Gilberto Safra, PhD
Universidade de São Paulo
Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo
ln my opinion, the study of the role of the sacred for a determined individual or culture is a pretty interesting and fruitful work. The way an individual conceives the sacred seems to define the position he is going to assume in the world, as well as his way of hierarchically ordering his psychical experiences.
The relation to the sacred set up by the subject is not necessarily the one he conscientiously asserts to have through his ties to a given religion, or even when there is no religion. Human psyche seems to be inhabited by gods of the most different kinds and characteristics which -- in their dramatically experienced relations define much more in the human's life than he would like to admit.
Traditionally, this phenomenon has been conceived in Psychoanalysis as a result of the defensive mechanisms used by the individual to cope with certain anguishes. I think this phenomenon comprehends other nuances besides those already explained by Psychoanalysis literature.
Winnicott's contributions on the field of the self formation and of the transitional phenomena have shed light on these questions. According to Winnícott, the self is formed by creating, initially the mother, who let herself be created by the baby. So, it's the mother who takes necessary care of the baby; she is the baby's first drive object and the first signal of self of the developing individual. That's a signal which points the individual's emerging abílity to create.
Self and creativity are closely linked. Creating and existing, not only as a biological being but as a being creating symbols that deal, on a peculiar way, with existential questions of such individual. The mother and the father provide to the child a symbolic spectrum, a symbolic repertoire, by giving the chance to and permitting the chíld to show his singularity on this field.
"Originality rises from traditíon" (Winnicott 1971). ln this perspective, there is a permanent exchange between individual and culture, between individual and shared reality: the field of transitionality. The possibility of creating symbols with the indívidual's personal style which can express -- in the cultural reality -- the conceptions resulting from his life experiences leads him to try an esthetical and transcendental experience. This experience is distinguished by the individual's comprehension of his self as a transcendence of his immediate experience and reaching the possibility to live beyond time and space. Life related to the Other: the insertion and cooperation of the individual with Man's history.
Poets, artists and philosophers have approached this kind of experience through the human history. Tagore (l921) asserts that it's the being's dignity what we aim by expanding our consciousness in a great human reality to which we belong. Realization through admiration and love, through the hope which goes further than the present, further than life tension, searching for an infinite time in which we live the other men's life.
From this perspective, we often observe the divinization of another or even aspects of the own self, not only as a mean to deal with anguishes, but also as an expectation to discover -- through that divined element -- the possibility to find or recover the ability to create symbols which link the individual experiences in History, in Culture, in the Sacred. Search for a vehicle to entry the field of transitionality. This very phenomenon has been approached by Bollas (l987) who denominated it as transformational object; for him a transformational object is experimentally identified by the child through processes that change the self experience. lt's an identification rising from a symbiotic relation, where the first object is "known", not specially for being put in an object representation but as a being's resulting experience -- a more existential knowledge, compared to the representative. For Bollas, that anticipation of being transformed by a object, leads the individual to a reverential attitude to the object, so that the self transformation, even if it doesn't take place in the future with the same proportion of his first years, leads the adult individual to call these objects sacred.
ln the analytical situation it's often observed the esthetical or sacred experience at the time when it's possible for the subject to symbolize in a particular way the experience of being. The subject finds his own style and so the esthetical experience.
lt's essential for us to approach at thís point the subject's production (word, image, act) as potentially comprehending the symbolic capacity or the searched style. lt deals with an analysís not oniy of the content but also of the work. "It's not only a matter of science, but also of language, of myth, of art and religion to supply the materials with which the "real" world is built for us, the same as the one of the spirit... the world of mine." (Cassirer, 1923, page 33). Here there's a recovering of image and of the the act as symbolic expressions beside the word. lt's a approach of productions anylisis, similar to the way we approach a work of art, not with the end of reducing it to some categories that would presumably be their origin, but considering it as a movement of the subject toward symbolization and the rising of his self.
The study of mankind's works of art -- especiaily the study of sacred art -- is an important source for knowing the human creativity and the wishes of transcendence inhabiting the human being. Sometimes we realize things like those mentioned above which are expressed in the tradition of producing sacred works or even in the theology supporting this work, as we'll next see by approaching the icon, particularly the Russian icon.
In Christian civilization, icon plays an essential role as expression of the sacred art in this culture. lt's the use of image as a cult element and expression of Christian theological conceptions. lt's a kind of art of Byzantine origin mainly used by Eastern Christian Churches, specially the Orthodox Church. In this case, image and word are equally important, since according to theology, Christ is both word and image in one, for He is Logos turned into Eíkón (image).
Saint John of Damascus asserts: "The one who couidn't be seen, by having flesh offered himself to be seen; so he made his image. I consider God's similarity as Jacob saw it, but in a different way; for he was seeing with the immortal eyes of spirit an immaterial image foreseeing the future, while I see that what inspires the recall of the One who I see in flesh" (cited by Oupensky, 1948)
The invisible becomes visible. The inaudible Verb becomes audible and, above all, becomes image. Through incarnation, which is the main dogmatic fact of Christianism, image and theology are so closely linked that the expression "image theology" could become an obvious pleonasm, if theology is considered as knowing God in His Logos, which is the consubstantial of the Father (Loosky,l959)
With the dogma of incarnation, base of Christianism, the invisible can be painted, then, contemplated.
ln the Christian Orthodox tradition, icon ís conceived not only as an image representing divinity, but as a presence That is, the icon has a sacramental character, i.e. the epiphany of the invisible. This is going to be the nature of the Christian mystery of the consagration of bread and wine. ln the Russian theology, icon is the symbol-link between invisible and visíble.
The Russian Christian theology makes a dístinction between sign, allegory and syrnbol. The sign informs and points out, there's no communion or presence. The allegory is an explaining didactic illustration based on images with analogical relations to the object or the topic in question. Neither the sign nor the allegory are epiphanies; they're just demonstrative. The symbol contents in it the presence of what it symbolizes. "The icon as a symbol appeals to the contemplative capacity of spirit, its evoking and invoking capacity to interpret the meaning, the message of the symbol and get its epiphanic condition of presence" (Sáenz, 1991) This way, the one who contemplates the icon actively participates -- with his spirit -- in the recreatíon of the sacred work, while it has to own the conceptions reflected in the work. lt's a view that rises in the devotee's spirit while contemplating or praying.- the view recreates the Divine Being promoting communication between soul and the sacred.
To this effect, icons are painted from perspectives compatible with the conception of their theology. The icon dematerializes the human body, while not taking into account its natural proportions. The human is painted as a symbol. The body of the icon is a temple; ears and mouths are small since they indicate the interior of a being, big eyes expressing the contemplatíon of the divine. ln this kind of art, dimensions, perspective, movement, shadows and realistic architecture are absent. The artist tries to express that the being painted lives in another reality mastered by the transcendence of the natural world.
The icon is considered by the devoted as a field of conjunction between the visibie and the invisible, between the human and the sacred -- the field of a transfigured reality -- and becomes an instrument of consolatíon of absence (S. Teodoro Studita-apud Oupensky, 1948). The man who has no relation to the sacred finds in iconographic art the means to recover his relation to the beauty and the divine conceptions. A creative view which takes him closer to the Creator. We are in the field of transitionality.
Transitional phenomena rises in the third area of human experience, which cannot be exclusively referred neither as internal reality nor as external reality. A place, called by Winnicott potential, where there are the cultural and creative experiences. He used to say that it was an area of human experience hardly studied by Psychoanalysis but approached in the work of philosophers, theologians and poets.
Winnicott always linked the potential space and the transitional phenomena with the human capacity of creating symbols which concomitantly referred to phenomena of the external and the internal world. Symbols not subject to decodification, which are important for its own existence.
ln order to approach the question of the symbol in the potential space, Winnicott used the mystery of transubstantiation of the Christian theology. He asserts: "lt would be possible to understand the transitional object while not fully understanding the nature of symbolism. lt seems that symbolism can be properly studied only in the process of the growth of an individual and that it has at the very best a variable meaning. For instance, if we consider the wafer of the Blessed Sacrament, which is symbolic of the body of Christ, I think I am right in saying that for the Roman Catholic community it is the body, and for the Protestant it is a substitute, a reminder and is essentially not, in fact, actually the body itself. Yet in both cases it is a symbol. (l971, page 6)
The first factor I consider important to stress in this text is that Winnicott is pointing to the fact that the symbol must be studied within the growth process of an individual. It's not a matter of decoding the symbol by taking into account another reference, different from the development process of the individual's self, from which he would hypothetically proceed. From this perspective, it's not important if the symbol represents, for instance, a breast. lt's relevant that trough it the subject can encounter or reencounter his creative potential, his style.
The second relevant point , in my opinion, is Winnicott's use of the theological mystery of transubstantiation to approach the phenomenon of transitionality.
The psychoanalytical clinic rose under the taiking cure conception (Freud, Breuer, 1995). The word is the instrument that, in Freud's opinion, makes possible the cure of the psychopathological phenornena. Through the years of the psychoanalysis development, the word has been given more importance as an work tool and instrument of elaboration of the psychic anxieties. Image, work and act are seen as more primitive expressions of psyche, which should eventually be overcome by the word capacity .
Freud asserts: "Art brings about a reconciliation between the two principles (pleasure and reality) in a peculiar way. An artist is originally a man who turns away from reality because he cannot come to terms with the renunciation of instinctual satisfaction which it at first demands, and allows its erotic and ambitious wishes full play in the life of fantasy. He finds the way back to reality, however, from this world of fantasy by making use of special gifts to mould his fantasies into truths of a new kind, which are valued by men as a precious reflections of reality. Thus in a certain fashíon he actually becomes the hero, the king, the creator, or the favorite he desired to be, without following the roundabout path of making real alterations in the external world. But he can only achieve this because other men feel the same dissatisfaction as he does with the renunciation demanded by reality, and because that dissatisfaction, which results from the replacement of the pleasure principle by the reality principle, is itself a part of reality." (l911, page 244)
This passage seems to represent the conceptions that somehow influenced on the way how psychoanalysis dealt with other human manifestations different than the word. The work is seen as a result of a process of sublimation or reparation with no importance itself. This kind of thinking leads to a work interpretation through a decodifying process, by using a reference previousiy created (sexual or aggressive drives). The work looses then its existential sense.
I find it necessary to approach the work (thing, image, gesture) not only as result of an intrapsychical process, sublimation or reparation, but taking into account the relation of the subject to the work itself, and to its transforming potential for the subject who creates or contemplares it. On this point I agree with Cassirer (l944) when he said that human culture is divided in various activities that take place according to different lines and have different aims -- myth, ritual, religious believes, works of art, scientific theories -- and it's impossible to reduce them to a common denominator. lt's necessary to find the understanding of the principle of the creative process.- the symbolic capacity. In Cassirer's opinion, language was identified with the reason or the source of reason, but it actually doesn't cover the entire symbolic field of human being.
Through the image of transubstantiation, Winnicott presents the idea of the object permeated by the Logos-simbolic object. lt's not an object that exists for the subject just in his sensorial perception, but because it's a vehicle of a conception, of a style, of the being's experience. The subject who creates a transitional object transfigure it with his sense of being. Paradoxically, the object is and is not the subject; the subject -- through it -- is able to recover something from himself.
Transitional phenomena are made up of the possibility of the human symbolic capacity to take the object, the gesture or the image and to transform them in symbols of the self. This transformed object becomes then an icon of the self, through which the subject recognizes his style, living an esthetical-existential experience often accompanied by a sacred respect to the object. It's a phenomenon that allows the individual the experience of existing by creating elements that express his existential experiences participating in human culture.
In the psychoanalytical clinic, it is possible to observe, from this conceptual angle, the desire and anxiety of the human being to find the possibility of creating, but creating together with another human being, which would mean entering the field of transitionality. Man also suffers when he doesn't manage to create a symbol that represents him in human culture.
It's pretty interesting and intriguing to verify the similarities between the theological conceptions on icons and the conceptualizations on transitional phenomena done by Winnicott. We find common elements between these two fields that are worthy to reflect on.
According to these conceptions, it's not possible to approach the being of man only through the angle of the word, of the verb. It's also necessary to approach the man by using the image, the act, the work. The icon as well as the transitional object allows the subject to find the consolatíon in order to overcome the original separation that caused it. Both of them represent the creative capacity of human being, and take the subject to the esthetical and transcendental experience. Both of them offers a conception of being..
It's a matter of repositioning the phenomenon of symbol. The Occidental culture went mainly over an aristotelical-carthesian way. Imagination was considered as expression of irrationality and as an obstacle to the objective thinking, the symbol was limited to a semiological phenomenon, being reduced to the significant and putting the meaning away. The icon was reduced to stage, while the esthetical-transcendental dimension -- rearticulation place of the self -- was getting lost from this perspective.
This very phenomenon seems to have happened in psychoanalysis; the symbol was considered as an element to be decodified by the interpretation process, while being treated as a semiological phenomenon, a kind of code. However, was the symbol actually a semiological phenomenon? I don't think so. The symbol is important not only because it can be interpreted, but also it expresses a singular experience of the subject in the reality and because the symbol reflects something of the self of the one who created it
Through his contributions, Winnicott redefine the symbol in the psychoanalytical clinic, not as a semiotic phenomenon but as an important element itself. It's from this point on that rises the technical suggestions given by Winnícott related to the non-interpretation of the symbols of the game, the non-questioning by the subject about the origin of the transitional object, the respect to the paradoxos that cannot be solved through analitical thinking- all of this as expression of a respect and care by the subject that cannot be invaded at the core of his being. He asserts: "At the centre of each person is an uncommunicated element, and this is sacred and most worthy of preservation... Rape and being eaten by canníbals, these are the bagatelas as compared with the violation of the self's core, the alteration of the self's central elements by communication seeping through the defences. For me this would be the sin against the self." (l963, page 187). Winnicott refers to the existence of three kinds of communication-. communication forever silent, the explicit communication, immediate communicatíon that takes place in the transitional dimension with the help of symbols, origin and field of culture.
I find it important to point out that it's through the symbol that the self is linked in a communication experience with the other, and, at the same time, it remains hidden in its "sacred" privacy. There's another analogy here with the icon theology, however, in this case these eiements are the image sacrality. Based on the documents of the Seventh Council, Evdokimov (l969) asserts: "The icon of Christ is Christ, for Christ's presence is not located in the icon but througt it, as a vehicle of the shining presence. The icon is named after the archetype, but doesn't contain its nature" (page 153-154).
Icon and transitional phenomenon are being's mediators while revealing and hiding, presenting an experience as sacred, impossible to be decodified with no violation of the core of the being and the shatering of the subject's esthetical-sacred experience.
Some authors have pointed an iconoclastic position as a prevalling characteristic of occidental culture, which is a heritage of the aristothelical-carthesian thought with serious consequences for art and the creativity of the human being. "The cultural role of painted image was heavily minimized in an universe where the pragmatic force of sign always triumphs. Pascal himself expressed his disdain for painting, and so he introduced the social helplessness where the artist is going to be kept by Occidental consensus, through the artistic shock caused by Romanticism. The artist as well as the icon have no longer place in a society that gradually eliminated the essential function of symbolic image." (Durand, 1964, page 27)
Winnicott relocate the human subject while emphasizing that the being is constituted as he creates. He shows in this way that, from his point of view, man is characterized by his capacity of creating symbols, for his own life is his work and -- at the same time -- it's the icon of his being. "Le style est l'homme même" (Buffon, apud Winnicott 1967 page 99).
Uniterms-. Transitionality, Symbol, Icon, Winnicott.
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* First presented in the IV European Congress of Psychology, July 7th, 1995, Athens, Greece. First published in IDE. Sociedade Brasileira de Psicanálise de São Paulo. Brazil, December, 1995, p.152 - 161.