Seattle, Washington, USA
North Pacific Institute for Analytical Pschology, Seattle
The “black hole” is a signifier that has a strong grasp on the contemporary imagination. Defying any final determination, it “floats” and evokes new events of meaning. In its “free play,” it conjures variable images such as vortex, void, abyss, lack and emptiness. These evocations are usually spatial, but there is no final, essential “something” that they signify.
The psychological impact of a “black hole” is often a rapidly shifting experience of place and space. As a result, the sense of the uncanny escalates. Paradoxically, an opening for new significations may also appear “at the edge of the abyss.”
The “black hole” has appeared prominently in cultural history, psychoanalysis and science. I will discuss this complex phenomenon from several perspectives, and then provide illustrations with some vivid dreams from a clinical case.
In modern usage, the term “black hole” apparently derived from the semi-fictional tale of the “Black Hole of Calcutta.” In 1756, 150 or so Europeans and others supposedly suffocated when the Nawab of Bengal held them captive in a small room with little ventilation. The facts are disputed, but the expression took root in the collective imagination, evoking a terrifying image of claustrophobia and death.
In astrophysics the Black Hole refers to the phenomenon in which infinite gravitational forces have compressed the mass of a collapsing star into an infinite density. The potent center of the Black Hole is called a singularity. There the laws of physics break down and there is no escape. One could say theoretically that, within the singularity, an entity becomes so densely particular that the usual laws no longer apply. According to the Big Bang model, the singularity is also the point from which the original expansion of the universe began.
The “black hole” appeared in modern psychological discourse when Frances Tustin used the term. Interestingly, she did this before the astrophysical entity had been described. (Grotstein 1990b, 39-40) During treatment of autistic children she noted a terror of the falling into what they referred to as a “black hole.” This was accompanied by a sense of living as a shell-like “nothing,” a void. (Tustin)
Adults create containing narratives of words, body language, emotions, images, rituals, and meaningful objects. (Chandler, 2) Under the impact of affect-laden eruptions these eventually fail. The resultant “black hole” feels as if it is too much, an overwhelming opening in experience that exceeds one’s capacity to signify. (Merleau-Ponty, 1968, 21) Psychic space begins to “turn topsy-turvy,” and to feel uncanny. “Annihilation anxiety” may result, stemming from the threat of madness or psychic death. (Gediman)
However, it is in the experience of being “on the edge of the abyss” that new signs and symbols may appear. This change can be so dramatic that the individual’s presence in the world could be called “transformed.”
We often use space to refer to such an endless, impersonal extension, and place as merely an objective point located somewhere “in” it. But as embodied flesh we touch, feel, and move through the flesh of the world in personal and immediate ways, not as points in some abstract extension. (Merleau-Ponty, 1968, 248-51) That to which we feel closest is not the smallest measurable distance from us. (Heidegger, 99) For instance, I may feel “very distant” from my next-door neighbor, but “very close” to my sons on the East Coast.
Even though we may “make more room,” there always remains an underlying sense that our heimlich or “homey” worlds could suddenly become unheimlich or uncanny. (Heidegger, 172-8) There are always gaps or “spaces” in what we articulate; and there is a continuous dialogical movement between familiar discourses and novel, unknown elements that emerge within those gaps. Such uncertainty often results in aggressive defenses of sameness, as well as clinging to “safe” dyadic, twinship relationships that depend on mirroring.
Many years ago an analysand presented some emotion-laden dreams and images that encompassed the black hole, uncanny spaces, and transformation.
Todd was in his middle thirties when he entered analysis due to depression and anxiety. He had recently separated from his wife of several years. From his description, she was a very unstable, probably borderline person. He had previously been in analytical therapy for three-to-four years and described it as a waste of time. From the beginning he was very anxious and constantly critical of me. I often found it difficult to be with him. It was as if he “had no space” for my words or my presence, that I was “squeezed out.”
After a year or more of ups and downs with very few dreams, he confided in me in a new way. Gazing intently at me in an almost desperate manner, he burst out with a new revelation. He said he had long been tormented by a “black hole” “deep inside” him, and was terrified whether this meant he was psychotic like his wife. There was a slightly “mad,” desperate look in his eyes as he spoke.
As time went on and the experience continued, I suggested that we sit together with “It” – the black hole – during some of our sessions. He agreed, and this led to some very intense meetings. Looking shaky and almost desperate, he sometimes angrily blamed me for his pain. At other times he seemed comforted by my presence. Describing the black hole as something inchoate, devouring and horrifying, Todd often felt that he had no ground under his feet, nothing to hold on to, and was falling into an abyss.
He began to have panic reactions during the night. Hardly able to bear the depth of his terror, he thought of suicide as an escape. He called me several times late at night but calmed down pretty quickly when we talked. It was clear that the analytic relationship had become a place of safety and containment.
Through endless trials and driven by curiosity about objects around them, children expand their sense of space. (Horne) This was what Todd was beginning to do in the analytic process. His tenuous acceptance of my presence as a helpful “object” made expansion of space and place a possibility. Now we were both there with “It.” He was no longer stuck with the dark “thing,” all alone.
James Grotstein quoted Tustin to the effect that the “black hole” is “a universal … image in the internal world and seems to represent where the mother used to be, but ripped herself away prematurely, leaving a ‘gaping hole’.” (Grotstein, 1990a, 42) To view this more phenomenologically, separation is not merely a “loss of the object,” but the experience of being left alone with “It”: the “black hole.” When the analyst goes off on vacation, the analysand may feel left alone with It. Gaps in relationship and in discourse are hints of It. The “black hole” phenomenon is fundamental to human experience, not merely an aspect of psychotic or borderline conditions.
Perhaps the goal of analysis is to acknowledge the intrinsically traumatic nature of life. If we take such traumas as personal attacks or signs of a malevolent destiny we are doomed to a narcissistic/paranoid stasis. We can resolutely choose to create at the edges of our lack, in the midst of our anxiety, or we can view the conditions of human existence as a never-ending personal affront.
Todd possessed a great deal of courage and vitality. His ex-wife, a borderline psychotic, had carried the “black hole” for him in her abjectness and dysfunction. After the divorce he had to face it as his own. A few months after he first confided in me about the black hole, he had his first big dream. Up until this point, his dreams had been sketchy and fragmented. This initial dream, told to me in an intense emotional burst, was as follows:
I’m in Hong Kong, then on a trip to Red China. It’s a backpacking trip to see the sarcophagus. I’m with some guys. We have to sneak across the border. There are some warning shots and we have to scamper up the hill. Then we cross the desert to an underground passage. We come to a crowded room where the sarcophagus is supposed to be. I see some porcelain and granite bulls with red horns! The bulls pull all my attention rather than the sarcophagi.
I want to take a picture … A guy is in there with two bare- breasted women and he tells me to stop looking, that he’s going to kick the shit out of me. I knock him against the wall and break a chair over his head.
We head for the border. There is a gorge with only a plank across it. A rock falls from above toward me. Mike stops it somehow. I feel the presence of my father and am terrified. As I start to walk the plank, a helicopter lands. I know it’s my father because I see his feet. The plank is slanted and I start to slip. Mike helps me. I say I’ll just fall into the gorge and swim, but I really think I’ll die and that’s okay. Then we go across and reach the border. Mike says you have to run 30 yards or more after you cross … you can’t just skip across. I see buses crossing the border freely. Guards begin shooting at us. I keep running and running and they keep shooting and shooting. I crawl gasping up an incline, pulling on a railing. We’re suddenly at 40,000 feet! I can look out and see clouds. Mike says to come on. I’m not sure what to do.
Todd finished telling me this dream with an air of relieved exhaustion as if he had delivered a baby. He expressed amazement that such a creative achievement came from “inside” him. His dreaming self was able to articulate the violent shift into a more spacious world, a possible life with more room. Significantly, the “black hole” did not reappear in pure form during the remainder of the analysis, and his terror and panic subsided. A richer set of narrative possibilities was emerging that could furnish a broader base for his life.
In the dream there are multiple movements in space. First he takes a stand on the earth to make a crossing beyond the known world. To do that you have to sneak, not go the conventional way. Then he’s under the ground where he finds the porcelain bulls. These animals have an earthy vitality and red penetrating horns, but a cold and brittle porcelain skin. He gazes at the bare-breasted women, perhaps sensing nourishing possibility rather than lack. However, there is a problem when he tries to take photos – perhaps hopeful, basing images – back to the everyday world. The old defenses challenge him, seeking to nullify the emerging flow of life.
He has left the boundaries of known discourse and this has a disorienting effect. As he returns to home base, the experience of space becomes more uncanny and terrifying. He has to cross an abyss. Is this a remaining sign of the “black hole?” The terror of his father’s presence must be mastered for him to expand into new spaces, to have room to be. Surrendering to the experience, Todd confronts his fear and is willing to die. Such a level of surrender is crucial for transformation to occur.
These spatial shifts emerged like a giant whipsaw. After being down below, then over the abyss, he is suddenly high above. His sense of place and space shifts violently. Boundaries are guarded and dangerous. We know that habits give up their protective powers reluctantly. Mike, the steadfast transferential companion, continues to help. Dimensions of space have expanded, provoked by the black hole, the uncanny edge of the abyss.
Over the next few months Todd had a series of dreams that elaborated facets of the big dream. He had remarried and his new wife was pregnant. Another dramatic dream expressed this change:
My wife and I are in San Francisco. A friendly dentist is working on my teeth. We leave, and decide to drive our new van around the city. We want to walk around; it would be good for her, since she’s pregnant. A guy takes us on this walking tour. We get to a huge plaza, like in Rome. He says this is a Spanish-Mexican area of town. People are running toward us. It’s a mass of humanity. A guy has a pack of Pall Mall (cigarettes), and points to a mall pictured on the package, like that’s where we’ll be safe.
I get separated from my wife. I realize people are running from the bulls. It’s Pamplona! Something has me from behind. I call to my wife but she can’t do anything. The bull has me but it turns into a person with a cat’s head. It is a tall, sinewy man, very muscular, who is strong and controlling. I want to get free but he says, “No, you can’t!” He takes me to a stage where there are three cauldrons filled with warm, dark fluid. I think he is going to cook me! He has me get into each cauldron so as to put my body scents into each one. There are also herbs and spices that I add.
The reliable dentist works on his teeth, like the focused, hard work of analysis. Teeth are also a common symbol of initiation. Then there is a tour of a mall: the modern agora or marketplace. Todd confronts his psychological agoraphobia, his personal constriction, his fear of space. (Agoraphobia appeared only in the late nineteenth century, so it is clearly related to changing cultural-historical realities. We might speculate that Todd’s malady is part of the malady of the modern world, not just his own.)
In the dream, the bulls surge expansively through the streets. They are alive, not fixed in cold porcelain, but also not out of control. The spaces of the city streets contain their powerful movement, and the enigmatic, catlike man directs a ritual. There are vessels in which Todd’s scents will intermingle with the warm waters, in contrast to his past encasement in a cold, rigid shell. He must also add spices! Smells have permeable boundaries and are part of our most embodied presence. We often judge odors to be signs of danger or pollution and try to conceal our smell. It reminds us of our body along with its vulnerability and death. Hard shells are a sometimes-desperate means of clinging to the illusion of permanence, sameness, and purity.
Things are changing. He is becoming more grounded, “in place” in a way that does not require a rigid shell. Todd is more present “in the flesh,” immersed in the flow of life. His spaces are more fluid and flowing rather than hierarchical and radically disjointed. His raw body smells and the spices intermingle. Under the tutelage of this strange Initiation Master, these transformative shifts give hope for the future.