Hope vs. Hopelessness in the Psychoanalytic Situation and in Dante’s Divine Comedy

Donald E. Kalsched
New York, New York, USA
New York Association for Analytical Psychology

The True God transforms violence into suffering.
The False God transforms suffering into violence.

– Simone Weil


Today I want to talk about hope in the psychoanalytic situation and also its opposite, hopelessness, and I would like to do this against the backdrop of some archetypal imagery of the most “hopeless” place of all-Hell, as it’s envisioned in the first book of Dante Alighieri’s (1978) Divine Comedy, the Inferno. When Dante, the Pilgrim, enters Hell on the first part of his prescribed journey into his own interiority, he reads the inscription over the gate “Abandon all Hope, Ye who enter here.” (Slide) As the poets enter the precincts of Hell, they soon realize that hope must be abandoned there because the suffering in Hell is eternal suffering – it goes on and on without relief – without hope of comfort or of liberation or release. This “eternal pain” was, for Dante, the worst imaginable punishment for a sinful life on earth. It seems that the human imagination cannot feature anything quite so terrible as suffering that goes on and on forever without hope. And it is this kind of suffering that I want to look at today – “eternal” suffering –because I think we witness this kind of suffering – or something resembling it – in the clinical situation with some of our patients. I hope that some archetypal imagery from Dante’s visionary poem, may enrich our understanding.

Hopelessness and ‘Dis’

If we look at the structure of Dante’s poem we find that it is in three parts, corresponding to three realms of the “after-life. Each part is a stage in the journey Dante must make. He must make this journey because he is depressed. The poems first lines state: “Midway this way of life we’re bound upon, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, where the right road was wholly lost and gone” (p. 71). (Slide). And for his “midlife” depression, an encounter with the “under-world” of Hell is apparently the necessary prescription – a kind of homeopathic remedy. Dante has lost hope, and in order to recover hope, he has to abandon hope. This is Dante’s paradox-one we find applicable to the clinical situation as well. Actually it might be more accurate to say that in order to recover hope, Dante must “enter the area of abandoned hope” – but he must do this voluntarily and consciously-with his guide, Virgil, the ancient poet as a witness. It would do Dante no good if he simply fell into the pit of Hell. One part of him has to be conscious of what he’s doing … to witness it. This part is represented by the shade of Virgil.

In the first third of the poem, Dante must descend into the Inferno through a series of stages, starting with Limbo, the outermost layer, and proceeding through nine levels down into the very center of the Earth, (Slide) in order to encounter an image of absolute evil. And Dante’s name for this Evil One is not Satan, or Lucifer, as we might expect, but “Dis,” from the Latin, meaning to divide or negate (“Dite” in Italian). Dis is a kind of nether-world trinity – a three-headed, bat-winged monster, living at the point of densest gravity and severest cold in Hades, devouring a sinner in each of his ghastly mouths and freezing the Cocytus with the icey wind from his bat-like wings. (Slide) I think Dante’s poetic insight that the darkest evil we can imagine is equivalent to the life-negating, dis-integrating energies of the “under” world (which we would call the unconscious) helps us relate the poem’s medieval Christian imagery to the clinical situation where we are very familiar with “Dis” as dissociative disorder, dis-memberment, dis-integration, dis-avowal, dis-hearten, disgrace, dis-courage, dis-ease-even dis-aster, which means losing one’s connection to the stars-to one’s god-given destiny and hence, to hope.

The three-headed cannibal known as “Dis” is well known to psychoanalysis, but he has a controversial pedigree. Early theorists, including Freud (1920) interpreted him as a personification of the death instinct (p. 35). Wilfred Bion (1965) saw him in paranoid/persecutory terms as a malevolent, hypertrophied, Superego, personifying the hate in the psyche that attacks the links between affect and image, body and mind. Winnicott (1965) would have called him a “primitive defense” against early trauma, and in Fairbairn’s (1981) object-relations psychology he was the “Internal Saboteur” in the unconscious, attacking an “innocent” remainder of a regressed, “libidinal ego” in order to make psychic survival possible. Recent theorists like James Grotstein (1990) would describe him as the “black hole” at the center of the psyche, “… the awesome force of powerlessness, of defect, of nothingness, of zero-ness-expressed, not just as a static emptiness but as an implosive, centripetal pull into the void.” (p. 257) And Michael Eigen (1995) summarizing Bion’s position gives us a chilling description of him as a “catastrophe machine, grinding any bits of possible experiencing into horrific nothingness” (p. 114).

My own musings about this source of Evil in the human psyche has been informed by these recent theorists but with the important proviso that the defense that Dis embodies is archetypal, originally part of the Self’s wholeness, and therefore has a “telos” or “intention” with respect to the incarnating spirit of the personality that is equivocal, trickster-like and hard to categorize as pure evil. After all, Dis is a fallen Angel-Lucifer himself, the light-bearer. He is also the “agent provocteur” of consciousness in the Garden, so he can’t be all bad. I have called him a Protector/Persecutor, the instigator in the unconscious of a “self-care system” assuring the person’s survival at the expense of true-self living. Dis can keep a person alive out of sheer will-power and I have seen this happen. Some of my patients felt – as chiildren – that they owed their very lives to him and they are not wrong, although the life “he” gave them is not the true life they seek. What these patients experience, and what I have been forced to acknowledge with them is how dissociative processes provide a “daimonic” or archetypal container where human mediation has broken down.

Failed mediation between the inner and outer worlds is by definition, traumatic because the raw impact of unformulated, un-symbolized experience hits the child’s psyche like a bolt of lightening hits the electrical panel of a house. Without a transformer for this high voltage, all the circuits are blown. Kohut (1977) calls this experience “disintegration anxiety,” (p. 104) which, he says, constitutes a mortal threat to the very core of personality – what I have called the “imperishable personal spirit” or human soul. Because the murder of the soul would effectively destroy the integrity of personality, it must be avoided at all costs and so Dis arrives on the scene to prevent the overwhelming impact from being experienced.

The problem (as I have come to understand it) is that in order to accomplish this, and consistent with his nature, Dis dismembers experience – chops it to pieces and then makes sure that the pieces do not link up again. Affect in the body is severed from its corresponding image in the mind and thereby an unbearably painful meaning is obliterated. An innocent remainder of the pre-traumatic self is split off and regresses into an autistic enclave within the psyche and amnesia barriers are erected to make sure this lost innocence does not remember what happened to it. Meanwhile, the “progressed” part of the personality grows up too fast, becomes self-sufficient, and goes on living in the outer world, but forgets about the lost innocence now encapsulated in the “nether-world.” This innocent remnant is not without hope – the hope of the prisoner for parole or release but as the years drag on, this wistful hope and longing rapidly turns into hopelessness and despair. And Dis rarely commutes the sentences of his imprisoned innocents.

So here is the “engine” of hopelessness in the deep unconscious, at least as Dante imagines him – “Emperor of the Sorrowful Realm”(p. 286) (Slide). In order to recover hope the Pilgrim with his guide must descend into the pit to encounter this creature – then they have to climb down the great hairy body of Dis, right down to his groin area. (Slide) At this point, miraculously the whole armature of the poem turns 180 degrees. Their direction is reversed. Down becomes “up.” Instead of climbing down, Dante and Virgil find themselves climbing up the hair legs of the beast to emerge at the base of the 7 story mountain of Purgatory in the southern hemisphere. (Slide) Here they see the stars again for the first time and hope that was lost in the Inferno, is rekindled. (Slide)

Of the three realms Dante must negotiate, both the Inferno and the Paradiso are outside time and space – eternal –so the suffering in Hell is eternal just as the joy and bliss of Paradise are eternal. Only the Puragorio – an intermediate realm – is in time, because the sinners there are slowly “working off” their sin through acts of repentance and contrition. They are moving towards the eternal. They have escaped the prison-house of Dis and their suffering is not meaningless, endless suffering. They are not without hope, although their hope is not yet realized. Suspended between Heaven and Hell very much like we are in this life, their violence toward themselves has been turned into suffering and they are suffering towards something … towards a hopeful end.

Suffering and Refusal

Hell and Purgatory therefore define two kinds of suffering in the poem. First, suffering in Hell that is stuck-that goes nowhere, a “repetition compulsion” of self-perpetuating misery. Second, suffering that moves through the various terraces of the seven-story mountain and on into that part of the Spirit realm having to do with integration and wholeness – we might say meaningful suffering. And in Dante’s vision, the central act of human consciousness that differentiates these two kinds of suffering, is an act of repentance. The sinners in Purgatory have repented. The sinners in Hell have refused to repent – refused to acknowledge their own brokenness and for this reason, their torment is eternal and real hope has been lost to them. Here again we encounter Dante’s paradox because to acknowledge one’s brokenness means to give up one’s pride, the false hope one has been clinging to, and to enter the realm of hopelessness voluntarily. Understandably, most of us refuse this “fall.”

It is this endless suffering, driven and sustained by an inner act of refusal, that I want to explore here. I believe it is a self-state that is very familir to us in clinical practice with a certain category of patients. These patients seem to be perpetually caught in a state of hopelessness that they cannot get out of and, if truth be told, they refuse to get out of. These are patients who seem wedded to their pain. At least when we try to help them, they are tremendously resistant to this help and in this resistance is a proud refusal to give up a state of chronic misery which seems to be perversely comforting to them. These patients are in Hell, and their hopelessness and victimization seems endless, but they seem to prefer it that way.

Of course this is not true. They wouldn’t be in therapy if they truly “wanted” to suffer in this way. It would be more accurate to say that a part of them “prefers it that way” and they are helpless in relation to this part. They have fallen under the spell of some truly diabolical inner factor – an anti-life force in the unconscious that repeatedly undermines their hope and creates hopelessness. Like Faust, they seem to have sold their soul to some Devil who has promised them something and then turned that promise into a life of misery.

The fact that some patients seem committed to hopeless suffering has puzzled every major psychoanalytic investigator in our profession. Freud (1923) shook his head in amazement when he encountered the “negative therapeutic reaction” and the “repetition compulsion” in these patients and concluded, “There is no doubt that there is something in these people that sets itself against their recovery (p. 49). Jung (1906) was equally impressed with the willful refusal-to-getwell of a certain patient named Sabina Spielrein, and he attributed this negative reaction to a “morbid” fragment of personality or complex, “the inclinations judgments, and resolutions of which move only in the direction of the will to be ill” (p. 110). This perverse second personality, Jung said, “devours what is left of the normal ego and forces it into the role of a secondary (oppressed) complex.”(p. 110)

Dante’s inferno gives us an image of this “perverse second personality,” a personification, of the “will to be ill,” devouring everything in sight. Here is the “great refuser” himself or, as Mephistopheles identifies himself in Faust, the one who negates everything. We will look at the mythological origins of this monster in a moment. But first a few words about hopelessness in the clinical situation – to help us understand how a pact with this Devil gets signed in an individual’s life.

Hope and Transitional Space

When a patient walks into our office seeking psychotherapy, we can be fairly sure that he or she is in psychic pain, and that associated with this pain, is a sense of hopelessness. This hopelessness-and hence the lost hope of the person’s life – is located in the realm of a person’s “becoming” which has been foreclosed. When I say “realm of a person’s becoming,” I am using Martin Buber’s language to describe the intermediate realm we all know so well from Winnicott’s contributions to the early development of the infant and child psyche. Hope seems to reside in a successful negotiation of this “potential space” or transitional space.

One of the reasons Hope seems to reside in this space is that in the “becoming” of potential space – in the actualization of personal potential that occurs between the baby and the mother – in this space, something “more” appears to be going on than what Winnicott described as the paradoxical meeting of the baby’s hallucinated need for the breast with the mother’s actual breast. All true depth psychologies have a vision of what this something “more” might be. Jung’s vision was that something transpersonal was happening in this space. An inner foundation of wholeness (the Self) was slowly precipitating itself into being as an individual ego. To put it in mystical and religious terms, we might say that God is becoming man in transitional space. Something pre-existent in the field of omnipotence is being transmuted into the human personality. In the “realm of a person’s becoming” a splinter of the Godhead is entering time and space reality and taking on flesh and becoming a human soul. This is a hopeful idea. It suggests that the human personality has a transpersonal origin and essence. Omnipotence is not just something to be purged away. Omnipotence contains a “seed” of the future and has an “intention” with respect to the core or essence of personality. It has an implicate order, if you will, that Winnicott did not consider.

What happens then, we might ask, when the potential space for this incarnational process is not provided … when the space of human becoming is foreclosed?

Case of Helen

Consider the following situation. A little girl, aged four, (later my patient) is brimming with excitement and hope as the family prepares to move into their first real home, where she has been promised her own room and a real backyard with sandbox and swing set. The family is gathered outside on a beautiful Spring day, greeting the neighbors and getting acquainted as the moving van unloads its cargo. In a creative act of inspiration, little Helen picks a bouquet of flowers and enthusiastically hands them to her mother in celebration of this moment.

I would invite us to pause here and contemplate what is at stake in this moment … a little girl reaching out for her mother with a handful of flowers in total exuberance. It is a moment of enthusiasm. The root of that word is “en-theos” – the God or Spirit filling the person. Here is a moment saturated with what Buber (1965) calls the “microcosmic richness of the possible” (p. 80) – hope in potentia. We might say that something of this child’s unique, god-given personal spirit was reaching across a threshold here in a desire to incarnate. This incarnation did not happen

The mother looked down at the flowers – then quckly at the neighbor’s yard and then anxiously scolded her daughter: “No, No, Helen! What’s the matter with you! How could you! You picked those flowers from Mrs. Smith’s garden. Now you go and apologize to her.” Dragging the little girl by the arm, she forced this apology out of her and simultaneously broke her heart, destroying the hope implicit in this creative act, foreclosing the transitional space in which Helen’s personhood was coming into being.

Now occasional derailments like this in an otherwise affirming childhood atmosphere are not going to matter all that much – they will not destroy hope, because such injuries can be repaired through empathy and understanding. But with my patient Helen, this kind of shaming by the narcissistic mother, was typical. The word “love” was never spoken in her family, she told me, and Helen never remembers being touched, whereas everyone touched the family dog. Instead of love there was ridicule and at the dinner table somebody always cried out of humiliation or shame. She was the “stupid” or “ugly” one. Then, after dinner, the father continued drinking, and as he became more violent, would regularly take off his belt and strap little Helen on her bare bottom. If she protested, he would slap her in the face.

After one of these humiliations, Helen remembered the experience of suddenly watching herself from another place in the room. This separation between her “watcher” and the frightened little girl-self being hit and humiliated happened automatically at first. But as the violence increased, little Helen actually began to seek out these states of dissociation because they made her feel strangely less anxious and more calm. She found that with a certain concentration in front of the mirror, she could bring them about. She would stare at herself until she began to feel unreal, until gradually the person looking, and the image in the mirror, were like two different people. Here we can begin to feel the icey winds of Dis slowly insinuating themselves into Helen’s life. She began to dissociate – to “watch” herself. In her “watcher” mode, she felt invulnerable – liberated from the fragile crybaby self who couldn’t stop sobbing, and she began to harden herself against the mother’s shaming and the father’s beatings.

Meanwhile, in the outside world, Helen had become a behavior problem. She refused to participate with the family in activities. She refused to eat. She ran away from home. She picked fights with other kids at school. It wasn’t long before she developed an eating disorder and started wishing that she was a boy. First she started binging and purging – later she became anorexic. Then in college she went back to bulemia again. She hated her fat body because of its needs and its imperfections and she hated the little cry-baby girl who lived in that body. By the time she arrived in my therapy office in her late 30s she had become a very self-sufficient, successful professional woman on the outside, a journalist and scholar, proud of her accomplishments and all the famous people she knew, but inwardly, she was in despair. And the “voice” of this despair was a relentless chastizing voice that said “No, No Helen; What’s the matter with you!” This voice made sure that underneath all her outward success, lay a deep sense of her inadequacy as a person. The secret world of her binging and vomiting was the proof of her failure and her worthlessness.

It was as though Helen grew into a life held together by one giant refusal. One part of her felt loathesome, fat and undesirable. … but she could not admit to these humiliating feelings. She could never let herself “fall” into this brokenness. There was too much shame in it and she was too proud. Instead, she would hold herself “above” her shameful self. She refused to be broken. She refused to be humiliated ever again. In her eating disorder she controlled her fear of loss with a fear of food. One part of her was perpetually hungry and full of longing – another part hated this weak whiney simpering kid. She felt weak and needy-she felt nothing. She gave in, to hunger and binged – she purged this awful weakness, vomiting ‘til she spat blood. She needed, she did not need.

In therapy, she was equally ambivalent. One part of her had a positive transference to me as a nurturing father – the child hiding within herself, we might say –while one part sat back and vigilantly scanned me, prepared to point out my foibles, my inadequacies as an analyst, my “irresponsible vacation schedule,” grudgingly acknowledging on occasion that I had a point. In my countertransference, I had a sense of what it might have been like around Helen’s family’s dinner table.

One day I raised my patients’ fees, including Helen’s. Although she insisted within the session that she had no particular reaction to this (everything was “fine” – just send her the bill, she “didn’t even want to think about it”), an hour later she called me in an agitated state and broke her next appointment. She was furious and wanted nothing more to do with therapy and its crass “business arrangements.” “Fuck you!” she screamed into the phone and hung up. I did not call her back. Later that week I received a letter in the mail full of profuse apologies for her anger on the telephone and self-recriminations about her bad temper. When I next met her in the waiting room she asked sheepishly if I was “all right.” She confessed how overwhelmed she had been by rage and anger and talked of the panic she felt at having “ruined” the relationship. Then she mentioned a dream she had the night of her “explosion” on the telephone.

In the dream, she and an unknown man are on some sort of mission. They wend their way through a thick dark woods and come eventually upon a deep cave with two stone pillars at its entrance. Just inside, on the edge of the enveloping darkness, huddled near one of the pillars, hides a little girl, tattered and dirty, like one of the “wild children” discovered in France. The dream ends as the patient wakes in fear. Helen had an instinctive sense that this dream was important. There was something haunting to her about this “wild child”-something fearful, yet compelling and attractive. She associated the unknown man in the dream to me and she thought her fear in the dream on encountering the wild girl was like her fear when all the wild anger had leaped out of her.


Here is a moment Ronald Fairbairn (1981) would have described as a terrifying “release of bad objects” from the unconscious – something some patients dread more than anything else. Helen had never risked this amount of rage with me before. She had “Dissed” me in no uncertain terms. Yet when old Dis was liberated from the unconscious, so was this abandoned child-self, as if the rage connected to dissociation had to be unlocked from the inner world and directed outward before we could “see” this lost child hidden in its cave. As our work proceded over the ensuing months, there were many other dreams in which this abandoned child appeared.

These lost innocent children in Helen’s psyche were encapsulated in a part of her inner world that was inaccessible to her prideful ego, with its intolerance of vulnerability. They were somehow kept alive like hydroponic plants, feeding on the ambrosia of Helen’s fantasies of liberation – hope that grew dimmer every day as Helen’s life became more and more dominated by self-hatred. Finally she forgot about them altogether. They disappeared into an autistic enclave. We will see such an autistic enclave in Dante’s vision of Hell. It is called Limbo and it is also the place that holds Hell’s innocent children.

Dante’s Descent into Limbo

After Dante and his guide pass through Hells-gate and pass through the Vestibule of Hell, they are ferried across the Acheron by Charon to the edge of the actual Pit of Hell. At the uppermost level inside a special walled area, they find themselves in the first circle, Limbo, from “limbus” meaning border or edge. (Slide)

Limbo, to Dante’s medieval imagination was the realm of “stuck” souls … eternally suspended in an altered state … undead, but also unalive … guilty only of having lived and died before Christ’s coming. The souls caught there did not merit the extreme torments of Hell’s deep flames (the “pain of sense”); yet, on the other hand, they inherited Adam’s original sin and, missing the sacrament of baptism, had to suffer a lesser “pain of loss” … loss of the beatific vision and of any possibility of redemption … eternal hopelessness and alienation from God. Hence Limbo contains only the righteous who lived before Christ – righteous pagan men and women, and innocent unbaptized infants … lost children – all locked up in a kind of crypt, far away from Dis’s red-hot tortures.

As the outermost layer of Hell, Limbo is forever separated from life by gates that are eternally locked and bolted. Dante askes his guide whether these locked gates have ever been penetrated, and Virgil says “only once” – by a man who came in great light and glory – this man, of course, was Christ. (Slide) The event Virgil refers to is known as the “harrowing of Hell,” when Jesus Christ penetrated the crypt, broke the gates and freed the prisoners in Limbo. He did this at the moment of his death on the cross. It is in keeping with Dante’s paradox about hope and hopelessness that Jesus was said to descend into the hopeless realm at his most hopeless moment – death on the cross.

Jung (1937) had some interesting things to say about this moment: “The utter failure came at the crucifixion,” says Jung, “in the tragic words ‘My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken me?’ If you want to understand the full tragedy of those words you must realize that they meant that Christ saw that his whole life, sincerely devoted to the truth according to his best conviction, had really been a terrific illusion. He had lived his life absolutely devotedly to its full and had made his honest experiment, but on the cross his mission deserted him …” Jung goes on to explain that because Jesus was faithful to this process, surrendering his ego, (“not my will but thine be done”) letting go even to bodily death – he found his way to a larger life and a larger story beyond his previous understanding. This larger story and larger life was the resurrection.

In addition to its theological significance, the resurrection represents quintessentially the restoration of hope. Now all the realms of the cosmos, Hell, Heaven, and the in-between world where we live have been connected. Body, mind, and Spirit are linked again through the human soul. The body is resurrected from “dis-embodiment.” The Spirit can indwell again. Life can flow. The space of becoming is restored. We might think of this story of divine “intercession” by Christ, descending and ascending, as a restoration of the psyche’s “transcendent function” – a restoration of that potential wholeness previously foreclosed by Dis.

Helen in Limbo

Helen also began to have such experiences on a small scale –moments that occurred more frequently. One in particular, occurred in a session soon after her angry outburst and the dream of the lost child. She had just suffered a searing rejection by a hoped-for boyfriend and sat in the session complaining about a knot of tension in her stomach. She was afraid her childhood ulcer was coming back. I asked her to close her eyes and concentrate on this pain, even intensifying it, to see what it might reveal to her. She had trouble with this, but eventually relaxed enough to focus on her stomach pain and after a brief time, suddenly she “saw” her “little girl,” arms extended outward, her mouth distorted in a silent scream for mother. This image brought an enormous upwelling of sadness into Helen’s body. She burst into tears and sobbed uncontrollably for several minutes. This was highly unusual for Helen. She usually hated her “crybaby self” – the “mueling, whining, puking thing,” as she called her weak little-girl-self. But now she was at a different place in her process. She felt overwhelming sadness, and yet in her surrender to these affects, there was great compassion for the lost little girl and her desperate need. Neville Symington would say that Helen made a choice in her tearful surrender. She stopped refusing and chose the Lifegiver.

In the psychoanalytic process, this is always a noteworthy moment. When the child comes back, the lost wholeness comes back with it, and the realm of becoming is opened once again. Hence the child in Limbo carries the lost hope for renewed life and in its abandonment and return, always represents the “divine child,” that mysterious carrier of hope in the psyche that Jung (1959) described as the “urge in every being … to realize itself” being an “incarnation of the inability to do otherwise.” (p. 170)

Descent into Nether Hell

After leaving Limbo, as Dante and his guide descend the downward spiraling path towards the pit, the poets encounter a series of increasingly horrifying apparitions that fill them with dread and growing anxiety. Finally the Pilgrim and his guide approach circle nine – the level of deepest evil – and are chilled by a freezing wind, made by the bat-like wings of Dis himself. As they stumble over the bodies of the damned, frozen into grotesque agonies underfoot, through the icey fog, they get their first glimpse of the Evil One. Dante writes:

And when we had come so far that it seemed right
to my dear master, he should let me see
that creature fairest once of the sons of light,
He moved himself from before me …
And said “Behold now Dis!
(Canto 34, lines 7-21)
“How cold I grew,” (says Dante) how faint with fearfulness
Ask me not, Reader; I shall not waste breath
Telling what words are powerless to express;
This was not life, and yet it was not death;
(Ibid., lines 22-25)

Dante’s description of Dis captures exactly the hopelessness of the “sorrowful realm” over which he rules – “this was not life, and yet it was not death.”

Archetypal Background of Dis

In Canto 34, Dante describes Dis as that “creature, fairest once of the sons of light.” This is a reference to Dis’s origins as Lucifer, the light-bearer who, by some accounts, was originally God’s most resplendent angel, but who fell from heaven before the creation of Adam. The story, based upon Aprocryphal literature from the first and second centuries, (see J.B. Russell, 1977, Chapter 5) tells of how Lucifer, the bearer of light, was the most beautiful, resplendent angel in God’s retinue and how one day he grew curious about what God was planning for the future. He looked deep into the heart of God’s mind and what he saw completely dismayed and disgusted him. To his great shock, he saw that God was planning create man in his own image. Then, worse still, he was planning to come down into the world and take on the incarnate body of a man – a man with fleshly and hairy body – almost an animal. And the most unthinkable thing of all, Lucifer saw that God planned to set one of these “vile bodies” upon the very throne of heaven. This so outraged Lucifer – so offended his identification with the resplendent Godhead, that he refused to surrender his pride and resolved to rebel against God’s incarnation. Together with a group of other rebel angels, he flew and fell far from the Godhead, down and down towards that ever-receding twilight where Being borders upon Nothing, to the Outer Darkness. There, he created for himself a nether-world and put himself in the service of Nothing rather than the service of Being, and so he became the great nihilist, Dis.

This geneology of Dis as the fallen Lucifer helps us to understand what the great refusal at the core of “eternal suffering” is all about. … it is a refusal of the incarnation. A refusal of embodiment, of what Winnicott calls “indwelling” … of God’s becoming human. I find this a telling archetypal “explanation” of why old Dis so ruthlessly attacks the links between affect in the body and imagery in the mind as he continually dismembers experience. As we have already seen, Helen’s anorexic self-hatred was based on a refusal to feel her affects in her body, a hatred of the imperfections in her embodied self, including her need for touch and the physical affection of other bodies. The pride of old Dis had taken over her inner world.

Summary and Conclusions

So in our exploration of Hell, both clinically, and archetypally, we have explored differing images of hope and hopelessness associated with two different kinds of suffering. There is first the kind of suffering we might call neurotic suffering that goes on forever, following a repetition compulsion of misery, and that always follows the refusal of another kind of suffering. We saw this both in Lucifer, when his pride and perfectionism overcame his love for God and he refused to stoop so low as incarnate humanity. We saw it in Helen, as the space between her incarnating soul and the world was repeatedly foreclosed and she began to dissociated from a suffering that was unbearably traumatic. In this dissociation was a refusal – a refusal by Dis, the fallen angel – a refusal to love because love led to humiliation. This saved her life. But once this bridge was crossed in Helen’s inner life, hope was lost because the “space” of creation and embodiment was foreclosed. The same was true for Lucifer. By refusing the creative descent of God into limited, flawed humanity, through love, he inherited a world of a lost hope where only the shadows of lost love can exist-now trapped as the spectres of innocent children, imprisoned in a Limbo of the undead where illusory hope is kept alive through wistful longing. Hope against hope, we might say. Hope with only a slim chance of “realization.” Realistic Hope is restored to the lost souls in this autistic enclave only when the God-man – the representative of God’s love on earth – repeats Lucifer’s fall into Hades, but voluntarily, by surrendering to human limitation, to the body and to death. In doing so, he breaks the gates of Hell and liberates the lost souls, twice-born into life again. Here is the God that transforms the violence of dissociation into suffering that can be borne – and restores hope.

Dante follows the same path in his own recovery of hope – first down into the pit with disillusionment and hopelessness, but voluntarily and with a witness – then up again after his own encounter with Dis into the light and the climb through Purgatory into Paradise. And Helen also followed this path. Plunged into her own living Hell by the repeated foreclosures of her efforts to become herself, she divided into two – one part innocent but weighted down with a sense of loathsomeness and defilement hiding in a Limbo of lost hope and fruitless longing – another part ruthlessly alive but inflated with pride and full of hatred for her imperfect body. Finally she let herself fall apart, and this is when she came together – when her lost original wholeness cam back with the little girl and with it, the lost hope of her life.

In Helen’s process, as well as in Dante’s imagery of Hell and Limbo, until the innocent parts of the self – encapsulated and lost – enter the space of becoming and join in the drama of self-realization – until this happens, hope cannot be born because the core of personality – the acorn – the soul-child – is kept out of the suffering necessary for humanization. As Helen Luke (1995) reminds us in her wonderful essay on suffering, only when the innocent part of us begins to suffer can we find our way to the new life and hope that the Christian myth envisions as the resurrection.

All in all, whether hope can be recovered in an individual’s life depends to a frightening degree on human mediation, loving containment, and inter-subjective relatedness. Unless we are loved out of our divinity into our humanity, divinity (operating as archetypal defenses) will make the future descent into the body difficult if not impossible. Apparently only love can make us whole because only love will risk the loss of perfection implied in each act of incarnation. And something in us will resist this descent at every turn.

But the struggle matters profoundly and as Jung has taught us, one of the places this great struggle is joined in the modern period is in the psychoanalytic transference. Here is the place where the foreclosed space of personal becoming will be opened again – or not.

To conclude, I’d like to offer a kind of gnostic summary of the journey we have been on. It goes something like this. The processs of “becoming the self you were intended to be” (Jung’s definition of individuation) involves the materialization of something spiritual. Some seed of true selfhood needs to make a perilous journey through very dangerous territory from the world of Eternity to the world of Time, from Spirit to Matter, from Divine to Human in order to become a human soul. Along the way, it will face many trials and suffer great disillusionment and it may never be able to make a full commitment to this hopeful journey if its suffering into reality is too great. It may even find itself split in two by a daimonic force it never reckoned with, part of it becoming cloistered in an autistic enclave without hope. Sometimes – not always – it will be able to return from this dissociated state and enter life once again. And if, through all the brokenness of the human condition, it finds enough of those sunny days when life seems possible … enough of those “empathic self-objects” and “optimal frustrations” that make love worth the sacrifice of omnipotence … if it makes it to these shores with some of its original divinity intact and not as a false self … Then it will have “arrived home from where it started, recognizing it for the first time.” This will be reason enough to hope.


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