Raoul Mortley

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REVIEW: Apophatic Elements in the Theory and Practice of Psychoanalysis: Pseudo-Dionysius and C.G. Jung, by David Henderson, Routledge 2014

apophatic-elementsThis is a highly significant book which recovers a long and deep tradition in Western Thought, and ties it to a context of modern psychoanalysis. It is a voyage which takes the author from Plato to Freud, and to Jung, but via the immensely important figure of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. This last figure stands ambiguously at the apex of the Christianised classical world, more obviously the heir of the Greeks than the Jews and Christians, yet providing the foundation stone of medieval and later Christendom.

Dionysius is the exponent of “unknowing”, yet provides a series of almost practical mental exercises leading to the ascent of the divine and to that moment of freedom from the corruption of “knowledge”. His representation of the divine hierarchy of beings and names appears almost cartoon-like, for someone who was on the path of unknowingness. Yet it was always there, even in the philosophy of Plotinus, whose dubitative method left a cloud of vagueness about everything: a rigid sense of an ontological hierarchy, which makes one think more of astrophysics, than of the way of unknowing.

The thrust of this book is to draw a parallel between the emptying process of psychoanalysis, and the ascent towards unknowing of Pseudo–Dionysius. The steps in the ascent, such as baptism, are seen as resembling the introduction to therapy, which itself brings a sense of “relief and excitement” (140). Baptism begins a death as well as a birth, and so psychoanalysis often begins with grieving over the death of a loved one, or over part of oneself. It begins on the surface and moves to the depths, always keeping in view the wholeness of the person. There is constant reference to the past, as in the Eucharist, so that recalling and reordering is crucial to both.

The analogy between Dionysius’ mental ascent through the hierarchy, and psychoanalysis, has two aspects, the first being the steps involved in the process, and the second being the ultimate state, of negation. There is, incidentally, a discussion of the differences between liturgy and ritual (148) in relation to what I have termed the “steps” involved. But not a great deal is raised about the ultimate state, of unknowingness, or negation. What is the result of the progressive apophasis?

Perhaps the answer lies in the entire first part of the book, which deals with many aspects of the negative tradition, including for example the assumption of contradiction. Herein lies the richness of David Henderson’s work, in that so much of a tangled tale is brought together into a coherent whole: apophasis has a long journey from its beginning, as the Greek word for negation, from its definition by Aristotle, and its voyage through Neoplatonism, the medieval alchemists, their recovery through Jung, the treatment of Hegel, and the equating of negation and denial, characteristic of Freud. This is a long and complicated story, clearly told by the author, who lays it out with great clarity for the reader. The sympathetic discussion of Jung is one important and original feature of the work, and this part of the story is often omitted.

The treatment of Jung dwells on the macrocosm/microcosm difference, or rather relationship, an issue also derived from the alchemists. In this also lies the resolution of contradiction and the assumption of difference: since the knower becomes known in the encounter with the unconscious (46).

One telling comment by the author, in relation to the work of Tacey, is as follows: “It seems to me that apophasis offers a greater range of interpretive possibilities than transcendence” (125). That is probably a key phrase for understanding the author’s approach, and perhaps we can look forward to a development of that theme, in relation to the post–psychoanalytic state of mind. Apophasis appears to be about transcendence in a Neoplatonist world based on hierarchies, and dominated by the metaphor of height. Yet later explorations open it up to being about a state of consciousness and a way of being infinitely open, which results from a way of seeing the encompassing world of reality in a certain manner.

These are simply thoughts suggested by Henderson’s work, which has a depth and breadth about it which is extraordinarily challenging.

Raoul Mortley

23 April 2014

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