The symbolization of the mother and the experience of becoming a subject in the work of Louis Wolfson, who enables the meeting of literature and clinic














I will talk about violence and pain that becoming a subject and the objectification experience involves, especially the first symbolization experience of the first object like the mother. The experience of symbolization and becoming a subject is a painful process and requires that the first objects are reliable and in a sense provide continuity. In the case of trauma experienced due to the absence or insufficiency of good enough first objects, these processes can cause serious pathologies that we all know about. Schizophrenia, being one of them, is one of the pathologies that most disrupts the experience of becoming a subject and the symbolization processes. In this piece, I will approach the experience of becoming a subject and the symbolization process that the schizophrenic American writer Louis Wolfson establishes with the help of his writing. I will also touch upon the contribution of writing, and in a general manner literature, on the psychic processes.













American author Louis Wolfson is not just any writer, that is, he has not identified his job as writing and sharing his work with the publishing world. He probably thinks of – I say probably because it is not himself who says this, I have inferred it – writing as a therapeutic tool, as a way of communicating and existing and he has accordingly published two books. In his first book The Schizophrenic and Languages, the author talks about his war against his native language English and his struggle that goes so far to creating a new language.  In this delirious process, the mother presents itself as an unsymbolized “weirdo”. Wolfson sends his handwritten notes of this book he has written in French to Gallimard publishing house in Paris in 1963. The book is published in Paris in 1970 and creates a lot of reactions, especially in psychoanalysis circles. Meanwhile, we should remind that the famous psychoanalyst J.B.Pontalis also has a chair in the Galimard publishing board. Seven years after the publishing of the book, Wolfson’s mother dies of cancer. Wolfson writes his second book based on a diary his mother has kept about her illness and the treatment process. In his book My Mother, the Musician, Died of a Malignant Disease at Midnight Connecting Tuesday to Wednesday, in the middle of May of 1977, in the Memorial Hospice in Manhattan. Wolfson transforms his mother’s mechanical notes to a historical narrative and from then on becomes present in this narrative alongside his mother. The mother has symbolized and has been able to claim a place, a record in Wolfson’s personal history. Now, I will analyze these two books with respect to the concepts of symbolization and becoming a subject in order to tell you about this transformation that Wolfson has made possible through writing.
















In his book The Schizophrenic and Languages, Wolfson talks about his psychotic experience as a “student who studies foreign languages” or “a demented student”, through a third person perspective, in an impersonal narrative. This narrative does not have a subject. In fact, Wolfson refers to his mother as “the mother of the schizophrenic”. As a reader we cannot get a hold of Wolfson’s feelings, emotions and thoughts since the author talks only about his actions using an operational narration. We can say this language is like a scientific document since it contains serious linguistic “inventions” and observations. At the same time, the book is akin to an autobiography, although in the third person, since we witness moment by moment the psychic workings and doings of a schizophrenic. We also cannot be indifferent to the power of humor in the absurdity of the inventions; in that sense it can be called a humorous novel.  There are also observations from linguistics that we can call philosophical or deep psychoanalytical.  In that sense, it can be called a psychological novel. The fact that the author writes in French which he speaks with his step-father who is of Canadian descent instead of his mother tongue English also creates a feeling of absurdity in the reader, especially in those who are native French speakers, since his use of language is sometimes foreign to French as well. As a result, this book can be classified neither in terms of genre or content.












Wolfson is a student in his 20s, living in New York with his mother and studying foreign languages. He has been diagnosed as a schizophrenic and has received psychiatric treatment, including electroshock. The book does not mention any psychotherapy or psychoanalytic treatment. Wolfson has been maintaining his life with a kind of handicap pension he receives from the government and has been living a completely dependent life on his mother and her second husband. Despite living with them under the same roof, he almost never leaves his room, living a life conditioned to constantly learning foreign languages. He goes outside only if need be and does not have any relationship outside of the house. He meets up with his father every month for an hour or two. It is only towards the end of the book that we witness Wolfson’s fairly humorous encounter with a prostitute. Aside from that, throughout the book we witness our protagonist studying with books, tapes and dictionaries and translating from English to other languages. We learn that Wolfson, who we will get to know better in his second book, has had a problematic childhood and that he was a hyperactive and maladjusted child. His mother divorced from his father when Wolfson was little, but no further information is provided in either of the two books about this break up.  Wolfson mentions his father as if he is an unimportant detail and tells that he meets him once a month and is bored during their time together. Wolfson, hinting at his father’s limited financial means, talks about how little the money he so laboriously takes from his father every month is. An important detail is that the father speaks French and that they speak to each other in French.

Wolfson hated English which is his mother tongue. He was covering his ears whenever he heard his mother speak in English or putting his radio to his ear, listening to music or radio programs in a foreign language. In the case that he mistakenly heard an English word, he would immediately translate that word into a similar sounding word with a close enough meaning in another language. For example, when his mother would say “Where are my glasses?” in a hurry and in a loud voice around the house, Wolfson would take the word “where” and would immediately translate it into “woher” (from where) which is the phonetically closest word in German and then relax. It is seriously a torture for him for the word “where” to get stuck in his mind. Or in another example, he would translate the English word “tree” to the French “terre” (earth, glebe) and the Russian “derevo”. The aim was both to skip from English to another language and also to find a word in that language that is phonetically similar (by keeping the consonants) and has a close meaning. That is, the translation should not only one of meaning but should also be similar phonetically. This of course, was very tiring, complex and at the same time frantic work. What’s more, it had to be very quick! That is why Wolfson had dedicated a very important part of his time to foreign languages and was constantly memorizing new words in different languages (French, German, Russian and Hebrew).

Wolfson’s goal was to kill his mother tongue and to create a new language in which he could think to himself and create meaning. His mother’s words were like an arrow, using his expression, “piercing his eardrums and making the little bones inside vibrate”. Wolfson describes his mother’s “injection” of her words to him as a serious assault and claims that the mother experiences “victory” over her schizophrenic son that is her “only wealth”. In order to withstand this assault and survive – this is a serious life and death war – Wolfson uses a “method”. This method is to parse and crumble every word in English, his mother tongue.  Parsed words become meaningless, and actually for Wolfson any English word that is pronounced is meaningless, dangerous and is like a poisonous arrow. The language has not symbolized, it is as if its meaning dimension has been excluded and eradicated. Wolfson first parses English words and then keeps the consonant letters of these parsed words. He then uses them to form words in a new language and in a sense revives them. It can be said that keeping the consonants of parsed words and then trying to revive them in a new language is what Wolfson does. Language for him is a new world, a new body of meaning, a new system and maybe a new home, or a container. As a matter of fact, Wolfson can only feel safe in this newly founded language and does not give up on his search for meaning, although this search is absurd and complex for those of us that internalize without questioning much the language we are born into. Wolfson is not born into a new language just like every mortal being is; he builds a new language that he places himself in. In this crazy project, naturally, parents, ancestors and the primal scene cease to exist. Wolfson’s project of parsing his mother tongue in order to create a new language is essentially a frantic project of recreating the world. I suggest we do not take this craze as only a delirium but see it as the effort of a subject trying to make himself happen, to write his history with his own means. We should not forget that Freud has interpreted delirium as an attempt to heal. Although the language Wolfson has created in order to survive as a subject and perhaps reborn is delirious, it carries hope for the subject. This hope stems from the transfer of the consonant letters broken off of the mother’s spoken words into a foreign language, French, that is the father’s mother tongue.  The existence of a foreign language is Wolfson’s salvation. The mother’s estranging, terrifying, dumbfounding and “foreign” voice will be silenced, but the consonant letters in this voice will become vocal in a foreign language, will be heard, internalized and finally embraced. The foreign language will serve an encapsulating function and will provide shelter for these consonant letters. At the same time, the elements in the mother that are perceived as foreign will only become tame thanks to the alpha function that ensures thought, the self-reflexive function[1]of that language, and will become familiar and ultimately be embraced by Wolfson  in a foreign language.

Thanks to this weird method that familiarizes the foreign, Wolfson will have the chance to be born again with the father’s language that softens and humanizes the mother’s voice. In the fantastic primal scene in which Wolfson brings together his mother’s and father’s languages and embraces the history, law and rules of linguistics, it would not be far-fetched to say that ultimately, Wolfson embraces his own history with its laws and rules. In other words, Wolfson eventually creates his mother and father by bringing them together using language in the context of the history, mechanics, rules and laws of linguistics in order to become the subject of his personal history. Although ultimately he has created a new language and therefore a new world on his own, his origins have survived despite being injured by schizoparanoid attacks.

But throughout this process, that is, in this mad process in which the subject fights to become existent, can one talk about the symbolization of the mother in this primal scene in which the mother-father coupling is reconstructed? I am talking about the mother being symbolized as a separate, whole object. What does this mean? What does symbolization or being symbolized mean? This is quite a vast topic and the work of psychoanalysts such as Freud, Klein, Ferenczi, Green, Roussillon and Piera Aulagnier include a comprehensive analysis of this concept. We can suggest that Freud in a sense speaks of symbolization when he talks about the baby’s hallucination of the breast once he faces its absence. But we can allege that the primary condition for our psyche to represent processes such as emotions, feelings and thought and to make them visible and tangible is symbolization. To think is to think upon something, that is, it has an object. We can assume that we kill a priori objects when we think, just like Hegel says, although in a different frame “words kill things”. In other words, we need to put a distance between objects and ourselves in order to be able to think. When we are engaged with objects, we cannot have a space to think about them, that is, a transitional space. Just like the baby has to face the lack of the breast in order to hallucinate about the breast, there needs to be a lack of the object for thought to form. Symbolization starts with the lack of object. In other words, mourning sits at the foundation of symbolization.

M.Klein’s article from 1930 is educational about this topic. According to Klein, in the first months in which infantile sadism reaches its peak, the baby and later on the child casts his emotions and feelings like deep anger, hatred and jealousy towards his first object onto objects around him like a ball of fire. If this outside object is say round, this round object becomes a breast and is treated as if it is a breast. The round object and the breast become equivalent. Some children, just like is the case with M. Klein’s Dick, become so nested in some objects that they do not play with those objects. This is because objects are evaluated to be equivalent to things they represent. For example, if a child who thinks that the ball he wants to kick is the breast itself and not a representation of it, then he cannot kick the ball since he is experiencing and feeling as if he is kicking the breast. What’s more, this child may not be able to speak later on due to this inhibition, that is, he cannot replace the object with some symbolical sounds or phonemes. We see this hardship in autistic or deep psychotic children. We learn that Wolfson too has had difficulty in speaking in his childhood and difficulty reading later on in school.[2]

Klein places the identification concept that he has taken over from Frenczi as the foreground in the symbolization process. The baby identifies the pieces in his body with objects in the outside world; the first sense-making process is done through his body. But Klein postulates another thing in addition to what Frenczi has said: the child, because he wants to destroy and harm these organs at the same time, later on starts fearing the objects that represent them and thinks that the same thing will happen to him through retaliation. This fear and anxiety bring him to identifying his organs with other objects. Because these objects will transform into feared objects when the time comes, the child will always set up new equations. This forms the basis of the child’s search for new objects and the symbolism itself. Another way to put it, according to Klein on the basis of changing objects lies anxiety rather than seeking pleasure. In a sense, when we go from a symbol to another – which is the process with all activities concerning sense-making, especially with scientific research – it is as if a continuous fear and anxiety is following us. One can argue that the basis of the deep anxiety during creative processes is the violence in the root of this sense-making, that is, in symbolization.

















Babies and later on children resort to tangible objects first in order to shape and interpret their inner happenings. It would probably not be wrong to say that the writing process is subject to the same processes. Words, the sounds they harbor and the written form of these sounds correspond to and suck in all of these psychic experiences; the person who writes establishes a relationship from within his psyche with these letters, words and sentences, just like the child’s first relationships with objects. Writing, in this sense, is not just using language as a tool. This is proved to us by inhibitions and emotions that some writers experience. For example, Freud tells Fliess that he has written The Interpretation of Dreams “as if he were completely in a dream”.

Now, going back to our protagonist Wolfson, and bearing in mind his deep schizoparanoid anxiety about his mother, can we talk about the symbolization of the mother? Of course not, since for the mother to symbolize, the mother has to be annihilated first in order for the mother to exist in the representational level. This is possible if it is accepted that the mother lives as a separate object and independent of the subject. This is the fundamental condition of being able to separate from the mother. Yet, Wolfson’s whole life is set on warding off the mother. In Wolfson’s phantasy, the mother is a monster that is to be wary of, like a challenging rival that is conditioned to win.  For Wolfson whose paranoid anxiety is centered upon the mother and her voice and language, an escape from this terrifying world is possible only through creating a new language and a new world in which he can make himself existent. Hence, as a result of this attempt which we can call a rebirth, his mother can transform into a less dangerous being and his anxiety is soothed to an extent, even though not completely.  As Freud asserts, delirium presents here as an attempt to heal in the new language that is built through translation. One can talk about the process of writing and preparing for print the second book in which the mother is symbolized and she has obtained a more realistic dimension following this attempt. This process is closely related to depressive position and contains findings regarding the symbolization of the author’s mourning and the mother eventually being internalized as a good object.

Firstly I should speak about the way this second book is presented. The front and back covers of this book are black; there is the unabridged name of the book in white letters: My Mother, the Musician, Died of a Malignant Disease at Midnight Connecting Tuesday to Wednesday, in the middle of May of 1977, in the Memorial Hospice in Manhattan. The book’s long title may have caught your attention. This title is an example of Wolfson’s desire to reflect reality word for word. The mother passes away at quarter past midnight. Wolfson is at his mother’s bedside; the nurse notifies him of the death and calls the doctor in charge. A few minutes later the doctor comes and prepares the death certificate. Wolfson does not pay any attention to this certificate at first. But a year later he somehow gets a hold of the certificate once again and reads on it that the doctor has last seen his mother alive at 00:15. Wolfson thinks this is nonsensical and of course gets angry, just like he does with everything that is outside of his own system of thought and his reasoning. He is angry because this sentence in the certificate does not fully reflect reality. It had taken the doctor a few minutes to come, but according to the certificate the doctor was on the patient’s side until her dying breath. To fix this “mistake” Wolfson appeals to official authorities. But of course he does not receive a reply! Wolfson makes a title out of this, in order for the mistake to be corrected and recorded. This desire to establish the truth also shows us a dimension of the relationship Wolfson has with writing. It is as if Wolfson is saying, whatever that can be talked about should also be written; writing should in a sense be a perfect reflection of the world. We can see here that the act of writing has been idealized and that it has been owned up as not only a therapeutic tool but also, as I assume is the case in all writers, an act of sublimation by Wolfson. We can claim that after the attempt to create a new world through translation, now with the experience of writing, experiences have been symbolized in written words and the style of writing.  And again, we can claim that a transitionnal space is now possible for Wolfson through writing. If translation has provided a new container, a new home, it can be said that writing is the potential space in which he can freely use and play with words and sentences.  In this potential space, we meet an interesting writer instead of a case that has been classified with a diagnosis of schizophrenia; just like Beckett and all writers in the new novel wave who resorts to many different uses of language.

I now turn back to the book after this short digression about the act of writing. In the book which is presented in the color of mourning, there are seven chapters and each chapter starts with a black page. Another feature of the book is that it has photographs of Wolfson’s mother, Rose Minarsky. The book is almost a historical document, witnessing the life and death of the mother. That is, in other words, Wolfson says that there was such a woman, she was born on some date, she lived a life as such and died as such. There is a representation of the mother, a presentation of her and therefore symbolization. At the same time, this historical witnessing contains an emotion, compassion. For example, at the end of the first chapter, there is an old, black and white photo of the mother in which she has posed holding her elementary school diploma in one hand and a bouquet of flowers in the other. Wolfson has made a note under this photograph, stressing that her mother has not continued her education after elementary school. At the end of the second chapter is a portrait of her teenage mother: “The most beautiful portrait of my mother” Wolfson has written under it. The expression “my mother” is noteworthy since at the beginning of the book he refers to her as Rose or just with the letter R. In the first book, he had referred to her as “the mother of the schizophrenic”. At the end of the third chapter is a photo of Wolfson with his mother; Wolfson should probably be around 2-3 years old. It is as if this photo from 1934 has some stillness and sadness. The way the mother and son have leaned on each other undoubtedly brings to mind the absence of the father, even though the birth father is alive. Another thing that stands out is that the mother and son have posed to the camera at the same level. Could their existence on the same plane reflect Wolfson’s feeling of being trapped in his mother’s world? At the end of the fourth chapter, we see Wolfson in college in a class photograph. He has a mischievous look on his face. At the end of the fifth chapter, there is a photo of Wolfson as a senior in the 1951-1952 educational year wearing a graduation cap. There is a note under the photograph indicating that he could not graduate from college. He is smiling in the photo but it is as if his eyes are sad. The photograph at the end of the sixth chapter belongs to 1984 and is thus from his 50s. There isn’t a photograph at the end of the seventh chapter, there is a black page. In any case, we can claim that the actual mourning starts only after that moment.

The point that stands out the most in this panorama of photographs is that in his work that is about his mother’s death, Wolfson presents himself from his childhood to his middle ages in addition to his mother’s life, that is, that he shows the continuity of generations as well as the differences. In this presentation that is worldlier and more realistic, Wolfson presents his existence in a plain manner. The mother is a beautiful and talented mother, far from being a monster. Wolfson introduces her as “my musician mother”. In this second book, we feel the mother in a different way. While in the first book her scary and even terrifying characteristics were presented in almost a fantastic dimension, in this book the mother is both a real and affectionate mother. She is both compassionate and careful about her son’s pathology. She respects his obsession about English and we see that she talks to him in Yiddish in the second book. Wolfson is also as diligent with her as he had never been. He says towards the end of the book, that is when the mother has gotten weaker and has a few days left: “My mother was talking to me in Yiddish as much as she could; her effort to succumb to my exorbitant ways despite her pitiful state moved me.” Moving from this expression of emotion that is so rare in the two books, we can say that the mourning process is at work and that the mother can now be perceived as a whole, unique and other object. The mother is also careful and respectful about all of her son’s needs; she shortly and distantly reminds him about his daily affairs from clothing to eating. Wolfson visits her more often when she is in her death bed at the hospital and when she catches him looking at his watch, she tells him compassionately that it is late and he should go home and come back the next day. Again at the hospital, she tells her husband Sam that she loves him very much and asks him implicitly to look after Louis after she dies.

The plot of the book is as follows: The mother has a notebook in which she notes down every task that her illness (ovarian cancer) requires, such as doctor’s appointments, test results, expenses made, taxi fares etc. For example, one might read: 21 June 1976, Flushing Hospital, Hematology service. Based on these notes, Wolfson starts writing 5 years after the mother’s death.  His writing follows his mother’s chronological notes and he analyzes cancer to its finest details. For example, Wolfson follows research about this topic from scientific journals, and even consults a famous oncologist from Germany. He attributes his mother’s cancer to her having spent too much time in front of the television and her diet, and thinks that it has psychological origins. He carries out research on these, goes to libraries and makes effort to prove his opinion right. Perhaps Wolfson is struggling to fix the mother’s reproductive organs that he thinks he has mutilated?

The book has two main themes. The first is the hospital notes and the other is Wolfson’s passion for horse races and bids. It is not just victory and gaining a narcissistic repair thanks to money that sits at the basis of this passion. There is also hope that the destructive phantasies become real. But one can think of this destructiveness as his anticipation that this world, in which he thinks many things are wrong, will come to an end and with this end that the gates of a new world will open up to him. In the beginning of the book, Wolfson says “One day if I win a big lottery, I may speak up from the front page of a monthly magazine and advise everyone to commit suicide.” According to Wolfson, this world is not worthy of living in and Wolfson’s hope is that a nuclear war which he anxiously anticipates every day watching the news erupts. Wolfson calls such a war a redemptive Apocalypse. Wolfson says, in another part of the book: “The Greek have said: The greatest happiness that a person can experience is to not be born at all. We have taken what was given us.” To not have been born, to stay in the mother’s womb, to live a life there and to communicate in a pre-language manner with the mother, that is, to correspond with the mother in a pre-English language. Bearing in mind Wolfson’s and in general schizophrenics’ clumsy and awkward ways in this world, such a hypothesis cannot be rejected. The end of this world is Wolfson’s hope for a new world. The idea of an ending, or death, is foreign to Wolfson as can be gathered from this.

















But the mother’s illness and death brings a new dimension to this apocalyptic world. What is mentioned here is not that the mother will really die or that she dies eventually, but that this death is objectivized through writing. Writing has at last carried the mother to a representational level and has realized her actual death during the writing process of these two books. Just like the correction of the time of death and registration to the reality dimension, these two books are historical documents witnessing the existence and later the death of the mother. But as a work of literature, as a narrative, writing is a way of resisting death. The mother will now be fixed in a work of literature and her existence will resist time. And maybe with this way, both mourning and coping with absence – which lies at the base of symbolization – will be possible. The object will now have a place both outside and inside, and with internalization the inner and outer spaces will be separated, and an inner world in which there is emotion, thought and meaning will emerge. What Wilson expresses at the end of his second book is not just anger but also compassion and understanding. And this is a sign that depressive position is no longer too far from Wolfson.

I have approached Louis Wolfson’s work from the perspective of it being a witness to the violence of the symbolization processes and a painful experience of becoming a subject. This work in which literature meets the clinic not only joins two different disciplines but also enables new meetings of language and theories of psychoanalysis. For example, Wolfson’s observations at the end of his first book about the emotional motivation of people involved with linguistics opens up new horizons for us spiritual health professionals. Wolfson stresses that these people do not treat their native languages as a very natural thing. According to the author, these people have “a repressed, unconscious desire to see their native languages as an exotic mixture full of idioms”. I think this is also true for psychoanalysts and joining psychoanalysis with linguistics is there right from the beginning in Freud’s work. Lacan, later on, has placed language and meaning at the basis of his practice with his preamble “the unconscious is organized like a language”. This work can be called Lacan and Klein meets post-Kleinists like Bion. Wolfson shows, thinks and makes us think about the theoretical dimension of the relationship our psychism has with language. But what makes him think of this is ultimately him getting to know about his emotions through writing and thus joining meaning and emotion. Ultimately Wolfson speaks of “desire” and points to the emotional dimension that language has.

Whereas meaning has been placed at the seat of honor in Lacanist psychoanalysis, the emotional dimension had been developed by Klein and the post-Kleinists. This work has been carried out by looking out for these two cornerstones of our psychism. I thank you for listening to me while saluting Louis Wolfson, who has enabled us to discover these archaic pieces of psychic life by communicating with us and generously exhibiting his intimacy and subjectivity.

[1] Linguists speak d a self-reflexive function of language. The human language does not need another language to talk about its functioning. This feature of the language has been analysed by Hjemslev and this analysis is still valid in our day.

[2] Pp. 33-35