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Some comments regarding storytelling in analysis

“Why should your patients pay you when you don’t know any more than they do?

Well, in fact they don’t pay you because you know more than they do –

They pay you to conduct something we call an analysis”

D. Meltzer

A few weeks ago, a patient in her fifth year of analysis, who I will call Ellie, told me with a hint of shame that she had recently consulted with a psychic. Although she felt she had done something "silly", she also pointed out to me that she felt better after that consultation, as she was given a new meaning to her life. The fortune teller's stories interwove Ellie's “previous lives” with her “future life” in a significant way, giving multiple possible explanations to her current symptoms and feelings.

At first, I was tempted to maintain my role as a "good analyst" by interpreting what Ellie had told me. Not only because I felt obliged to give something back to a patient who pays me, but also to show her that I know more than her and the psychic regarding her life’s “historical Truth”. From an analytical viewpoint, I thought that her “past lives” could refer to her childhood experiences. The crimes that the psychic told her she had committed in those lives could refer to her aggressive unconscious fantasies for having been abandoned by her parents when she was 8 months old. But then I noticed that there were many ways of interpreting those stories so skillfully told by the psychic. As Meltzer would say, “the countertransference is an emotional experience which must be caught in your dreams”. As analysts we shouldn’t “know” what our patients are talking about but rather “counter-dream” it through an emotional experience. My interpretation, however brilliant it might have been, would have prevented the emergence of new possible meanings through a sequence of causal links based on my “knowledge” of the patient.

Keeping in mind this hindrance in the analytical process, Bion advocated that we start every session 'without memory, desire or understanding'. Along the same lines, Meltzer points out that we have little faith in Bion’s internal ‘committee’ for exploring all the possible points of view by means of communication. Meltzer says that the characters that form a ‘committee’ in the third volume of Bion’s “A memoir of the future” gather together just to discuss and not to decide anything. According to Bion this would be the ultimate concept of the integration of the personality, namely an investigation of anything that comes to the agenda from all the existing “vertices”, without making decisions.

Storytelling and dream-work, like poetry, are forms of intuition and creation that bear several meanings to be explored. From this point of view in the “Interpretation of dreams” Freud wrote:

It is only with the greatest difficulty that the beginner in the business of interpreting dreams can be persuaded that his task is not at an end when he has a complete interpretation in his hands - an interpretation which makes sense, is coherent and throws light upon every element of the dream’s content. For the same dream may perhaps have another interpretation as well, an ‘over-interpretation’, which has escaped him. It is, indeed, not easy to form any conception of the abundance of the unconscious trains of thought, all striving to find expression, which are active in our minds. Nor is it easy to credit the skill shown by the dream-work in always hitting upon forms of expression that can bear several meanings - like the Little Tailor in the fairy story who hit seven flies at a blow.

Beyond the content of the fantastic stories about her past lives, I felt that the meaning of Ellie’s consultation with a psychic was especially important. I thought that she was trying to show me how to accompany her in her analytical journey and how she would have liked us to “play to discover” new meaningful stories from the existing “vertices”, without “deciding” anything regarding her life.

The importance of storytelling was brilliantly pointed out by Walter Benjamin in his homonymous essay. This author clearly distinguished "information" from "storytelling" and wrote that, “even though every morning brings us news from across the globe, we are poor in noteworthy stories” because of the explanations of the events that come to us. The first true storyteller, Benjamin stated, “is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales”.

To abandon rational thought in favor of intuition is to follow the Homeric verbal tradition, Meltzer said. These ideas are perfectly applicable to the analytical moment I am living with Ellie and to my attitude of searching for the "correct interpretation" opposed to the “fairy tales” narrated by the psychic. A “correct” or “complete interpretation”, as Freud wrote, is often just “information” regarding our patients’ lives that will be soon forgotten. Stories are made above all from “real life” rather than man’s knowledge or wisdom, Benjamin said. He continues that “the more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply what he listens to, is impressed upon his memory.” This apparent paradox is possible because the meaning is always external of the field of consciousness. Only if we are “self-forgetful” and don’t fill our consciousness with psychological analysis of our patients stories, can we really let new meanings come out and know more about who they are.

In other moments of therapy stasis, the patients’ defenses and their lack of “self-forgetfulness” degrade the process of discovery. Especially in the beginning of treatment, the analysands tend to provide information regarding themselves that outline a monolithic and almost unchangeable view of the course of their lives. Their tendency is generally to hide behind causal explanations such as: "I am a neglectful mother because my mother was neglectful with me" or "I can't achieve my goals in life because my father didn't believe in me". All these examples, which Meltzer would call “preformed transference”, are just a long list of “because”. They are "information" that the analysands provide us to protect themselves from the emergence of fragments of truth. They are not "narrations" of their “real life” stories that open up the possibility of new meanings in analysis.

Benjamin considers the story of the Egyptian king Psammenitus, narrated by Herodotus In the third book of his “Histories”, the first great example of storytelling in history:

After the Egyptian king Psammenitus had been vanquished and captured by the Persian king Cambyses, Cambyses was bent on humbling his prisoner. He ordered that Psammenitus be placed on the road that the Persian triumphal procession was to take. And he further arranged that the prisoner should see his daughter pass by as a maid going to the well with her pitcher. While all the Egyptians were lamenting and bewailing this spectacle, Psammenitus stood alone, mute and motionless, his eyes fixed on the ground; and when presently he saw his son, who was being taken along in the procession to be executed, he likewise remained unmoved. But when he subsequently recognized one of his servants, an old, impoverished man, in the ranks of the prisoners, he beat his fists against his head and gave all the signs of deepest mourning.

The extraordinary beauty of this story lies precisely in its openness to different and perhaps infinite readings. Why does Psammenitus cry in despair only when he sees the old impoverished servant pass by? Herodotus does not provide any interpretation of the events. He also lets the reader express his unconscious trains of thought and meet his “psychological connections”. In session, we would call this an "insight". The skill of a storyteller, the same as the skill of an analyst, is keeping a story, or an intervention, free from explanations while telling it. Paraphrasing Freud, the art of a storyteller or an analyst consists of keeping a story free from causal links that would undermine its capacity to “hit seven or more flies at a blow”.

Referring to Meltzer and his article "On symbol formation and allegory" it is possible to consider artistic creations as made out of symbols and opposed to allegory. Meltzer wrote: "A symbol carries with it the gift of humility; you know perfectly well you will never understand it completely". In other words, we will never capture the ultimate truth of an event. While stories are pregnant with multiple meanings ready to be revealed, allegories replace the unknown and mysterious with known elements, thus performing the same function that Benjamin attributes to information.

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