[My buddy] Mike stops it somehow. I feel the presence of my father and am terrified. As I start to walk the plank, a helicopter lands. I know it’s my father because I see his feet. The plank is slanted and I start to slip. Mike helps me. I say I’ll just fall into the gorge and swim, but I really think I’ll die and that’s okay. Then we go across and reach the border. Mike says you have to run 30 yards or more after you cross . . . you can’t just skip across. I see buses crossing the border freely. Guards begin shooting at us. I keep running and running and they keep shooting and shooting. I crawl gasping up an incline, pulling on a railing. We’re suddenly at 40,000 feet! I can look out and see clouds. Mike says to come on. I’m not sure what to do.
He finished telling me this dream with an air of relieved exhaustion as if he had delivered a baby. He expressed amazement that such a creative achievement came from ‘inside’ him.
n the dream the multiple movements in space are striking. First he takes a stand on the earth to make a crossing beyond the known world, at an interface of cultures. To do that you have to sneak, you have to find a new way. The old, conventional approaches won’t work anymore. Then he’s under the ground where he finds the dramatic porcelain bulls, which he chooses over the deadness of the sarcophagus. These animals have an earthy vitality and penetrating red horns, but a cold and brittle porcelain skin. He gazes at the bare-breasted women, perhaps sensing nourishing possibility rather than lack.5 However, there is a problem when he tries to take photos, to make permanent images. It is always a struggle to take such experiences back to the everyday world.
5The bare-breasted women may indicate the beginning of the transformation of the ‘dead mother’, and his willingness to fight for more life. He has seen the still-encapsulated aliveness of the bulls, and seems to have ‘chosen’ them over the deadness of the mausoleum sarcophagus.
He has left the boundaries of the known, and this had a disorienting effect. As he returns to home base, the experience of space becomes more uncanny and terrifying. He has to cross an abyss. Perhaps this is the unsignifiable that always lurks in the background of experience. He has left the pseudo-safety of the ‘dead mother’ and this opens up the terror of the ‘black hole’.
He can barely glimpse his father. However, this glimpse of him and Todd’s capacity to dream it and verbalize it were the beginning of representation of the life energy of the father/bull. The terror involved had to be faced for him to open new spaces, to create room to be. Surrendering to the experience, he confronts his fear and is willing to die. Such a level of surrender seems to be crucial for transformation to occur. Only with the containing support of the transference was such a shift possible.
The spatial shifts emerged like a giant whipsaw. After being down below he must cross a gap, an open space. This constellates a panicky reaction and his sense of place and space shifts violently. He is suddenly high above. It is as if the ‘sheltering sky’ has itself become a version of the ‘black hole’. Mike, the steadfast transferential analytic companion, continues to help.6 Dimensions of space have radically shifted, through his owning of his life energy that has emerged via his capacity to endure the black hole.
6‘Mike’ could be seen as an emerging capacity for ‘object usage’ in the transference. I had been fairly active and available in our interactions. This seems to be an important factor in the analysis of such patients (Green 2001, p. 183 & 193; Winnicott 1969).
I was as surprised as Todd at the emergence of this dream. It seemed to embody a leap in his capacity for reflection and symbolization. The content was intense and full of conflict, but his affect was one of satisfaction and almost peace.
The dream came up intermittently in subsequent sessions. He continued to be somewhat in awe that such a dream could ‘come out of me’. This was a shift in the whole sense of himself as a subject with a ‘rich, creative interior’. I supported this more positive sense of self with comments such as ‘It’s really hard to bring this life back to the everyday world, like in the dream. It may look like it’s easy for others, but I don’t think there’s ever an easy way. It’s our job to see that you don’t lose connection with the life you found there inside yourself’.
We also explored the specific symbols. I noted that it was the bulls that attracted his attention, not the sarcophagus. They were encased, but seemed full of potential life. The need to fight for his experiences, and to endure the terror of his father, were other foci of attention.
Often, he would merely smile and nod at what I said, then go on with his own associations. We had developed a wordless trust that often seemed sufficient.
His dreaming self was able to articulate the violent shift into a more spacious world with more room for life. Significantly, the ‘black hole’ did not reappear in pure form during the remainder of the analysis, and his terror and panic subsided. A richer set of possibilities continued to emerge, furnishing a broader base for life. Over the next few months there was a series of dreams with facets that connected with the big dream. He had remarried and his new wife was pregnant. Another dramatic dream expressed this change (dream slightly edited for the sake of brevity):
My wife and I are in downtown Seattle. A friendly dentist is working on my teeth. We leave, and decide to drive our new van around the city. We want to walk around; it would be good for her, since she’s pregnant. A guy takes us on this walking tour. We get to a huge plaza, like in Rome. He says this is a Spanish-Mexican area of town. People are running toward us. It’s a mass of humanity. A guy has a pack of Pall Mall (cigarettes), and points to a mall pictured on the package, like that’s where we’ll be safe.
I get separated from my wife. I realize people are running from the bulls. It’s Pamplona! Something has me from behind. I call to my wife but she can’t do anything. The bull has me but it turns into a person with a cat’s head. It is a tall, sinewy man, very muscular, who is strong and controlling. I want to get free but he says, ‘No, you can’t!’ He takes me to a stage where there are three cauldrons filled with warm, dark fluid. I think he is going to cook me! He has me get into each cauldron so as to put my body scent into each one. There are also herbs and spices that I add.
The reliable dentist works on his teeth, like the focused, hard work of analysis.7 Then there is a tour of a mall—the agora—led by a guide. In his company, Todd confronts his psychological agoraphobia, his personal constriction, and his fear of space. The dizzying abysses of space that were evident in the earlier dream were now something to be navigated and explored with transferential help.8
7Modifications of teeth are common parts of initiatory rituals, and often have that meaning in dreams.
8Agoraphobic panic emerged in the late nineteenth century as a primal disturbance of spatiality (Hinton in press). Todd’s malady could be seen as part of a more general malady of our times.
In the dream, the bulls surge through the streets. They are alive, not fixed in cold porcelain capsules, but also not out of control. The spaces of the city streets contain their powerful movement, and the enigmatic cat-man conducts a ritual. There are vessels in which Todd’s scent will intermingle with the warm waters, in contrast to his past encasement in a cold, rigid shell. He must also include spices! In this dream there is a mood of deep interiorization that is quiet, disciplined, and serious.
Smells permeate boundaries and are part of our most embodied presence. They are often related to shame.9 We frequently judge odours to be signs of danger or pollution and try to conceal the smells that seem to signify abjected parts of self-experience (Kristeva 1982). The socially excluded or disempowered are often said to smell bad. We spend huge amounts of money on perfumes and deodorants. Smells remind us of our body with its vulnerability and death. Hard shells are a sometimes-desperate means of clinging to an illusion of permanence, sameness, and purity that never stinks! To allow these all-too-human taints into the core of awareness represents a basic shift that dramatically contrasts with Todd’s initial encapsulation.
9Varieties of shame are often indicators of the level of development of consciousness (Hinton, L. 1998; Mogenson 2000).
He seems to be more grounded, ‘in place’ in a way that does not require a rigid shell. His raw body smells and the new spices intermingle in their rich particularity. He is more present ‘in the flesh’, immersed in the smelly richness of life. His space is more fluid and in circulation. The hierarchical encapsulations have radically given way to a flowing, contained sense of openness and possibility.
Some developmental and philosophical perspectives
The ‘black hole’ first appeared in contemporary analytic discourse when Frances Tustin used the term. Interestingly, she did this before the astrophysical entity had been described (Grotstein 1990b, pp. 39–40). During treatment of autistic children she noted a frequent terror of falling into something they referred to as a ‘black hole’ that was accompanied by a sense of living as a shell-like ‘nothing’. Due to their underlying terror, these children ‘nullified’ anything that seemed ‘other’ because it could loosen their fragile grip on reality and condemn them to ‘falling forever’ into an inchoate nothingness. They seemed to feel they had nowhere to go, no safe space for symbolization (Tustin 1990).
Adults create complex, ongoing narratives of words, body language, emo- tions, images, rituals, and meaningful objects to articulate their worlds. However, these eventually fail to contain affect-laden eruptions (Chandler 2003, p. 2). The experience of the ‘black hole’ looms when we reach this limitation. Hegel called this point the ‘anstoss’, referring to an enigmatic ‘something’ that ‘stops us’, that defies signification (Zizek 1999, p. 34). We are just there with ‘It’. Our psychic space begins to ‘turn topsy-turvy’, and feels uncanny. This has been described as ‘annihilation anxiety’ that stems from the threat of madness or psychic death (Gediman 1995, p. 4).
The ‘black hole’ feels as if it is too much, an overwhelming opening in experience that exceeds one’s capacity to signify (Merleau-Ponty 1986, p. 21). Awareness of all that we are not disrupts the stability of our personal world. This overwhelming ‘presence’ is the ‘other’ for which we lack signifiers. It is, perhaps, the ultimately unsignifiable, the unknowable (Nobus 1999, p. 171).
If this experience can be contained and ‘suffered through’, being ‘on the edge of the abyss’ may bring forth new signs and symbols. A broadened, more expressive narrative may emerge from the upsurge of primal sensory elements that the ‘black hole’ can engender. This manifests within a sort of penumbra, a cloud, a ‘beam of darkness’ (Bion’s term)—not ‘out in the light’ (Rhode 1998, p. 24). The understanding that this experience generates can be so distinctive that the individual’s presence in the world radically shifts.
To feel solidly in place in the world involves creating a base in image and language. The process of making meaning through signification, and the creation of narratives, is simultaneously an expansion of spatial experience. The richness of our significations, our ongoing stories, gives ‘breadth’ and ‘depth’ to our worlds. This is personal and experiential, not space considered as an objectively- given, measurable substance ‘out there’.
The ‘black hole’ and contemporary art
Anselm Kiefer’s work situates the ‘black hole’ in contemporary cultural history. Something resembling an alchemical Nigredo—perhaps yet another signifier for the ‘black hole’—lies at the core of much of his work (Lo ́pez- Pedraza 1996). ‘To the Supreme Being’ depicts a mass of blackness at the far end of a huge hall reminiscent of Nazi-inspired architecture (Arasse 2001, pp. 66–95). In the place where one would expect to find an altar there are three black panels (Taylor 1992, pp. 301–07). Ironically, the perspectival lines in the painting evoke Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ (Steinberg 2002).
n Kiefer’s painting, there is no transcendent Last Supper, but only darkness and an overwhelming sense of lack. ‘This desertion does not leave in its wake mere absence, nor does it promise the arrival of presence’ (Taylor 1992, p. 303).There is ‘no Christ and his disciples, no food, and no windows opening onto nature. Only the room itself, where nothing is happening, opens out before us, and we cannot even tell what function the space has been designed to hold . . .’ (Gilmour 1990, p. 20). It vividly depicts the uncanniness of the black hole, the sense of void that has so strongly emerged in contemporary culture. The perspectival lines draw us into a vision of blackness that pervades the horizon of the painting, and by implication the tragic events of modern history. This is the contemporary bleakness that we confront in our patients and in ourselves.
Although he never shrinks from blackness, Kiefer has attempted many new syntheses, most often utilizing sources outside the modern tradition. Swathes of ‘starlight’ appear in some of his later paintings. However, he is constantly wary of any final answers, and has stated that the hallmark of his art is ambivalence. For instance, one of his recent paintings depicts the ‘Seven Heavenly Palaces’, which seems to be a vision of the Divine deriving from the Cabbala. In the following painting he depicts similar ‘heavenly dwellings’, but now surrounded with menacing fox traps! Such startling paradoxes starkly and somewhat humorously illustrate his determination not to be trapped in reified forms, or in an overly romanticized view of the universe.
It is an endless challenge to be present as persons, without seductive adornments, at a specific time and place in history. Whatever its chains of signification over the centuries, the ‘black hole’ seems prominent in our own times. Black holes, voids, vortices, and gaps pervade contemporary Western culture. These entities are consistently there in our patients’ everyday experiences, not merely in extreme or ‘borderline’ conditions. If not articulated in culturally creative forms, this reality may well find expression in violent and unforeseeable ways, individually and culturally.
The ‘black hole’ or ‘void’, the no-thing, can open the space for the emergence of new elements. This experience may precipitate trauma and disruption, but also a ‘rearrangement’ or ‘transformation’ of subjectivity as well as cultural creation (Castoriadis 1998). If imaginatively articulated—as we saw with Todd and in a glimpse of the art of Anselm Kiefer—a life with increased dimensionality and consciousness may become possible.
From time to time we always reach the limit of what we can signify, and must face the ‘gaps and abysses’ of life once again. Bearing of ‘not-knowing’ lies at the heart of analytic work at its best, and is a precondition for the emergence of new personal and cultural forms. This paradoxical ‘negative’ reality is the basis of the human subject, with its humble portions of dignity and freedom.
L’expe ́rience du ‘trou noir’ envahit l’expe ́rience contemporaine et ve ́hicule les«bre`ches» et les «vides» de la culture et de la psyche ́ occidentales. La psychologie des profondeurs e ́mergea de l’e ́trangete ́ croissante des espaces urbains et psychiques au cours du 19e` sie`cle, en meˆme temps qu’une fascination grandissante pour l’ «obscur», «entite ́» aux nombreuses de ́nominations.
A l’e ́gal d’une pande ́mie, l’expe ́rience du «trou noir» n’a cesse ́ de se repre ́senter a` travers les e ́ve ́nements tragiques et le malaise culturel des vingtie`me et vingt-et-unie`me sie`cles. L’art, la philosophie, la science, la psychanalyse, la litte ́rature et les e ́tudes culturelles ont articule ́ sous des formes diverses ce signifiant d’une puissance effrayante et pourtant e ́ternellement insaisissable. Un processus dialogique aux perspectives multiples permet une meilleure connaissance de ce phe ́nome`ne complexe. Des exemples et des angles d’approche divers, de meˆme qu’une e ́tude de cas de ́taille ́e, permettront d’en tracer certainscontours.Nousverronse ́galementquedetellesrencontresavecle«trounoir» ne sont pas seulement ne ́gatives mais qu’elles sont souvent la source e ́nigmatique d’une conscience et d’une cre ́ativite ́ nouvelles.