Unconscious, fantasy, imagination: some reflections on the words of birth theory and their history


This presentation will focus on a few key terms used by Fagioli in Death Instinct and Knowledge to present his discovery. It will follow two complementary perspectives: the history of words, with its burden of connotations, and Fagioli’s constant search over the years for the most exact expressions to verbalize the theory of birth. We will focus on the two simultaneous moments of which the dynamics of birth is composed, as it is set forth in the first chapter of the book: the disappearance fantasy and the unconscious calm sea, and in particular on the two terms most dense in meaning and history, on which Fagioli’s own later insights have dwelt: “unconscious” and “fantasy.”

On the historical point of view, the two terms have very different traditions. That of “unconscious” has been the subject, since the late 1990s, of a study stimulated by Fagioli within the Collective Analysis, which has shed light on the implications of the success of this noun, which appeared in German in 1800. It evokes a mental reality totally separated from consciousness, unknowable, obscure, demonic, which has found expression in Freud’s theory. Fagioli overturned this view from the outset radically, and consequently criticized the word itself in a process that led him step by step to abandon it for other expressions such as ” non-conscious mind.” Already in Death Instinct, however, he made a particular use of it, and transformed its meaning by coining the expression “unconscious calm sea” to indicate the formation of the ego at birth, thus associating the term “unconscious” with an image opposed to the idea of a dark and terrifying world.

The break he introduced as early as 1972 from the philosophical and psychoanalytic tradition may be even more evident from a cursory examination of the history of the second term: “fantasy.” It is a word that has had a technical use in the language of psychoanalysis, but it also has an older history, which opens it up to the possibility of exposing a discovery that overturns Freud’s conception of the unconscious.

In the Renaissance tradition, “fantasy,” along with “imagination” – another term closely associated with, which Fagioli adopted in his later reflections – used to express an irrational dimension closely fused to the body, acting through sight and capable of influencing mental but also material reality – both one’s own and others’. “Fantasy” and “imagination” underwent a torsion between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from which they emerged depowered and identified with deception, a source of error and madness. They retain, however, the evocative connotation drawn from their earlier history, to which Fagioli himself alludes since Shakespeare’s epigraph that opens Death Instinct and Knowledge. In the years of the Collective Analysis he returned to some key figures of that tradition and their possible intuitions concerning the existence of a nonconscious mental reality of human beings. Most importantly, he closed the circle of his critique of the concept of unconscious by replacing, in 2006, the diction “unconscious calm sea” with that of “capability to imagine.”

With this passage, which follows an earlier reflection on the concept of internal image, it seems that Fagioli wishes to clarify that the image at birth is not a definite image, as if it were the conscious recollection of a perceived material reality. The difference between (conscious) recollection and (nonconscious) memory is further emphasized in the 2010 edition of Death Instinct, where the latter is substituted for the former in referring to the fantasy of the existence of the intrauterine object.

Our presentation finally aims to trace the subsequent developments in the meaning and articulation of these terms in Fagioli’s thought, with a particular focus on the concept of fantasy. A turning point in this regard can be situated around 2015, when Fagioli formulated new definitions aimed at better specifying the meaning of the concepts concerning the dynamics of birth and the first year of life.


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