Commentary / criticism / discussion / J.-B. Pontalis / reading

Reading Life: Windows by J.-B. Pontalis


Windows by J.-B. Pontalis, translated by Ann Quinney. Bison Books, 2003; orig. pub. as Fenêtres, Editions Gallimard, 2000. University of Nebraska Press.


What we see as an everyday common object is one we take for granted. A window is often clear, reflective, sometimes blinded with sunlight or darkened at the end of the day, a point at which we can only see ourselves distorted and beveled. A window is about vision, what we see in both actuality and metaphor, or euphemistic cliché, such as “your eyes are the windows to your soul.” I don’t know if my therapist can see into my soul, but I don’t believe I can do so for myself in any reflective service. Sometimes when I am very sad I have the urge to look, witness my ridiculous self-deprecating behavior, lose sight of my self-worth with a consistent refrain. Perhaps I am getting too personal, but then again, reading Windows might commission you to do the same.

Windows is a brief, but intensely thought-provoking collection of momentary appellations  both personal and other. I say other because French philosopher and psychoanalyst J.-B. Pontalis (The Language of Psychoanalysis co-authored with Jean LaPlanche) delves into significant, but undefinable exigence. Patients are unnamed and moments themselves peculiarly understated, but full of puzzles and bewilderment. The other appears as not only anonymous analysands but also acts. In “The Man in Search of Meaning” Pontalis begins with this:

He could be one of those about whom you say he identifies with the analyst or takes pleasure in doing the work of an “analysand” well (there, the word is justified): free associate from a dream, pay particular attention to its details, try to interpret it, search the deep recesses of childhood for what would incite the intensity of an emotion in the present, string together the minute events without obvious relationship, wondering why this tenacious headache, why those hours of insomnia last night, and why this anxiety from having been a few minutes late for a meeting, and so on. The answers that this man gives don’t satisfy him, he must look further, he must continue. (54)

Who is “he”? Logically, the “he” is the analysand, but if he identifies with the analyst by participating in irresolute sublimation–the analysis of the self–then who is “he”? My concern is not in the application of identity, but grows out of my own discomfort with my own psychic apparatus. Why do I perceive everything as symbol to meaning? Why can I not read something without connecting it to self? In the introduction to Analyzing Freud: Letters of H.D., Bryher, and Their Circle edited by Susan Stanford Friedman, Friedman writes “Psychoanalysis may center on the individual, but behind every person lurks a whole family constellation. “The family romance,” Freud calls it… there is a story of entangled desires behind fragments of association in the scene of retellings” (xxxi). I wonder: do we control free associations? Do our desires dictate those associations for the purpose of retelling? As usual, I am left with more questions than answers but if I was not there would be no need for discussion. However, desire, I believe, is our strongest emotional ally and foe; it is desire (want, covet, wish) that drives the ego; it is the unconscious level that interferes with reaching desire. My own desire for love and sexual intimacy is often thwarted by those undermining defense mechanisms: I cannot be loved of physically desired because my body inexorably blocks another from doing so. I associate this defense with past trauma my brain cannot break free of. See? My own ego has downgraded this post from reading life to life… I can’t explain it.

I digress to the beginning. In the opening section, “The Window,” Pontalis writes

I could retrace the stages of my life like a succession of opening  windows. Excursions with friends outside our neighborhood, far from family, the learning of foreign languages, philosophy class, my first trips abroad, my loves (well, not all), my readings and rereadings, my analysis lying on the couch, my analyses sitting in the armchair…My subjective topography is at the same time that of open windows and a room of one’s own. (1-2)

Yes. These are the windows. The individual experience, emotional contact, what and why we think the way we do on the couch or in the armchair. And we ourselves cannot be fully explained.

Works Cited

Pontalis, J.-B. Windows. Lincoln, NE: U. Nebraska P., 2003. Print.

Friedman, Susan Standford. “Introduction.” Analyzing Freud: Letters of H.D., Bryher, and Their Circle. NY: New Directions, 2002. Print.





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