Note on Working Through

The psychoanalytic concept of working through is based on the assumption that the unconscious mind is the source of potential meaning. Freud believed that if a patient, because of repression, does not remember, he may instead "act out" the content of the repressed memory. Action prompted by unconscious memory was thought by Freud to be an equivalent of the memory itself. He described this in the paper "Remembering, repeating, and working through" (Freud 1914). The concept of working through, although originally descriptive of an aspect of the psychoanalytic process, extends to ordinary life as well. When experiences remain unas-similated, we may try repeatedly to complete the action by finding substitutes in metaphoric equivalents. This is evident in aesthetic experiences.

We know that works of art, especially visual art and music, can function as wordless metaphors and be used as a medium for working through. Those artists whose creations evoke very intense feelings are most likely to provide a means for working through. One example would the paintings of the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. Hovering, rectangular areas of color that appear to be luminously suspended characterize his work. Most commentators agree that these rectangles of color are wordless metaphors that signify feelings. The feelings most commonly identified are those of loneliness and solitude. The feelings generated by Rothko's art have been interpreted as an expression of his own unassimilated experiences. In a biography of Rothko, James Breslin (1993) suggested that Rothko painted a deficiency, an absence, a great vacuum at the center of his being. Breslin further suggested (1993, p. 280) that Rothko produced paintings that, through their interactions with the viewer, recreate the reciprocities and tensions of an early mother/child relationship. Breslin further noted, "It is as if the painting were static or dead—until brought to life by the physical presence of a viewer" (1993, p. 277). The projection of the feelings of loneliness and solitude combined with the tensions of an early mother/child relationship evokes in some viewers, as Breslin suggests, a sense of absence in the presence of the other. For those viewers who have experienced an affective deadness in their own mothers, Rothko's wordless metaphors will find a powerful resonance.

As a parenthetical note, in an obituary notice of the death of James Breslin, the author of Rothko's biography, it was reported that Breslin, who was a professor of English and not an art historian, changed his career when he made an immediate emotional connection to Rothko's paintings (New York Times, Jan. 15, 1996). This occurred when he was depressed following the breakup of his first marriage. Rothko's paintings, he said, "create an empathic space in which to confront emptiness and loss; they create an environment for mourning." We select objects in current time that will provide the meaning that will enable us to alter the experiences of the past. We invest those objects with feeling when we perceive a metaphoric correspondence between present experiences and unconscious memory.

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