The Ouroboros of Psychoanalysis

In a number of posts, I have used the ouroboros as a symbol for the dialectical relationship between opposites. The serpent’s biting head is one extreme, its bitten tail is the other extreme, and every point on the length of its body, coiled into a circle, represents a median point on a circular continuum between those dialectically related opposites. Therefore, any extreme can phase into its opposite, and vice versa.

I believe such a dialectical relationship between opposites can be demonstrated in the field of psychoanalytic theory. I will make such a demonstration below. I have already done so, to an extent, in my post, The Psychoanalysis of Narcissistic Parental Abuse. I’d like here to expand on that.

The extremes of frustration and hostility felt by a baby towards its non-breastfeeding ‘bad mother‘ during the paranoid-schizoid position (PS), which is at the biting head/bitten tail area of the ouroboros (i.e., the extreme opposites, side by side, indicate the black and white, all or nothing, thinking behind splitting), lead to a fear that the baby has annihilated its ‘good mother’ in unconscious phantasy, or has provoked a retaliation in the ‘bad mother.’

The seeming destruction of an external object results in a fear of the destruction of the internal equivalent of that object, for there is a dialectic of the self and other, too. There’s a bit of the other in the self, and vice versa.

For these reasons, the baby passes over the biting head/bitten tail of the ouroboros (as manifested in PS) and, passing over the head to the serpent’s upper body, the baby reaches the depressive position (D), wanting reparation with the mother (and the internalized object representing her) that it now realizes is both good and bad. The thesis (‘bad mother,’ that is, the ouroboros’ bitten tail) and negation (‘good mother,’ or the biting head) are sublated (the good and bad aspects are integrated into one complete human being, represented by the serpent’s coiled middle body).

The self-other dialectic, as seen, for example, in the Kleinian concepts of introjecting objects and projecting unwanted, split-off portions of the subject (via projective identification), was expanded on by Wilfred R. Bion in his description of the mother/infant relationship. He saw that the establishment of a baby’s thinking apparatus was made through this dyadic relationship, through a mother’s containing of her baby’s ejections of intolerable external stimuli.

For Bion, thoughts are emotional experiences coming from the outside world–“thoughts without a thinker.” These stimuli (beta elements) assail the baby, who doesn’t yet know how to cope with them. It needs its mother to do its thinking for it; so when it ejects the intolerable beta elements, she receives and contains them, and through using the alpha function the baby hasn’t yet learned how to use, she converts the agitating beta elements into tolerable alpha elements, and sends these latter elements back to the baby.

[Click here for a more thorough explanation of psychoanalytic concepts.]

This process (maternal reverie) of a mother helping her baby to process unacceptable external stimuli, this trading back and forth of energy through projective and introjective identification, is how an infant gradually develops an ability to do the mental processing by itself. In other words, this is how an infant learns how to think.

The use of alpha function to convert beta elements into alpha elements is something we do all the time, because our mothers helped us acquire this skill when we were infants. The agitating beta elements, hitting us from the outside world, are the emotional experiences of being at the ouroboros’ bitten tail. When we process the feelings, we slide along the coiled length of the serpent’s body, using alpha function, until we reach the biting head, when the experiences have been fully assimilated and have become alpha elements.

Babies cannot do this yet, so their mothers do the processing for them, then send the fully-converted elements back to their babies. The babies are thus able to go from bitten tail straight over to biting head, without any trauma.

If, however, a mother doesn’t do this containing properly for her baby, or if other agitations occurring later in life, for some reason, cannot be processed and converted into alpha elements by the affected person, he or she may be stuck in the ‘bitten tail’ area of the ouroboros for an unacceptably long period of time, and the agitation may turn into a nameless dread.

This nameless dread may, because of the lengthy experience of PS, result in the affected person splitting off large chunks of his or her bad internal objects, projecting them outward and creating hallucinatory bizarre objects. In other words, the affected person has a psychotic break with reality.

For there to be mental health, PS must shift over to D. The process of developing alpha function for oneself, that sliding along the length of the serpent’s coiled body, from its tail to its head, is done through the K-link, a growing of knowledge through object relationships, the self-other dialectic of inter-personal communication.

So, mental growth and learning comes from tolerating and processing unpleasant emotional experiences, and such growth is best done in an exchange of feelings between people. This exchange of feelings is done through empathic mirroring. This mirroring is originally between a mother (or primary caregiver, male or female) and her infant.

When I speak of the self-other dialectic, I refer to the close bond between two people, the blurred boundary between them, since projections and introjections of psychic energy are passing back and forth between them. Since a young child is going through primary narcissism, and one hopes he or she will soon mature past ego-libido into object-libido, empathic mirroring between the child and his or her parents, at least one of whose internalized objects will be an idealized parental imago, is vital for the child’s health.

These mirrored relationships and idealized parental imagoes are what Heinz Kohut called self-objects, or internalized relationships a child has with his or her primary caregivers that help the child to build stable and healthy psychological structure. If the child’s narcissism isn’t dealt with tactfully by his or her parents, if the child’s fantasied omnipotence isn’t let down in small, tolerable amounts, the lack of needed empathy will result in a split sense of narcissism, of repressed and disavowed narcissism vs. a feeling of low self-worth, a placing at the biting head/bitten tail of the ouroboros.

In other words, healthy people have a proper mix of pride and humility, somewhere in the middle of the serpent’s body, between the extremes. Pathological narcissists, on the other hand, have wild grandiosity as a mask to hide self-hate, where the head bites the tail.

So, during these early years, a child uses his or her parents as both an ideal and a mirror for him- or herself. Parents are seen, to at least some extent (the depressive position, D, notwithstanding), as extensions of the child’s self.

And here is where the Oedipus complex fits in.

The child’s relationship with his or her idealized parent–be this the opposite-sex parent of the classical Freudian version, or the same-sex parent of the negative Oedipus complex–is a narcissistic one, a dyadic, one-on-one mirroring that coincides more or less with such things as the establishment of an illusory ego in the mirror stage. The idealized parent corresponds to the ideal-I in the specular image.

The clumsy child sees him- or herself in the idealized specular or parental image looking back…but that other person isn’t really the child. He or she is alienated from the image, from him- or herself, from the idealized parent looking back. The biting head of the ouroboros is connected…united…with the bitten tail, but the two are opposite ends.

The tip of the serpent’s tail can be seen as symbolically phallic, as the ouroboros’ mouth can be seen as yonic. The union of the two can thus be seen as symbolizing the unconscious phantasy of incestuous union between parent and child. The union needn’t be literally lustful; it can simply represent the wish to have that one parent all to oneself…not shared with siblings, or, God forbid!…the other parent. Hence, this is a narcissistic love.

Before the other parent comes along and breaks up this dyadic, mutually mirroring relationship, the child feels him- or herself to be in an Oedipal paradise of jouissance, that transgressive excess of pleasure that leads to pain (going past the ouroboros’ biting head to its bitten tail), though the receiver of these paradoxical sensations still wants them.

I like to allegorize this Oedipal state with the myth of the Garden of Eden. In this scenario, Adam represents the child, Eve is the mother rather than the wife (for she is “the mother of all living,” Genesis 3:20), the serpent is the ouroboros of the growth of Bion’s K, and Yahweh Elohim is the father. (I touched on this allegorizing in the psychoanalytical aspect of my analysis of mother!)

Please note that I’m assigning these roles in a metonymic sense: the child (Adam) could be male or female; the mother (Eve) could be either parent, as long as he or she is the Oedipally desired one; and the father (God) could be either sex, as long as he or she is the one breaking up the Oedipal union.

The rib coming out of sleeping Adam, which is then shaped into Eve, represents how the child sees the parent as an extension of him- or herself. No sense of the difference between what Winnicott called me and not-me has yet been made by the child. Adam wakes, sees her, and says, “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” (Genesis 2:23)

Bion saw (pages 45-49), in the Oedipus myth, the importance of the growth of knowledge (K). Oedipus would know the truth even if it destroyed him, while Tiresias, who already knew, warned Oedipus not to seek it out. Knowledge is desired, but having it can be painful.

Similarly, Yahweh Elohim warns Adam and Eve not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge: this is the Name of the Father (le nom, or le Non! du père), the nom suggesting the nomos, or law, and the Non! being the prohibition against enjoying the (often understood to be carnal) knowledge that the forbidden fruit offers.

Nevertheless, the serpent, subtler in K than all the other animals, tempts Eve to eat of the fruit. Her offering of it to Adam, and eating it with him, represents the container/contained relationship between mother and child, the building up of a thinking apparatus for the infant, its ability to use alpha function, its growth in K.

Bion used a feminine symbol for the container, suggesting a yoni, and a masculine symbol for the contained, a phallus; so container/contained symbolically suggests copulation. I’ve already associated the yoni with the ouroboros’ mouth, and the phallus with its tail. This is how the subtle serpent in the Garden represents the ouroboros’ growth in K.

In enjoying the taste of the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:6), Adam and Eve are experiencing the transgressive pleasure of jouissance. The child is enjoying the Oedipally-desired parent’s love and attention, but this one-on-one relationship can last only so long. Even the child can feel surfeited by the pleasure, and want to escape it. No wonder Lacan called the excess “plus-de-jouir,” a kind of surplus-value of pleasure that is beyond what is acceptable.

Remember, the yonic serpent’s mouth has teeth. Its union with the phallic tail leads to the threat of castration. The expulsion from the Garden of Eden is the dissolution of the Oedipus complex. The child has gone from the excess of pleasure (jouissance) of the ouroboros’ head to the extreme of pain in the bitten tail.

The dyadic, mirrored relationship of the Imaginary must be transcended to allow entry into the social world of the Symbolic. The other (who was Mother) must now be the Other of all people, who cannot be narcissistic extensions of the self; they must be understood as independent subjects in their own right. The pain of paradise lost is the endless search for someone to satisfy the objet petit a, a replacement for Mother.

The objects that are found to satisfy the objet petit a can do so only temporarily, for there is never a complete fulfillment of desire. Desire stretches beyond need; it always wants more…there is never enough. Desire is also the desire of the Other: one wants what others are seen to want; so again, we see a manifestation of the dialectic of the self vs. the Other.

One begins with manque, the lack that is the cause of desire, symbolized by castration at the bitten tail of the ouroboros; one seeks out an object to satisfy the desire, a movement from the tail along the coiled middle of the serpent’s body; and when one finds a temporary satisfaction, one reaches the head…but the satisfaction results in a moving past the biting head back to the bitten tail of lack, and the cycle must begin again. It thus goes round and round, ad infinitum.

The realm of communication parallels the cycles of desire in how each word in a signifying chain only temporarily holds meaning, the signified. No one word can decisively contain a meaning, since a word can house many meanings, whichever meaning it may house, at a given moment, depending on the context, or on whatever words are positioned before and after it in the signifying chain.

The flow of meaning can be compared to a river whose current moves under a continuous plane of broken ice, this ice being all of the signifiers. One follows the current, passing by each crack in the ice which represents the space between words. Meaning is fully grasped only if one continually reads or hears word after word, never stopping. The ultimately unfulfillable search for absolute, complete meaning is thus like the never-ending quest to satisfy desire.

My ouroboros metaphor can also demonstrate this idea. One seeks meaning by beginning to read, or to hear a speaker utter, the first word (the bitten tail). One reads/hears that word, grasping its meaning (the biting head). Then one leaves that word to come to the next (the coiled length of the serpent’s body, or the Aufhebung of the previous thesis and negation).

Lacan literally used the word Aufhebung in describing the experience of each signifier. I prefer to translate the German noun as “sublation,” but he translated it as “cancellation.” Such is the transitory nature of how meaning is held in a word: it’s here one moment, gone the next, as we move on to the next word in line.

Understanding grows in this cyclical manner, through communication in society’s shared signifiers, culture, and customs. It’s the growth in K, but here it’s in the Symbolic Order rather than the dyadic, mirrored mother/infant relationship of the Imaginary.

K grows through pain, originally in the form of receiving beta elements that a baby needs its mother to help it cope with, helping the baby develop the ability to think. The child recognizes him- or herself as a distinct ego in the mirror reflection, and le nom/Non! du père breaks him or her away from Mother and introduces him or her to developing the K-link through a shared language. K continues to grow through pain, in the seeker of an object to replace Mother (objet petit a) finding people to communicate and bond with. Temporary satisfaction, returned manque, and resumed seeking.

A similarly cyclical process happens with repression, which doesn’t involve burying anxiety-provoking feelings in the unconscious forever, because those emotional experiences bounce back into consciousness, only in a new form, safely unrecognizable to the person agitated by those feelings. Such anxiety-provoking feelings are thus new beta elements being ejected.

There’s the anxiety-provoking feeling (the bitten tail), the repression of that feeling (the biting head), and the transformation and resurfacing of that feeling in a manner unnoticed by the person feeling it (the movement along the length of the serpent’s coiled body).

The above are but some of the many ways that the dialectical nature of reality, as symbolized by the ouroboros, can be manifested in psychoanalytical concepts. It’s further proof of the unity in duality, and of the dynamic, wave-like swaying between only seemingly contradictory phenomena.

This oneness that is experienced behind the veil of language’s differential relations, known only when one abandons memory, desire, and understanding, is Bion’s O, and Lacan’s Real Order. It can be traumatic, but it can also lead to a kind of mystical state. It’s the marriage of heaven and hell, the giving up of the fraudulent ego of the Imaginary, and the embracing of intuition that transcends the ever-elusive meaning behind the signifiers of the Symbolic.

Properly accepted, this terrifying Moby-Dick in a transcendent, mystical infinite ocean of Brahman can put an end to the quest to satisfy desire, which only leads to more suffering. It’s like the bodhisattva who, having attained nirvana (the ouroboros’ tail), returns to samsara (the biting head) to help sufferers, for he has sublated the two (the middle of the serpent’s body).

I make the comparisons to Buddhism and mysticism because psychoanalytic technique is used to help us better understand the mind, in the hopes of healing various forms of mental illness and emotional pain. Lacan spoke of unfulfillable desire, and Buddhism and mysticism aim at ending desire and the suffering it causes.

I’m no Buddhist or mystic, and I’m certainly no expert in psychological matters of any kind. But I like to write about such matters, relating them to dialectics, in the hopes that I can make some kind of contribution, however small and amateurish, to an understanding of ourselves, our desires, our suffering, and how to end the latter two. Perhaps someone better educated than I am on such matters can find a use in what I’ve written here, and apply it in a way far better than the one I’ve so cryptically expressed.

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