(c)Bettina Mathes 2016
In a paper entitled "Communicating and Not Communicating" the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott issued a warning followed by a question.

"We can understand the hatred people have of psychoanalysis which has penetrated a long way into the human personality; and which provides a threat to the human individual in his need to be secretly isolated. The question is: how to be isolated without having to be insulated?"

Winnicott published his paper in 1963: no email, not internet, no cell phones, no real-time tracking. Outside of a psychoanalyst's office not-communicating was relatively easy. Fast-forward five decades, and Winnicott's concerns have assumed a very different kind of urgency. Globalisation, GPS, smart phones, and Big Data have made it virtually impossible for us to be secretly isolated. Not to mention Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tinder. In the age of social media nothing is private, and everything is subject to ever changing privacy policies. Where does this leave our need to be secretly hidden? In a psychoanalyst’s office? Do some people, perhaps unbeknownst to themselves, come to therapy to find relief from the felt obligation to be ‘on’ at all times? Do patients (sometimes) seek isolation, seclusion, solitariness? A place to get in touch (maybe for the first time) with their non-communicating self? If that was true, if not-communicating was the (often unconscious) goal, are we as psychoanalysts sensitive enough to these needs – in our patients and in ourselves? Are we prepared enough to work with people who come to us with a sophisticated vocabulary of hide-and-seek, from cultures that draw on an elaborate repertoire of half truths, secret glances, and averted gazes? A repertoire of communicating and not-communicating; a vocabulary we may not always be familiar with.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Here is where we meet.
Let's assume we're intimate strangers.

The New Islamic Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City are now home to a beautiful 17th century Jali screen from India. A perforated window carved out of white marble with a vivid ornamental design, assertive and delicate at the same time. Imagine the rain kissing the lotus, picture the wind caressing the stars. Jalis, called Mashrabiyas in North Africa, are important elements of Islamic architecture. The ubiquitous screens made of stone or latticework filter the sunlight, facilitate ventilation, prevent full exposure, and, most importantly, they preserve the sanctity of holy areas and the privacy of domestic spaces. Permeable to light, sound and smell traveling in :: impervious enough to surveillance and observation. At the Mashrabiya I am there and not there. Inside and outside. I can see and I'm not seen. Neighbours passing by on the street may recognise my silhouette, friends may stop for a chat, but a part of me (and you) remains private, hidden. Jalis and Mashrabiyas are the architectural equivalent of the veils worn by Muslim women outside of the house: a protection against the thousand hungry eyes that trace my steps, exploit me, devour me. Screen and veil are privacy devices; physical analogues of the mental mechanism that (in Winnicott's words) preserves the individual's “central, still and silent spot.” They mark and maintain the boundary between one self and an other. Here is where I end, and you begin. They make space for the opacity, even duplicity of the self.

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The Jali at the MET isn't as lavish and fanciful as its famous cousins in the palace of the Alhambra or the Taj Mahal. This one is simpler, less intricate, an object for everyday usage rather than admiration, but its function is the same: to make room for intimacy without revealing more than I want to reveal; to make space for getting to know you and preserve your secret, and mine; to allow an escape route and put ourselves out of harm's way. Why? Because... if I were forced to be completely known, known completely, I would go mad. If I were confined to one self, and one self only, I would fall apart. Thresholds (screens, veils, masks) keep me sane, provide a space between knowing and not-knowing, between communicating and not-communicating. Here, at the Jali (you on one side :: I on the other), our encounter is a borderline experience: a negotiation between light and shadow, inside and outside, public and private, me and you, past and present. As the moon falls through the mashrabiya, as ornaments start dancing before my eyes I realise, how fragile we are! As your voice filters through the screen, a breeze reaching for my ears, I remember, traces of you! Like a second skin the Jali protects what is perhaps most endangered in my encounter with an other: the recognition of the secrets that unite us. At the mashrabiya I understand that full disclosure is often hurtful; that unmasked truth is a violation; that to be a person is to be hidden, that identity is a necessary form of defense: a screen, a mask, a veil.

The curators at the MET have placed a basin adorned with stylised lotus blossoms behind the Jali. What an intimate setting! Here you are :: naked, private, tending to your bodily needs – and safe enough to have me keep you company. When you meet me from behind the screen, you do so not to withdraw into depression, not to reject relationships but to invite me in. Jalis, Mashrabiyas
: : : shutters that don't expose.

To the enlightened eye of the western subject respect for the art of concealment can feel like a provocation, a lie, an attempt to deceive. From the other – stranded on our shores – we demand full disclosure. Have we forgotten that once we tear the veil and crack the mask, there's nothing left to know?
It wasn't always like this.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Here is where we disagree.
Let's assume I know something.

Among Baroque painters, Jan Vermeer is the undisputed master of intimate settings. His paintings are famous for their seamless surface texture, for their atmosphere of unknowability and secrecy. No edges, no sharp borders, nothing that indicates rupture. Vermeer's paintings always seem a little out of focus. Figures and objects are not clearly defined. Consider for example
A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, painted circa 1657. A yellowish curtain, glowing from within, drawn back on a rail, opens to a small room bathed in light the texture of milk. A young woman, some say she is a girl, dressed in a fine garment is standing in front of a large window, absorbed in a white sheet of paper that seems to flow from hands. A letter? From a loved one? The title of the painting, added in the 19th century, wants me to believe precisely that. But there is nothing written on this piece of paper that so captures the woman's attention. Am I missing something?

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The young woman is presented to me in profile. Her face – attentive, composed, even-minded – is as unreadable as the letter. What is she thinking? What are her feelings? I don't know. And frankly, I don't want to know. What draws me to this painting is the texture of privacy, of solitariness: the rich weave of the rug, the silky smoothness of the walls, the creamy brightness of the light from a window that doesn't offer a view; the almost weightless density of the blank letter flowing from her hands. No, I will not interrupt her solitude, this precious moment of self-communication. If it is indeed a letter she is reading, it announces nothing less than the right to remain incommunicado.
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Sometimes works of art watch out for one another. I imagine that Vermeer's The Lacemaker, by far his smallest painting, painted between 1669 - 1671, sees to it that the solitude of The Girl Reading by the Window will always be protected. Here she is, a lacemaker at her desk, bending over her needlework with the greatest dedication. Her face relaxed, eyelids drooping. Is she sleeping? Dreaming? Like the young woman by the window, the lacemaker seems unawares of my gaze, unperturbed by my presence. I'm held at bay. Vermeer does not allow me to see the lace she is making, this fine web which inspired the Jali and the Mashrabiya. My view is blocked by a prominent sewing cushion from which streams of red and white yarn gush onto the table. Blood and milk? Semen? Menstruation? Birth? It doesn't happen often that a Baroque painting takes me to the womb, to the world of the maternal, to that hidden, indescribable, unspeakable place of our origin, where we all have been, that we all leave behind (but never quite forget) as we grow up and learn to live in language.

But not everything in this painting is hidden from view. Between two bobbins, one in each of the lacemaker's hands, two threads of exquisite thinness are held in suspension. Threads so thin they are barely visible. These two threads, white and crisp, are the painting's sole sharp focus. A revelation in disguise. For this is The Lacemaker's promise: there will be veils and covers, always. If we cannot know who we are, we can find shelter in the disguises we create – for ourselves, and for others.

In hindsight Vermeer was fighting a losing battle. In Europe and North America the process of Enlightenment reconfigured the relationship between public and private. What emerged was the will to know, and the rule of the sense of sight over the other senses. From now on to know was to see. The birth of the 'naked truth'. As a man of the Enlightenment, Freud, who famously denounced needlework and weaving – possibly women's only "contribution to the discoveries and inventions in the history of civilisation" – as a defensive expression of "the influence of the lack of a penis", had little tolerance for
The Lacemaker's unwavering dedication.
It was Winnicott who picked up the thread.

"We can understand the hatred people have of psychoanalysis which has penetrated a long way into the human personality; and which provides a threat to the human individual in his need to be secretly isolated."

Yes, you don't know me.

(c)Bettina Mathes 2016

Donald Winnicott, Communicating and not communicating leading to a study of certain opposites, in: The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, London: Hogarth 1965, pp. 179-192. quotes: pp. 187,
Sigmund Freud, Femininity, in: New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis (1933), lecture 13, SE, London: Hogarth 1964, pp. 112 - 135, SE quotes p. 132.

Jali screen, India, early 17th century, white marble, H. 123 cm, W. 67.3 cm, The Metroplitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, c. 1657, oil on canvas, 83x65.5 cm, Staatliche Kunstsammlung, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.
Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker, oil on canvas, c. 1669-1671, oil on canvas, 24.5x21 cm, Louvre, Paris.