Ed. Hooke & Akhtar. - "The Geography of Meanings: Psychoanalytic perspectives on place, space, land and dislocation."

Edited by Maria Teresa Savio Hooke and Salman Akhtar. Reviewed by

Shahid Najeeb s_najeeb3@hotmail.com 41 Eastern Road, Turramurra, NSW 2074.

In any psychoanalytic session it is a basic assumption that all associations of the analysand are connected, even if the analyst can’t see those connections. When one reads a multi-authored book like “The Geography of Meanings”, where each chapter is written by an author who takes no account of what the previous or subsequent author has said, then the reader is faced with a task similar to that of a psychoanalyst, listening to apparently unrelated associations without that assurance of knowing that all the associations stem from a single mind. A multi-authored book that is structured around a pre-defined theme is different from one where the articles have been collected subsequent to their production. In the former one can assume a single de facto “mind” (encapsulated in the theme), in the latter, like the present book, not. In such a situation the reader can then either read each article in its own right, much as one would a magazine, making no assumption about their interconnectedness. Or the reader can try and undertake the imaginative task of assuming that all the articles are the products either of minds that have much in common or that they are different dimension of a larger communal mind. In the interests of a coherent review the latter assumptions underlies this review.

The editors of this book, devote 3 chapters (in addition to a forward) to try and draw the diverse 8 contributions together into a coherent whole. These attempts are not without merit, for Salman Akthar with considerable conceptual dexterity knits these divergent themes together to suggest they are variations on an important theme, while Maria Teresa Savio Hooke masterfully summarizes each chapter initially and then concludes the book by drawing them together as an epilogue to her own question “What does it all mean?”

The title of the book “The Geography of Meanings” is inspired by a quotation from Otto Kernberg “a lover’s body gradually becomes the geography of personal meanings”. This is a very rich description of love, bodies and meaning, however, divorced from their eloquent and economic melding in the quotation, the title of the book is strangely empty and it fails to stimulate curiosity or evoke imagery, necessary preludes to taking the book off the shelf for a browse. The subtitle fortunately contains keywords that would net it on a computer search.

Having examined the cover, I now need to explore the inner geography of this book. The individual articles are about as diverse a bunch as one can get, varying enormously in content, style, quality, scholarship and presentation. A commentary on each article might be of some interest to a prospective reader but such commentary would be a piecemeal exploration that might lead a reader to think, “That is very interesting, but what does it all mean?” To attempt to answer this question would only replicate the editors attempts in general, and Hooke’s concluding remarks in particular. So I will proceed on the basis of my more speculative assumption that the book is a series of associations of a loosely conceived collective mind.

Both to its proponents and its antagonists, for exactly the same reasons, psychoanalysis is this strange chimerical creature that exists like a dream, vivid, protean and indisputable existent yet impossible to capture or domesticate either in the fertile fields of art or the stern laboratories of science. As such it is open to infinite interpretation which drives its antagonists mad and its proponents to rapturous delight. The interpretation that might be used to usefully explore this book with is that psychoanalysis is at heart an exploration of time and place. The conscious mind experiences time serially and quantifiably and place as something that has a concrete and knowable location. The unconscious mind has no such restrictions so that past time flows concomitantly with present time and is separated from it with extremely porous and permeable borders. ‘Place’ on the other hand turns out to be as poetic and symbolic as it is locatable and concrete. Psychoanalysis in its present state of development tends to distinguish time and place (though not absolutely) and this book could be said to be an exploration primarily of place.

To say that psychoanalysis is an exploration of the elasticity of time and place leaves out the dynamic force that propelled it into existence in the first place and which maintains its existence in its myriad forms. That essential element that brings all of us and our analysands to psychoanalysis is our experience of emotional pain and our attempts to ameliorate, understand, modify and manage it. So that this book can be said to be exploration of pain embedded as it is in the mental dimension of place.

To explore this dimension I will use a concept from one of the articles (by Craig San Roque), “Tjukurrpa.” He explains, “Tjukurrpa or Jukurrpa, is a term used in the Pitjanjatjara, Pintubi, Warlpiri group of (Australian aboriginal) languages to indicate that unique phenomenon of time and timelessness, story and ceremony, that is known in popular culture as ‘The Dreaming’… Tjukurrpa is the pragmatic voice, the geographical articulation, the mytho-poetic dream thoughts of the country (p.117) …(its) essence is a multidimensional pattern of connectedness … linking lines of sites, lines of ‘song’, lines of kin relationships, along lines of country … (It is) a poetic calculus that serves as the basis for making deductions pertaining to protocols of extended-family relationship, the carriage of law, marriage, cultural and intellectual power and politics as well as the location of food and water sources.” (p. 121) As illustration, alcohol, which was introduced into Australia by European settlers, does not form part of aboriginal Tjukurrpa. Falling outside of Tjukurrpa it cannot be thought about or handled individually or collectively.

Tjukurrpa can thus be seen as an extremely complex web of socio-cultural-geographical interrelatedness. Each chapter of this book is independent and can be read on its own without any necessary reference to any other chapter. Yet if this book is understood as Tjukurrpa, then the various chapters of this collection articulate different dimensions of this web from different perspectives.

The opening chapter by Thomas Wolman explores the many dimensions of space as we understand it in psychoanalysis. The most evocative image of this chapter is his quoted reference (from a poem by Wallace Stevens) – “… a person who says “I” places a jar atop a hill ... In so doing, he or she adds a human, subjective element to the landscape. The placement of the jar immediately redefines the area as a human space.” (p.25) Interestingly the next chapter in the book (by Kate Grenville, a novelist), from this perspective, is about the early Australian settlers who insisted the land was “terra nullius” i.e. territory that had no prior human habitation and hence theirs to take legitimately as they saw fit. They failed to see the jar atop the hill that had been sitting there for some forty thousand years, perhaps because it was made of glass and the black inhabitants, as black as night, were invisible. Yet these dark inhabitants from the deepest recesses of the mind came to haunt them and their descendents, including the author. We rapidly discover that the mental landscape is not only very human but deeply impregnated by pain, the pain of guilt, of loss and alienation. She goes looking for a so called lost ancestor, the original convict shipped out to Australia. The family tradition pleaded ignorance (about the original crime) but it was surprisingly easy to locate. “The family story pretended it didn’t know. But at a deeper level it knew that it knew – and made sure that the key to that knowing was there for anyone who went looking. It was revealing, even in the act of concealing.” (p. 53) This is a statement that will resonate with anyone who has experienced a psychoanalysis. Yet to know what is always there to be known, invariably brings with it pain of unknown dimensions and severity. It is a pain that Kate Grenville is able to richly harvest by placing it within her narrative, her Tjukurrpa. The next contributor (Bain Attwood) reminds us of what Freud said in “Remembering, Repeating and Working Through”, that when we don’t remember what is there to be known, we are driven to “act it out.” (p. 64) Bain Attwood explores how the Australian nation can be regarded as a patient who acts out rather than remembers, painfully, what is there for anyone to know who wants to know. Not wanting to know invariably brings with it various distortions and deceptions. “ …historical discourse in this country has swung between two extremes, two excesses: overstating the amount of blood shed on the one hand (‘white’) and understating the amount of blood shed on the other (‘black’).” (p. 75) But all blood is our blood and all pain is our pain and it is only by accurately perceiving it, mourning it and not evading it, that is has any chance of being knitted into the nation’s Tjukurrpa. This theme of trying to evade pain is developed further by Eve Steel in her exploration of “the lost children.” Ostensibly the chapter is about aboriginal children that were forcibly relocated in white families, but the ambiguity of the title is deliberate, for it is equally about white children relocated in the penal colony of Australia and others relocated and raised as wards of the Church. Further it is about those parts of us that we deny in ourselves by projecting them into unwanted “dirty rascals” that can be mistreated with impunity, while we identify ourselves as being the kings of our secure castles. Again there needs to be an accurate understanding of processes internal and external to us and how they weave and blend in with each other, if there is to be any chance of them being woven into the rich but tragic fabric of our Tjukurrpa.

The next chapter by Stewart and Nicholas Twemlow is another variation on the theme of this book. This chapter talks about many things but the fulcrum of it rests on the death of one of the author’s (Stewart’s) mother, a half Maori woman, with whom he had had intermittent contact in his chequered career. She and her Maori identity, had always been there to be known about, but it somehow evaded the poignant and shattering attention that her sudden death brought. On her death, as suggested by the previous authors he embraces her “blood” (as in her heritage and the complex pain that went with it) and he knits it into his being so that her blood becomes his blood becomes our blood, her child becomes his child becomes our child. They are all interconnected. We are all interconnected despite our apparent differences in race, culture, history and geography.

The next two chapters, unlike the previous ones are more obviously clinical but they also address important dimensions that need some emphasis, place and time. Our discussion of Tjukurrpa so far could leave one with the impression that Tjukurrpa is about complex human interrelationships and narratives. Yet, the term is wider than that and it includes for instance “…the location of food and water sources.” Salman Akhtar’s chapter attempts to address the importance of this “non-human environment.” In his description of analytic place/space he attempts to answer the question “How does the changed physical surround actually affect the mind?” (p. 166) “It is my sense that non-human elements of the child’s environment (e.g. toys, crib, blanket, home, trees, local animals, the street on which the family lives, regional landscape, and even sounds and climate that are typical of the early environment) also contribute to the texture of the waking screen … In this contribution, I attempt to demonstrate how a major environmental change lacerates the above mentioned structures, threatening the safety feeling (Sandler 1960) that all human beings need, and therefore becomes traumatic.” (p. 167)

The next chapter by James Telfer emphasises the time dimension of Tjukurrpa, though he does not use this concept to understand the plight of his patient. However, this might be a productive way of understanding the analyst’s experience. “ … I was with someone who often did not know who was with her, where she was, how long she had been there, or, indeed whether she was in a dream or not. She could barely experience anything new, just recurrences and reunions, more of the same.” (p. 195) Another way of putting this might be that the patient had for whatever reason and by whatever means, fallen out of her Tjkurrpa. If that happens then the sense of disorientation, particularly along the dimension of time, is very notable and acute.

In conclusion, on reading this book one is left with the feeling that the themes articulated need further elaboration. The book does not answer any particular question, but instead questions keep forming and proliferating. If the reader comes to the same conclusion, then the book might provide a useful impetus in exploring not so much the “geography of meanings” but the meaning of emotional geography, the scope of which exceeds all the defined parameters of psychoanalysis.