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Roth, D. Blatt, S.J. (1974). Spatial Representations of Transparency and the Suicide Potential. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 55:287-293.

(1974). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 55:287-293

Spatial Representations of Transparency and the Suicide Potential Related Papers

David Roth and Sidney J. Blatt


The level of spatial organization of object representations appears to provide a valuable index for assessing the level of cognitive development and the level of personality organization. Our findings suggest that the mental representations denoted by manifest content, including those reported in dreams and in Rorschach responses, when viewed in terms of their spatiotemporal organization, can provide important information about psychological structure.

Certain progressions were noted and instability was defined as the use of an earlier parameter to maintain the constancy of a later stage. Several such parameters had been extrapolated and clinical validation obtained in other work. The parameter which is the subject of this paper was the predicted use of sequencing of planes to tentatively sustain volume or depth constancy, resulting in the cognitive parameter of transparency. This was then surmized to be associated with the suicidal potential, insofar as it straddled the gap in the progression from projective and obsessional to introjective and repressive defences. Clinical evidence was adduced to confirm this hypothesis.

The works of Schilder (1935) and Piaget (Flavell, 1965) provide a theoretical framework which allows for further elaboration when combined with the findings of the study of spatio-temporal parameters. In separate ways these authors suggest that the psychological beginning of the distinction of near and far may be related to the sensory difference of perceiving the space of near grasping and perceiving by sight, i.e. the tactile and visual modes of development. The field of vision is instantaneously near and far whereas that of grasping defines the area around the body. The optic space extends to the horizon without such intimate limit. When these become perceptible as separate portions, space can be organized in sequences. Schilder sees the world of the psychotic as one where all objects come within immediate range of aggression, perhaps because of the absence of a graspable near object, and an uncoordinated love drive remains fused with an uncoordinated aggressiveness in the whole field of perception with only the optic boundary as its limit. The objects of aggressiveness or the whole world of the not-me are brought from optic space into the space of grasping. It would appear, then, that when aggressiveness against the not-self is limited to near space, there is also a beginning of the perception of self as having

limited extent in space; it would appear too that the space awareness contingent upon body awareness is one that is created somehow in the perception when the object of aggressiveness as well as the awareness of one's own body condenses around a volume binding boundary somewhere in the vicinity of the actual physical boundary of the body. Thus objects of aggressiveness and libidinal cathexis are brought from the optic space into the space of grasping. With this a differentiation of the near and the far would begin to exist and would signify progress beyond the primitive perception of the purely dyadic space where simultaneity or instantaneity of action rules. This may correspond to identification with the aggressor as the first step in raising the stimulus threshold against, and distinguishing between, internal and external charges of aggression, allowing the defused libidinal drive to emerge.

In the last analytic case described, awareness of 'instantaneous time' and the kleptomanic impulse (near space of grasping) occurred just before the analyst's departure, after which the suicidal or self-destructive impulse began. Volume degeneration and translucency followed, which suggests that the active physical presence of the analyst was required to maintain the near space and the volume binding of differentiated self and object representations. With the inadequacy of such binding in the face of the analyst's departure, the internal and external volumes became exchangeable, the opaque boundary no longer prevailed, the optic space and grasping space were fused and surfaces were collapsible by implosion or explosion as well as penetrable by the aggression of seeing; depth or object constancy was lost and external and internal aggression were unbuffered in the confusion of external and internal space. The degeneration of temporal duration to an uncomfortable feeling that everything was occurring simultaneously just prior to the analyst's departure accompanied the fantasied omnipotence of aggression to the extent of the 'optic horizon', with 'near' and 'far' no longer differentiated.

In most of the cases considered, early history of the patients in the first two years of life was marked by maternal absence, preoccupation, withdrawal or depression. The absence of the 'volume binding' of a responsive maternal presence in the 'near space' of the child during this crucial developmental phase links directly to the failure of proper integration of libidinal and aggressive drives. In more humanly relevant phrasing, the development of an intact sense of self distinct from that of the mother requires an intensely active initiative of aggressive-libidinal seeing and grasping which is conducted with a mother who is everything but detached. Though other literary associations of translucency to suicide can be found in Nabokov (1964) and De Maupassant (1887), the following quote from John Gardner's Grendel(1972), a parable of a primeval monster's growth, illustrates this point powerfully.

Translucency is an unstable parameter insofar as it cannot fully establish the constancy of the phase, namely three-dimensionality, but indicates

a breakdown of such constancy into sequence of planes. It seems to prevail in that ego state where suicidal impulses are expressed in fantasy, self-destructive behaviour or overt suicide, and also in escape from treatment. Attempts to progress to true object love, libidinal and aggressive, which require greater stability of differentiation than available at this level of fixation result in psychic crisis and expose the instability of this parameter. The love of the self and the object becomes fused, as does the aggression directed against the object and the self. The parental dyads exist as alternate sets, the triad is not yet simultaneously conceived with parents and parental functions differentiated. There is no individuation or self constancy at this stage, the psychic structure has not yet developed to the level of signal anxiety as an internal communication, time is still nominal rather than durational. These nominal designations of time may be hypercathected as in anniversary reactions. Transferences are highly loaded with narcissistic fusion or cathexis and negative therapeutic reactions abound, insofar as negativism is still reverted to as a mode of primitive differentiation from the frustrating source, with introjection failing or incomplete.

In a Rorschach study by Appelbaum & Holzman (1962), the subtlety of a colour-shading response was found to be correlated with suicide and related metaphorically to the acute nearsighted clarity of the pessimism and despair characterizing the melancholic state with no changes anticipated in the projected future. It affirms a metaphorical meaning to the parable of the difficulty the melancholic has of distinguishing the tree from the forest. Our study asserts the more concrete aspect of this specific cognitive difficulty. The lack of depth constancy associated with translucency is intimately bound to a perceptual organization where near and far are distinguishable only tentatively. The temporal parameters are correspondingly threatened in their distinctiveness, as past, present and future become threateningly condensed and indistinguishable. When obsessional defences fail, the rage and despair of infantile impotence over space and time are ever intruding against defences of denial, projection, reversal and isolation.

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