Potential Space

by Alexandra Guhde, PsyD, Impulse Staff Writer


 "Any metaphor, beguiling as it may be, is a possible experience, and the difficulty lies not in its invention (a simple thing, attained by a mere shuffling of fancy words) but in achieving it in a way that astonishes its reader."  
- Jorge Luis Borges, "A Profession of Literary Faith," 1926

Raised on a steady diet of metaphor -- fed by reverie, simile, and waking dream-life -- my faith in psychotherapy is grounded in the figurative domain, in "possible experience," and the possibilities of experience. The word "metaphor" is, likewise, shaped by its roots, coming from the Greekmetaphérein, which means to transfer or to carry over (meta: over, across +phérein: to carry, bear). Considering this history, metaphors are more than interpretations. They transport us, but we also carry the weight of them. Metaphors are stories borne over lifetimes and generations, and transferred across relationships.

Recently, I read James Joyce's "The Dead," a poignant short story in theDubliners collectionPartway through I was struck by the uncanny sensation that I'd been here, or there, once before. Something about the story belonged to me, despite my never having read it. It wasn't until I arrived at the last sentence -- a gorgeous metaphorical dirge -- that I understood:  

"His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

My mother, a former English professor, once recited this passage to me when I was a child, as we stood together on a winter night, watching the snow fill our quiet street. I remember the beautiful words joining with the sound of my mother's voice, affecting and faraway. I remember seeing the light cast downward by the street lamps, rendering the dome of the night sky opaque. It looked to me as if the lamps themselves were the machines that made the faintly falling, falling faintly snow.

When I discovered, in its original setting, the final metaphor in "The Dead," I, the reader, was astonished. Astonished by the beauty, yes, as well as by Joyce's facility with liminal space. But more so by my own experience -- a therapeutic achievement -- of meaning gathered, at last, as if from beyond the streetlamps. Here was a metaphor that had been with me, literally, for decades. It belonged to its author, and the story's narrator, and to my mother, and to myriad others before me. And now I will carry it over.