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

Response to Alain Gibeault

Jean Kirsch
Palo Alto, California, USA
Society of Jungian Analysts, Northern California / IAAP

Let us consider the words ‘symbol’ and ‘symbolization’. Among contemporary Jungians there is a diversity of ways the terms are used, but as a rule, I don’t think we mean quite the same thing as the psychoanalyst.

The different meanings of the word ‘symbol’ in our respective schools probably stems from Jung’s objection to Freud’s basic belief that the unconscious is sexual, and its corollary, his hypotheses about latent versus manifest content of dreams. If a dream’s manifest content is interpreted as an indicator of a latent content that is presumed to be sexual, the analyst is not symbolizing, but making use of signs.

For Jung, the true symbol is pregnant with meanings that cannot be fully expressed, and always points to something unknown. The symbol is infinitely capacious, weighted with multiple meanings that may blossom into ever new meaning. This is the simple way he expressed it in Man and His Symbols:

Symbols … are natural and spontaneous products. No genius has ever sat down with a pen or a brush in his hand and said, “Now I am going to invent a symbol.” No one can take a more or less rational thought, reached as a logical conclusion or by deliberate intent, and then give it “symbolic” form. No matter what fantastic trappings one may put upon an idea of this kind, it will still remain a sign, linked to the conscious thought behind it, and not a symbol that hints at the unknown.1

This perspective led to Jung’s deep and life-long interest in comparative symbol systems, such as mythology, alchemy, and Gnosticism.

1 Jung, C.G., (1964) ‘Approaching the unconscious’. In Man and His Symbols. Garden City, New York. Doubleday & Company, Inc.

As for myself, the distinction is not so simple. If I understand correctly, ‘symbolization’ in contemporary psychoanalytic usage refers to a psychological process whereby the subject, I, stand between what is to be represented – i.e., the apperception of an inner or outer experience or thing – and communicate it to the Other, you, in a form that is comprehensible, usually verbally, but the form may be an artistic or mathematical representation. Sometimes this representation might be what Jung has called a symbol, pointing to something that is not known, and sometimes not. Elizabeth Márton’s film is one example of such a symbol, conveying as it does so much more than she ever meant to say.

Perhaps Jungians might capitalize the word Symbol when it is used in this special sense, similar to the conventional capitalization of the word Self when it is used to refer specifically to Jung’s concept. This would clarify our language, especially when we attempt to communicate with other depth psychologists.

I would like to thank Dr. Gibeault for presenting in such careful detail an example of his own creative analytic work. There are three points I would like to highlight.

First, in his discussion of the psychoses, I appreciate his acknowledgement that psychotic processes can be found in the treatment of any patient, and that their occurrence does not necessarily warrant the diagnosis, psychosis. I prefer Bion’s designation of “the psychotic part of the personality”. The clinical diagnosis of a psychosis is then incumbent on whether hate and destruction or love and creativity dominate the personality. Generally, Jungians think in terms of unconscious complexes, which may become fixed, taking possession of the personality, as it were, and usurping the reality-oriented ego functions, sensation, thinking, intuition, and feeling. The economics and dynamics of such possession of the ego by a complex are thought of in terms of the flow of libido, defined by Jung as neutral and not exclusively sexual.

The second is his use of the term “lateralization of the transference.” I understand this term to mean the displacement of projections of the analysand’s internal world onto figures of importance in the analysand’s life outside of the analytic relationship. Analytic psychodrama makes use of this very common occurrence, with the analyst’s assistants, under his direction, acting out a drama of the patient’s choosing. I think it is an important point of comparison. Jungians vary widely in the emphasis placed upon transference interpretation, but generally something similar to what he describes as lateralization is common to a Jungian analysis. Active imagination, amplification of dream imagery through mythological and other cultural sources, sandplay, dance and the plastic arts are often included to promote the patient’s engagment in a creative dialogue with the unconscious. For more disturbed analysands, including the treatment of the psychoses, I would like to mention the important work of my Italian colleagues, under the leadership of Dr. Paolo Aite in Rome, who are carefully exploring the transference as affects and images erupt into the analytic field and are expressed in sandplay. Sandplay provides the anlaysand with sand and an assortment of miniature figures with which he/she may dramatize the internal world. In my experience, even that “third element” – the sandbox and its miniature figures – may be insufficient to contain psychotic anxiety about dissolution into the personality of the analyst and the counter-transference fantasies they stimulate. In “Transformations”, Bion notes that, “One problem in analyzing the psychotic patient seems to be his difficulty in working without the actual presence of the objects for and about which work must be done. Hence the tendency to produce problem situations instead of solving problems.”1 Problem situations for the psychotic part of the personality are expressed and experienced interpersonally, and require interpersonal solutions, hence the effectiveness of the method of individual psychodrama that Dr. Gibeault reports.

1 Bion, W.R. (1965) Transformations. London. Maresfield Library.

In the course of treating one of my own patients whose symptoms were more characteristic of borderline or narcissistic pathology, the psychotic part of her personality erupted with a force that threatened the analysis. The patient herself requested consultation with an analytic colleague, which I arranged. Her meeting with my colleague opened up the analytic space, which had collapsed in the direction of concrete reality, and although she never again requested it, the possibility of such consultation seemed to offer her enough security for analysis to proceed. Such lateralization of the transference can occur in less directed ways – for example, when dramatic problem situations in outer life are brought up in analysis for examination of transference-by-proxy, so to speak, with gradual working through and resolution of anxieties that are too powerful to be confronted in the context of the individual analytic relationship. When this kind of occurrence might be considered an acting-out of the transference, rather than a lateralization would seem to depend on the particular analytic situation.

Third, is the phenomenon of regression. What Dr. Gibeault designates, after Freud, topographical and formal regression – i.e., the to and fro movement between consciousness and unconsciousness, and the shift from secondary to primary process thinking – describes the mental state necessary for the synthetic and transcendent function of symbolization to begin. After Pierre Janet, Jung used the term abaissement du niveau mental to describe the lowering of the level of consciousness that not only occurs in psychopathological states, but is deliberately fostered for active imagination.1 Jung objected to Freud’s method of free association on the grounds that it inevitably led the patient back to an earlier state of being, rendering her vulnerable to the dominance of unconscious complexes. Basically, one might say that Jung did not encourage temporal regression, or a return to the past, for its own sake, although he recognized it as an inevitable occurrence. Rather, he developed a method that valued the analysand’s independent internal dialogue with his or her own unconscious images and affects, one with the goal of eventually freeing the analysand of a relationship to the analyst. This is the primary method of what is designated “the classical school” of Analytical Psychology. Since temporal regression, with its consequent emergence of complexes and their projection upon the analyst, is such an ubiquitous and central phenomenon, it soon became a subject of interest for Analytical Psychologists. This led to “the developmental school” and close affinities in many Jungian centers with psychoanalysis.

1 For definition of Jungian terms, see A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis. (1986) Samuels, A., Shorter, B., Plaut, F. London and New York., Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Still, how to join the analysand in an analytic relationship that will support creative regression is a challenge for each and every one of us, regardless of our theoretical persuasion. The achievement of topographic and formal regression may induce a state of reverie for the analyst and the analysand. I am in agreement with the philosopher Gaston Bachelard who states, “Reverie … [f]or any human being, man or woman, is one of the feminine states of the soul.”1 Reverie leads us back in imagination to the dyadic relationship of mother and child, with constellation of the archetypes of the Great Mother and her Divine Child. As its benevolent aspects embrace the transference there is the opportunity for return to the creative imagination of childhood, for the natural synthetic function of the psyche to be activated, for new images, ideas, and feelings to emerge, for new solutions to be found. It is this fruitful relationship to the Self, to the totality of the psyche, that is ultimately healing.

Within this framework, I would like to offer an alternative interpretation of the dream Dr. Gibeault’s patient had of him in his eighth year of treatment. In the dream, Dr. Gibeault says, “… he brought me a huge bunch of fragrant, coloured flowers, behind which I disappeared.” While not discounting his interpretation, in Jungian terms that his person had been subsumed in the patient’s mind by the Great Mother in her terrifying, devouring aspect, might we just as easily read the dream as evidence that through his careful, patient, and loving work with this highly disturbed man, he had represented for him an image of the benevolent, life-giving feminine? Might Alain Gibeault have built a bridge to his patient through his anima?

1 Bachelard, G. (1960) The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos. Translated by Daniel Russel. Boston, Beacon Press.