Language as Trauma—A Fatal Threat. The Rupture in Meaningful Communication

Even as a child, I knew something was not quite right about words.

(Rogers, 2006, pp. 27-28)

Depression can be seen as a loss of the capacity to convey internal experience and, as a result, the incapacity for self-representation. One such means of communicating internal states is through words. When attempts at narration become difficult, so does the capacity to be seen, to be understood, and to feel like one exists. As Kristeva (1989) says, “Melancholia then ends up in asymbolia, in loss of meaning: if I am no longer capable of translating or metaphorizing, I become silent and I die” (p. 42). Many others have ironically enough illustrated this limitation of language through their words, specifically in regard to depressive experiences.

In N. Casey’s (2001) edited book Unholy Ghost, several authors wrote about their experiences with depression. Although the chapters are beautiful and articulate, eloquent and saturated with vivid imagery, many focus on the difficulty of describing with words experiences that are excruciatingly painful and urgently personal. Along with Kristeva’s (1989) sentiment that a failure in symbolizing experiences lends itself to a disintegration of meaning and therefore one’s capacity to exist, others too have lamented the shortcomings of language in conveying depressive experience. For example, Shenk (2001) says,

It may seem strange that someone haunted by the inadequacy of words would become a writer, but I’ve often felt no other choice but to struggle and claw for what should be a simple birthright: to tell myself and others who I am. (p. 253)

Similarly, M. Casey (2001) says, “Unfortunately to be depressed is not to have words at all, but to live in the gray world of the inarticulate, where nothing takes shape, nothing has edges or clarity” (p. 284).

In this context, the belabored speech that is sometimes evident in individuals suffering from subjective darkness makes sense. Many people who are depressed convey the extreme lack of animation they feel through word content, volume, tonality, and tempo. They often speak in barely audible monotones, use very few words, speak incredibly slowly, and trail off at the end of . . . sentences, as if the effort of speech is as cumbersome as the painful burden they are trying to communicate. It often is. To be acutely aware of an incapacity to adequately represent painful existential states with words is to be keenly aware of the guarantee of failure of representing one’s self—and of failing to connect with other human beings in a crucial way—before even beginning an attempt. Therefore the disinclination toward speech that is sometimes evident in depression may be the result of feeling a disconnection between internal experience and the capacity to represent it, as well as a disconnection between one’s self and all others. Stern (1985), while acknowledging the benefits of language in allowing people to create a narrative of their experience and thereby enter into an intersubjective realm of shared meanings, also describes this fundamental difficulty:

But in fact language is a double-edged sword. It also makes some parts of our experience less shareable with ourselves and with others. It drives a wedge between two simultaneous forms of interpersonal experience: as it is lived and as it is verbally represented. . . . Language, then, causes a split in the experience of the self. It also moves relatedness onto the impersonal, abstract level intrinsic to language and away from the personal, immediate level intrinsic to the other domains of relatedness. (Stern, 1985, pp. 162-163)

In some cases, people who are severely depressed fall into silence, allowing the absence of words to convey the thing that defies description. After all, if our words will not be interpreted accurately, perhaps it is better to remain silent and let the action of nonspeech “speak” for itself. Rogers (2006) taught herself to listen to the space between words, to find the meaning of what remains unspoken. She says, “Every sentence we speak is continually surrounded by what is not said and may in fact be unsayable. Ironically you can only hear the unsayable through what is said” (Rogers, 2006, p. 61). Although Rogers primarily suffered from a psychotic break, there was an aspect of depression to her experience as well. One area where depression and psychosis tend to overlap is in this breakdown of meaningful communication. A person who is experiencing psychosis experiences a failure in the symbolic function of language, just as a person who is depressed and at a loss for words. The manifestation is different, but the struggle is related. As Rogers recounts her response to psychiatrists attempting to interpret her reasons for attempting suicide, she says,

I decided I would not speak again until someone said something at least intelligent enough for me to try to answer. And so I entered silence with an attitude of insouciant power that belied a terrible vulnerability—it was the exaggeration of the teenager’s shrug, the ubiquitous gesture when speech fails. (2006, pp. 7-8)

Kristeva (1989) speaks about language in the context of depression as a search for meaning; through the symbols of language, a person in the depths of subjective darkness attempts to discover the meaning behind her pain by making it “alien.” It is this attempt to describe it, to examine, define, and convey it, that makes the pain—which was previously unnameable—somehow dystonic to the individual. However, the symbolic function of language is inadequate in its task. When we are bound by the already-existing language of the Other, the symbolic conceptualizations available to us can severely limit what can be formulated and expressed regarding our subjective experience, especially when it is amorphous, diffuse, and incredibly painful:

It seeks to become alien to itself in order to discover, in the mother tongue, a “total word, new, foreign to the language” (Malarme), for the purpose of capturing the unnameable. The excess of affect has thus no other means of coming to the fore than to produce new languages—strange concatenations, idiolects, poetics. Until the weight of the primal Thing prevails, and all translatability become impossible. (Kristeva, 1989, p. 42)

This conceptualization of translating core experiences into new languages so that they may be more accurately conveyed is similar to Clare’s (2004) description of Samuel Beckett’s journey toward the rediscovery of himself in his article “Getting away from the MOTHER Tongue.” Only by leaving his native country and its language and being reborn into another was Beckett able to metabolize and process his story. The language he was born into presented too many restrictions on the ways he was able to conceive of and represent his experiences. Therefore, the only way to break the cycle of symbolic failure was to find new words to create meaning. “For some people that place and that language will be psychoanalysis, and for some it will be necessary for the analysis to be in a foreign tongue to give voice to the words that could not be spoken in their own language” (Clare, 2004, p. 184).

Through words we convey our thoughts, feelings, desires, intentions, and histories. We can form a narrative about who we are, where we have been, and how the experiences we have had thus far have shaped us. These words can be used as an internal dialogue we tell ourselves as well as a means of forming connections with other people. Through communicating, we are able to be understood and to form relationships that aid us along life’s journey. These interpersonal connections and symbolic representations of experience help formulate and validate our own sense of existence, and they become even more crucial when faced with immense existential, psychological, and emotional pain. What cannot be thought or communicated—as we lack the vocabulary for adequately describing or even representing symbolically certain concepts—is lost to us forever, and in this way, crucial parts of our existence are negated. In the course of subjective darkness, this loss expands to fill the spaces between words so that it comes to represent not only a loss of communication but also a loss of social union, agency, hope, self-representation, and self-recognition.

Kristeva (1989) describes this dilemma well. Words are supposed to compensate us for the loss of what cannot be said. When a person experiences a failure in symbolic representation and language falls short of conveying extreme existential pain, words come to represent not a communication of internal meaning, but an absence of meaning—a “nullifying negation” through empty words (Kristeva, 1989, p. 43). As such, for many people who are depressed, language becomes a representation of the very thing that has been lost; their words then serve as evidence of this continual failure at connection and, therefore, come to represent a collapse in the capacity to communicate and to be understood. The words become a cycle commemorating meaninglessness. As Emery (2002) says, “He thinks of a silence that persecutes. This sacrifice is also the sacrifice of meaning that turns language into a web of negative signifiers” (p. 191). The individual begins drawing to the surface the very thing she mourns, but she is caught in a cycle of fixation as the loss is unresolvable.

This search for clarity in meaning through symbolic representation is essential to a life’s work, but it becomes even more crucial when one is entrenched in the distress of an extremely depressive experience. Kristeva (1989) says, “when meaning shatters, life no longer matters” (p. 6). Frankl (2006), the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, would likely agree. In his book, Frankl recounts the horrors of existence in Nazi death camps and the existential philosophy that resulted from his experiences. He developed “logotherapy,” a type of psychotherapy based on the premise that the “primary motivational force” in human beings is to find meaning in life. Attempts to reformulate a life’s narrative into one with which we are at peace can only begin after the psychic pain is recognized, symbolized, and eventually, worked through as much as it can be. This process requires the presence of another to aid in a collaborative reconstruction of meaning. This endeavor is the heart and soul of psychodynamic and psychoanalytic clinical work, and it is this venture into human connectedness that may have the most profound impact on the individual, leading ultimately, hopefully, to positive change.

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