Friday, December 16, 2011

Barbara Stevens - Alchemy and Jung's Model of Transference-Countertransference

"In that spirit, I would like to offer this paper, describing the essence of Jung's particular view of the transference-countertransference experience along with an example of its clinical application. Since each tradition offers something of value to depth psychology, it is not a question of which school is "right", but rather a question of what particular vantage point each school comes from, which piece of the work can be seen most clearly and deeply from which tradition.

Jung's core contribution was his description of the archetypal layer of the psyche, and his description of the transference bond centers on its archetypal dimension. His major work on this subject, "The Psychology of the Transference, " is an extremely difficult work. He notes in the foreword that it "will not be easy reading for those who do not possess some knowledge of my earlier works" (Jung, 1946, 1954, p. 165). In fact, unless the reader has done considerable reading in his alchemical texts, much of the work will probably be incomprehensible. Few analysts outside the Jungian world have been interested in devoting the kind of time that that kind of study requires, and Jung's writings in this area has consequently remained obscure. Among other things, it is my hope that this paper will make them more accessible to the larger psychoanalytic community.

The psychoanalytic literature on transference and countertransference is powerfully relevant to Jungians as we try to flesh out our knowledge of the personal layers of the transference-countertransference bond (Fordham, 1979). Jung himself was clear in acknowledging the validity of Freud's description of the transference neurosis within which the patient repeats with the therapist the undigested patterns of his injurious childhood relationships (Jung, 1946, p. 171, note 15). Jung, like Freud, saw the transference as the core of the therapeutic work. He is clear in saying repeatedly that "almost all cases requiring lengthy treatment gravitate round … the transference, and … the success or failure of the treatment appears to be bound up with it in a very fundamental way" (Jung, 1946, p. 164).

Beyond the personal transference, where the patient's infantile wounds are re-enacted, lies an archetypal level. What is meant by this is that there is a universal pattern the transference-countertransference experience ordinarily describes, the details of which the individual's particular history colors in. While focusing on this universal layer of the transference, I want to emphasize that this perspective is in no way a substitute for an understanding of the personal transference. The way that a particular person navigates this universal experience is always important clinically. The two layers, personal and archetypal, develop and exist together. Optimal therapeutic work requires that both be attended to.

In order to grasp a rough outline of the archetypal dimension of the analytic encounter, we need to get some sense of the meaning of Jung's alchemical work. Although the medieval alchemists were trying to transform base metals into gold, their writing makes clear that something much less straightforward was also taking place. A typical alchemical recipe might tell the worker to mix the menstrum of a whore with the fiery spirit of Mars; take this mixture, the instructions might continue, and bury it in the deepest, darkest sea until it becomes dry, and by dessication sandy and black. These kinds of peculiar instructions have no possible concrete relevance. We have no way of knowing what percentage of the alchemists might have guessed that their work was psychological rather than logical. Without our modern psychological concepts, they certainly could not explain what they were doing, but some of them probably suspected the base substances they were trying to transform were aspects of their own selves. The alchemist was projecting his unconscious onto the matter he was working with in his lab, seeing his own inner growth process in the various changes and developments the substances in his beaker were going through. The result was alchemy's fantastical, complex imagery.

It was Jung's particular insight to recognize that alchemical imagery was a metaphorical description of the same phenomena that psychologists try to discuss cognitively. Like the modern analysand, the medieval alchemist was trying, probably unconsciously, to heal his injured psyche. The despised and rejected elements of his soul—what Freudians would call his repressed unconscious, and Jungians his shadow, and what an alchemist or a contemporary dreamer might image as "the menstrum of a whore"—these unconscious elements were to be redeemed, "changed into gold." Alchemical recipes can be seen as therapeutic formulae, descriptions of how to change the psyche and of how the psyche changes. Alchemy's shocking and arresting imagery may reflect simply psychotic hallucinations, or its symbolic significance may have been grasped in some inarticulate fashion, at least by some workers. But in either case, its value for us remains the same: Alchemical imagery captures the archetypal experience of psychological development. It is a symbolic system which was never organized in any orthodox fashion the way a religion is organized, and it stays much closer to the immediate individual experience of growth than a more coherent mythic system does. Today, we can use their imagery as a metaphorical guide to the unchanging ways human beings develop.

Jung took a series of ten alchemical pictures as the basis for his description of the development of the transference bond. These engravings by medieval alchemists depict their emotional experience as they immersed themselves in the study of the imagery their unconscious was producing and projecting. Their work—their dedicated focus on the products of their psyches—exactly parallels a contemporary patient's work, his immersion in the products of his psyche. This alchemical imagery captures the modern patient's emotional experience of deep therapeutic work with remarkable potency."
(pp. 185-188)

Barbara Stevens (1986). A Jungian Perspective on Transference and Countertransference. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Vol. 22, pp. 185-200

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