Mirroring and Attunement: Self-Realization in Psychoanalysis and Art

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Mirroring and Attunement: Self-Realization in Psychoanalysis and Art by Kenneth Wright Routledge, London and New York, 2009; 212 pp. £23.99 paperback

Kenneth Wright describes his first book since Vision and Separation (1991) as "an extended reflection on Winnicott's holding environment" (p.14). Maternal holding as the basis for the symbolic development on which self-realization depends is the lynchpin for his discussion of clinical psychoanalysis and of the place of art in human experience. The child's psychological development from dependence to separateness and individuation derives from the environment mother but Wright reads Winnicott's (1967) late paper on mirroring and the mirror role as a shift from a bodily-based (instinctual) paradigm - baby at breast - to one located in sociality: baby and mother are in touch through their interactive responses as registered in facial clues. This shift anchors his interest in non-verbal communication and the transmission of otherness through attunement. An infant first has to come into being; then he or she has to go on being. Both states are linked with holding and both are central to this account of the consulting room and the quality of exchanges there, especially their non-verbal aspects. From Suzanne Langer (1953) he takes the idea of analysis, and of making and experiencing art, as processes of finding 'forms' for human feeling; the task of the analyst is "seeking to provide containing forms for unrealized elements of the patient's emotional life" (p. 9). The book is organized around clinical examples and studies of artists or writers. Wright argues for preverbal communication as based in shared images or patterns, and there is some reference to representational art (painting) but the main focus is on language. There are extended discussions of poets, poetic forms of language, particular theorists, and particular processes in analytic practice.

Wright's thinking is firmly based in his own practice and the analyst's contribution to what happens in an analysis is returned to again and again. The first chapter, 'On Being In Touch', insists that expressing and conveying emotion are vital to the work of the consulting room, yet expressing an emotion does not necessarily convey that emotion or lead to affective contact. The shifting emotional contact between patient and therapist, and its relation to both the patient's own varying responses to his / her own feelings and to the therapist seem more dependent on tone of voice and word sensitivity, on the way things are said rather than what is said. For the author, these non-cognitive aspects of therapy lead to a theory of technique as a theory of emotional containment that encourages the development of the patient's own mental containment.

Wright is simultaneously fascinated by words and how they are used, and cautious and wary of what they can do in an analysis, especially in their interpretative forms. He distinguishes words that explain and words that embody and evoke (p. 36) and the latter is his interest as is the relation between words and experience. A verbal action (say, an interpretation) is no guarantee of the kind of communication on which emotional contact depends (p. 19) and Wright is concerned with how to enable another's view, that of the analyst, to be experienced, by the patient, as a reflection on his or her experience, rather than a transformation of it. This returns him to the preverbal infant and the forms of communication established before the advent of language, an instrument whose externality to the individual suggests to Wright that it too is open to possible early impingement. Language acquisition itself demands a firm basis in adequate preverbal containment if it is to be experienced as facilitating rather than limiting, as encouraging creativity rather than killing it off. In proposing that language constrains the child rather than offering a means of future development, I imagine that Wright has in mind a link with a Winnicottian true self notion ("experience being less available and less robust, the word could more easily usurp its place", footnote, p. …