” a neutral container that seems innocent, unalarming. A joke—like a dream or a screen memory, or even a fetish object—allows a suppressed thought to enter the mind without anxiety or disruption because it appears in a disguised form that elicits laughter, which allows an escape from the unconscious that is socially sanctioned due to the positive associations most people have with humor.
Indigenous communities worldwide believe in setting controlled, intentional fires that protect against wild ones. “At the core of those tribal or indigenous philosophies,” explains research ecologist Frank Lake, is the view that “fire is medicine and when you prescribe it in the correct way, it can enhance and maintain ecosystem service production.” Prescribed fires can be used, according to Chook-Chook Hillman, land steward for the Karuk Tribe, “to set the landscape on a trajectory to accept fire in a good way,” to become “ready to take it.” Aggression, likewise, when released in the “correct” way—in the form of a joke, for example—can function like a fire and help maintain the social ecosystem, harness the destructive aliveness of individuals, and channel the burning energy in a positive direction. Humor that expresses healthy forms of aggression can protect against the wilder kinds.
In order to keep our heads intact, most of us, rather than flee, exile our unthinkable thoughts.
Sometimes, however, a disquieting element can slip into a joke and breakdown the communion generally felt between laughers, much as a disturbing dream image can disrupt sleep or a flame can go wild. In 2006, comedian Dave Chappelle described to Oprah Winfrey how he had felt deeply disturbed upon hearing a particular kind of laughter during the taping of a skit in the third season of Chappelle’s Show. The skit—and the show in general—used stereotypes ironically as a way of highlighting and subverting them. If irony does not register in the mind of an audience member, however, the method runs the risk of strengthening stereotypes rather than destabilizing them.
The problematic laugh broke out during the filming of the skit “Racial Pixies,” in which Chappelle plays a tiny minstrel performer in blackface wearing a bellhop’s uniform, holding a cane, and dancing to banjo music—“the visual personification,” as he described it, “of the N-word.” The laugh that disturbed him, which he described elsewhere as being particularly loud and long, came from a white person working on the show:
So then when I’m on the set, and we’re finally taping the sketch, somebody on the set [who] was white laughed in such a way—I know the difference of people laughing with me and people laughing at me—and it was the first time I had ever gotten a laugh that I was uncomfortable with. Not just uncomfortable, but like, should I fire this person?
When someone laughs spontaneously at a joke, it is a sign that the latent part of the joke—the kernel of thought—has resonated with something in their unconscious. Chappelle found himself in a “complete moral dilemma.” If he couldn’t control whether the audience took his use of stereotypes ironically or literally, he also couldn’t control whether he was subverting stereotypes or reinforcing them.
The incident provoked the comedian to flee to South Africa without explanation, abandoning a $50 million dollar contract with Comedy Central. “That was the last thing I shot before I told myself I gotta take [f-word] time out after this,” he explained. “Because my head almost exploded.”
In order to keep our heads intact, most of us, rather than flee, exile our unthinkable thoughts. We sometimes strive to unsee what we see, unknow what we know, because anything that destabilizes our psychic equilibrium can get in the way of our ability to perform the daily tasks that are expected of us. Taking in information that runs counter to our beliefs presses us to adapt our perspective, whereas perverse thinking allows us to maintain our beliefs by disavowing what is before us if it feels too unsettling. It can be destabilizing to change longstanding ideas about ourselves, others, and the world, which is why, even as evidence contradicting a belief should lead us to adjust the belief to accommodate reality, many people will bend the evidence before them to keep their thinking the same.
A professor of mine in graduate school, perhaps seeing the ghost of Alasdair in my last name, kept insisting that I was Scottish even though I told him repeatedly that I was an Arab. Once, I ran into him on the street, and he introduced me to a companion. Noire, she said, clearly associating the sound of my name with noir, the French word for “black.” That’s beautiful. Is it French?
No, I said. It’s Arabic. My parents are from Iraq— But, the professor cut in, she’s part Scottish.
I relay these stories the way others tell jokes. I’ve got another. After a night at the pub while studying at Oxford University, a group of us decided to buy food from the local kabob cart parked outside the college gates. I asked the woman who lived in the room next to mine if she wanted to come along.
I wouldn’t eat food from those dirty Arabs, she said, disgusted. I’m an Arab, I told her. But you’re different.
It is always easier to change a person who doesn’t fit our expectations than to change a stereotype. When faced with me, evidence in the world that contradicted her thinking, instead of changing her thinking, my neighbor changed me (You’re different).
If we don’t allow perceptions from the external world to reach the translucent screen of consciousness—either by turning our external projector to standby or half-listening—we not only feel less real but also risk diminishing the reality of others in ways that can quickly slip from insensitive to dehumanizing to annihilating.
“To dare to be aware of the facts of the universe in which we are existing,” Bion writes, “calls for courage.” Attention arouses, whereas standardized codes of expression and conduct—the repetition of prototypes—lead us to displace, pervert, or split off what we choose not to see. “I would make a distinction,” Bion cautions, “between existence—the capacity to exist—and the ambition or aspiration to have an existence which is worth having—the quality of the existence, not the quantity; not the length of one’s life, but the quality of that life.”
We are our choices, as philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre says: “an individual chooses and makes himself.” Our choices determine our identity. If we choose to act courageously, we become courageous. But the moment we make a different choice—say, to act callously—we become that next thing. We are always becoming the self our most recent choice calls into being, the poem that gets written. And existences, like poems, are most powerful when fueled by the True Self, that necessary spark.
“Oh God!” Winnicott writes in “Prayer.” “May I be alive when I die!”