If the Centre of the World Is Set at Zero

Did the destruction of the Twin Towers have a resonance in the consulting room? And, if so, of what kind? Then can what happens in the consulting room help us to understand the imaginary and symbolic dimension of what happens in the world?

Did the destruction of the Twin Towers have a resonance in the consulting room? And, if so, of what kind? Then can what happens in the consulting room help us to understand the imaginary and symbolic dimension of what happens in the world? Or do the events of the world, dramatic, momentous and dreadful as they may be, offer only a symptomatic cover for the psyche, in which case they should be understood as referring to a family story and its pathological script? Such are the questions that occurred to me after the WTC attack, and in response I decided to collect and write down the reactions both of my patients and myself, so as to reflect on them and think about them in the context of a basic theoretical problem: what is my position vis-à-vis the relationship between the soul and the world?

I forgave myself the enormity of the question with the consideration that, if this is not the right moment to tackle the problem, what other event do I have to wait for?

Let me begin by summing up my observations. Since I cannot–and I don't think it would be more convincing–review a large number of carefully documented cases–that would require hundreds of pages which in any case would be open to alternative interpretations–I will refer to the only criterion I consider useful when comparing clinical material: that is the assessment of the heuristic potential of what has emerged, when referred, by other analysts, to their own personal experience and clinical material. Therefore the validity of what I am going to say is to be confirmed by the meaning other researchers will draw from it, in comparaison of their expert agreement or disagreement.

First of all let's illustrate the typology of reactions I observed. I noticed there wasn't an immediate reaction–let's say within a week–in patients who were going through a really hard time, patients who considered their situation as serious, or extremely painful (for reasons regarding both themselves and their families). The reactions of those who weren't in such dire straits, I analysed by drawing up a diagram, placing on the x coordinate the introvert typology, on the left, in opposition to the extrovert one, on the right. To the introvert type I associated the tendency to isolation and the reference, in the history of psychopathology in psychoanalysis, to obsessive behaviour. To the extrovert type I associated the tendency to mix with others and the reference, in the history of psychopathology in psychoanalysis, to hysteria. The more intense the hysteric traits, the characteristics of extroversion and the capacity to mix and identify, the more immediate was the reaction observed. On the other hand, the more intense the obsessive traits and the characteristics both of introversion and isolation, the later the reaction to the event manifested itself, as though liberated only after an attempt to block it. In this frame of reference the patient's defences seem to act by intensifying the already dominant tendency, whether toward mixing and identification or isolation.

The tendency to place oneself within the frightful event seems contrary to notion of a defensive function, and risks an identification so strong as to cancel out such distance as the ego needs to be present. But, analysing dreams and associations, one often comes to the conclusion that this behaviour amounts to an escape into the outer world in order to find relief from inner conflicts. The tragedy of the world, that is, justifies–and therefore alleviates–personal grief, as if the latter could be cancelled out by participating in collective pain. It is in these cases that classic psychoanalytic interpretation–its greatest expression being, in my opinion, Klein's Narrative of a Child Analysis– confirms its validity. Melanie Klein invariably interprets, for five hundred pages, every single mention of the war–we are in 1941–on the part of her 10-year-old patient, Richard, as an unconscious reference either to infantile sexual anxieties, the boy's parents or the transference of the analysis. Although repeating three times in the first two pages that "the outbreak of war in 1939 had increased his anxieties", Klein does not weave war-related events ("a bomb... had fallen near the garden in their former house") with experiences coming out of inner drives and family relationships, but goes straight to the heart of the analytical reductionism explaining that Hitler is the boy's father, or the one who wants to "hurt mummy", or is Melanie Klein herself, and so on, in infinite variations on the theme, from the first session to the ninetieth, the last. If this line of interpretation–leaving aside any consideration on the effectiveness and desirability of saturated or unsaturated interpretations–may prove suitable in clinical work with patients who tend to defend themselves by confusing their own situation with the circumstances they are influenced by, it is equally evident that with patients who have the opposite tendency the approach will merely coincide with their defences.

A patient who relies on his introvert disposition and insists on an attitude of differentiation and distance, isolating himself and adopting obsessive modalities, (e.g. the omnipotence of thought so as to avoid the risks of relational life), would find, in a line of interpretation that reminds him of his intrapsychic conflicts, a confirmation of his determination not to be involved in outer events.

Quite apart from her personal style, Klein offers an example of the unilateral conception of psychoanalytic theory: psychoanalysis itself, in so far as it rests unilaterally (that is, in any event) on the primary importance of the psychic and intrapsychic dimension, or even of the intersubjective, but in early infantile relationships, betrays here its function of defence-escape from the world, its denial of the emotional power of the other.

Without going into details I must admit that my own position as analyst–I could say my personal equation–had to be carefully considered for any possible counter-transference, since my tendency would be to replicate the rationalizing outward-oriented defence, separated from the analysis of personal intrapsychic dynamics. Hence I could identify all too easily with patients who appear "detached" from what happened and happens in the world, even when the news reaches us these days right in our sitting room. For this kind of person, the confrontation with the terror sparked off "out there" is generally put off and mediated by some other situation which, suddenly, takes us back to what we had been keeping at a safe a distance by means of our rationality.

That people within our own field have suspected that psychoanalysis serves an unconsciously apotropaic function when it comes to the grief of others or the sorrows of the world is clear enough from Franco Fornari's introduction to the Italian version of Klein's book.

"I would like to conclude my introductory reflections by dealing with the problem of the escape into the outer world as a defence from the disasters in the inner world, a problem raised again by Klein in this book. I myself have stressed, as far as war is concerned, the possibility that it–as <terrifying outer reality>–can help the individual to escape from <terrifying inner reality>. In other words, it is as though people possessed a sort of basic traumatophilia, connected with the wish for adventures and the innate desire for struggle. However, the prospect of a total catastrophe (=nightmare) in the outer world puts our traumatophilia in a difficult position, since our acting out can no longer defend us from the nightmare. If in the past we could "escape into reality" because it was preferable to go through a real trauma than experience the nightmare of our inner disasters, now we have to recognize that escaping into reality to avoid the nightmare is of no avail, since the nightmare has become a reality." These words are perfectly apt today, after the attack on the Twin Towers which has made it clear to all of us that no place on the Earth will ever be safe. I should underline, however, that the thought of the radical change represented by the nightmare of nuclear weapons led Fornari to speak of a historical periodization that over simplifies and tends to justify the epistemologic priority attributed by psychoanalysis to the inner world. The war was not everywhere, as might be the case with a nuclear world war, or a terrorist attack in the global world, but all the same how can we imagine that those in the past who feared extermination with their families, a condition endlessly repeated in human history, might have preferred the "outer terrifying reality" to the "inner terrifying one"? No, if we identified ourselves only for a moment with any historical memory or read the classics again, from Homer to the Book of Joshua, we would be convinced of the contrary. Can we imagine that someone who has been condemned to be flayed alive would prefer the "terrifying outer event"? I know this example is extreme, but my aim is to put this involuntary arrogance and superficiality in dealing with the hard truth of the world–of which the soul is a part, though it cannot dominate the whole–back into perspective. It is no coincidence that one of the convincing criticisms of psychoanalytic theories concerning trauma has come out of the clinical treatment of victims of torture.

Francoise Sironi states: "The treatment of trauma caused by torture undermines Freud's theory: the technical device he imagined, led the patient to think of himself as exclusively responsible for his destiny. The deliberate isolation of the patient from the universe of reference where disorder has appeared is sought by all psychological and psychopathological theories; in fact, it is one of their implied preconditions. In clinical psychology there are situations representing proper paradigms, and torture is one of them, since it throws into doubt our theoretical and technical conceptions in a clinical situation where the intention to harm is unequivocally recognizable.

The disorder can no longer be attributed to the "nature" of the patient, but is the consequence of deliberate actions: an action has produced a manifest effect which cannot be traced back to an individual and intrapsychic conflict." And again: "The description of traumatic states generally considered by Western psychopathology does not ascribe particular importance to the outrage itself. It lays more emphasis on the consequences of this experience (that is nightmares, apathy, etc.) than to the process and the dynamic in progress. In other words, it never considers the individual who has committed the violence, except as he emerges in the fantasy of the victims. This is not surprising, since–as we have said–psychoanalysis and psychopathology have developed without considering the other. It is indeed the other that represents the weak point in the present theory of trauma."

I think that the decision not to consider the role of others in the construction of the Self–except that of the mother in the early steps of human evolution–has led to the notion of the omnipotence of psychism over external reality. So, outside our inner psychic life, not even death has a truly independent value: rather than the proper limit of every living organism, determined by the necessary interdependence of its biological existence on other organisms and the inorganic environment, death is supposed to be one of our own internal drives. Looked at another way, this is the false power–the defensive structure–of internalisation, which tries to swallow up the whole world in order to keep it under control. The false power of this psychoanalytic position–which amounts to the improper generalisation of a particular psychological attitude–is evident in the projective compensation it offers: the external world now appears in the form of "natural necessity", even in those areas where it is obviously constructed historically and therefore open to change, for example in its economic organization.

As we see, the clinical consideration of a defensive typology in response to this terrorist attack, leads to considerations which regard our own way of thinking and the assumptions it is built on. An awareness of this may help us avoid excessive unilaterality in clinical practise, and again to reconsider the hidden–though probably inevitable–relationships between psychoanalysis and the complex of the subjective "will to power" which characterizes much of modern thought.

One attitude I often notice in the comments of some colleagues and in public debate consists in relating the anxiety reflex provoked by the collapse of the Twin Towers, to a fear of castration, or to the attack on parental figures. As I see it, this is undoubtedly possible in specific cases. But if we accept this as the only meaning of all reactions then we have the "disappearance of the world", the cancellation of collective and individual histories: time, place, social forces and biographical situation become irrelevant accessories. We take this line because we are not sociologists, political commentators or historians, but psychoanalysts and this is supposed to be our province. I totally disagree with this approach. It's not a question of doing someone else's job, we must do our own, but do it by looking, on the one hand in the intertwining of biography and history, and on the other in those mythical narratives, often unconsciously implied, for a possible thread of meaning, that brings together both emotional effects and their comprehension.

A patient told me of the different reactions of his sons to September 11th, frequently linking them to the attitudes of other members of the family and thus emphasizing the mimetic element in their behaviour and an implied hierarchy of values.

One son said: "but I don't even have a girlfriend, yet!"; one daughter sighed romantically: "To die so young"; her sister said: "Stop it! The attack is over"; the other son remarked: "let's move to the antipodes".

I give this example–though I have no intention of commenting on it, since it would require a lot of background–to suggest that no event has a determinate meaning, but rather an indeterminate symbolic potential, and that its meaning can be drawn circumstantially, that is in relation to a historical-biographical psychology full of its own mythems, at which point it becomes part of a historic mytho-biography.

It is also clear that the formulation that gives to each event a fixed symbology–a formulation that, in my opinion, makes "the world disappear"–also invites objections similar, though perhaps different in point of view, to those Jung raised to the Freudian reduction of the symbol to a sign. From this we can infer a different conception of "representation" and its function as defence: overwhelming emotion and, above all, nameless anxiety mobilize defences and prompt us, well before we are able to articulate any response, to form an image which we can then call up and confront (this is one of the reasons why, the TV reproductions of the attack at the Twin Towers stirred a sort of "mental fizz " in viewers). The defence mechanism, since it is set in motion by an image, represents at the same time a possibility of transformation, transformation of the namelessness of emotion, since the image functions as a forerunner of naming and as a transformation of defence into contact and elaboration.

Here lies, I will suggest in passing–though this point would need further development–the possibility of treating the same psychoanalytic defences from the world that I mentioned earlier as themselves the possibility of transformation, using their techniques as a first approach to the encounter with the world and with other people's emotions.

I will now illustrate the dream of one of my patients which not only exemplifies a way of working through collective trauma, by reference to one's own individual history, but at the same time offers a symbolic proposal that the soul creates when the threat of destructive meaninglessness strikes at the vital centres of the world. Together with the life story and the unfolding of the analytic dialogue, we find here an attempt to respond to the historic context whose "centre"–whether willingly or unwillingly accepted as such–has been hit. The best formulation if we are to keep in mind the various personal reactions runs as follows: the distressing disorientation is brought about by the danger of losing any centre in the dimension of space, while time, which in our world is organized around the American myth, is thrown into chaos by the return of a past now armed by forces of the present and the future.

Here is the content of the dream: a circular glass dome, light filters through, one can hear the hum of machines at work, they must run with advanced technologies. At the centre, surrounded by about a hundred of people, a cone of light expands upwards. Around it there is the dreamer, with his wife and his adopted child, the father of the dreamer and his family of origin, the analyst, religious personalities of various confessions, some with long beards–they must be Islamic–together with magicians, technicians, intellectuals and scientists. All of them are important people. At the centre of the cone of light a lively beautiful, blond child is born. He is the son of the dreamer but mysteriously he is the son of the others as well, as if he were born from their co-operation, from their circle. Then a sentence, important words, of hope, perhaps of salvation.

A dream of this kind may give rise to suspicions of a compensatory escape into grandiose ideas and could be read as "inflated" according to Jungian language, or associated with immediately evident archetypal themes (the birth of the divine child, the forms of the circle and the dome for the manifestation of the Self, the interpenetration of individual and chosen community that makes it possible...) I didn't and wouldn't succumb to either temptation, at least not as an exclusive reading. During the session we limited ourselves to following those threads of the patient's life story that led back to the idea of fatherhood–his relationship with his own father and his relationship with his child–themes which had been central to the analytic dialogue. We referred only in passing to the mythic themes (the nativity, the Christ child) manifest in the dream and belonging to the patient's cultural tradition, albeit a tradition he had abandoned. At the end of the session, however, I did express my impression that this was a "great dream", one of those that cannot be reduced to a single life-story.

The dream clearly responds to the patient's feeling of being "taken apart" (or 'proved wrong'), expressed at the beginning of the session by the patient, a man in his mid-forties with an intense political experience as a Left wing extremist during his youth. We can therefore observe its compensatory function, something all the more powerful given the disorientation expressed at conscious level. But we cannot talk here of grandiose ideas or inflation: the patient is a lively person more than capable of irony, a person who has suffered for a long time from very low self esteem. His attitude to the dream was one of calm surprise. He was intent on understanding and not at all impressed with himself.

The collocation of the dream in the analytic process is, with hindsight, quite clear. In the initial dream of the analysis a devil was trying to suffocate a reverend, who recalled the patient's father, a man who had devoted his life to Christian practise, while the patient begged in vain for help from friends who were only interested in going out drinking wine. From his youth onwards the patient's attitude to religion had been one of total detachment and he had difficulty relating to his family of origin, his father in particular.

Both by choice–he is the foster parent of a very difficult child–and by profession, contact with children and teenagers is central to his life. More than two years after beginning analysis he presented a dream which involved a car chase between a boy and an ageing old man, which ended in fond recognition: the two were father and son.

In parallel–and right from the first sandplay–he began a process of recovering family ties, many linked with the sea and journeys, which up to that moment had remained inert or neglected. It was an individual, innovative return, with no trace of a-critical adhesiveness. This process strengthened him, and gave him a more positive assessment of himself and his life story.

The dream reflects all this, both on the personal level and as far as the dynamics of transference are concerned; the analyst participates in the birth of the new child and is mentioned and seen beside the relatives of yesterday and today. But if we are to understand the dream we cannot stop here: it would be reductive, a way of making "the world disappear" behind the conflicts and recognitions of the family and the analytic narrative. Of course to take only the opposite approach would be equally reductive. A quick glance at the personal story of the patient is enough to understand that for this man resignation to the world as it is can never be a solution. The attack on the Twin Towers appears to discredit his progressive ideas, cancelling out any hope of change. If the enemy of global capitalism–this how I would explain his feeling of being 'taken apart' or proved wrong –is the terrorism of Bin Laden, then the best we can expect is what has already happened: the triumph of the status quo, of that part of the world which is already in power. I imagine that being compelled to defend the Pentagon and the symbols of capitalism is hardly a pleasant experience for those who cherished hope of utopias and alternative worlds.

In this regard it is no coincidence that only today, almost ten months after the attack, does the movement that launched the slogan "another world is possible" feel it need no longer be afraid–so we hear from Porto Alegre 2002–of being seen as "anti-American".

In any event, faced by the danger of resignation, and with reason and common sense apparently impotent, the individual resorts to the compensatory powers of imagination, by the means of what I call the language of imaginal narrative, as long as the power of rationality and common sense–so to say, the language of rational argument–cannot help anymore. The immense reservoir of the memory and of philogenetic heredity (instincts, biological rhythms, emotional reactions, patterns of reference) is activated, manifesting itself in forms shaped by the cultural models that every individual has received through his tradition. In other words, mythical elements, or mythems, now emerge to supply alternative meanings to the biography of a person experiencing difficulties in confronting the world.

In the dream I have reported, the patient tries to imagine a response to the disappointment of his ethic-political conscience and to his disorientation. In an indistinguishable melting pot the patient's and his offspring's impulse to survive is expressed according to the cultural model he has received, the divine-human nativity of Christ. But it is important to notice the changes that the historic-biographical connection has produced within the traditional forms of the myth, and it is indeed because of these changes that I would use the term "mytho-biographical" to designate the process that Jung called "archetypal". In the dream, in fact, we observe at least four big variations on the theme of divine-human nativity: the child is human-divine; the light comes from the bottom and rises upwards; the semi-spherical dome is high-tech; the assembly is multi-faith, or better, "ecumenical" in the etymological sense of the term: that is, it gathers within a common house all the inhabitants of the Earth.

To comment exhaustively on these four variations it would be necessary to call up–at least briefly, which would be ridiculous here–the cultural history of the last 250 years: the process of secularisation and modern criticism of the metaphysics of worlds beyond death, as well as the debate on technology and progress, without neglecting the story of Christian ecumenism and the "syncretic" impulses on the part of social movements fighting for international solidarity in the process of globalization.

Some may think that I am going too far, that it is the analyst who is inflated. Perhaps they are right, but psychoanalysis itself has taught us (and Heraclitus told us as much many centuries before), that what can represent our "ultimate concern" may be a very ordinary thing, a mere dream, a product of the imagination. Dreams are in fact the expression of the creative powers of the faculty of "imagining differently", which is a distinguishing human trait, and hence biologically grounded in the brain's evolution.

These powers function as a bricoleur, to put it in Levi-Strauss's words, in our attempt to resolve problems of a profound cultural and hence symbolic nature, problems the psyche is bound to deal with because immersed in the world and reactive to it. The dreamer, if we consider his conscious dimension hasn't a deep understanding of the dream, at least not immediately; for the moment he has merely "received" the message from his imagination.

Intuitive synthesis in fact comes independent of the dreamer, so that we are bound to assume that when subjected to tension on coming up against difficult obstacles, the emotional-cultural elements of the content have the capacity to recombine intelligently without conscious predisposition. Although in analysis we can only hint at the possible amplifying interpretations, favouring, in this case, the theme of recognition of fatherhood and the desire of a reconciliation between family of origin and outer world, any mere reduction to the patient's biography or to the analytical process that is unable to look at the underlying creative mythical process would be, I repeat, reductive.

As I see it, when faced with a collective catastrophe, the dreamer is given, as a possibility, an intellectual and emotional response. There is a utopia within the dream, a universal renewal of the myth of rebirth, a response from the active soul to the threat of a war that would pitch everyone into a destructive free-for-all: secularised modernity is reconciled with the creative power of the myth, overcoming every dualism between Heaven and Earth and proposing the widest possible solidarity between different faiths. When the centre of the world threatens to be set at zero the soul imagines a new centre–a child who establishes a new tie between West and East, past and present. This is utopian, a dream, obviously; but without dreams like these we can't go anywhere, because an attack at the centre of the world reveals how tragically fragile its symbolism is and how deep our disorientation.

© Romano Màdera, Milan