The failure begins when words intended to codify or categorize, what Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls "empirical speech," actually disrupts or preempts "creative speech," or "that which frees the meaning captive in a thing." Every breath and word is an effort at translation and, at times, that effort can seem impossible. But poems, lyrics, stories can do an end run around the stubborn distance that separates us, helping us feel what it is to be alive. Words can create meaning, teach us our own thoughts, and perhaps even describe a life. But we have to plumb, with curiosity sustained over time, with toleration of uncertainty, the unsettling, elusive stories that make us who we are.
Letters form meaning from lines and curves. Words form meaning from letters. Metaphors form meaning from words. None of these units are large enough to encompass, to identify, to "diagnose" a person. If pressed, one could call Ahab "mad," or Bartleby "depressed." But to know these characters, you must read the story. To tell a life, you must tell a story.
Which is not by any means a straightforward task. Freud's idea of "repression" suggests that unconscious experience is like water pressed against a dam, that we need only remove the blockage and allow our memories to pour out. This is a dominant image of emotional healing in our culture. I think of it as the Hawkeye Pierce model of psychotherapy, after the last episode in M*A*S*H, in which Alan Alda's character has been confined in an asylum and is coaxed into retelling a traumatic episode. One by one, the authentic details emerge until he remembers the repressed memory of a small child's death. He cries. He is healed.
The psychoanalyst Donnel Stern, in his book Unformulated Experience, suggests another way of thinking about "repression." He uses the metaphor of the rock at the bottom of a lake, which requires great and sustained effort to recover. Perhaps our lives are many such rocks. Perhaps we have to raise the ones we can, imagine the rest and then, with these images and memories and emotions laid before us, find the patterns and shapes.