Much Ado about Nothing: A Tentative Exploration of Void States

Paul Ashton
Cape Town, South Africa
South African Association of Jungian Analysts

So many of my patients have spoken, at one time or another, of “being in a void” and this talk originated in my attempting to understand what l felt they were describing and how that varied from person to person. At one time the void experience seems to be pathological, to be got rid of, and at another to be fundamental to any growth within the individual i.e. to be welcomed.


My talk has nothing to do with Shakespeare, or his play, beyond the title and the fact that Shakespeare was an artist of the spoken word. Art, by which l mean any medium that expresses the symbolic, is the only language that can fully express the paradoxical nature of the void and so l will be illustrating this talk with images.

What is the Void?

is any body out there?There is a child’s riddle which could have come from the slit that is the Sphinx’s mouth. What is greater than God and more evil than the Devil, the rich don’t want it and the poor have it? The answer. … Nothing!

According to a Hindu creation story, before the world, before the sky, before space, there was nothing but ocean; a flat rolling lake that lapped the edges of emptiness and the void beyond. Reading this in reverse, the void is primary, beyond anything, an utter no-thingness; emptiness suggests where something is missing but it contains at least the idea of that which is missing; and ocean represents the first substance, the prima materia, out of which the known universe, space, sky, world, can be differentiated.

batellierIt is through separation and differentiation, (distancing in fact) that the light of consciousness illuminates the darkness of the prima materia. Depicted here in this other cartoon by the French artist Batellier.

egyptian Also, in this image of the Egyptian myth where the sky is lifted from the earth by Shu the creator. Outside of what is illumined is the void.

pontormo The light shines in this lovely image by Pontormo from 1537. But the light can easily be blown out, the roof collapse, the known be swallowed once more by the darkness of the void which is always on the fringes of our consciousness.

The void is a feature of all life’s stages and periods of transition. It extends backwards from birth and forward from death, and its winds are sensed at all times of change. Madness, grief, ecstasy, trauma, pain and the loss of relationships and of the known and meaningful, can all give rise to it. Mostly we stay away from the void, but there are those who flirt with it, extreme-sports fanatics for example, and those who assiduously seek it out in some spiritual journey, or are driven towards it in the individuation process.

winnicottandbion Void experiences range from the primitive agonies and nameless dread depicted by Winnicott and Bion, through to the chronic sense of alienation and boredom that assails so many individuals today. The existential void, which results in a sense of emptiness, disconnectedness, and an unlived life.

figurine This felt experience of internal emptiness was depicted by one patient, a product of repressive parenting, in this modeled figurine
figurine1 the substance of whose torso was almost entirely replaced by a cavity.

woman Patients may feel that they do not exist. The same young woman constructed an image on her computer (right) showing her reflection distorted by three mirrors. None of the reflections matched her view of herself, so the obvious thing to do was to took down to find who was there.
shoes What she “saw” was an empty pair of shoes. Not only was she not seen but she did not exist.

starrynight Playing with a photo of herself superimposed on a distorted version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, she constructed these chilling images.
starrynight1 Neither the centre nor the container can hold.

moore A man spent the years up until his twenties, “knowing” he was “dead”, his sense of self obliterated by a forceful mother and his own resignation. It took the twin experiences of an imbibed hallucinogen and his sexual initiation by a child of the sixties to break into his sarcophagus. (Henry Moore Large Upright, Internal/External form).

It is impossible to become your-self without a mirroring object, “for whom you can be yourself”. It sometimes happens that the child feels that he should be someone-else to feel that he can be loved. A four-year-old girl was brought to therapy because she mimicked her older brother to such an extent that she called herself by his name, George. She somehow knew that her parents had wanted another George and it took some long months of therapy before she could tolerate her own self,

shoes stand in her own shoes.

A woman, whom I will call “Sarah”, felt, as a child, that her true individuality was not acknowledged. Her mother used to say to her “you and your grandmother and I are exactly the same”, and she denied any aspects of her daughter that did not fit in with that perilous sameness. In the presence of her mother Sarah felt empty of herself; “the void in the presence of the mother” is what Enid Balint called this state. The absence was where the experience of the Self ought to have been, or where the ego-Self axis had broken down.

barbarahepworth When we are mirrored we see our reflection and we see the mirroring object, and we can internalise both of those. When there is a lack of mirroring, due to the absence of a primary object, mother or father, we become empty, both of ourselves and the felt sense, or internalised form, of that object. (Barbara Hepworth Figure for a Landscape)

In many of our societies it is the father who is absent, “At work” or “Gone fishing”, or being an older sibling not a father. When the personal father is absent the Archetypal father remains as a dominant. The Archetypal father image is not mediated and “father” may never be introjected on the human scale.

As a young boy, a client of mine was put to bed at 5 in the afternoon so that he would not disturb “the tired man”, his father, on his return from work. He expressed a fantasy of searching for his father, going up to a door behind which he expected to find him, and opening it into an abyss. As Hollis articulates, boys, needing to identify with their fathers are often forced to identify with nothing, an absence.

In South Africa the iniquitous Migrant Labour System resulted in numerous Black children being brought up empty of their own fathers, who had gone to work in the cities. Mothers too had to leave their children in the care of their families. One woman told me how she would desert her children at the end of her vacation at her home in the country. “I secretly take my bags to the bus-stop, then go home and tell the children that I’m just going to the shop. Then I get on the bus to Cape Town. “ She just disappeared from her children, … yet again.

Astrid Berg describes how that wounding can be mitigated. A Xhosa mother was observed with her infant boy. During the observation she sang repeatedly to him, naming and describing him, and the members of his clan. In this patrilinear culture the clan is that of the father, extending laterally to his relations, and backwards in time to his ancestors. The mother’s song thus embedded this boy in his own history, particularly in relation to the masculine. For many Western children the family portrait gallery is empty.

In many psychiatric conditions the void is a felt presence and there are many different experiences that may be described by patients as “being in a void”. In the borderline experience there is a fluctuation between the states of merger or abandonment, the loss of a sense of separateness because of “falling into” the other, alternating with the feeling of being too distant, so far away from the other that one is unreachable or forgotten. Common images are of being adrift on an ocean while a boat steams away, hurtling through dark space

fridakhalo … or falling from a high building. (The Suicide of Dorothy Hale by Frida Khalo portrays this.)

ln severe Narcissistic patholog y, and in Bipolar disorder, there is an alternating identification with the Self or an alienation from it. Both these positions lead to a void experience, the first through a loss of individuality by identifying with a transpersonal archetype, and the second through a disconnection from any sense of meaningful contact within. The feeling is of “I am all there is” which suggests either, “I am everything”, or, “I am entirely alone”. A child dreamed of swaying on a thin bridge suspended between the earth and the moon,

kingkong … another, pictured himself as a King-Konglike figure stomping insignificant mortals.

kingkong1 The full picture, (note the 10 million tons threatening to drop on his head) demonstrates the Terror of the Tyrant who has no one to protect him.

Autistic defences serve to perpetuate the myth that the autist is the lonely sovereign of his universe.

impermeableshell By creating his own impermeable shell, or downy cushioning, he manages to keep other-ness at bay.

defencesbreakdown It is only when those defences break down and an-other intrudes, that his world collapses and he feels like nothing in nowhere, totally at the mercy of that from which he is now separate.

impermeableshell From being all there is he becomes nothing at the mercy of everything. (These are Henry Moore’s Helmet figures both in
defencesbreakdown and defenceless, out of, their protective helmet.)

munch_thekiss The experience of strong feelings, sexual arousal or intense rage for example, may be enlivening, but when the boundaries between them blur, the individuals feel they are slipping into the void. In Munch’s The Kiss, the embracing bodies melt into each other and into blackness.

alfredkubin Joyce Mc Dougall writes of one man’s void experience when early oedipal fantasies came close to consciousness. His terror was of disappearing into the chasm that was the maternal interior. As illustrated in Death Leap by Alfred Kubin.

munch_thescream Loss also, through divorce, death, or other catastrophe may leave one feeling, what TS Eliot describes as, “nothing but a set of obsolete responses”. And incipient psychosis, that there is no solid ground beneath one’s feet. (The Scream by Munch,)

munch_murderess Encountering one’s Shadow, as has Munch’s Murderess, seen here standing dizzily back from her victim, can have the same effect. As one patient described it after a session “the whole world seemed to tilt as I left the room.”

klimt_hostilepowers I am struck by how the void Powers are so often imaged as female. Perhaps because the Archetypal feminine as dispenser of life and death is so close to the void archetype. This is Klimt’s version of The Hostile Powers; Seduction, Disease, Madness and Death. They could all pull one inexorably into the void.

The walling off of chaos or emptiness (both internal and external) can itself lead to a void state as it seals the individual away, both from contact with another and from his own imagination.

okeefe_citynight Images of this appear in dreams, as castles or towers, protective shells, or of being behind thick glass, or in a glass box. This is Georgia O’Keefe’s City Night. Hard schizoid defences protect the individual from intrusions that are felt as threatening, or else deny both his need for another and his own felt experience. “Father, I don’t need you” is how one child comforted himself.

chirico_melancholy It is as though the schizoid builds a covering over the depths of his vulnerability and that covering seals him off, not only from his vulnerable interior, but from his contact with others too. (Chirico’s Melancholy and Mystery of a Street)

The lack of a wall can also be damaging. A 20 yr old male patient had been brought up by parents who were obsessed by the idea of improving the family’s financial situation through renovating houses. They did not live in one house and renovate another, they broke down and developed the house that they were living in at the time, fixing it up, not for themselves, but in order to sell it. The family moved 16 times in his first 18 years and my client felt that his parents’ minds were always on building and not on him.

khnopff_disappearingtown Order came to be experienced as that brief interlude that preceded, and was preceded by, chaos; that which presaged falling apart. I experienced him as being Someone without shape, without a containing skin. He could not engage with another from his own discreteness, but was flooded by the void-lapping waters of non-differentiation. (The Disappearing Town by Khnopff)

Sometimes the defensive wall is to protect from loss or contain what may leak away. An analysand described her feeling state as like a bank balance that always teetered on the edge of being empty, she was able to function in her work as a therapist but when she returned home would feel unable to give any more, she was void of nurturant feeling. Another woman remembered how as a child she dreamt that she saw her mother stand over a drain-grating and leak away. Nothing but a grating between her and the void. Both needed rigid defences to protect them from depletion.

In South Africa’s past, the oppressors were said to “have died or (be) dying, dehydrated of sympathetic sap.” One can say something similar about those with an Antisocial Personality disorder, they are empty of feeling for another; and about those who perpetrate war crimes who,
newyorker in their acting on behalf of a collective, lose their feeling for the individual. Any one-sided action is close to the void. One-sidedness relegates whatever does not fit to oblivion.

The void implies a loss of ego awareness, and this may arise from different causes. These include the loss of the capacity to think, as in dementia, or in those situations where the thoughts are unthinkable and there is no-one to mediate their being thought. I am thinking here of victims of torture or of severe abuse, how are they to think about the perpetrators, what was done to them, or even their own reactions to the trauma. Dissociation and repression, two ways of not being aware, both result in being void of one’s wholeness.

So sometimes the void is generated as a refuge from what is, like knowing that “my parents are mad or bad”. At other times or for other people it is the void itself that is most intolerable. A South African woman of colour, who had been active in the struggle, was arrested, interrogated and tortured. She was taken from that situation and placed in the “White” hospital section of the prison, and just left there, alone. There were no other “patients”, it being a very underused section of the prison in those Apartheid days, and she was convinced that she had just been dumped there and forgotten. The feeling of being in the wrong place, (she was not white after all), not being present in anybody’s mind, and the emptiness, were more intolerable than the abuse that preceded it.

kahlo_roots In one of Frida Kahlo’s works, called Roots, she portrays herself as having a cavity in her torso through which one can see the ground behind her. Out of this emptiness spread green branches whose leaves are sprouting red roots like capillaries. The rootlets lie passively on the surface of the deeply fissured ground. New growth from the emptiness, the fertile void?

kahlo_treeofhope From other of her works e.g. Tree of Hope, we know that the earthly foundations of her world threaten to break away, leaving her on the edge of the void, and my sense is that that emptiness was for her more frightening then the intense physical pain that she suffered throughout her life,

kahlo_loveofembrace Even this multiply containing The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth, Diego, Me and Senor Xolotl carries with it a sense of the intolerable emptiness beneath and behind.

One of the functions of self-harming behaviour may be to keep the void at bay. And depression, which is often described in terms such as “the pit of depression” or “the abyss of despair”, while itself a void experience, may be an attempt, also, to ward off emptiness.

Fear is a normal and healthy response to the void that implies an awareness of what is. To be frightened and yet continue as undefensively as possible with life’s journey is the right attitude and starts to fill the void.

stuck_sin Another Hostile Power, this time by Von Stuck and entitled Sin, inspires both attraction and terror. To be fearless in her presence suggests you are missing something; to be asleep implies another loss.

child_void The void does not disappear just because you close your eyes. This child is warmly embedded but at his feet the shattered container opens onto the void.

As we explore the void with our rational intellects we lose our terror of it; understanding it seems to obliterate it. Science and logic defend us against the emptiness by seeming to limit the vastness of the unknown. But what they delineate is only a tiny area of the vastness, not the vastness itself. In fact too much “knowing” encloses us, walls us off from the spread waters of the imagination, the unconscious. As Tennyson puts it in the Ancient Sage:

For knowledge is the swallow on the take That sees and stirs the surface-shadow there But never yet hath dipped into the abysm, The abysm of all abysms, beneath, below …

The artist’s creativity, on the other hand, that knows it does not know, adds something new even to our vision of the void. It opens wider our doors of perception and adds to the created universe.

blake_ancientofdays Blake’s Ancient of Days reaches out from his womb of knowledge, his cosmos, to tentatively start measuring the immensity outside.

Images or symbols foster wonder, and wonder, the acknowledgement of something bigger than us, fills the void, not with finality but with possibility. For me, Jung’s idea, that: “The symbol is alive only so long as it is pregnant with meaning.” And that it dies “once its meaning has been born out of it”, is close to Bion’s concept of the “saturated” idea. The symbol is only meaningful, only remains a symbol, if there is space in it for something as yet unknown. “All great art has a hollow in it,” expresses a similar idea. (Thomas Moore) The symbol contains a cycle of wonder, looking, listening and questioning, that leads to awe that leads to wonder and so on and on. Facts, on the other hand, lead to conclusions and opinions and a certainty that creates a secure cosmos but exacerbates the emptiness beyond it.

void_self Through attempting a conscious connection and involvement with the Self, the limiting opposites may be transcended, but only if we can stay close to “The abysm of all abysms” … the Void.

By staying close I mean that we take seriously the enormity of the unknown and at the same time value what we have come to know. As we fall out of each area of the known and into each new section of the void, if we can look, listen and feel, the vast shoreline of wonder may open up ahead of us, filling us with awe.