Noli Me Tangere, or, The Rule of Abstinence

Noli Me Tangere, or, The Rule of Abstinence

by Jamieson Webster and Marcus Coelen


Psychoanalysis begins with the renunciation of touching between patient and doctor in order to ask the following questions: How do we get out of what we cannot get into? How do we get into what is inside of us, but outside of you, and outside of me? After following these questions, answered between two psychoanalysts in letters, dreams, we will reflect on disease, pandemics, bodies, touching.

Touch almost imposes itself as a solution in its prohibition. Everything that follows is forever visited by that strange figure of madness—an infuriating figure completely absorbed by speaking—while saying a single thing: that what can be felt is celebrated only by the gentle, the kindest, the most gracious and generous form, the repeated precariousness of all contact. Life settles into this space. But also—life is just a moment that is infinitely expanding and diminishing into it.

You can keep the memory of another’s touch. But—banality of any paradox —you can only keep it by letting it be forgotten. Try to remember being touched? Does it feel as if it is coming from another, the shock of this difference? Or does it feel veiled by self-caress? Memory, touch—they lose contact in being identified too closely with each other. This is why we like the term catachresis: this figure of misuse, wrong word in the wrong place—like a slip of tongue or a forgotten dream—it begins to mark a territory and pattern of movement.

Imagine two psychoanalysts writing their dreams to one another. The fantasy will always be about the special knowledge they have, confusing sense with sense. It will never be anything close to this since dreams do not communicate through the medium of understanding. Where does this communication touch? A psychoanalyst only needs one piece, one scrap of a dream, to begin touching an indelible text; what any psychoanalytic treatment attempts to frame or even provoke. Bring me one memory, one sound. If even two of these worlds could touch, the miracle of how, and where, could dissipate the stolid question of why or what. Tell me the word on the tip of your tongue before you opened your eyes to the sun pouring in through the window—that last sliver of night, addressed to me.

Every word or image uttered by a patients seems to look for its own momentum, trying to touch itself, looking for that hard-to-localize place in the body where it can take hold in order to push further, find the point of difference with which it can collide? Right and left, east and west, north and south, surface again and again, not as signs on a map, or the mechanics of a compass, but as figure and force together in the attraction of an edge. Movement appears as what drives the scenery, but also what the scene is driving after—drive, delivery, deliverance—there even in the sensation of waiting, anticipation, disappointment, and regret that encircle an opaque point. With this, we can begin to see whole constellations of events—transport, dislocation and relocation—emerging, yes concretely at first—there are so many trains, boats, planes, cars—but also in simply moving across so many lines, so many spaces, through crowds of people, strangers or friends or family, and through so much language. The scenarios are infinite, while the ground is finite, meaning it must be trod and it must be taken.

There are more subtle forms that appear and reappear: object handed over to the magic of metonymy, one that follows flight and departure more generally; a movement of always breaking off in order to recover inner resolve against the stasis of order and value. The body is there too, in parts: the heart, the fist, blood and bone, cut throats, breath cut short, tangled tongues, and other gesticulations. When death isn’t the spectator sport in question, it is often something comical, naïve, innocent, like any bodily gesture. All of these require touch and its prohibition.

How can one not love this childish language; the ones who never forget how uncanny a body is, and whose patterns of speech and thought return to us in dreams, again and again. Like eight-year-old boys running in a field chasing crows, the creepiness and attractions of adults, the pointed helplessness of any rage, games with anything—stones and balls and minnows and fruit—and the shame and stupidity that accompany the most beautiful of misunderstood misunderstandings. These are more real than any consciously appraised thought, and for that, all the more serene. Why can’t we be more interested in our mistakes? Why can’t we love what we don’t understand? Don’t we touch so much more there?

So despite misunderstanding, the one thing that can be gleaned is how discreet, tactful, and elegant the logic of a child and their mistakes are as they unfold in this conversation. This is where the dreams touch, where they meet and find a means of exchange—with a child’s currency, with catachrestic contact, noli me tangere.  

There is the touch of an unbearable sadness or melancholia in the air. This backwards glance, the moment afterwards, is the sad truth of a meeting that is always only a moment. The hypothesis being that this expression is a subtle lie about itself and the state of affairs it wants to convey; a lie or just an elision, or perhaps only a descretionary caution, as if performed by an extremely shy living, almost too shy to be living, too momentary to be registered for long.

What we are after is not simply the thought that touch, any touch, is simply melancholic, sad, a trace, however minute, of an unmourned departure. Touch is departure, and if felt, it brings with it the palpable truth of separation. When touched I am the object for the other, and I lose myself. Soon after, I lose the other also.

Melancholia should not leave too abruptly, but rather metamorphose into a moderately sedated feline, reminded by some involuntary movements of her talons she cannot help but notice that a change of season is, if not in the air, at least always promised, generously waiting to be taken in by some inhalation that might come as a surprise.

On these occasions, suit and board meet, surrounded by some grey foam, mildly lifted above swimming level. They talk about other places, portugal or even hawaii. Another piece of nostalgia built into the urban and social landscape this place seems to be composed of, or at least shot through with more than others. At the end of the bus ride, the other place is simply there, at the stubborn edges of galilean stone and in the strange lines and borders of a topology of suppression. I enjoy the sound bath of languages that I hardly speak and the most radical search for an object, not giving in for anything less than its own movement.

Melancholia has not left abruptly, or turned feline, or even aspirated. It sits, bodiless, on top of you for many months like a long drawn out yawn that won't allow for a final exhalation. You are stuck mid breath, mouth open, not sure if you are about to pass out or wake up. You hope work will take you away from all this, though that is a rather sad use of work isn't it.

I'm up for anything, especially if it is consciousness killing.

That beast of all beasts.

After a day that felt very american, a day from childhood, summer camp, consumed by an infinity of outdoor acitivities, I collapsed at seven and woke up in a concentration camp. The phrase “lids on auction” was prominent; written somewhere or written to me in a note that I read. I then said to someone, ‘it’s 50/50 that you die here,’ as if this was somehow the secret I had discerned about this auction. I was probably being aucitoned off, on the auction block, either for death or for life. 50/50.

Does summer camp have to be a concentration camp... That I tell myself in the back of my mind to concentrate, that death always has to be on the tip of my tongue. Everything with a line drawn down the middle, always this terror in the background. Flip your lid, put a lid on it, ends again. Caps. I also dreamt of a very large mat. It’s either the ground or the ceiling; and in between, there are too many objects and I don't know what any of them are for.


Who can forget the childhood game Marco-Polo where you grope in the dark for one another, worrying about the margins. There are other games, ones where everything is moving towards the edge of the page but never flying off, even if planes threaten to crash and computers too, motorized mechanisms that get caught in infinite loops, inhibitions, threatening to breakdown, with the hope that it's only laughter in the end. I am glad I am tender, if suicidal.

Left on left. The traces were written, slow. A woman smiles at you again in front of a car. It’s not your fault. She’s laughing. The Roman read your palm, somewhere in the recent past. You know green-black or black-green. It’s time to go.

Left is an anagram of felt. That past tense is plain and simple to me, aoristic, thus, paradoxically punctual to the point of the ideal, irrevocable, felt forever and in this way not a thing of the past but eternally inscribed.

Time is not eternal, it is like molasses. Asphyxiation of all pores, filled in from the inside. Filled black. Blacker than black.

I went to Nebraska, or maybe it was Iowa. I can’t remember. I drove around and thought about crashing my car into telephone poles so you might phone me. But then we don’t use the phone, we use the face. And since I could face anything now, the options were too many. So I decided on nothing and started visiting the hospitals where we have to work. They were quaint. The patients were angry. Their skin was wrinkled from the sun and from work. The doctors were plodding but serious like they are in midwest. Country doctors.

It wouldn’t be so terrible I thought. There’s always something that needs to be done.

Then I realized we were landlocked and I began to panic. Nothing to wash ashore. No shore even. No place to throw onself back in. Maybe a river bank or two. But I heard from some people in town that you can’t go in the rivers because the fertilizer drains into the water system. Strange the toxicity of fertilizer, I thought. Then some men with red faces approached me and asked me if I needed some help. I waved them away, a gesture that seemed suddenly too foreign for comprehension. I walked back to my car. There was nothing left to say. except perhaps--

I’m going to die here.

I drove back to somewhere called Orient. The smell of the sea woke me as if from some strange dream.

Does it come from nowhere?

I believe that nowhere is. And that it does come.

We make contact most when we are in the wrong place at the wrong time; the unremitting nature of what has been felt and left.

I am looking at an old man on a bed. He has just died. I’m very angry with this person and I ask a large older gentleman a question about him. He says to me: “We will not say anything else. When someone dies we close them, and cast them in the rivers of peace.” I looked to see if they were going to close his eyes and then realized this was a silly literalizing of what was said, as a child might translate. I thought about what it means to close something off and the hell of revising history, opening it up again, trying to understand, revisit. I had a strong desire to feel something come to an end, in my body, or in my eyes. 

Let the dead be dead.

I go and pay a visit to X. It seems that we have become friends. While I walk up to him, I keep observing the ground, earth, patterns, as if he and I were two animals; I think “creepy”, having in mind the German “kriechen” (to crawl), which reminds me of “Krieg” (War; in the region I grew up, the end –g is pronounced softly and strongly, “Der Opa war im Krieg”, always sounded to me like “Grandpa was somewhere crawling”. Maybe he was just a creep. X is an old man, somewhat incoherent, confused, ego-centric. I ask him about texts on the school and education, whether he has written any, knowing that he did; he proudly says “of course” and starts looking for his book on my bookshelf. But I have given the book away.

Just six or seven miles above the Bulgarian Black Sea coastline with the Bosporus already in sight the fear of depression started to carve its creases into my lungs. Picturing a resemblance in the layout between the littoral drawings down there and the conversional sculpturing inside me, I was greeted by the weak memory of an impulse to at once capture and replace this imagination by writing. I felt that I had to be quick, precisely because “quick” was no longer possible, never is when the tide of molasses is already rising, starting to cover the coastline so as to make forget that there ever had been one.

In parenthetical escape, i moved into the dictionary, where molasses is being derived from portuguese melaço, a thing they most likely developed in Brazil, with ties further back into late Latin mellacium, the “must” extracted from wine or grape juice. So not a land but an ocean, and one of “must” and “honey” was promising itself as well as the attached Leviathan on the journey to the land where the more commonly known epithet had been coined. At least I have learned, up in the air, the word “mustiness” which captures well the sticky matter of binding and obligation that I must have swallowed in at an early age still nourishing myself with it too often. A sense of edgy gratefulness in your direction manifested here with the memory of your caustic remark: “this sounds like you, ’I have to go’ …”—was it in a taxi? Taxing has become a very private joke to me as I laugh, sitting in an airplane, about hundreds of people being subjected to a movement of restraint before taking off they don’t know anything about because they can’t read what has been written. I think I am carving out the shape of whatever it is that might appear once repetition and the more musty stuff of historical and current investments are seen in the light of dissolution.

Meanwhile I continue my version of the legend of the devoured heart, learning a certainly well known fact: the size of that organ equals, in the case of most people, the one of their closed fist.

There was a crime scene. I saw a black and white figure, maybe an ink blot, maybe a sonogram, maybe an image of conception, cell division. Something ripped… I’m now with two women and we can see water moving vigorously on the other side of an inlet—“Mündung” in German, naming the mouth. We are drawn to it but unable to touch it. She tells me we can feel the water where we are and see what it’s like over there. I protest, as this seems nonsensical, but suddenly find myself following her logic, as if to answer yes, if we touch the water in various places we could feel something of its pull on the other side, and this would be enough. This is how distance can be tolerated. Felt.

I walked west over a bridge, but was able to make it so far west, it surprised me, as if one could move quickly between eastern cities and the desert. On the other side I met up with some people, including with my maternal aunt who was on her way to las vegas. She was speaking again about having been forced to have an abortion by her husband. Why did she let him? It’s her body? I thought to myself. I blew a kiss to a friend of mine and he handed me an object that I think was a bird call. He was with some young woman, as he usually is, which he likes to call birds, something that must come from an adolescence in the 50s.

It felt like happenstance that we all ended up together, making the best of it in a place both foreign and difficult. But I was being taunted by everyone and I suddenly erupted in a rage. Hit the person next to me in the chest with my fists. The phrase “wind me up” came to mind, bringing back the bird call, which, in the version that is on my living room table, you wind, you twist the screw into its wooden body which creates the vibrations that mimic the sound of birds. Metal on wood. Pure friction. I pleaded, “why not put me at ease?” “why choose this?” the feeling of hurt was so intense that I wanted to wake up out of the dream and began trying until I managed to awaken, my chest coursing with anxiety whose edge was grief, but not quite. 

A recurring dream of a macaw that I had as a child named, of all things, Moses, the child abandoned in the river, came to mind. I often think about a memory i have of gripping Moses by his claws and swinging him around so that he would extend his wings that had been clipped so he couldn’t fly away. Watching the streaming of blue and gold. Macaws are so large, heavy. Strange to think of the weight of a bird, the force of its pull against simulated gravity. Strange to imagine the heaviness of something that can take flight. Or can’t. This bird had a brother that died and its figure screens a dead child that I was the replacement for. The maternal quandry of so many women in my family. Children that are dropped or that dropped dead.

Then the thought of throwing myself out the window crossed my mind since the overriding command is to ‘figure out my life’. Thanks. I heard you. Figure out.

Last dream of the year.

I am convinced, like a smart and stubborn child is convinced of justice, that suicide is in no relation, dialectic or other, to it— pure malice hitting the delicate. Something other is your pounding chests. I found myself walking in the street wondering about the position of your fists addendum to anatomy being destiny. I like the scene of tracing, getting lost, finding the path again, iphone-guided fingers touching a screen, of words imitating their move, your words in my heart, beating my chest from the inside.

 At one moment you were the court of law, or the parliament, the senate, the senate of all Senates even, the last one, where all appeals find a resting place, rest for life (As “senate” comes from the old man senex—death is lurking around the corner. I wonder why I had to play this dirty trick on you. Or, it wasn’t me and it wasn’t you. It was some balding guy, somewhere).

It was a senate, however, where everyone was finally speaking their mind. Pure rhetoric in the purest oratorial prose, void of any decorum, any trope or embellishment, no artifice, the movement of language, arrested in a figure of speech. This is how we can address the other. And as all this speech poured itself out in a flow of more or less low puns, I was relieved that this desire for “full speech” that visited me was turning into the joke that I had always thought it to be.

But my cynical laughter about it was gently throttled in seeing myself handing in the petition that I had come here to deliver. The carefully folded piece of paper started to circulate; this hand-to-hand gesture of what hadn’t made it into a full-fledged letter. And then it was given back to me, as if to a speaker on a conference panel having gone overtime, and to whom the chair, most often clumsily, sometimes triumphantly smiling at the audience, hands over a note indicating the time left for the sweating fool’s words.

I fell asleep waking up to what it still said: “touch this two more times.”


The pandemic has intensified a question concerning touch; not that this communication you have just read between us isn’t urgent, even frantic in its search for what can constitute touch; but life is practically manic at this point. Manic, even manic-depressive, when it hasn’t become the ideal site of a phobia, which, importantly, isn’t the result of a prohibition, but rather its failure. Phobia tries to delimit a figure that can’t be touched, when lost, when no outlines can be found to delimit space. At least as far as psychoanalysis is concerned, the prohibition on touch responds to the utmost desire for something existing on an edge. The prohibition makes something possible regarding the impossible figure that presents itself as desired. Prohibition forces one to search, to find out how, where, when, one can move in its direction. Pandemic anxieties are wiping out the desire or intensifying them into dispersion.

Freud famously dreamt about his book, The Interpretation of Dreams, as his own corpse, or body, that he was dissecting. He was, yes, surgically taking himself apart, engaging in a kind of auto-affection, self-touching, but it is perhaps important to understand that this isn’t a mere metaphor—he was literally cutting into himself, re-shaping his world, by writing down his dreams and engaging in self-analysis. He does this until he discovers the false bottom of the dream, it’s navel, which, and beyond which, there is a further unknown. At this knot, we find condensed a piece of body, world, and representation that can be touched.

While wary of glorifying the effects of a world-wide pandemic, engaging any of the multiple pathoi induced and encountered on a day to day basis in our consulting room, there is an important reshaping of the map of the world having touched this unknowable point. Beyond this is an even vaster unknown, one that is too often hidden in the age of information and technological progress. Even if we cannot meet a stranger with ease, enter freely into enclosed spaces, jump on a plane and travel unthinkable distances, act with a fantasy of autonomy, these are merely avatars of this unknown. Here we might ask a question about touch all over again, one asked by psychoanalysts once they stopped touching patients. How can this unknown reshape for us what we have always not known? 

There is much in psychoanalysis that is contagious: affects, the illusions of love, identification, anxiety, symptoms, anti-sociality, paranoia. And there is that which is kept at the furthest remove: the unconscious, memory, the body, sense. Close one and open the other. While the time seems right for mapping one pandemic, psychoanalysis, onto the other, coronavirus, we’ve never seen the unconscious at more risk of being flooded, drowned out, buried alive, or caught in melancholia and anxiety. Thus if we ask anything here of our reader, it is to once again find the place for abstinence that elevates the unknown embodied by touch, and to refuse to confuse this with a panic that wants to scotomize bodies. Find where you can feel again.

Jamieson Webster is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City. She is the author of The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis (2011) and Conversion Disorder: Listening to the Body in Psychoanalysis (2018); she also co-wrote, with Simon Critchley, Stay, Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine (2013). She teaches at the New School and supervises doctoral students in clinical psychology at the City University of New York.

Marcus Coelen is a psychoanalyst in New York and Berlin. He also teaches literature and literary theory in the Psychoanalytic Studies Program at Columbia University New York. He has translated into German and edited several volumes of texts by Maurice Blanchot. Publications include: With Mark Hewson, Georges Bataille – Key Concepts (Routledge, 2016). He is currently preparing, together with Jamieson Webster, a book on Jacques Lacan.

Our project takes the words spoken by Jesus to Mary Magdalene in the garden after she discovers his empty tomb — noli me tangere (“touch me not”) — as a provocation for reflection on the COVID-19 pandemic, and on other pandemics, viral and social, that engulf us.