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Ott - On Relating: Thoughts on Psychoanalysis, Speaking, Madness, and Hope

On Relating: Thoughts on Psychoanalysis, Speaking, Madness, and Hope

(In Response to Michael Lariviere’s “And Then There is Madness”)


by Maxa Ott, Pasadena, CA 2006



Most of what one said to others was nonsense anyway; it was simply a way of sharing breath.


Ted Mooney ~ Easy Travel to other Planets


We are not human because we speak, we speak because we are human. Speaking is, as it were, a way of being human. As such, speaking is always speaking to an other and the fact of my capacity to speak is a testament to my actual history of having been spoken to. I speak because the other spoke to me, and I continue speaking -- in all forms --  to the other (both the internal as well as the external other) because I expect, or hope for, a response. Thus, speaking is, as it were, a way of realizing hope in lived experience.

Speaking is also a modus and hence a sub-category of human relating. Relating[1], in its turn is a relating to and presupposes both a subject (an I) that relates and an object (an other – a you, and from there: the world) that the subject-I relates to. The mere existence of the subject-I is evidence of the past availability of an object-you. In a constitutive way, I am (or: is) because you have (or: has) been. In saying I  -- I of necessity imply you

Processes of relating are foundational for the existence of the individual as a living being. That is, the individual only ever exists in tension with the other. By the time the individual can survive on his or her own and does not need an actual other to tend to her or him, the actual other has been embodied in the individual. The living human creature implies the presence of the other -- at first external, then internal and from there determining how all subsequent external others will initially be perceived. This is so because it is in mind where perceptions are interpreted, and mind (with its essential attributes of consciousness, subjectivity and intentionality) is a higher-order feature of the brain[2]. The brain (the actual flesh) in turn has been created in relation to the other. This is not to deny the fact that the individual organism comes with its own pre-dispositions, of course. But here I am only concerned with the place relating has in and for the lives of human beings. 

We humans are essentially relating creatures, forged in the crucible of relating to the other and the world. In fact, our very brains are relating made flesh  – grown as they are by two thirds in the first five years of life in the actual relationships we have[3]. So that we are who we relate to  --  who has been and is relating to us -- fundamentally, of necessity, inescapably, profoundly. That is: it is the other’s who made flesh in me via their how impacting my how that is constitutive of my who: Rimbaud’s “I is another” read as “I am the other.” 

Speaking, then, is one of the most common ways in which we humans are human – speaking to an other and from there: speaking to myself (that is: to the internal other).

There are other ways besides speaking we have in which the basic feature of our being (that is: relating) is actualized: namely, through perceiving (of the world and of myself) through all our senses and always mediated through the body[4]. Perceiving is always perceiving of some thing and as such presupposes a world in the same way speaking is always speaking to some one and as such presupposes an other -- an other who is, in fact, a part of the world that can be perceived, but who, crucially, is also constitutive of how (and hence what) I can perceive by virtue of relating’s impact on my flesh. Flesh in its turn subtends mind where my perceptions are interpreted as personal meaning. Thus, how I perceive will determine what I perceive as what I perceive will determine how I perceive. Part of this what is how I am being responded to by the other, including -- and if so, crucially – through language.




In his essay “A Remark on Language and Psychoanalysis”[5] George Steiner addresses the central role of language for psychoanalysis.  

Before I proceed I want to point out that there is no such thing as language or the linguistic per se: there is speaking to and being spoken to. There is responding and being responded to. Our use of the nouns ‘speech’ and, even more abstractly, ‘language’, is misleading and cause for confusion regarding their ontological status: it gives the impression of these being things to be found in the world, rather than abstractions (with epistemic and heuristic functions) of processes constitutive of the (human) world. When we use the terms ‘language’ or ‘speech’, we need always be mindful of the fact that we are speaking of abstractions. 

That said, let me turn back to Steiner. He details his reservations regarding Freud’s theories on the grounds of the cultural and historical determination of Freud’s thought, method and data – and then moves to point out the seminal nature of Lacan’s further development of psychoanalytic theory, particularly in his understanding of the unconscious being relationally structured (p. 55). While Steiner does draw our attention to the metaphorical character of the terms ‘relation’ and ‘structure’,  he does not speak explicitly to the founding concreteness of the relational to which the metaphorical merely refers: namely, that relating is in fact the bedrock of human being in the world, that relating is the actual process of which the relational is the epistemic derivative. On this view, it is not only the unconscious that is relationally determined, but also the conscious (or, with Searle, consciousness), as is the human organism and the human world in toto.  

It is for this reason that I disagree with Steiner’s determination that psychoanalysis is fundamentally  “an applied linguistics” (p.55). While profitably being informed by linguistics (the study of language and what pertains to language) psychoanalysis cannot be collapsed into linguistics, applied or otherwise. If it is not fundamentally the study of language, neither is it fundamentally the study of the human mind nor even the study of human relating. What I want to venture is that psychoanalysis is not fundamentally the study of anything, but is fundamentally relating through speaking, or, put even more starkly: psychoanalysis is fundamentally relating. It is only secondarily about the analysis of the speaking and the spoken – and only in some approaches also explicitly about the hearing and being heard. It is on the primary level of the subtending perception of relating to an other via speaking that psychoanalysis fundamentally works. 

I once read somewhere (and I cannot remember where) the notion that what we say in the psychoanalytic hour, the vocabulary of which is based on the respective analyst’s theoretical orientation, is more about giving us something to do while we do whatever it is we really do. I forget what that author believed it is psychoanalysts really do. But this statement, while being a gross over-simplification, does get at the heart of what I am trying to convey. I do not mean to give the impression that I believe the linguistic in all its complexities is not important in psychoanalysis. On the contrary, it is of great importance. However, it is of secondary and not of primary importance and what I am concerned with here is its primary nature of being a sub-category of relating. 

Steiner, in the same essay, claims that public articulation (rather than keeping silent) generally depletes the inner world. He implicates psychoanalysis in this depletion through articulation (or externalization), and holds it responsible for the popularization of the public articulation of that which had until then been private and internal (p.58f). Thus, he seems to say that it would have been better had no venue been invented for addressing oneself to a receptive and responsive other as openly as possible. This argument appears to me a little like saying that having figured out how to bake bread is a bad thing because as a result such things as Twinkies and Wonderbread have also cropped up. 

In the one instance, Steiner seems to misunderstand what psychoanalysis is about. Again: psychoanalysis is not primarily about language and the linguistic. It is primarily about two human beings relating to each other in the preferred (but by no means only) mode of speaking to one another. It is about the fact that the psychoanalyst makes himself or herself available to the patient as the other for relating (with a conscious focus on the mode of speaking). It is about the fact that the analyst becomes the crucial other – to be related to and to be made flesh in the analysand and, relating being of necessity reciprocal, also in the analyst![6]  

In the other instance, what is depleting is not the externalization of the private in speech to the analyst – that is: the actual relating to an other. In fact it is just such relating that is – or potentially can be – enriching. What is depleting is the simulacrum of the actual, serious, committed, ongoing, privileged relating to a real other[7] in its bastardized and corrupted form as the public confessional, where all that is sayable is being said to all and sundry and, therefore, to none. What impoverishes is the pretense of relating, the substitute for relating in the public display of pouring one’s innermost thoughts and feelings into the open.  Relating can ever only be a relating of subject/I to object/you (who are in turn, your own subject/I relating to my object/ you). Relating thus takes place one-on-one, by one person to one other at a time. Pouring myself into a void of gaping spectators leaves me depleted. But pouring myself into the receptive mind of a responsive other finds me enriched  -- and capable of true solitude. Thought, access to feelings, true inner riches and plentitude (including creativity) in solitude  -- all of which Steiner fears are lost by making the private known – are, on the contrary, only possible if first I have been made welcome and received into an other’s mind[8].  

Thus, Steiner’s emphasis on the positive function of prayer and withdrawal into solitude hinges on addressing oneself to an internal other whose absence of observable response is understood as complete attentiveness and receptivity: God. Without God understood in this way the internal other who will hear me is not a given any longer. Without God – that is: without the personal enculturation into the idea of God as the receptive other – all I have are my actual experiences with the flawed (and sometimes – tragically -- barely perceptibly receptive and responsive) real other made flesh in me and hence determining my expectations of the essential “otherness” of all subsequent others. 

Steiner speaks of the fact that “the concept of psychoanalytic ‘cure’ remains uncertain” (p. 59) and that remains as true today as it was when he wrote his essay more than 30 years ago. Here I want to suggest that we abandon the use of the term cure in favor of the term care, since the idea of cure takes the symptom as something alien to the person manifesting it and hence as something to be gotten rid of, rather than something to be understood as a way of being, a way of relating designed to compensate for fundamentally flawed experiences in relating[9]. The reading of cure lends itself to an attempt of excising, an attempt which must of necessity fail and result in a cure which is in danger of leaving the patient dead in its wake, since none of us can be cured of being ourselves. The idea of care, on the other hand, encourages an attempt of turning to and making contact, that is: of approaching, embracing and welcoming that which has not been responded to (first by the other, and from there by the suffering self). The idea of care does not deny or attempt to eradicate our suffering – it does attempt to provide resources for bearing it and living with it. Our suffering is, in a crucial way, part of who we are. To attempt to cast it out is trying to cast out part of our living flesh. What the caring approach attempts, then, is to make possible a welcoming of our self into our self by way of being welcomed into an other, that is, by way of an experience of being responded to, of being known.[10] 

On that view, what the psychoanalyst attempts is to provide care by providing a home for the patient (all of him or her the analyst can perceive and bear to know) in the analyst’s mind.  The analyst, in fact, becomes that receptive and (even if, depending on theoretical approach, minimally) responsive other.[11] Psychoanalysts don’t cure people -- after all, of what: of being themselves? What psychoanalysts do is to provide occasion for hope[12] (sometimes)  -- hope based on the experience of being responded to in a way the patient can perceive. Perceiving oneself responded to is primary. Being actually understood (semantically) is secondary – although it does serve as a modus of perceiving oneself responded to, and thus as a reason for hope. Such is its life-sustaining power that hope for the appearance of an other – even if s/he never materializes – might see me through. Hope is a great feat of the imagination that provides a reason for living when no other reason might be found. Hope is not rational. Hope is, in a way, the human mind’s survival-feature in extremis. This is why the absence of hope is so dangerous – because the opposite of hope is hopelessness. And hopelessness spells death for humans. 

It is in this sense Hoelderin’s “wenn die Stille einkehrt” (wenn silence returns) can be understood. Steiner states that “Hoelderlin says that genuine speech, as distinct from noise or tautology, can only exist ‘wenn die Stille kehrt’.” (sic!)  He speaks of  “‘the return’ (…) ‘the homecoming’ of the human word to its internal roots” (59f) – but he leaves out what that home is made of: it is made of the welcoming internal other via the actual other made flesh in me. These are the internal roots for the human word: being spoken to and hearing and speaking to -- speaking to and being heard and being spoken to. Only from here can stillness be stillness as quietude and not as desolation. 

And finally, Steiner is right in drawing our attention to the essential tension between speaking and stillness (p.60) – between what is said and what remains unsaid – between, as it were, language and silence. But he is mistaken when he assumes that this tension is primarily about the what that is being said (or that remains unsaid). It is, in fact, primarily about the that of saying, about the when and the to whom. Only if speaking to a receptive and responsive other is possible in principle  -- and it is so possible only when it has been possible in the past, the principle being a formalization of a history of relating, of a past residing in the present as a possibility for the future -- only then can I choose to remain silent in solitude (or make my home even in enforced silence as solitude that is not exile). It is in such a chosen silence that true fertility, fecundity and creativity lies[13] – fertility, fecundity and creativity that is free-roaming and wide-ranging. Silence born of the absence of the receiving other is silence in and as desolation and defense. Such silence cannot roam where freely chosen silence can[14]

Chosen silence – chosen stillness – is a way of relating to the internal receptive and responsive other and hence, the self. Defensively withdrawn silence is not stillness, but a strategy of coping[15] with the in principle absent receiving and responsive other. Here is one way in which we could – if we felt so inclined -- define a goal for psychoanalysis: the development of the patient’s capacity to choose silence.[16]


And then, as Michael Lariviere[17] puts it, there is madness. Lariviere equates madness with “unreadability”, the unreadability of a person’s story. “The question of madness” he says, “is, among others, the question of the unreadability of all stories (…) something takes place within the solitude of those who make madness manifest, that concerns us all.” (p.5). I want to venture that what takes place in that solitude of the mad is precisely what I have sketched out above and what Lariviere seems to reference when he speaks of the “unreadability” of all stories[18]: namely, the compromised experience of being heard and the flawed perception of the other’s reception and/or response to the mad’s attempt of relating (also, but not exclusively, via speaking)[19]. In its extreme it is the lack of these, a lack so fundamental and overwhelming that it cancels out hope and therefore cannot be born. The solitude of the mad is precisely the dead white space of desolation and withdrawal yawning in all directions which is either utterly deserted or populated with demons intent to tear the mad limb from limb. It is not the fecund space of sheer possibility marking the chosen solitude of the merely creative[20] who are “merely creative” by virtue of the ability to perceive the responsive other -- or, perhaps more accurately, by chancing into the ability to perceive such an other, considering that being born into one’s early environment with a body intact (or not) is pure luck – good or bad.  

The mad, then, are those of us whose ability to perceive the other’s response is compromised to a degree that interferes more or less severely with their living.[21] 

Some of them in extremis despair of ever making contact and cannot bear its continued absence. If I am consistently not heard, that is, if I consistently do not perceive being responded to -- and it does not matter whether in fact I am or am not responded to, what matters is my perception of it – if the balance tips to the side where the attempt to try to make contact becomes futile or impossible, hope ceases. And here is where despair itself is revealed to be mad: when it results in giving up trying. This is the inability to bear the absence of being heard: the ending of hope.[22] Here, too, belongs the suicide of even those who do not seem mad: they have revealed themselves as mad by the very act of ending their lives.[23]  Such death by one’s own hand[24] always marks a surplus of pain, something that we can think of as the opposite to Lacan’s jouissance, as it were. What is it that tips the scale of such pain from something that can be born to something that is too much? It is the absence of the other – it is pain that cannot be born alone. It is here, in the absence of sufficient perceptions of a receptive and responsive other (external or internal) that the absence of God as that other makes a crucial difference. The frequency of intense religious preoccupation of the psychotic is surely no accident, nor, it seems to me, is the formalization of the idea of the other  -- not only the receiving and responsive other, but the other’s desire for my being -- in the prohibition of suicide as “sin” in Christian religion. 

Sharon Bassett, in response to whose text “I Cannot be Alone, Alone”[25] Lariviere wrote his own, tells the moving story of one man’s development  from the isolation of withdrawal and defense into the creative silence of chosen stillness within and through his experiences of relating with Bassett herself, who is the receptive and responsive other who is straining to understand and meet him. “(…) we come alive because we desire to be known.” (p.7) she writes, continuing with the observation that desire is not contingent on being fulfilled. Indeed, I would venture that it is contingent on being left unfulfilled. However, in the consistent absence of my experience of an other attempting to meet my desire to be known (to be heard, to be read, to be respond to) the very fact of that desire being inextinguishable (ibid.) becomes a liability. This is the point at which desiring to be known (and hence: being alive) can become too much to bear: when I cease to hope that I will ever meet an other who will at least attempt to know me[26].  

Lariviere says (referring to Feldman and Foucault) that “madness is the absence of language, the absence of work/opus/oevre, it is the silence of a stifled, repressed language.” (p.7). Based on what I have been saying, I suggest that madness is the absent/stifled/failed dialogue, that madness threatens when speaking to some one consistently fails on the level of being heard by some one. I will cease to speak not because what I say is unreadable and not because there is nothing more to say – “thought, conception, representation and expression become impossible” says Lariviere (p. 9) –  but because I do not have the experience (even if based on an erroneous interpretation of my perceptions) of being heard (even if wrongly). If thought, conception, representation and expression do become impossible, they become impossible as ways of relating to an other – internal or external. If I have nothing left to say, I have nothing left to say that I believe can or will be received and responded to – because speaking is always a speaking to.  

And so, finally, it is hope on which human living rests. Perhaps, indeed, hope is a phenomenological property of the mind – dependent on good-enough relating made flesh and ensuring the continuation of relating. Hope deferred, as Joseph Heller[27] suggests, can indeed make the heart sick. Hope absent simply kills. 



Bernie, this is for you.

Without you, I would not be telling this tale.




[1] To relate in Webster’s New Unabridged Universal Dictionary is defined as: to have some connection (to); to have reference (to).


[2] John Searle, one of the foremost contemporary philosophers of mind, speaks simply and persuasively for this view. The mental, he says (and I paraphrase), while arising from the physical (the brain), is yet irreducible to the physical. The mental is the physical in that it is a higher-order feature of the physical – that is, mind is a higher-order feature of the brain with specific mental phenomenological properties (consciousness: and from here also what is unconscious,  subjectivity: and from here self and other, intentionality: and from here qualia, that is desires, beliefs, pains etc.). Material reductionism simply does not apply: the subjective experiences of the mental cannot be reduced to the lower order neurological processes of the physical – but these do, indeed, subtend it. Hence the importance of the staggering early human brain-growth within and occasioned by relating.  John Searle (1994: The Rediscovery of the Mind. MTI Press) is a good place to start to acquaint oneself with this view.


[3] For a concise, bare-bones overview see Daniel Siegel and Mary Black (2003) Parenting From the Inside Out. Putnam. For the dense, academic version of the same material (packed with data) see Daniel Siegel (2001): The Developing Mind. Guilford Press.


[4] Maurice Merleau-Ponty led the way here in introducing the living flesh into the equation of our being in the world and of our knowing of our being as well as of the world’s. Maurice Merleau-Ponty (2004, original 1948): The World of Perception. Routledge. This little volume is the popularization of Merleau-Ponty’s thinking by Merleau-Ponty himself in the form of brief radio-addresses, here transcribed into essays.


[5] In: George Steiner (1972): On Difficulty. Oxford University Press.


[6] This fact, that relating of necessity involves two, accounts for the power of prayer which Steiner also mentions. In the case of prayer, the locus of the other is internal.


[7] There is nothing as-if about the relating between clinician and patient. It is as “real” as any one-on-one relating is real. And probably, if we count intensity, more intense then most relating in a person’s life. Which is why we should choose our analysts most carefully. It is not primarily what they know or know how to do – it is who they are that will have the most profound impact.


[8] Winnicott (1958), in The Capacity to be Alone, said something like this when he said that it is necessary for the infant to be alone in the presence of the m/other. An intrusive m/other will block the development of the capacity to be alone (albeit in a different way) as much as a withholding m/other. Either way, the infant cannot simply be in the presence of the m/other but has to either hide or seek. It is the responsive other that is needed – responsive in a way I can feel myself responded to.


[9] It is Masud Kahn who formulates the idea of the rescue-value and nature of pathology as self-cure or self-saving techniques as early as 1964. Khan (1964) Intimacy, Complicity and Mutuality in Perversions, in: (1978): Alienation in Perversion as well as Towards an Epistemology of the Process of Cure, in: (1974): The Privacy of the Self , as well as Both International University Press.


[10] It follows that not all analytic theoretical approaches are equally suited to attend to the patient’s experience of being responded to in a way that s/he can perceive. This necessarily subjective experience of being heard by the other/analyst can never be a formal function of any prescriptive technique. I will not go further into this issue here, but it is an issue that we need to think about. The practice of psychoanalysis is not primarily an intellectual venture, but the taking another into one’s care.


[11] Becomes it. Relating qua relating can never be as-if. If it were, it would not be relating. Is-if relating is, therefore, a figure of speech, comparable to as-if breathing: relating or not relating, breathing or not breathing -- with the attendant consequences.


[12] Masud Khan, again in (1964) Intimacy, Complicity and Mutuality in Perversion,  touches on the imperative of maintaining hope.


[13] This chosen silence is not necessarily peaceful or devoid of turmoil. On the contrary: it is pregnant with possibility, including passion in all its vitality. It is the presence of the receptive and responsive (internal) other as opposed to the absence of such an other that I am getting at.


[14] I do not mean to say that such silence cannot also be fruitful. Merely that it tends to ritualistic repetitions because it is not a free resting and moving, but a retreat from and a defense against. Where chosen silence in solitude is essentially open – silence in withdrawal and defense is essentially closed.


[15] The other such strategy of coping with the absent other is the compulsive speaking into what is essentially a void. Here belongs the compulsive public ‘confessional’ addressed above, which must remain incomplete (and as such fail as a mere imitation) in the face of the absence of the responsive other, since true confession is always confession to an other who hears me.


[16] With Winnicott (1958) and Sharon Bassett (2006): to be able to chose to be alone, alone.


[17] Michael Lariviere (2006): “…and then there is Madness.”


[18] I want to emphasize the fact that a story is a story by virtue of it being told to and heard (or read) by some one.


[19] One of the reasons why this does, indeed, concern us all is because we all are – to a greater or lesser degree -- subject to flawed perceptions of being responded to.


[20] Here is the place of art. We all make ourselves known to the other more or less creatively (the less freely creative the more we succumb to ritual and hence restrict our free expression of ourselves in obsessions and compulsions). Art, then, is the preferred way of all artists (including the mad) to make themselves known to the other (internal and/or external.) People don’t produce art in order to be artists – they produce art in order to speak themselves in these various ways of expression (although some may do this by way of portraying themselves as artists – in which case they themselves are the work of art they produce.) Moreover, art (but not creativity) does not reside in the process of its production but in the reception/ response by at least one other. A creation becomes art by being read as art by the other. It is, ontologically, an aesthetic experience and not a thing in the world.


[21] Based on the foregoing discussion, there are at least two categories of reasons for the development of this compromised capacity to perceive the other’s response: those having to do with the fact that there is, indeed, no sufficiently responsive other to experience, and those having to do with flaws in the design of our bodies.


[22] But why does it cease for one and not for another? And why does it cease when it ceases?


[23] We can, in some cases, look at (and understand) the very act of suicide as an attempted communication (after all other attempts at eliciting a response were perceived to fail). Maybe there is, after all, still hope in the person who commits suicide? Maybe hope itself is a feature of the human mind/brain – and its ceasing represents a malfunction? Something irrevocably broken that is necessary for humans to live?


[24] The distinction between the two German terms for suicide: Selbstmord (murder of self) and Freitod (free(ly chosen) death) approaches what I mean: Selbstmord references this death by one’s own hand that marks the perceived absence of choice, and is therefore not free. Selbstmord can be understood as either a last attempt at communication, or as the concrete realization of an internal death in the absence of the other that has already taken place. Freitod, on the other hand, implies a choice, as e.g. Socarates freely chose his death (even as he was sentenced to it).


[25] Sharon Bassett (2006): I Cannot Be Alone, Alone. Unpublished doctoral thesis.


[26] Being perfectly known is impossible and unnecessary. Here, Winnicott’s idea of the good-enough tending-to pertains. It is the perception of the other’s straining to hear that matters most. Of course,  complete failure to be known is not good enough. But that, in the context of my perception of the other’s trying to know me, is already excluded: I am known at least in-so-far as the other’s striving tells me that s/he knows of my desire to be known – and is trying to know me, even if s/he fails otherwise.  Of course, if I find myself vis-à-vis an other who can know that of me, it is most likely that s/he will also be able to know and relate in other ways (even if excluding semantic content.)


[27] Joseph Heller (1966): Something Happened

Maxa Ott is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Pasadena, CA, where she is a also a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Newport Psychoanalytic Institute. She holds a Ph.D. from the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute (now New Center for Psychoanalysis) in Los  Angeles, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and holds an M.A. in both Linguistics and History from the Friedrich Alexander Universitaet Erlangen-Nuernberg in Germany. She is the author of “First Steps in the Clinical Practice of Psychotherapy.” This is Dr. Ott's original publication for her paper "On Relating: Thoughts on Psychoanalysis, Speaking, Madness, and Hope".


Dr. Ott may be contacted via email at: