On Meaning – Analysis through the Looking Glass


‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be Master – that’s all.’    (Carroll,1962 p 75)

Who has the power to choose what a word means? Who chooses what we mean, to ourselves or for others? We go into analysis, commonly, on a quest for meaning – when we feel we have lost, or perhaps have never had, the power to name parts of our own lives in a way which makes sense to us, and which aligns well enough with a ‘common’ sense: our meaning making aligns well enough with the collective for us not to be mad. A common saying amongst psychiatrists is ‘a neurotic person is someone who builds Castles in the air, a psychotic person lives in them.’ Meanings we make of and for ourselves work better when they relate to the real world.

Humpty Dumpty and Alice, are figures in our collective unconscious. It’s easy to see Humpty Dumpty is a symbol for the Ego – an ‘Eggo’. If our Eggo falls off the wall – goes mad – all the Kings analysts can’t put it together again. Of course, an ‘Ego’ isn’t a ‘thing’  – an Egg is a thing; an Ego is no more than a concept: you could slice a brain up any way you like, do all the neuropsychology  you like and you’ll not find an Ego. Jung suggests Ego is the name of a Complex, any Complex is a psychological pattern with a function. The Ego’s function is reality testing. So, we could say, Ego is a verb – a ‘doing word’ – ‘to Ego’, rather than ‘the Ego’ – because the action is ‘reality testing’.

Humpty Dumpty continues, talking about words:

 ‘They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs, they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’ When Alice asks Humpty what impenetrability means, he says ‘  . . . that we’ve had enough of that subject . . .’  because Humpty, being an Eggoist, can’t bear contradiction.

The theory of analysis can be impenetrable – we’ve had more than enough of that subject. Analytic theory is often less useful than the musical notation to a piece of jazz by saxophonist John Coltrane: it can be done, but it destroys the music and the magic. The practice of analysis may look like magic but it isn’t. The principle is easy; it is, ‘to make the Complex, simple,’ through learning how to form and use symbols. .

The Ego is a Complex used to test reality – to test it, rather than impose or create it. A ‘reality’ consists of three ordinary things: orientation in time, place and person. Orientation in time means being able to be in this time here and now, appropriately aware of the past and possible futures. Orientation in place means being able to be in this space, aware of the space behind and before. Orientation in person, means being able to be our Selves, here and now, aware of who we were and who we may become.  All are lost, randomly and tragically, in dementia. Any or all can be lost in mental illness. All three can be taken from us by prejudices. A prejudice is an example of closed system thinking.  

A well-functioning Ego complex helps us locate our multifaceted Self, as Alice locates herself on the chess board in the Looking Glass world. She is the White Queen’s Pawn, starting her journey in the square called Queens Pawn 2 – QP2. She meets Humpty Dumpty in QP 6. Humpty Dumpty, an inflated self-important Eggo makes the mistake of assuming he has the power to make words mean whatever he wants – that is, he assumes total nominative power. What is nominative power? Simply, the power to name. Here is an example. If someone tells a child with black parents that having black skin is shameful, and the person telling the child has nominative power – is a teacher, a policeman or a politician – the child learns they are shameful, simply because they exist.

If a figure with nominative power labels a child and the label is accepted, there is nothing the labeled child can do about it. This is how prejudice works. It handily bypasses thought and reason. Another example is – ‘Global warming? Not in Republican America!’  By assuming nominative power, like Humpty Dumpty, the biggest threat to human civilisation simply doesn’t exist. Why?  ‘Because WE say so!’ This is how a Complex works- it assumes nominative power. 

In the next square, QP7, Alice meets the White Knight.

‘I see you’re admiring my little box,’ he said in a friendly tone. ‘it’s my own invention – to keep clothes and sandwiches in.  You see, I carry it upside down, so that the rain can’t get in.’

‘But the things can get out,’ Alice gently remarked. ‘do you know the box is open?’  (Carroll, 1962,  p 95- 6)

Alice, here, is like an analyst, the White knight is like a patient. If the White Knight is the analyst, does he know he has a magic box – a set of constructs, or theories – in which he keeps the patient’s objects (an ‘object’ means ‘anyone not the subject’ rather than ‘a thing’.) Do we analysts carry meanings for our patients, upside down in a box? Sometimes. Because analysts often have to turn a patient’s meanings upside down – like this – ‘you are not shameful, you were shamed.’ Sometimes the analyst is Alice encountering the patient’s upside down and empty box of meanings – their Complex – and having to ask, gently – ‘do you know the box is open?’

Analysts show patients their meaning boxes are open using ways like those used by Freud and Jung, principally by listening to the unconscious as it speaks through our daily actions and in our dreams. Both dreams and reality are seen as having symbolic meaning. For instance, ‘suppose you learnt that being black is shameful. What value is there to you in continuing to hold on to someone else’s meaning system?’ do you have to eat that particular meaning-sandwich?

Analysis is an invitation to listen to an open system of meaning. This is the system the unconscious uses. This is why analysis is not a science, but an art – the art of making meaning – it’s a kind of jazz, played with meaningophones. We go into analysis when our world becomes a Looking Glass world, when we feel like a pawn moved by the meanings of others. The aim of analysis is like Alice’s aim in the chess game – to become sovereign, a Queen rather than a pawn, to be able to make our own meanings AND to test them against common reality. 

‘I’m sure I didn’t mean . . .’ Alice was beginning, when the Red Queen interrupted.

‘That’s just what I complain of! You should  have meant! What do you suppose is the use of a child without any meaning? Even a joke should have some meaning and a child is much more important that a joke, I hope. You couldn’t deny that, even if you tried with both hands.’ (Carroll, 1962 p110)


Carroll, Lewis (1962) Through the Looking Glass, London: Folio editions


Dale Mathers, November 21, 2016,