Musings on Literature and Culture in general, and how they may relate to Psychotherapy in particular

Many moons ago I read the plays of Tomson Highway so when his name came to my attention again a few months ago, I purchased the book under review: A Tale of Monstrous Extravagance; Imagining Multilingualism (University of Alberta Press, 2015). Originally an oral presentation Highway gave in 2014 to the Canadian Literature Centre (CLC Special series Kreisel Lectures) it has been transcribed and published into a booklet format.

In it Tomson argues for the “truly liberat[ing], and joy giving, aspects of knowing other and others languages…” (forward, Vl).  He asserts that knowing one single language is like living in a house with one window. Let that sink in. It is humbling, or at least it is to me. Perhaps to know someone deeply, we must know their language. Language is culture, language is worldview, language is even physiology because different languages use the body in unique ways in musculature and breath. Even in this way alone then, we may wonder if language leaves its epigenetic trace.

Tomson also asserts that many European languages are binary into male or female divisions. Anyone who has had to memorise the gender of nouns in German or French, for example, can groan in this recollection. Aboriginal languages on the other hand he says, are binary into “that which is animate and that which is inanimate—things, that is, that have a soul and things that do not” (p.15).

I wonder if this might be considered within the therapeutic process.  As a psychotherapist, giving consideration to the language/s my clients speak and how that language may have had a role in forming their worldview is exciting.

My own experience with language attests to this. Having grown up in, and having spent much of my adult life in Quebec, means that there is a part of me that  identifies as an Anglo-Quebecoise. In my own therapy, if my psychotherapist asked me if I spoke any language besides English and I answered that yes, I speak French, and the therapist then explored that with me, they would be helping me to (re)discover, and to possibly deepen, my understanding of how this has shaped me.  We would find that my ability to speak French has its own story and trajectory filled with joys and sorrows. For me, speaking French is not just speaking French, but rather is an ever-evolving part of my social, cultural, and political identity.

Now I know that we cannot all become polyglots spending our days learning the languages that our clients or friends speak. But we can be curious about their experiences in their particular linguistic house.  Borrowing a metaphor from Narrative Therapy, I would want to thicken their story. I may do this by being curious, by being humble, by taking the time to become informed and to be taught by my clients.

Therapists are privileged to enter someone else’s worldview, to see the world from their particular linguistic window as Tomson alludes to—what a gift.