Language “Calming the Savage Beast”

As I work with very young children as a substitute teacher, I marvel at the early childhood memories that come flooding back. The haunt of anxieties, fears, insecurities, and neediness surface though they no longer terrorize me. I have matured and have developed an ego, an ego which itself is mature enough to allow these feelings to resurface without feeling its integrity is jeopardized. So, I learn from this classroom experience even as I am patiently helping these lovely children to learn.

Neurology has taught us that our experiences from birth onward…and even before birth…stay with us and shape our lives. For the roots of the ego are organic and so we get a head start even before we are born; and, I would deign to say, even before we were a “gleam in our daddy’s eye.”

But especially after we are born, we soak up what is going on around us and begin to formulate an impression of the world, one basic impression being whether or not the world is an hospitable place to be. “Do I like this place or do I want to check out?” Fortunately, most of us are wired to want to hang around even if our world happens to be very ugly and the same wiring helps us develop coping skills (i.e. a “denial system”) that can thwart what would be otherwise an unbearable subjective anguish. But sometime the “denial systems” are too maladaptive and lead one beyond the pale when he/she grows up and begins to take part in the human carnival. That is when therapy becomes relevant and sometimes even incarceration and even…perhaps…capital punishment.

One of the basic tools of denial is language itself. It is our ability to formulate words and enter into the verbal world that calms the savage beast that reigns prior to that Oedipal moment. Nikos Kazantzakis pithily referred to those “twenty-six toy soldiers that guard us from the rim of the abyss,” George Eliot said that we should “speak words which give shape to our anguish.” and Conrad Aiken noted that,”to name the abyss is to avoid it.” And now I have suddenly wandered knee-deep into the field of semiotics. If you find exploration of the nitty-gritty of subjective development, of that moment in our early life when language is being “wrapped around” the primitive beasts of our early subjective anguish, let me suggest Julia Kristeva who has written brilliantly and eloquently on this subject. Her books draw from her practice as a psychoanalyst with patients whose denial system, i.e. “linguistic filter,” has been compromised either neurologically or by trauma. The Kristeva title which delves most deeply into this is Power of Horrors.


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