Fantasy in a psychological sense is broadly used to cover two different senses, conscious and unconscious (sometimes spelled ‘phantasy’). A conscious fantasy is a situation imagined by an individual that expresses certain desires or aims on the part of its creator. Fantasies sometimes involve situations that are highly unlikely; or they may be quite realistic. Fantasies can also be sexual in nature.

Another, more basic meaning of fantasy is something which is not ‘real,’ as in perceived explicitly by any of the senses, but exists as an imagined situation of object to subject.

In everyday life, ‘individuals often find their thoughts pursue a series of fantasies concerning things they wish they could do or wish they had done…fantasies of control or of sovereign choice…daydreams.’ American psychiatrist George Vaillant in his study of defence mechanisms took as a central example: ‘an immature defence…fantasy – living in a ‘Walter Mitty’ dream world where you imagine you are successful and popular, instead of making real efforts to make friends and succeed at a job.’ Fantasy, when pushed to the extreme, is a common trait of narcissistic personality disorder; and certainly ‘Vaillant found that not one person who used fantasy a lot had any close friends.’

Other researchers and theorists find that fantasy has beneficial elements — providing ‘small regressions and compensatory wish fulfilments which are recuperative in effect.’ Research by psychologist Deirdre Barrett reports that people differ radically in the vividness, as well as frequency of fantasy, and that those who have the most elaborately developed fantasy life are often the people who make productive use of their imaginations in art, literature, or by being especially creative and innovative in more traditional professions.

A similarly positive view of fantasy was taken by Sigmund Freud who considered fantasy a defence mechanism. He argued that men and women ‘cannot subsist on the scanty satisfaction which they can extort from reality.’ ”We simply cannot do without auxiliary constructions,’ as Theodor Fontane once said…[without] dwelling on imaginary wish fulfillments.” As childhood adaptation to the reality principle developed, so too ‘one species of thought activity was split off; it was kept free from reality-testing and remained subordinated to the pleasure principle alone. This activity is fantasying…continued as day-dreaming.’ He compared such phantasising to the way a ‘nature reserve preserves its original state where everything…including what is useless and even what is noxious, can grow and proliferate there as it pleases.’

Daydreams for Freud were thus a valuable resource. ‘These day-dreams are cathected with a large amount of interest; they are carefully cherished by the subject and usually concealed with a great deal of sensitivity…such phantasies may be unconscious just as well as conscious.’ He considered ‘These phantasies include a great deal of the true constitutional essence of the subject’s personality’ and that the energetic man ‘is one who succeeds by his efforts in turning his wishful phantasies into reality,’ while the artist ‘can transform his phantasies into artistic creations instead of into symptoms…the doom of neurosis.’

Austrian-British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein extended Freud’s concept of fantasy to cover the developing child’s relationship to a world of internal objects. In her thought, this kind of ‘play activity inside the person is known as ‘unconscious fantasy.’ And these phantasies are often very violent and aggressive. They are different from ordinary day-dreams or ‘fantasies’ (spelled with an ‘f’).’ The term ‘fantasy’ became a central issue with the development of the Kleinian group as a distinctive strand within the British Psycho-Analytical Society, and was at the heart of the so-called ‘Controversial discussions’ of the wartime years. ‘A paper by Susan Isaacs (1952) on ‘The nature and function of Phantasy’…has been generally accepted by the Klein group in London as a fundamental statement of their position.’ As a defining feature, ‘Kleinian psychoanalysts regard the unconscious as made up of phantasies of relations with objects. These are thought of as primary and innate, and as the mental representations of instincts…the psychological equivalents in the mind of defence mechanisms.’

Isaacs considered that ‘Unconscious phantasies exert a continuous influence throughout life, both in normal and neurotic people, the difference lying in the specific character of the dominant phantasies.’ Most schools of psychoanalytic thought would now accept that ‘Both in analysis and life, we perceive reality through a veil of unconscious fantasy.’ Isaacs however claimed that ‘Freud’s ‘hallucinatory wish-fulfilment’ and his..’introjection’ and ‘projection’ are the basis of the fantasy life.’ The key questions of the Controversial discussions were: to what degree is unconscious fantasy a genuine development of Freud’s ideas, and does it represent the formation of a new psychoanalytic paradigm.

Controversial psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan engaged from early on with ‘the phantasies revealed by Melanie Klein…the image of the mother…this shadow of the bad internal objects’ – with the Imaginary. Increasingly, however, it was Freud’s idea of fantasy as a kind of ‘screen-memory, representing something of more importance with which it was in some way connected’ that was for him of greater importance. Lacan came to believe that ‘the phantasy is never anything more than the screen that conceals something quite primary, something determinate in the function of repetition.’

Phantasies thus both link to and block off the individual’s unconscious, his kernel or real core: ‘subject and real are to be situated on either side of the split, in the resistance of the phantasy,’ which thus comes close to the center of the individual’s personality and its splits and conflicts. ‘The subject situates himself as determined by the phantasy…whether in the dream or in any of the more or less well-developed forms of day-dreaming’; and as a rule ‘a subject’s fantasies are close variations on a single theme…the ‘fundamental fantasy’…minimizing the variations in meaning which might otherwise cause a problem for desire.’

The goal of therapy thus became, ”la traversee du fantasme,’ the crossing over, traversal, or traversing of the fundamental fantasy.’ For Lacan, ‘The traversing of fantasy involves the subject’s assumption of a new position with respect to the Other as language and the Other as desire…a utopian moment beyond neurosis.’ The question he was left with was ‘What, then, does he who has passed through the experience…who has traversed the radical phantasy…become?’

The postmodern intersubjectivity of the 21st century has seen a new interest in fantasy as a form of interpersonal communication. Here, we are told, ‘We need to go beyond the pleasure principle, the reality principle, and repetition compulsion to…the fantasy principle ‘ – ‘not, as Freud did, reduce fantasies to wishes…[but consider] all other imaginable emotions’; and thus envisage emotional fantasies as a possible means of moving beyond stereotypes to more nuanced forms of personal and social relating. Such a perspective ‘sees emotions as central to developing fantasies about each other that are not determined by collective ‘typifications.”

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