Gordian Knots

The importance of hopelessness in psychotherapy

By Terri Broll


Legends, myths and fairytales have long fed and exercised psychoanalytic thinking. What follows is the metaphorical use of the story of the Gordian knot as a way of thinking about our work with severely damaged individuals.

The story of the Gordian Knot has many versions and many interpretations, but the dilemma around the fate of Gordius’ knot remains its most compelling feature. The popular version of the tale tells us that there was a time when Phrygia (which now may be located in modern day Turkey) found itself without a king. An emissary was sent to the Delphi Oracle in the hopes of finding clues to the identity of their next ruler. The Oracle predicted that the next king would ride into the city on an ox cart. And so Gordius, a peasant farmer, made his entrance as predicted. He was established as king and in gratitude tied his ox cart to a pillar in the city. The tying of the ox cart is sometimes attributed to his son Midas, but one version suggests that Gordius secured the ox cart in order to remind himself, and others, of his humble beginnings. This particular knot was fashioned out of the fibres of the Cornel tree, which when wet and young can be intricately folded and on drying becomes solidified and fixed. For many years no one was able to untie this knot. When Gordius died his son Midas succeeded him, but on his death, left no heir. Phrygia was again without a ruler. This time the Oracle predicted that the person who untied the knot would become the next king. It fell to Alexander the Great in 333BC to perform this task and become the next ruler of Asia. How Alexander dealt with the knot remains undecided. One version is that Alexander, after numerous attempts at untying the knot and mounting frustration, drew his sword and cut through it (now referred to as the ‘Alexandrian solution’). The other is that he found the required ends of the knot and unravelled it. That there are two versions here is what keeps this story alive with potential.

Amongst other interpretations, the fate of the knot speaks to us of humility and omnipotence, of faith in the face of helplessness, of the role of decisive action and the importance of doubt. Using the idiom of the knot, it could be said that one of the aims of psychoanalysis is to untie. It unties by interpretation, reconstruction and insight. It attempts to liberate through shared symbols and metaphors in an arena where two people collaborate in hope. As therapists we are in the business of hope.

One of the uncertain benefits of human consciousness is the capacity for hope. The capacity for hope could be understood as a particular kind of imaginative act. In a Winnicottian sense it is a transitional arena of mental space, an imaginative playground where the individual is released from the immediate by the potential possibility of alternative scenarios where the self is placed in a fictional future. Like transitional objects, these scenarios are composites of the individual’s subjectivity and fantasy and the transformational, containing and reparative capacities of early objects. Many things are required of the psyche in order to engage in this complex mental activity. The capacity for hope draws on the management of depressive anxiety, the capacity for symbolic functioning, mourning, and a sense of the self existing in historical time and immersed in a cohesive narrative. This is indeed a tall order for some.

Hopelessness on the other hand could be considered the absence of these hard won capacities. Here the individual exists in an inner world of uncontrollable happenings where events from any unpredictable corner of the psychic cosmos impact on a fragile and unprotected ego. Psychic energy is mobilised in the service of avoiding danger and annihilation. Splitting is only a temporary respite, the results of which are inevitably reinserted into this closed psychic system. With time, this circular process solidifies into a psychic knot entangling the primitive ego into what is often described by these individuals as being deformed. There is no way out. Hope is never generated and therefore never foreclosed. Hopelessness is a loss of hope where hope once existed, but here hope simply cannot be imagined, since there was never any to lose. The absence of the symbolic activity essential to the establishment of meaning relegates the individual to a ruthlessly random and futile world.



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