The Latin American contribution to the psychoanalytic concept of phantasy



The author argues that the ubiquity of phantasies at various levels of mental functioning is undisputed in the current schools of psychoanalytic thought; however, she demonstrates some variations in their understanding of how the psychotherapeutic access to different configurations occurs. In the process of examining and acknowledging the central role played by unconscious phantasies in his patients’ symptoms, Freud gradually broadened the vernacular meaning of the German word ‘Phantasie’ that refers to imagination and the world of imagination, conferring on it the specific features that came to characterize its use in the psychoanalytic vocabulary. Later, the expansion of the concept derived from Melanie Klein’s clinical material obtained from child analyses gave rise to important debates. The author discusses the main points of disagreement that led to these debates, as well as their various theoretical and technical implications. Psychoanalytic associations in Latin America were strongly influenced by Klein and her followers. Thus, most of their scientific writings use the concept of unconscious phantasy put forward by the Kleinian school. Taking Kleinian principles as their starting point, Baranger and Baranger made the most original Latin American contribution to the concept of unconscious phantasy with their works on the unconscious phantasies generated by the analytic pair.

In Freud’s clinical treatment of hysteria, the supremacy of psychic reality over external reality directed his focus of interest to understanding repressed phantasies that manifest themselves in somatic phenomena. These phantasies arise from daydreams and seem to conform to a universal basic structure, amplified and inflected by each patient’s individual history. These basic structures were termed ‘primary phantasies’, the residue of events in the origins of humanity that are deeply incorporated into our unconscious (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1968).

Furthermore, according to these authors, it is difficult to establish Freud’s metapsychological formulation of unconscious phantasy in precise terms because the theory of phantasy was developed long before the structural theory and Freud did not attempt to formulate it systematically in structural terms.

In general, however, phantasies are understood in his work to be the product of the ego’s fantasizing function; they are organized, structured and often highly symbolic. Their form is imposed by the organization of the ego and its defensive requirements. Once the phantasy content has been repressed, it becomes a content of potential desire. It is added to the conglomerate of repressed material, and from then on it is subjected to the primary process (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1968).

Realizing that play constitutes a specific form of communication in infancy, equivalent to dreams in adulthood, Klein developed the clinical treatment of children in accordance with the classical psychoanalytic method. Her reflections on clinical material from children in psychoanalysis, innovative at that time, led her to describe very primitive forms of phantasy, linked to bodily functions and the maternal object (Petot, 1990).

This and other conceptual developments (such as the anticipation of the Oedipus complex and the constitution of the archaic superego), along with their theoretical and technical explanations, proved controversial. One group of psychoanalysts, including Anna Freud (1991), considered the hypotheses made by the Kleinian school to be a distortion of fundamental psychoanalytic precepts.

In her paper, The nature and function of phantasy, Susan Isaacs (1948) provided a theoretical systematization of the concept of unconscious phantasy, which had previously been outlined in reflections on clinical material. It is worth noting that Isaacs’s groundbreaking observations are aimed specifically at the more primitive strata of psychic life, constituted of phantasies that are correlated with bodily experiences and, in the author’s words, “determined by the logic of emotion”, recalling that “meanings, like feelings, are far older than speech” (1948, p. 84).

These phantasies express a subjective internal reality that is still devoid of visual imagery and has the plasticity of simpler organizations. They represent life and death drives aimed at the maternal object, fulfil the imaginary satisfaction of desires and take the place of defence mechanisms. With relational experience and maturity, these phantasies are gradually organized into specialized functions that form a basis for all the symbolic activities of mental processing.

Segal (1994) reviews Isaacs’s paper, focusing on the concept of positions and agreeing with the suggestion that unconscious phantasy is a primary activity that expresses both drives and defences, in continuous interaction with perception, while modifying and being modified by it. She distinguishes between more primitive phantasies that are characteristic of the paranoid–schizoid position and appear in more primitive symbolic forms (symbolic equations) and phantasies that appear as symbol formation proper, which are characteristic of the depressive position. Segal considers that the more primitive phantasies are hypotheses that precede experience. Furthermore, she suggests that thought derives from the act of phantasizing; i.e. at the onset of mental activity, unconscious phantasy performs the functions that are subsequently replaced by thought.

Refining the concept, Caper (1998) distinguishes between omnipotent, primary unconscious phantasies that, as a hypothesis, can be confirmed or modified by experience and unconscious phantasies that retain their primary, omnipotent quality. The latter are seen as rigidly structured and interfere in the free course of the transformations that characterize healthy mental functioning.

The concept of unconscious phantasy – central to psychoanalytic theory – has undoubtedly been particularly important in Klein’s work. It is therefore impossible to discuss the general concept of unconscious phantasy without taking into account the repercussions of the significant changes made by the Kleinian school.

As Kleinian thought is a significant common feature of the formative education and clinical practice of psychoanalysis in Latin America, our contribution to broadening the concept of unconscious phantasy stems from the premises inferred from Klein’s clinical work and conceptualized in Isaacs’s paper.

The concept of unconscious phantasy in Latin American thought

Alves Lima (1988) and Merea (1988) show that Latin American psychoanalysis is strongly influenced by Kleinian thought, while Rocha Barros (1995) reminds us that, in this part of the world, even the most enthusiastic followers of Klein take an interest in contributions from other psychoanalytic thinkers. In fact, a bibliographical overview of the papers published in Latin America on unconscious phantasies from the 1950s to the present day shows that most authors use the concept put forward by the Kleinian school of thought.

It is also worth noting that, from a Kleinian starting point, Latin American authors anticipated ideas that were subsequently developed by psychoanalytic societies in Europe and the US. One example is the 1954 study by Alvarez de Toledo (1996) on nonverbal aspects of communication in the analytic pair and the ideas put forward by Baranger and Baranger (2008[1962]) concerning the unconscious phantasies created by the analytic pair, which yielded a rich seam of thought on the data emerging from clinical practice.

The concept of countertransference developed, almost simultaneously, by Heimann (1950) in Europe and Racker (1953) in Latin America was rapidly incorporated into psychoanalytic technique in that region and led to important reflections that enriched the concept of unconscious phantasy.

Observing the transference–countertransference relationship in her clinical work, Alvarez de Toledo (1996) observed that the act of speaking, in addition to the common function of communicating thoughts, both in its associative and interpretative aspects, serves as a vehicle for actualizing primary unconscious phantasies. Through projective identification, these phantasies reach the psychoanalyst’s mind in the form of feelings, emotions and images, often separated from the content of the patient’s verbal communication.

This author cites examples of this phenomenon from her own clinical work and suggests that the psychoanalyst’s countertransference reaction is due to the primary origin of these phantasies, revealed through the nonverbal aspects of speech in the relationship with the psychoanalyst.

This finding accords with Isaacs’s (1948) postulation regarding oral, anal and genital primary phantasies that are expressed through sensations, feelings and images, as well as with what Klein (1957) later called ‘memories in feelings’, when referring to the emotional experiences of the first few months of life that long precede language acquisition and, being inexpressible in that medium, emerge in the transference. Amplifying this view of the psychoanalytic process by taking into account the psychoanalyst’s countertransference experience, Alvarez de Toledo anticipates the theoretical and technical advances in this direction regarding the value of countertransference as an indispensable tool for drawing in elements of transference.

The contribution of Latin American psychoanalysis to deepening the knowledge and operability of the concept of phantasy continued with works by Baranger W (1956), Baranger and Baranger (2008) and Baranger et al. (1983).

In 1956, Willy Baranger undertook an epistemological analysis of Isaacs’s (1948) paper and observed that, although the author starts from the proposition that the drives are the determining basis of unconscious phantasy, there is a progressive inversion of this premise throughout her discourse, with an emphasis on the structuring quality of unconscious phantasy. It shapes the primary object, forming the basis of the ego, while the drive is its dynamic aspect. Baranger then concluded that the Kleinian school progressively broadened its perspective on unconscious phantasies, with an accompanying loss of a more drive-based understanding of clinical material. His interest in examining the psychoanalytic process with this new focus led him to make some interesting amplifications of the concept of unconscious phantasy.

In the following papers, Baranger and Baranger (2008) and Baranger and colleagues (1983) describe a new form of unconscious phantasy: a basic unconscious phantasy in the field of the analytic situation created by the analytic pair, distinct from the unconscious phantasies of each member of the pair. They define the psychoanalytic situation as a dynamic, bi-personal field created by the dialectical tension between transference–countertransference phenomena and mediated by projective identification. The unconscious phantasies of the analytic pair confer a specific meaning on the bi-personal field that indicates the degree of urgency imposed on the moment-to-moment interpretation.

As the psychoanalytic process unfolds, blocks are sometimes encountered in clinical treatment. Baranger et al. (1983, 2008) suggest that these moments result from precipitates of intersecting projective identifications and they correspond to omnipotent phantasies that generate strong opposition when revealed.

This particular kind of resistance, pertaining to the field rather than its actual members, is termed a bastion and is often – given its extremely archaic nature – registered by the psychoanalyst as a bodily experience of feeling unwell, headaches and drowsiness. These bastions indicate a loss of asymmetry in the roles of the analytic pair and it is the psychoanalyst’s task, by abandoning the attitude of free-floating attention and taking a ‘second look’, to examine what is happening in the field of the psychoanalytic situation at that moment. The starting point should be the examination of countertransference reactions in the aim of developing an interpretation that puts the psychoanalytic process back into gear by dissolving the bastion.

Researching Latin American literature with regard to the expansion of the concept of unconscious phantasy reveals repeated references to Alvarez de Toledo’s (1996) paper, which highlights the essential importance of its contribution. However, the earlier 1954 paper only became available to the rest of the psychoanalytic community when it was published in English in 1996.

The papers published by the Barangers were circulated more quickly, reaching other regions, notably the Italian group in Milan, including Antonino Ferro (1999). Ferro is well known for his books and papers, published in a variety of languages, and he has also studied the scope of application for the concept of the analytic pair’s unconscious phantasies and bastions in his clinical practice and his reflections on technique and theory.

Bezoari and Ferro (1992) associate the concept of the bi-personal field with Bion’s (1962) ideas regarding the container–contained relationship, the constitution of the apparatus for thinking and the key role of the psychoanalyst’s mind in obtaining maximum productivity in each session. The sum of the two observational standpoints in relation to the field – those of the psychoanalyst and the patient – constitutes what is known as an affective ‘holograph’ because of the similarity in the depth perception that results from the association between two images of the same object viewed from different angles.

Interpretations, resulting from the intersubjective and dialogical nature of psychoanalytic treatment, are developed in conjunction. That is, what the patient says is understood as something with which the psychoanalyst interacts in constructing a shared meaning.

In his study of the clinical experience of intersubjectivity, Ogden creates the term ‘analytic third’ to describe a third subject that “seems to take on a life of its own in the interpersonal field, generated between analyst and analysand” (2004, p. 169). This analytic third is a creation of the field generated by the projective identifications of both patient and analyst, and is expressed through predominantly preverbal, unconscious communication.

From the viewpoint of the study of intersubjectivity, I understand the analytic third as describing the same clinical phenomenon as that observed by Baranger and Baranger (2008) and Alvarez de Toledo (1996) in their work on unconscious phantasies created by the analytic pair in the transference–countertransference relationship and especially based on the communication predominantly expressed through sensations, feelings and images, or, as suggested by Klein, through ‘memories in feelings’.

In 1993 Madeleine Baranger1 (1993) revisited and updated the concepts developed by the Barangers and their colleagues in the 1960s: the psychoanalytic field (also referred to as the intersubjective field in the work), the analytic pair’s unconscious phantasies and bastions. This provides further information regarding the nature and function of the analytic pair’s unconscious phantasies in the intersubjective field, which radically influence the psychoanalyst’s listening and interpretative activity.

Thus, the author recalls previous suggestions concerning the psychoanalytic situation. The psychoanalyst’s conscious and unconscious work takes place through an intersubjective relationship in which each participant is defined by the other. In addition to the structure of the setting and the intersubjectivity of the psychoanalytic dialogue, which contain transference phenomena that are understood as a resurgence of primary conflicts, the author suggests that the psychoanalytic process should be supported by a third element, the psychoanalytic field.

The psychoanalytic field is formed by the unconscious exchanges between the patient and psychoanalyst that underlie the actual psychoanalytic dialogue. This is presented as a kind of dynamic archaic structure that involves its participants in what is almost always a creative circularity that can allow raw sensorial experiences to be expressed in the form of primitive unconscious phantasies. In contrast to pre-existing, repressed phantasies, these phantasies are generated in the intersubjective field. They signal the activated aspect of transference–countertransference exchanges and orientate listening, as well as the formulation and timing of the psychoanalyst’s interpretations.

Madeleine Baranger considers that the psychoanalyst’s interpretative activity is aimed at illuminating and making “convincingly understandable a current aspect of the field of the analytic relationship and hence of the unconscious of the patient involved in it” (1993, p. 20). Bearing in mind that the field stems from transference–countertransference exchanges, she considers that interpretation is always present in the transference, even when not directly aimed at the psychoanalyst. These interpretations in the transference confer meaning on the raw primary emotional experiences that germinate in the intersubjective field. They differ from classical interpretations of transference in relation to pre-existing repressed phantasies, which are actualized in the relationship with the psychoanalyst.

Latin American authors’ contributions on the theme also include Matte-Blanco’s (1988) theory of bi-logic that, by discussing the microscopy of the deepest unconscious layers, indirectly provides an explanation of the implicit concepts of Klein’s work and revalidates its basic propositions. Matte-Blanco regrets the scant theoretical output concerning the characteristics of the unconscious and believes that psychoanalysis has ‘wandered away from itself’. He attributes this fact to the excessive rationalization found in psychoanalytic literature. The principal focus of his interest is the continuation of research on the characteristics of the unconscious, which he emphasizes as Freud’s most spectacular and important discovery.

Matte-Blanco suggests that two irreconcilable logics are determinant, to varying degrees, for the psychic processes: one is asymmetrical and characteristic of the conscious system, based on the principle of non-contradiction, while the other is the symmetrical logic of the unconscious. Asymmetrical logic tends to differentiate objects in increasingly individualized sets and characterizes scientific thought. The properties of the unconscious system according to Freud are: timelessness, displacement, substitution of external reality by psychic reality, the lack of contradiction between the two drives and condensation, stemming from two principles that govern the logic of the unconscious: generalization and symmetry.

The principle of generalization explains that, unlike the logic of the conscious system, the logic of the unconscious does not consider individuals as units, but as members of ever larger groups. Displacement occurs according to this principle.

The principle of symmetry requires the unconscious to treat the obverse of every relationship in the same way. Timelessness is a consequence of this second principle.

Both principles operate in condensation and the lack of contradiction.

Matte-Blanco classifies the bi-logical structures that constitute the entirety of psychic life into strata that are differentiated by the greater or lesser presence of thought processes that conform to one or other of the logics present. In this model, the first layer, virtually conscious and governed by asymmetrical logic, is followed by two further layers with increasing degrees of symmetry until the fourth and final layer, which is virtually unconscious. According to Matte-Blanco, Kleinian investigation is particularly directed at the third and fourth layers of this continuum; i.e. layers in which the presence of symmetrical logic becomes increasingly pronounced.

In the light of the logic that rules the unconscious system, Isaacs’s (1948) paper on unconscious phantasies is considered an effort to formulate levels of potentially infinite emotional experiences, where indivisibility and homogeneity predominate, in a scientific, asymmetrical, narrative and finite language.

In my view, it involves no exaggeration to extend Matte-Blanco’s analysis of Isaac’s paper to Kleinian theory. In fact, using the characteristics of the unconscious suggested by Matte-Blanco as a criterion for systematizing Kleinian thought results in a coherent theory that opposes the generalized criticism of its lack of conceptual consistency.

Clinical example

As previously mentioned, Baranger and Baranger (2008) and Baranger et al. (1983) define the analytic situation as a dynamic, bi-personal field created by the dialectical tension between transference–countertransference phenomena, mediated by projective identification and underlying the psychoanalytic dialogue.

They also formulate the concept of primitive unconscious phantasies created within this analytic field, which are different from the unconscious phantasies of each member of the analytic pair. Through projective identification, these phantasies reach the psychoanalyst’s mind in the form of feelings, emotions and images, often separated from the content of the patient’s verbal communication.

It now remains to illustrate how these concepts, when incorporated in clinical practice, can expand the understanding of those more primitive strata of psychic life, made up of phantasies correlated with bodily experiences and “determined by the logic of emotion”, recalling that “meanings, like feelings, are far older than speech” (Isaacs, 1948, p. 84).

Thus, some extracts have been selected from two consecutive sessions with Clara, a 35 year-old patient. In her first interview, Clara told me that she wished to begin psychoanalytic treatment. She finally had the means to carry out this plan. We agreed to begin the treatment the following month, when our schedules allowed a mutually compatible availability. Before the allotted appointment time, Clara contacted me by telephone twice. Always polite, she apologized for her insistence on beginning the treatment as soon as possible. When I reiterated my inability to find an earlier time than the one we had agreed, she accepted without rancour.

Session 1

In her first session, Clara related a dream with a content that was understood, combined with the patient’s associations, as the expression, in images, of repressed unconscious phantasies, accompanied by persecutory anxieties and interpreted by the analyst in the context of the transference.

Clara told me about her satisfaction at being there, before proceeding to tell me the following dream: I was lying in bed, receiving a blood transfusion. A young woman observed the scene, but this didn’t seem to relate to me. She added that it was strange that the young woman appeared in her dream because she “recognized her by sight, a Japanese woman that I see occasionally, in the supermarket, I think. I get the impression she is shy and self-contained”.

I interpreted the dream as an expression of the patient’s phantasy about her psychoanalytic treatment that was about to begin; but also as a complaint about the poor state in which she had arrived owing to the relatively long period before the first session. As for the young woman who appeared in the dream as an observer that was barely involved in the scene, I believed this was an aspect of her, shy and self-contained, incapable of expressing her rage.

I felt this was an appropriate interpretation of latent material that symbolized some repressed unconscious phantasies that were expressed in the transference relationship through very organized and structured dreamlike images. Clara followed my words with interest but disagreed that she had been so disturbed by the wait for her first session.

Session 2

In her second session, two days later, Clara related what she described as “an unusual incident”: when she left after her previous session, she noticed that the front garden had vanished. She lamented this fact to herself as the plants made the front gate look nice and flowery. “But today,” she continued, “when I came back, the garden was there! Isn’t that strange?” She seemed satisfied to be correcting her mistake, but not very troubled by it.

In contrast, my reaction to her words was very intense. In fact, as Clara spoke about the hallucinatory disappearance of the garden, I was invaded by a feeling of horror that took the form of the image of a dismembered corpse. I suggest that my sensation of horror, configured by this image of mutilation, corresponds to receiving a primitive unconscious phantasy created in the analytic field.

I would explain this as follows. In the previous day’s interpretation of the dream, a link was established between neediness, abandonment and repressed feelings of rage; as these ideas were not received by the patient, the session took a different course. However, in the second session, the unconscious, working on the dream interpretation, accords some importance to the previous hypothesis about the aggressive feeling now presented in the hallucinatory removal of the garden that, according to the patient, “made the front gate look nice and flowery”. Violently deprived of its creative and pleasant aspects, this object, constituted in the field and projected on to the analyst, took the visual form of a dismembered corpse.

This dreamlike flash reminded me of the so-called ‘memories in feelings’ (Klein, 1957) that can be activated by the analysis of more organized phantasies, which is what I believe happened in this case. The interpretation of the dream, picking up the feelings of pain and abandonment, activated rawer, more primitive levels of emotional experience, in which the lack of the maternal object is experienced as a catastrophe, accentuating aggressive drives and guiding understanding to a more primitive level of anguish linked to a lack of containment by the maternal object.

The example thus broaches both the diverse forms of phantasy with its various levels and the notion of a generating field of phantasies that, not belonging solely to either member of the analytic pair, give the psychoanalyst a new level of understanding about the patient’s emotional experiences.

Final comments

Given that the concept of unconscious phantasy is fundamental to psychoanalytic theory, it is only to be expected that advances brought about by a century of clinical practice require it to be refined and raise new questions.

Many contemporary Freudians, over the years, have accorded increasing importance to the study and significance of the earliest stages of child development, which has led to technical modifications that emphasize the existence of transference phantasies, anxieties and resistances from the beginning of analysis.

They believe that this state of affairs necessarily leads to reviewing the concept of unconscious phantasy and suggest two major types of unconscious phantasy: early, very primitive phantasies, typical of the early years of life, and repressed in the unconscious throughout development. They stress that, although they are very important constructs for psychoanalytic work, these phantasies are reconstructions based on the patient’s clinical material supported by the psychoanalytic theory of mental functioning and child development. These phantasies are abstractions – theoretical constructs that are useful in the metapsychological description of psychic processes that occur during a psychoanalytic session and therefore have no possible expression in the clinical material.

They then suggest a second kind of unconscious phantasy that represents the core of current subjective experiences, as the only type expressed in general transference phenomena (Sandler and Sandler, 1994).

The Kleinian school, in turn, argues for the transferential expression of primitive phantasies linked to drive-related primary objects. These highly primitive, unconscious phantasies – memories in feelings – when activated by the specific characteristics of the psychoanalytic encounter (setting, asymmetrical relationship and disclosure of unconscious material) are expressed on several levels of communication, both verbal and nonverbal. They constitute an initial formulation – a metaphor, as it were, corresponding to sensory registers that have yet to be symbolized.

In turn, this viewpoint, associated with the clinical use of the concept of countertransference, has demonstrated the existence of another kind of unconscious phantasy that is created in the analytic field (Alvarez de Toledo, 1996; Baranger and Baranger, 2008). Its presence is only traced in the profoundly unconscious cultural mix that is established by the analytic pair. It gives rise to interpretations that pave the way for the first symbolization of very primitive experiences that await the opportunity to progress from the somatic, sensory level to symbolic representation.

Taking these successive amplifications into account, the concept of unconscious phantasy can be formulated as follows:

Unconscious phantasies are mental operations stemming from innate, species-specific expectations, shaped by the individual constitution and early experiences. In other words, they are mental operations that express relational hypotheses about the world and require relational experiments because human beings do not respond to stimuli by reflex; they interpret them and respond through a system of meanings guided by their experience with objects.

In my view, this definition is broad enough to contemplate the complexities contained in the concept of unconscious phantasy as presented in the current state of psychoanalytic theory.

Over the course of this paper, I hope to have shown how Latin America, in particular, through reflection on its more primitive forms, has collaborated to keep the continuing reflection on this prime psychoanalytic concept alive and up-to-date.


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    Paper selected to represent Latin America as the official theme for the 38th International Congress of Psychoanalysis on ‘The Psychoanalyst’s Mind – From Listening to Interpretation’.