Potential Space

by Adam Blum, Psy.D., Potential Space Feature Editor


One need not look further than the new film of the musical Into the Woods(2014) -- replete with greedy witch-mothering, the Oedipal thrill of discovering there are giants in the sky, and the joyful (im)possibilities of getting what one wishes -- to find psychoanalytic resonances in the work of Stephen Sondheim, but it would be a shame to stop one's looking there.  

I once had a supervisor describe a clinical moment we were discussing as being "like a window." I had put to the patient, a trained musician, who had just told me that he was "nowhere," that I was now thinking of the way a chord in music could be neither in a clear key nor completely outside of a key, but unresolved or suspended somewhere in between. Here the patient, or so my supervisor thought, seemed to be silently doing something; he then wondered aloud, neither to me nor not to me, "Is it better to be unresolved or to be nowhere?"

The phrase "like a window" led me associatively to Sunday in the Park with George (1985), Sondheim's musical imagining of the life of the 19th-century Impressionist George Seurat. After George has disappointed his girlfriend Dot (perhaps for the last time) by forgetting the evening's plans -- so immersed he was in painting a hat -- George essentially free associates in a kind of recursive, melodic version of pointilism (his signature painterly invention), seamlessly traversing the world of Dot (the woman) and dots (his painting):

Studying the hat
Entering the world of the hat
Reaching through the world of the hat
Like a window
Back to this one from that

Studying a face
Stepping back to look at a face
Leaves a little space in the way
Like a window
But to see --
It's the only way to see 

George cannot see this world, Dot's world, from the vantage point of that same world, of Dot; he can only look "back to this one from that" through a subjective object (here, a hat), which might function, he hopes, "like a window" as an intermediary between their two subjectivities. For George, the painting is the window through which Dot's world -- the world of other people, that is -- can be seen; it is, in fact, "the only way to see." Dot is worried that she has lost George to his painting. George, reaching through the world of his painting, has not yet given up on finding his way to Dot.

Not yet -- "unresolved" (the harmonic intervals of the piece play fittingly upon this ambiguity) -- is, for Winnicott, like George (and my patient), a possible alternative to nowhere. The words of our sessions, like George's hat, carry this potential to find the world; sessions, like Woods, can offer a way to live in between the things one knows and a world one has yet to find.