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  • Annette Dunlop

Spiritual Tasks of the Artist & Analyst Require Honouring Individual Boundaries

(Over Vitebsk, 1913, Marc Chagall)

Spiritual Task of the Artist & Analyst

In The Religious Function of Psyche, Lionel Corbett writes about a woman on the edge of psychosis as reported on by Marie-Louise Von Franz. The analyst was able to help her, but it is why she was able to help that is interesting. This offers insight into the role of both the analyst and artist as a psychopomp: a traveller between conscious and unconscious realms. It also highlights the importance of honouring the dignity of the crucible that is the individual, for the individual is the vessel within which the alchemical transformation of psyche takes place.

This near psychotic woman was almost beyond contact emotionally, she was so overwhelmed by psychic material, the swell of the unconscious bursting through her ego container.

“But she was able to talk about a dream in which: ‘I saw an egg, and a voice said “The mother and the daughter”.’ At this the hitherto stymied therapist became ‘as happy as could be’, because she was then able to talk about creation myths which depict the rebirth of the world from the world egg, and about the Eleusinian Mysteries (the Demeter-Persephone story), and how all of this indicated that all would be well. The patient thereupon became quiet, and emotional contact was made even though later she told the therapist that she had understood nothing. The helpful factor was thus not that the mythical amplification ws useful in its own right -- the patient was far too confused and pre-symbolic to be able to use it -- but the fact that the therapist was able to understand what was happening because of her grasp of the archetypal dynamics involved enabled her to calm herself down. By her words and demeanour, she was then able genuinely to reassure the patient that all would be well…Evidently this dynamic allowed the patient to merge with the therapist’s now calm psychological organization, which was enough to contain the patient’s terror. In other words, an archaic idealizing transference occurred… again we see how the therapist’s grasp of the mythical level of the patient’s material, combined with his appreciation for the reality of the psyche, were able to help him contain her, even though to our ears his explanation seems incomplete. “ (Corbett, 91)

So the therapist provides a container. They make contact with the very psychic material that is overwhelming the patient but they bring a different orientation. Because of their understanding and appreciation for the reality of the psyche they are able to relate to this material in a calm and reassuring way. It makes sense in their reality and they have a greater faith in the movement towards psychic wholeness. This is similar, one can imagine, to a pastor providing spiritual guidance. But the guidance is embodied; the faith is in the unconscious itself, not a dogmatic system. It is a felt sense, one that implies an individuation process and a study of mythology (ie, study of psyche). This individuation process is one in which the therapist has had to go to their own dark places and perform the alchemical task of being with their own personal shadow and the psychic tension that it brings.

This approach to being with psychic tension, rather than treating it as illness, is what allows the therapist’s own psychic container to develop. Their self-Self axis is more robust, more tolerant to psychic tension. This is a psychic system, not to be confused with the patterns of the autonomic nervous system as described by Polyvagal Theory but development in the self-Self axis can certainly influence an expansion in tolerance here, too.

The therapist can now contact the psychic material which the patient is experiencing as overwhelming and provide a bridge for them, a safer gentler container. This safer gentler container is not full of guilt and shame and fear, for example. Guilt, shame and fear are psychic experiences which break down our psychic container. They quite literally affect our bodies and felt sense such that we feel our capacity to hold psychic life is less robust.

So the therapist, in having willingly gone into these painful places and making contact (via understanding and embodiment in particular ways that honour the nature of psyche) with the very material the client is currently overwhelmed by, helps the client shift their own relationship to their experience.

The ship that was rocking dangerously on violent oceanic waves now feels a trust in the deeper rhythm, the swells calm to a gentle rocking motion.

Role of the Artist

We are constantly, as humans, as psychic beings, processing and riding the swells within.

Artists are individuals, each will be drawn to exploring their own shadows. They must be able to make space from dealing with the intrusion of the mundane world in order to enter the difficult places in their own experience, their personal sacred. They are drawn to the numinous, whatever that is to them, be it colour, movement, words, sex, danger, madness, nature. In tolerating this contact with the numinous and attempting to capture this experience, they develop the “religious function” of their own psyche.

We see this as an artist individuates over time, they learn the “rules of painting” and slowly begin to reject them for their own particular forms of expression. Chagall becomes Chagall. Bodies float into space, rejecting the rules of gravity, but clearly honouring a deeper truth. Er geyt iber di hayzer. He walks over the houses.

In staying with an experience that is beyond words, Chagall is able to create symbols and images, the natural manifestation of the religious function of the psyche. These images are containers for numinous contact and the intensity of feeling which is evoked. They form a bridge and a container to the overwhelming numinous in the same way a therapist does so relationally and with mythological familiarity. An artist need not have the psychological framework or mythological understanding that an analyst brings to his client being overwhelmed by psychic material. But the artist’s work is to express, in their own deeply subjective way, their personal numinous encounter.

Because the artist’s personal unconscious is connected to the collective unconscious, the deeper they are able to make contact with the numinous, the more healing and resonant their image will be to the collective. They are miners, diving deep into the roots of psychic experience, intuitively drawn by their own passions, fears, conflicts.

The artist’s appreciation for psyche is born out of honouring their own experience, a religious act. We feel the difference between someone who is saccharine, overly sentimental, or brutally honest; and, depending on the psychic medicine we need, also how much healing we can tolerate in any given moment, we will be drawn to cotton candy or bitter cruciferous.

Chagall was known for being grounded, naturalistic, sensitive, and utterly fantastical without being sickeningly sweet. He was not just a painter, though it happened to be his medium. He was a distiller of the old and new. He was of the tribe who is always looking for home. This search encompasses a nostalgia for his roots in Vitebsk, but is much deeper and wider a journey. He looks for a psychic home he can never find and he makes space for the pain, the agony of this dissonance, this lack of and he creates from within that space. He lives in a psychic place that makes contact with the mythopoetic level of the psyche, which is where the collective unconscious, the objective psyche lives. He is doing psychic work for all of us. So when we look at a painting by Chagall a deep piece of ourselves that we share with him is held, is mirrored, is honoured. The piece that is forever alone searching for our primordial roots, lost and wandering. There is a deeply maternal feeling of being held, of even our most damning foibles being poked at gently with an ancient detached perspective of a grandparent. I feel that warm laughter in Chekov’s work, too. But there is also a very Russian celebration of the fantastical mystery of being alive and having once been a fish which we can find in the work of Bulgakov. There are pieces of their work which are very local and time and space specific, we feel we are being transported into another culture through entering their worlds; and yet there are transpersonal elements that feel so familiar, someone is articulating a thought or feeling we didn’t know we were looking for. This is the spiritual task of the artist.

Honouring the dignity of individuals

What the analyst must do is help the analysand build a container, a psychic vessel. Boundaries, we’re talking personal boundaries. Boundaries, in this case, between the ego and the unconscious. The client in this case was nearly psychotic, so overwhelmed by unconscious material. The analyst is in a unique role, due to their familiarity with mythology and a capacity to relate to unconscious material from an intellectual capacity that has also been integrated through their individuation process. The analyst helps hold the analysand and support the development of their ego, as well as the resilience of their own self-Self axis, through the therapeutic relationship.

The artist, on the other hand, must develop a boundary that protects them from the concerns of the mundane world in order to pursue attending to the religious function of their psyche. They must be free to move towards their own experience of numinosity in order to capture the essence of that experience and offer it back to the collective. The boundaries of their own personal subjectivity help form a crucible, a closed system, an oven within which they can transform their experience of numen into an image or symbol. This subjective space must be protected from the sociopolitical realm that will be imposed upon them by their particular time and place.

In both cases of the artist and the analysand, we require boundaries to honour the depth of their process, for consciousness is transformed within the individual.

We cannot, for the sake of social change, afford to disregard the sanctity of the individual’s boundaries. There is a tension here.

Imagine a wet sponge being squeezed, the goal of which is ostensibly to release the water. The amount of pressure matters: hold without squeezing and no water is released, squeeze too hard and the sponge tissue itself is torn apart. This has to do with the material qualities of the sponge, its tensile strength. Material engineers study this.

Now imagine a group of individuals being squeezed by collective social correctness, ostensibly to shift the consciousness of the group. To hold without squeezing is to deny that we are interrelated, to ignore how we affect each other. Squeeze too hard and you transgress the dignity of individuals. You tear apart the very fabric that is required for consciousness to transform: the boundaries of the individual. Artists study this. Analysts study this. This material is psyche. It is what our experience of being alive is forged from, everything is interpreted through psyche.

So quickly do we forget about these boundaries, so quickly do we transgress ourselves.

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