The Chinese Chronicle: This is a Walking-Stick by Jean-Louis Gault

 From LQ 84 – 9.11.11 – Translated by Frances Coates-Ruet

                             Link to french version 

Psychiatric Hospital of Qingdao

The patient we met on Tuesday the 25th of October was presented by her doctor, the Dr Dong Jicheng. The patient was a young woman, 22 years of age, who had been in the care of the Service for the past three years. It was her mother who brought her to the hospital.  She was worried about the state which her daughter was in since she left high school and began her university studies.  Her daughter could no longer sleep, she was cutting herself off from all contact with others, she was suspecting her classmates of making fun of her, and sometimes she was talking to herself and laughing out loud when alone.  The diagnosis of schizophrenia had been made along with a prescription for antipsychotics, except that the treatment had brought no improvement, and within a few months the patient had stopped taking her medication. Some time later she consulted the hospital again, accompanied by her mother.  She is no longer sleeping, is anxious and always lost in her thoughts.  She feels that her body is not functioning properly, whilst her mind, under too much pressure from her studies, is no longer following. Another medication was proposed but it had no more effect than the first. The diagnostic was then reconsidered, her thought phenomena were interpreted as being in the obsessional register, and an anti-depressant and anxiolitic were prescribed.   No results were to be found here either. Finally, her doctor resolved to abandon any idea of medication and to envisage a psychological approach to her difficulties. This is the motive for today’s interview.  Nevertheless, in the meantime, the patient succeeded in finishing her studies.  With her degree in hand, she is looking for work, but cannot find any. An only child, she is at home alone with her mother, where she passes the greater part of her time either in bed or in front of her computer, watching films or listening to music.

Nonchalantly draped on an armchair, the patient responds to the questions in a barely audible voice, by making long commentaries. From time to time a beautiful smile, as enigmatic as that of the Mona Lisa, illuminates her harmonious face and laughing eyes. She studied landscape architecture.   Why had she chosen this speciality? “Because she loves being outside and breathing fresh air. This is in accordance with her character. She likes seeing things from a high viewpoint and looking at the earth. It is a job where one can design on the computer and hand in one’s work to the teacher. One doesn’t need to speak to anyone else”. When she was at school, she was not interested in having friends. She was indifferent to having friends. She has never been in love nor has she had a boyfriend. According to her, the Chinese do not have those needs. Besides, being in love or not, is the same thing for her, and she makes no difference between having a boyfriend or not having one.

Her father works as a driver. “He drives the white shuttle bus. He works in a friend’s chemical product factory. It’s like the bus no. 2 or the 316, the model has changed, but his is the old model.”  In her studies she had difficulties in mathematics where she couldn’t understand prime numbers. In literature, she had trouble with the old language, which she made herself learn, but couldn’t understand. She cannot explain her sudden laughter; she tries to control it but is not able to. She thinks that this may be a problem and that her head will come off her body. At the level of her body, it is the circulation of air in her lungs that isn’t right. She can’t expulse the contaminated air, which accumulates inside her and oppresses her. This is why she feels nervous and stressed. There are two points that she would like to underline. Her mother tells her that she should speak more to her family. This is one difficulty that she would like to make clear. Her mother talks a lot, uses too many words and complicated ones also. She would like one to speak to her with shorter and simpler words, or to give her clearer instructions.  She is not interested in logic and doesn’t like profound things or enigmas.  It is for this reason that it would be necessary to find neutral words in order to simplify the sense.  There are, for example, some enigmas that she cannot understand, like that of the sphinx. To the question of knowing what in the morning has four feet, at midday has two and in the evening has three, the answer, that of a human being, because in the morning it is a baby who crawls, at midday an adult who walks and in the evening, an elderly person who walks with a walking stick, does not satisfy her. She is not happy with this answer because a walking stick is not a foot. The result is therefore ambiguous; it is in fact not possible to answer either yes or no. It is the kind of thing she doesn’t like. For her, “a scarf is a scarf”. “A pullover is a pullover”.

The second thing that she doesn’t like is the use of “irony”. To this question, the interpreter noticed the word that is used by the patient. She points out that it is an unusual word. She specifies that in Chinese there are two words. The first one is feng ci, 讽刺, “raillery, satire, mockery, caricature, sarcasm”. It is a commonly used word. There is another word, fan feng, 反讽, “irony”, strictly speaking. This word has a stronger sense than the first and belongs to literary language. It consists in saying exactly the contrary to what one thinks. We could say that it designates radical irony, to which Lacan has given its full value in the clinic of schizophrenia. It is this second word that had been used by the patient, to complain about it.

Shortly afterwards, we concluded the interview and invited the patient to pursue this dialogue with the doctor.

In the course of the discussion, the participants identified from the start the schema in which the difficulties of the patient were situated. “The patient had problems in communicating with you”, “her responses did not always correspond to your questions”, “her way of speaking is complicated”, “she has problems of a linguistic order, she speaks on a sophisticated level, like written language, she uses complicated phrases and chosen words”, “she has a problem with logic”. In response to these observations we sought to emphasise that her communication problems, her linguistic troubles, her difficulties in inscribing herself in the question-response system of the interlocutory relationship, her problems in logic, her usage of the written register of language in the place of spoken language, should be referred to in the most general way to her practice of language. In other words, to her relation to speech, in which spoken language and written language are necessarily distinguished and where the register of interlocution is put into use. We have underlined how remarkable it was that the patient knew how to clearly isolate the foundation of her difficulties by signalling the obstacle that she encounters when confronted with her interlocutor’s practice of language. The speech of the other appears to be opaque or enigmatic; she doesn’t understand the sense of the words that he uses.  Soon enough, there emerges but a vain chattering, which she wants to come out of by appealing to the univocal indications and the use of neutral words, which dissipate the obscurities of sense.

The other point we found in the practice of language, is the proscription of metaphor the patient made. We noted that in order to make herself understood, she referred to a mythical story, that of the enigma of the sphinx, where the speaker is confronted with the question-response system. In this fundamental story she had thus grasped the root of all interlocution, the opposition question -response, in Chinese wenti 问题 / huido 回答, which we proposed to write on the blackboard.  While writing this chronicle, it came to us that in his analysis of the Freudian myth, Lacan followed the path of the structure in order to account for the Oedipus drama. “What is most important is that Oedipus was admitted by Jocasta because he had triumphed over an ordeal of truth (namely that of the enigma of the sphinx)”, as he indicates on page 135 in the Seminar XVII The Other Side of Psychoanalysis  (ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. by Russell Grigg, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007). He goes on to state that if Oedipus comes to a bad end, it is because he absolutely wanted to know the truth, regardless of the law of language, which prescribes that no master may know the whole truth.

Our patient notices the use of the metaphor included in the structure of this primordial interlocution, in which she strips bare the metaphoric matrix in all speech. It is precisely what she doesn’t want. For her, “a walking stick is a walking stick”. Here she testifies that for her, without a doubt, all symbolic is real. 

We have underlined how the metaphor is at the foundation of all language practice. The first words of the child are immediately captured by the metaphoric drift that never ceases, to the point where it is the condition of all usage of speech. The patient’s difficulties learning, understanding, and speaking with others, are the consequence of her rejection of all metaphoric usage of words in language. Her impossibility to love, which struck the participants, in a young woman of 22, is itself directly attributable to this prohibition of metaphor. It suffices to think, in effect, that love implies speech, that speaking of love borrows from the ways of metaphor, and that poetry, which largely makes use of metaphor, is never absent in the love relation. We went on to say that love itself is a metaphor. In Chinese, the most common formula for addressing oneself to a loved one is “my heart”. 

The patient’s use of the lesser known word fanfeng, in order to express her sensitivity to irony, had also been picked up by our interlocutors in the seminar. This usage says at what point irony saps the foundations of language for our patient and threatens her practice of speech. In conclusion it remains for the doctor to clarify an indication in order to approach these difficulties. We attempted the proposition of a straight and narrow path of prudent interlocution with the patient, which takes into account the impossibilities that had been noticed during the interview, in order to allow her to eventually knot a new alliance with language, where she would be less under the yoke of the signifying alienation.


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