Abstract: Fusion is one of the fundamental mechanisms of mental functioning, an essential element in all object relations – with variations only in the degree of participation – along with the component connoted by separateness. There is a continuous dialectic relationship between levels of fusion and separateness in every human relationship.
Among the goals of the basic human search for an object we should also include the attempt to establish common mental areas with sufficiently similar objects through fusion. Mental contents can flow freely between the subject and the objects through these shared areas. Human beings seem characterized by an extremely sophisticated and continuously changing boundary system.
The simultaneous dialectic presence of three levels of mutual relation is stressed in object relations: the level of fusion, the level of incomplete separation and the level of complete separation. The three levels are compared to the three positions (one more primitive: Fusion as well as the Kleinian PS and D).
During recent decades, more and more complex models of mental activity have been proposed. These also include a dialectic of experiences and positions (Ogden, 1992a, 1992b), multiple realities (Kafka, 1989) and levels – or whatever one wishes to call the continuous interaction and integration of features of the psyche that are quite different from one another or often seem incompatible. Frequently, what was first considered in a diachronic sequence now tends to be seen in a dynamic synchrony. It is this specific feature of dialectic integration that permits human experience to be better illuminated in its full and rich complexity. Winnicott’s transitional phenomena could also be seen within this approach and I could share his plea (1971, p. XII): “[…] to ask for a paradox to be accepted and tolerated and respected.
The following hypothesis and reflection on fusion may fit into such a context, as I wish to emphasize the essential and continuous relationship – let us say dialectic – between levels of fusion and separateness in every human relationship, in childhood as well as in normal and adult mature life. I believe that fusion is one of the fundamental mechanisms of mental functioning (Fonda, 1991, 2000a), an essential element in all object relations – with variations only in the degree of participation – along with the component connoted by separateness.
My thinking is based mainly on the object relation theoretical view. The drive theory would give some different views, which in a different moment could be interesting to develop too.
There are few papers in psychoanalytic literature specifically devoted to fusion. In particular, I mention the book “Fusionalità” by Neri, Pallier, Petacchi, Soavi and Tagliacozzo, published in 1990, to which I shall refer. In addition, I rely on the more recent book by Bonfiglio (2018) “Simbiosi/Fusionalità e costruzione della soggettività”, and take into account the observations that Bolognini has made on the topic in his writings (2002, 2008).
Often in psychoanalytic literature, we come across implicit and explicit examples, or short digressions, of aspects of fusion in works that discuss other concepts, including the concepts of primary process, symbiosis, narcissism, dependence, identification, projective identification, empathy, Self-object relations, and others. In addition, it often appears that the concept of fusion in itself has proven to be of interest to authors – mainly because of its pathological aspects and in conditions of massive regression. In less recent literature the notion of total fusion was often mentioned, although I see this concept rather as myth than reality, because clinically it does not exist even in infancy (it may exist only as phantasy, expressing a desire or a fear). Under certain circumstances the physiological degree of the fusion component can alter itself and increase (e.g. in an amorous relationship that culminates in orgasm), leading to the desire to dissolve momentarily into the object. In severe pathology the increase in fusion may give rise to fears of melting or losing oneself within the other, thereby producing different symptoms and mechanisms of defense. The fusion component may also decrease excessively, provoking a state of alienation (from those similar), such as in estrangement and in autism.
A hypothetical path
I offer as the starting point of my current discussion a quote from specific excerpts about identification from Freud’s “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” (1921, pp. 107- 108):
“One ego has perceived a significant analogy with another upon one point —in our example upon openness to a similar emotion; an identification is thereupon constructed on this point, (…) The identification (…) has thus become the mark of a point of coincidence between the two egos (…) identification is the original form of emotional tie with an object (…) it may arise with any new perception of a common quality shared with some other person (…) the mutual tie between members of a group is in the nature of an identification of this kind, based upon an important emotional common quality (…) we are faced by the process which psychology calls ‘empathy [Einfühlung]’ and which plays the largest part in our understanding of what is inherently foreign to our ego in other people.“ (My italics).
I will add a further (and somewhat banal) consideration to what Freud wrote: when the Ego has perceived a significant analogy with another upon one point, the boundaries of the Self weaken in that very point to such an extent that they are likely to fade away into an undefined-fusion space. In other words, when we are unable to separate what is ours from what is somebody else’s, for the simple reason that they are equal and impossible to distinguish, the perception of the common and of the shared occurs and the mine is replaced by ours.
We would therefore experience an automatic dissolution of the boundaries of our self in more or less defined and controlled areas. This would take place every time a space of coincidence, that is, an identity, is established between some of the contents of the Self and an external perception.
More precisely, we could say that during fusion, rather than a dissolution of the boundaries of the Self, we are dealing with their expansion, as even the coinciding object, or rather its coinciding parts, are included and perceived as various degrees of the subject’s Self that become separated from other areas characterized by diversity and separation and thus perceived as non-Self. As early as 1929, Federn had written about the permanent fluctuation of the boundaries of the Self.
It is the exact coincidence of our movements with those of our image in a mirror that makes the boundaries of our Self expand by encompassing that image and conferring to it a high degree of belonging (although in the case of the mirror, it is not a total belonging because the awareness persists that what we see is a reflected image). In the exact moment where the movements do not coincide, the boundaries would recede, and the image would assume a higher degree of separation and non-belongingness.
A limited fusion experience therefore takes place between two people performing the same music, carrying out synchronized movements, or between people wearing the same uniform or discovering mutual similarities of mental contents.
Given this, it is not entirely correct to wonder whether Self boundaries exist or not, but rather we ought to consider the wide range of situations in which the coefficient of separateness may vary greatly. The strength of the boundaries of the Self can vary, with larger or smaller eyelets.
The experience of fusion un-differentiation can involve a subject on quite an overall level (when singing in a choir fusion involves those parts of the Self which are mostly active in that moment – namely the voice and certain emotions – that are generating a moderate feeling of overall fusion), or it can be confined to more limited areas of the Self (for example, in cases of emphatically experienced events, fusion may temporarily involve only particular conceptual-emotional areas or contents).
Therefore, quite different fusion experiences are possible: partial or global, temporary or permanent, peripheral or central. These types occur on the basis of whether – as in the latter case – they involve only peripheral areas of the Self or they involve the core of the Self (Grinberg, 1976, would call them ‘orbital’ or ‘nuclear’).
Fusion disappears either through a closer look at reality in the identity-coincidence area, enabling us to separate our own reality from that of others, or because we are experiencing frustration and aggression. Aggression seems to reduce fusion, while it appears that libidinal-affective cathexis and fusion are mutually linked and seem to increase reciprocally. In this latter case, the libido takes on narcissistic connotations.
The term ‘fusion’ means both a process and the result of said process. Fusion can be used as a defensive mechanism, but this issue goes beyond the scope of the current work.
The search for common mental areas and fusion channels
Among the different aims of the basic human search for an object, we should also include the attempt to establish (after birth) a relation with sufficiently similar objects, with which we can establish partial fusion relations that would generate common mental areas through which mental content can flow freely between the subject and the object (or objects). This is the basic situation in which the human mind may develop, establish structure and function. I hypothesize that there is a perpetual need to be able to exchange parts of the constituent elements of our mind with external objects in an exchange-fluctuation that occurs on a more or less fusional basis.
The need for fusion appears proportionally connected with that of the growing, changing and re-shaping of the Self in order to face ever-shifting external and internal realities. Aside from a wide fusion component in childhood, we regularly come across an increase of fusion in object relations during adolescence, primary maternal preoccupation, when falling in love, or during analysis. In similar fashion, from the outset group life is marked by moments when we face the need to integrate and introject important changes. It is not surprising that this occurs in activities such as singing, dancing, shared meals, group celebrations, sharing identification with a leader, as well as other elements in which individuals coincide, enlarging the eyelets of their individual boundaries and intensifying group fusion. Such fusion fosters the diffusion of contents, the forming of shared culture, and the subsequent adjustment of individuals to this newly shaped culture. This aims to preserve a persistent homogeneity, which in itself is the basic condition for the wide use of fusion. As we shall see, it is also linked to fluctuations between the depressive position (D), where individuals feel more separated, and the paranoid-schizoid position (PS), where the coefficient of fusion is higher.
In order to achieve a desired relationship that is sufficiently rich with fusion and to avoid being imprisoned within our own individuality, we are ready to falsify whatever necessary. We not only dig through previous introjections and identifications to find something that matches the outer world, but are also prone to changing ourselves by using introjection and, in particular, identification to become more similar to those around us. In so doing, we seek to find the necessary conditions that allow us to expand beyond the narrow constraints of our Self. Beyond this, we also do our best to change the outer world by using projective identifications and other means in order to make aspects of that world more similar to that of our Self.
A painter sets color to canvas in order to match parts of his inner world. If he has talent, he succeeds in matching through his paintings his inner world to that of others as well.
Desires and feelings constantly seek to distort perception by creating illusions. One of the functions of illusion is that of blunting certain non-coincidences with objects, thereby allowing for a higher degree of fruition of fusion. It suffices to consider falling in love, in which we project the image of an ideal object onto another object, having then the impression that such a distorted image of the beloved object is real and that it matches our expectations. At the same time, a person is stimulated to adjust him or herself to the ideal image projected onto him or herself by the other person. Consequently, we face a crescendo of coincidences that increasingly intensifies fusional shared experiences to the extent of becoming “two bodies with one soul”. Eventually, initial disappointments, the perception of being different, frustration, and consequent aggressiveness reduce this excessive fusion to more physiological levels that, in case of unhappy love affairs, culminate in a complete end of such relationships. Obviously, most of what has been said up to now also concerns the mechanism and purpose of transference.
When faced with an unknown object, even before proposing an area of fusion, a sequence of messages is sent to establish the feature of such object, i.e. whether it is living, human, sufficiently predictable, whether it at least partially matches familiar features, and whether it is culturally similar: in other words, whether it is suitable to establish fusion coincidences.
The acknowledgment of similar, common-shared elements between two persons begins to soften the boundaries of the Self by establishing limited fusion areas that are characterized by a particularly amplified receptivity of unconscious communication. A stimulus is sent that aims to activate, or rather, induce the other person to become attuned, to open himself by activating and directing his own receptors to catch the slightest expressive nuances of the other person. Such probes or messages can be of a more regressive type, such as touch or its equivalents, or they can be more evolved, when the coincidence is proposed in mental contents that is more symbolically elaborate. A similar function, which is by far richer than that of touch, is the lock-and-exchange of glances that can either instantly open wide eyelets in the boundaries, or close them tight with glacial distances.
We may hypothesize that fusion creates a passageway, an opening in the boundaries between subjectivity and the outer world through which contents flow that can be different from the contents that had established that opening. Thus, in fusion the unconscious finds a physiological channel through which it can relate with the outer world, bypassing the Ego. As Semi (1999, p. 46) writes: “… each individual is sailing day after day over an ocean of communications from unconscious to unconscious of which he is totally ignorant. By sheer effort, the ego manages to tear off tiny fragments of these communications and working with language and representing them by words manages to transform some of them into preconscious and conscious thought.” Furthermore, the Self does not have the capacity to perceive, discriminate, and process many kinds of contents; these types of contents thus become both part of our “unthought known” (Bollas, 1987), the “unthought unknown”, the “unrepressed unconscious,” or the “structural unconscious” (Bonfiglio, 2010). Bonfiglio (2018) describes the ways that the unconscious-unconscious “direct flow” acts in the analytic relationship.
From these considerations, we are presented with the image of a human being that is continuously driven by the need (akin to breathing) to establish limited fusion areas within different parts of the Self, with different objects, and to varying extents and lengths. It appears essential – long before the conscious exchange of symbols and then, later, alongside it – that we are able to take advantage of the connection to the network of other minds, both in order to elaborate our own contents and to introject the experiences of others in a kind of mental exogamy.
We can identify three main areas where this process occurs: the individual (human object), the one pertaining to the group (culture), and the inanimate one (spatial-temporal physical reality) (Fonda, 1991). On an even more general scale, we could link this to the fundamental human need to be able to “deposit” (Bleger, 1967) one’s own undifferentiated mental contents into an external space, which then proves to be not entirely “discriminable” – separate from itself.
Skin-to-skin contact is a powerful apparatus to widen the eyelets of the boundaries of the Self, thus increasing communication on the fusion level. Anzieu (1985) describes the fundamental and structuring no touching rule that precedes and anticipates the Oedipus prohibition. Through prohibitions, the child is urged to replace touching with sight and hearing – as far as the receiving function of the relationship is concerned – and to find words that are equivalent symbols of touching – in the emitting function – in order to replace the primary tactile communication, which is too rich in fusion-concreteness, with a separate and symbolic modality.
Such early regulation in the family setting is later extended and becomes a general rule in human relationships. In adult life, however, the function of skin-to-skin contact persists (shaking hands, displays of affection, sexual contacts) to favor more intimate relationships that have a more intense fusion component. Anzieu (1985) writes: “the primary prohibition of touching […] imposes living beings […] with a separate existence [and] specifically opposes the clinging drive”. That is, it imposes a modality of relationship with objects that is marked by a higher degree of separation and a lesser degree of fusion.
Replacing touching with speaking is therefore a tool for separation. At the same time, however, the voice remains a powerful means of sensorial contact (sound, tone and modulation) and also a vehicle of fusion. This is of particular interest when dealing with interpretation.
Projective identifications are the privileged communication tools during the early stages of development. In order to force the boundaries of the object and introduce contents, we must first look for an opening in its boundaries and expand it to establish a micro-area of fusion. A certain proportion of these areas already exists between us and our peers, making communication possible. An alien frightens us precisely because it possesses nothing similar, no coincidence. It places us in a situation of isolation, impermeability, and incommunicability, a situation where we are entirely powerless to use and control the relationship. Indeed, humans have an innate propensity to offer areas of similarity-coincidence-fusion, as well as to seek them out, provoking them and expanding them in the other, and narrowing them on some occasions.
In childhood this function is partly supported by an innate toolkit, so to speak, of receptivity and expressiveness (face recognition, tendency to imitate etc.) but also by skin to skin contact.
Amplified receptivity is also found in parents, who are predisposed to this by their own innate toolkit, which we could liken to the idea of parental instinct. This manifests in the “primary maternal preoccupation” (Winnicott, 1958), in activating certain modes of response to the child’s requests for attachment and in the (pre) disposition to open wide eyelets in their own boundaries to offer fusion to the child and receptivity to his or her projective identifications.
Symbols can form and the qualitative leap toward symbolic thought can take place only when and where the boundaries are well-defined and a potential space may be established.
The degree of fusion varies and, when increasing, limits the ability to think symbolically up to the point of completely preventing it. In communication, however, symbols also require a fair amount of concrete and sensory elements (“beta“) to be fully communicative. Communication must therefore take place in a context where there is an adequate relationship between fusion and separateness so that a three-dimensional figure can be composed: the symbols articulated with a background, its contours, the emotional color, and the appropriate dose of concreteness-reality.
B. Orasanu (2018) looks at this from a similar though slightly different view: “The child with no words, the infans, subsists in the child with words […] the most sophisticated adult is accompanied in thinking and communication by the infans not only because he/she lives on, but because the first one cannot go without the second one”.
In emphasizing the interaction of various elements, I would quote Kohut (1971, 292): “Theoretical work (in psychoanalysis), deprived of this constant contact with the material that can be observed only through empathy, would soon become hollow and sterile and limited to a painstaking examination of the mechanisms and psychological structures and thus lose contact with the breadth and depth of human experience upon which the whole of psychoanalysis should be based.”
I would say that such contact is achieved due to the interaction or – in Ogden’s words – thanks to the simultaneous dialectic activation of all three positions. Conversely, a flat perception of the other – similar to the one mentioned by Kohut – has also been noted by Ogden (1989b) as a result of an over-activation of the depressive position.
What has been written up to this point brings to mind a human being characterized by an extremely sophisticated and continuously changing boundary system. Due to stimuli (coincidences) of either inner or outer origin, the eyelets in the boundaries widen so much that they disappear in some areas, while shrinking in others. This must occur in part as a way to provide adequate quantitative balance within separate and fused areas in order to provide sufficient cohesion and stability to the Self.
In order to properly utilize a healthy and necessary fusion component, the cohesion of the Self and its boundaries must be sufficiently solid and secure, but not rigid. Only in these conditions will it be possible for them to float calmly, with varying levels of temporary openings and subsequent narrowings. This will allow certain parts of the Self to have enriching – even fusional – contact with parts of external objects without the danger of being imprisoned within them. An optimal cohesion of the Self appears to be the condition for and the result of such a harmonious fluctuation. B. Orasanu (2018) commented on this as being “a kind of pulsation of the fusion and separation phenomenon, which somehow resembles the image proposed by Florence Guignard’s (1977) ‘psychic breath’.”
Bolognini (2002) investigates what happens in empathy, which assumption is “the identifying contact in a condition of separateness”. He also specifies: “The shared livability of specific fusion contact areas destined for intimate communication is possible precisely when people have achieved separateness, individuation and a sense of self that is sufficiently solid and defined in its limits” (2008, p. 101).
In this vein, Bonfiglio, (2018, p. 35) quoting De Toffoli (2014, p. 269), writes: “The adequate conditions of security, supported by the analyst and the structure, allow the analysand to shift the attention from the protection of ‘what he considers to be the boundaries and the integrity of the psyche’ to allowing the latter to ‘expand and include previously neglected data and previously unrecognized experiences of his own, experiencing a new level of identity.’”
We could also say that the fusion component is meant to perceive and establish contact with these aspects of object relations for whom the secondary process has no knowing capacity.
At the closing of the boundaries between the Self and the non-Self, a trace of the intimate contact with the interiority of the other would still remain within.
A nutritive metabolism of this kind can be disturbed or impeded from the outside by intrusive, possessive or incorporating objects to which fusion openings are dangerous. From the inside, obstacles can come from an intense subject’s greed or voracity, as a result of vital needs that have remained traumatically unsatisfied. Such a subject then tends to incorporate objects reactively, remaining rigidly attached to them (Fonda, 1995), or to attack them enviously. In such a case, there seems to be an underlying longing for a nutritive fusion with the object, but this is experienced as an impossibility. Indeed, this fusion is felt as dangerous, because the Self risks being imprisoned by the intensity of its own hunger. Such fears can then nourish a tenacious and rigid rejection of any closeness-fusion.
Discussing a paper by Winnicott (1945), Ogden (2016, p. 17) writes: “The paradox of the simultaneity of separateness (the child that attacks the mother and the mother that welcomes the attack) and unity (the child and the mother who have a shared experience) is the experiential ground where ‘the first bond that the small child establishes with an external object, an object that is external to the Self from the child’s point of view’ can grow’” (my emphasis).
This dialectic is not unique to childhood but to the whole of life, as Bolognini (2008) points out when speaking of the interpsychic as “a functional level with high permeability shared between two psychic apparatuses” and “a level of ‘broadband’ functioning, in the sense that it allows for the natural and non-dissociated coexistence (but in continuity) of states of mind in which the object is recognized in its separateness, with others in which this recognition is more nuanced. This occurs not for pathological reasons, but for a temporary and transient condition of commensal and cooperative fusion which is part of the normal, healthy mental coexistence of human beings.”
Another interesting perspective, which draws the essence of Oedipus into the picture, is found in the work of Loewald (1979) and developed later by Ogden (2006, p. 662). The latter writes: “Thus, for Loewald, incest is felt to be wrong, […] because it destroys the demarcation between a fused form of mother-child relatedness (primary identification) and a differentiated object relatedness with the same person. […] the individual’s capacity for healthy object relatedness of every sort—his capacity to establish a generative dialectic of separateness from, and union with, other people—depends upon the living integrity of that barrier” (my underlining).
This appears as a further aspect of the essential relationship between the levels of fusion and separateness. Indeed, Loewald and Ogden emphasize the importance of these two levels being well separated by a solid barrier (such as that of incest) so that they can interact dialectically without merging with one another. The intrinsic link is emphasized between the barrier of incest and the dynamics of the boundaries of the Self. The boundaries begin to take shape well before this, but at the same time, they are also an essential element for the correct structuring of the oedipal situation. The purpose in object relations is to differentiate them, perceive them distinctly, and then integrate the components of fusion and separateness without confusing them. This means mediating the tension between the drive towards autonomy and the healthy attraction towards unity (Ogden, 2006). In this way a binocular vision of reality is also acquired, where both sides, the separated and the fused, coexist and complement one another. This type of dialectical dichotomy expands and thus consolidates with a suitable overcoming of the oedipal focal point.
Boundaries of the Self related to the Kleinian positions
We may attempt to introduce a model of normal, full and mature object relations and observe it from the perspective of the Self’s boundaries. By using a spatial metaphor: starting from the bottom up, we might establish the simultaneous presence of three levels (even though it is, in fact, a continuum) within a reciprocal dialectical relationship of communication and integration. In reality, it is not an issue of space, but rather of interacting modes of operation.
At the first fusion level there is no distinction between subject and object because there is no boundary between the two Selves. A multitude of undifferentiated sensorial non-mentalized contents, emotional and affective coloring, atmospheres, irradiations of repressed or split traumas and much more, freely flow within a shared space.
A diffusion of contents is taking place, and this can be more or less indiscriminate and non-conflictual (conflict can occur only at the two higher levels). Therefore such diffusion of contents in itself does not generate suffering. The contents are either apparently mute or they are perceived, but generally not thought, at least until they are recuperated at the third level, the level of separation. This fluctuation is implicit in the Mahlerian idea of symbiosis. It is also akin to the idea of deposit suggested by Bleger (1967). Rosenfeld (1987, p. 158), although in a different theoretical context, refers to something similar when he states: “Those who have studied these early forms of communication stress the uncontrollable experiences the baby has with its mother. Her mental processes are somehow transmitted to the baby in a manner akin to osmosis (Steiner 1975, 1982; Felton, 1985). They are absorbed by the child without it being able to do anything about it…” (my italics). Rosenfeld again (p. 187) states: “Tustin (1972, 1981) using Hermann’s (1929) suggestion that ‘flowing over’ is a precursor of projection, has suggested that flowing over and oneness are a process by which the illusion of primary unity is maintained…”
At this level even those sensations that are little differentiated would spread, constituting the background, the color, the basic constituents of affects, the fusional component of empathy, and so on. These contents can be part of both the inter-subjective and the trans-subjective environment. At this level many elements of group psychism would also spread.
These elements have the features that Bleger (1967) described as ambiguity, since – taking up Freud’s (1910) work On the Antithetical Sense of Primary – there is still no “separation of pairs of opposites”; they coexist without conflict.
Neri et al. (1990, p. 13) state that, in fusion areas, the movement of shared contents is freely floating and lacks clear direction. Fusion “is not accompanied by intrusive violence”, and Tagliacozzo wonders if the fusion is not “an expression of a more precocious mode, prior to the constitution of the spatialization processes, which allow for the mechanisms of introjection and projection” (ibid, p. 84).
At the second level, the level of fragmentary separation, the boundaries of the Self shift (going up towards the third level) from being disconnected fragments of separation to more or less extended areas of incomplete boundaries that still have large eyelets. They eventually become quite defined but still not enough to lead to the activation of the potential space, as understood by Winnicott (1971, pp. 104-110).
In such conditions of incomplete and fragmentary distinction, in the relation between the subject and object, centrifugal-projective or centripetal-introjective currents start to take shape. Then only one could have projective or introjective identifications because these currents presuppose at least a fragmentary experience of inside and outside (Tagliacozzo, 1990). At this level, communication would therefore consist primarily of projective and introjective identifications, which go (with increasing penetrative force) from communicative to evacuative ones, eventually penetrating an object to control it from within.
It is mainly at this second level that the subject projects into the object the contents that the subject asks the other to contain; that is, to transform undifferentiated contents into thinkable elements, in order to return them to the subject on the third level in the form of symbolic thought. At this level, the first movement in the process of Bionian containment would take place.
At the third level we encounter a defined degree of separation, characterized by sufficiently stable Self boundaries, allowing for the existence of an intermediate potential space that makes symbolic thought possible, as their pertinence to the subject or object is clear. That being said, their meaning as fully human communication is provided for by the simultaneous presence of the background given by the messages flowing through the first two levels.
When the boundaries take on a clearer demarcation, the contents cannot pass beyond them. It becomes possible, however, to evoke representations in the other of homologous symbols, having the character of those similar and not of the concrete being. This is how that qualitative leap toward symbolic thinking takes place. The projective identification arouses the feeling of being penetrated (as if the door had been left open), while the communication of symbolic thought seems to stop at the threshold (as if one were knocking at the door with a message in hand).
Let us now try to compare these levels with the positions.
As far back as 1967, Jose Bleger had introduced and added an earlier and more primitive position to the two classical Kleinian positions, in which non-differentiation and symbiosis prevail. He called this position posicion glischrocarica. Tagliacozzo (Neri et al., 1990) introduced a fusional position (F) preceding the PS and D positions. Ogden (1989 a, b, 1991) describes a contiguous-autistic position (CA) that also precedes the two classical positions.
The starting points and approaches of these authors greatly differ from one another. Neither Bleger nor Ogden thoroughly discusses real aspects of fusion. Nevertheless, I believe it appropriate to refer to what is only outlined or clearly implied in their writings. Far from excluding it, both authors assume the presence of fusion aspects in more primal positions.
As far as Klein’s paranoid-schizoid position is concerned, this implies an incomplete separation from the object to such extent that the line that separates good and bad is clearer and more in the foreground when compared to the line between subject and object. The separation between subject and object is sometimes so incomplete that it leads the subject to perceive the good and the bad parts of his Self as identified – we could also say fused – with the analogous part of the partial object. When speaking of projective identification, Klein clearly states: “In so far as the mother comes to contain the bad parts of the self, she is not felt to be a separate individual but is felt to be the bad self”. (Klein, 1946, p. 102). Carstairs (1992) also described the presence in Klein’s works of references (albeit undeveloped) to aspects of indistinction of the child from the mother.
The depressive position in itself is, by contrast, characterized by the achievement of the separation from the object. It also implies that this had not been present or that, at least, it had not been complete in previous stages: “The child becomes aware of himself and objects are perceived as being separate from his Self” (Segal, 1964, p. 95).
The three levels described above would therefore also characterize the state of Self boundaries in each of the three corresponding positions.
I would like to draw your attention to Ogden’s idea (1989b) concerning the importance of the dialectic and integral relationship among the three positions in every human experience. Only after having diachronically developed and assessed the functioning of all three positions can they fully interact with all levels and segments of one’s Self. By using such dialectic interaction, the human being can present him or herself to the other to achieve relationship on all Self levels.
I mentioned earlier that there was a system of constantly shifting boundaries as a result of stimuli (coincidences) of both internal and external origin. In parallel, it would also seem that this involves fluctuation among the F (or CA), PS and D positions. It would be interesting to examine the possible cause and effect relations among the state of the boundaries, the related positions and their remaining characteristics.
In this work I make extensive use of the concept of fusion for explorative purposes, therefore it would also be useful to try to delimit it.
Let us begin with symbiosis, which is often not differentiated from fusion, especially in the equivalent use of the terms “symbiotic relationship” and “fusional relationship”. I believe these two terms should be distinguished, taking into account that fusion is one of the elementary components of relations, and it can be both fleeting as well as enduring. By contrast, symbiosis is a mode of existence in relation with an object, a complex organization, substantially pathological and relatively stable where extensive fusional areas exist with a certain rigidity, hindering a vital and healthy fluctuation between fusion and separateness and subsequently impeding a maturing evolution.
As far as identification is concerned, we might join Schafer (1968) in stating that no identification can occur without fusion; however, something is needed in addition to fusion in order to establish a mature identification. The term primary identification is often used to label identification where fusion has a quantitatively overwhelming or even exclusive role, thus being used as synonymous with fusion.
The use of terms such as ‘identification’, ‘self-identification’ and ‘empathy’ is not always clear, although these concepts seem to be sufficiently defined, thanks also to Bolognini’s work (2002) on psychoanalytical empathy. I shall limit my remarks on this issue and only state that, in empathy, fusion is an essential, but insufficient element. This is because it must be accompanied by a conscious component of introspection and elaboration grounded in separateness. Very often, the term ‘identification’ (considering it as a temporary condition) is used to describe an empathic relation. All three share, among other things, a partial fusion.
I will propose in a later writing a brief overview on the role of fusion in the analytic session, as well as in certain other areas like the mother-child matrix, groupality and the meta-ego.
II. BROADENING THE FIELD OF OBSERVATION
Abstract: This is the second part of the paper in which fusion is considered as one of the fundamental mechanisms of mental functioning, an essential element in every object relation – with variations only in the degree of participation – along with the component connoted by separateness. There is a continuous dialectic relationship between levels of fusion and separateness. Human beings are characterized by an extremely sophisticated and continuously changing boundary system.
This part of the paper focuses on some aspects of the role of fusion within the psychoanalytic relation, the mother child matrix, the group mental activity and the meta-ego dimension.
Key words: fusion, separateness, psychoanalytic relation, mother-child matrix, groupality, meta-ego.
In our relentless effort to understand better and then describe the fascinating but elusive multi-dimensional object that is the human mind, we are compelled to resort to little more than approximate metaphors. Indeed, in this work, I put forth yet another series of metaphors aiming to shed light on one of its sides – the process of fusion – and then try to consider its role in mental activity.
After focusing on the role of fusion in general in my previous article (Fonda, 2019), and especially on the dialectic between fusion and separateness as one of the basic mechanisms of psychism, I would now like to broaden the field of observation. Remaining within the realm of the fusional component, I wish to make an overview of specific aspects of the psychoanalytic relation, the mother-child matrix, groupality, and of the more elusive, but no less important field for which I shall use the term meta-ego. That being said, I am not proposing an exhaustive examination of these fields. Instead, I intend to provide a quick look through the lenses that underscore the presence and activity of fusion, to outline a summary vision of the most ubiquitous fusional aspects.
A – FUSION IN THE ANALYTIC RELATION
I will consider some aspects of the role that normal fusion plays in the analytic relation, also due to the fact that analysts’ attention has been nowadays increasingly focused on the analyst-patient relationship and its most hidden aspects. The intra-psychic has now been extended to the inter-psychic and the trans-psychic (Bolognini, 2008).
The heart of one of the debated issuesin contemporary psychoanalysis could be: to what extent is the therapeutic effect the consequence of interpretations as such, which occur mainly at the more symbolic level (depressive position), and how much does this depend on the more relational aspects, which involve, to a greater extent the more basiclevels of functioning (paranoid-schizoid and fusion positions)? This is a complex issue, partially because the answer must take into account various patient pathologies as well as what we truly mean by interpretation: is it that which aims to solve a conflict, or is it whatever gives words and representation to feelings and contents that had not previously been thinkable or mentalized?
In any case the communication of the interpretation inevitably occurs on all three levels, although in different proportions. Because different non-intentional communication modalities, which the analyst cannot avoid (such as infra-verbal and meta-verbal messages, emotional tone of the voice, word selection, pauses, body language etc.) are also involved, the symbolic content, despite often being central, will nonetheless be endowed with accompanying communicative projective identifications and flowing content.
Elaboration implies working mainly – but not only – on the third depressive level, characterized by both separation and the capacity for symbolization. Thus, interpretation helps the patient find a more appropriate setting among symbolic representations in the mental scenario. It fosters the passage to the third depressive level of content from the lower levels (paranoid-schizoid and fusion), in which concrete thinking prevails and where it had not been previously possible for it to be adequately represented, processed, and used. This would then result in an outcome of beneficiary restructuring on all levels.
Nevertheless, interpretation, beyond its explicit value, also enables the patient to perceive that what the analyst thinks and feels in that very moment matches what is already present in him/her. This increases the area of coincidence and thus generates more intensive fusion and shared mental spaces. Therefore, interpretation is either a source of fusion or a resolver of fusion since it discriminates and symbolizes the elements by clarifying their belongingness. Facilitating the restructuring and resolution of painful conflicts at the end reduces the need for fusion in those determined areas.
The transference phenomenon, in general, can also be considered as an expression of the need of human beings to make the other – in a more or less illusionary way – more similar to what is already present inside of them, something that is already familiar and known. It is also an attempt to find and establish stronger coincidences that would open wider channels of communication. In the analytic context, such an attempt starts both from the patient and, to a lesser extent, from the analyst. This generates a relationship (though contrasted by resistances) where wider openings in the boundaries facilitate more extensive and profound communication on all levels. The transference neurosis is connected to regression, which widens the meshes of the borders of the self even more, increasing the paranoid-schizoid (narcissistic) position at the expense of the depressive one.
When we consider the analytic field, we presume that it implies an attenuation of the borders of the selves between the analytic pair and that, besides the patient’s content, the analyst’s content – including some unconscious parts – is also present, active and, in part, inevitably shared with the patient. Still, the analyst’s transference is always taking place (although in a less intense and evident degree) and this unavoidably generates a certain counter-transference to it in the patient. The trans-subjectiveness of both is also present. The analytic third (Ogden, 1994) appears as a new common content.
The setting itself is also a source of fusion experiences for the patient, as it is characterized by reliable, coinciding repetitions. At the same time, the setting is a source of separateness because of its optimal frustrations (Fonda, 2000). Further fusional components of the setting frame are described by Bleger by means of his theory (1967b).
We may assume that the patient feels a need to share his suffering with the analyst in the same way that a child puts his wounded hand in his mother’s in the belief that the best cure can only be achieved inside of her body, by being in fusion with her. Similarly, the patient is offering those areas of his self that, having suffered, need to be contained to be symbolized, represented and elaborated in less painful and more harmonious patterns. The analyst, by empathizing with this suffering is basically – although in a controlled manner – ‘letting it in’. It is a limited and partial fusion with this suffering that allows for a better understanding and a containment of it.
At the beginning of the analysis, the patient feels that he has many such areas to be shared and contained. However, an extensive flowing of fusion areas would threaten overall fusion. The patient does wish this to happen, but, at the same time, is afraid of it. It generates fears of being trapped and of losing one’s identity. Therefore these feelings produce intense resistances to such a relationship. By gradually overcoming this resistance, controlled, beneficiary and productive partial fusion begins to occur, and a re-balance takes place as containment-metabolism increases. The analytic relationship and interpretations tend to exhaust these needs of suffering areas and therefore diminish the need of fusion by reducing it to normal ‘maintenance’ levels.
Bonfiglio (2018), recalling Winnicott and other Authors considers the basic importance of the structuration of an analytic environment that would allow, or better favor, symbiotic/fusional processes, which must gain a central therapeutic role within the analytic situation, as a pre-condition for further developments.
Referencing this point, I would recall what I have said about the basic human need, when necessary, to expand one’s boundaries to make mental contents extend beyond the narrow limits of one’s individuality, as well as allow contents of others to flow in one’s mind space. We can imagine that a channeled exchange, such as fusion, favors a certain harmonization and attunement of given areas of the inner worlds of two subjects. This could contribute to the establishment of the necessary conditions for further development and growth.
That being said, further development requires that a particular portion of shared floating, projected, or introjected content be picked up at the ‘third level’, being mentalized and given back to the patient by interpretation, by the containment process. If such containment is insufficient, a blocked symbiosis could indeed set itself up and perpetuate without leading to growth. It could only be traumatically interrupted. In such pathologic symbiosis, where functioning is significantly limited to fusion and paranoid-schizoid positions with prevailing concrete thinking, while the depressive position is insufficient, there is striking evidence of a continuous exchange-fluctuation of content and intensive projective and introjective identification activity. Nonetheless, the contents are not sufficiently discriminated in qualities and pertinence with one or the other of the two subjects.
Fusion itself does not achieve a sufficiently therapeutic effect if not combined – perhaps in different moments or stages – with interpretation and symbolic elaboration, which itself cannot leave aside separation. However, even symbolic elaboration cannot fully exercise its function if it does take place within a relational context where fusion doesn’t play a significant role. Let’s recall Ogden’s (1989b) continuous “dialectic” interplay among the three positions (depressive, paranoid-schizoid and contiguous-autistic, which I connect here to fusion). We may consider as one of our main therapeutic goals to free and favor an optimal and dialectic interplay among the three positions, and within this also the interplay fusion-separatenes.
B. THE MOTHER-CHILD MATRIX
Continuing our hypothesis through the lens of fusion, it is worth dwelling on the initial, basic need of the child to establish and maintain a relationship with a human object that is sufficiently similar (not alien) to allow for generative coincidences of fusion, which in the earliest stages are virtually the only way to generate relation and communication. The child turns to its mother looking for skin-to-skin contact (along with olfactory and auditory contact), and maternal preoccupation tends to make that contact as coincident as possible, that is, fusional. Erogenous zones provide for privileged occasions for contact-coincidence-fusion of particular intensity.
In Winnicott’s schema in which the breast is offered at the right moment when internal need takes shape, there is perhaps a forerunner of the coincidence (syntonic-pleasurable) that generates fusion. This is limited from the outset by (optimal) frustrations constituted by non-coincidence (dystonic-displeasing), and the difference between the internal and the external, which tend instead to trace an outline of boundaries, that is a (pre) object experience of separateness.
As the child has little tolerance for separateness, which is a source of the anxiety of powerlessness up to the fear of breakdown (Winnicott, 1962, p.37), the mother takes care to coincide as much as possible, thus extending the fusional part of the relationship. Here we find both partial fusional elements that actually exist (mental sensations) and fantasies of fusion (mental representations), such as the illusion of omnipotent union. The latter spread in the child with the development of the capacity to represent and can take the path of symbolization or stagnate in concrete thought. Such stagnation makes separation problematic and leads to pathological bonds of permanent symbiotic nature.
Throughout these processes, the mother’s ability to use symbolic thought and foster the same skill in the child is fundamental. This runs parallel to the consolidation of the depressive position and the ability-possibility to experience the relationship on both a fusional level as well as on the level of separateness.
So, in the early stages of life, a widespread but not exclusive sensation of global fusion tends to take shape. This sensation then lessens with the discrimination that is implementing separation thanks to the combination of optimal frustrations during the process of “weaning” (Winnicott, 1953, p. 95) and “separation-individuation” (Mahler, 1963). In all of these, a primary role is played by “containment” (Bion, 1962).
Be that as it may, it is essential that – besides the capacity to coincide with her child and to maintain the fusional level of the relationship – the mother is also able to not coincide at times, and at others to accept, support, and develop the child’s capacity not to coincide. Here the mother’s capacity to accept and tolerate the paradox of being one – fused – with her child, while at the same time being separate, comes into play. This maternal ability takes on an organizing function toward the child, allowing it, too, to develop the fundamental capacity of experiencing object relations on two sides at the same time, the fusional and the separate (or better, in all three positions simultaneously, as described in my previous article, Fonda, 2019). Kafka (1989, p.43) emphasizes how fundamental to the child’s development is the mother’s ability to tolerate the ambiguity of meaning, the contemporaneity of multiple, contrasting meanings, and to transfer that ability to her child, allowing him to experience “multiple realities”. This would provide the child with “a solid anchor to a single reality, along with the capacity to embrace multiple realities”.
These complex and delicate mechanisms, which lead to the acquisition of fundamental psychic structures, can only occur in a close and unique relation with one object, later followed by multiple objects that are sufficiently similar, with which partial fusional relations can be established through shared mental spaces. This allows for a fuller response to the urge for the autonomy of mental functioning.
Infant research (Stern, 1983) indeed provides data on the early presence of specific functions of newborns. However, infants don’t have the autonomy that such functions seem to imply. Newborns have an innate capacity to distinguish between themselves and others. Yet this does not mean that they can differentiate between their first schema of self and that of others, or between representations of the self and of the object. In this context, though they are functionally connected, it is necessary to distinguish between the neuropsychological level – closer in nature to neurological hardware – from the representational level – more pertinent to psychological software. A newborn child would indeed be able to perceive the other, but would not yet be able to represent it, much less represent the relation between the self and the other. This type of representation is fundamental to mental life.
Kumin (1996, p. 27) states: “While children have the innate cognitive ability to distinguish between sensitive-motoric experiences of themselves and of the other, such ability can paradoxically be generated and supported by the not perceived supporting environment, in an ample way undifferentiated, that is provided by the good enough mother”. The first fragments of differentiation and separateness can therefore develop thanks to the substrate of fusional un-differentiation given by the mother-child matrix.
This is a complex framework where, from the beginning of life, neurological substrate, and mental dimensions coexist and complete one another. Moreover, concerning the mental dimension, we find pre-object and object elements, fusion and separateness (and a bit later) concrete and symbolic thought in a developing integrated vision that Ogden (1992a,b) would call dialectical.
We may imagine the mother-child relationship with the child experiencing both the sensorial presence of the mother and her mental functioning as if, to a certain degree, they were present within himself (or better: within the partially undifferentiated mother-child union). Being partially inside (due to fusion) is also essential for the mother. It allows her to grasp messages and nuances from inside the child, which would otherwise go unperceived. But real empathy in the mother is only possible if there is sufficient separateness in her at the same time. If not, then the result is a con-fusion.
Fusional spaces with wide mesh allow for the diffusion and projection of raw content (beta elements) from the child to the mother. Only the subsequent use of her separate parts enables the completion of both the processes: empathy and containment.
But fusional channels are not one-way streets. Although it occurs in a variety of proportions, there is also a passage of undifferentiated or pathology, as well as the transmission of transgenerational content, including both individual and collective traumas.
Although we will not deal with this issue here, it raises the question of what and how much of the analyst’s content passes to the patient that is beyond the analyst’s conscious control.
At this stage, because the inside and the outside may be only vaguely perceived, the child experiences what happens in the mother – the function of affect and drive regulation and containment – in part, as also happening inside of him/her. This would create the optimal situation to induce the surrounding parts of the infantile self – fortuitously genetically predisposed to early maturation – to carry out the same functions. In such circumstances, the more precocious aspects of the imitation-introjection-identification would occur (Gaddini, 1969). The object’s functioning would find the child ready to imitate-introject, ready to ‘duplicate’.
A tennis instructor holds a student’s hand and accompanies him as he swings the racket. The student is eager to imitate-learn. The author of the movement is initially the instructor, forcing the rough awkwardness of the student’s lack of muscular coordination. However, as time passes, the creator of the action becomes increasingly indistinct as their two movements coincide – as they ‘fuse’. At this point, once fusion has occurred, fusion itself is no longer necessary, at least on a concrete level. The instructor’s hand may be withdrawn, and the student now feels his movement as entirely pertinent to his own self. All of this passes through a necessary transitory phase of partial fusion, where neuronal circuits are constituted in the student (these circuits coincide with those that already exist in the instructor), which allows motor patterns to be consolidated. Identification will then be established where, following imitation and introjection, a part of the fusion is conserved (the student always feels a bit like the instructor, even if he plays alone). But now the remnants of fusion are being executed with the internal representation of the instructor and not with the actual instructor.
And so, alongside and due to the maturation of the neurological substrate and the preconditions for the structuring of an increasingly functional ego, the child experiences a slow duplication of the maternal apparatus to think thoughts (within the process of internalization of the primal object). In its real concreteness, this would eventually be progressively separated-extracted from its shared matrix.
This will be the less traumatic and more enriching the need and pleasure of autonomy, the more complete and functioning is the introjection of the relationship with the primary object, the installation of the program to think thoughts. It will allow for self-containment, self-regulation of affects and drives, and ultimately provide for the living of a self-sufficient life.
The emancipation, also in normality, will never be complete because – as Kohut (1971) reminds us – despite the fact that it attenuates and diversifies, the need for self-objects never truly disappears during life.
When the object relation is ‘installed’ the emotional relational atmosphere comes with it. It establishes affinities (including cultural ones, if we consider a broader context) that make coincidence and, therefore, reattachments easier whenever needed. Furthermore, those affinities direct the search for similar objects (especially those that have a self-object function) in later stages (e.g. partners).
What has been set forth so far should bring to mind how premature separation – whether physical or emotional – runs the risk of severing the fusional channels of a relationship when they are still functioning heavily and vital to complete the structuring of the child’s mental apparatus. It is tempting to imagine that the profound and painful sensation some adult patients complain of when they say that life “owes them a debt that is never paid” may indeed have some roots in similar, early traumatic disruptions.
C – GROUPALITY
The mental activity of groups appears replete with fusional aspects. If we deem valid the hypothesis of fusional channels as a network, we can imagine that network as contributing to a constant synchronization of group content. This is a necessary condition for maintaining adequate cohesion and the functionality of the group. The very foundation of the life of the group, that is, the basic shared project among members, involves an experience that is not entirely separate in single individuals. Indeed, it would seem contrived to consider an individual’s mental activity as entirely separate from that of the group.
In Freud’s (1921, p. 123) “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” he states that: “We must conclude that the psychology of groups is the oldest human psychology; what we have isolated as individual psychology, by neglecting all traces of the group, has only since come into prominence out of the old group psychology, by a gradual process which may still, perhaps, be described as incomplete.” (my underlining)
And still (Freud 1921, p. 129): “Each individual is a component part of numerous groups, he is bound by ties of identification in many directions, and he has built up his ego ideal upon the most various models. Each individual therefore has a share in numerous group minds—those of his race, of his class, of his creed, of his nationality etc.—and he can also raise himself above them to the extent of having a scrap of independence and originality.” (my underlining)
Significant fusion in the life of the group is the starting point. From here, features of individuality struggle to emerge. In Europe, after an emancipatory movement of the individual achieved a high level of excellence in ancient Greece and Rome, it then regressed. We would have to wait for the Renaissance to restart the processes by which individuals somewhat emancipate themselves from a high degree of fusion with the group (Fonda, 2015).
In this sense, if we compare the group-individual and mother-child relationships, both a child and an individual are insufficiently emancipated and partially fused with whoever and whatever surrounds them. This occurs despite having also developed numerous ego functions that allow them to distinguish some features of the world around them. However, a large part of their thinking and feeling does not differ from their environment. It is as if they lay in wait for their life or historical circumstances from which they could broaden their self-awareness and proceed down the path of individuation.
The metaphor that springs to mind is of an individual with a boundary-net. It contains specific features of his/her individuality and can be shaped by an increasingly narrow mesh-border. But it is immersed in a liquid (the psychism of the group) that flows and crosses it, soaking the content of the net with the substances that are dissolved in the liquid. As in a semi-permeable membrane, specific circulating substances pass through without difficulty; some are actively absorbed, while others still are blocked at the entrance or even expelled.
It is as if the individual had to ‘breath’ and ‘feed’ his/her ‘psychic metabolism’ also through fusional channels. In doing so, he/she, though mostly unaware of this, makes use of that enormous repository of myths, codes, experiences, proto-knowledge and proto-memories that make up the basis of the culture of every group and humanity at large. We swim in a primordial sea, which we have shaped as sapiens since the Great Leap Forward (Moreno, 2018, p. 167) in prehistoric times. We absorb and use its content as well as introduce our own experiences into it, changing it both positively and negatively. It is mainly by fusion that we link to this ‘i-Cloud’ where our culture has been deposited over many thousands of years. Much of this happens unconsciously and seems to connect back to the unrepressed unconscious. More than an ocean, it appears to be a system of intercommunicating lagoons-groups, starting from the smallest of groups, the family, and even the analytic couple with its field.
In individual analysis, there is little focus on the influence of unconscious fantasies on a group-cultural level (such as myths and collective ideals). These are active from the beginning of life through the parents and then more directly as the child is exposed to the social environment. They also serve to satisfy the needs of group functionality, which insists on the upbringing of individuals where certain personality characteristics are amplified and others are reduced. It suffices to imagine how different the image of a ‘good-enough child’ in our group and the minds of parents today is in contrast to what was prevalent in our same group 50 or 100 years ago (not to speak of different cultural areas). Just imagine how many different ways of managing drives and affects there used to be in child upbringing. So, not only can we say “how much our patients have changed” (Gaddini, 1984), but also “how much our children have changed” and consequently also adults.
These and similar elements of groupality are examined with significantly different competencies by group analysts and psychoanalytically oriented anthropologists. However, individual analysts often go to great lengths to resist the integration of findings from these fields. Though – for example – Kaes (2007), as well as other group analysts, have given significant contributions in connecting individual analytic thinking and clinical work to group analytic findings.
Nevertheless, we may think that there could be, for any historical and cultural environment, an optimal balance between the level of individuation and the part of the psychic activity merged in the group. Perhaps in some areas, as in today’s Europe, the level of individuation could be so high that it may create a threat of fragmentation of the group. This results in making it more difficult to find a sufficient group cohesion even on shared projects that could be necessary for the survival of larger groups. An excess of diffuse individuation and the consequent threat of fragmentation or disintegration of large groups, like nations are, may then give rise to catastrophic anxieties, which could provoke the need to seek refuge in rigid (and perhaps dangerous) paranoid-schizoid positions, where merging in a common ideology or faith may provide cohesion and force.
D – META-EGO
To give a further look to the area where fusion plays a significant role I shall now use Bleger’s (1967a) term meta-ego and just mention few Authors, whose concepts on this issue appear partially overlapped. This area includes undifferentiation, non-mentalization, the undefined belonging to the me or not-me and perhaps the at least partial pertinence to the unrepressed (structural) unconscious.
As early as fetal life, the mnestic traces of sensations start to accumulate. These then constitute a vague and undifferentiated entity, later enriched by sensations outside of the uterus,connected with a state of being as a state of unintegration (Winnicott, 1948, p. 25): “In the quiet moments there is no line between inner and outer but just lots of things separated out, sky seen through trees, something to do with mother’s eyes all going in and out, wandering around. There is a lack of any need for integration.” (my underlining). And furthermore (Winnicott, 1952, p. 99): “[…] the unit is not the individual, the unit is an environment-individual set-up. The centre of gravity of the being does not start off in the individual. It is in the total set-up”. This contrasts the traditional image that after the beginning of life there is a certain point in development where the individual mind progressively opens to the world and begins to test and penetrate it with its ‘pseudopods’.
Bleger (1967a) goes further this way with his notion that the child comes from a total, initial immersion in the undifferentiated, non-discriminated world, in which what he calls the primordial glischrocaric position prevails. The psychic development part of this content, thanks to the activation of the paranoid-schizoid position, is discriminated by the ego and integrated. But a large undifferentiated, undiscriminated, ambiguous part remains split and is deposited onto external objects, playing then an important, though mainly silent, symbiotic role.
We may suppose that this symbiotic deposit, though split from the ego, may give to these parts of the external world, on which is deposited, some familiar flavor, as it has not yet been cleared its belonging to the me or not-me.
This deposit, called also meta-ego, which is set up in the undifferentiated encounter-overlapping between the internal and the external, also bridges the internal and the external reality. Through this bridge, the external would be imbued with the internal and vice-versa. Both would then result sufficiently similar to be – to a certain extent – silently bond together (though remaining split). This may be not only a component of the relation with primary objects, the group, and its culture, but with reality tout court, including the inanimate part of it.
It is as if we are encircled by a large ring or halo which we must deposit upon everything around us in order to feel supported. Without doing so, instead of ‘floating’, we would sink into a dimension of solitude incompatible with life.
This ‘interface’ is also formed by contents are conveyed by ‘diffusion’, first from parents and then by ever-expanding social environment. The presence of these shared elements should facilitate the mute connection-bond to the psychism of the individual with human objects, with the unconscious cultural foundation of various groups, with their more general meta-ego.
For Ogden (1989a) the autistic contiguous position isthepsychological organization generating the most primitive state of being. It is also difficult to locate the content of these pre-object ways of mental functioning in relation to the boundaries of the self. As they are lacking in a sufficient distinction between what belongs to the subject and what belongs to the outer world, they seem to refer to a primordial mainly fusional space too. “This primitive psychological organization under normal circumstances contributes to the barely perceptible background of sensory boundedness of all subsequent subjective states.”(Ogden, 1989a, p. 128) But Ogden emphasizes the clearly dialectic essence of this, as well as the other two positions: “It must be borne in mind […] that an autistic-contiguous mode of experience does not exist in pure form any more than one encounters paranoid-schizoid or depressive modes in pure form. Each of these modes represents a pole of a dialectical process between which experience is generated. The autistic-contiguous mode […] serves to generate the sensory ‘floor’ (Grotstein, 1987) of all experience” (ibidem, p.136). Here we also re-encounter, although in different forms, the constant interplay between fusion and separation.
In his article on setting, Civitarese (2004) examines specific conceptualizations close to what here I refer to as meta-ego. He reiterates Ogden’s idea of returning ‘dignity’ to this part as a ’healthy’ component that is normal and necessary for the human psyche during the whole life. Ogden frees it from the residuals of a pathological connotation, which Bleger still referred to as ‘psychotic’. It would be overly simplistic to consider it a useless remnant of primordial life, only an undifferentiated agglomerate waiting for ‘refinement’, or a dangerous ballast that risks overflowing and leading to psychotic regression.
Civitarese (2004, p. 1134) holds that the meta-ego carries out essential functions, including the guarantee of the continuity of being. “Surprisingly, the psychotic part appears first as the guardian of a sense of continuity of the self (the meta-ego or the ‘frame’ of the ego), and then as helper that knows how to manage certain situations which arise when the ego is confronted by the danger of dissolution”.
“The subject thus apparently needs to experience reality in a ‘presymbolic, sensory-dominated’ mode (Ogden, 1989b, p. 30) – to structure symbiotic bonds and links, even in adulthood, as guarantors of identity.” (Civitarese, 2004, p. 1136)
“… patients in the analyst’s consulting room bear witness to the state of this symbiotic life of theirs – their meta-ego – to the humps and bumps of the ‘ground’, and to the general conditions of solidity and reliability of their ‘floor’. In some, the constant need for reparation proves obsessive, given the extent to which this sensory floor is felt to be damaged…” (Civitarese, 2004, p. 1138)
A ‘solid’ meta-ego contributes to the establishment of reliability. In Winnicott’s vision (1971, p. 109), this is one of the underlying conditions upon which potential space can take shape and where optimal frustrations may generate symbolic representations. A mother-child couple could function well enough only if the two have a solid ground on which to stand.
In suitable doses, the meta-ego could also perform a protective action, ‘diluting’ the effect of the harsh, direct contact with reality and with its unrelenting laws. Indeed, if conflict becomes unsustainable, we may immerse parts of our self in the murky waters of ambiguity, within which irreconcilable contradictions can co-exist without conflict and without giving rise to unbearable anxieties. Bleger (1967a) described as such when he wrote of ambiguous personalities. Likewise, we may resort ‘normally’ – temporarily or not – to a dose of ambiguity to dilute conflicts, allowing us to live with them. This occurs in much the same way that we can quietly savor (without conflict) a delicious meal in a restaurant, despite knowing – but ‘ambiguously’ not thinking (perhaps splitting) – that in the same moment millions of children are starving. This also connects us to reflections on more general vicissitudes of ethics.
An analogous example we may find in clinical observations on the experience of time. As it is closely linked to the inevitability of death, we necessarily relate with it through certain filters, like could be ambiguity offered by the meta-ego. Indeed, there is an absence of time boundaries on certain levels of our Self. Time is thus made bearable as – to a certain extent – ‘ambiguously’ we feel that the inevitability of death and the fantasy of eternal life are not, in fact, contradictory. Narcissism seems broadly connected to the meta-ego and to ambiguity, which allow it (narcissism) to take refuge in atemporality and omnipotence (absence of power boundaries).
All of this is connected by the fact that there are inevitably certain limits to what we can bear and integrate. When we risk exceeding these limits and suffering a breakdown, we are forced to immerse ourselves more deeply in the undifferentiated and the ambiguous.
In a similar vein, Jaques already in 1955 wrote that the psychosis of the group could safeguard individuals from psychotic collapse. Participating in the psychism of the group offers the possibility to be contained, to use codes, patterns, knowledge, and affiliations that keep isolation at bay, while the meta-ego would mainly provide continuity and stability.
Bleger (1967a, p. 216) refers to something similar: “Upon the occurrence of highly persecutory situations which the subject cannot face because he would otherwise be plunged into total disorganization or a state of psychotic dissolution, he blurs the contradiction or persecution he is experiencing and regresses to ambiguity”.
A group has its own meta-ego as well, located below levels of representability. Certain vital changes in the conditions of life can give rise to adaptive cracks even in such deeper ‘geological’ layers, leading to faults within the meta-ego. Catastrophic anxiety can then be triggered, which is managed both on a group and on an individual level.
These notes and comments are brief and incomplete. I wished to highlight an overall image of the individual and his/her mental apparatus where, despite having parts of the self that are well and truly separate and individualized, others are profoundly fusionally connected to what surrounds him/her, often through mostly silent connections.
In other words, we are ‘amphibious’, staying knee-deep in the water-fusion through our entire lives. Be that as it may, this is not an unhealthy state from which we must cure ourselves, but rather a gift from nature. It allows us not only to survive, but to live life more fully. At times, we may perceive this background even with pleasant nuances, akin to an “oceanic feeling”. But this feeling could be understood more in Romain Rolland’s creative sense rather than Freud’s purely regressive meaning (Saarinen, 2012).
Our responsibility as analysts is not to free the individual from fusion, but to make the sway between separateness and fusion as free and serene as possible so that it may be optimally adjusted in either direction. It would be a challenge for us to devise techniques for further improving and balancing such interactions, taking into account all of the elements at play.
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 Paper published in the Romanian Journal of Psychoanalysis (1919/2).
 Italian Psychoanalytic Society; firstname.lastname@example.org
 Paper published in the Romanian Journal of Psychoanalysis (1920).
 In the first part of this paper, published in the previous issue of this Journal (Fonda, 2019), the “three levels” were somehow connected to absence of borders-fusion (F), fragmentary borders-paranoid-schizoid (PS) and definite borders-depressive position (D). (I refer to the F-fusion position here as a sort of ‘conglomerate’ including Bleger’s glischrocaric and Ogden’s contiguous-autistic position.)