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Kurtz, S.A. (1984). On Silence. Psychoanal. Rev., 71(2):227-246.

(1984). Psychoanalytic Review, 71(2):227-246

On Silence

Stephen A. Kurtz

The analyst's use of silence can grow from a self-conscious technique to a highly integrated manifestation of his being. But all along the way a distinction must be drawn between his inflected and uninflected silences. The former are a part of language, often no less precise than verbal communications. The latter, as Wittgenstein suggested, point to what cannot be said. In this sense, uninflected silence is a container of the analytic process, distinct from content and irreducible.

In the discussion that follows I wish to explore first the patient's changing reactions to the analyst's silences — of whatever kind — and then the patient's own silences as they function to unify or disintegrate the elements of his personality and to bind or loosen his tie to the analyst.

I. The Patient's Reaction

Patients react to inflected silences much as they would to verbalizations. Nevertheless, writers on the phenomena of silence tend to speak of the “uncanny” clarity some people exhibit in discerning their analysts' unspoken feelings. This use of “uncanny” may merely express the belief that silence effectively guards the analyst's privacy. Is the anonymity of the analyst a fiction that patients conspire to support or do most, consciously or otherwise, discern the character behind the professional mask? It may be that “uncanny” is used for those who, like Alice among the playing cards, dare to break this implicit contract.

What the patient discerns of the analyst's attitude toward him ranges anywhere from benevolence to contempt. The value of an empathic, attentive silence has been noted by virtually every writer on the subject, as has the destructiveness of a hateful silence. Needless to say, while attitudes cannot be legislated they must be monitored.

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