Panel IAAP/IPA: Symbols and Symbolisation in Clinical Practice and in Elisabeth Márton’s Film

Symbolisation and Creativity: The Analytic Adventures of Mr. A. and of Sabina Spielrein

Alain Gibeault
Paris, France
Société Psychanalytique de Paris / IPA

The Congress of the International Psychoanalytic Association which was held in New Orleans last March gave Freud and Jung’s descendants the opportunity to share “signs” of recognition based on their common experience of the unconscious and thus to rediscover the social and communicative function of the symbol. Thanks to Murray Stein and Christian Gaillard, we have the exceptional occasion to continue, during this Congress of the International Association of Psychoanalytical Psychology, this same work of symbolisation from our clinical practice as well as from a reflection on our common history, such as is shown in Elisabeth Márton’s wonderful film, My Name was Sabina Spielrein.

Symbolisation is a complex concept. To begin with a simple definition: symbolisation can be seen as an operation by which something will represent another thing for someone. Although it appears to be a substitution of one object by another, it is above all a process which presumes both the capacity to represent an absent object as well as a subject who is capable of distinguishing the symbol from the symbolised object.

We might thus consider symbolisation as true imaginative play. It promotes the capacity to fantasize as well as organising psychic space. Most importantly, symbolisation is an anti-depressive mechanism which binds affect. Its principal function is to reconnect separated elements whose significant connection has been lost; that is, its task is to link two representations, the symbol and the symbolised, which then facilitates binding otherwise unbound affect.

Beyond the substitution of two terms, symbolisation designates a reciprocal relation between subject and object, between psychic reality and material reality, between past and present. It thus unites with sublimatory processes in their function of recognition and participation in the values of social reality. This is the result of the process of symbolisation which aims to introduce a system of intra- and inter-subjective exchanges. In clinical practice, the Freudian model of analysis presupposes a two-term (dual) relationship (the analyst and the analysand) where the work becomes possible only by reference to the third entity represented by the setting. Hence the analytic situation takes a form that is both symbolic and symbolising, because it operates on the basis of a three-term structure that, precisely, allows the unfolding of a process of symbolisation with its moments of closure and opening. Freud’s emphasis on an essentially individual symbolism which is opposed to the work of culture on a social dimension in fact bears witness to the adventure of symbolisation within the treatment: a closed and repetitive form of symbolisation is supposed to give way to one which is open and not repetitive and which introduces a new system of exchange.

Mr A.: From Self-begetting to the Primal Scene

These interpretative tactics can be illustrated by the case of Mr A., a psychotic patient in individual psychoanalytic psychodrama. At the first interview, Mr A. told the consultant: “I bought a pistol. I then spent two days going round and round the Seine looking for somewhere to kill myself … Well, in the end, I don’t know why, I chose the bridges … the idea was to shoot myself and then fall into the water … I don’t know what stopped me … maybe … it was because, with a pistol, you have to press the trigger very hard, and, well, a few moments elapse between putting … , aiming at myself and pressing the trigger. I found the delay too long, and when I couldn’t bring myself to do it, I went along to the psychiatric emergency unit at St Anne’s Hospital.”

This suicide attempt resulted in Mr A.’s spending several months in the ASM 13 (Paris 13 Mental Health Association) Policlinic and having a consultation at the E. & J. Kestemberg Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy Centre with Jean Gillibert, its former head. This introduction left no room for any kind of “play” (in the sense either of playing or of leeway), combining as it did the image of immediate action with that of the suspension of time – the “few moments that elapsed” – which halted the fatal action.

The analyst’s approach to this lethal problem situation was to suggest play in the form of psychodrama, to encourage the creation of a psychic space and of temporality with a view to overcoming the patient’s recourse to omnipotent disavowal and splitting of the ego. After all, Mr A.’s psychotic functioning had already been responsible for the failure of a two-year couch-based psychoanalysis and of a further two years of face-to-face psychotherapy, the latter having been suddenly interrupted by the suicide attempt. The analytic work had not enabled the patient to bind his violence and destructiveness, which had been his only possible means of escape from the annihilating threat of non-differentiation from the object – a process described by A. Green (1980) as a casting out of the object. The only remaining option for emerging from this confusion was then to destroy the object or the subject himself. The suicidal attempt represented also a failure of the delusional solution: Mr A. had been previously subject to visual hallucinations of the Virgin Mary and to a mystical delusion.

Mr A.’s psychodrama treatment, under the direction of Jean Gillibert for the first two years and then of myself for the last eight years, was intended to allow him to contemplate solutions other than self-destruction and/or delusion. At the time of his consultation, he was in a state of great distress. Having been made redundant two years earlier, he said that he was no longer able to work or even to seek a job; he had “stayed in bed, playing dead”, until he finally resolved upon suicide as the way out.

He was tormented by a humiliating and shameful family history, his paternal grandfather and father having collaborated with the Germans during the Second World War; tormented also by the tales of war and destruction that had been his staple reading matter since childhood, he felt assailed by images of mutilated bodies, associated both with his fragmentation anxieties and with their mastery as, in his imagination, he constantly rehearsed the themes that obsessed him. In accordance with his father’s wishes, he had spent five years in the army at the end of his adolescence. During this period he had felt “confined to barracks” – his way of describing the anxiety-inducing experience of being unable to get out once he had gone inside. This corresponded to the terrifying experience of incorporation by the object, a psychotic parallel to the vision portrayed in Buñuel’s famous film The Exterminating Angel, in which guests at a dinner party are suddenly locked inside a house and lack the strength to leave.

The only way to avoid being thus locked in by the object was to take flight from it into decathexis – “letting myself fall”, as Mr A. was to say in recalling an event that had taken place when he was two years old: “My father was walking along the left bank of the River Marne, far away. My mother was with me on the right bank. I moved forward into the water. As I was very small, I must have lost my footing very quickly, or perhaps I stepped into a hole, but I have a precise memory of actually feeling myself … falling. It lasted a long time. I didn’t feel any anxiety; in fact, it was almost pleasurable.”

He had stepped out of time, enjoying the fascination of an endless fall in which the primal scene was disavowed in favour of an experience of eternity and immortality, perhaps corresponding to a fantasy of death and rebirth, of which the subject was the sole master. The fantasy was therefore one of self-begetting, involving a recourse to omnipotence as the only way of avoiding incestuous confusion with the mother in the absence of a father who was, as he said, “far away”. As it happens, Mr A.’s parents had divorced when he was thirteen and the mother had then invited her son to share her bed. Later on, he will tell us that he had wanted to see her breasts and had become blind of one eye.

I should now like to present a sequence that occurred after about eight years of psychodrama, which enabled Mr A. and myself to glimpse the possibility of emerging from the psychotic solution in which he had no doubt felt locked up for so long. Mr A. was now fifty-four years old, but looked fifteen years younger, having retained a juvenile, almost adolescent, appearance. He was dressed relatively smartly as befitted an adult, in contrast to the state in which he had presented himself at the beginning of the psychodrama treatment, when he had worn a shapeless tracksuit and his dishevelled, “pudding-basin” haircut, as he called it, had made him look lost. In line with his formless outward appearance, he had been so passive in the scenes that one was put in mind of a being with no outline and nothing inside. However, this masochistic submission to the object was merely the other side of the coin of a terrifying fantasy life that was seemingly expressed without affect: for instance, he had jokingly suggested acting a scene in which his two younger sisters (one of them a year and the other two years his junior) were cut into pieces and buried in the family garden.

This patient’s passive bodily presence with its lack of outline bore witness to his surrender to the object, to his abandonment of his body to his mother and her pleasure. Considered in these terms, the psychodrama scene perhaps offered him an opportunity to free himself from this enslavement and threat of non-differentiation by an alternative path to that of destructive violence. Passivity being intolerable owing to this incorporation anxiety, the technique of psychodrama held out the possibility of activity through play, the themes and roles being prepared by the patient. In this way, he was able to regain possession of a bodily image that had until then been characterized by lacunae, fault lines and fragmentation owing to the deficiencies of primary maternal cathexis.

Mr A. was a patient who had found it impossible to work or even to seek a job, and this had led to his suicide attempt. Psychodrama had enabled him to resume his work as a computer engineer, as well as to take up painting again; indeed, one day he even brought us some of his pictures, which were in the abstract style of Poliakoff. Yet he always wondered why he needed to work and earn money. Furthermore, he would spend all the money he earned for a girlfriend whom he felt to be a vampire. He also had great difficulty in getting paid. For him, working and being paid meant earning his living “like everybody else”. Previously we had worked this conflict with him in term of opposition between his grandiose ideal ego wishes to be a Great man without working and the Super Ego requirements to face his limits, in order to give himself the possibility to find real satisfactions in his life. It was an example of interpretative work at the level of modalities of mental functioning instead of working at the level of unconscious fantasies.

It was only at the later stage that it was possible to interpret his unconscious fantasies.

In a scene staging his curiosity about his parents’ sexual intercourse, he had expressed a disavowal of the primal scene. He had of course found it intolerable for his parents to be together, and his exclusion from the primal scene was suggested by the two psychodramatists through the wish not to be disturbed by their children while alone together. Mr A. then felt called upon to express a desire to see, and said: “I’m looking right through them; it’s like a white hole.” This white hole could be seen as the representation of a negative hallucination that disavowed the primal scene at the very moment when Mr A. was directly confronted with it.

In his associations after the playing of this scene, he had remembered that, as an adolescent, he had thought that his parents had never had a sex life and that children were born by spontaneous generation. The work on this scene afforded an opportunity to interpret the unconscious fantasy underlying his lack of pragmatism and his difficulty in earning money: “Earning a living like everybody else was tantamount to accepting the idea of having been born of a mother and father like everybody else, which had for a long time been intolerable and unacceptable to him.” This psychodrama representation of the disavowal of the primal scene had enabled the patient to surpass the psychotic mechanisms of disavowal and splitting of the ego, as a result of which he was able to introject the relevant interpretation without experiencing it as a violent intrusion into his psychic world.

It is interesting to note too, that for Mr A. the primal scene had come to be represented by way of the theme of concentration camps. He had one day mentioned that his parents often quarrelled violently about the extermination of the Jews in the camps: his father had refused to accept the reality of the Nazi extermination of the Jews in Europe, whereas his mother had taken the opposite view. Confronted with such a violent and destructive primal scene, Mr. A. had had no option other than to transform the black hole into a white one and to banish all traces of terror and violence; however, this had been at the cost of the “rift in the ego” that was Freud’s image for describing the splitting of the ego in psychosis.

In this transition from the fantasy of self-begetting to the working through of the primal scene, Mr A. discovered himself to be the subject of his drives rather than the object of persecution by others. In the ensuing sessions, he came to wonder whether his hatred had not ultimately distorted his view of his parents; conscious now of the importance of temporality, he realized that whatever he experienced in the present, in particular in his relationships with women, stemmed “from everything he had created in his head when he was small”. He also became aware of the difference between thinking and doing and, having had so many violent fantasies, he was surprised to hear himself say: “I haven’t bumped off anyone so far.” It was also noteworthy that in the sessions with the most violent subject matter, he preferred to take the part of an observer and leave it to a psychodramatist to express the most primitive fantasies – such as cutting his sisters into little pieces and leaving them at the left-luggage office of the “Gare de Lyon” railway station in Paris, which, under the pressure of the primary process, then became the “gare des lions” [Lion Station].

Just when Mr A. was emerging from psychotic confusion and becoming human again, he fell physically ill. We shall never know whether what he called a severe cold for which he spent some time in hospital was or was not meningitis; the same situation is sometimes observed in invulnerable autistic children who contract one physical illness after another when they emerge from psychotic encapsulation. Now physically for the first time, Mr A. was reluctant to contemplate the idea of a terminal illness; although he thought of death: “I would rather,” he said, “not think I might be afraid of it.” Becoming human and entering the realm of time did indeed involve the capacity to accept birth and death.

As Mr A. was one day to say: “Time has to be remade a little bit every day.” While this admittedly suggested the risk of being locked into the juxtaposition of instants, it was also indicative of a desire to give himself a place in duration and permanence. This presupposed a capacity for temporary suspension of the vicissitudes of life and death, albeit without disavowing them, in a pleasure in play, which was equally a pleasure in thinking and fantasying.

How did the transference manifest itself? Remarkably, just as Mr A. was beginning to exhibit the capacity to overcome his conflict of ambivalence with regard to the parental imagos, he had his first transference dream after eight years of psychodrama; in it, he brought me a huge bunch of fragrant, coloured flowers, behind which I disappeared.

This highly condensed dream revealed a capacity to stage a reversed Oedipus complex, in which the patient projected the female position on to his analyst, while at the same time portraying his own anxiety at the devouring “vagina-woman-flower”. The subject of flowers representing the female sex had come up in earlier scenes, in which it had been possible to think about his fear of touching the flower-woman and being sucked in by her, as well as the need to keep these flowers at a distance and just to smell their perfume. In the transference dream, the fragrant flowers were at the same time flowers that could be touched, albeit not without danger.

In this process of working through, it might be wondered why Mr A. had never been able to express directly the helplessness of the child he had been. Having regained his capacity for formal and topographical regression, Mr A. continued until recently with the work of remembering and reconstruction entailed by temporal regression. In the penultimate session before the summer holiday break, he suggested to the psychodrama team the idea of tackling, and thereby retrieving, the memory of a child abandoned to incomprehensible affects and sensations in the presence of his parents; this afforded a glimpse of the possibility of his acquiring the capacity to be alone in the presence of others (Winnicott, 1958).

Mr. A. wondered why he associated separation with the void and whether he had not been abandoned in the past. When I asked him about these abandonments, he said: “They were when I was four.” To my enquiry about what had occurred at that age, he replied: “I don’t remember what happened when I was four, but before that, when I was in my pushchair, I remember the silence – my parents were there but not saying anything; they were quarrelling and I could not understand anything – it was just soundless words.” He explained to us that the quarrel was about the rent being demanded by the landlord, which his father had not paid, and commented: “It’s a bit like me today.”

It was the impossibility of integrating all these sensations that had caused Mr A. to construct links with other people solely in the form of excessive absence or excessive presence. This had been demonstrated by the child in his pushchair who was unable to understand “soundless words”. This was Mr A.’s odd term for “wordless sounds” – an incomprehensible noise equivalent to “soundless words”, to a destructive silence by the parental couple, resulting, by virtue of their quarrels, in a decathexis of and a disregard for their child’s emotional life.

As a manifestation of this transference, Mr A., without giving any notice, failed to turn up for the first session after the summer holidays. Although he said he had got his dates mixed up, it emerged clearly that his absence was due to the wish to be the master of the separation himself rather than letting it be determined by the leader and the psychodrama group, by reversing the roles and being the abandoner rather than the abandoned one. I interpreted this to him, and the continuation of our work revealed the importance of working through the father transference on to the leader. Mr A. then for the first time expressed admiration for his father: he had been not only a bastard who had collaborated with the Nazis and aroused his hatred, but also the respectable, well-liked mayor of a municipality in France whom he loved. This father transference later helped him to cope better with his genital and pregenital anxieties about the mother imago and to allow himself a stable, long-term love relationship with a woman.

Thinking recently about the benefit he had derived from our analytic work, he commented: “Ten years ago I was unemployed and wanted to commit suicide; today I am temporarily out of work, but have no desire to kill myself!” Mr A. had actually lost his job because his firm had gone bankrupt, but, in contrast to his despair of ten years earlier, the transference on to the psychodrama leader and group now enabled him to find within himself the wish and resources to seek another job and to find satisfaction in it. This suggests that the psychodrama had enabled Mr A. to accept the vicissitudes of birth and death, of the primal scene and of human sexuality. Emergence from psychosis was in fact tantamount to the possibility of accepting the limits of being human, and, subject to this condition, of living his life instead of dreaming it.

The aim of the therapeutic strategy and interpretative tactics with psychotic patients is to encourage the functions of symbolization in subjects who have often lost the capacity to distinguish between a symbol and the symbolized object, between present and past, and between father and mother imagos. Because psychotic anxiety is bound up with the non-representable conflict of being at once and the same time the devouring subject and the devoured object, the patient needs to be offered an external and internal setting that allows interpretations to be introjected. The role of the leader in his mediation function as a third is to permit the patient to get out the indifferentiation anxieties and to acquire his capacity to play with images, representations and words, as suggested by Winnicott.

Freud, A Third Party Between Sabina Spielrein and Jung

Elisabeth Márton’s film clearly shows the important function of the third party in the story of the destructive passion which Jung and Sabina Spielrein carried away. The therapeutic setting was challenged by the rupture of the asymmetry necessary for the analytical world: as soon as Jung tells his patient that he is in love with her, the symbolising conditions of the treatment are invalidated. In the correspondence between Jung and Sabina Spielrein as well as in the film, references are made to Wagner and to Siegfried and Brünehilde’s love, and the great romantic passions, in which love only finds a solution in undifferentiation and death are evoked. We might also think of Tristan and Isolde whose destructive fusion with the lovers’s unconsciousness and the death by love is very well evoked by Wagner.

Jung and Sabina Spielrein were able to avoid this danger by asking Freud to be a third party who could help them to overcome the fascination of indifferentiation. Freud, in the film, reassures Jung about the transferential meaning of Sabina Spielrein’s love and of her insistent request to have a child as Jung’s wife had. Later on, Freud recommends Sabina Spielrein to learn to hate Jung, thus helping her to work through the erotisation of the transference which is both a defence against movements of hate and a refusal to recognize the destructivity towards the maternal imago. At this time, Freud is naturally partial as he writes this to Sabina Spielrein after his own separation with Jung and thus had challenged his role as a third party. However, the necessity to face the same object is thus underlined by Freud, a principle that Elisabeth Márton shows beyond the passionate relationship between Freud and Jung.

The common story between Jung, Sabina Spielrein and Freud bears witness to the conditions necessary for narcissistic passion and underlines the destructivity transformed into the process of symbolisation as a source of creativity. The fate of these exceptional people was their capacity to use this intense energy to create a scientific, literary and artistic work. From this point of view, Sabina Spielrein’s major work, “Destruction as a cause of coming into being” published in 1911, evokes vicissitudes of drives which find in sublimation and creation a solution to transform the destructive tendencies involved in each human being. Her thoughts on the fusion of sexual drive and death drive announce on a remarkable way Freud’s later works on the relationships between drives and destructivity. Her remarks on this topic refer certainly to a personal history and, at the same time, show an extraordinary capacity for elaboration. Sabina concludes her work with a hypothesis whose original and heuristic value has been confirmed by the history of psychoanalysis: “A more extensive and thorough research will show how the destructive component of sexuality is involved in mythological and individual psychological productions. However, I think that, with my examples, I have proved enough that the procreation instinct involves, from a psychological point of view, in accordance with biological datas, two antagonistic components: a life instinct as well as a destruction instinct.” (personal and provisional translation)


The transferential story between Jung and Sabina Spielrein is a very good example, beyond their individual experience, of what is involved in the process of symbolisation in analysis. This is an asymptotic movement which can be endlessly worked through. It shows what is at stake in the work with our patients, to the extent that it is possible to move from fixed univocal and repetitive symbols to a circulation between psychic systems, thus bearing witness on an articulation and not on an opposition between what is visible and what is invisible between presence and absence, and thus permitting the development of a plurivocal activity of thought.

We are speaking not only about the formation of polysemic symbols, capable of tolerating and reuniting opposites, but also of a creation of symbols which participate in the development of culture, language being one of its forms. From this point of view the semantic function of symbol as an inseparable content must be linked to the intra and inter-subjective function of mediation; it must be less considered as a universal and univocal function than as a personal and polysemic one giving access to the processes of sublimation and creation. Instead of being enclosed in a private dimension, true symbolisation shows on the contrary, according to Bion’s suggestion (1970) its essential social dimension; it shows that the subject is able to learn from the body and the world in order to create new representations whilst leaving place for what is undetermined, uncertain and surprising. This problem is at the heart of the analytic encounter, where one must mourn the loss of the grandiose fantasy of possessing the only truth which one would like to impose. One must go beyond the narcissistic struggle for the truth in order to find a truth which then allows an authentic meeting with one’s own as well as another psychic reality.


  • Bion, W.R. (1970) Attention and interpretation, London, Tavistock.
  • Donnet, J.L.(1995) L’enjeu de l’interprétation in Le divan bien tempéré, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, pp. 175-188.
  • Freud, S. (1924) “The Economic Problem of Masochism” in SE 19, pp 159-170.
  • Freud, S. (1925) “Negation” in SE 19, pp 235-239.
  • Freud, S. (1938) “Findings, Ideas, Problems,” SE 23, pp. 299-300.
  • Green, A. (1986) On Private Madness, London, Hogarth Press and Madison, Conn. International Universities Press, and London, Karnac Books, 1997.
  • Spielrein, S. (1911) “Destruction as a cause of coming into being”. Winnicott, D.W.(1951) Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena, in Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis, Collected Papers, London, Karnac Books, pp. 229-242.
  • Winnicott, D.W. (1958) “The Capacity to Be Alone,” in The Maturational Processes and the Facilating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development, London, Hogarth Press, 1965, and London, Karnac Books, 1990.