All posts by Roberto Buccola

Introduction to the papers from the June 2017 conference “The Sick Action”

The papers in this collection deal with the theme of evil, interpreted according to various points of view: psychoanalytic, anthropological, philosophical, religious, mythological and legal. Indeed, the authors themselves have diverse professional and geographic origins: they are Italians and Icelanders, and they include university professors, psychoanalysts, philosophers, judges, and anthropologists. The discussion of these works occurred in Palermo, Italy, 9–10 June 2017, and was organized by the Sneffels Psychoanalytic Circle of Palermo, headed by Dr Roberto Buccola, an Italian psychoanalyst who, among his various papers, led two seminars at the University of Akureyri, Iceland, in 2016. The presentation of the articles occurred, with few exceptions, in Italian, so in some of these articles the reader can encounter peculiar Italian expressive forms translated into English.

The issues dealt with in this volume resonate with contemporary incidents of international terrorism in Europe, as these articles examine possible causes and ways of confronting them.

Palermo, 17 February 2018

Gaetano Roberto Buccola

Universal Evil and Individual Good: From Chaos to Cosmos

Western consciousness is by no means the only kind of consciousness there is; it is historically conditioned and geographically limited, and representative of only one part of mankind. It is a mistake to think that we are the center. We start with that prejudice. But we are really devilish, awful things; we simply do not see ourselves from the outside. We think we are really wonderful people, highly respectable and moral, and so on, but in reality we are bloody pirates. What the European thinks of himself is a lie. We read the newspapers, we learn about the world of politics and economics, and we believe that this is something concrete, as if everything depended upon what we would do about currency exchange rates, the general economic situation, and so on. On this we are completely mad, as if dealing with these matters were the right thing to do. We take it for granted that this is the world where real things happen, that it is the only world, and that perhaps there is nothing beyond it. But there are innumerable people who think differently: we are few compared to those who have a completely different idea about the meaning of the world. For these people, we are simply ridiculous, because we live in a sort of illusion with respect to the world.[1]

When evil is exclusively attributed to others, even more so if these “others” are different and far away from us, circumscribed within an identifiable category, it is partly projected outside and partly relegated to the unconscious (in fact, it is during childhood that this psychic mechanism is activated: we were absolutely good; evil was, instead, located in some remote region, comfortably and well-separated from our known world).

A nation, a society, a single individual, or all of humanity is not instinctively inclined to attribute the responsibility for evil to themselves, not even in retrospect, and the borderline between good and evil does not separate the good and evil within us, but rather serves to separate us, who are good, from others, who are evil incarnate. It is easy at this point to demonize the other, from whom we separate ourselves to confirm our purity by putting up barriers or walls which we also ask for them to help us pay for.

Evil comes from the outside. In Egypt, Seth, god of destruction, chaos, storms, and violence, is brought by the desert wind; he is the divinity of the borderlands and foreigners, but at the same time he is also considered to be the god of the equilibrium between the positive and the negative. In Norse mythology, Loki is also a constitutionally ambiguous god: he symbolizes the Shadow and personifies evil; his deeds testify to a great cunning, as well as the ability to become a point of contact and exchange between gods and other mythical figures. Loki stands apart from the usual moral norms, and his transversality and eccentricity serve to maintain the cosmic balance, which is continually destabilized and then restored by his actions. He is the origin of evil, but paradoxically, his malignant side guarantees the existence of the good. Moreover, his ambiguity is underlined by his bisexuality and tendency to change form (his name appears to be derived from the word for flame, the symbol par excellence of state changes) as well as to perform clownish and clever actions, typical of the trickster. Still further, in Abraxas, the apotropaic and multiform divinity of probable Gnostic-Mithraic origin present in the Persian tradition, we find light and darkness, male and female, guilt and purity together. He is an invisible being, an archetype, who acts as a mediator between mankind and the Sun and, according to the Persian tradition, symbolizes the union and totality of Arimane, leader of the Daeva, demon-like creatures that incarnate Evil, Darkness, and Substance, and Ahura Mazda, in which Good, Light, and Spirit are lodged.

In opposition to the theories of good as summum bonum and evil as privatio boni, gradually advocated and disseminated in various forms by authors ranging from St. Augustine to Scotus Eriugena, and to the “lesser good” of Leibniz, Jung states that evil is a psychic reality consubstantial with the reality experienced by the psyche.

Here, then, is the ancient fear of foreign invasion, carried out by beings who are surely more advanced than our civilization, who usually attack us, or could attack us, with the intention of annihilating us, for two reasons: either because they have run out of something which is indispensable for their survival and which we are unlucky enough to possess, or because they are absolutely evil, and their goal is blind, in the sense that their evil nature “forces” them to crush the stupid inhabitants of the Earth who, deep down, are quite good, apart from a few hiccups along the way, but who, whenever they are proudly defending their own territory together, find solidarity, courage, heroism, and good feelings that would otherwise remain submerged.

Post-industrial society and hegemonic culture have, more or less unknowingly, ridiculed and banalized the idea of Evil. Evil has been sterilized, with the result that the Shadow has been expelled, but only apparently: the contemporary collective psyche has built a “ship of fools” in which to expel all our negative qualities, but when we later awaken from this illusion, we find it lurking outside the door to our homes or inside our very walls.

The process of globalization has been forcing mankind toward shared meanings and a universal validity of values which, though apparently leading to the “protection” of the dominant contemporary social system, is not always able to guarantee the expression of the individuality of the people, especially those who, due to historical or personal psychic and collective events, have no “central” or defined roles in the host society. The result is, often, a profound split between the social part of the individual (the Person) and its more intrinsic and internal components which, being more protected from external, worldly influences, are closer—psychologically and symbolically—to the oldest layers of humanity.

What we are facing globally is the realization and re-actualization of a form of archaic thought in which people who plan and carry out criminal acts have a very serious psychic immaturity and, perhaps even more serious, a very dangerous incapacity to think symbolically.

Thinking through symbols means understanding and welcoming within oneself the possibility of the indefinite, tolerating incompleteness, doubt, and paradox, all of which are elements making up the Self, in the knowledge that, beyond the most obvious meanings and explanations, beyond the absolute Light, there is a submerged world of contradictions, of the non-finite and of non-final explanations, that point to different and still other meanings.

We are witnessing the loss of those overflowings of meaning that were the mysterious heritage of every religion and which distinguished them from otherness. We are filling our psyche with concepts, techniques, certainties, and skills, but we are losing silence.

Contemporary society, having lost the sense of expectation and of the sacred, the transcendental, and the mysterious, has placed the sign and the symbol on the same level, producing a dangerous confusion of meaning. The sign corresponds to one and only meaning, and if by chance our unconscious, which is infused with semantic univocity, introduces a dissonant, strange or unknown element, alarm and panic are triggered in the rational psyche and defense systems are adopted, some of which are also unconscious.

What is happening in the world, with such naked and cruel acts of terrorism, shows a misunderstanding of the Shadow. “Civilization” has forced upon the individual a radical restriction of his/her freedom, in the sense that every personal idea of “justice” has to be subverted by a socially sanctioned justice, albeit not always shared, whether it is divine or secular. Over time, moral codes change, depending on changes in society as well as those in the collective and individual psyche. In Italy, for example, laws on abortion and divorce have changed the boundaries between good and evil, modifying the priorities of some values that are more or less accepted: today, the law affords protection to individual freedom with respect to family protection in the case of divorce[2] and, in the case of abortion, it protects the agency of women in relation to maternity.[3]

In the particular case of Islamic-inspired terrorism, a struggle is underway between the individual and the society in which the individual lives and was often born and raised; there is a dramatic fracture between a collective unconscious, by its nature impossible to identify but whose roots date from a time long before the present, temporally and culturally, and a personal unconscious made up of painful repressed memories, pregnant with privation, marginalization, uprooting, ignorance, and desires for revenge, which have not found a resolution in the individual’s psyche, remaining at the level of Shadow.

I truly believe that one of the causes triggering the devastating fury of recent, dramatic episodes of terrorism derives from the emergence of socially and individually pathological conditions such as depression and, above all, identity crisis and the anxiety of non-being. These have found their horrific “exit pathway” that we have learned to recognize because the majority of the individuals committing these acts of terror are from the first generation of immigrants who have their primary needs fully met: if their parents and grandparents had to reinvent their everyday social context, finding a job, accommodation, and a “logic” to having uprooted themselves from their places of origin with which, however, they maintained a deep psychic bond and which they were recognized as being from, today’s terrorists find themselves to be no longer the children of their family’s place of origin, but psychically not entirely, or only superficially, integrated into their new cultural environment either. These individuals possess a huge share of free psychic energy which they are unable to invest in pro-social activities, but rather anti-social, in a multilayered act of rebellion against the previous generations, desperate and despairing. It is as if the psychic energy of two or three generations before them has been compressed, with only a narrow passageway to escape, rendering their expression violent. When individuals lose, or perhaps have never found, the ability to relate, even symbolically, to impersonal social institutions, there is a serious risk that the public part of the individual’s life may collapse, with a consequent withdrawal into radicalization. Every experience, every aspect of life that affects an individual who has embarked on the path of radicalization, is perceived as a profanation of truth and faith. The individual becomes hard, closed to the world and the society in which he or she lives. James Hillman would say that it is as if there were excess salt, which pushes the person to a paroxysmal closure and a virginal self-perception. The risk that society runs is what Hillman called the fervor of salt, which can lead to fanaticism, puritanism, and terrorism: a lack of salt leads to the slackening of social and individual principles, whereas excess salt can facilitate entry into a climate of terror.[4]

Blind adherence to a collective “ideal” crushes any individual desire, transforming identity into an undifferentiated set of characteristics: it is the opposite path to individualization. This sort of “collectivization” protects individuals from the discomfort of being face-to-face with their own ghosts, with their own selves, enabling them to hide not only from the eyes of the “enemy”, but also from their own eyes. The massacre of random unarmed and unsuspecting citizens accentuates the indifferentiation of the victims as well as the executioner: group ferocity causes the sinking into the Shadow of any sense of guilt which, for the individual, can evoke feelings of human pity, but for the group, the horde, it hides in the non-distinction, precluding any sensitivity. This explains the extreme coldness and cynicism with which terrorists perpetrate blind and ferocious acts of violence or cold executions of “infidels”: this is the anesthesia of terror.

The violence of terrorist attacks is the dramatic concretization of a symbolism missing in Western society, in whose collective psyche a monster has been growing which is invisible to those who do not want or do not know how to see it. This monster is now attacking the host body from within. The Shadow has exploded and is corroding an increasingly sick body: the body’s reaction is similar to that of a feverish sick person who, rather than understanding whether the fever originates from a cold or an infection, wards off the cold with a triple layer of sweaters: it will not die from the cold, but rather from sepsis.

The search for immortality does not regard the individual, but the whole group; that is why the communication strategies of IS try to involve the masses. The individual regresses psychologically for the benefit of the group’s psyche, which is governed by “leaders” who exalt the submissive and indifferentiated members of the group itself. The existence and the sacrifice of the individual guarantees the survival of the group. That is why I argue that there is a terrorist disease, rather than a terrorist, since “madness” is to be sought in the psyche of the group rather than the individual. If you read the results of the Rorschach tests that were given to Nazi officials during the Nuremberg trials, psychiatrists were long reticent to reveal their findings; only one, after many years, though not addressing individual responses, stated that it was considered inappropriate to publish the results precisely because the respondents’ replies were considered “normal” on average. This made him reflect on the possibility that anyone, potentially, finding him/herself in a certain place at a certain historical, economic, social, etc. moment, could have “revealed” his or her Shadow and been overwhelmed by it.[5]

Renouncing social life in favor of remaining hidden means renouncing any relationship outside of the group; psychologically, it is to renounce the acceptance and decoding of the complexity of real life, made up of contradictions, limitations, and “unsaturated thought”. The choice of radicalization frees up the individual, in the sense that it allows him or her to entrust every choice and every interpretation to the leader. Thought is “saturated” because, in a closed group, there is no exchange with the outside, no space for any psychic movement. In the long run, however, it will be the “impermeability” of the group that leads to its implosion and death.

The uniformity of clothing, combined with camouflaging facial features, helps to homogenize the mass whose very reason for existing is its indifferentiation. The fear of psychic anonymity which the individual feels constrained by is contained and sublimated by an anonymity of “return”: if the host society ignores or, worse, despises me, then my voluntary withdrawal from the eyes of the world will guarantee my psychic survival. Adhering to an extremist organization unconsciously guarantees the security of the individual who, by being “at the edge” of society, finds his own eccentric individuality.

The psyche, in order to function in an adaptive and rewarding manner for itself and the society in which it lives, needs motion, since any inert state is synonymous with psychic and physical death. In alchemical terms, it is as though the terrorist, or the fundamentalist, remains attached to the state of nigredo, which is a condition of disorientation, depression, dissolution, and darkness, but which allows the individual to consciously, though with pain and difficulty, redirect their existence toward the Light. In some psychic states, it is as if there is a stasis of the propulsive thrust of the psyche, which can no longer project itself towards an external psychic object: it is a closing off of the real, external world, moving towards an autistic and paranoid condition. Certain extreme and radical doctrines convince individuals that the only possibility of giving “meaning” to their existence is through a dramatic break with the real world in order to move towards an ideal world.

The terrible events we are witnessing reveal a short circuit between the Person, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious of so-called “terrorists”, with the addition of a very serious relapse of the archetype of the Shadow, which risks becoming an alien psychic object, entrenched in our psyche and whose extreme danger consists in its non-recognition: all the negative, the unacceptable, the demonic—natural components of the ambivalent human condition—are placed in our Shadow, which is neither positive nor negative, but becomes harmful if ignored, misunderstood, or projected onto the psychic object.

The Person is a compromise between the individual and the collective. It consists of pieces of the collective with which the I identifies and which have the function of facilitating adaptation to the surrounding social world. Humans have a peculiarity that is very useful for adapting to the collective, but which is potentially dangerous and misleading for the purpose of identification: imitation. This is essential for the recruitment of young people to be turned into soldiers and terrorists: imitating one’s hero can push one to emulate that hero’s death in action.

When individuals lose the ability to relate to impersonal social structures that, in turn, have lost the ability to convey and “narrate” shared beauty and harmony, the result is a collapse of the public sphere of life.

The arrival of massive migratory flows has re-activated the ancient fear of contamination coming from the outside. “Western” society unconsciously fears contagion, with its burden of suffering, corruption, and death. Terrorist acts perpetrated “at home” are nothing less than the materialization of such fears. In the past, foreign invaders entered the city by breaking down the perimeter walls; today the “new barbarians” are often born in our own cities, are our own brothers with whom we share the same places, the same horizons. If previously the enemy of our civilization was alien, today the “alien” is our unconscious part that fails to find dialogue with the community to which the individual belongs: it is a psychic oxymoron, an alien-citizen.

In this kind of situation, the concept of adherence to a peer group grows unchecked, to the detriment of individuality: I am not, I belong. We should not, however, necessarily imagine that these fundamentalist organizations operate according to the Western mentality; a sense of belonging does not require rigid hierarchies, physical proximity, or pyramid structures (René Guénon said that Westerners, in their mental habits, are too inclined to find “systems”, even where they cannot be).[6] It is just as wrong, and perhaps even more dangerous, to give credence to the idea of the existence of so-called “lone wolves”; it is highly unlikely that a “lone wolf” will plan terrorist action “in the name of …”. Those who choose to kill blindly, taking into account the end of their own lives as well, must have previously gone through a period of ideological brainwashing and emotional subtraction from the social world in which they had lived and with which they had interacted up to the point of their extreme decision. I speak of an extreme decision because in the word “decision” there is the idea of the cut (from the Latin de-caedĕre, to cut off), which an individual cannot reach alone. Terrorists receive fundamentalist education that makes them immune and impermeable to any emotional influence external to themselves and the organization or religious movement they have joined and feel they belong to.

Recent events, however, have revealed a pathogenic aspect of our nihilistic society: its inability to give meaning to people’s existence, neither to their lives nor to their deaths. The most fundamentalist wing of the Islamic world has thus become entrenched in this painfully exposed nerve of Western culture that, often, can no longer adequately respond to questions about the meaning of life, allowing the emergence of a psychological context of the idolatry of power and money, full of declared and supposed “freedoms,” which in truth is scarcely human. Radicalism has occupied the emotional spaces left empty by a profound crisis in and fragmentation of shared values, to which fundamentalism is opposed in its rigid Manichean thought.

What does the so-called “Western” system of thought propose (or oppose) to these extreme forms of fanaticism and “non-thought”? An external faith anchored solely to an external form in which the religious function is no longer a “matter of the soul”. A religious phenomenon, being truly religious to its core, must be an experiential psychological fact, a “mysterium,” and in the word mysterium there is the “mu” particle, that is, silence as a mystical place of shared contemplation, or the absolute nothing of Zen. For the divine image as archetype to find its sacred silence, which is not an absolute or desperate silence, it must walk the path from the depths of the collective unconscious to consciousness.

Self-sacrifice in the suicidal terrorist act corresponds to the renunciation of one’s relationship with anyone else; in the case of the fundamentalist, he or she has already withdrawn any form of projection, abdicating any form of relationship during the preparation and the psychic and physical waiting for the approaching time of action.

For Jacques Lacan, man risks falling into the abyss of perversion when he disregards and denigrates the Law of the Word, giving precedence to a Law that transcends humanity and every established limit. This happens when a person rises up as an avenger who, transcending his or her individual life, kills in the name of a Value, a Cause. Whoever rises up as an avenger assumes the role of “crusader” in the pursuit of the affirmation, at any cost, of God’s perfect Law which, perversely, “mortifies” the imperfect law of humans, at the cost of the physical annihilation of the infidel.[7]

Symbolic thinking exceeds the standard capacity of the senses since it is in the symbol that we find the future. In the terrorist there is the loss of symbolic function and the ability to produce one’s own “living” images. Images no longer represent something, they no longer have any connection with underlying unconscious factors; they have become empty simulacra without meaning and thus without soul.

Here the dyad chaos-cosmos turns out to be an inseparable binomial because it is in their polarity that life, with its moderate and extreme aspects of good and evil, finds its reason for being, and it is not possible, not “Natural” to conceive of existence as made up only of good or only of evil, with the evil segregated into a hermetically sealed hell. The myth of Pandora’s box tells us how impossible, even unnatural, it is to try to confine all the evils of the world in a single space; sooner or later, the thirst for knowledge, sometimes dressed in the guise of curiosity, must liberate the evils of the world; besides jealousy, vice, and madness, they include old age and disease, which remind us of the passage of time. Only hope, remaining at the bottom of the box, can save us from the dejection of lost immortality; we have to thank Pandora and the female gender, to which, by extension, is attributed curiosity, if time has found its natural course: from the unnatural and immobile Chaos of Uranus, tenaciously attached to the mother-wife Gaia, who does not literally breathe (for our cultural canons, bound as we are to the “breath of life”, to the “mother’s breath”, it is a non-living life), and who refuses to give “light” to his offspring, presaging their end, we pass to the “death” of an eternal—and therefore not real—love and to the birth of Time, a time of births and deaths, of hopes and disappointments, of lights and shadows.

Western civilization has preferred to rely on a dichotomous morality in which the good-evil division reassures us of the “extraneousness” of evil, to be projected through its Shadow onto the alien, excluding it from its own God. The Book of Job is exemplary in this regard: the “permission” that God gives Satan to bring evil to poor Job reveals all his symbolic ambivalence: for, the omnipotence of God, so far away in his inscrutability and thus beyond good and evil, turns out to be fallacious like, and more than, his creation, though remarkably powerful (proving that, in the end, it will be the same God who “grants” a sort of “reparations” to Job). Job chooses the path of acceptance, revealing in his “humanity” all of his greatness.[8]

In conclusion, one of the evils and risks of contemporary Western humanity is what we might call “the shelter of reason.” We seek protection in a supreme order, whether religious or secular, in the blind hope that an external entity can guarantee us a sterile existence, devoid of accidents and misfortunes, but also, I would add, devoid of fantasy, depth, mystery, imagination, surprises, ideas, and visions, in a kind of perennial Truman Show. I believe that Jung referred to this when he pointed out that it is precisely in the vortex of chaos that eternal miracles dwell, and that it is the disquieting chaos itself that reveals a deep meaning, since man not only dwells in an orderly world but also in the magical world of his soul.[9]

[1] Carl Gustav Jung, Collected Works, Alchemical Studies, vol.13, p.55, U.S.A.

[2] From Law n. 898 of 1970 to Law n. 55 of 2015.

[3] Law n. 194 of 22 May 1978.

[4] James Hillman, Alchemical Psychology, Spring Publications, 2015, U.S.A.

[5] G. Pietropolli Charmet, A. Piotti, Uccidersi. Il tentativo di suicidio in adolescenza, 2009, Italy.

[6]René Guénon, Man and His Becoming According to the Vedānta, 1945, United Kingdom.

[7] See Philippe Julien, Jacques Lacan’s Return to Freud: The Real, The Symbolic, and the Imaginary (Psychoanalytic Crosscurrents), 1995, USA.

[8] See C. G. Jung, Answer to Job, 1984, United Kingdom.

[9] See C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche: vol.8, 1970, United Kingdom.

The Unconscious and the Island: Fragments of Research on the Self



Sometimes the ideas and insights, the feelings and emotions are born by a new and abnormal element, as a disturbance.

Among these, the word “emotion” shares the root with another word just as beautiful: it is the word “movement”.

I believe that life is often dotted and crossed by emotions and movements. Emotions are our emotions, are those shared with patients in the consulting room, with people important to us, through meetings with new faces and eyes. The movements, however, we can roughly categorize into two types: there are transverse movements, the ones that make us change jobs, make us change clothes or change cities. There are, then, the longitudinal movements, that make us be born, grow, learn, grow old, get sick, heal, die and, maybe, even reborn.

Through symbols and metaphors, but also through concrete facts, whether physical or psychological, in this article we will try to put through words the Journey of the person who, at some point in her life, feels that the land on which she lived with more or less security, the conscious, the consciousness, is only a small part, the surface of something much deeper, more complex, more unknown, but also, we believe, more fascinating, as it enables us, or forces us, to contact, to confront our most hidden parts, our Shadows.

One of the “key” inputs used in this article comes from the famous novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, written by Jules Verne in 1864; extracting from the plot components metaphorically more akin to philosophy, analytical psychology, but also to mythology, alchemy, etc., the most poignant and emerging psychic traits are two places, two physical moments in the work of the French writer, geographically very distant but geologically and psychically very next between them; two Volcanoes: the Icelandic Sneffels and the Italian Stromboli. From Sneffels, in fact, the three protagonists of Verne’s “Journey” had immersed themselves into the bowels of the Earth and, after many adventures and surprising discoveries, risen to the surface of the Planet through the chimney of Stromboli, which is a volcanic island, part of the archipelago of the Aeolian Islands, located near the northern coast of Sicily. Stromboli is a volcano whose explosive activity has been almost uninterrupted for about two thousand years.

At this point, for Italians is appropriate, even essential, a slight digression: Mediterranean people and Icelanders have a problem, or perhaps a greater opportunity than other peoples; occasionally, the underground, the unconscious, is felt, it makes its incessant restlessness manifest itself in the form of earthquakes, active volcanoes, or emerging and disappearing islands, and as we delude ourselves that our Being, our existence, is ended in the horizontality of the surface, something, at some point, makes us feel and discover the vertical dimension, which is no longer directed only upwards, towards Heaven, but is also directed towards the core of our Being, too. On this point, American psychoanalyst James Hillman spoke about a “feeling that there’s a reason why my person, which is unique and unrepeatable, is in the world, and that there are things that I have to devote beyond the daily life and at the daily life give its raison of existence (…)”.

Translating what has been written so far, the analytical path can be succinctly so symbolized: there is a moment in our life path in which we feel the need to understand and discover what lies beneath the surface of our daily and horizontal existence. This is, in the terminology of Carl Gustav Jung’s analytical psychology, the process of individuation, which was understood and sought already by alchemists long before modern psychoanalysis.

The central philosophical idea of alchemy claims that the first stage of the inner journey is the one in which the forces abandon the individual – the stage of decomposition, in Latin nigredo, in which there is a movement from an identified to a non-identified state; we can say that in this first step the ego offers himself to an initiatory death.

This stage is followed by one in which the individual, directed to the center of the earth, i.e. at the center of the Self, finds the roots of his own subjectivity: this is the albedo phase, without corporeality, full of its emptiness, according to the alchemists; at this stage the individual, although being a filled and present object, tests the paradoxical experiences of absence and emptiness. Just by facing and overcoming this stage, the human being can move up to a renewed light, towards individuation. This is the stage of rubedo, in which there is the materialization of the Spirit.

Similarly to the alchemists, Rabbi Dov Ber (or otherwise written Dov Baer), the main propagator of Hasidism, a current of Judaism founded in the eighteenth century, argued: “We have to think about ourselves as nothing, forgetting ourselves“, meaning that each thing, every thought, in order to transform itself, must venture into nothingness, renouncing itself; only by denying ourselves and annihilating ourselves we can transcend time: “He who arrives at the threshold of nothing, forget his own person and obtains a natural mind“.

The individual adult, the mature person, or at least the one that aims to become one (it’s never too late!), should prepare herself for the meeting with their dark spots, by means of comparison with their own Shadows (Greek ????, Latin umbra, Italian ombra), so as to begin the process of individuation. Consciousness, moreover, that constitutes our daily life, needs its counterpart, the unconscious, and one component cannot be separated from its counterpart, as though adhering to a universal law: Light and Darkness, Day and Night, Full and Empty, Male and Female, Good and Evil …

Contenting himself with living exclusively in the light of the sun, ignoring and disclaiming our less brilliant parts, exposes us to the risk of an incomplete existence, devoid of our more nuclear members, more genuine and more intimate, which, if not recognized and integrated into our lives, are likely to turn against us. Accomplishing this path requires a good deal of courage. C. G. Jung wrote: “Whoever goes towards oneself risks meeting with himself. The mirror does not flatter; it shows faithfully the one which is reflected in it, and that is the face that is never exposed to the world, for we veil it by means of the Person, the mask of the actor. But behind the mask there is the mirror from which the true face shines. This is the first test of courage to face on the inner way, a test just to deter, scared, most people. The encounter with oneself is indeed one of the most unpleasant experiences, from which we escape by projecting all that is negative onto the world around us. He who is in a position to see his Shadow and bear the knowledge has already completed a small part of the task: the personal unconscious has just emerged to the surface“.

Accepting our own Shadow, recognizing the personal unconscious, means dealing with the sense of one’s own limitations and taboos; we believe this to be the paradigmatic aspect of the work of the analyst: the couple patient/analyst, their differentiation of roles, expectations, skills, desires, needs, etc.; this acceptance determines us to face the uncertainty of the limit, peras in Greek, which is a psychic place about which man has asked over the centuries many questions, yet finding no clear and definitive answers. Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, defines the limit as the extreme end of all things, beyond which there is nothing of the thing, and on this side of which the whole thing stands.
According to Homer, “over” is the place where psyché lies when man abandons it, if he loses consciousness or dies: it [psyché], breathed its last breath, it reaches Hades, which is the place of the non-visible (Á-ides), where it will dwell as a vain shadow, in a state of overwhelming sadness.

The religious feeling, before being directed towards Heaven, elected its specific region in the underground, the lower world, from which flowed life and where the man returned after death, in search of the con-centration, memory and ecstasy: “Men die because they are not able to join the beginning with the end“. It has psychic consistency, then, to realize that the primitive mythology devotes so much attention to those more disruptive geological phenomena and more related to the subsoil, such as earthquakes and volcanic events, which aroused (and still create) terror and wonder that are basic elements of the sacrum and the supernatural. The supernatural, if it is ever universally recognized in the mountains, it is even more so if it comes from volcanoes. If the gods inhabit the peaks of the mountains, in the case of volcanoes their home is inside, that’s why the crater is considered the entrance to the other world, the passage from which to reach the Center where “(…) Archeus resides, the “servant of nature”, that Paracelsus also called Volcano, identifying it with the Adech, i.e. with the “great Man“.

In the mythology of the Mediterranean regions the Sicilian volcano Mount Etna, the largest in Europe, is the forge of Hephaestus, whereas for the Romans it is on Vulcano island (also belonging to the archipelago of the Aeolian Islands) that God forged thunderbolts for Jupiter and weapons for Mars. It is from the late Middle Ages that the word “volcano” has spread all over the planet to name the mountains made by fire. To finish this brief digression about the mythology of the Volcanoes, according to legend, Athena would force Enceladus (meaning “restrained voice”, “interior scream”) below the slopes of Mt. Etna, while another myth speaks about Zeus, who casts Mt. Etna against the monstrous Typhon, burying it, though some variations of the myth say that Typhon would be under the whole Sicily and, according to Pindar and Aeschylus, the area involved would be the entire volcanic Tyrrhenian region included from Etna to the Ischia island (located opposite the city of Naples), and this would explain, at least in terms of mythology, the correlation between the phenomena of Stromboli and Etna, which is flatly denied by geologists, whilst volcanologists have just recently expressed a symptomatic yes and no (e.g. Fumiciello R. & Billi A., 2003. “Etna e Isole Eolie: casualità o eventi connessi?” Sicurezza Civile, 3:8-11).

There are some phenomena, some psychic objects with which, during our lives, we are confronted almost daily and that, with their symbolic and archetypal mark and structure our way of life, we refer to; for example, darkness: it, when we are children, arouses our fears, our sense of vulnerability, but it contains as well an unspeakable, seductive value. It is in the darkness of the underground, in the unconscious, that we seek our less visible parts; sometimes they are, perhaps, less glorious and bright, they are our shadows, but they are that part of ours that is closest to the core of our Self, in which those components reside, sometimes surprising us, silently and subtly guiding our choices, our meetings, our fears, our desires, our work, our being-in-the-world; and here in the morning, awakening, a dream, just a stupid dream, predisposes us to a good mood or a bad mood or to looking for the lottery! It is not recent history, however: in ancient Greece there were some priests, followers of Asclepius (deity to whom was consecrated the science of medicine), who interpreted the dreams of people: the nightmares (incubi, in Italian), creating the so-called practice of incubation. The word comes from in-cubus, since the sleepers, after some rites of ablution and therefore “clean”, lay down on square stones at the center of temples dedicated to Aesculapius, in its Latin form. When they wake up, they must tell the dreams to the priests, so that they can interpret them, so as to give directions to the person or sometimes to the whole community. For the Romans, the incubus was a spirit responsible for the safekeeping of valuable assets buried under the ground, while in the Middle Ages the incubus assumed the guise of a monstrous spirit that surprised the women at night, oppressing their chest with his weight or abusing them. The square stone, therefore, had a significant and catalyst function.

The descent into the darkness of the underground, in the realm of the Dream, the unconscious, leads us to a place devoid of psychic temporality, comparable to what the alchemists called vas bene clausum or vas hermeticum, i.e. an isolated system and hermetically closed so as to protect the good and growing part of the living world and the psyche. Devoid of sunlight, conventions and social rhythms, any notion of time can be dilated to excess or be reduced to a quantity point.

Continuing with geometric symbolism, the search of the archetype of the Center is a primordial need for man because the point, along with the circle and the sphere, is a “natural” figure.

The first image that the child conceives about itself is a round image. The figure of the circle is rooted deeply in the mind because it regards the first mental learning tension of the bodily self and its borders. As soon as the child is able to draw on the paper a sign that goes beyond the simple doodle, the first creative expression that performs the baby is a circle and this is the result of a long, evolutionary internal and autobiographical process. To approximate to the core of the individual, we must do it so in a “naive” (ingenuo in Italian) way, that is to say so natural and free (from the Latin ingèenus, which indicated those who were born in the same place where they lived and that had therefore certain birth, unlike the slaves). To search for the Self so naively means to predispose oneself to an inner journey without intellectual superstructure, in which the natural component is higher than the cultural one; and the reason is simple: reason has the need to objectify at any cost, so as to put a separation between self and other-than-self, between the observer and the observed. In order for it to discover and know one’s Self, however, we must “be Self”.

Marius Schneider wrote in Kosmogonie: “in “normal” consciousness nature and human consciousness are not related, but as it is in man a more intimate conscience is forming, the world reveals the deep awareness as a supra-individual unit, in which man and nature live together and are intrinsically fused. Because man can experience the structure of the universe only in himself, he decides its structure from the essence of nature“.

Descent into Darkness exposes the abandonment of certain habits, certain rules and certain “safety” structures guaranteed by the Light of the surface, i.e. by the consciousness and the “concreteness” of the earth on which we live.

Venturing in the Dark, in the region of the unconscious, is similar to offering oneself a new perspective, a new “possibility of existence” or, in religious terms, a new grace; but this trip, this waiver, albeit transient, of solar Light, has inherent the risk of loss of control and the con-fusion of the limit: madness. This is a fundamental point in psychotherapy, because it repeats the essential theme of balance and aid that the therapist must offer to the patient so that he, the symbolic Being and as such a mediator between the earth and the sky, can find his own way, with prudence but also with courage, i.e. the necessary courage to overcome a particular impasse, the likely cause of illness or disorder.

The encounter between the patient and the therapist is like a contest in which the apparent balance between the ones is broken by the patient’s demand. The dynamic that occurs is similar to the contention of judo; the word “judo” is formed by the JU ideogram, which can be translated as “soft”; the character “DO” represents the student accompanied by the teacher, but philosophically it is translated as “path” or “way of improvement”. Judo, therefore, expresses the “way of gentleness”. The student, the patient, addresses the question, the “problem”, to the therapist, the “master”, who is waiting for the “attack”, expects the “disturbance”, the “noise”. The therapist is not opposed to the attack, but he welcomes it and supports it, leading it to the logical conclusion and freeing the patient from that which is most likely a false social assumption, namely the risk of alienating the person from one’s Self.

What envelops and confuses man are, often, the rules and social demands that often conflict with the feelings and individual instances. We believe that the task of the therapist is to permit reconciliation between the dictates coming from society and the search for identification, thus safeguarding the integrity of the person. An aphorism says that a good doctor is one who entertains the patient while nature cures him.

Resuming the thread of the metaphor which we used before, i.e. Verne’s novel: the Journey begins and ends on two volcanic islands, the cold Iceland of Sneffels and the hot Stromboli. The island, psychologically, is an extra-worldly environment, surrounded by the incessant restlessness of the liquid element that wraps and surrounds it, whilst for being able to reach the island it is necessary to deal with the water, which can be unpredictable and dangerous. It is impossible to come onto the island accidentally, because the island is an “exact” goal, the island is genius loci: the landing on the island is allowed to those who accept the risk or have the talent to get there, as long as they do not fall into hybris, arrogance: in alchemical terms, the access onto the island is allowed to those who are in the grace of God, because the Island is a témenos. The sacredness of the island, especially if it is volcanic, sanctifies the person that docks unharmed.

To dock on an island means abandoning a protected place to rely upon the sea-utero that surrounds and contains, on which, usually about the summit, there is a crater, the omphalos (ombelico in Italian), a term which in antiquity, as well as ‘navel’, distinguished a certain stone to which was attributed religious significance.

At the beginning of this text, we made a brief mention about the emergence and submergence of islands, about lands standing in the sea; we have, in the Mediterranean Sea, a very close and geologically recent example: Ferdinandea Island, off the coast of Sciacca (close to city of Agrigento), a little town located on the southern coast of Sicily, whose last emergence and disappearance is documented in 1831. The emergence of an island needs the participation of a fundamental key, it needs Fire, for it is by the combined action between the water and fire that the island can materialize itself, whose persistence in the superficial and aerial region and whose resistance, however, depends on the firmness of the bonds that must persist within the game of opposing forces exerted by the Wind, then from Air, and especially by the disruptive action of the sea-unconscious.

The geometric figure which can be associated with fire is the pyramid; Plato argued that the element of fire is marked by pyramids and that of all the solid figures contained the proper signs of fire, being their shape extremely pointed and with a minimum of a base; in addition, it seems certain that if a dead organic body is placed in a particular point inside the pyramid, which has precise proportions, the process of putrefaction freezes, allowing mummification, as if the fire inside of the pyramid could burn its temperaments (moods). In the pyramid there are just two specific principles including gender, i.e. the female, the four, the base, which mark the horizontality, i.e. the earth, the acceptance, complementary to the principle of three, i.e. the male, vertical, penetrating like a mountain. The uneven numbers, in the West and in the East, have always symbolized the male, while the even numbers recall the female: if we look at the Christian-Catholic dogma, the Trinity has male characteristics, apart from some rare interpretations, and just with the accession of the Virgin, sanctioned in 1950, and the subsequent formation of the Quaternary, the Trinity also includes a female component.

The Heart, thanks to the combined action of Water, Fire and Air, which was previously localized in the chthonic regions of Dream, erupts at the superficial region of awareness, changing its status from a magmatic, undifferentiated condition, to the solidity of the consistency of the lava emerged, materializing the island and, psychologically, making clear the conscience.

The emerging volcano-island, then, is the Self manifesting itself and that is opposed to what the psychoanalyst Erich Neumann called “psychic gravitation”, which is the centripetal tendency of the ego to return to the original unconscious psychic dislocation, and it is what happens to the Ferdinandea Island, which, failing to develop and strengthen the bonds necessary for its survival out of the water, is broken up and re-assimilated into the subterranean regions, the analogue of the unconscious.
The fire, along with water, comprises one of the most ancient and universal human symbols. In the cross itself, the horizontal line represents the water, the female principle, namely the surface, the descent and the depth, because the water penetrates by gravity through the rock; the vertical arm, however, is the masculine principle, namely fire, connected to rising, height and concentration. It is in the cross that the maximum energy concentrates, in the intersection of the two arms, that is, the punctum indivisibile (indivisible point), from which everything emanates and to which everything returns. Any attempt of separation or categorization leads us to the Centre, in this indivisible point where opposites, joining, coincide and form the identity. It is from the Centre, too, that the movement originates, symbolized by Man through the cross, with one of the oldest symbols of the graphic Indo-European culture, the swastika, an eastern representation of the solar disk, whose word seems to derive from an ancient Sanskrit formula of blessing, su asti, and this is the core of the mandala, the nature and origin of which cannot be treated in this article.

The volcano and the crater represent the sensitive point, the place of rupture, the portal through which the passage can take place, the communication between the underground, the unconscious, and the emerged regions, the consciousness. The crater, the summit or mouth of volcanoes, is the entrance gate to the kingdom of Hades and it is a place of transformation, of rebirth and enlightenment; to support the symbolism associated with the crater, we can connect to the sacrificial cup, that embodies the symbol of “Center of the World” or “Heart of the World”, in which the immortality elects his home. If we move from the ground up, we find that due to the peculiarities that Mercury has over other gods, he is the only god that is allowed to carry the souls in the opposite direction, taking them to Hades.

If we want to remain in the theme of Heaven, instead, an important astronomical discovery happened at Plato’s time. The planets – the Greek word meaning “wandering star” – had always been considered the celestial bodies that, unlike the others, wandered aimlessly. But a member of the Platonic Academy, Philip from Opunte, observed that the planets moved around the Earth with regular revolutions. Law and order ruled in the sky. An unprovable hypothesis was formulated, which nevertheless seemed convincing: the stars were animated and traveling along regular orbits by the will and judgment just because they were “visible gods“. In Timaeus, and likewise in the Phaedrus, Plato put his theory of the soul in relation with the stars: the soul comes from the heaven of the fixed stars, from the sphere of eternal things; from there it falls into that of changing things, until it comes to Earth, enters a body, from which it is delivered after death, in order to ascend again to the immortal stars.

In this short passage begins to emerge this “need” of man, already testified inter alia by Heraclitus (“the way up and the way down are one and the same“), to find a continuity, a junction between the underground, the Earth and Heaven. Many peoples, including Persians, believed that the sky was made of stone and they used the same term for the concepts of “heaven” and “stone”: Asman. There is a Greek word, akmon, which has the same origin and means both “heaven” as “anvil stone”. The fragments of the meteor falling to Earth led the first men to believe that the sky was made of stone. That’s why the ancient men imagined the universe as a giant cave and, consequently, the caves in which the followers of Mithra met to perform their rites, for example,, were regarded as reproductions of the cosmos.

At this point, we hypothesize that Journey to the Center of the Earth represents Man’s desire to return to the original and primordial center; in alchemical literature it is defined as “regressus ad uterum” (return to the womb), and the three explorers of Journey to the Center of the Earth will find a sea-utero at the end of their underground journey.

Jung writes: “In the myth of the hero, the purpose of the descent is universally characterized by the fact that in the danger zone (deep water, cave, forest, island, rock etc.) there is the ‘treasure hard to reach’ (jewel, virgin, elixir of life, victory over death etc.). The fear and resistance that every natural man feels when digging too deeply into himself, are ultimately the fear of the journey to Hades. If we try just resistance, the thing would not be so serious. In reality, however, from that psychic background, so just from that dark space, unknown, exudes an attraction, a fascination, which threatens to become even more overwhelming the deeper one penetrates in it“.

The vas (vase in English, vaso in Italian), the antrum formed by the crater from which you can access to Chthon, however, is also a cave; the cave, like all the archetypal objects, is naturally ambivalent: it is a place of change, and the change takes place as withdrawn, precluded at the uninitiated and protected from external light. It is a place of burial, which marks the end of life, but it is also a place of initiation and birth (in a cave or a grotto were born Jesus, Zeus and Mithra, and we can also remember the adventure of Jonah).

Now let’s try to do a little exercise chart: the overlap between the graphic representation of the cave and the mountain is the shaped of the symbol called the “Seal of Solomon”, whose figure, full of several symbolic references, condenses the meaning of the macrocosm: the triangle with the point at the top, which is a symbol for Aria and Fire, is the male principle; the one with the tip down, a symbol for Water and Earth, is the female principle. The hexagram thus formed and circumscribed form the Divine Principle, the androgynous being, the perfect balance. We find a drift into this principle in botany, where there exists a plant, the convallaria polygonatum, called “Seal of Solomon”, whose roots are used in white magic, placed at the four corners to protect the house from any evil influence.

Beyond the direct will of the grapple in the discovery of the unconscious, we believe that it is necessary to accommodate this sort of “gravitational captivation”, living it as an opportunity, rather than to suffer it: the opportunity to discover and re-acquaint oneself, making use of the image that not by chance we can associate with the concept of “idea”, inasmuch as “idea” and “image” have the same etymological origin, eidos and Eideo, which in Greek means “to see“. Hence also the Latin word “video” and the Greek word eidolon, idol, which means “image” too.

The most frequently proposed or celebrated appearance of what is defined as “postmodern condition” is its reliance upon the superficial image. In contemporary culture, we are surrounded by a fast flow of images that pile up in a succession of news, advertising and TV series in which it is no longer clear whether that image belongs to the so-called “reality” or not, in a semantic and iconic confusion that requires proper space-time placing, a translation and interpretation, until the short-circuit occurs, i.e. the paradox in which, according to research, it is discovered that approximately up to 11 years of age, most children are not fully aware that the images and verbal messages of advertising are constructed to lead us to the purchase of products.

Arguing about the image, we use the example of the photographic image: it predominates in the determination of the reality, especially for the urban contemporary psyche. This is so true that those images that start as a representation of reality, become representations without any “reality” behind them. According to French philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard, the image, in the postmodern conception, can be summarized in four types:


1.The image is the reflection of a deeper reality

2.The image disguises and perverts a deeper reality

3.The image disguises the absence of a deeper reality

4.The image has no relationship with reality: it is a mere simulacrum, intending for simulacrum an appearance, an image that, contrary to the icon, does not refer to any reality lying under.


Here, then, what is the challenge and the opportunity that we believe may be contained in a search path toward the center, toward the Self: the chance to “take a look” beyond the superficial appearance, which is likely not to forward to a non-lying-under reality and confining ourselves to the illusion that “it’s all here,” opening, to those who want, a series of questions, one of which could be the following: “is that world, the unconscious world of each of us existing prior of our discovery, an a priori, or is it embodied just as a result of our investigation, which we call psychoanalysis”?

Life, existence, is much more than a series of behavioral patterns more or less tested – by others – to inspire us and on whose footprints we repeat something already done said, seen and thought. The uniqueness of our Being, however, is attested continuously by our unconscious through a lapsus, with premonitions, forgetfulness, or with dreams that every time, at every age, in every culture, never cease to frighten , inspire, amaze with their absolutely and absurd originality.

Why, then, this sense of horror that emerges in the stories of mermaids or in dreams of mermaids, which is never a pure horror but is almost always flavored, accompanied by a component that is unspeakably attractive? Why this discomfort? My interpretation is that their physical proximity to Man, as well as their mental one, leads these dis-human beings – but not too much – to makes us feel a certain commonality, an affinity that, in many dreams, result in a much greater terror than, say, a meeting with a monster-monster. The meeting with the Mermaid, but also with the Centaur, the Chimeras, forces us to accept our submerged parts, not human or not yet human, revealing how fragile may be the distance separating from reason, the logic, full consciousness and our Shadows, our instincts, our being animal.

Concluding, I would like to remark that the point of view inherent in this short article should be interpreted as an opportunity for trying to change perspective, to change the lenses with which we look at the world we live in, for becoming “world” ourselves too, daring, if it is the case, even to make choices that are less conservative and yet more sacred, both for us and for the universe. There is a Japanese short story about a farmer who, alone, cultivated his field on the hill above the village in which he lived; suddenly, watching the sea on the horizon, he saw that a huge tsunami wave was fast approaching the village. The farmer was shocked by what was going to happen; without wasting time, he did something seemingly absurd and seemingly antisocial: he set fire to all the fields close to his. The other farmers rushed to the village to save their harvest, but precisely at that moment they understand that, by means of an apparently criminal gesture, the farmer had saved their lives.

We believe that this very short story contains part of the meaning of the “journey” toward the center of our self, that is, if this journey is done with awareness, it is an opportunity to try to see things, life, our existence in a seemingly circular path, just as the three travelers of Jules Verne’s Journey to the center of the Earth do. As admirably summed up in an alchemical aphorism: “for those who are not on the path of knowledge, a tree is just a tree; for those who are on the path, a tree ceases to be a tree;, for those who have attained knowledge, a tree again becomes a tree“.