During an analytic process, there may be times when the analyst feels like he has lost control over himself, as though he were being manoeuvred by something strange, and he feels surprised and frightened by what is happening to him. He has the impression of experiencing something akin to what Freud (1919) called the uncanny.
The etymological study of the term “Unheimlich” led Freud to realize that the phenomenon could travel imperceptibly between the familiar and the unfamiliar, both of which can coexist within the analytic field.
For Freud (1919), “…animism, magic and sorcery, omnipotence of thoughts, man’s attitude to death, involuntary repetition and the castration complex comprise practically all the factors which turn something frightening into something uncanny” (p. 243). Anticipating his 1920 text (“Beyond the Pleasure Principle”), Freud describes involuntary repetition: “a compulsion powerful enough to overrule the pleasure principle, lending to certain aspects of the mind their daemonic character […] this inner ‘compulsion to repeat’ is perceived as uncanny” (p. 238).
In this text I will be looking at similar situations to those described by Freud, which occur when the analyst experiences strange “accidents” in the analytic field, leading the analyst himself to feel strange.
I speculate that these accidents indicate the sudden substitution of the known, the familiar, for the unfamiliar. But the unfamiliar is not entirely unknown, because it refers to primitive experiences that have been registered in some form within the mind. However, this registration has not been sufficiently symbolized, as in Mearns’s poem “Antigonish”, in which he sees upon the stairs, a man who is not there.
For example, the analytic dyad appears to be communicating consciously and unconsciously via sufficiently symbolized elements such as scenes, narratives and plots put into words (dreams-for-two). Suddenly the analyst is startled by the abrupt emergence of discharges, acts, symptoms, images and situations that make the analyst feel perplexed and frightened. I propose that in these cases we are dealing with ambiguous configurations similar to those described in Mearns’s poem “Antigonish”: someone who wasn’t there but who I wish would go away.
This ambiguity manifests itself in the disorientation of the analyst, who does not know whether his analytic function is intact or disturbed. As we will attempt to demonstrate below, both of these situations are in fact present: the apparent disturbance of the function and, at the same time, the sign of its potency.
The intensity of the uncanny is probably proportional to the contrast between known and unknown elements, the unexpected nature of their emergence and the way in which the analyst manages his own intuitive capacity. The similarity with traumatic events imposes itself.
Let’s remind ourselves that symbols are artefacts that represent reality in its absence. They are characterized by the attraction they exert on one another, establishing a symbolic thought network in which meanings in constant transformation are generated.
We know that in non-psychotic areas (Bion, 1962) the patient is capable of symbolization, transforming his emotional states into images and narratives which manifest themselves as daydreams and night dreams. The analyst attempts to re-dream these dreams, and dreams-for-two are established, which show how the symbolic thought network is transformed into the here and now of the analytic field. In these areas of the mind, oedipal triangulation has been achieved in some form and the dyad is working on the conflicting vicissitudes of this configuration.
In areas where the symbolization capacity is damaged – to varying degrees – the analytic dyad encounters configurations in which triangulation either has not been sufficiently attained or is being attacked. Here we are in a psychotic area of mental functioning, which expands to areas that have lived through primitive experiences that could not be symbolized because this capacity did not yet exist in sufficient form.
We can make the hypothesis that all experiences are registered in the primordial mind and, once symbolized, in the symbolic mind too. On the other hand, there is no dichotomous opposition between symbols and non-symbolic registrations. The clinic shows us a range of registrations, a gradient with different degrees of symbolization and non-symbolization. At one end of this gradient we will have mere traces and at the other end verbal symbols, writing and art. In between these extremes we will find various types of signs: icons, indices and symbols (Scarfone, 2013) with varying degrees of weakness and significant strength and varying degrees of concreteness and abstraction. Symbolic equations (Segal, 1957), when there is no distinction between symbol and symbolized, result in concrete thought.1
These areas with symbolization deficit present themselves in the analytic field through various clinical occurrences such as those described above, along with somatizations, deliria, beliefs, hallucinations, behaviours and voids. These primitive aspects often reveal themselves through the prosody that accompanies symbolic communication (Bronstein, 2015). I use “non-dreams” as an umbrella term for these phenomena (Cassorla, 2008). Non-dreams coexist with dreams.
This coexistence can give rise to perplexity because the observer will be simultaneously experiencing objects both living and dead (or almost living and almost dead), inanimate and human, concrete and symbolic etc. The “almost” can be added to all of them, since certainty is accompanied by uncertainty.
Confronted with the manifestation of primitive areas of the mind, the analyst’s container function makes use of its capacity for reverie in the attempt to give figurability to whatever the patient is unable to communicate through words. The capacity for reverie involves an altered state of consciousness in which the analyst allows himself to be invaded by his patient’s various mental states, seeking to transform them into dreaming and thought. Ferro (2009), Ogden (1999), Civitarese (2013) and Barros and Barros (2016), among others, have studied this in further depth. Other psychoanalysts (Botella and Botella, 2003, 2013; Green, 1998, 2005), revisiting Freudian intuitions, study formal regression, or regredience, displaying similar occurrences. Therefore, when encountering these aspects with deficient symbolization, the analyst dreams his patient’s non-dream. The analyst feels perplexed if this non-dream appears unexpectedly, making it difficult to maintain the capacity for reverie.
When the analyst has no means of withstanding the unexpected until he can make sense of it, there are a few possibilities: (1) He ignores what he has experienced, attributing it to a fleeting disturbance which he believes is not worth investigating; (2) he discharges his feelings, for example through action; (3) he endows the event with a meaning that is forced and false in a bid to reassure himself. Whatever the solution, the analyst in some sense intuits that his analytic function has been attacked. In this way, along with the uncanny nature of the situation, the analyst feels like his analytic function has become strange.
There are times when the analyst only becomes aware of this strangeness after having shared it, sometimes automatically, with his patient. This automatism accentuates the feeling of the uncanny.
For example, Botella (2003) describes his surprise at the end of a session in which the patient, a child, was unable to leave. The analyst sees that the young child is pale and immobile with a wild look in his eyes. The analyst himself feels as though he is having some kind of nightmare in which he sees a wolf. He finds himself saying to the child: “Are you afraid of the wolf?” whilst making biting and clawing gestures, imitating a wolf. Terror stricken, the child signals to him to stop, but then his confusion disappears, and he is able to leave. This episode is repeated in the following session. Afterwards the child is able to run down the corridor trying to frighten everybody, growling like a wolf.
The analyst’s nightmare is uncanny, something unknown that imposes itself on his mind. The phenomenon is rooted in the transmission of thought, the phenomenon of the double and repetition compulsion. Afterwards the analyst will realize that he was in fact giving figurability to what the patient was unable to verbalize.
The author concludes that, in situations of trauma such as negativity, this manifests itself through “accidents” which occur in the midst of a coherent thought. These “accidents” indicate the presence of a disturbance due to a non-representation. The traumas appear like haunted feelings, ghosts in desperate search of meaning.
I will now return to the etymological spectrum between Heimlich/Unheimlich: (1) The child’s feelings were “known”/unknown, which is to say that they were registered but could not be symbolized; (2) the image of the wolf was unknown/known to the analyst; unknown because he did not know how it had emerged and known due to the analyst’s familiarity with terror and wolves; (3) the analyst knew/did not know his own analytic capacity. The familiar analytic capacity (fluctuating attention dealing with free association) is invaded by another facet of the same capacity, which is unfamiliar but results from the creative transformation of the experiences themselves, which are also familiar/not known. All the situations described above (plus others that are not yet known) coexist.
So in the model I have outlined here the known refers to that which has meaning, in other words that which has been sufficiently symbolized. The “known”/unknown refers to something that has been experienced and registered but not sufficiently symbolized. Sometimes the element that has not been sufficiently symbolized “hitches a ride” with aspects of the repressed unconscious, hiding itself/manifesting itself between the lines of apparently coherent speech.
There is another possibility for the emergence of the uncanny. It occurs in situations in which resistance collusions are established between the members of the analytic dyad, without either member realizing what is happening. The symbolization capacity is paralyzed within the area of the collusion. The clinic reveals these non-dreams-for-two, which are the raw material for what have been referred to as chronic enactments. When these are undone a trauma occurs which, once linked with other factors, constitutes what is called acute enactment, experienced as the uncanny by the analyst. At this moment, as we will see in the next clinical vignette, the analyst believes that he has lost his analytic capacity whereas he has in fact recovered it.
1 Anne’s text
When Anne finishes the session, she gives her analyst a text that she will be presenting at a Congress on Mental Health. During the session, Anne had shared her satisfaction with the analyst at having had her work accepted and her gratitude for the analytic work.
When he is about to open his hands to receive the text, the analyst is surprised. His hands do not open, and his index finger instead points to a table some distance away. At the same time, he asks Anne to leave the text on the table. The harsh tone of his own voice sounds strange to him. He feels perplexed and frightened on realizing that his movements are no longer under his control and he seems to be being manoeuvred by some strange force. He instantly realizes that he was in some way rejecting the text, despite accepting it at the same time. Later, he will be able to refer to the whole experience as uncanny.
The analyst is not accustomed to accepting texts from his patients, requesting that they read them during the session instead. It is for this reason that he feels uncomfortable with the way in which he rejected/did not reject the text. He is unable to identify a clear motive for his actions. The first excuse that comes to mind is that “he already had lots of things to read”. He quickly realizes that this attempt to give meaning to the act was false.
His first impression was that the act revealed a compromise formation between the desire to receive the text and the desire to reject it. But he feels troubled by the sensation of having lost his analytic function. The analyst prefers not to think about it, partly to escape his troubled feelings but also because he intuits that at some point the meaning would be able to emerge. Yet he feels sad and guilty, fearful of having caused suffering to Anne.
The next day, Anne gives an account of a night dream which features rejection and suffering. The analyst believes there is a link between the dream and the episode from the previous session, and while he is investigating Anne recalls a friend who has arthrosis and is unable to open her hands. At this point, patient and analyst are able to discuss the episode, and the conversation broadens out towards an understanding of the relationship which had been taking place between the members of the dyad.
Studying the analytic process at a later stage, with the inclusion of what had occurred before and after the act, allowed the analyst to realize that he had been involved in an unconscious plot which was being dramatized without words. In this plot, traumatic situations and their defences were being hidden (and revealed), and these were manifested in the analytic field and in Anne’s own life.
Anne was a pleasant, delicate and sensitive person who subtly expressed fragility and insecurity. These characteristics stimulated protective feelings similar to those one feels in the presence of a helpless baby. Anne’s life was full of relationships of this type. The caregiving object was idealized initially. But when she encountered frustrations Anne would feel violated. The idealized relationship would transform into a persecutory one, but Anne’s hatred would rapidly subside once she had found a new caregiving object. And it was easy for her to attract one.
The dreams-for-two between Anne and her analyst allowed work to be carried out in oedipal areas, which apparently predominated. But at the same time the analyst was recruited to participate in scenes and plots of the kind we have described, which he was not sufficiently aware of. At a later stage he will ascertain that at various moments he was identifying with Anne’s needy side, without having any clear perception of his identification. Hence why his tone of voice was welcoming, his interventions were careful, and there was a certain vacillation when he was interpreting the painful facts of reality. These facts indicated a countertransferential sensitivity on the part of the analyst, but at the same time they could have weakened his potency. When the second alternative predominated, Anne and her analyst established a fusional relationship, the aim of which was to avoid painful contact with the triangular reality.
An external observer, however, could recognize that a collusion of mutual reassurance and idealization was taking place. This repetitive plot of non-dreams-for-two, which I call chronic enactment, may resemble traumatic dreams, but there are differences. The repetition compulsion is not conscious, and anxiety is blocked. At the same time, the analytic work develops in other areas.
The automatic action of the analyst, when his hand seems paralyzed, is not simply a discharge. It also has a component of ambiguous meaning: the analyst is and at the same time is not available to read and comment on the text. The analyst is unconsciously refusing to be an extension of Anne’s self but feels troubled b...