The Labyrinth of Possibility: A Therapeutic Factor in Analytical Practice

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What exactly happens between the patient and the analyst when therapy is effective? Profoundly unsatisfied by the orthodox but vague explanation that "the therapeutic factor is the relationship", the author Giorgio Tricarico explores a hypothesis that is able to comprehend many different methods of both therapy and analysis. Starting from his own clinical experience, Tricarico runs into the image of the classical labyrinth (Daidalon) and a deeper analysis of what this symbol implies, revealing it as a symbol of "Possibility". The worldwide presence in different cultures and ages of the labyrinth as such a symbol may indeed point to the existence of an element beyond it, whose activation in the relationship between patient and analyst could be a fundamental factor for psychic change. Different methods of cure, seen through the lenses of the hypothesis expressed, may share a common factor of transformation. With the help of clinical cases, the concept of "impossibility" in analysis is also explored. Situations in which every change seems to be impossible compel us to widen our concept of possibility and to return to its original meaning, far away from the omnipotent one the Western world blindly keeps repeating.

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Chapter One - Tuning—Questions

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One of the first things you must practise, when learning to play the guitar, is tuning. Long before I had started to consider exploring the psyche, and thanks to my father, I embraced this instrument—physically too, because as you play the guitar sitting down, you embrace it.

When tuning the guitar, you have to start from just one note, a “La” (“A”, in English) and from this practice was born the expression “dare il La” in Italian (literally, to give an “A”), meaning a starting point, an incipit, the beginning of something. In the study of the psyche, the “La” triggering reflections is often clinical experience with the patients themselves.

Even this work had a “La”; actually two, to be precise. The first line of enquiry arose from a frequent observation in psychotherapy, one that may plausibly have occurred to anyone involved in this work: when dealing with a case, it often happens that situations that seem to represent a serious obstacle, a core problem, a point at which the therapy has clearly run aground, actually turn out to be extremely important, even useful, to the therapy process or helpful in progressing towards change, if cultivated and exploited.

 

Chapter Two - First Tunes—The Labyrinth between Archaeology, Etymology, and Symbology

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As a Jungian, I could probably begin with a detailed analytical presentation of the myth of Theseus, knowing that mythical tale is the living expression of the reality of the Soul and thus of inestimable value to a psychologist, who should deal with the Soul itself. But this has already definitely been analysed from every possible point of view (literary, historical, linguistic, archaeological, and even symbolical).

For the purposes of this work, thus, let us leave the famous mythological tale aside, with its characters, their feats, and their possible interpretations, and instead look to explore the meanderings, as it were, which make up the symbol of the labyrinth itself, in search of visions, as Hillman stated,1 and other suggestions made long ago.

A symbol signifies nothing.

“Signi-fy” means “to do a sign, to make a sign”, and so when a symbol signi-fies something, it is dead, it has been killed, it has been forever silenced. If the labyrinth is a symbol, it cannot signi-fy anything but rather can “refer to”, “evoke”, and “allude to” in a fascinating, numinous, and ultimately mysterious way.

 

Chapter Three - Main Theme—Possibility

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It should come as no surprise that from even this cursory exploration of the archipelago of meaning of the labyrinth such a broad collection of aspects has emerged, interdependent, referring to one another but, at the same time, hinting at further references, revealing and re-veiling, in an apparently infinite chain. All this takes place whenever one comes into contact with a symbol.

From 1921 onwards, C. G. Jung developed a widespread theory of the symbol as an operating reality. This was, in the words of Mario Trevi,1

an independent activity of the psyche, aiming at synthesising conscious and unconscious contents in order to open up new paths to the libido, to design unexplored dimensions for the incessant work of the energy, which forms the dynamic basis of man's psychic becoming.

(Trevi, in Jung & Kerényi, 1969, pp. 4–5; translated for this edition, italics added)

Sign and symbol refer to two radically different concepts.

Defined by the phrase aliquid stat pro aliquo, a sign is “something that is in place of” what it means to say. Therefore a sign substitutes certain content with another that is related by some connection and that has a conventional meaning (one example is the “no entry” sign, resulting from a convention to which, internationally, we all adhere) or expressed by analogy (the example given by Jung is the winged wheel worn by employees of the railway, a sign indicating that the wearer belongs to the railway company).

 

Chapter Four - Main Verses—Possibility, Right to Existence, and Ego Complex

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Let us take up the narrative again from the series of reflections that led us to Possibility, the initial chords that were struck in the main theme: observing what happened with patients following a supervision session or personal reflection between one session and another, and having highlighted the widespread use of spatial metaphors to describe the mental process within a therapeutic relationship. This brought us to the image of the labyrinth, and finally to the hypothesis of an archetype of Possibility.

At the same time as these themes were developing, another image sprung to mind, or rather a memory: it was regarding research carried out by Martin Seligman, a cognitivist, which I had read about many years earlier, probably in some university text or other. When watching a live research project conducted by Solomon on Pavlovian conditioning in 1964, Seligman became interested in a curious phenomenon that had apparently undermined this research—the dogs used in the experiments were no longer cooperating and were not behaving in the way expected. Over the course of the following year, Seligman prepared his research on what he came to define as “learned helplessness”.

 

Chapter Five - Chorus—Possible Comparisons

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When a text presents clinical cases drawn from the first-hand experience of the author, there is an opportunity to get closer and observe what happens in the closed-off tèmenos, the sacred enclosure of the analysis room.

Usually, in the lively narration of his or her own words, the therapist describes certain clinical situations that highlight the points that are in their view crucial, the junctions along the way of the therapeutic journey which mark a turning point in the analytical progress of a given patient.

Susanna Chiesa, for example, illustrates her own experience with patients for whom the body expresses mental discomfort through an eating disorder.1 When it is the body conveying “other” messages through symptoms, it must not be silenced, by tackling the symptoms according to a medical model to restore functionality, but rather the body must be listened to, in terms of what it is trying to say, avoiding getting bogged down in its concrete dimensions.

 

Chapter Six - Theory and Ethics

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Every theory of the mind is a more or less successful attempt, made by the conscious psyche, to describe the undescribable by definition: the psychic process.

Nevertheless, the immediate consequence of a theory of the mind is to define what is possible and what is not possible within a psychotherapeutic journey, as if it builds walls and paths; after building them, it becomes necessary to pass precisely from there and not from any other place, unless one breaks down the walls (as the unconscious often does, with symptoms and symbols).

Drawing the lines of a theory, thus, a theorist should remember to use pencil and eraser, so to say, in order to look back on what he or she has drawn and correct it, because defining what is possible and what is not, what is normality and what is pathology, is equal to stating what is “right” and what is “wrong”.

Ethics must be clearly present in the mind of the theorist, because practical consequences of a theory have an immediate impact on the ethic dimension. A particularly rigid theory is thus in serious danger to break this dimension.

 

Chapter Seven - Developing the Theme—Possibility, Impossibility, and Individuation

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Discussing Possibility necessarily obliges us to take into consideration what may, upon first glance, seem to be its opposite: that is, the concept of Impossibility.

Archetypes, like complexes and the psyche in general, are thought to have polarity, and even in the case of Possibility, we are called upon to come face to face with the concept that contradicts it.

Even if one does not wish to credit the Jungian theory of opposites, clinical practice nevertheless forces us to look at the impossible: constellation of the daídalon seems simple, if only in words. Experience with patients shows us that the analyst very often finds him- or herself battling against unconscious forces with clear, destructive polarity. Coping with a negative therapeutic reaction, already identified by Sigmund Freud, and with strong resistances to change is extremely common, with neurotic patients as well.

We can find a heartbreaking metaphor for Impossibility in a short tale by the Swiss writer and dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt.

 

Chapter Eight - Closing Chords—Possibility and Limit

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On closer inspection, it seems clear that, over the course of its history, Western society has ended up repressing the concept of the Limit. As the repression is posed as an unconscious mechanism which intervenes to distance particularly painful and feared content from the individual's consciousness, moving the concept to a collective level, we can assume that Western society, nowadays in particular, greatly fears the Limit, and neutralises the resulting distress and discomfort by keeping it outside of the conscious horizon of its members.

Confronting the Limit would immediately require questioning the idea of scientific and technological “progress” which has taken root over the last two hundred and fifty years, since the Industrial Revolution.

The Greek myth of Prometheus, who steals fire from the gods to give it to men, clearly highlights that the beginnings of technology for mankind coincide with a theft, a criminal action, and that the direct consequence for having breached the limit is the terrible punishment suffered by Prometheus, when he is chained to a rock.

 

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