Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Unconscious Phantasy: Some Historical and Conceptual Dimensions 1

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Unconscious Phantasy: Some Historical and Conceptual Dimensions 1

Article excerpt

We are all conscious of evil within ourselves, we all have a horror of it and want to get rid of it. Outside ourselves we see evil under two distinct forms, suffering and sin. But in our feelings about our own nature the distinction no longer appears, except abstractly through reflection. We feel within ourselves something which is neither suffering nor sin, which is the two of them at once, the root common to both, defilement and pain at the same time. This is the presence of evil in us. It is the ugliness in us. The more we feel it, the more it fills us with horror. The soul rejects it in the same way as we vomit. By a process of transference we pass it on to the things which surround us. These things, however, thus becoming blemished and ugly in our eyes, send us back the evil we had put into them. They send it back after adding to it. In this exchange the evil in us increases. It seems to us that the very places where we are living and the things that surround us imprison us in evil, and that it becomes daily worse. This is a terrible anguish. When the soul, worn out with this anguish, ceases to feel it any more, there is little hope of its salvation. It is thus that an invalid conceives hatred and disgust for his room and surroundings, a prisoner for his cell, and only too often a worker for the factory.

(Simone Weil, 1909-1943)

Freud commented more than once that there were three - and perhaps somewhat surprisingly only three - concepts, acceptance of which entitled one to consider oneself an ally of psychoanalysis. These were: the repressed unconscious, transference and infantile sexuality. However, one can see that the concept of unconscious phantasy soon reveals itself as foundational to all.

Perhaps this is a timely reappraisal because there is a sense of a shift in the way we use the concept of unconscious phantasy, even an erosion. This involves two distinct manifestations. The first relates to something more general, that raises broad epistemological issues. Here I have particularly in mind ways of thinking, and perhaps the relational school represents this most forcefully, which foreground the interpersonal field and in so doing brings the whole idea of the internal world as such under question. This is distinct from those schools of thought which, though in terms of technique emphasise the relationship between analyst and analysand, remain wedded to the classical model of anxiety, conflict, insight and defence, and so to the internality of psychic life. The second location lies not so much in the model, but in the psychic contents described, for there has been a change in emphasis, a move away from interpreting in terms of archaic bodily processes. Though this has also been an appropriate reaction to the overuse of this language there is perhaps, in the air, a concern to revitalize this.

I am reminded of Hanna Segal saying at a conference that as she listened to the papers she recalled the story of an older woman at a party of young people overhearing conversations about sex and wondering to herself, 'Doesn't anyone do it the old way any more'!

In what follows I would like to rehearse the history of the concept of unconscious phantasy with particular emphasis on the different kinds of phenomena that it covers. I will start with Freud and this will be followed by the Kleinian development of the concept which of course centres on Susan Isaacs's classical paper. I will show, however, that some of this more contemporary thinking was already present in Freud's thought, though he did not take forward its implications. This will be followed by some discussion of the work of the philosopher Richard Wollheim, who more than anyone else, has explored the logical geography of psychoanalytic theory, providing a richness that is both conceptual and phenomenological. In the closing section of the paper I will bring a contribution of my own which, I hope, brings some further clarification.

We can see that Freud uses this concept in a number of different ways and, as Riccardo Steiner (2003), to whose work I am deeply indebted, reminds us, the complexities and ambiguities of the very term 'phantasy' well antedate Freud and reach deeply into its etymology. …

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