Psychoanalytic listening to the essences of being/Being: is it still relevant?


This paper with minor alterations, was prepared for and presented at the APAS Conference in October 2017. The support and encouragement of the Scientific Committee, especially that of Ms Milena Mirabelli, was important.

I see barbaric sodium city lamps
pretending they can see.
They make a new mad darkness,
Beyond their orange pools
The black endlessness of time beckons,
(Spike Milligan “Metropolis” 1971)


The conference question, psychoanalytic listening, seemingly necessitates the how, the what and, importantly, the why we are listening in our clinical practices. The papers of this conference admirably and often creatively address these. But…

But something is missing. The something that is essentially psychoanalytic in psychoanalytic listening.

The disciplined therapeutic focus, guided and endorsed by psychoanalytically informed concepts, allows us to retain our special place in the psychological therapies And, of course, this special place is under constant challenge from outside, but also from within, our paradigm, and hence the focus of this conference upon these defining concepts of our practices is absolutely essential.

But it may also come at a cost. The cost, as I will discuss, is the loss of something essential, something that made psychoanalysis different, unique, something that Freud believed would stand among the great discoveries of man.

We have learnt to fill the space of this absence by arguing for the importance of the views of an analytic authority: in the example of this conference, Bion. However even though this has often proved problematic we persevere as if we have no choice. It is potentially problematic at three levels. Because this authorative perspective seems to fill the space, erase the absence, we feel more comfortable in what we do. And this obviates the need to address this absence. Secondly, the authorative views that appeal to us will be seen to be deficient or even incorrect by others. And these miscreants will then champion their own authorative views about what we should do analytically and why. Of course our history of consequent bitter feuds is well known. Thirdly the authorative views, to which we turn, may, or will in fact, have significant inherent problems overlooked by those who follow them. This I believe originates, at least in part, by an unacknowledged driven need to move on from rather than develop from the originating essentials of psychoanalysis.1

My goal is to address the question of what we have lost from the core of psychoanalysis and why – and what we might do about it. In the context of the conference, the end focus will be whether we can retrieve our listening to these essences and if so what tools do we require for doing so? I propose that metaphor and paradox are the best we have.

My approach will be to wonder via the what, the how and the why we have lost this essence of psychoanalysis.

1 E.g., I believe Bion’s ideas, creative and at times quite astounding, also have their share of errors: e.g. his essentially magna est veritas is, seemingly, philosophically naïve and selfcontradictory; he determinedly conflates thought with being (e.g. his Grid) and in the process he loses his subject leading to the analyst-focus of his ideas; he misunderstands, or misrepresents, Kant, etc.

Why 1: I will begin with the why

Why do we need to bother and if it is worth bothering, then why have we lost this essence as I am arguing and will now put forward views of others to support my perspective

Matte Blanco (1998) writes:

Psychoanalysis has neglected to a considerable extent its initial purpose of exploring the psychology of the unconscious (p9)

To this he adds in deliberate psychoanalytic jargon to make his point;

The discovery of the unconscious has been repressed in psycho-analytical thinking and subsequently replaced by neatly constructed rationalisations, which…hide the underlying reality of the put it paradoxically, psychoanalysis has wandered away from itself (p10) (Matte Blanco’s emphasis)


Green (2005) in a similar vein, but more vehemently, laments the consequence, as he sees it, of the quasi-democracy of analytic thought and practice, established in part to avoid the previous embittered confrontations over authority of view. He sees this as having inevitably led to a mediocrity of thought by an elimination of the challenging essential conceptualizations that define psychoanalysis. With passion he writes:

There are books that do away with the unconscious, have a subsequently different concept of the transference and accord only a minor and even negligible role to the Oedipus complex; as for resistance, it is boldly asserted that there is no resistance other than that of the psychoanalyst (p630)

This view of the destructive consequence of the dismantling of and dismissal of Freud’s essential views of psychoanalysis is echoed by Blass (2010)2

2 Blass writes: “On various occasions Freud spoke of the Oedipus complex (Freud, 1905, p.226), the unconscious (Freud, 1923, p. 13) and dream theory (Freud, 1914, p. 57) as “shibboleths that distinguish…the adherents of psycho-analysis from its opponents” (Freud, 1905, (p. 226). But today even a concern with these broad concepts no longer defines the identity of many who regard themselves as psychoanalysts” (p. 81-82).


In his “Cogitations”, i.e. his private thoughts not intended for publication, Bion (1992/1971) writes:

It seems reasonable to suppose that our somewhat insignificant speciality, psycho-analysis, has already exhausted its impetus and is ready to disappear into limbo, either because it is a burden too great for us, as we are, to carry, or because it is one more exploration destined to display a blind-alley (p319-320).

In his enigmatic manner, Bion adds another “or” to the “either” and continues,

or because it arouses or will arouse fear of the unknown to a point where the protective mechanisms of the noösphere compel it to destroy the invading ideas for fear that they will cause a catastrophe where the noösphere disintegrates into the no-amorph (p320)

I appreciate that this last part is in highly idiosyncratic language which Bion does not fully explicate. He does partially explain elsewhere what he intends by “noösphere” having borrowed the concept and using it idiosyncratically.3

“No-amorph” is not explained. However, my understanding is that Bion is proposing that a combination of curiosity and intuition, an open acceptance of the new idea, a determined exploration of the psychic unknown by this approach (essentially that introduced by Freud) will threaten the established order of thoughts and their thinkers – our analytic theories and their adherents – with catastrophe. The catastrophe will be disintegration, i.e. collapse of the established theories, into the experience of the formless psychic state of the unknown/unknowable. To guard against this the psychanalytic establishment avoids the exploration of the psychic unknown i.e. where psychoanalysis began. Bion eschews Freud’s theory of the dynamic/unrepressed unconscious4 (e.g. there 4 are only 3 oblique references to the unconscious in “Cogitations”), and in his general writings he uses the term unconscious in the descriptive sense5, so it is with licence I suggest that the psychic unknown correlates with the dynamic unconscious. With this licence, Bion is apparently saying that the avoidance of the exploration of the dynamic unconscious, to guard against the disruptive effects of doing so, has led psychoanalysis to lose its impetus and become one more set of good ideas doomed to irrelevance.

3 Bion writes “I would borrow for my own purposes the term invented by Teilhard de Chardin the “noösphere”…” Cogitations (1971/1992, p. 313)

4 Diamond (2017) in his review of “Growth and turbulence in the contained/contained: Bion’s continuing legacy” (edited by H.B. Levine and L.J. Brown), writes “Levine notes how Bion’s unique view of the unconscious and psychoanalysis itself traverses ideological, cultural, and geographical lines. He proposes that Bion’s ‘nondynamic unconscious’ supplements Freud’s ‘dynamic unconscious’… (Int J Psychoanal, 2017 98, p. 248) It will be interesting to read Levine’s perspective of Bion and the Freudian unconscious.

5 The Symingtons (1996) note that “The most surprising Freudian concept which undergoes reformulation is the notion of the polarity conscious-unconscious...Bion believes that the polarity conscious-unconscious needs to be replaced with finite-infinite.”(p8) As I will consider, but not fully discuss because of time, the concept of the dynamic, or better, non-repressed, unconscious is linked to, representive of, the infinite, eternal, overall of being, and will refer to some of the unknowable constitutes of the overall/absolute of being.


Friedman (2006) thoughtfully considers the moving on from the essences of psychoanalysis to the established theories of today and writes;

what a shame if something special, strange, and unnatural, something weird and different from other human doings, just disappeared before we fathomed what it meant and what it could do (p690)

Friedman explains that so much of what constitutes the essences of psychoanalysis are disturbing, counter-intuitive and consequently psychoanalysts have let psychoanalysis slip quietly beneath the waves of common sense.


I trust that I have established a perspective that something basic to psychoanalysis, essentially the concept of the dynamic unconscious, as contrasted with the descriptive unconscious, has been avoided by psychoanalysts, buried, left behind, and because of this there is a void in our core which is filled with the different analytic theories. These theories, in part because of the function they serve i.e. sustaining stability and certainty, will be championed with the grim determination of a belief system. And that psychoanalysis is poorer for this.

Before I move on to further consideration about why this situation has come about by looking at Freud, I will make this point further by referring to two of the keynote speeches at the 2009 IPA congress. Here Poland (2009) posed the question;

can we continue to grow and venture beyond the boundaries of our accustomed ideas and still, as I believe we must, keep central as common to all of us the core concern for unconscious forces, the orientation that distinguishes what is uniquely psychoanalytic from what is broadly psychological (p250)

In contrast Jiménez (2009) writes of how he sees the future of psychoanalysis. He writes of what he sees as

“the fundamental rule: Psychoanalysis is what psychoanalysts practice…., which means that “the presenter in each group is to be considered a psychoanalyst whatever transpires” ” (in this he is quoting Tuckett (2007).

He continues,

“My own experience as a presenter of clinical material supports my conviction that we are witnessing a new beginning” (p. 245, Jiménez’s emphasis).

This stark dichotomy of perspective re psychoanalysis and its future, conveyed in two keynote speeches of that Congress, is emblematic of the psychoanalytic issues under consideration. One pole has Warren Poland emphasising the essential place of the dynamic unconscious in sustaining the psychoanalytic in psychoanalysis and the other pole has Jiménez emphasising the need for a new beginning within the security of a social democratic approach to psychoanalysis via its practice. The parable here is that by turning away from our beginning defining focus on the enigma of the problematic basis of our being, we will inevitably eventually end up with something safe and secure, and comfortable, but empty of the creative essence that surprised and shocked and discomforted in the original.

But why has it come to this – although I suspect many of us would believe we are not there yet, but, yet again, how many of our theories sustain the concept of the dynamic unconscious as central?

However, to address this next question, why, 2, I will turn to Freud for clarification of how and why we are where we are, because, like much else, I believe it began with Freud.

Why 2: Freud

The origin, the source of the driving force of Freud’s discoveries, I believe, can be found in the tensive aliveness at the basis of human being/Being: our finite individual ontology, the essence of our individual existence, and its troubled place in Being overall – eternal, absolute and infinite. Restive individual being is perplexed by a sense of incompleteness, of being unfinished, always becoming (as we experience in psychoanalysis), which leads to an endless pursuit of the impossible horizon of Being, beyond which it is believed lies completeness, wholeness and, therefore the longed-for eternal peace.

Freud through his concepts of conflict, drives etc., necessitated a conceptual reflection on the individual and his problematic place in the infinite which unsatisfactorily and incompletely becomes conscious and unconscious seen by Freud as mental states. Although Freud’s ontological conceptual perspective with its mental focus was nothing special in terms of the long history of man trying to understand his being/existence but there is, or perhaps was, something different about Freud. He began from the perspective of understanding the basis of the manifest symptoms of our existential malaise and developed a procedure for exploring and modifying what goes wrong through starting with these symptoms and their parallel in dreams. And this procedure necessitates a conceptual focus of how, where and why it works – and this became the dynamic unconscious.

And in all this Freud believed he had achieved existential understanding that paralleled that of Darwin and Copernicus and accordingly equally decentred man, individual conscious man, from his (or her) perceived place as the God-given centre of the universe.

So why have we seemingly moved on from, left behind, this remarkable beginning and are possibly poorer creatively for doing so?

As indicated, I believe that the beginning of this abandonment lies with Freud. Obviously I cannot satisfactorily overview all of Freud’s unfolding ideas to examine this hypothesis. Instead I will consider one of his papers “On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement” (1914), in which he gives an invested overview of the development of, and difficulties within, psychoanalysis up to that time.

As a preface to this paper it is important to note, as Gay (1998) does, that in his writings Freud was “a self-conscious stylist” (p104), one who was highly critical of his efforts to communicate clearly the difficult ideas of his new paradigm. Reading most of Freud and his Goethe Prize would attest to these ideas. But this raises the question of how to understand this 1914 paper that, at first glance reads like the belligerent outpourings of a wounded Freud. I know that some hold that this paper is evidence of Freud’s bullying attacks upon those who audaciously challenged him and his treasured ideas (e.g. Rudinsky, personal communication). However, I see this paper, instead, as Freud taking dramatic licence in his writing to emotively communicate something important about his psychoanalysis and its future and why. Certainly there are some parts of it, especially his personal attacks on Adler and also Jung, that would confirm the alternative view but I feel that this would still be a distraction from Freud’s carefully communicated points.

The paper is written in three parts that, in Freud’s dramatic style, parallel 3 acts of an unfolding drama. In the first part our reluctant hero has the good fortune to make discoveries about man and his being that he feels will elevate him to the status of his gods (possibly seen as idealised fathers). This does not happen instead he is shunned. He consoles himself by believing the world is not ready for him and his ideas and withdraws to the felt specialness of his ideas. He sees his future as a footnote when the world is ready for his ideas brought forward by another and he will feed his family by earning a living by his clinical practice. He is obviously not happy and this part finishes with some bitter statements about those responsible for his situation.

However, within the apparent hurt bewilderment of the first part he also outlines the laying of the foundations for his clinical future by introducing, proposing, a modified, a democratic clinical approach to his psychoanalysis, one for all who follow his directions based upon the “findings” (p16) of his psychoanalysis, especially the transference and resistance.

Part 2 begins in an entirely different emotional key. People have been able to accept him and his psychoanalysis at this more democratic level: not for the gods but for man. A following becomes a “movement” – it is to be wondered if Freud was being particularly mischievous in his choice of this word with its various significations. The movement gains momentum, it becomes structured and organised and Freud can again withdraw back into his exclusive creative space leaving his followers to carry on.

This second part is stylistically different from part 1 and part 3 to follow. It is filled with boring and lifeless detail as if for Freud it represents the necessary regolith of psychoanalysis.

The third part continues in the peaceful key, but one can feel that this is an antebellum peace: the famous overture by Rossini would be appropriate here. The movement has proceeded well; followers are to be found round the world, even in Australia. But an unavoidable and predictable problem arises. The anointed leaders see themselves now as leaders in their own right, it is now their movement and they begin to stamp their views upon it. This inevitably leads to Freud’s ideas, the essence of his psychoanalysis, being revised, modified, diluted, to make them more generally acceptable, less shocking and challenging.

Freud had established at the start of this paper the involved link between himself and psychoanalysis: he begins with the wonderfully ambiguous statement “For psycho-analysis is my creation” (p4), (he created psychoanalysis and psychoanalysis created him.) Accordingly, any attack upon his psychoanalysis is a personal attack upon him. And arguing that it would be cowardice to do otherwise, he attacks Adler and Jung, both their ideas and their characters. His attacks are passionate, this is personal. However his attacks are from a position of conceptual superiority: I know the facts, what’s correct, and how you err and why. The attacks appear to work, Adler and Jung submit, withdraw their ideas from being classified “psychoanalytic”, and leave the movement to found their own.

Having won the day, his authority would seem to have triumphed, Freud withdraws once more to his own creative space with other dissidents having to wait till he’s gone to challenge his ideas. Although, of course, Klein did this prior to Freud’s death but as Grosskurth (1986) outlines, Freud seemingly had little interest in Klein and her ideas, in fact treating her rather shabbily.

Wallerstein (1988) writes of Freud and his ideas that he…

made strenuous efforts throughout his lifetime to define the parameters of his new science of the mind and to hold it together as a unified enterprise against both destructive and diluting pressures or seductions from without and also against fractious human deviseness from within (p5)

This 1914 paper certainly supports Wallerstein’s view. In the paper, as part of his championing of his views over those of the others, Freud writes:

The truth is that these people have picked out a few cultural overtones from the symphony of life and have once more failed to hear the mighty and primordial melody of the instincts (p62)

And more pointedly he writes;

The total incompatibility of this new movement with psycho-analysis shows itself… in Jung’s treatment of repression, which is hardly mentioned nowadays in his writings, in his misunderstanding of dreams, which, like Adler…, in complete disregard of dream-psychology, he confuses with latent dream-thoughts, and in his loss of all understanding of the unconscious – in short, in all the points which I should regard as the essence of psycho-analysis (p64)

Freud is here clearly outlining what his psychoanalysis is based upon, the qualities of its essence. To those listed here, in his arguments against Adler and Jung’s ideas, Freud also adds the aetiological role of sexuality in neurosogenesis, and the manifestation of all these elements in the transference, as essential qualities.

So, if we follow Wallerstein’s perspective on Freud and psychoanalysis, we can certainly see that in this paper Freud establishes psychoanalysis as, essentially, his psychoanalysis, which he discovered, created, developed and is here defended by him against those who want to make it something else, something lesser. But he could have told all that in a more straight forward manner. So why this mode of communication; what else is he trying to communicate about psychoanalysis?

Certainly it could again be argued that the messages to be received are about how he’s a ruthless bully (Rudinsky, 1991), a narcissist (Breger, 2000), an hysteric (Khan, 1983), not somebody to mess with. That may be true. I don’t know. But what is apparent in his writings is that he is a clever man and he has, I believe, told us this story in this way for reasons beyond that of the outpourings of a wounded narcissistic bully.

I believe that one can discern two different messages from Freud’s storytelling – one more general and the other more direct. But I think that both may give some explanation, clarification, to our losing, or perhaps being led away, from the crucial essence of psychoanalysis.

The more general one involves a perspective on the Oedipus complex that was not fully explicated by Freud in his considerations of the myth. Essentially it involves a certain constellation of events and characters that constitute a reasonably common story but with an ending that varies between triumph, tragedy and profound despair or perhaps at times an impossible combination of these. It is the story e.g. of Jesus, Hamlet, Alexander the Great and possibly the Bion of his autobiographies. It is the story of the gifted young man whose mother seemingly contains and expresses her envy through idealization, smothering intrusiveness etc. Although seeming to support and endorse her son’s gifts she quietly inhibits their full creative potential and the son often rushes his talent onto the world in an exaggerated and exhibitionistic way. This inevitably provokes attacks to put him back in his place which is understood as the expression of envy i.e. where the envy is seen to lie. However what the son is truly seeking is the presence of an effective and potent, but ambivalently-regarded, paternal figure; one who can survive his and the mother’s attacks, can contain and deflect the mother’s overinvolvement, can bring realistic and appropriate assessment of the son’s capabilities allowing these to find their way into their true creative fulfilment. Therefore an inherent part of the grand, exhibitionistic, hubristic, outpourings of the young genius is theseeking of the structuring and containing function of the paternal figure - the paternal metaphor. The overall eventual outcome will be determined by the paternal function. For example Jesus in a heartbreaking expression of disillusioned despair feels forsaken by his father on the cross – his mother is there. He dies within the illusion that death will unite him with his father. Hamlet constructs his intrigues reflecting his despair at the loss of his regal father, transformed into a fluttering ghost by his mother, a mother who intrudes claustrophobically into his life. He laments the absence of the necessary defining and containing paternal metaphor. Who is he? What should he do? Can he even be? He, like Jesus, eventually dies as if death symbolises unity with the universal father absent in his life; although he does take his mother with him.

But Freud, in his story about himself and his creative genius, tells us of a different outcome. He is the Oedipus who conquered the maternal figure of the Sphinx by mastering his dreams and undoing the mysteries of the Oedipus myth. He has brought the defining paternal metaphor into his world by becoming it. And he emphatically demonstrates this in his dismissal of the challenges of Adler and Jung. However, to sustain this illusion of the triumphant Oedipus who has mastered the maternal mysteries by usurping the paternal function, Freud can have no rivals: we all have to be followers, left outside the key understandings to such mastery of his psychoanalysis6. Not for us are the 6 defining essences of psychoanalysis, Freud’s psychoanalysis. Our psychoanalysis will be directed and overseen by this paternal shadow. But we will end up like squabbling children in the playground of psychoanalysis without this paternal guidance, arguing whose psychoanalysis is bigger and better, referring back to some shadowing authority to confirm our status; but with the defining essence of the true paternal guidance slipping away from us.

6 Freud (1900) interestingly put forward a motto for his “Interpretation of Dreams” a motto which would be equally apt for this (1914) paper. This, from the seventh book of Virgil’s Aeneid, reads” “Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo” (Gay 1998) translates this as: “If I cannot move the higher powers I will then move the infernal regions” (p105). An alternative interpretation, I suggest, would take up on the central force of the quotation, the verb “movebo” – I will move, i.e. if Freud cannot prevail upon the gods, then he will move the Acheron, the river that runs through the underworld. This is not stirring up hell, as Freud may have wished to do, but catching us all, the non-gods, in a current that flows away from the higher powers.

However I must add that, as Bion points out (1967), Oedipus’ overall crime was not incest but his hubris re truth and knowledge: he allowed himself to be blinded by hubris. He really believed that he had dispatched the Sphinx, the maternal mysteries, and was the master of his own fate. And Freud, in the absence of the true defining and structuring paternal metaphor, may suffer likewise. And he may take us with him i.e. we may have become equally lost in the hubris of his knowledge, which, without true essential substance to hold us, has slipped away.

I believe that there is also a more direct explanation in this 1914 paper for how and why we may have lost psychoanalysis’ essentials beyond this speculative general explanation.

The reason why I chose to focus upon this paper is because I believe that Freud gives a clear outline of the beginnings of a crucial dichotomy in psychoanalytic thinking. After he had made his great discoveries he was shunned. His hurt response, and the following bitterness, directs to the perspective of being victim to envious and unreasonable attack. However he seems to grasp, or create, an understanding that the response may confirm his ideas, that is, the response is defensive. We don’t want to know. It is one thing to propose to disturb the sleep of the world but what if we don’t want to awake and face the disturbing realities of our being? Freud seems to have consoled himself with these ideas, possibly in part because they accord him the elevated status he yearns. But his position is lonely, isolated and what is the point of elevated status if nobody knows or cares? So, as described, he re-presented psychoanalysis as a clinical phenomenon, essentially where it started anyway, and created a democracy of thought and practice based on the findings of his psychoanalysis. And hence the movement started and continues from this revised foundation, e.g. Wallerstein’s common ground considerations refer directly back to the revised perspective of Freud.

The consequence of this is the creation of a dichotomy in the foundation of psychoanalysis. One side is the democracy of clinical practice that we as mortals can develop, refine and argue is psychoanalysis by referring back to authoritative views e.g. Bion. The other side is Freud’s psychoanalysis based on the essence that he described with the concept of the dynamic unconscious key to this. This is the dichotomy that he champions with his attacks on Adler and Jung with others to follow: putting them back in their rightful analytic place.

However the challenge of grasping this dichotomy is compounded by Freud seemingly, regularly abandoning it as his psychoanalytic thinking evolved but never really letting go of it. For example “The Ego and the Id” (1923) would indicate that Freud has abandoned the essential element of the dynamic unconscious and replaced it with the more democratic focus on the ego and its travails, but it is still a necessary concept to approach an understanding of the complexity of “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”(1920).

Why 3

I now will confront a third why, Why bother ourselves with the loss of the concept of the dynamic unconscious if we have perfectly fine theories and practices that manage very well without it? The learned opinions I introduced would seem to answer this question. But I will now present clinical material that I believe, in spite of all our logical positivists’ efforts to dismiss, explain away, the events, these events necessitate the concept of the dynamic unconscious to at least begin to address them.

Two clinical examples will follow in the presented paper but have been intentionally left out of the circulated copies to preserve and protect the patients’ privacy.

How could I know these things, experience, think and imagine them before my patients had told me? Of course logically I couldn’t, it doesn’t make any logical sense. It is impossible. I must be making it up, I must have dreamt it. I must be distorting the sequence.

These responses are logical and appropriate but miss the fact that it did happen and I had noted it and the sequence unfolded as described.

But how do we understand such events. Our understandings of the dynamic unconscious, as nascent as they are, at least accord us with a conceptual frame to address the illogical of being. Without it we have to force the facts back into an acceptable logical scheme in which they don’t really fit.

Mindful of the time I will now move on to the What, to what are we listening, and the how do we listen?

First the What?


Although I have not fully examined the why – why I believe that we have lost something important and why it is important – I feel that such full examination cannot be achieved until the what it is that we have lost is examined. I have already considered this in passing with respect to the opinions of others but now will consider in more detail the, to what, I understand, they are referring.

Functionally I have been referring to the “dynamic unconscious” taking my lead from Freud and Matte Blanco, among others. However, I believe that this is a pale and uncertain conceptualization that does not fully embrace what Freud discovered and certainly not the challenging complexity of the world of being to which it refers. It is the world of ontological complexity that Freud began to open for us by his unique process of psycho analysis.

But what is this world of being and how might we listen to/for it is the overall focus of this paper.

To begin to address the what I will begin with Freud’s concept of the dynamic unconscious and to do this I will again return to Freud. He considered the aspects of the unconscious functioning of the mind in depth especially in “The Unconscious” (1915) and the first part of “The Ego and the Id” (1923). In the latter he begins;

The division of the psychical into what is conscious and what is unconscious is the fundamental premise of psycho-analysis; and it alone makes it possible for psycho-analysis to understand the pathological processes of mental life.(p13)

He proceeds to explain that

“we obtain our concept of the unconscious from the theory of repression”

(p15) and that

“we restrict the term unconscious to the dynamically unconscious repressed” (p15 Freud’s emphasis).

But adds,

“We recognize that the unconscious does not coincide with the repressed…not all that is unconscious is repressed” (p16, Freud’s emphasis)

therefore opening the concept of the dynamic, systematic unconscious to wider considerations. However he unfortunately closed this possibility by his formal conceptualization of the ego. Of this Matte Blanco (1998) writes

it must be recognised that the unconscious, the most outstanding of Freud’s legitimate children, was disinherited in “The Ego and the Id” and as such, never occupied the same place again. It was replaced by two concepts: the quality of being unconscious and the id. Neither of these two has the power, the dignity, the elegance or the majesty of the old unconscious. (p63 Matte Blanco’s emphasis)

For Matte Blanco Freud’s original concept of the unconscious

“Was not just a quality but a way of being” (p69) and that Freud’s “fundamental discovery [was] that of a world – which he unfortunately called the unconscious”. (p63)

In “The Unconscious” Freud describes the qualities, the special characteristics, of this mode of being; he writes:

To sum up: exemption from mutual contradiction, primary process (mobility of cathexes), and replacement of external by psychical reality. (p187 Freud’s italics).

The “distinguishing marks” (p186) of the primary process are the processes of displacement and condensation (p186). And he explains that these processes become

cognizable to us under the conditions of dreaming and of neurosis – that is to say, when processes of the higher, preconscious, system are set back to an earlier stage by being lowered (by regression) (p187 Freud’s italics.

What a remarkable discovery. But then Freud ambiguously labels this world of being as “unconscious”7 He argues that

We might attempt to avoid confusion by giving psychical systems which we have distinguished arbitrarily chose names which have no reference to the attribute of being conscious(p172)

7 Lacan in Ecrits (2006, p704) notes that Freud’s “unconscious” has as little to do with “the conscious” as “l’in noir” has to do with “noir”: i.e. the unblack is not the negative of black which would be not-black; it is a descriptive quality that does not include black. I believe that words in English such as the undead, or the unclean, convey this sense. Therefore Lacan is proposing similarly to Matte Blanco that “the unconscious”, i.e. the nominal form, refers to a separate conceptual world from “the conscious”.

But adds that in doing so

We should not be able to evade the attribute of being conscious seeing that it forms the point of departure for all our investigations (p172)

So we are stuck with this inadequate designation “unconscious”, almost exclusively now used in the adjectival form i.e. having the quality of being unconscious in a descriptive sense.

Freud was confronted with a paradox, that of two contradictory systems constituting the psychical, and resolved the paradox by arguing for consciousness to be the anchoring point: there is consciousness and other, measured and compared to consciousness. And, except for Matte Blanco, all of our systems of analytic thought have essentially done the same. However if the paradox is sustained, then we are confronted with two contradictory modes of being of which we can become aware, with difficulty, within ourselves, and through the analytic process, more apparently in the other. We become aware because of the products of the sustained paradox: i.e. the remembered dream, the experienced and communicated neurotic symptom, and especially the transference which manifests the patient’s conscious thought affected, outside their immediate awareness, by their unconscious need experienced in fantasy.

Freud’s great discovery was to establish a dialectic between these two modes of being so that both could be explored. He did this in himself by self-reflection: he took his dreams and his symptoms as other of himself. Accordingly he gained understanding about this alien other of himself: part of him but not. Further even though by necessity he had to identify himself with his conscious being, he drew our attention to how consciousness is constructed – it does not exist in its own right, it is constantly being constructed. In this, the construction of consciousness is related to our perceptual and apperceptual functions and that these are receptive only. Stimuli from outside come to our receptors as do thoughts and emotions from “inside”. How we receive them and process the stimuli is the active part. So consciousness is constructed by the reception and processing of stimuli and Freud explained to us the source and nature of these stimuli and how we process them to construct our conscious sense of self. And at the psychic level this process relates to aspects of our being completely unknown to us – and essentially unknowable to our consciousness. But through analysis we can become aware of their presence and their influence upon our conscious being.

But what are these unknowables that so profoundly effect us? There is undoubtedly quite a list and I will modestly propose a few.

Freud, in his outline of the characteristics of the dynamic unconscious, is describing phenomena that manifest qualities of the infinite of being as has been formally outlined by Matte Blanco (1998) in logical terms. In defining two modes of being, the finite, the singular, of consciousness, and our existential place in infinite Being, Freud is describing our paradoxical existence as separate individuals and as constitutive of Being overall – past, present and infinite future. We cannot conceptualize our part in absolute Being, we do not have the capacity to do so because the manifestations of our absolute existence do not have the time and space qualities to which our conscious awareness is receptive. Hence this constructs part of the unknowable of our existence. But we can be, or are, aware of the ongoing tension consequent of our paradoxical existence and are aware of how not only is something missing but how this absence cuts across, or cuts into what we have, leaving us with a dissatisfying sense of incompleteness – manifest in our ongoing sense of our place in the world and also, I propose, in our place in psychoanalysis. Because of this tension and incompleteness we are drawn to continually redefine ourselves, and our world. However, inspite of our efforts we can’t truly redefine ourselves as distinct and free from our paradoxical existence as balanced between finite and infinite, being and Being, unless we become psychotic. Our neurotic efforts lead to a determined emphasis of our important and entitled individual existence and conceptualizing Being overall as a Godhead (to borrow from Bion).

A second of these unknowables that lie with and beyond the concept of the dynamic unconscious is introduced by Bollas (e.g.1987) in his conceptualizations of “the shadow of the object”. He is describing the indelible but unknowable effect upon our being, our experience of who we are, of our parents’ early or earliest care and management of our nascent being. This “shadow” will be an essential part of our experience of ourselves and of how we experience the world – but we will be unaware of this.

It is unclear in my reading of Bollas whether he considers the place and role of the mother’s unconscious qualities and their effect upon her actions in his conceptualizations. And similarly it is unclear whether Bion in his description of the incorporation of processed α–elements, and the processing of these in the mother’s reverie (e.g. 1962), conceptualizes the place and role of the mother’s unconscious issues and their effects upon this process. He does focus upon the love and hate qualities involved in the reverie including the mother’s love for the child’s father (e.g. 1962, p36) but does not, to my understanding, consider how these may be an expression of, e.g., the mother’s unresolved Oedipal issues. The insistent idea is that the unthinkable qualities of experience, being returned to the child as the rudiments of their individual psychic being, having been processed and made potentially thinkable by the mother’s “α-function”, may have invisibly woven into them elements of the mother’s unconscious being/Being. The mother cannot consciously and intentionally carry out this process – she enacts this mythical process because this is what mothers –past, present and future – do. She is living out her place in the pool of overall human Being. And accordingly, perhaps inevitably, the unconscious essences of her existence, her unconscious hopes, fears, fantasies, etc., will be a part of this process. Consequently the basis of our dreams, at least, may reflect, or possibly depict, this beginning of our psychic existence as our individual being seeks definition of its experience within overall Being as brought to us by our mothers.

However, even though, as indicated, it is unclear in these authors’ conceptualizations of the place and role of the mother’s unconscious in what is woven into the child’s beginning sense of self, I propose that, as a psychoanalytic given, it is inevitable that her unconscious must influence her relationship with, and interactions with, her child and that the incorporation of the manifestation of these unconscious issues will be an important part of the unknown to which I am referring.

This perspective of the effect of the mother’s unconscious fantasies upon the essence of our being is described by Laplanche (1999) with respect to the mother’s sexuality and the unconscious qualities of this. Laplanche outlines how this will profoundly effect her interaction with her child and although she may be unaware of this, its effects will leave a lasting (neurotic) effect in her child. The child is unable to think or process this because as opaque it is to the mother, the child will also have experienced it in the context of their psychosomatic being.

Being mindful of the time, I have to trust that these examples will give a picture of the unknowables of our being that involve more than Freud’s beginning concepts of the unconscious and of how these may or do profoundly affect our being. So now to the last of the questions, the how?


How do we listen to these unknowables in our psychoanalytic practices and also, I trust, in our self-analyses?

As indicated, part of Freud’s genius was the realisation that these unknowables of being, manifesting in the compromise of a remembered dream or the neurotic symptom, could be approached within a dialectic: in analysis within the analytic interaction, in self-analysis by introspecting the other of oneself 8

Although one would like our patients to be capable of analytic listening, this must remain, because of the nature of defence and selfpreservation qualities of unknowing, one of the outcome goals of an analysis.9 Hence the responsibility for analytic listening falls, appropriately, on us. So how do we listen analytically, especially with respect to the unknowables to which I have referred.

8 Bollas (2006) writes “Psychoanalysis constitutes a profound change in our capacity for human relatedness. It discovers a relationship where the individual mind and the character of the self can be realized and then conceptualized through a relationship” (p134)

9 Bion (1965) writes “Some consciously believe the curtain of illusion to be a protection against truth which is essential to the survival of humanity; the remainder of us believe it unconsciously but no less tenaciously for that” (p147)

Any descriptive outline of psychoanalytic listening involves a tangle of concepts. For example: Analytic listening involves the analyst listening to themselves listening to their patient, and listening for what parts of themselves are affected by and in their interaction with their patient and how, and how this effect of their patient upon them indicates something about their patient and in particular how their patient may be being effected by them, the analyst, in reality and in fantasy, and if not by them, by whom or what etc. Of course, it is more complex, e.g., how is the analyst’s unconscious affecting their listening and their patient, and so on.

But I trust that I have given a beginning outline of the complexity.

Because of the impossible complexity involved in this process, I believe that each of our analytic perspectives focuses on certain aspects of it. I think that the best outline of this complexity, one that makes sense, is that of Ogden and “the analytic third” (2004), although I feel Ogden describes a longitudinal process, a sequence, whereas the complexity of the situation is in the simultaneity of all these aspects of the interactions, of the analyst with himself, and with his patient, etc.

This impossible complexity that inevitably manifests between two interacting beings is focused, somewhat, in the analytic situation (and also in that of self-analysis). The focus of this paper is upon one aspect of this, listening to qualities of the dynamic unconscious and the further unknowables of our troubled ontological basis as introduced. I believe that we have two tools we can use – metaphor and paradox.

To explain how they are relevant once again I will turn to Freud.

In “The Unconscious” he outlines how the second censorship between preconscious and conscious is overcome by compromise formation. The unconscious/preconscious wish, need, idea etc., is able to reach consciousness attached to, and therefore concealed within an acceptable idea. It is still there, but it is invisible to us. This becomes particularly important in the remembered dream and the neurotic symptom where the compromise is more transparent, at least for the listening analyst. In other words, the unknowables to which I have referred can achieve masked expression, but they are there, and the analyst’s awareness of this and the challenge to bring the patient’s unwilling attention upon these is how analysis began. And Freud gave us more helpful understandings in “The Unconscious”. He ingeniously conceptualised that at the other boundary of psychic transition, between unconscious and preconscious/conscious, this transition was in fact constituted by a transformation in the mode of psychic being: from unconscious thing-presentations and their imaginary representation to word-presentations and the structured finitude of language.

We know intuitively that our unconscious existence, our mode of being outside our conscious awareness, is just that, a mode of being. Our dreams and fantasies are lived experience, they just are. When we reflect on them either during the dream or after, then this experience is cognized as image. The image is unambiguous, you see what you see – you see what is shown; it fills the space of experience, it is all. The word alternatively, because of its potential significations, conceals and reveals – at least the noun does, a verb is essentially unambiguous. The word therefore allows for the concealed revelation, the compromise formation described by Freud.

To exemplify this I will give a very brief example:

A 32 year old male doctor expresses some bewilderment because he is thinking about the box his new stove came in. With some hesitation he says that this leads him to think that perhaps this is because he wants to box me round the ears, and he is surprised by how excited he is about this, quite sexually affected. After a long, seemingly embarrassed pause, he then says “The reason I am embarrassed is because the idea that came to my mind, is that the box is that of the vagina, as if I feel excited because…well it’s as if you have a vagina”, adding immediately, “It’s stupid, I know that you don’t, but….”.

In this example, the patient has an image around the word box, by association he begins to see another side, another signification, of the word box and then his lived state reveals a third, one that has the unconscious qualities of a loss of contradiction.

The question, the focus of the paper, is how do we listen analytically to these concealed revelations that allow some, limited, access to the unknowables to which I have referred that are part of the problematic psychic tension at the base of our being? I have proposed two “tools”, metaphor and paradox.

I will begin with metaphor.

A metaphor is a trope, a literary device, in its general use. However, possibly beginning with Sharpe in 1940, the place and role of metaphor in analytic listening has received considerable attention. A full consideration of this analytic literature is obviously beyond the scope of this paper.10 Of all the considerations of metaphor – 10 what it is and how does it work – I believe that those of Ricoeur (1978) in his seminal work on metaphor are the most important.

10 Campbell (2005) overviews (some of ) the literature – especially p803-805)

Here Ricoeur explains the creation and function of metaphor within two essential steps. The first is that one semantic finds a place in a second semantic even though the second semantic seemed complete and the two semantics seemed to be unrelated. However the consequence is to creatively increase the depth of meaning of at least the second semantic. The other step is that the new meaning is initially experienced as an image – or could be but often this image is not perceived possibly because of the limit of the creative capacity of those involved or perhaps, as I have considered, it remains at the level of unconscious lived experience.. As long as this image, seen or unseen, is alive, the creative, poetic qualities of metaphor are experienced. Once it fades and dies the metaphor becomes part of the lexicon and drifts towards cliché. “The dawn of civilization” is an example of this. The image, at least for me, is of the light emerging from darkness (dawn) which allows a picture of emergent civilization. But is this metaphor still alive creatively via the image, or is it now cliché?

The importance for psychoanalytic listening is that the conscious semantic, seemingly complete and whole – I know what I am saying and why – can, or will be, penetrated by another semantic with the unseen link being an unconscious association. By understanding unconscious dynamics and the loosening of boundaries between the individual and the whole we are in a place to understand how this can occur. And the importance is the creative understanding that can be achieved in this manner with the image to be found in the analyst’s mind, as part of their reverie, key to this.

The second specific technique of analytic listening to which I will refer – briefly – is that of the use of paradox. Paradox is a logical or semantic creation, formed when two premises, both acceptable on their own grounds, but directly contradictory of the other, coexist i.e. one does not cancel out the other on logical grounds or by semantic argument. Of course this can be particularly perplexing and the response of logical philosophy is to track down the anticipated error and resolve or refute the paradox. This is one response to paradox. A second response is one of the quiet idealisation in the literature e.g. statements like “he was a paradox”, “it was paradoxical that…..”. However if both of these responses are avoided, and the paradox sustained, then there is a possibility of a new idea a so-called “truth” arising creatively from the paradox. Winnicott introduced this perspective to psychoanalysis in particular in “Playing and Reality” (1971).

In this remarkable book he repeatedly emphasises, as if afraid we won’t get it, that certain developmental, ontological, paradoxes must not be resolved by irritably reaching for common sense. If not resolved the consequent creative product is seen by him as essential to creative development and emotional health. Of these creative products of sustained paradox, possibly the most important is his conceptualization of transitional phenomena: transitional between reality and fantasy: the place of play, illusion, religious belief and artistic creativity and of creative psychoanalytic work. Others (e.g. Ogden 2004; Parsons, 1999, 2008; Pizer, 2014) have built upon Winnicott’s ideas re paradox and psychoanalysis.

In our psychoanalytic listening therefore, following Winnicott, we are listening for the manifestations of the paradoxes that reflect and extend those at the basis of our being: i.e. those involving our paradoxical existence as finite/infinite; individual/absolute; reality/fantasy etc. Our task is to recognise and sustain, i.e. not resolve or refute, the paradox(es) with which we are confronted, and by sustaining the paradox allow the creative product to be attained. This listening for paradox allows us to not automatically move to dismissing it, allowing a new creative understanding, e.g. from the transference, to be achieved.

An example in the psychoanalytic literature is given by Strachey (1934) when he writes:

It is a paradoxical fact [a paradox in itself] that the best way of ensuring that his ego shall be able to distinguish between fantasy and reality is to withhold reality from him as much as possible (p147)

Of course we could ask how can less reality produce more reality and argue that, it doesn’t make sense, i.e. refute the paradox. But we don’t because we sort of get what Strachey intends and can see the creative quality embedded in it, the “truth”.

To further exemplify this I will finish by quoting Ogden (2004) from his important paper on the analytic third. He notes:

a central paradox: (that) the individuals engaged in this form of relatedness unconsciously subjugate themselves to a mutually generated intersubjective third for the purpose of freeing themselves from the limits of whom they had been to that point (p189)

This “intersubjective third” to which Ogden refers, is the product of the sustained paradox of the individual, i.e. you can only be an individual in an interaction with another. The self/other unity that defines your individual status restively coexists with the self and the other in their separateness. And paradoxically, as Ogden intimates, the individual is enhanced qua individual by their unity with the other.


In summary therefore: I have proposed that something fundamental, basic and essential to psychoanalysis has become lost to us. I have explained why I think that this is important, and why, with a bit of finger-pointing at Freud, I understand that we have lost this essential something. Basically it would seem to have slipped from us when Freud conceived two psychoanalyses, one practically orientated that is for all, and the other somewhat exclusively for him, but still, for him, at least, definitory of what psychoanalysis is.

I have considered some qualities of what this essential something is beyond Freud’s concept of the dynamic unconscious –directing towards some “unknowables” woven into our psychic structure of ontological, existential and interactive origins. And, I have finished by briefly considering two conceptual tools to assist our psychoanalytic listening – metaphor and paradox.


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