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The Other Language

A few psychoanalytic thoughts about migration and the loss of culture and language

Nayla de COSTER

“Three days after I was born, as I lay in my silken cradle, gazing with astonished dismay on the new world round about me, my mother spoke to the wet-nurse saying, ‘How does my child?’
And the wet-nurse answered, ‘he does well Madame, I have fed him three times and never before have I seen a babe so young yet so gay.’
And I was indignant, and I cried, ‘It is not true mother, for my bed is hard, and the milk I have sucked is bitter to my mouth, and the odor of the breast is foul in my nostrils, and I am most miserable.’
But my mother did not understand, nor did the nurse, for the language I spoke was from that world from which I came,” (Gibran, The Other Language, 1918, p. 34-35).







One of the important aspects of migration whether intended for economic reasons or forced by war and persecution is that the migrant is leaving a familiar and integrated cultural space and is moving into a new one with what it entails of loss, mourning and re-adaptation. The migrant is being displaced suddenly and often violently. Years ago, I worked in an NGO in Istanbul that welcomed migrants from Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia, Somalia, Darfur and other Middle Eastern countries. Most were fleeing war or persecution because of their political opinions and sexual preferences. They would come to the migration center in Istanbul and wait for months and sometimes years to be registered and offered political asylum abroad. I am a psychoanalyst from an area of political turmoil, presently living and working in Turkey. The trauma of exile and the trauma associated to transgenerational migration is not unknown to me.

Migration is the story of the human condition. It’s engraved in the founding myths of civilization. Adam and Eve were exiled from paradise, Oedipus was exiled as an infant in order to prevent the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Oracle and then exiled again as a punishment for patricide and incest. There are different types of migrants: those who leave because of violence and those who leave for economic reasons.

The war migrant

The war migrant does not leave by choice but by force. It’s an expulsion that puts the migrant outside of himself, and alienates him. This is the kind of migrant that I am considering here in my paper.

When the migrant or refugee leaves his country of origin, he also leaves behind a world of tradition and a cultural space without preparation for a future life. Integration into a new reality and learning a new language can become very difficult because there is nothing seductive in that kind of migration unlike the migrant who leaves for a better life or for economic reasons. So, mourning the country and language of origin becomes almost impossible, complicated and pathological. We can actually speak of a psychopathology of migration.

We know from psychoanalytic theory and thinking that any loss retriggers older losses and some primary ones from the beginning of life, namely the loss of the first love object. This triggers separation anxieties as well as depressive, persecutory and confusional anxieties.
The migrant will find himself in a very regressive position, with a narcissistic wound because of a loss of identity, job, status, language and because of having to rely on others for food and survival. This will reenact unconsciously the traumas of the infant dependent on mother for food and shelter.
When the migrant leaves because of violence and war, he will often find himself in a paranoid schizoid position and will have to cope with finding tools to survive. Displacement often induces a traumatic split of the Ego. While working in the refugee center I often observed a breakup of the family structure: mother becomes depressed and father castrated so that the child often becomes the translator or the “containing parent,” thereby blurring and confusing the notion of the difference of generations.

For most war refugees Turkey is a transitional zone not the final destination. It’s the “in between”. I often heard migrants describing the feeling of hanging “in between” in a vacuum, “lost in translation”. This “in between” is a non-creative transitional space in which meaning is frozen.

Many patients at the NGO center sank into deep depression or psychosis with acute paranoia and psychosomatic illnesses, especially those who were tortured and raped. War traumas are very hard to represent and symbolize. Sometimes the migrant will replace his previous symbolizing capacity with somatic symbolization. The body will attempt to make sense of what the psyche is unable to.
In addition, most migrants had to deal with the guilt of leaving and abandoning others behind. The loss of their native country is similar to a very traumatic internal object loss and that often reactivated feelings of ‘unnamed terror’ as described by Bion (Bion, 1962). As they lost their physical but also their psychic container, most migrants would live with the fear of annihilation and disintegration.

One of the dangers of migration is the dissolution of identity and the loss of boundaries in an uncanny world. In L’Étranger by Albert Camus (1946), the migrant appears to be a non-human, a non-being, suffering from isolation and alienation.
What happens with the external objects happen also with the internal objects. The exposure to a foreign culture and the “other” is also an exposure to an internal “other.” The contact with a new culture is also a confrontation with the archaic and primitive fantasies on which each culture is constructed (Roheim, 1943).
In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Viola the migrant, shipwrecked on the coast of Ilyria asks “...What country, friends, is this?” (Shakespeare,1993 p. 30) And in turn, the potential host wonders who it is that is coming.

When the migrants are confronted with the other, the “stranger” they can also resort to defense mechanisms which could entail abandoning or denying their cultural identification in order to better integrate a new group which can result in a false self. When abandoning his language and culture of origin in order to learn the language of exile and integrate a new culture the migrant will often feel that he is abandoning his parental figures. This becomes for many exiled and displaced migrants a very traumatic experience.

Psychic work is based on the subject belonging to a cultural group. Freud (Freud, 1994 [1930]), p. 284) calls it, “die kulturarbeit,” the work of culture.
For J. Bleger (Bleger, 1979) culture which embraces mother tongue or language of origin contains and holds the psyche. It’s a sort of a containing frame. We can think of it being part of Didier Anzieu’s (1976) ego skin, Bion’s (1962) container and Esther Bick’s (1968) psychic skin. And a breach or scratch in the ego skin can bring about an anxiety of bodily fragmentation or dismantlement.
So together with losing his culture of origin, the migrant is in danger of losing his language of origin or mother tongue that both had a containing and protecting function.

In this presentation, I would like to reflect further on the loss of the language of origin or mother tongue and the problems of integrating a new language, the language of the country of exile. One’s own language, the mother tongue, never becomes so invested with libido as when one lives in a country with a different language .
One of the aspects that I found very interesting working with migrants in the refugee center was linked to my nationality and our common language and common history of exile. I found that most refugees wanted to work with me as I was the only one at the time who could speak Arabic. They often said that my voice reminded them of their mother and their homeland and that my voice was containing. Anzieu (Anzieu, 1976) writes about the melody bath which contains the voice of mother in the construction of self-image. The sonorous envelope, says Anzieu, is the most archaic one and is the first envelope that organizes the Ego before visual mirroring.

The baby or infant is linked to his parents through a system of communication that is totally audio-phonic, the bucco pharynx is from very early on under the control of the mental life of the embryo and will play an essential role in the expression of emotions. The body of the mother (the noises that come out of her body, her cough etc.) will become like a sonorous cave from which very anxiety provoking and strange and diffused noises with a confusing provenance that the baby is unable to localize come out.
Freud, (even though the notion of sonorous envelop is absent from his work) still mentions the acoustic origin of the Superego in The Ego and the Id (Freud, 1923, p. 52-52).

Didier Anzieu (1976) describes the Ego Skin as the interface and filter between the inside and the outside but writes that the sonorous envelop comes before the ego skin and is double faced: turned towards the internal and towards the external.
And this is because the sonorous envelop is composed by sounds that both come from the baby and from the environment. The combination of those sounds produces a common space in which is facilitated the exchange with the mother, but also the potential fusion (Anzieu, 1976). Fantasy of a shared skin but also of a shared voice. The infant will introject mother’s voice with his own. Two voices in one.
We know of methods used for the re-education of children that have learning and speaking difficulties. Those children are plunged in a sonorous bath. In France, this therapeutic method is called “semiophonie.”

As Anzieu (Anzieu, 1976, p. 175) relates: “… Before the gaze and the smile of the nursing mother sends back to the child an image of himself that he can perceive visually, and that he will internalize in order to reinforce his Self, the melody bath which is constituted by the voice of the mother, her songs, her humming, the music she plays, will constitute a first mirror, a sonorous mirror, to which the infant will respond with his cries, and his phonetic games etc. and to which mother will respond with her voice…”

Greek mythology has been able to represent this intrication of the visual mirror and the sonorous mirror in the constitution of Narcissism. In the legend of Narcissus, Narcissus drowns in his image while the nymph Echo tries to save him with her voice by warning him and calling him. This myth, says Anzieu, shows the importance of the sonorous mirror over the visual mirror and stresses the importance of the feminine character of the voice and its link to the demand of love (Anzieu, 1976).
Indeed, between mother and infant, voices mix and echo each other. We can speak of acoustic mirroring. Rosolato speaks of a sonorous matrix (Rosolato, 1974).

For Rosolato, the voice and its echo takes the role of a transitional sonorous envelope. The first sound heard or first voice becomes the first acoustic image. La “chora” says Kristeva (1984). For Anzieu (1976), this is the first mirror, the first ego skin. The first experience with the other, with alterity. Rosolato’s famous description of mother’s voice as a sonorous envelope surrounding the child identifies the voice as a place, a place to be, a space that is at once everywhere and nowhere.

The fantasmatic condition of existing within a place defined by mother’s voice can assume the form of a paradisiacal wholeness in which the child is blissfully united with mother. The first voice is the lost continent, the first wish for fusion and oceanic feeling.
The voice of the mother is the first encounter with sensorial pleasure and acts like a “lost object” that one must find again.
Later, the voice of the child will identify and copy the parental model and the regional and social environment. The voice is indeed linked to identity and roots with its accents, intonation and rhythms.

The loss of language

A quote from Julia Kristeva who was herself an immigrant: “Not to speak your own mother tongue, to live with sounds… that are separated from the nocturnal memory of the body, from the sweet-sour sleep of childhood, is to carry within yourself like a secret crypt, that language of once upon a time, that fades and won’t make up its mind to leave you ever” (Kristeva, 1984, p. 79).

In many cultures, the country of origin is called the land of milk and honey referring to mother’s breast and mother’s voice while nursing the baby is like milk to his ears. We know that each culture has his own lullabies.

Lacan considered the psyche to be organized like a language. Language is an envelope but also a structuring function of the psyche, says Lacan (Lacan and Alan, 2001). The structuring function of language and culture allows the individual to think, elaborate and process and with that it carries the paternal function also. In addition, language helps to build a transitional and conceptual space that will help the child to organize the world and his thoughts. With the loss of country and culture of origin, the migrant will also lose a transitional space and the capacity to play, create and be alone in the meaning that Winicott (1971) described.

So, besides its structuring and containing function, language of origin is infiltrated by primary fantasies, incestuous fantasies and fantasies of seduction and omnipotence.
It is the libidinal link to the mother and to lose it and learn another one can carry the unconscious fear to break that maternal link.
In addition, the language of origin carries with it the superego and the forbidding rules of the parental couple. It is what organizes social order and it is the first instrument of transmission, translation, processing and symbolizing. As mentioned before, the language of origin or mother tongue being part of the ‘Ego Skin’ in Anzieu’s (1985) meaning is also part of a psychic envelope which protects but also repels an overload of excitation and drives including the sexual drive. In addition, it also carries with it the attachment drive (Cupa, 2000) which allows a narcissistic foundation and will facilitate exchange with others. It carries the ‘Alpha Function’ properties in the meaning of Bion (1962). The Alpha Function according to Bion is a function of the maternal but also the paternal. It will help the infant digest and process all the raw and aggressive thoughts, affects and senses that overwhelmed him at birth.

For the migrant, acquiring the language of the country of exile could be to acquire a language without affects or with violent and aggressive ones as languages carry trans-generational traumas too.
Among my current patients who are foreign nationals living in Turkey, those who complained of not being able to learn and integrate the Turkish language came from countries once occupied by the Ottoman Empire.

In the case of chosen migration:
To quit one’s mother tongue is to be in exile but it could also be a sort of liberation from an oppressive maternal relationship.
For Francois Duparc (2009, p. 185), who wrote about voluntary exile, “… it is never without a reason that a subject moves away from his maternal tongue or away from the land of his ancestors…if it is not because of external reasons, it is often for internal ones…” .
Duparc (2009) posits that it is about running away from the matricidal anxiety, which means from the anxiety that is found in the maternal land/language relationship and what it carries as destructiveness especially if there are still traumas that haven’t been worked through. Often, because of the feeling of exclusion and shame the migrant or the second generation of migrants will renounce his mother tongue which will become the forbidden language and the language of shame. Because of this renunciation, there is a risk of becoming cut off from the language of affects and the new language of exile will mainly carry concrete thinking.

The work with migrants

Finally, how can we as psychoanalysts work with migrants analytically? What language do we use with them? How is the choice of language in the analytic process linked to the transference? How can we help the un-representable become representable? When the external trauma is so overwhelming, how can one keep the link with the internal? Can such traumas be symbolized and translated? Of course, we are all migrants in our internal worlds, we have all suffered loss of the love object, we have all been confronted with unnamed dread, fear of annihilation, separation anxiety and fear of disintegration. We have all faced the uncanny, the “other” and our “other” unwanted parts that we are unable to contain, and that we project on those who are different from us.
In my short experience of working with migrants I felt that I needed to be protected and contained by my own acquired language, my psychoanalytic language which has become part of my ego skin, in order to be able to better contain my own counter transference, my desperation and anger in front of the tragic destiny of a migrant.
Let’s not forget Freud’s words in the Uncanny: “we ourselves speak a language that is foreign” (Freud, 1919, p. 19).


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