Review of Antonino Ferro's "Torments of the Soul : Psychoanalytic Transformations in Dreaming and Narration"

The title of this book, Ferro tells us, “is a deliberate allusion to Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s 1926 film ‘Secrets of a Soul’ which was made with the specific aim of giving spectators a correct understanding of psychoanalysis. ... One of the paradoxes of the film is that is a ‘silent film about a talking cure’. As a silent film, it has only a few captions inserted at certain key moments.”

Ferro’s comment at the start of his book (above) is interesting because it could be said that Ferro’s book is a talking book about a silent cure, though the silences in it are inserted at more than a few places! I say this because there is a lot of talk in this book but the messages in it are largely unspoken, because they are beyond words. This juxtaposition of words and silence is also expressed in the title of the book "Torments of the Soul". For volumes can be said about "torments" but how do you talk such an unspoken entity as the "soul"? I think this duality is again reflected in the choice of photo for the cover, which clearly shows the shadows of two people running, but the people themselves are only suggested. We can see the shadows or torments of people, but the souls of these people are largely obscured. The word “shadow”, though part of the cover photo, rather than part of the title, might be a throw back to Freud's "shadow of the object ... on the ego ..." 1 So what is repeatedly communicated to us, before we have even commenced reading this book, is that it is easier to see or experience torments or shadows, but it is far more difficult to see or understand the ego or soul, for these terms are after all abstractions and refer to something in us which we sense, but which is beyond our senses. I have quite deliberately gone very slowly over the opening lines of the book, for these remarks hopefully communicate something of the essence of this book. The book is packed with clinical narratives and there is a huge range of them. This heterogeneity is expressed in the chapters too, which are about an enormous diversity of issues. The titles of these chapters communicate something of this, for instance “Casting” (as in films), “In praise of interruption”, “Therapeutic action and characters in the field”, “Stories of life (and) analysis” and “Clinical implications of Bion’s thinking” etc. However, despite this apparent diversity there is considerable overlap in the chapters, for they are all liberally sprinkled with clinical vignettes, each of which could arguably be used in any other chapter. The problem with reviewing such a book is to try to draw this diversity together in a way that is coherent and yet which is true to the spirit of the book. Bion’s concept of a “Selected Fact”, which he borrows from Poincare, might be useful here - “If a new result is to have any value, it must unite elements ... till then scattered ... and suddenly introduce order where the appearance of disorder reigned. Then it enables us to see at a glance each of these elements in the place it occupies in the whole.”2

The “Selected Fact” that I will use here comes from the title of the book “Torments of the Soul”. The whole book is essentially about torments variously expressed in innumerable clinical situations and how they affect the individual (soul). This statement can be further simplified if we say that these torments are diverse variants of communication, of which there can be a large number, but the invariants in the communication are relatively few. These variants can be verbalised, so they can be described as “talk-torment-shadow”. The invariants of the communication can be described as "silence-soul". So I will first talk about the verbalised torments, then about the subject of them, the soul.

The first thing that needs to be said about this book, is that I doubt whether it would be comprehensible to anyone but an experienced psychoanalyst, for it takes for granted an easy familiarity with the work of psychoanalysis that only comes with much experience. Further, as the sheer volume and plethora of clinical vignettes starts to balloon, it becomes impossible to imagine that any one psychoanalyst could possibly have had so many people in analysis. Then we learn towards the latter part of the book that these vignettes should not be taken too literally, for they are sometimes composites of experience from the author's or his colleagues experience, sometimes fragments of these experiences occasionally with large doses of imagination and sometimes purely constructed for the purposes of illustration! Can you imagine what havoc this disclosure would have on the thinking of a newly qualified psychoanalyst that carefully and accurately records his/ her clinical notes for supervision? Ferro defends this, I think rightly, with the argument that what analysands express are always complex composites of memories, their understanding of them, the uses they are being put to at that point in time, which includes reactions to what the analyst has said or failed to say and the unconscious to and fro dialogues of the characters and part characters that have come to dwell in the ongoing analysis. (He actually encourages this process in us through “exercises” that form the last chapter of the book.) Farewell certainty and "accurate records" of sessions!

If we understand the narrative of the session to be a hybrid of many sub-narratives, which narrative should we give precedence to? Ferro's answer is to none of them. In particular he warns against the psychoanalytic narrative of the analyst that runs alongside the narratives of the patient. These psychoanalytic narratives tend to be thought about and expressed in the highly saturated interpretations which are based on the various schools that the psychoanalyst bears allegiance to. Like religious beliefs they tend to be immutable, and worse, they encourage the analyst to try and force the enormous complexity of the session into a few pat formulations, which blind the analyst to new and emerging different possibilities that are inherent in (and inevitable) in any human encounter. Instead of this, Ferro says the purpose of the session is to metabolise proto-emotions in such a way that they can be used to promote growth and development both in the analyst and analysand. Following Bion, it is the apparatus for thinking that he is interested in, not so much the thoughts that this apparatus uses.

There could be one criticism of this book and that is the sheer volume of clinical vignettes. Ferro defends this by saying that he is after all a clinician and can talk only through them. It is true that these vignettes are very illustrative of a huge variety of clinical situations and it is also true that each one illustrates the enormous clinical insights of the author that he demonstrates with the effortless and awesome ease of, what I think is, a peerless master. Yet even the brilliance of these vignettes, with much use, especially in the way the author uses them (with concepts such as container/proto-emotions/alphabetisation etc.) becomes rather repetitive. After a while the reader starts to feel assaulted with the vignettes and the formulations, so that if he is not careful, s/he evacuates the capacity to think. Once this capacity to think is evacuated, the analyst feels persecuted by these vignettes. They become “bizarre objects” for they not only contain incomprehensible and unthinkable beta elements, but they also contain large doses of ego (and especially), superego, elements . I think this situation can best be handled by paying attention to something that Ferro repeatedly puts forward throughout the book. He says a very valuable way to understand any clinical material is by preceding it with the "magic" words - “I had a dream”. If we can do that then any clinical situation can be treated and handled as a dream. I found it a very useful technique in trying to understand this book. For if we insert this magic formulation at the start of the book and treat it as if it were a dream, we regain our capacity to think and a number of possible interpretations open up. We can dream the book, instead of trying to read it closely. However, when we dream the book and interpret it in the way we find fit, we must accept that as in the interpretation of any dream, another reader would come to totally different conclusions.

The interpretations I come to, have something to do with the second part of the title of this book, the "soul" (that suffers the "torments") or the silent method that I mentioned at the start. Though Ferro repeatedly hints at this interpretation, he doesn't gather it together as an overarching conclusion, perhaps deliberately, for he prefers unsaturated interpretations that the likes of me, are then invited to impregnate with meaning. I think he is putting forward a very bold proposition - the current clinical situation that he is describing, is not just a repetition of older internal dialogues, but that we don't know how to talk to each other, except by using unconscious imagery. This is our deepest and most meaningful vocabulary. We talk without knowing what we are actually saying or what we are responding to. It is only an experienced analyst in the defined setting of a psychoanalysis that has the latent capacity to understand this communicative imagery. That doesn’t mean that this dialogue will necessarily be understood in that setting, for it frequently passes unnoticed. It simply means that this dialogue is only understandable in the carefully controlled setting of a psychoanalysis. What is more, the psychoanalyst often not only doesn't understand but joins in the dialogue blindly. This does not mean that the dialogue is disrupted. It just continues, as it does in every other part of our lives. And since it continues in that way, neither we nor our analysands benefit and learn from it. When we can understand this dialogue, even if it is not with Ferro's fluency, a transformation starts to take place. We begin to understand something of how we are constructed. We discover the enormously complexity of the beings that we are, in all our petty rivalries and miseries, all our profound depths of guilt and remorse and all the unimaginable creative potentials that exist in all of us. Psychoanalysis thus becomes not only a matter of making the unconscious conscious or moving from the paranoid to the depressive position or alphabetising and digesting proto-emotions, it becomes a process of bearing to be who we are as persons. I think it is preferable not to try and force this understanding into some psychoanalytic formulation that inevitable gets rapidly saturated and which then inevitably squeezes out the essence and uniqueness of who we are as human beings. This is our soul and this is the silent transformation that can possibly take place within us. But for it to happen we have to step outside the theory of our forebears and our own personal theories and narratives about ourselves. We have to move out of talk and into silence. This is not easy, nor will it inevitably happen within a psychoanalysis, or out of it, but it is possible. It is important to understand that this process is silent and as Bion reminds us, “so long as progress, growth, is taking place, no one knows”4. It is the disruption of growth that produces the “torment” that we hear so much about. Equally our attempts to force growth, for example by insisting on our saturated interpretations, is noisy and disruptive, for it interrupts the potential for the quiet integrative processes that exist naturally within us.

Ferro says he is no mystic and he isn’t, but there is something almost mystical in the silence which he communicates that is best captured in a verse from the Tao Te Ching -

“In the pursuit of learning, one knows more everyday;
in the pursuit of the way, one does less everyday.
One does less and less, until one does nothing at all,
and when one does nothing at all there is nothing that is undone.”


1 Freud S. 1917. "Mourning and Melancholia." SE Vol. 14. Page 249.

2 Bion W. 1962. “Learning from Experience” in “Seven Servants” Jason Aronson. New York. p.72. 

3 Bion W. 1962. “Learning from Experience” in “Seven Servants” Jason Aronson. New York. p. 25. 

4 Bion W. 1970 “Attention and Interpretation” in “Seven Servants” Jason Aronson. New York. p. 44. 

5 Lao Tau. “Tao Te Ching” Penguin Classics 1963. Chapter 48, Verse 108.