Conversations at the Frontier of Dreaming (Book Review)

Author:  Ogden, Thomas
Publisher:  Northvale NJ: Jason Aronson, 2001
Reviewed By:  Lawrence Hedges, Fall 2001, pp. 49-51

To Live An Experience Together

The paradox of living an experience together is that in doing so each person can emerge from the experience with a distinct sense of separateness. Says Winnicott, “I think of the process as if two lines came from opposite directions, liable to come near each other. If they overlap there is a moment of illusion - a bit of experience, which the infant can take as either his hallucination or a thing belonging to external reality (1945, p. 152). “Living an experience together” both describes this moment of illusion and implies the separate experiences which each have of the moment of togetherness.

Thomas Ogden has steadily built on this “living an experience together” theme in his many papers over the years and in this, his sixth book, he again takes us into the consulting room into the dreaming mind of the analyst at work. Before, he has given us primitive experiences on both sides of the couch. Before, he has given us his reveries and shown us how he uses them. Before, he has articulated in many ways the presence of an unconscious, co-created Third Subject of Analysis that inhabits and speaks from the dreamy shadows of the transference-countertransference matrix. But now Ogden takes out his magnifying glass to scrutinize the many subtle conversations that occur at the dream-like frontier of this interpenetration of subjective worlds. Further, he responds to his critics’ claims that although he has effectively defined the Analytic Third, elegantly taken us into the dreaming mind of the analyst, and aptly demonstrated for us how creative use can be made of countertransference reverie, he has not yet demonstrated a willingness either to write about or perhaps even to risk his subjectivity in vulnerable ways with his patients in true intersubjective engagements. If this is true, then Ogden makes good his previous omission in a courageous illustration I will shortly describe. And, in a stunning conclusion, he illuminates the writing of Donald Winnicott well beyond the clinically informative to reveal Winnicott’s work as masterpiece of literary art, poetry, and music.

Looking For Aliveness

Of the many dimensions one might attend to in an analytic hour, Ogden finds himself scrutinizing both sides of the interaction for even the subtlest of indications of aliveness and then playing to them-or perhaps better said, playing with them. Using clinical vignette as well as the poetry of Frost, Stevens, Borges, and Heaney, Ogden traces Ariadne’s thread through unconscious interactions involving voice, music, mourning, and the process of re-minding the body.

In any given analytic interaction, a compelling argument could be made for a variety of understandings of what is occurring, and an equally varied array of possible responses on the part of the analyst could be defended. A critical aspect of the way I locate myself among the possible understandings and responses involves my effort to attend to my sense of what, if anything, feels most alive, most real, in what is transpiring….I find these words [alive and real] useful in describing a quality of immediacy and vitality of personal experience upon which I rely in my attempts to talk to myself and to the analysand about what I sense is going on between us.

“I believe that the development of an analytic sensibility centrally involves the enhancement of the analyst’s capacity to feel in a visceral way the alive moments of an analytic session; to hear that a word or a phrase has been used…in an interesting, unexpected way; to notice that a patient’s glance in the waiting room feels coy or apologetic or steamy; to sense that a message left on one’s answering machine feels dangerously, and yet alluringly mysterious; to experience in a bodily way that a period of silence in the hour feels like lying in bed with a spouse whom one has loved for many years, but who now feels like a stranger” (p. 18).

In addition to living in and with one’s own unconscious and striving to appreciate the unconscious moment-to-moment movements of the analysand, Ogden finds that his experience of each analytic situation is also “a reflection of the specific type of unconscious intersubjective construction that the patient and I are in the midst of creating…. a third subject, the ‘intersubjective analytic third,’...a pool of unconscious experience to which analyst and analysand both contribute and from which they individually draw in the process of generating their own experience of the analytic relationship” (pp 19-20). Ogden provides us with examples of how this third sense evolves in the analytic setting and how he uses information from this matrix to relate to his patients from his reveries and other fantasy associations-as opposed to relating his reveries and fantasies to the patient.

A Question Of Voice

Ogden believes that one of the greatest pleasures of being an analyst is “the attempt to be attentive to the use of language-my own and the patient’s-in the hour” (p. 25). He emphasizes the fact of extensive immersion in metaphor in the therapeutic situation as an effort by both patient and analyst to tell the other what they feel like and what they imagine the other feels like. Ogden has frequently illustrated analytic listening by reference to and analysis of poetry, but in Conversations at the Frontier of Dreaming he registers several triumphs in using the reader’s actual experience of reading poetry and essay along with him to point toward essential elements of language usage that are present in analytic hours but often overlooked. And the ways in which language usage contributes to consciousness of self.

“I believe that the analytic experience is in a fundamental way a process through which the capacity for self-consciousness is expanded and enriched. The importance of insight, from this perspective, lies, to a large degree, in the way it facilitates the transformation of self-experience into an object that can be “seen.” Insight is…an important vehicle for the substantiation of “me” as object and the simultaneous elaboration of “I” as subject….self-consciousness developed and elaborated in this way comprises a good deal of what it is to be human.…The analytic use of reverie is the process by which unconscious experience is made into metaphors that represent unconscious aspects of ourselves to ourselves” (pp 37-38).

Ogden considers the creation of voice in literature and analysis as an essential way of bringing ourselves into being, of coming to life through the use of language.

Voice contains elements of both our true and false selves and constitutes the medium for conscious and unconscious experimentation with experiences of self and other.

“Language…enables us, somehow, to seem to get outside ourselves and to assume positions we may or may not really believe in. Thus, we are able to speak almost in someone else’s voice, to be insincere, to be ironical, to be sarcastic, to be, even objective (whatever that means)” (Baird 1968, p. 200).

Ogden’s position is that in an analytic interaction each participating subject speaks not only with a voice of his/her own, representing the past as well as the present of each; but that each person also speaks from a voice arising from the conjunction of a common area of co-constructed unconscious experience-what he terms “the analytic third.”

“The individual voice is not resting dormant, waiting for its moment to be heard. It exists only as an event in motion, being created in the moment. We do not know what our voice will sound like in any situation until we hear it….[Listening to voice entails finding words to describe] what the voice in the writing or in speech sounds like, to whom it seems to be addressed, what it is ‘doing,’ what effects it is creating, and how it is transforming and being transformed in the acts of speaking, listening, and being heard…that voice is an experience of self coming into being in the act of speaking or writing” (pp. 74-75).

Ogden offers compelling examples from the poetry of Frost and Stevens to show us the artful use of voice, how voice can subtly switch to reveal another perspective or intention, and how voice can shift almost imperceptibly from subject to object, from present to past, and from an inside perspective to an outside one. In clinical vignette he illustrates the elision of voice from internalized, to communicative, to identificatory, to speech from the analytic third and to speech arising from the reverie-work. Hearing stagnation in voice is taken by Ogden as a sign of the lifelessness that the analytic moment has fallen into.

The Music Of What Happens

One very intriguing aspect of Ogden’s Conversations is his invitation to the reader to listen, to listen to the way he/she listens, and to the way Ogden listens to the music of a poem, and later to vignettes. He maintains that the question “what does that mean?” no longer characterizes the most interesting and productive of analytic questions. Rather, questions like, “What’s going on here, anyway?” “What’s happening between us consciously and unconsciously?” and “How does what’s happening now arise from our real and fantasized pasts?” point toward the music of what happens in the analytic relationship. He contrasts translating or decoding symbols as a mechanical form of listening with “a form of listening that is responsive to the rich reverberations of sound and multilayered meanings that lie at the heart of both poetry and psychoanalysis…. This way of approaching the experience of reverie reflects a perspective from which the unconscious is not imagined to reside behind the reveries or at the end of a chain of reverie associations, but as coming to life in the movement of feeling, thought, imagery, and language of the reverie experience itself” (pp. 106-107).

Considering the harmony, the movement, the imagination, the voice, the register, the creativity, the reverie, and the co-created third voice are all part, for Ogden, of the music of what happens in analysis.

The Art Of Mourning

Martha Stark in her recent monographs on resistance and modes of therapeutic action (1994, 1999) centers her relational considerations around the importance of defining and grieving in analysis the structures, habits, and patterns of living that have been internalized in the past and continue to limit our aliveness in the present. In a like manner Ogden focuses on the art of mourning what has been in order to free us up to new possibilities of living. He illustrates a series of psychological issues involved in discerning the living voices and music that characterizes the past and the struggle to find oneself fully in the present through thoughtful studies of essays and poems by Borges and Heaney, followed-up with moving clinical vignettes. His central thesis is that “mourning is not simply a form of psychological work; it is a process centrally involving the experience of making something, creating something adequate to the experience of loss…. [Mourning represents] the individual’s effort to meet, to be equal to, to do justice to, the fullness and complexity of his or her relationship to what has been lost, and to the experience of loss itself” (pp 117-8). As such, Ogden ponders how each participant in the analytic process engages in the ongoing art of mourning. He also speaks of the creation of new voice through morning-”…no voice, no person, no aspect of one’s life can replace another. But there can be a sense that the new voice has somehow been there all along in the old ones…” (p. 152).

Re-Minding The Body

As much as I enjoyed Ogden’s forays into voice, music, and mourning, the highlights of the book for me were his clinical illustrations focusing on body, body reactions, and analytic interactions that are, for two, bodily experiences of the most intense sort. The lengthy account of Mr. S. who was on the threshold of an analytic regression and feeling the dangers of serious psychic fragmentation demonstrates several interventions by Ogden that were clearly unorthodox but profoundly compassionate and human. On one occasion that is difficult to describe out of context, Ogden interprets that S has his “back to the wall” and that at the time his molestation had taken place he “had been no taller than the table near the analytic couch” - both associations taken from Ogden’s own reverie and seemingly unrelated to what S was actually saying at the moment, but which cut immediately to the deep terror of fragmentation S was experiencing and contextualized his sense of impending fragmentation in the past. Becoming increasingly sensitive to the patient’s escalating sense of terror over permanently going mad, Ogden spontaneously blurts out, “I won’t let that happen” - which greatly relieved both of them. Following up, Ogden asks the bold question of how his molestation experiences would feel today, a question of mind and body. In the context of the hour these moves are clearly unorthodox by traditional analytic standards but are shown to be appropriate to the developing analytic relationship. Ogden does not attempt to justify his spontaneous gestures toward the terrified patient in terms of technique, but rather considers them as experimental efforts for both of them to experience their aliveness and engagement during the terrifying moment.

“As I look back…the sound of my voice speaking at some length was itself a form of (emotional/sensory) compassionate presence that was vital at that juncture. I was accompanying the patient psychologically…and physically (through the sound and feel of my voice) into an imagined scene. It was apparent to me, and I think to the patient, that I was not only imagining the patient into the scene I was describing, but imagining myself into it as well, both in the sense of identifying with him, and in the sense of introducing myself as a third figure bearing witness (and bearing language, secondary-process thinking, and compassion)…. The patient calmed in response …his bodily contortions gave way to a visibly relaxed muscular state…he could feel that his body was there and that it was a curious and interesting feeling, a feeling he liked” (pp. 171-2).

Ogden concludes Conversations with an essay on the literary genius of Winnicott in which he shows by use of language, voice, music, metaphor, and mourning how Winnicott communicates in ways that go much beyond the mere words and concepts he uses. He shows how Winnicott was aware in his studies of the mother-child dyad of the presence of the third relational subjectivity that we are so intent on studying in psychoanalysis today. If you haven’t been keeping up on Ogden, its time to catch up now!

References

Baird, T. (1968). Writing assignment. In R. Varnum (Ed.) Fencing with words: A history of writing
instruction at Amherst College during the era of Theodore Baird, 1938-1966
. Urbana, IL: National
Council of Teachers of English, 1996, p. 200.
Stark, Martha (1994). Working with resistance. Northvale NJ: Jason Aronson.
Stark, Martha (1999). Modes of therapeutic action: Enhancement of knowledge, provision of experience, and engagement in relationship. Northvale NJ: Jason Aronson.
Winnicott, D. W. (1945). Primitive emotional development. In Through paediatrics to psycho-analysis. New York: Basic Books, 1958, pp. 243-254.

Reviewer Note

Lawrence E. Hedges, PhD, ABPP is a psychologist-psychoanalyst in private practice in Orange, California, specializing in the training of psychotherapists and psychoanalysts. He is director of the Listening Perspectives Study Center and the founding director of the Newport Psychoanalytic Institute. He holds faculty appointments at the California Graduate Institute and the University of California, Irvine, Department of Psychiatry. Hedges holds Diplomates from The American Board of Professional Psychology and The American Board of Forensic Examiners. He is author of numerous papers and books on the practice of psychoanalytic psychotherapy.

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