Image, Language, and the Lived Body in the Depth Psychology of the Self

Cave art at Chauvet, France
Cave art at Chauvet, France

In 1994 in the Ardeche region of France, three explorers pulled rocks away from a tiny opening at the base of a cliff and opened the door to another world. Inside the deepest recesses of what turned out to be a 1300-foot long cave were remarkable images of animals painted there by humans living 30,000 years ago (Herzog, 2010). The images are remarkable in their style and beauty, virtually perfectly preserved in the near airtight conditions of the cave. Lions, bears, bison, reindeer, mammoth, rhinoceroses and other beings line the walls in almost three-dimensional form, many captured in dynamic action–hooves raised, mouths, open, legs bent midstride–as if they were living beings.

In fact, a variety of images appear on rock walls of canyons, on high cliffs, and in the deepest reaches of caves in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Most of these, especially the Paleolithic rock art images traced in the depths of the caves at Lascaux, Les Trois Freres, Chauvet, Niaux, Cosquer, and others scattered through France and Spain, are an enigma. Questions abound as to the reason for the paintings as well as their placement deep inside the earth. Since the authors of these images are long gone, and writing emerged only around 5,000 years ago (Shlain, 1998), these incredible visuals are clues to an existence our ancestors left us in the only language they knew.

Today, it is easy to take language for granted. The majority of the civilized world both reads and writes, allowing communication in very specific topic and form.  But what is it to “have language”–be linguistic creatures? What would life be like if we did not? In contemporary culture, it’s hard to imagine life without newspapers, email, blogs, Facebook, and even Twitter–which limits its user to 140 characters per transmission. As Lacan asserts, language is “the primary form in which the human subject experiences the human-ness of Society” (Bailly, 2009, p. 66). But what boundary was crossed once we acquired language–both individually and historically as a species? Are there other ways to think besides in languages?

In The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind, and Ecology, Robert Bringhurst (2008) answers the question with a definitive, “Yes!” to the latter–stating that “language is what something becomes when you think in it” (p. 165). For most of us, that means “words.” Words are the elements that make up language. Language is so common to most of us, we take it completely for granted. But Bringhurst widens the arena, offering up that the forest thinks in trees along with associated flora, fauna, funghi, and all elements we typically envision of as making up a forest. When I “think” about thinking, I realize I can engage different modalities as varying as dance, mathematics, or colors–all a far cry from the words we traditionally think of as “language”. Certainly, autistic animal scientist and author Temple Grandin (2006) clearly states her perspective in the first sentence of her first book. “I think in pictures,” Grandin begins, “Words are a second language to me” (p. 3). It seems our Paleolithic ancestors from the heyday of Chauvet cave would agree.

Images, like words, have powerful creative force. They can be representational or reproductive, documenting and valuing the moment that was captured. They may be cosmogenic–that is, religious dimensions or icons that make the sacred manifest. Images may also be poetic, correlating with productive imagination, poetry and theory, having effect on a deeper aspect of being.

Bulgarian-born philosopher Julia Kristeva (2002) adds a crucial fourth dimension. According to her, images may also besemiotic. She deliberately extends the range of image from visual to polysensory, referring to any way in which the lived body gets involved in the experience. While Lacan (2002) suggests one draws the fragmented body together in a mirror, Kristeva suggests wholeness of the body and the senses is something that is persistently sustained–not only accessible to pre-linguistic infants who are linked to a world through the senses, but also beyond. This sensorial emergent, though broadsided, confiscated–colonized perhaps–by the acquisition of language with its stifling rules and syntax, continues into adulthood. The procession entails a creative (though loving) struggle between the forces of semiosis– the larger imago, the felt sense, the embodiment of consciousness or knowing in a fashion we each can relate to bodily–and the symbolic linear machinations of speech and language. According to Kristeva, this identity gap created by the two opposing forces may be negotiated by “bringing the body back into language and bringing language back into the body” (p. xxii).

In our fast-paced culture, we don’t always think about our body, tending to separate words–whether those we read or type or those we speak–from the whole of us that is manufacturing those words. It may well behoove us to bring the body and words back together so we can be more authentically in touch with what we are saying and to say more about what we are in touch with. This kind of opening to self can only serve to bring us closer to conscious awareness about our thoughts and actions and how we communicate them to others. Many depth practitioners integrate somatic work, movement therapy, breathwork, or other body-based practices to help us access what’s “below the surface” of our everyday experience. Check out some of the gifted somatic oriented therapists and practitioners on Depth Psychology List.


Bonnie Bright is the founder of Depth Psychology Alliance, the world’s first comprehensive online community for depth psychology, and hosts a regular podcast, Depth Insights, as well as editing the semi-annual scholarly e-zine of the same name. She recently founded, a free online database to find or list depth psychology oriented therapists and practitioners. She holds Masters degrees in Psychology and Depth Psychology, and is a Ph.D. candidate at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, CA.

About Bonnie Bright

Bonnie Bright, Ph.D., is a transformative, soul-centered coach (via Alef Trust) and a certified Archetypal Pattern Analyst® (via Assisi Institute). She earned M.A. degrees in Psychology at Sonoma State University and in Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute, where she also received her Ph.D.. She is the founder and Director Emerita of Depth Psychology Alliance™, an online community for everyone interested in Jungian and depth psychologies. Bonnie served as Executive Editor of Depth Insights™, a scholarly journal which she created, for six years, and she regularly produces audio and video interviews on Jungian/transpersonal/depth psychological topics. She completed a 2-year training in Indigenous African Spiritual Technologies with West African elder Malidoma Somé; and she has trained extensively in dreamwork, Holotropic Breathwork™, and in the Enneagram. Her interests in archaeology, ecology, anthropology, shamanism, history, and culture have led her to travels in nearly 40 countries around the world.