“I love you like salt.” These are the only words a daughter says in answer to her father’s request for a declaration of love; and, she is banished for it. An old folk tale in a few words.
A king had three daughters; and he wanted to know which daughter loved him most. He bid them come in front of him and tell him who loved him most. The eldest spoke; she said that she loved him more than the whole kingdom. Then the second spoke, she said that she loved him more than all the precious stones and pearls in the world. And then the third spoke, in a few short words. She said,”I love you like salt.” The king was enraged that his third daughter compared her love of him to such a small thing. He gave her to a servant and commanded, “take her into the forest and kill her.”
Folktales are condensations. Just as dreams do, they present images, narratives, and even phrases that condense rich meaning in memorable form. As proof or profit on their condensation, they yield associations. Lovers of story and storytelling play both sides of condensation and association. A mind may go back and forth from an image to fields of associations.
The act of “free associating” on the meaning of a dream or a folktale is a kind of guided reverie. In guided reverie we may give play to association, and we may follow wherever association leads us, guided by a story or an image.
The condensations in folktales are also the products of something we might call a basic sense or basic meaning. In a folktale, a basic meaning often greets us in a strange form. The very oddness of the the statement, “I love you like salt” pricks up my ears. The oddness of it is part of what makes it leap out or stand out, part of what gives it salience. And salience, the quality of standing out, is sometimes called a “meaning effect”.
What does salt mean? What is salt to us? Salt is first and foremost a vital necessity. It is a necessity that we can taste and even savor. “The animal need for sodium is probably the reason for the highly conserved ability to taste the sodium ion as ‘salty.'” 
We are able to taste salt because we need it. And we also desire it because we need it, and because we sometimes miss it or lack it. The desire for salt is a part of one of our most basic, vital needs, our need for nourishment. And the need for nourishment is one of our three most basic needs and desires: our need for nourishment, our need for water, and our need to breathe. Here are desires so basic that we do not usually call them desires.
When we desire salt, we might better call that a craving or a hankering rather than a desire. A hankering or a craving comes from our body or we know not where. Likewise, thirst rather than a desire arises in us when we need water. And even more basically, if we block our breathing, a very strong urge to breathe emerges. No one hardly says that they desire to breathe. We simply and continuously breathe, as long as we live. Breath even continues into unconsciousness; it is never absent in our lives. We often only notice it when it is blocked or when our breathing encounters a limit or some resistance. We desire what is absent. And breath is always present, or rather so urgent and intimate that we hardly notice it, let alone desire it.
The meaning of salt is also so basic that we may live our waking lives without ever knowing or wondering about its meaning to us. The meaning of salt may never be present as a question. Like the ghost of some departed meaning, salt may then exist for us as something too familiar for notice. We may then need to be reminded to take in more or less salt than we habitually do.
An animal knows how vital salt is. Herding mammals will travel hundreds of miles to salt licks to replenish their bodily stores. They know and remember where they can find salt. Even our body itself “knows” and can regulate the use of its own available bodily stores of salt. Below the threshold of our consciousness, our body depends upon and knows how to regulate many of our most basic needs.
Are we capable of listening to ourselves. Are we capable of listening to our hankerings? Perhaps that is one meaning of this odd little folktale. How do we value a basic necessity?
Salt is a simple necessity, and the taste for salt is the simplest and most basic sense of taste we have. “The simplest receptor found in the mouth is the sodium chloride (salt) receptor.”
A tongue makes a tentative gesture to touch salt directly. The tasting of and consuming of salt is also almost always too much. To taste it directly is to risk being repelled.To taste salt is to always go to the edge of too-much. I taste it gingerly, and with hesitation, and I pull back from it. Babies are startled by the direct taste of salt. And even the smallest fleck of salt has pique and salience.
The salty taste, among all the tastes is uniquely “appetitive-aversive”. One little bit too much of salt and the savory becomes the sour (or rather some amalgam of sour-bitter). The too-muchness of salt is experienced as repulsive; we pull back from the taste. Too much salt and we gag and spit and loll our tongues in distaste. Sugar, by contrast, is sweet and attractive in full measure.
A grain of salt is an evaporate derived from the dispersed form of a water and sodium solution. And a condensate is a liquid derived from a more dispersed gaseous state. A folk tale or a dream symbol is a kind of condensation or an evaporation that can be held in the mind and remembered. It can also be expanded upon. And condensations can become the seeds and germs of stories, dreams, and reveries.
The evaporate of a folktale known as “I love you like salt” is also the germ of many stories, dreams, and reveries. The most well known expansion on this folktale is probably Shakespeare’s King Lear. In King Lear, Cordelia says “nothing” and provokes her own banishment through her refusal to speak. Cordelia gives Lear salt for his pains, for his demand for sugar; Lear responds by banishing her.
A father asks for a declaration of love. His daughter’s response, her demand for truth, is unwelcome. Father will have nothing of it. She is banished.
Sigmund Freud, an explorer of dreams and myths, mused on the story of Lear and his three daughters. His contemplation on the story of Lear is contained in an essay named The Theme of the Three Caskets .
In that work, Freud states that “Cordelia makes herself unrecognizable, inconspicuous like lead, she remains dumb.” Cordelia in her silence is for Freud an image of death: “in dreams dumbness is a common representation of death.” The germ of the story of Lear became a rich source of associations for Freud, and in his rambling essay he ranges over many associations before he arrives at death.
Death is the master image of Freud’s essay. And in a leap, Freud sees the three sisters of the Lear as the Three Fates. The Greek names for the Fates are Clotho, the spinner or source of the thread of life; Lachesis, the one who measures the allotted thread of life; and Atropos, the one who cuts the thread of life.
Cordelia, the third sister in the folktale and in King Lear, is for Freud an image of Atropos. Atropos, the Greek word, is sometimes translated as “the inevitable” or “the inexorable”. The root meaning of atropos, is a-tropos or without-turn or without-twist. Death, the final twist of fate comes from no direction and from it there is no escape. It is also silent, without-language. To trope is to turn, to twist, or to make a figure, and troping and turning can be said to be the very life of speech and language. Atropos, the figure of the end of all figuring, is imaged as a sister who cuts the thread of life.
Her silent act gives shape and form to life figured as a thread. Every thread has its beginning and its end, as does every moment and every life. And as the image of finality Atropos is opposed to her two sisters, Clotho and Lachesis who, respectively, spin and draw out the thread of life. Freud mentions that Lachesis also denotes ‘the accidental that is included in the regularity of destiny’.
Both Cordelia, who only offers silence, and the daughter who compares her love to salt, are the unwelcome centers of their respective stories. They both offer the salt of what is needed over the sugar of what is desired. Lear only wants the full sweetness of flattery. Cordelia responds with the salt of truth that he needs, and she is banished for it. Cordelia’s salt of silence is at first too much for Lear. He spits fire and rages in reaction.
After his rage leads him into a madness and after he is stripped of everything, including his reason and sense, Lear arrives too late at the appreciation of what he truly needs.
He reconciles with his daughter for a brief moment at the end of the tragedy, just before they both die.
Buddha said, “To appreciate our human life is as rare as dirt on your fingernail.” In this context, I read that as an exhortation to truly appreciate life and also as a pointing out of the near impossibility of consistently appreciating it. Dirt may stick on top of your nails for a moment, but it quickly falls off of such a smooth surface.
Appreciation often arrives too late. In retrospect, after a loss, we may see the value of what we take for granted. But can we appreciate what we have and what we hold now? Can we appreciate our lives now, before it is too late?
And what of the salt of pain that spices the dish of our life? What of that ultimate salt of death? Is death merely unwelcome news or is it possible for us to appreciate death?
What would it even mean to appreciate death? How can we even approach death? Maurice Blanchot uses an apposite three words to appreciate death: “impossible necessary death”.
Impossible necessary death; why do these words–and the experience to which they refer (the inexperience)–escape comprehension? Why this collision of mutually exclusive terms?
Yes, necessary. Yes, inevitable. But impossible? Isn’t death a simple brute fact of the world?
For the world, death is a fact; but, for each of us in our own direct experience death is something else. Death is impossible in an immediate sense; we cannot directly experience death. Just as we do not experience the moment of falling asleep, death is never experienced by anyone directly. Epicurus made the inexperience of death the heart of his cure for death anxiety.
When we are, death is not, and, when and where death is, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead. For with the living death is not, and the dead exist no longer.
This nothing of death, our eternal distance from death, Blanchot names the “impossible”. Blanchot’s emphasis and my emphasis here is less on a cure for the fear of death and more on how difficult our predicament is. Appreciating life is nearly impossible just as death is impossible.
Impossible life. Impossible death. And between these two impossibilities, how do we live?
One common answer to how we live with inevitable death is denial. Freud, in his essay on the Three Caskets, speculates that the certain knowledge of inevitable death must have come late to humanity. Knowledge of the inevitability of death meets with resistance. Inevitable death is not welcome news. Atropos, the end of all our constant turning, is not welcome in Lear’s Kingdom.
I appreciate my distaste for death, my denial of it. Death is very hard to swallow. I feel in this moment as if I will live forever. Somewhere along some eventual horizon I expect to die. But in this moment I only experience a life that I want more of. My death is impossible to me and inevitable for me at the same time.
The inevitability of death is a painful cut. Death is salt in a wound. I don’t want to die and I’m terrified of death. I would prefer to deny it, to avoid it. In that line of avoidance, Freud saw death as the ultimate blow to our narcissism.
The Moerae [the Three Fates] were created as a result of a discovery that warned man that he too is a part of nature and therefore subject to the immutable law of death. Something in man was bound to struggle against this subjection, for it is only with extreme unwillingness that he gives up his claim to an exceptional position.
When faced with the end of life, I can see why a Lear would spit and rage. I get Lear’s fighting madness, his outrage. I feel that same outrage. Death is a most unwelcome taste. And our most basic visceral response to an unwelcome taste is to just spit it out. If something is too much, we spit it out.
But what if we need what we cannot stomach? What if we need a certain measure of something that is too much for us? As painful, as inconvenient as facts and truth may be, we also need, desire and depend upon truth. Against denial and all manner of fantasy and lies, something in us also struggles to come to terms with the immutable law of death. Denial starves us of what we need, and truth is food for us.
Wilfred Bion makes plain both our appetite for and our aversion to truth.
“truth is the food of mind; and at the same time, mind hates truth”
Truth can be difficult to take to heart. How do I appreciate both my need for and my hate for truth? Taking something to heart, allowing some difficult fact or truth to “sink in”, is a process that requires a certain room or patience.
Death is difficult to appreciate because it meets me both as an obvious, painful fact in the world and as a fact that I will never experience directly. I most readily encounter the fact of death as something that happens to others.
D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent. (“Anyway, it’s always the others who die”). — Marcel Duchamp’s epitaph
I can miss much of the truth and strangeness of death, the salience of it, if I treat it simply as a fact in the world, as only an object. And all denial of death is denial of death as object. Also, morbid fascination with death is fascination with the objective aspects of death. And attempts at mastery of death are attempts to master death as if it were an object. All of these are not yet attempts to appreciate death under Blanchot’s sign of impossibility. The inexorable, Atropos, cannot be directly confronted or mastered.
I have difficulty representing death to myself. If I realize that such difficulty is a part of the fact of death, then acknowledging that difficulty may aid me in appreciation. The fact that I will not experience death may or may not alleviate my death anxiety. But that fact may guide in me in a meditation on death.
I come up against an edge of inexperience, of impossibility, of lack of representation. And the focus of my meditation shifts away from the distant to the near and the intimate. When I focus on the near, I find that death is much closer than I sometimes imagine. Death constantly meets me as simple transiency, in the passage of moment after moment and day after day.
O our lives’ sweetness, That we the pain of death would hourly die. Rather than die at once! — Edgar in King Lear, Act 5, Scene 3.
Another sense for death here is entropy, the inexorable arrow of time. Every hour dies and passes away, and parts of us pass away with every hour. This passing away of life, life’s fleetingness, is also difficult to maintain an awareness of.
Transiency, like salt, gives salience to life; but, we do not easily bear the full taste of it. Transiency and death are ever behind and before us. Every moment, cells are being born and dying in us. Moments are being born and dying in us. Thoughts are being born and dying in us. And yet, simple appreciation of those facts is difficult and rare. To notice them takes care and patience. I remind myself to take care and notice. And I meditate on necessary but unwelcome and impossible death.
Reality offers resistance. Pain and resistance wake me and make me notice what I otherwise might not. My most basic functions continue into unconsciousness. Block them and I will become conscious of them or I will perish. I depend upon an awareness of reality. But too much of painful reality and I cannot feed or think. Bion highlights the wakeful anguish of the real.
‘It is difficult to accept real life because frustration is an essential feature of real life. In an extreme position it obstructs the development of thought’
A minimum amount of peace is necessary for thought, a minimum amount of tolerance and patience is necessary. Patience, tolerance, and reverie. Dream, reverie, folklore and myth are children of “recollection in tranquility”. Their origin lies in the sleeping and dreaming of animal life. A folktale is the condensate of the dream, and like a dream or the memory of a dream, the folktale speaks a strange language.
If the folktale speaks the language of the dream, what is the dream, and what is the language of the dream? The dream, like salt, is a vital necessity. And, like the need for salt, the vital activity of the dream is a need so basic to us that we hardly notice it. Dreaming is mostly unconscious and passes by without notice. Like our other vital functions, we most easily become aware of dreams when we encounter a resistance or interruption to the dream. Nightmares that trouble, disturb, and shatter the dream are easy to remember while pleasant dreams may vanish like mist. Pleasant dreams are of the nature of a basic wellness that we can take for granted; they are a part of a vast, unnoticed background. We could spend our entire lives without ever wondering too deeply about the dream. We might even think that we do not dream. Vivid though they may be, dreams quickly dissipate and disappear. And, we know the dream is a dream because we awaken from it. Does the dream dissipate because it has more of satisfaction in it, and less encounter with pain and resistance than waking life?
I could just dismiss the dream as nonsense, I could try to enjoy it idly, or I could try to mine it for a moral. But I’m interested in the “meaning effect” of a story or an image; I’m interested in the actual experience of reverie and association.
A story has something in it of the life of the mind. And the dream does as well. Storytellers and dreamers know this or intuit it. And every sense in which a story or a dream is not only distraction or not only wish fulfillment depends on a “life of the mind”.
Freud investigated dreams because of their strangeness, and because of what they revealed of the “life of the mind”. He confronted the dream’s odd mix of matter and seeming madness. He was not content with a dismissal of dreams as “pure mental noise” nor was he satisfied with an idealization of dreams as messages of the gods. For Freud, the oddness of the dream was worthy of observation. The dream, in its strangeness, lives on the frontier of sense and nonsense, sleep and waking, of hiding and being found, of revealing and concealing.
And an art of deriving meaning from the dream is also an art of association and interpretation, an art of reverie. I’m also guided in meditation on life and death by reverie and by dream thoughts. As an animal is guided back by the memory of a distant salt lick, in reverie I can feel the pull of the impossible. I’m drawn to meditate on impossible necessary death. And true to that draw, images of death appear in my dreams and reveries.
Dreams are involuntary and in REM sleep we are immobilized even as our minds are aroused. The dream is a kind of laboratory for the impossible in which the limits of the waking state are left behind. Even so, the dream has its limits, limits of the image and of representation, limits of possibility. It is no wonder that many dreams should focus on death or that Freud as a dream interpreter should see death hiding behind the manifest mask of a reported dream. Death as a great limit is no stranger to dreaming or waking thought.
In the flux and mobility of dreams and dream-images, Freud saw representations of death in muteness and dumbness. He lists other attributes as well:
Hiding and being unfindable—a thing which confronts the prince in the fairly tale of Cinderella three times, is another unmistakable symbol of death in dreams; so, too, is a marked pallor, of which the ‘paleness’ of the lead in one reading of Shakespeare’s texts is a reminder.
Silent, hidden, unfindable, pale: all are representations of the limits of representation, of failure in representation. The plasticity of the dreaming mind comes up against the impossibility of death, what is most plastic comes up against what cannot be represented. What are the images of blankness? The dream may wrap death in muteness or in a blank shroud.
The dream turns from death’s impossibility through intricate evasion, through displacement, and through resistance. The freedom and the mobility of dreams and dreaming give play to evasion, to the suspension of any limit or resistance that might wake the dreamer. And the limit of death will wake the dreamer just as it will end a story or a life. Death is the master image of the dream only because the dream is ever in flight from death, ever circulating around what it cannot represent.
To see death behind an image or a dream is to in some sense kill the dream, to unmask the image. We need salt, but not too much. The dream knows only flux and mobility, only flight, only life. It is after the fact, when we awaken to daylight, that we wonder what the dream means.
And inquiry into the meaning of the dream is an act of association, of life. Every moment of the mind is another turn of life. If I fix meaning, I kill meaning making.
The image of death is too fixed, unless it becomes an image for contemplation, a part of reverie. A simple equivalence, a simple reduction to a fixed end will not do; a reduction of life to salt or to death will not do.
For thousands of years, salt has been used as a mordant or a fix for dye. And when a death becomes a foregone fixity, it can become a barrier to reverie. Salt is a preservative and a mordant, and we have to take care when we mine salt lest we become salt men who, trapped in salt mines thousands of years ago, are now only salt. Pure salt is immortal and frozen.
The pure salt of the real requires the water of reverie. Every image can be a step to new association and new life.
3. Maurice Blanchot. The Writing of the Disaster, p. 67. ↵
4. Wilfred R. Bion, in Paulo Cesar Sandler, An Introduction to ‘W.R. Bion’s A Memoir of the Future’: Volume One, pg. 322. I searched for this exact quote in the work of Bion and I could not find it. Given how exacting Sandler is, if this is an apocryphal quote, it would be an unusual lapse and very interesting. There are many points in Bion’s work where he hits on this theme. One example is the following” «[…] healthy mental growth seems to depend on truth as the living organism depends on food. If it is lacking or deficient the personality deteriorates.» (Bion, 1965, p. 38) ↵
5. Wilfred R. Bion, Two Papers: ‘The Grid’ and ‘Caesura”The Grid’ and ‘Caesura’, p. 28 ↵