The Listening Cure: Metaphorical Resonances and the Third Ear

The following article by Michael Vannoy Adams is a presentation delivered at the "Listening in the @ge of Google" conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, New York, October 18, 2008.

Although Freud calls psychoanalysis the "talking cure," it is actually, more accurately, the "listening cure." Freud says that whoever "has ears to hear" has the capacity to make "conscious the most hidden recesses of the mind" (1905 [1901]), SE 7: 77-8).

A few years ago I purchased a little book, Dreams and Their Meaning: A Little Journey in Psycho-Analysis, at the rare book room of the Strand bookstore on Broadway in New York City (Price 1922). The little book was published by the Roycrofters, the arts and crafts group founded by Elbert Hubbard, the American "William Morris," in East Aurora, New York, near Buffalo. In the little book I found a little card. Printed on the little card was one of the maxims for which Hubbard was well known. It read: "Talk less and listen more" - good advice for any psychoanalyst. I carried that little card as a reminder in my wallet for a number of years.

Harold F. Searles says that "silence between persons is not necessarily a gulf, a void, but may be a tangibly richer communion than any words could constitute" (1979: 26-7). True as this may be, psychoanalysis is not the "silent treatment." It entails talking and listening. Psychoanalysis is not, however, just about talking less and listening more. What is decisive is not the quantity of listening but the quality of listening. Psychoanalytic listening is a very special kind of listening. It is a kind of listening radically different from ordinary social listening.

Googling the word "listening" on the Internet generates a variety of results - for example, the Web site of the "International Listening Association," as well as Web sites on "active listening," "empathic listening," "emotionally intelligent listening," "attentive listening," "critical listening," and "reflective listening." What kind of listening is psychoanalytic listening?

Over a century ago, long before the "@ge of Google," psychoanalysts recognized that psychic reality is a virtual reality. As Theodor Reik famously says, psychoanalysts listen with the "third ear" (1949). Psychoanalysts have two physical ears, but they also have a third, non-physical ear. Just as there is a "mind's eye," there is a "mind's ear." It is a psychic ear. It is a virtual ear. It is a metaphorical ear. Psychoanalysts do not just heard sounds. They do not just hear words. They hear what the sounds and words mean unconsciously. Listening with the third ear is what enables psychoanalysts to hear the unconscious - and to interpret what it means.

Cartoon by Robert Quackenbush of panelists at the "Listening in the @age of Google" conference — from left to right: David Andelman, Michael Vannoy Adams, Douglas Maxwell, Shulamith Koenig, and Arnold Richards

I have previously argued in an article with the title "Metaphors in Psychoanalytic Theory and Therapy" (Adams 1997) that what the unconscious means is metaphorical. In psychoanalysis, as James Hillman provocatively says, "Nothing is literal; all is metaphor" (1975: 175). When Reik discusses the third ear, he never once mentions metaphor, but the unconscious employs metaphors that resonate. Psychoanalytic listening is metaphorical listening. Psychic reality is a virtual reality - a metaphorical reality. When psychoanalysts listen with the third ear, they do not listen literally, as in ordinary social listening. They listen metaphorically. Psychoanalytic listening is what Hillman calls "a process of deliteralizing" (1975: 136). Psychoanalysts deliteralize what they hear in order to hear the metaphorical resonances of the unconscious. Psychoanalytic listening is an example of what Paul Kugler calls "hearing through" the literal to the metaphorical (2002: 113).

To listen psychoanalytically - to hear the metaphorical resonances of the unconscious - requires discipline. Psychoanalytic listening entails a disciplined suspension of ordinary social listening. Ordinary social listening is easy. Psychoanalytic listening is difficult. Psychoanalysts may assume that they are "all ears," but they are "hard of hearing." They do not just "turn a deaf ear" to what patients say, but when psychoanalysts are not listening with the third ear, what patients say may "go in one ear and out the other." Psychoanalysts must remind themselves to listen with the third ear, and they must remain mindful, in order to maintain the discipline of listening metaphorically to the unconscious.

A patient of mine, a woman in her early forties, sat down and immediately began talking - and I began listening. She said that she had just been to her doctor for her annual physical. She had had a hearing test. She already knew that she had experienced some hearing loss, but she was dismayed to learn that she had lost even more hearing than she had realized. Losing her hearing, she said to me, made her anxious about "getting older - aging and dying."

The doctor had given her a diagnosis and what she called a "scientific explanation." He had said that she was suffering from otosclerosis - a degenerative disorder that affects the bones in the middle ear and that may eventually result in deafness. My patient remarked to me that her mother had also suffered from otosclerosis. The disorder, she said, was probably hereditary.

Coincidentally - or Jung might say, "synchronistically" - the previous week I had also had my annual physical. I had also had a hearing test. Afterward, the nurse who had administered the test had joked to me: "You can still hear." I had replied: "I'm glad to hear that. I know, however, that I've lost some hearing in my left ear." The nurse had said: "Yes, you missed one tone. You got four out of five tones on the left, all five on the right."

My patient said to me that her doctor had discussed the options with her. One of the options was a hearing aid. My patient said to me that she was reluctant to wear a hearing aid out of vanity. A hearing aid, she said, wasn't feminine. I remarked that her hair style was long enough that if she were to wear a hearing aid it would be practically imperceptible. I then mentioned that I had just been to a psychoanalytic conference at which I had observed two of the most important participants, a man and a woman, wearing hearing aids quite conspicuously. I said to my patient that if she were to acquire more information about hearing aids - for example, about the technology of miniaturization - she might not be so self-conscious about wearing one.

Another option, my patient said, was surgery - a stapedectomy - an operation on the stirrup bone in the middle ear. She said that her mother had had a stapedectomy and that it had been a success. My patient then said to me that her doctor had informed her that the operation has a certain risk about which she was wary. He had said that there was a 95 per cent chance that the surgery would improve her hearing considerably but that there was a 4 per cent chance that her hearing would remain the same or be worse and a 1 per cent chance that she would lose her hearing completely and be deaf.

My patient then began to talk about other matters, including her husband, with whom she was currently in couples therapy. Eventually, she said to me: "He just doesn't hear me. He feels that what I say is an attack." I said: "It sounds as if he doesn't hear what you say because he's defensive."

I have recounted this anecdote as an example of how easy it is not to listen psychoanalytically. Up to this point in the session, I acknowledge, I had been listening to my patient socially. I had been listening with my two physical ears but not with my third, non-physical ear - my psychic ear. I had been listening to my patient literally, not metaphorically. I had been hearing about her difficulty in hearing as if it were only a physical condition, not also a psychic condition.

When, however, my patient said of her husband, "He just doesn't hear me," I suddenly realized that she was talking about him metaphorically - and that, all along in the session, she had also been talking about herself metaphorically. His difficulty in hearing what she said to him was not a physical condition - it was a psychic condition. It was a defense against what he experienced as an attack.

I finally heard the metaphorical resonances of the unconscious. I then related what my patient had said about her husband to what she had been saying about herself. I said to her that the implicit theme of the session was the difficulty - and the possibility - of listening psychoanalytically, receptively rather than defensively, metaphorically rather than literally, in order to hear the unconscious.

A letter that Jung wrote when he was 75 years old is an excellent example of psychoanalytic listening - and of hearing the metaphorical resonances of the unconscious. In the letter, he expresses regret that a colleague is "suffering very much from noises in the ear." Jung acknowledges that the noises have a physical cause, but he also says that they have a psychic purpose. According to Jung, the symptoms are an example of just how purposively opportunistic the unconscious frequently is. "The unconscious," he says, "often uses symptoms of this kind in order to make psychic contents audible." The psychic purpose of the symptoms, Jung says, "forces your attention inwards." He says that in addition to "the organic symptom there is a psychic layer." He says that he knows "from experience that the demand of the unconscious for introversion - in your case the ability to listen inwardly - is unusually great." Then Jung says: "My own otosclerosis has presented me with all manner of noises, so I am fairly well informed on this matter" (1975: 20).

Both Jung and my patient suffered from otosclerosis! If I were to apply to my patient what Jung says, I would say that her difficulty in hearing was not only physical but also psychic. The unconscious had used the organic symptom of otosclerosis in order to present her with an opportunity to introvert - to turn her attention inwards and to listen inwardly - that is, to listen psychoanalytically. Diagnostically, not only literally but also metaphorically she had lost more hearing than she had realized. Not only her physical hearing but also her psychic hearing had gotten worse, and it would get better only if she were not so vain about femininity or if she were not so wary of risk. Prognostically, psychoanalysis might provide her with a metaphorical "hearing aid" as a temporary solution to the problem, or it might provide her with a metaphorical "stapedectomy" as a permanent solution to the problem - but only if she were not so defensive.

One of the techniques that Jungian psychoanalysts employ is amplification, which is a comparative method. When they amplify material, they compare it to similar material from other sources - for example, from myths - in order to identify archetypal parallels. In this instance, a relevant source is the myth of the "Annunciation." One of my favorite psychoanalytic essays is an article by Ernest Jones. The title is "The Madonna's Conception through the Ear." The article is about how Gabriel announces to Mary that she will conceive not by man but by God. "And, behold," Gabriel says to Mary, "thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus" (Luke 1: 31).

The conception occurs not through the vagina but through the ear. The ear, Jones says, is "the receptive organ" (1951: 343). In what Edward C. Whitmont calls "orificial dynamics" (1969: 239), when the angel penetrates the virgin and Mary receives the word of God from Gabriel, the conception occurs orally and aurally. This is an example of what Walter J. Ong calls "an oral-aural culture" (1967: 23). The penetrative organ is not the penis but the mouth. The conception occurs not sexually but verbally. This is what Jung calls the "logos spermatikos" (1929, CW 13: par. 59) - the spermatic word.

Gabriel talks, and Mary listens - and hears the voice of God, the vox Dei, or what psychoanalysts call the voice of the unconscious. Just as the psychoanalyst mediates between the unconscious and the patient, so the angel mediates between God and the virgin. The conception is, metaphorically, a concept. It is the concept of the messiah. It is also the concept of the miraculous - that, difficult as everything may be, through God, or through the unconscious, nothing is impossible, anything is possible. The conception privileges spiritual reality over material reality - or, as psychoanalysts say, psychic reality over physical reality. The angel penetrates the virgin, and Mary receives the spermatic word. She hears the voice of God, or the unconscious, and she becomes, metaphorically, "pregnant with meaning."

Another technique that Jungian psychoanalysts employ is active imagination. One of the most important contemporary psychoanalytic journals is Psychoanalytic Dialogues. Psychoanalysis is, as Jung was historically the first psychoanalyst to say, a dialogue. In active imagination, this is a dialogue with figures that emerge from the unconscious - for example, in dreams or in fantasies. It is, Jung says, "a dialogue between yourself and the unconscious figures" (1973: 561). He says that if a figure that emerges from the unconscious is "a speaking figure at all then say what you have to say to that figure and listen to what he or she has to say" (1973: 460). As Mary Lynn Kittelson says, active imagination entails not only talking and listening to the unconscious figures but also "talking back" to the unconscious figures (1996: 82).

In this respect, psychoanalysis is neither a "talking cure" nor a "listening cure" but a "talking-and-listening-and-talking-back cure." This is how Jung describes active imagination with the unconscious figures:

It is exactly as if a dialogue were taking place between two human beings with equal rights, each of whom gives the other credit for a valid argument and considers it worth while to modify the conflicting standpoints by means of thorough comparison and discussion or else to distinguish them clearly from one another. ([1916]/1957), CW 8: par. 186)

Jung continues:

The present day shows with appalling clarity how little able people are to let the other man's argument count, although this capacity is a fundamental and indispensable condition for any human community. Everyone who proposes to come to terms with himself must reckon with this basic problem. For, to the degree that he does not admit the validity of the other person, he denies the "other" within himself the right to exist - and vice versa. The capacity for inner dialogue is a touchstone for outer objectivity. ([1916]/1957), CW 8: par. 186)

Psychoanalysis is, of course, a relation with another person, but it is also, ultimately, a dialogue with the unconscious, the "other" within. It is, as Jung emphasizes, an inner dialogue. Although I respect interpersonal and relational psychoanalysts, I, as a Jungian, am an intrapsychic psychoanalyst. There is an interpersonal or relational reality, but what I mean by psychic reality is intrapsychic reality. For me, to be psychoanalytic is to introvert - to turn inwards and to listen inwardly, not literally but metaphorically - in order to engage the unconscious in a dialogue that entails talking, listening, and talking back.

Psychoanalysis is not a monological dictation from the unconscious but a dialogical negotiation with the unconscious. The purpose of psychoanalysis is to resolve inner conflicts. Psychoanalytic dialogue is a variety of conflict resolution - diplomacy with no preconditions - in order to negotiate what Jung calls a "modus vivendi" (1963: 244), a practical compromise that facilitates outer objectivity and promotes human community.


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Freud, S. (1905 [1901]) "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria," SE 7: 1-122.

Hillman, J. (1975) Re-Visioning Psychology, New York: Harper & Row.

Jones, E. (1951) "The Madonna's Conception through the Ear," in Essays in Applied Psycho-Analysis, vol. 2, London: Hogarth Press: 266-357.

Jung, C.G. ([1916]/1957) "The Transcendent Function," CW 8: 67-91.

Jung, C.G. (1929) "Commentary on 'The Secret of the Golden Flower,'" CW 13: 1-55.

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