Dante as Talisman and Transitional Object… A psychological reflection for On Reflection: 700 years of Dante Alighieri

As part of the 700 year celebrations for the poet Dante’s death I was asked to contribute a psychological reflection of my work as a therapist to the book accompanying the exhibition ‘On Reflection 700 years of Dante Alighieri.

** Please note that the ‘patient’/person described below is composite rather than a specific individual’. Even so I write with permission**

Dante as Talisman and Transitional Object in the course of therapy.

Tangled Up In Blue
… opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true.

And glowed like burning coal

Pouring off of every page

Like it was written in my soul
from me to you
Bob Dylan

One of the questions people frequently ask is how I undertake between 25 – 28 hours a week of psychotherapy without burn-out. I have no difficulty in finding an answer. For me psychotherapy can only successfully mediate change and healing when the therapist as well as the patient both give and receive. The image, wind-blown into my mind is of Botticelli’s three graces in the Primavera who signify the actions of reciprocity: giving, receiving and returning.

We were locked down into a brutal April 2020, which TS Elliot describes as the cruelest month – breeding lilacs out of the dead land – when my phone flashed the name of a past patient. One with whom I had been out of touch for several years but who had read my first book, Who is it that can tell me who I am? (published by Constable) When his god-son announced that his closest friend, a junior doctor working in intensive care, had recently committed suicide and that he, overcome with grief and anger, was now cantering towards emotional free fall.

Something marvellous happened. My name floated into mind … my number was dialled: “I cannot think of anybody better than you, dear Jane to guide a lost and psychologically confused young man through this crisis. I have read your chapter on suicide and know that you will not be afraid of the demons that are currently besetting him and holding him into bondage in the spiralling underworld of his despair. I do hope you will be able to find the space to meet him on Zoom”.

In this way, or annunciation, did our journey begin.

Day was departing and the dark earth was taking the creatures on earth away from their labours and I alone was making ready to sustain the strife both of the journey and of the pity which unerring memory will retrace…. The Inferno

When He first appeared on my computer screen for our Zoom assessment his image coincided with my idea of Virginia Woolf’s, Orlando. There was something gracefully androgynous about his appearance: gracefully He moved between the gamin and the feminine, between the ‘youth’ Rosalind and her disguised alter ego Ganymede in As You Like It. Only now, as I write that iconic title, As You Like It, does it riff beyond a Shakespearian landscape into this twenty first century of bilateral sexuality and with an echo of the recovery of ‘the ancients’ admiration for, and fascination with, androgyny.

At that we moved ahead. /The first step/ was of clear white marble, so polished/that my image was reflected in true likeness. Purgatorio 1X 94-96.
For several months our meetings were confined to Zoom. I continue to be surprised that emotional energy defies and transcends the liquid crystal of a computer screen. The ways in which a body is breathing, the associated posture and strength of gaze are all indications of anxiety or emotional containment. Another young man commented: “Zoom offers us an insight into our own body language that we don’t normally have. I definitely slouch less when I am talking to you.” A psychiatrist colleague discusses with me how it can be useful, using Zoom, with its different viewing options, as a tool, to provoke people to talk about shameful feelings around their self-image. Another young man who has been coming, or rather Zooming-in for therapy since May, and whom I have not yet met face to face, is in Paris. He sends me a snapshot of himself in shorts standing beneath the Christos-wrapped L’arc de Triomphe. I am genuinely unsettled as I realise I have never seen his legs before. I realise I am engaging in emotionally intimate ways with bodies without form. Even stranger is the fact that both these young men are in Paris for the same October weekend and might pass each other under the same wrapped archway. I cannot get Christo out of my mind. It is said that the idea of wrapping the Arc was conceived over forty years ago and sadly its architect never lived to see his project completed, but neither did he ever waiver in his faith for the journey to reach its triumphant destination.
Orlando, my nickname for him, is a name in which He too delights and which, through the stranger actions of serendipity, He had watched the film of Woolf’s book the previous week. Orlando has come from a family in which suicide has been repeated down the generations, along with his own challenging early attachment history. He gazes anxiously into the screen and for a fleeting moment He reminds me of Durer’s early self portrait as a tormented young man, his hair long and disheveled.

During our conversation I discover that He is unusually tall; taller than I had assumed from his refinedly configured fingers. He tells me that he is 6 feet 3 inches. I show surprise. He darts a direct question, but speaking shyly: “Yes, I am tall, the tallest in my family. I feel very tall and its hard to ever disappear. How tall are you?” I am both surprised, taken aback and suddenly feel very small: “I think I am about 5 foot 4 inches.” His question does not feel like an intrusion but a genuine desire, in the absence of our physical presence, to have a bodily sense of who, or what, I am. It alerts me to the fact that although He is vulnerable, He is not, thankfully, without entitlement.

Later, writing this account of a shared journey in which Dante Alighieri became our first connection, I ask if I can refer to our verbatim reported interaction in this essay, which he has also given permission for me to record. It is not without pathos for him that he set out on his personal journey towards spiritual recovery in the year of the anniversary of Dante’s death.

“Hilarious, of course you can include it. I’m rather fond of your description… and it even made me laugh again because there is a strange co-incidence that like Durer’s engravings I happen to have a whippet cross-breed dog.
I remember this exchange so clearly. I remember being quite surprised as well to hear you are slightly below the average height, you don’t give that appearance. A very amusing exchange and happy for it to be shared. It didn’t cross my mind that perhaps I wasn’t meant to have asked about your height! That such personal questions might not be allowed or answered.”

In return I ask, knowing He has studied philosophy, who is his favourite philosopher. Without pause He replies: “Dante Alighieri”. I feel even smaller. I have always regretted that Dante has not been part of my conscious intellectual journey. I console myself that it is impossible to know everything, or indeed almost anything at all, of the encyclopaedic mysteries contained in the Great Chain of Being which accompanies any meaningful journey. When I was a mature student of English Literature, time and the syllabus forced me to make an impossible choice between studying either the Romantics or Irish literature, either way there could only be loss but there was also gain.

Dante had always been there, waiting for me on the threshold of consciousness. Hitherto, he has existed through the engravings by William Blake. Now, it seemed that through my meeting with Orlando, Dante was gesturing us across 700 years of time into a new synergy. Dante and I had at least one thing in common in that he espoused Latin for the vernacular and I espouse theoretical jargon for plain English. In preparation for our journey Dante was to become, in the same way a child will have a transitional object to soothe them to sleep, our shared talisman on this quest to find recovery, individuation and emotional stability.

Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Orlando soon becomes confused about our therapy. He tells me that unlike his previous two experiences of therapy and despite our age differences, essentially, he feels he is talking to a wise friend who doesn’t assume a professional authority but can endure his suffering. He wonders whether therapy should feel like this.

I reflect and then decide that it would be helpful to offer a definition of my therapeutic work. Privately, I think of it as a guided journey towards the destination of becoming. Becoming an individual who steps out of the bondage of their infantile shame, pain and disappointment and is gradually released into a sense of creative individuation and agency. I understand, the essence of therapy to be an experience with therapist as trusted guide – (and trust requires time and patience to grow) – who beckons the initiate into and through the tangled depths and deeps of the forest, in this case the allure of suicide. Together, they try to gather up golden threads of the unconscious along their perilous and arduous journey through the forest towards a sanctuary of Self; towards The Paradiso.

Dante accepted Virgil as guide for many reasons that are unnecessary to list and whose own narratives also burned off the page and glowed into the embers of our cultural ancestory. Virgil was a Pagan who could not enter into the Paradiso because he worshipped the natural and random energies of the universe rather than any divine order. The unconscious too is Pagan and has no time for the hierarchies of organised religion or social convention. In the same way that Dante must confront the Bosch-like monstrous and tangled up human vagaries of the Inferno and Purgatorio so must therapy be ruthless and brave and the ‘patient’/person entering into it be prepared set forth like Dante onto ‘an uncharted sea’.