24-26/3/2023: Illusions - Illusionen - Illusions. Annual Conference 2023 of the EPF in Cannes
36th EPF ANNUAL CONFERENCE 2023
March 24th, 25th, 26th 2023
Illusions Illusionen Illusions
ARGUMENT OF THE EPF ANNUAL CONFERENCE 2023 IN CANNES
As we prepare for the 36th EPF conference in 2023 we are full of hope that the terrible Russian invasion of Ukraine will have been concluded along with an end to the pandemic and lessening of climate change. These world events have had a huge impact on psychoanalytic practice at a global level. We look forward to an atmosphere of reflection in order to facilitate analytic thinking on global trauma and crisis associated with the theme of illusions.
The etymology of the word ‘illusion’ across the three official EPF languages references perception and a subjective distortion of the perceived object. The Latin term ‘ludere’ means ‘to play’ and also to deceive. Illusion is associated with art, for example in Gombrich’s study of the pictorial representations of illusionist art (Gombrich 1959). Psychology, in a general way, explains that certain illusions are not simply a psychological process but involves specific brain processes that sometimes make sense or nonsense of the impulses arriving via the optic nerves. In philosophy perhaps it is mostly Kant who defines illusions as transcendental and in his view, in accordance with Freud, suggests illusions are natural, like certain optical illusions (Kant 1781). They do not disappear, but we can come to realise that certain illusions are misleading.
In psychoanalysis, it is Freud’s paper ‘The Future of an Illusion’ (1927), in which the term ‘illusion’ first became prominent in the psychoanalytic literature, during the phase of his late work (1920 – 1939). According to James Strachey in his ‘Editorial Notes’ Freud wrote in his Postscript to his Autobiographical Study, that ‘…a significant change’ had emerged in his writings between 1925 and 1935.
My interest, after making a long detour through the natural sciences, medicine and psychotherapy, returned to the cultural problems which had fascinated me long before, when I was a youth scarcely old enough for thinking’ (S.E. 20: 72).
Strachey points out that Freud had previously touched on these topics, for example in ‘Totem and Taboo’ (1912 – 13), but it was in the writing of ‘The Future of an Illusion’ that Freud ‘…entered on the series of studies which were to be his major concern for the remainder of his life’. Of these the most important were ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ (1930), which is the direct successor to ‘The Future of an Illusion’.
Both papers, significantly, led up to the 1933 paper ‘Why War?’ during a period in European history when the rise of Hitler in Germany was threatening world peace.
Stemming from Freud’s critiques on religion and culture arose the Frankfurter school, with its classical study of the authoritarian personality. On February 24th 2022, Freud’s paper on war became once more pertinent to Europe when the world seemed to stand by helplessly as the violent and murderous invasion took place by the Russian army on the people of Ukraine. This unprovoked invasion threw the world into the horrors of war, causing thousands of people to flee their homeland.
This was no illusion but a terrible and agonising reality that at the same time felt unbelievable to so many of us. The traumatic effects of both the pandemic since 2020 and the Russian invasion of 2022 have affected and continue to affect all of us. Meanwhile, for several decades now, the whole world edges to the brink of devastating climate change on a scale that has never happened before.
The ethical position of psychoanalysis, while ever present, has once again, as in WW2, come to the fore. How can psychoanalysis be practiced in a totalitarian regime in which there is no freedom of thought and no space to think and reflect from a position of safety and freedom?
When Marion Milner started her analysis with Sylvia Payne (who was the first female President of the British Psychoanalytical Society), it coincided with the start of WW2. At the same time Milner also started writing her book, ‘On Not Being Able to Paint’. Her use of the term illusion was inspired by the American Spanish philosopher George Santayana who wrote that symbolism cannot be understood unless we regard it as a form of imagination ‘happily grown significant…in imagination, not in perception, lies the substance of experience…’ Milner concludes that ‘the substance of experience is what we bring to what we see, without our own contribution we see nothing’ (1950 p. 27). This profoundly enlarges the concept of the transference- countertransference matrix and reaches forward to the realm of symbolic thinking and its acquisition. At around the same time Winnicott was developing his ideas of the transitional object and transitional phenomena that strongly resonate with Milner's formulation of ‘illusion’ (Winnicott 1953 p. 90). He referred to the ‘substance of illusion’ which emerges out of the early mother-infant merger. While Milner saw that there was no meaning in life without the self's inner contribution to perception, Winnicott focused on the necessity of the experience of the ‘illusion of omnipotence’ - a mother who adapts to the infant's needs so that the infant feels like God. For Winnicott, this was the fundamental experience for a nascent self to begin to become a Self as long as the process of disillusionment was also facilitated by the mother. ‘The subject of illusion […] will be found to provide the clue to a child’s interest in bubbles and clouds and rainbows and all mysterious phenomena, and also to his interest in fluff’ (Winnicott, 1968).
Both overlapping and complementary theoretical contributions offer fruitful formulations for psychoanalysis although some post Kleinians see transitional phenomena as a sign of a psychic retreat and therefore psychopathological (Steiner 1992). This difference of view could be a stimulating point of dialogue between analysts from different theoretical orientations. For example, how does unconscious phantasy link with illusions? How does the theme of illusions feature in Bion’s work?
If we examine the use of illusion across the psychoanalytic literature it becomes clear that the term is used in widely variable ways starting from Freud. The majority of meanings suggest that while illusions are ‘natural’ in development they are something to develop away from or grow out of. Post Freudian and Kleinian contemporary literature imply this meaning and there are fine lines between hallucination, delusion, disillusion and illusion. How does each analyst, depending on their clinical paradigm, refer to illusion in psychoanalysis? Is it at the very heart of the transference-countertransference matrix? How does the topic of illusions relate to crisis and the fraught conflicts concerning online analysis and psychoanalytic practice in the context of war? How do these questions challenge our beliefs? How do we retain a sense of hope in the midst of violent and unmitigating disaster?
We look forward to finding ways of exploring some of these questions and welcoming you in 2023 for the EPF’s 36th Annual Conference.
References supplied at request
Heribert Blass, President
Jan Abram, Vice President, Annual Conferences
Ewa Glod, General Secretary