Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Finding Unconscious Phantasy in the Session: Recognizing Form

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Finding Unconscious Phantasy in the Session: Recognizing Form

Article excerpt

. . . Meanings, like feelings, are far older than speech . . .

(Isaacs, 1948, p. 84)


The concept of unconscious phantasy has played - and still does play - a central role in psychoanalytic thinking. I will be discussing the various forms by which unconscious phantasies manifest themselves in the analytic session as they are lived out and enacted in the transference relationship. I will specifically address the impact that emotional aspects connected to early "raw", "pre-symbolic" phantasies have in the analysis and how their corporeal elements interlock with the signifying process.

Even though early unconscious phantasies might be modified, organized and structured in a symbolic way to form the latent content of what will become manifested as part of a coherent integrated discourse, the form which they adopt is often imbued with raw emotional components, a contribution from the paranoid-schizoid position and from primitive phantasies. Among many others, Freud, Ferenczi, Klein and Bion recognized the role of pre-verbal bodily aspects in the construction of symbols and early phantasies. Hanna Segal spoke of her agreement with Freud's comment1 that the content of a work of art was oedipal but its form was dictated by much more archaic processes (Quinodoz, 2008). The field of aesthetics provided some very important insights in this respect.2 These archaic processes and their relation to art, specifically to poetry, have also been explored by Julia Kristeva. I will be using her notion of the semiotic and the symbolic to explore the expressive forms of primitive unconscious phantasies in the session. It seems to me that the emotional effect that can be experienced in the communication between patient and analyst depends in great measure on "semiotic" aspects linked to primitive phantasies that are felt and lived out in embodied ways.

While the content of the patient's discourse can appear to carry symbolic meaning, the prosody, the rhythm, the "semiotics" that accompany the account sometimes tell us something quite different. Rather than a move from unconscious phantasies that typify symbolic equations to those showing proper symbolization, we can find that they can coexist and can simultaneously find their way to what is communicated to the analyst. That is, these early embodied phantasies can enable and affect (rather than just being replaced by) the symbolic process.

As early phantasies bear an intimate connection to the body and to unprocessed emotions when they are projected into the analyst they can produce a powerful resonance, sometimes also experienced in a physical way and forming an integral part of the analyst's counter-transference.

We are often inclined to see primitive concrete phantasies and the paranoid schizoid position in association with pathology, rather than with different modes of expression and of psychic organization vital to the individual that are at the basis of our capacity to orient ourselves in relation to the object and to establish emotional contact with it. I am stressing both the richness of the capacity to establish emotional contact that is connected to these early unconscious phantasies as well as to the potential for pathological development. I would also like to emphasize that in the analysis these primitive unconscious phantasies need to be reached even when they have been overlaid by verbal thought.

Unconscious phantasy: historical considerations - Freud, Klein, Isaacs, Segal

We could sustain that virtually everything that is mental can be thought of as related to unconscious phantasy (Grotstein, 2008). One of the complex issues when trying to discuss this concept is that we have to consider it both from a phenomenological point of view, that is, in relation to the different forms and contents that unconscious phantasies can descriptively adopt, as well as think about them from a metapsychological dimension, in relation to the development of the ego, superego, to defence mechanisms and to the role of perception, etc. …

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