Metaphor and Psychoanalysis: Reflections on Metaphor and Affects

by Arnold H. Modell

August 10, 2001


This paper shows how metaphor, memory and affects form one synergistic system. It assumes: 1) metaphor is a cognitive process, not mere figurative speech (Lakoff and Johnson); 2) metaphor plays a salient role in categorizing emotional memory; 3) memory is both categorical and retranscriptive (Edelman). By allowing us to find the familiar in the unfamiliar, metaphor provides our earliest, most fundamental means of structuring experience, a schema for bringing feelings and other bodily sensations within the agency of the self. In health the metaphoric process helps recontextualize experience. In trauma, experiences are not recontextualized, foreclosing and freezing the metaphoric correspondence between past and present. Without the play of similarity and difference between the past and current experience, metaphor fails to generate new meanings. This foreclosure helps explain psychoanalytic transference and other forms of "repetition compulsion".


     For centuries the investigation of metaphor belonged to poets and literary critics. However, in the last few years, metaphor, the engine that drives poetry and literature, has become a subject of investigation by natural science. Neuroscience is now exploring the problem of intentionality and meaning. There is an exciting convergence of interest in metaphor from a variety of disciplines that includes neurobiology, linguistics, and cognitive science. The concept of metaphor itself has undergone a revolutionary change in that the locus of metaphor is now recognized to be in the mind and not in language. The locus of metaphor is thought, not language (Lakoff, 1993). What is significant for psychoanalysis is the growing recognition among investigators that metaphors have their origin in the body (Johnson, 1987; Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, Lakoff, 1987; Turner, 1991). There is a privileged connection between affects and metaphor. As feelings are to some measure beyond our control, translating such feelings into metaphors provides us with some degree of organization and control. Through the use of metaphor we are able to organize otherwise inchoate experiences, so it is not surprising that somatic experiences, such as affects, are transformed into metaphors. Psychoanalysts have known this for a long time. For example, Sharpe observed in 1940 that metaphors evolve from the feelings and sensations that accompany the control of bodily orifices. This is an observation that all of us can confirm clinically. For example, a patient may experience making an effort at work as the metaphoric equivalent of making an effort in producing a stool.

     It is difficult to imagine any process of mentation in which metaphor does not enter. Accordingly I have come to think of metaphor as the currency of mind. Metaphor is a fundamental and indispensable structure of human understanding, a basic and irreducible unit of mental functioning. It is by means of metaphor that we generate new perceptions of the world; it is through metaphor that we organize and make sense out of experience.

     Metaphor can be defined as the mapping of one conceptual domain onto a dissimilar conceptual domain (Lakoff, 1987). The word derives from the Greek verb metaphora to transport or transfer. So that in the use of a metaphor there is the juxtaposition between different domains resulting in a transfer of meaning from one to the other. In this sense metaphor is the basis of creative apperception of the world whether in science, art, or everyday life. Consider this metaphor: sex is the poor man's opera. Sex and opera are dissimilar domains, yet the metaphor rests upon our recognizing the similarity of both domains. The pleasure that we obtain from this metaphor depends on a sense of the playful juxtaposition of the similar and the dissimilar, a form of imaginative play through which new meanings are generated. These are metaphors that transform and enlarge our understanding. But there are other metaphors that are fixed, unambiguous, and unchanging. I have described these metaphors as foreclosed. These are metaphors that can be found to be operative in transference, repetition, traumatic memories, and in certain inhibitions.

     Affects, metaphor, and memory form a synergistic, unified system. It has long been recognized that affects and memory are inseparable. For it is only in the hypothetical case of the newborn infant who is yet without experience in the world that we can even postulate that affects are without memory. But infant observers believe that shortly after birth "raw" affects are organized by means of expectable and repeated experiences. Affects are joined to memory and are represented by means of what Stern (1985) calls a "temporal contour," which indicates that affective experiences cannot be separated from their perceptual context.

     This functional unity that exists between affects, memory, and metaphor has become increasingly apparent as a result of recent advances in the neurobiology of memory, especially the theory of memory proposed by the Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman (1992). He has shown that memory is both retranscriptive and categorical. 2 That memory was retranscriptive was anticipated by Freud as in his concept of Nachträglichkeit. However, Freud did not envision that memory is also categorical and here we are indebted to Edelman's theory (Edelman, 1989, 1992, 1995). I suggest that the memory of effective experiences is also categorical and that such categories evoked in current time through metaphoric correspondences with current perceptions. Edelman suggests that what is stored in the brain is not something that has a precise correspondence with the original experience, but is a potentiality awaiting activation. The perceptual and motor apparatus serve memory by means of a scanning process in which there is an attempt to match current experience with old memory categories. What is stored in memory is not a replica of the event but the potential to generalize or refind the category or class of which the event is a member. What is significant for the psychoanalyst is that activation of these potential categories is evoked through cognitive metaphors, which form bridges between the past and the present; metaphor allows us to find the familiar in the unfamiliar. This means affective memories are enclosed as potential categories; we remember categories of experience evoked by metaphoric correspondence with current perceptual inputs. We can think of ourselves as owning a library of categorical memories of pleasurable and painful experiences, all of which at certain points in our life will be activated by means of metaphoric correspondences with current inputs.

     A foreclosed metaphor is one in which the correspondence between one domain and a dissimilar domain is unvarying and unambiguous. In cases of trauma this means that the metaphoric connection between past and present is frozen, involving a telescoping of time such that the affective experience of past and present are identical. The novel aspects of experiences in real time are foreclosed and categorized as a repetition of the past. That is to say, old affect categories are not recontextualized. From this have concluded that the compulsion to repeat is a function of memory rather than a reflection of the death instinct, as Freud believed (Modell, 1990). The compulsion to repeat can better be understood as an statement of unassimilated experiences through which categorical memory selects metaphoric correspondences in current time.

     In contrast, open or fluid metaphors facilitate the recontextualization of affects and the generation of new meaning. If the metaphoric correspondence between past and present is fluid and ambiguous, then the play of imagination is facilitated. This capacity to perceive open metaphors contributes to an individual's resilience to trauma whereas in transference repetition the metaphoric correspondence between past and present is foreclosed. As I shall shortly illustrate, the memory of these categorical experiences is triggered by specific elements that serve as metonymic associations, a part substituting for the whole. We are all familiar with the fact that if some actual aspect of the analyst's personality, affective state appearance and so forth may correspond to a specific element in the memory of the parent, that aspect will serve as a metonymic trigger, in which the part substitutes for the whole. The patient experiences an identical fit between the past and the present and ignores the differences. A metonymic hook of this sort is also evident in cases of trauma, where a current perceptual input will evoke a global activation of the original memory.

     As I have noted, memory is not only categorical but it is also retranscriptive. Gerald Edelman's neurobiological theory of memory is remarkably concordant with Freud's concept of Nachträglichkeit. I prefer to retain the German word, as Strachey misleadingly translated it as deferred action rather than retranscription (for a discussion of this issue see Modell, 1990).

     That memory is essentially retranscriptive was a stroke of insight that Freud expressed in a letter to Flies dated December 6, 1886 (Masson, 1985). Freud believed that psychopathology resulted when something interfered with the process of retranscription of memory. Freud believed that the stages of psychological development were analogous to foreign languages, and the failure of Nachträglichkeit was in essence the failure of a subsequent developmental experience in translating the language of the preceding epoch. Repression therefore could be understood to be a failure of retranscription--a failure of Nachträglichkeit. Had Freud linked his theory of Nachträglichkeit rather than the death instinct with the repetition compulsion, this would have been much more consonant with our current clinical experience. If one accepts the concept of Nachträglichkeit one also accept a cyclical view of time and memory. This concept stands in contrast to the linear conception of time that Freud described in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Recall Freud's belief that a fundamental quality of instinct is a tendency to return to an earlier state. Freud never completely gave up his idea of Nachträglichkeit, but it was lost within the thicket of instinct theory. Perhaps due to Strachey's faulty translation the concept of Nachträglichkeit is not sufficiently known to English-speaking psychoanalysts.

     In addition to Edelman, the neuroscientist Freeman (1995) has also presented some evidence that supports the concept of Nachträglichkeit. He observed in EEG and direct brain recording in rabbits that the pattern of memory in response to specific odors is continually upgraded with subsequent exposures to new stimuli. Rabbits, no less than human beings, construct their world through interaction with the environment. The important point for human psychology is that the retranscription of affective memories is facilitated by means of methaphor.

     Metaphor, as is true of memory, rests on the border between psychology and physiology. 3 It can be said that metaphor represents an emergent property of mind. Perhaps the clearest evidence that metaphor is the currency of mind is the fact that dreaming, a neurophysiological process, automatically generates visual metaphors.

     As Freud (1900) observed in The Interpretation of Dreams, the condensation of dream images is overdetermined and associatively linked through metaphor, which Freud referred to as the symbolic. Freud described this unconscious dream-work of condensation, displacement, and symbolization as the primary process, so that Freud's definition of the primary process would include metaphor.

     This automatic, neurophysiologic process of metaphor creation in dreaming did not escape the notice of Charles Darwin (1871), who observed in The Descent of Man that "the dream represents an involuntary art of poetry" (p. 453). This involuntary, physiologic aspect of dream formation is characterized by great a rapidity of thought that finds no parallel in waking life. Freud (1900) also took note of this attribute of dream formation when he cited in The Interpretation of Dreams, Vol. 1, a dream of Maury, an early dream researcher, who recounted that he was awakened because the top of his bed had fallen on his cervical vertebrae. In that instant between the blow to his neck and his awakening he had an elaborate dream depicting a scene from the French Revolution in which he was an aristocratic victim being guillotined. He felt his head being separated from his body and woke in great anxiety. Freud finds the wishful element in this evident castration dream in the subject's romantic heroic aspirations, but Freud also emphasized that the rapidity of the unconscious thought process could not be duplicated in waking life. In waking life a blow the neck might evoke the association to a guillotine, but it would take a neurophysiologic process to generate, in a matter of seconds, such a complex scene.

     We do not know the infant or young child develops a capacity to create metaphor, but it seems likely that the capacity to recognize metaphoric correspondences precedes the appearance of spoken language. 4 Edelman (1995), Johnson (1987), and Lakoff (1987) have suggested that motoric sensations arising from the body's interaction with the world determine how we categorize the world. In addition to the body's interaction with the external world, from infancy onward we also need to categorize experience arising from the internal world. It seems very likely that such categories are metaphorical. We believe that it is this inner perceptual world that gave rise to what can be described as root or generic metaphors. Such generic bodily metaphors display a kind of synesthesia in that experiences derived from one sensory modality are transferred to another. For example, the kinesthetic sense of bodily balance enters into both visual and auditory experiences. The metaphor of balance pervades both the visual and musical arts (Arnheim, 1974).

     The fact that affects are communicated through several different sensory modalities promotes what could be called "normal" synesthesia. The communication of affects was described in detail by Darwin (1872) in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals; Darwin noted that affects were communicated through multiple sensory channels. This characteristic of affect communication has been richly documented by recent infant research. Infant observers such as Stern have observed that one of the characteristics of the human infant is an urge to discover equivalent meaning across different sensory modalities (Stern, 1985). In the infant-mother dyad the perception and communication of affects occurs through many different sensory modalities including, vision, especially the face and eyes; hearing, such as the tone of voice; skin sensations; and kinesthetic sensations including posture. To give a mundane example, infants and young children are delighted when the narrative of a nursery rhyme is accompanied by mimetic gestures. It is reasonable to suppose that the statement of meaning across these different sensory modalities sets the stage for the appearance of metaphor, for the essence of metaphor is the transfer of meaning from one domain to another.

     The infant feels pleasure or discomfort in the interior of the body and communicates these feelings to the mother through auditory, visual, and motoric channels. The mother in turn responds to the infant's communication through her tone of voice, facial statement, and bodily musculature. Any one sensory modality may substitute for the other and express equivalent meaning. Stern (1985) points out that this capacity of the infant to find equivalent meaning across different sensory modalities helps to explain the process of mother-child affective attunement and intersubjectivity. This dialogue occurs before the infant acquires verbal language. The infant's capacity to find equivalent meanings within different sensory modalities suggests a profound connection between affect and metaphor. Although we cannot know the nature of the infant's first thoughts, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the capacity for symbolic representation in the form of protometaphors appears early in development. We should not underestimate the infant's preverbal capacity for symbolic thought.

     Inchoate feelings, that is, affects that are cognitively unspecified, require metaphors. We know that intense affects, both positive and negative, may be experienced as if they arise from a source outside of the self and hence are believed to be uncontrollable. Metaphor provides a schema through which such disorganizing affective experiences can be brought within the agency of the self. The intrinsic uncontrollability of affects has led to a generic or root metaphor of the body/self as a container of affects, as if a feeling were a concrete substance. The intensity of the affected experience is visualized as a pressure within the container. Intense feelings, whether rage or sexual desire, may be felt as a hot pressure within the body seeking escape: one is seething with rage, or has "the hots for someone." Feelings are metaphorically experienced as a substance under pressure seeking to escape as if the pressure of the affect would threaten the container itself with disruption and disintegration. Our language is replete with metaphors that are derived from this generic schema (Lakoff, 1987; Turner, 1991). For example, one is bursting with desire; if angry, one may be about to blow one's top.

     The fact that intense feelings both erotic and aggressive are intrinsically out of our control leads to a metaphoric association between out-of-the-control affects and idea of going crazy, as if the container itself will fractured. A patient who believes that to love is dangerous felt as if her love were like a dammed up reservoir-if the floodgates were opened she would lose control, she herself would disintegrate, and her very self would be swept away. Some patients fear the uncontrolled, intense delight of orgasm because the uncontrolled feelings are a threat to the container. The metaphor of affects as a pressurized substance within a body container extends also to uncontrolled laughter, hence the statement "cracking up:' In this connection one also thinks of Bion's (1970) metaphor of the container and the contained. In Bion's metaphor, however, it is the mother's body/self that is the container necessary for the "digestion" of toxic affects such as anxiety.

     Somatic metaphors may also be at the center of certain primitive fantasies Some years ago (Modell, 1965) I observed such a primitive or elemental fantasy, which for may people is a source of unconscious guilt. The elemental experience is this: when something "good" is taken into the body/self, it is "all gone" and not available to other members of the family. The transformative and generative power of metaphor is such that it can expand this primitive experience into an organizing schema with innumerable variations. For example, the good thing that is taken in may be equated with mother's milk, being loved, or possessing some "good" such as intrinsic talent. All of these variations constitute an elaboration of the bodily metaphor that what is "good" is ingested or in some fashion incorporated into the body/self and is therefore not available to others. Individuals who possesses what is good consequently feel guilty because they have taken it away from others in the family. The "good," as is true for "contained" affects, is experienced as if it is a concrete substance analogous to food. Having something "good" within one's self may lead to a kind of survivor guilt in those families in which there is a marked disparity between the good fortune of our subject one person and the fate of other family members. This guilt may lead to the person's belief that he or she does not have a right to a life.

     Possessing something good may also lead to the thought that taking away what is "good" damages the others. If others, such as siblings, are in fact damaged by misfortune or illness, then our subject's guilt will be that much increased. Some people have the fantasy that to become separate and autonomous will damage the mother. Again, this can be understood as a variation on the basic schema that in order to become a separate person one must take in something good from the mother and in that process the mother is depleted. A patient, for example, was convinced that her mother's psychosomatic illness was the direct result of her separating from her; had she remained at home she was convinced that her mother would not be ill.

     It can be seen then that such metaphors cast a very wide net with innumerable variations on this common theme. If one believes that the good that one has acquired comes at the expense of other family members, one may feel irrationally responsible for the misfortune of others. For example, a patient who grew up in a family in which there were both a death of a sibling and a father's deteriorating illness felt that she could not have anything for herself. This guilt extended beyond members of her family so that it interfered with her relationships with men. For if she became aware of pain and suffering in the man that she was with, she then could not make any claims or demands for herself. Rather than give up her selfhood, she avoided such relationships. Although the importance of metaphor for psychoanalysis was not overlooked,

     the subject of metaphor has largely been overshadowed under the very broad topic of symbolism, which includes all of language and mythology. But if we narrow the focus to the concept of symbolism as used in psychoanalysis, we will see that it denotes a specialized function of metaphor. Freud understood the symbolic process to be a carrier of hidden meaning whereby something objectionable is replaced by something less objectionable. That is to say, symbolism enabled objectionable ideas to remain unconscious. The metaphoric correspondence between the symbol and what it represents remains unconscious and yet there is a preconscious reverberation that enables the symbol to be the carrier of hidden meaning. Psychoanalytic discussion of dream symbolism in the early part of the 20th century suggested that the meaning of a dream symbol was relatively fixed or foreclosed. For example, Ernest Jones (1916), in his influential paper on symbolism, illustrated the fixity of a dream metaphor by pointing out that in dreams of church steeple may symbolize the penis never symbolizes a church steeple. Jones used this example to conclude that only that is repressed needed to be symbolized.

     In view of our current knowledge of metaphor, Jones's conception of symbolism appears to be constricted. What Jones refers to as a symbol I would call a foreclosed metaphor. We have long been familiar with a pathologic significance of the literal or concrete use of symbols. This has been recognized as part of the thinking disorder that characterizes schizophrenia. For example, Segal (1975) in her well-known paper "Notes on Symbol Formation" described a schizophrenic patient who stopped playing the violin. When his doctor inquired why he had done so, he replied: "Why? Do you expect me to masturbate in public?" If we further analyze this man's response, it is evident that he felt a metaphoric correspondence between the act of masturbation, producing pleasure from one's body, and producing pleasure from one's violin.

     One must make the further assumption that his instrument, in common with most musicians, was an extension of his body. This is an example of a foreclosed metaphor, as there is a transfer of meaning between two different domains, but only the similarities and not the differences between the two domains are recognized. It is important to note, however, that the use of the foreclosed metaphor is not limited only to such serious conditions, as it is quite widespread in the not so severely ill. For example, a female patient in psychoanalysis may be inhibited from exposing her thoughts to a male analyst if she equates such exposure with an exposure of the body. Such a patient may feel that exposing her thoughts is metaphorically equivalent to lifting her skirt. In keeping with Sharpe's (1940) observation, there are innumerable metaphors that arise from bodily experiences at all levels of development. Unspoken words, invested with feeling, can be concertized as bodily contents, so that a sudden outpouring of speech can be equated with an ejaculation; indeed, until the 20th century that is what the word ejaculation meant, much to the amusement of contemporary readers of Victorian novels.

     The function of the frozen or foreclosed metaphor is especially evident in cases of trauma. From the standpoint of adaptation, the memory system needs to be hypervigilant and actively scan the environment for a metaphoric similarity in which differences are ignored; and the individual cannot afford the luxury of ambiguity. Foreclosed metaphors provide a fixed correspondence. Although the unambiguity of the foreclosed metaphor confers a cognitive advantage, there is also a price to be paid. As I noted earlier, we can be tyrannized by metonymy as foreclosed metaphors have metonymic hooks that will globally reactivate the original traumatic memory. The individual does not appreciate that the correspondence between past and present is only metaphoric. I (Modell, 1990) illustrated this process in Other Times, Other Realities in the case of a patient who reported the following incident: Due to the fact that his airline went out on strike, my patient was stranded in a distant city, unable to return home. He did everything possible to obtain passage on another airline: he cajoled and pleaded with the functionaries of other airlines, all to no avail. Although my patient was usually not unduly anxious and was in fact a highly experienced traveler who in the past remained calm under circumstances that would frighten many people, in this particular situation he experienced an overwhelming and generalized panic. He felt as if the unyielding airline representatives were like Nazis and that the underground passages of the airline terminal resembled a concentration camp. The helplessness of not being able to return home, combined with the intransigence of the institutional authorities, evoked the following affective categorical memory. When this man was three years old he and his parents were residents of a central European country and, as Jews, were desperately attempting to escape from the Nazis. They did in fact manage to obtain an airline passage to freedom, but until that point the outcome was very much in doubt. In this example, the patient's helpless inability to leave a foreign city, combined with the intransigence of the authorities, evoked a specific affect category. It would appear that the affective gestalt consisting of his helpless inability to leave plus the intransigence of the authorities was a metaphoric equivalent of the earlier trauma that wedded the present to the past. This metaphorical correspondence triggered a global response in which the differences between the domains of past and present were obliterated.

     Another patient reported that when he was about two or three years old his mother had a spontaneous miscarriage. He was able to reconstruct that in all probability his mother became "hysterical" and was emotionally distraught for an undetermined period of time. As a witness to these events he felt as if his mother had "gone crazy:" As an adult he was very tolerant of "craziness" in women if he was not attached to them, but any sign of irrational thinking on the part of a woman to whom he was dependent, such as his wife, made him extremely anxious. This unconscious affect category was that of irrationality in women upon whom he was dependent; this affect could be activated and made conscious through a metonymic association in current time.

     Recently, psychoanalysts have been surprised to learn that their so-called enactments may prove to be therapeutically beneficial. Such enactments may provide metonymic hooks that facilitate the recontextualization of old affect categories. 5 The analyst's enactments can be thought of as kind of "priming" function that sets the stage for the discernment of similarity and difference. Following is an example from the psychoanalysis of a young woman. My patient was an unmarried woman who, as a child, repeatedly experienced a certain interaction with her father, who was an officer in the American army in the front lines in World War B. He was frequently exposed to enemy fire and narrowly escaped death in the fighting in Europe. He worked for the government after the war, and his public behavior appeared to be unaffected by his war experiences. In his private life, however, within his family, he was severely affected; he would have terrible rage reactions for no obvious reason. My patient believed that when she was a child she felt loved by her father, but then when he became enraged for no apparent reason, she felt that he treated her with total contempt as if she had suddenly become a nonperson. But what troubled her most was the recognition that there was something wrong with his mind, for at these times it was as if her father had suddenly and unaccountably gone crazy.

     The particular memory of this traumatic interaction with her father led to an unconscious affect category that was evoked in the transference in the following way. My patient, who is a psychiatrist, was considering applying to a psychoanalytic institute where I was on the faculty. She asked my advice about this. As she was at that particular time in her psychoanalysis significantly depressed, I suggested that it might be wise to postpone her application. She reacted as if I suddenly treated her with contempt, as if I was saying that she was unfit to become an analyst.

     The following day I was scheduled to give a lecture in another city. It is my usual practice to inform my patients about two weeks ahead of time when I will be away from my practice and then to remind them again the day before I leave. I suspect that my unconscious anger that my good intentions regarding her application to the institute were felt to be an attack led me to forget to remind her that I would be away the following day. My patient then appeared at my office while I was away. When I returned she insisted that I never gave her any indication that I would be away. I in turn told her that I believed I had informed her two weeks before my departure but that I forget to remind her the day before I left. I apologized for this omission. She reacted to my failure to remind her as if I was becoming demented. Gradually, over the next few weeks, she realized that I did not react like her father. I did not lose my temper but instead tried to analyze what was happening between us. This play of the similarity and difference between the memory of her father and her experience in real time slowly led to a recontextualization of affects. The metaphoric correspondence between the schematic memory of her interaction with her father and her perception of her interaction with me in current time facilitated this process, which resulted in a significant cognitive change. The memory itself was not altered, unlike its affective significance. I had occasion to consult with this patient several years after these events and learned that, if I prompted her, she could recall what took place with her father but the events had lost their emotional significance. The affective memory of the father's irrational behavior was not denied or repressed, but it receded into the background as the affective charge of the memory lost its valence or potency.

     I don't wish to enter into the very complex subject of the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic therapy other than to point out that one facet of the therapeutic cure is the authenticity of the affective experience within the analytic relationship. We know that there is a biphasic aspect in transference repetition whereby there is initially a perception of an identical correspondence between persons in the past and the analyst in the present. This is then followed by a gradual recognition of differences. We tend to facilitate this recognition of differences through our therapeutic interventions, which include the interpretation of the transference. For example, in addition to the content of the interpretation, the very act of interpreting the transference the therapist demonstrates that his or her emotional position differs from that of the patient's archaic object. This is an old observation, originally noted by Strachey (1934). If we succeed in enlarging the play of similarity and difference, a foreclosed metaphor becomes an open and generative metaphor. Central to this process is the recontextualization of affects. Transference in this sense is a metaphor that facilitates the recontextualization of affective memories. In a successful analysis we observe a gradual alteration of affective memories of the individual's salient childhood relationships. With regard to key family members indifference may be replaced by lover or by hatred, or hatred may be replaced by love, or love may be replaced by hatred, and so forth. In some cases where there has been major parental neglect with a subsequent denial of dependency, intense longings may be evoked such that the affective component of memories of these relationships of childhood undergoes continuous alteration.

     In health, affective memories are also continually updated through the finding of metaphoric equivalents in current perceptual inputs. As I noted earlier, unassimilated experiences direct our attention to metaphoric correspondences. When memories are not updated, there is a foreclosure in the sense of time so that current inputs are experienced as only a repetition of the past. One of the remarkable facts of transference is not only that the past is active in the present but that the present can modify the past. The synergistic action of memory, affects, and metaphor helps to explain this otherwise enigmatic phenomenon and allows us to view the repetition compulsion from a different perspective. Most psychoanalysts would agree that the repetition compulsion cannot be traced to an improbable death instinct, but few alternative explanations have been advanced. 6 The repetition compulsion can be understood as an aspect of affective memory whereby there is a compulsion to seek a perceptual identity between the past and the present. This correspondence between past and present, as seen in the earlier clinical vignettes, is metaphoric. It is through metaphor that we perceive the familiar in the unfamiliar. As metaphor depends on what has been experienced before, it contains an implicit historical dimension.

     This emphasis on metaphor's historical dimension goes against the grain of some movements in contemporary psychoanalysis described as relational psychoanalysis or constructivism (see also Chodorow, 1996). In these recent developments, the role of transference repetition has been minimized and deemphasized, and overall one can say that proponents of the relational and constructivist points of view, with its emphasis on the here and now, minimize the role of the past. I would judge that in some psychoanalytic quarters there is a "flight from history." 7

     The ahistorical trend is fashionable and far reaching and that it warrants a small detour in order to examine it in greater detail in the context of this chapter. I speak as someone who recognized many years ago (Modell, 1984) that psychoanalysis is a two-person psychology and consider myself a constructivist in that I believe it perfectly evident that the psychoanalytic encounter is in fact mutually constructed and is not only the statement of the patient's psychic reality. Transference is fundamentally paradoxical because it is both a repetition of the past and a new creation. What then is the role of the patient's history?

     Freud's historical thinking permeated his theory of neurosis. But Freud's historicism can be justly questioned, as it was based on now-discredited biologic theories such as Lamarckian inheritance, which led him to find an explanation of the origin of the Oedipus complex in the history of the race. Freud also believed in Haeckel's "law" that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. In his fashion racial memories entered into the development of the individual. But Freud also recognized the influence of chance environmental events and never wavered in his belief explanation of neurosis was to be found in the history of the individual. A classic example of the pathogenic effect of a historical event is that of Freud's tracing the Wolf Man's neurosis to his exposure to the primal scene at the age of one and a half.

     This traditional historicism of psychoanalysis has been challenged from several directions. One such challenge is epistemological-a doubt that the truth of an individual's past can ever be known. As Spence (1982) and Schafer (1983) claim, there is only narrative truth and not historical truth. This argument appears to be based on logic, but we should be suspicious of arguments based on logic alone, for at the beginning of this century, philosophers logically claimed that only what is conscious deserved to be described as mental. Spence and Schafer assert that inasmuch as history can only be known through the eyes of the observer, a reconstruction of a patient's past is not possible. An individual's history is therefore inevitably reduced to the observer's interpretation. What we do as analysts is not to discover or reconstruct the past but to construct it. If the past cannot be known objectively, the analyst can only offer his own construction of those events. Therefore, interpretations based on historical reconstruction are no more than a form of the analyst's suggestion. Interpretations are the analyst's narrative, and a "good" interpretation merely indicates a good "fit" between the analyst's and the patient's narrative. Schafer has stated that an "accurate" interpretation is an impossibility because the analyst is only offering the patient an alternative "story line" (i.e., he is merely substituting his narrative for that of the patient). If we believe that affective memories are categorical and that such potential or latent categories in case of trauma and transference repetition are activated by means of metaphoric correspondences in current time, the patient's history is not an arbitrary narrative constructed by the therapist. To some degree, reconstruction of the patient's past is not only possible but necessary. To believe that we are merely substituting our narrative for the patient's would be in some instances seriously unjust to our patients. But inasmuch as memory is recontextualized we cannot always claim that a given memory is historically accurate. There is a paradox to be faced: If recontextualization of painful memory is an aspect of health, the failure to recontextualize memory is more likely to carry a signature of the past. 8 Thus reconstruction may be more possible in the presence of pathology than in the presence of health. We can know with certainty that some affective memories do in fact represent historical events, as I illustrated in the case of my patient who went into a state of panic when his airline went on strike. The metaphoric correspondence between his traumatic memories from the age of three and current perceptions is not an arbitrary narrative. Human lives are not an open narrative whose story lines can be capriciously altered in one direction or another. The analogy between psychoanalysis and the narrative text has been overextended and ultimately cannot be supported, as it ignores the fundamental fact that the past cannot simply be reconstructed arbitrarily because the past is rooted in ineradicable affective experiences that, through metaphor, are brought into present time.


1. Paper presented to the Chicago Psychoanalytic Society on May 28, 1996. Some portions of this chapter appeared in "Metaphor and Mind;" the plenary presentation at the American Psychoanalytic Association meeting, December 14, 1995. (Return to main text)

2. Recent research on memory (Schacter, 1996) indicates that the brain generates several different memory systems. It may not be possible to maintain, as Edelman does, that all memory is categorical.-- But as a psychoanalyst I am virtually certain that affective memory is categorical.(Return to main text)

3. The relation between affects, metaphor and neurophysiology has also been recognized by Levin (1991). He also discusses the role of metaphor in transference interpretation. However, his approach is quite different from my own.(Return to main text)

4. Ricoeur (1970) noted that Freud's concept of the primary process and the dream image focused on a signifying power that is operative before language, implying that metaphor exists before language.(Return to main text)

5. I have suggested (Modell, 1995) as a response to Gedo's (1995) paper "Working Through" that working through also entails a recontextualization of affects.(Return to main text)

6. An exception to this statement is Gedo's (1995) discussion of "working through."(Return to main text)

7. The literary critic, Kermode (1985), in the essay "Freud and Interpretation," described some recent developments in the history of ideas that support the theory of interpretation proposed by Schafer and Spence. Kermode illustrated how certain assumptions concerning the historical past that were, during Freud's lifetime, bolstered by the sciences of geology and biology have been modified more recently by the science of linguistics. In linguistics it is more profitable to understand how things are, in all their complexity, than to understand how they got that way. There has been, as Kermode notes, in the interpretive disciplines a "flight from history."(Return to main text)

8. In his summary of recent research on memory Schacter (1996) notes that emotional memory is more likely to be accurate as compared to memory for ordinary events. (Return to main text)

Works Cited

Arnheim, R. (1974). Art and Visual Perception. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bion, W. (1970). Attention and Interpretation. New York: Basic Books.

Chodorow, N. (1996). Reflection on the authority of the past in psychoanalytic thinking. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 65:32-51.

Darwin C. (1871). The Descent of Man. New York: Modern Library.

-----. (1872). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Chicago: University' of Chicago Press, 1965.

Edelman, G. (1989). The Remembered Present, a Biological Theory of Consciousness. New York: Basic Books.

-----. (1992). Bright Air, Brilliant Fire. New York: Basic Books.

-----. (1995). "The wordless metaphor: Visual art and the brain." In: Catalogue, Whitney Museum, 1995 Biennial Exhibition. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Freeman, W. (1995). Societies of Brains. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Freud, S. (1900). The Interpretation of Dreams. Standard Edition, 4 & 5. London: Hogarth Press, 1953.

Gedo, J. (1995). Working through. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 43: 339-356.

Johnson, M. (1987). The Body in the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jones, E. (1916). The theory of symbolism. In: Papers on Psychoanalysis. London: Ballière Tindall & Cox, 1948.

Kermode, F. (1985). Freud and interpretation. International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 12:3-12.

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

-----. (1993). The contemporary theory of metaphor. In: Metaphor and Thought, ed. A. Ortony. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 202-251.

----- & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Levin, F. (1991). Mapping the Mind. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Masson, J., trans. & ed. (1985). The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Modell, A. (1965). On having the right to a life: An aspect of the superego's development. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 46: 323-331.

-----. (1984). Psychoanalysis in a New Context. New York: International Universities Press.

-----. (1990). Other Times, Other Realties. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

------. (1995), Commentary on John Gedo's "Working Through." Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 43: 365-368.

Ricoeur, P. (1970). Freud and Philosophy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Schacter, D. (1996). Searching for Memory. New York: Basic Books.'

Schafer, R. (1983). The Analytic Attitude. New York: Basic Books.

Segal, H. (1957). Notes on symbol formation. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 38: 391-397.

Sharpe, E. F. (1940). Psycho-physical problems revealed in language: An examination of metaphor. In: Collected Papers on Psychoanalysis. London: Hogarth Press, 1950, pp. 155-169.

Spence, D. (1982). Narrative Truth and Historical Truth. New York: Basic Books.

Stern, D. (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York: Basic Books.

Strachey, Journal (1934), The nature of the therapeutic action of psycho-analysis. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 50: 275-292.

Turner, M. (1991). Reading Minds. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Arnold H. Modell "Metaphor and Psychoanalysis: Reflections on Metaphor and Affects". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available December 5, 2023 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: August 10, 2001, Published: August 10, 2001. Copyright © 2001 Arnold H. Modell