Non-Sensuous Similarities: Language, Poetics, and Psychiatry

One doctor introduces the work of philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin and elements of his conceptualization of “experience.”

Walter Benjamin, (1892-1940) is widely considered the most important German-language cultural theorist of the first half of the 20th century.1 In an intellectual career that spanned and combined Jewish mysticism and political Marxism, he maintained high productivity despite life-long depressive tendencies, but finally took his own life when his desperate flight from the Nazis was frustrated.2 Though virtually unknown to psychiatrists, the key importance in his thought of the concept of “experience”—whether immediate, remembered, degraded, or fulfilling, etc—makes him relevant.3,4

Here, by way of introduction, I refer to his short essay “On the Mimetic Faculty.”5 Written in 1933 and only published posthumously, it is elegantly constructed and compact. At 2-and-a-half pages long, it is suggestive rather than conclusive. Attentive to language’s figurative as well as lexical nature, a major concern of the author was its truthfulness whether in reading, speaking, script, or any other form.

Imitation, most obviously in the form of mimicry, is a natural phenomenon. It suggests a “reading” of surroundings resulting in correspondence between organism and environment. Writing before the discovery of DNA, Benjamin proposed that it was based on perceiving “non-sensuous similarities,” another key concept of his even if never defined operationally. Dancing (to the stars) was also an early form of reading, embodying meaning and conviction of truth. Confidence was justified, as it must have had evolutionary survival value. Therefore, though entirely nonverbal, dance has truth content. Over time, however, both organism and environment have changed, and dance and related communal practices (eg, cultic rituals) have weakened in persuasiveness and utility. If some early forms of reading have atrophied, others have emerged. Reading the firmament had survival value for a hunting and migrating species. Naturally acquired fascination with the sky then led to astrology and, later, astronomy and physics, contributing to previously unimaginable insights into and manipulation of nature.

Benjamin was excited by the promise of technology, but anxious that any decline in ability to perceive non-sensuous similarities impoverishes experience. Alluding for support to the theory that words have onomatopoeic origin—even all words, according to some—he speculated that language embodies non-sensuous similarities, too:

“If words meaning the same thing in different languages are arranged about that signified as their centre, we have to enquire how they all—while often possessing not the slightest similarity to one another—are similar to the signified at their center.”

A beloved analogy was that of forming the beautiful image of a mosaic through combining fragments, with each fragment appearing trivial by comparison to the whole, yet vital to completion. Benjamin was very interested in hieroglyphics understood as such fragments, and curious about then-contemporary scholarly theories that they were cyphers of some almost mystical code. Script is an “archive” of non-sensuous similarities—artwork, too.

If contemporary psychiatrists are prepared to engage with Benjamin’s evocative suggestions, poetic in part, all this emphasizes the rather discomforting poverty of the language of DSM—also, the limited “vocabularies” of phenomenology and brain imaging, even genetics, compared to the fullness of experience. Because similarity appears “like a flash,” we must attend carefully to words, behavior, and lab findings, but we miss something if we do not use our mimetic faculty to immerse ourselves more fully in our patients’ worlds to appreciate non-sensuous similarities: learn to “dance” together “to read what was never written.” As “play is to a great extent its school,” not the classroom, the mimetic faculty is also available to patients—sometimes more so—and, for better or worse, it colors their experience of what their psychiatrist is like, as well.

As humanities is more important than ever in our scientific era,6,7 we will explore issues relating to Benjamin, poetics, experience, truth, and psychiatry in forthcoming publications.8-10

Dr Ikkos is a medical doctor licensed to practice by the United Kingdom General Medical Council, with a Certificate of Completion of Specialist Training in General Adult Psychiatry (General Medical Council number 2729800). His contributions to psychiatry include being coauthor of the current European Psychiatric Association Guidance on Roles and Responsibilities of Psychiatrists. In 2014, he was elected Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. He reports no known conflicts of interest.

References

1. Eiland, H, Jennings, MW. Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life. Harvard University Press; 2016.

2. Ikkos G. An almost preventable suicide: Walter Benjamin (15 July 1892–26 September 1940)—psychiatry in literature. Br J Psychiatry. 2020;217(6):709-709.

3. Ross A. The child. In: Revolution and History in Walter Benjamin: A Conceptual Analysis. Routledge; 2020.

4. Ikkos G. Fulfilling experience: Walter Benjamin—psychiatry in philosophy. Br J Psychiatry. 2021;219(1):367-367.

5. Benjamin W. On the mimetic faculty. In: Jennings MW, Eiland H, Smith G. eds. Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 2: Part 2. Harvard University Press; 1990.

6. Datta F. Humanities more important than ever in the era of scientific psychiatry. Am J Psychiatry Resid J. 2016;11(3)2-2.

7. Ikkos G, Bouras N. Epilogue: mind, state, society and ‘our psychiatric future.’ In: Ikkos G, Bouras N. eds. Mind, State and Society: Social History of Psychiatry and Mental Health in Britain 1960-2010. Cambridge University Press; 2021.

8. Ikkos G, Stanghellini G. Walter Benjamin: brooding and melancholia. Br J Psychiatry. In press, 2022.

9. Ikkos G, Stanghellini G. Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867): spleen and the city. Submitted for publication, 2022.

10. Stanghellini G, Ikkos G. C Baudelaire (1821-1867), W Benjamin (1892-1940), and the social aesthetics of psychiatry and mental health. Chapter in preparation, 2023.