Ida-Verné Stanfield



To speak within a language, even just to say mundane things, always carries a taste of the language’s poetry, that is, its accrued psychology, the mass of its speakers speaking, each weighing desire against limitation and trying to build a life for herself, utterance by utterance. This poetry is the underlying logic of a language, which guides and is guided by the ongoing struggle of a people to reconcile the contradictions that make up their lives. A root poetry is present in every language, in every socially-mediated system of sense-making, whether one speaks French or Chinese or some regional dialect therein, or whether one speaks (as a practitioner) Postmodern American painting, or Zen Buddhism. And as it is present in all languages, it is also present in private pseudo-languages, asocial modes of sense-making wherein the subject speaks to herself within a closed system that affords no room for an interlocutor. The pseudo-language which concerns me and whose root poetry I shall here explore is my own. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder and as a result there is an entire system of private sense that I perceive in my environment and respond to through my compulsions. This system mimes the institutional character of language insofar as its signs are chosen and weighted by my unconscious—the institution or the society–and the history of its mass of speakers is the history of my fragmented self struggling with the pseudo-language that it speaks.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a psychological condition wherein the individual experiences intrusive thoughts, magical thinking (i.e. superstitious reasoning), excessive pattern recognition, dread, and the development of compulsive rituals. Like virtually all aspects of being human, it can be and often is a source of extreme suffering. Medically, materially, it is an anxiety disorder of combined genetic, biological, and environmental origin. Experientially, it is the foundation for the development of private pseudo-languages. No two compulsives speak the exact same pseudo-language, for the signs that they perceive and those they respond with have private referents—the individuals’ unconscious connections and the personal histories that inform them—and as these private referents are not socially mediated, that is, because they are not substantiated through communication between two or more people, there is no basis within them for shared understanding. In other words, even if another compulsive and I have externally identical triggers and compulsive responses, there is still no ground where the unconscious connotations, relative value and weight, contextual appropriateness and specific uses of our respective signs can meet, correlate and be simultaneously and socially affirmed through communal use. These pseudo-languages are thus necessarily solipsistic. I speak to myself in a manner that only I can understand in response to meaning that only I can see. Thus, I can never compulse at or to another person; only ever near him.

Though the pseudo-languages of obsessive-compulsive disorder are solipsistic, they are not subject to the mere wills of their solitary speakers. If an experience or object in my environment becomes charged with private sense, it is not because I chose it or consciously designated to what it would refer. Much the same as in social language, within my pseudo-language, the signs are handed down to me—my conscious, multiform self—from the institution of my unconscious. For example, when I see an object touch my hiking boots, I perceive, ‘It’s happening again,’ where ‘it’ refers to a very stressful period in my life involving poison ivy. The only response that I can make is to wash my hands and clean the offending object and in doing so reply, ‘Not today; not ever again.’ I did not just one day decide that these things would mean what they mean. Instead, at some point in the past few years, I began to perceive what it means for an object to come into contact with my boots and I concurrently understood what would function as a satisfactory response (i.e. that I would need to wash my hands for a specific number of counts and would have to clean the wayward object a specific number of times in a specific manner).

The sense in this ritual response is subtler than it may appear. It is not reducible to ‘clean when contaminated’ for the sense that I perceive in the trigger is not an amorphous sense of contamination, but is specifically ‘[A particular experience] is happening again.’1 This subtlety and irreducibility is further expressed insofar as the boots themselves never had to become charged as I did not own them during the poison ivy episode and it is highly unlikely that they passed through ivy later. On the other hand, I do continue to own and to use many objects that I did own then, which are psychologically heavy with memories of that time and which were likely directly contaminated by the vine. Yet, none of them bear the sense that my hiking boots do. In its inaccessible way, my unconscious has encoded this sense specifically into my boots as opposed to other potential signifiers. This specificity extends to what objects can and cannot form this meaning when touching my boots (e.g. The cat and her toys cannot), as it does to the particularity of the reply. The compulsive response didn’t have to be as gentle, or as 1:1 as this cleaning ritual. If my unconscious had otherwise dictated, I could have instead needed to hold my hands under scalding water, rather than simply wash them, or I could have needed to do some other non-cleaning task that was psychologically significant with respect to the initial poison ivy episode. Indeed, within pseudo-languages as within social languages, the signifiers are only necessary after the fact: none in particular had to become charged with sense, but once one has been, then it must be used accordingly.

In the midst of this compulsion, I execute the ritual even though I know logically that the poison ivy experience is not actually about to recur and moreover that my boots are clean and have not contaminated anything. Yet, despite the efforts of logic, the sense in both the trigger and the compulsion persist. According to Roland Barthes, ‘because a language is a system of contractual values… it resists the modifications coming from a single individual and is consequently a social institution.’ Within my neurotic pseudo-language, Barthes’s values are replaced by a life’s worth of associations and I can’t help but contract with them, for they, being cemented unconsciously, offer no conscious opportunity for refusal. Furthermore, despite the fact that the sense here is private and therefore lacking any external verification, neither the signifiers nor the signifieds shifts capriciously. Where the signs within a language are roughly stabilized by the community, within my trigger-compulsion dialogue the signs are stabilized by the personal history which informs those contracted associations. I cannot simply forget my life’s history or forget the entwined linguistic history of having spoken this pseudo-language through my private perceptions and compulsions. To suddenly forget the meaning of any one or more of these phrases would be like suddenly forgetting the meaning of saying ‘hello.’ To do so would require me to misplace my entire history of having spoken with or in connection to the phrase.

Unlike social language, my neurotic pseudo-language does not allow for variety or play. Within social language, there are enough indicators working within any given phrase to allow for interpretation. Likewise, an individual has the ability to craft a response and through doing so to respond in different ways. Within the pseudo-language of obsessive-compulsive disorder this room to interpret and create does not exist and the individual’s agency is reduced to either speaking with the designated compulsion or silence. Even there, this latter choice often doesn’t feel like an option at all as it causes a marked increase in anxiety, sometimes more than one can bear, as the initial message grows louder and more urgent. To go silent, to refrain from completing a ritual, does not destroy the meaning in the trigger or the compulsive reply. Even if one is able to remain silent for years on end, that meaning will still be there when anxiety finally bids one to return to it. When meaning is lost, that is, when either the trigger or the compulsion passes into archaism, and when meaning changes, it happens slowly and is due to the gradual accumulation of new experience, which breaks old bonds of unconscious association while creating new ones in their stead. No matter what, the pseudo-language will always be lurking in one form or another. While repeated silent resistance can condition a person to ignore the meaning that they would otherwise perceive, it cannot by itself force the evolution of that meaning any more than logic can. Indeed, to go silent, to refuse to compulsively respond, is an expression of a desire which colors every aspect of the pseudo-language—the desire to destroy sense even as one is responding in a manner which creates it, that is, the desire to destroy the trigger-compulsion exchange through which one perceives and speaks. This desire is the primary contradiction with which the compulsive wrestles within her pseudo-language and as such it is the source of the poetry that is to be found in this private speech.

When I was seven, I passed through a period of intense religiosity, during which I was often overcome with obsessive guilt and the need to compulsively pray. One of the prayers that I was drawn to was the Pater Noster, which I would repeat for a given number of times as a means of responding to triggers which threatened, ‘You have done something wrong and if you do not act quickly, your anxiety will swallow you whole.’ I have no doubt that the social meanings of this prayer were both consciously and unconsciously resonant and certainly contributed to its place in my web of associations. However, the private sense in the compulsive repetition of this prayer was, ‘I have control and I will not be swallowed up by my mind; I will not allow myself to become lost in anxiety’s labyrinths.’ Simultaneously with the expression of this sense, the compulsion also expressed a desire for the erasure of sense from the trigger and from the compulsion itself. On the one hand, a compulsion aims to (and is sometimes moderately successful in) blocking out awareness of the triggering message and the anxiety that always accompanies it. On the other hand, insofar as I am aware of myself making a response, I am necessarily reminded of what I am responding to. The very movement by which I attempt to escape draws me back in.

Within this trigger-compulsion language, the desire for the death of all sense pervades all sense-making. Within the compulsive response, this desire is partially realized insofar as there is a slight degree of trance-like automation in compulsion, especially when it involves repetition. To do or say something again and again slowly disconnects it from sense—both social and pseudo—until it becomes a nowhere place for a mind in need of rest. One does not mean to actually enter this nowhere place, but to instead approach an edge from where one can see it, and seeing it brings a modicum of solace.

In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes writes that a reader experiences bliss when brought to the seam between language and the death of language. To pass over this seam into the utter destruction of words would be ugly, and to remain in language would be merely pleasurable. This site that in literature brings one rapture, in a compulsive life instead brings one hope for peace. And as in Barthes, for the compulsive to actually pass over into that nowhere place is deeply undesirable.

In the period immediately following September 2001, I perceived in a multitude of triggers the message, ‘the world is being destroyed.’ During all other periods in my pseudo-speak, the perception of a message arose concurrently with an understanding of what actions were necessary for the response. During this period, however, the compulsions that overwhelmed me failed to even come close to making an adequate response. I needed to say, ‘No, it will be preserved,’ but every gesture, every compulsion failed. I found myself doing basic things repeatedly. I remember at least once spending thirty minutes adjusting just how ajar the closet door was to be left. It was not that I was trying to decide on how it should be left; I knew how it should be left. Yet, the correct response conveyed no sense, for it did not even begin to drown out the trigger-message and it failed to induce even a hint of automation and trance. I stood there adjusting, because how could the response be meaningless? I must have made a mistake; let me try again. I stood there until pulled away by responsibilities, physical need, or another person, and nothing was ever correct during that time, for nothing brought me to the edge between my pseudo-language and its dissolution. How could anything have, when I had clearly already passed over into that dissolution? The events of the world, the senseless destruction therein, had infected my private speech and rendered it incapable of making sense, even when I most needed it to.

The primary struggle of this, my pseudo-language, is between the desire to no longer speak and understand within it and the limitation that I am unable to get by without it. This trigger-compulsion sense-making exists because, to an extent, the realities of social sense are too much for me. The utterances that I have made and continue to make through it are all weighted with this knowledge and this conflict, and this conflict guides and is guided by the underlying logic, the poetry, of my pseudo-sense-making: In a life colored by loss, isolation and the constant threat of decay, the edge of destruction to which I bring myself is, somehow, the safest possible place.

1Even this is only a very rough translation. As much as I am attempting to describe in this essay, the often deep subtlety in what I have seen and expressed largely exceeds my rhetoric for it.

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