The media is a-buzz with speculation about why Donald Trump won’t admit he was wrong about Birtherism. There are many angles from which to speculate about his motives. I would like to offer a psychoanalytic interpretation of this phenomena because only psychoanalysis can offer a view that can account for what so many are experiencing as an impenetrable barrier to comprehension – for so many it is incomprehensible that in the face of so much contrary evidence that ANYONE could maintain this position. What does one say to someone for whom 2+2=5 no matter how much anyone demonstrates otherwise? And, in light of today, now says, “OK I see 2+2=4, but SHE said that 2+2=5 and it took me to correct it!”
I believe the answer to the psychological component (rather than the sociological or political) of this lies in the nature of what psychoanalysts encounter clinically as the manifestation of a DELUSIONAL CAPSULE or area in an otherwise neurotic personality. As any analyst or therapist knows who has encountered such areas working with patients, ONE CANNOT ARGUE OR REASON WITH DELUSION. Why? Because the delusion or delusional formation attests to an underlying area of trauma – a place where extreme mental pain, a psychological catastrophe – has been quarantined to protect and ensure survival of the rest of the personality. Delusional constructions have to be believed because otherwise the psyche is threatened with catastrophe. Clinically, through treatment, as the underlying catastrophic emotional wound is ameliorated, the delusional constructions abate and proper ego structure can be grown in it’s place.
Before deconstructing the Birther phenomena, there are some concepts that I ought to introduce since they provide an interpretive key or lens through which I will be hoping to shed light on the link between the fragile nature of self esteem which in this case underlies the need to construct a delusion.
DISCLAIMER: I HAVE NEVER PERSONALLY MET DONALD TRUMP NOR HAVE I CLINICALLY EVALUATED HIM IN PERSON. ALL THAT FOLLOWS IS SPECULATION BASED ON MR TRUMP’S OWN PUBLIC COMMUNICATIONS. Nevertheless, if it walks and sounds like a duck…..
So, by way of brief detour, let us first examine a related example of how Trump constructs a delusion. The first example is from yesterday’s New York Times article, reporting on Trump’s criticism of an African-American pastor who interrupted him during a campaign speech at her church in Flint, Michigan. The day after this incident, on Fox News, Trump accused her of being “nervous” before he spoke, which later seemed to him to be proof that she had set him up. He stated he believed Pastor Timmons had a political agenda, remarking, “Everyone plays their games, it doesn’t bother me.”
I think in this incident we can (analytically) infer the same processes at work in the delusional birther construction. First, Trump experiences a wound to his self-esteem (a ‘NARCISSISTIC INJURY’, in the lingo) – the pastor corrected him on stage and this was experienced as humiliating, being made to feel small and inferior. And without the internal resources to work through this wound, it festered and had to be ejected from his sense of himself to restore his overall psychic equilibrium, needing to feel big and superior.
Second, the next day Trump seems to spontaneously bring up this issues and accuses the pastor Timmons of attacking him with malicious intent – in his mind he has made her a persecutor, confusing or conflating his feeling of being hurt (the end result) with her intent (she did it on purpose), and then rationalizes this distortion by making it sound reasonable: “everyone plays their games.” This latter construction, sighting and citing the pastor as malicious-game-playing-dishonest bad object is an example of what we call ‘PROJECTIVE IDENTIFICATION’. What this means is that he perceives the pastor as harboring and manifesting in her behavior emotions, motives, and attitudes that are really true about him, but that he is unable to own or accept emotionally and maintain his sense of himself as all good (I only tell the truth), strong, powerful, and right.
Thus, third, PROJECTIVE IDENTIFICATION is also a means of ‘REVERSING PERSPECTIVE’ (what is true is false and what is false is true): in effect rather than own that when he was interrupted by Pastor Timmons HE felt caught AT HIS GAME (manipulation) of using this church’s invitation in Flint Michigan to malign, persecute and lie about Hilary Clinton, he has to say in effect, “that’s not me it’s her” to eliminate any unbearable feelings of guilt and shame. Moreover, this construction has to be maintained (a ‘PROJECTIVE TRANSFORMATION’ of reality) in spite of reality because otherwise the unacceptable (SPLIT-OFF and PROJECTED) ego states would be returned to the self and may result in a crash of the ‘DEFENSIVE or PATHOLOGICAL ORGANIZATION’, thereby threatening the fragile ego with fragmentation.
So, delusional constructions are constituted by the processes of SPLITTING, PROJECTIVE IDENTIFICATION, REVERSIBLE PERSPECTIVE, and are organized by the DEFENSIVE ORGANIZATION (or defensive ego) with the aim of avoiding traumatic NARCISSISTIC INJURY (i.e., wounds to one’s sense of Self which are experienced as overwhelming, unbearable and annihilating) by creating an enforced PROJECTIVE TRANSFORMATION of perceived social reality (otherwise called a delusion).
Let us see how this abbreviated psychoanalytic model sheds light on Trump’s behavior at his news conference this morning where he offered a placebo admission of being wrong about Birtherism:
Trump gave his brief address standing with a group of military veterans in his new hotel in Washington DC
In PROJECTIVE IDENTIFICATION not only does one expel unacceptable qualities outside the self, one at the same time magically appropriates good or admired qualities. We might wonder if he was appropriating the qualities of honesty, courage and strength from these others on stage through such narcissistic identification, which means somewhere else his probably projecting the opposite qualities of dishonesty, weakness, and cowardliness. Also, notice how much Trump seems to use his real estate properties, where he is ‘the king’, to bolster his sense of self as special, powerful, big, safe, etc.
“President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period,” Mr. Trump said. “Now, we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.”
“Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy,” Mr. Trump said. “I finished it.
So, his first statement is an acknowledgment of reality (giving up a delusional construction) and we can imagine is humiliating for him, and any questions from reporters would only make it worse, as though they were sticking their fingers in the wound. It is in the second statement that we can see the DEFENSIVE ORGANIZATION at work using PROJECTIVE IDENTIFICATION to create another delusional construction to replace the first. His second statement has been repeatedly fact-checked to be false. From this psychoanalytic point of view, however, it is obvious why it is necessary: he has to REVERSE PERSPECTIVE (Hillary is a cowardly liar who puts out such lies due to her weakness) to put into Hillary these unacceptable ego states and qualities to avoid what feels like an annihilating humiliation to admit he was wrong and had been cruel to Obama for the smear of Birtherism. His self esteem is so fragile he cannot help himself but to construct these delusions.
Moreover, why Birtherism in the first place? One answer can be found in terms of a central preoccupation with “legitimacy” and “illegitimacy”. It has been reported that Mr. Trump was driven around by a chauffeur to do his paper route as a boy. If we extrapolate this as a model, we can infer that in significant ways his family system supported a kind of false or ‘illegitimate’ basis for some of his qualities as a person – feeling successful as a paper boy based on the experience of other people doing the hard work would create a very thin sense of confidence or ‘success’ – not based on his own real work and lived experience of struggle and sacrifice and having to overcome hard challenges on his own efforts. Think of the experience of cheating at something. One may temporarily feel the manic triad of triumph, control and contempt, yet it is a pyrrhic victory since one knows it does not attest to actually having earned the win – it creates or builds underneath the manic triumph an unconscious sense of illegitimacy.
Following this logic, Trump has a unconscious need to PROJECT INTO OBAMA his unconscious sense of inferiority and illegitimacy. This is especially true since as soon as Trump started believing he should be President then Obama became his competitor and therefore the target for evacuating all of his own unbearable feelings about himself. So it seems to me that once Obama had to be the manifestation of illegitimacy that then Trump, who is not otherwise psychotic, had to rationalize the feeling – i.e., come up with an explanation that is logical. In other words, if Obama is an illegitimate president, then what would make him illegitimate? Oh, yeah, not being born in the United States. Hence, this construction becomes the bulwark of a delusion needed for Trump to maintain his psychological equilibrium organized around grandiosity and manic defenses to defend against an underlying fragile sense of existence.
Bion, W.R. (1963) Elements of Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac.
Especially on historic days is it important to keep in mind that no tree is without its roots, no mountain without its base, and no building without its foundation. In a brief concession to the genius temporis, we will consider five mythological friendships, between men and men and gods, which cleared the way for the path America continues down today. And though this article will focus on the relationships between men and men and gods, its lessons could just as easily be generalized to relationships between other genders, regardless of their constituent parts. The point of this article, and friendship, has been said best by Aristotle:
“After what we have said, a discussion of friendship would naturally follow, since it is a virtue or implies virtue, and is besides most necessary with a view to living. For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all…
*** FOR MAXIMUM EFFECT I SUGGEST WATCHING THIS SHORT VIDEO FIRST IN “FULL SCREEN” MODE.
Clearly there seems to be something that brings two different human beings together; whatever the outcome of their coming together, whether it is shipwreck or continued journey, it appears to be a very stimulating experience. So those who are disposed to launch themselves on the stormy seas of love are risking a painful and frightening experience of shipwreck.
INTRODUCTION: ‘Shipwreck’ of Desire and Certainty
However else we might interpret the ‘shipwreck’ that evolves and envelops both Orpheus and Eurydice, I want to focus on the role Orpheus’ desire and certainty played as a counterpoint for unpacking some of Bion’s ideas in the seventh of his Italian seminars.
The overall point Bion seems to be reiterating in slightly different form is that our analytic aperture has to be focused on experiencing THE POINT OF CONTACT with the PSYCHIC REALITY [“O”] to which psychoanalysis can give expression – act as midwife to the experience emerging out of a dark spot of ignorance and in need of comprehensible shape and release as a measure of personal meaning. This is how I understand the notion [cf., Meltzer, Meg Harris-Williams, etc.] of the aesthetic experience of the symbol. Like looking at a statue in a museum where one must circle around to see and experience the sculpture from different angles, Bion directs our attention from different angles to which he parlays from the questions he is asked in the seminar.
I. TIME & SPACE
Reaching back to the first seminar, we recall critique of the search for “facts”. We might characterize his stance as viewing what we call ‘facts’ in the natural attitude (what we naturally regard as real reality without question) as reflexive “constant conjunctions” to use Bion’s phrase indexing Hume.
The same thing applies to the whole body of psychoanalytic thinking. These theories are very useful — the difference between conscious and the unconscious. Falling back on metaphor, one could say that when we secrete an idea, or when we produce a theory, we seem at the same time to lay down chalky material, we become calcified, the idea becomes calcified, and then you have another impressive caesura which you can’t break out of. An asset, a useful theory of conscious and unconscious, then becomes a liability; it becomes a caesura which we cannot penetrate.
Seminar seven opens with a question about “the concept of time” and “how does Dr. Bion see time?” He questioner lists several abstract-conceptual questions about time and finishes with, “How are we to ensure that the concept of relativity that follows from the abolition of definitions does not coincide with stasis?
So, Bion is posed a calcified question, or set of questions — as if asking him how we should MAP ‘time’ as a facticity as opposed to grasping our lived experience of it. Bion’s typically circuitous means of responding seems to be a way of disorienting (deconstructing?) his audience’s pre-given orientation to — and embeddedness in –conceptualizing (mapping), in order to open up refreshed possibilities of meaning for ‘time’ and ‘space’ as experiential constant conjunctions — for revitalizing some aspect of experience and understanding it anew.
Bion wonders aloud about where this question comes from – where in the person?, the group?, this group? He then parlays into a discussion of infantile experience of TIME:
I can suppose that there was a time [as an infant] when I noticed that things which presented themselves to my senses were not within my reach and I would have to resort to some sort of locomotion to get them. That would give rise to a feeling which might grow into an idea later, that there was such a thing as time and space which divided me from the object which presented itself to my senses.
In other words, our originary experiences of what will later be called ‘time’ and ‘space’ as constant conjunctions are elastic measures of frustrated desire: the time and space between the mouth and the nipple, between a fall and being picked up and held. A gap is required for an experience to have existence as such it seems — to be defined or take shape as a unit in and among a network of heterogenous units of experience, and THEN to be named. To experience one’s existence in personal terms requires differentiation.
Am I to evaluate my present idea about time and space vis-a-vis the idea of time and space that I would have if I were a hungry baby trying to get at what I regarded as some desirable sweet from which I was separated? “Le silence eternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie” [Pascal, Pensees]. I couldn’t say that if I were a baby, but I could feel it: I could feel that it would be a terrible thing if I had to find the time and the athletic ability to get from here to there.
Bion’s reference of Pascal suggests he wants to emphasize that the primal experience of space and time is backdropped by a terrifying sense of vulnerability and annihilation in our inevitable ALONENESS-and-yet-simultaneous-DEPENDENCE. With ontological differentiation comes a turbulence of affects that have to be borne. If we are unable to bear this torrent and become symbolic about this time and space, they can feel like an unbearable mutilation to have to bear-out in having to wait.
Orpheus, for example, seems unable to bear his longing (TIME and SPACE) for Eurydice. Upon seeing her he feels compelled (GREED) to use magic (OMNIPOTENCE) to have her for himself as his lover – no time and space for a relationship to develop. Yet his magic renders her so mindless she is unable to protect herself from the asp who bites, kills, and sends her to the Underworld. Orpheus confident in his powers, descends after her to use his magic powers and defy the order of things to be united with his beloved. However, as the sound of her footsteps evanesces he looses faith and turns to see her, though forbidden by Hades to turn around. As a consequence, he looses her; his manic attempt at reparation failed, he is crushed by guilt and dies.
II. OMNISCIENCE & CERTAINTY
When you give an interpretation tomorrow, are you sure that it will approximate to expressing the music of humanity or the little bit of it which has got into your consulting-room? Note that there I have introduced an element of rhythm, timing. Most of us probably have the experience of sometimes feeling that “that was a good session” , when we were really together with one of our patients.
Most of the rest of the seventh seminar deals with really owning, experiencing, and taking stock of our vulnerabilities as weakness as human beings — our very limited powers of mind and body — and the need to come together so that, “if we can collaborate further, we may, by our combined knowledge, make more inroads into our ignorance.
Bion explains that it is only because we somehow and somewhere still believe in omnipotence and omniscience that we oscillate between those feelings and their opposite — abject helplessness and stupidity or incompetence. Only if we give up the idea or aspiring to the idea of absolute certainty and knowledge can we be freed of the terror (helplessness and ignorance) of infinite space and time. For analysts, he continues, this might leave us with either a vain search for:
some absolute value in the way that mathematicians do. But this comes nearer to having to invent or create the tools with which to think. While you are attempting to analyze the mind of somebody who is not you, or the relationship between two minds, you also have to invent or create the very tools you hope to use. Here we can watch and listen to us trying to learn how to think. That particular space and that particular silence are so penetrating that we get frightened of them.
Hence, a primary challenge in “reaching a patient” is to bear the weight of not knowing, groping through the dark together, and coming together to grasp a meaning of being locked in an affective experience pressing for release. Reaching the patient is through a unique creation — when and where some unique moment and measure of Being is released. This aesthetic experience of being (“a little bit of humanity”) conjoins the lived experience of Time, Space, Meaning, and the Symbol.
III. AESTHETIC SYMBOL & BEING-SPACE: “A LITTLE BIT” OF HUMANITY
Every subject is born into a ‘speaking space’, which is why, before approaching the structure of the I, as an agency constituted by discourse, I shall analyse [sic] the conditions necessary for that space to offer the habitat suitable for its needs.
This quote is from Piera Aulagnier (The Violence of Interpretation), a French psychoanalyst who worked to integrate the work of Winnicott and Lacan, wanting to understand the origins of psychosis through early childhood and infantile experiences. I am incorporating the spirit of some of her ideas into my reading of Bion’s 7th and 8th seminars to explore and examine how the aesthetic experience of the Symbol is constitutive of becoming or psychic growth.
Perhaps we might say that “the aesthetic experience of the Symbol” tries to capture how The Symbol gathers or occasions a space in which some measure of human being exists, unfolds, or is felt to be elaborated — a space where the “I” can come about, to use Piera’s stimulating vernacular. Recently I attended a show at the Los Angeles Art and Craft Museum near my home. The show was a collection of quilts made by men in the US, which, overall, seemed to push the boundaries between “craft” and “fine art”.
This piece is by Aaron McIntosh [http://aaronmcintosh.com/home.html], one of the artists represented. It is a quilted image of a gay sex magazine cover in the style of the 1970s, with patches of quilt from his grandmother’s collection blocking out parts of the cover. He used his aesthetic symbol-quilting as a means of exploring two central dimensions of time and space in which he lives — in the sense Winnicott used in his chapter “The Place Where We Live.” [Playing and Reality]. In Mr. McIntosh’s words:
In the same way that this gay, masculine body is out of reach for me, so too is a fulfilling relationship with my family and their traditions. Both are just tantalizingly out of reach. So in this very literal way, I am forcing my queer desire to intersect my craft heritage and creating a space for what is in between.
What is “in between” is a little bit of his humanity – a space for a measure of his existence contoured by intersecting lines of desire. This series of moments of space where his “I” exists is bounded by a horizon of alternate lives felt to be possible yet impossible, lives of oneness with ‘that family’ experience or oneness with ‘that man’. It is a space of longing (desire) shaded more or less by sorrow (depressive position) and resentment (paranoid position). This aesthetic object (symbol) creates/gathers/re-presents a sample of his human existence we can “step into”, so to speak.
In Bion’s terms [Theory of Thinking], the experience of a “no-Breast” — the space where a Breast experience should be — occasions an existence constitutive “thought”. A relationship between two different terms is required for a “thought”. Difference means separateness, aloneness and dependence. Out of the baby-mommy unit comes the possibility of “baby” as a self-reflexive awareness and unique address for a meaningful self – aware of itself as a center of its own desire (first experienced as painful collapse) in dialectical (and asymmetrical) opposition to the object of desire felt to be gone: painfully torn away and precipitating deflation and collapse – the annihilating draining away of one’s existence.
It is as though by giving identity or shape to the over-there where the artist is barred from existing (where he is a no-thing and has nothing as non-existing), the shape of who he is over-here is defined and affirmed; here he is a something, a someone to somebodies, though not all to everybody (ultimate satisfaction) or to himself. Analytically speaking we might say his existence over-there is as a vestigial experience of being-a-collapsed-longing (a dying/murdered desiring subject) projected into and inhabiting or even ‘saturating’ The Symbol.
In other words, I am trying to grasp and share his artwork holistically as a psychoanalytic symbol as Meltzer describes:
The process of condensation operates on the myth of the emotional experience …. In this mythic stage of recording an emotional experience, as in many discursive dreams, the meaning is still open to many interpretations. But as condensation proceeds, and finally results in a highly condensed symbol, say the Queen in chess, the meaning is now contained, no longer open to multiple interpretations. It must now be “read” or understood, grasped. Thus a symbol may be said to be “close to the bone” of mental pain, for it pinpoints the zone of conflict.
[NOTE: Meltzer cited in Williams, M.H., 2005, p. 11]
A Pictorial Postscript:
Let the two lines that define the angle subtending the arc BAC represent the two lines of desire in Mr. McIntoshes quilt. The triangle BangleC, then, represents the space created by these intersecting lines of desire – the space where he lives. Chord BDC, then, might be called the boundary of reality, and if so, then we can call arc BAC the “infinite arc of unlived lives” (thought to be possible, longed for, but not to be), since the line is an infinite number of points. Line AD, then, would represent the tension of longing between the who one is and these BAC unmourned vestigial aspects of selfhood or self experience. Lastly, might not the area outside are BAC represent the Real or “O” as the ever present zone of the unknown ultimate reality at the boundary of lived experience? The “infinite silence of infinite space” that scares us? The zone outside of our symbolic capacities?
FLESH made WORD (meaning, Logos) and The Eternal Return of Unconscious SENTIENCE: The aesthetic experience of the Symbol and Transformational Emergence
Dedicated to Jim Grotstein MD
(Please click the “play” icon below for musical accompaniment by Phillip Glass’ Metamorphosis 5; it may take a minute or two to load)
I am commenting on both seminars five and six because it’s pretty clear that seminar six contextualizes five and further clarifies what we might call Bion’s analytic aesthetic.
SUPPOSE a painter sees a path through a field sown with poppies and paints it: at one end of a chain of event is the field of poppies, at the other a canvas with pigment disposed on its surface. We can recognize that the latter represents the former, so I shall suppose that despite the differences between a field of poppies and a piece of canvas, despite the transformation that the artist has effected in what he saw to make it take the form of a picture, something has remained unaltered and on this something recognition depends. The elements that go to make up the unaltered aspect of the transformation I shall call invariant.
In this quote from TRANSFORMATIONS Bion uses the painter as a model or heuristic for entering into an investigation of the psychoanalytical aperture — the way conducting psychoanalysis allows the “ineffable subject of the unconscious” (Grotstein) to disclose itself from itself in the very way it shows itself from itself through spontaneously organizing or shaping of our experience using a palette of sensation, emotion, feeling, ideation, and imagination. This is, at the same time, a moment of evolution for both the patient and analyst’s “personalities” (scientific vertex), “souls” (religious vertex), or “spirits” (poetic or artistic vertex). It is also a fleeting experience of A SYMBOLIC TRANSFORMATION. And once this experience has become us (if we allow it), we are left with a temptation to hold onto the dead, concrete ‘accretion’ left behind [cf seminar one]. In Seminar Six one of the group members makes reference to St. John’s Gospel, asking Bion to help him understand how the Word was made flesh. I think it is the other way around. THE awe-some mystery is in how the Flesh becomes Word in “apocalyptic revelation”.
** PLEASE NOTE: The painting embedded in the quote is a watercolor by Bion taken from his recently released Collected Works.
I. AESTHETIC (lived) EXPERIENCE OF THE SYMBOL
The SYMBOL is not just an abstract concept as deployed in the discourses of semiotics, literature, religion, psychology, etc. It is also a lived experience within the analytic setting. And, even more than just one phenomena among many, it is the essential experience of psychoanalytic practice, for it is the presencing of the transformation (both in the sense of bearing witness to the emergence of the transformation and providing the conditions to catalyze it) from soma to psyche. I propose that somewhere in the lived experience of the SYMBOL, psychoanalytically grasped, is the link between mind and body: the FLESH made WORD.
So, I was at my analyst’s office the other day and something happened that finally helped me grasp the analytic idea of the symbol.
Wow, Rocky!, that’s cool. Tell me, what happened?
So, I went into the bathroom before my appointment that is just off the waiting room, and on my way out I looked at the shower that’s there without a shower curtain, and even though I had seen it many times before, on this day I thought, “Oh, I could go run on the beach before my appointment and then come in here and shower.” And as soon as I thought that, I walked out into the waiting room and felt my body freeze, as though I was bracing myself about to get smacked. I imagined telling my analyst that I wanted to use the shower and getting yelled at for it. By the time I sat down in the waiting room, I dismissed the whole thing as nonsense and sat down, forgetting about it and thinking I could never mention this because it was too embarrassing.
Then, during the session what ended up coming up and out was a lot of sorrow and pain as a child, remembering how I felt shut-out, rejected and it was as though I had to walk on eggshells all the time. My analyst linked this with her upcoming absence for a vacation, and how it felt like having the door slammed in my face. This was true, but it also characterized a general atmosphere and sensitivity that we had been talking about in many other contexts for months. It wasn’t until I left that day that I recalled my thoughts in the bathroom and realized that my phantasy about the shower was a model of this dynamic, which I had taken too concretely… not SYMBOLICALLY
You mean the SYMBOL is a kind of shell or shape, like a mold that our embodied-mind uses to cast our embodied though-not-conscious experience into a meaning? It is as though we have to transform our substantive bodily experience into a mental-meaningful experience we can put into words.
Yeah, and somehow through the releasing of this meaning from my embodied-mind into my body-mind, I felt more real and substantive as a being, both more grounded and freer at the same time. I think R.D. Laing might call it more “ontologically secure”…. It’s almost like being fed my “unthought known” experience helped me separate myself from my experience enough to have it as an experience, which was me but not-me at the same time. I could have it but not feel had by it…
It make me think about how we are both part of the natural world and not at the same time, like the me that’s part of nature, what Sartre called the “in-itself” needs to have aspects of experience be continuously born into the human world of reflexive, conscious meaning, the domain of the “for-itself and through language… Better yet, maybe the for-itself itself is what demands this continual casting of experience into meaningful shapes so our conscious minds and reason can realize their unfolding potential? I mean after your experience of this shower-symbol and the releasing of your experience what’s left of you is a new you, but the shower-symbol is left as an accretion, like an empty mold, an ‘unsaturated element’ as Bion called it.
So, I guess the important part is the process or the moment of transformation from symbolic equation to symbol, and in the infinitesimal gap between these two is a release of some quanta of life (new being) with a leftover husk? Like some kind of immanence within ourselves demands we allow it to evolve us in it’s image or in terms of its Logos? In the articulation of beta-elements into alpha-elements there is not just some mechanical process, there is some kind of entelechy at work, some kind of sentience trying to direct our personal evolution…Wow! That’s super deep Bullwinkle!
This matters to us tomorrow when we see our patient. I think it is helpful to forget all our theories and our desires because they are so obstructive that they become a an impressive caesura which we cannot get past. The problem is how to let the germ of an idea, or the germ of an [experience], have a chance to grow and develop…. If I want to pictorialize this, I can talk about alpha- and beta- elements — a beta-element being something which is purely physical; and alpha-element something mental… [Seminar One]
II. THE FLESH MADE WORD
[Leonard Greco, The Green Knight, 2015, graphite and watercolor on paper, 11″ x11″]
This painting, inspired by the Arthurian legend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is a mythopoetic representation of what we might term SYMBOLIC EMERGENCE: the place or zone where the binary opposition between secondary process mind (“the postnatal person”) and primary process minds (“the highly intelligent embryo”, cf., Seminar One) can align and result in the measure of growth in the psyche (soul). This zone is a evanescent GAP (moment) in the transformation from a symbolic equation moment-of-being into what might be described as a symbolic state of becoming, where some new measure of psychic life is pressing for release from embeddedness or embodied immanence in a search for recognition and comprehension – where THE FLESH becomes WORD (logos, or meaning).
Mr. Greco writes of the Green Knight:
“In my readings I have come upon numerous interpretations of who or what the Green Knight is. Some have understood his unholy skin color to represent death; some believe he is the devil, yet others believe he is a Greenman or the Greenman’s cousin the wodewose. I want to believe he is not anything particularly malevolent but instead an old god, full of contradictions, light and dark, “good” and “evil”. The complicated duality that the chivalric court of Arthur found so difficult to comprehend with its rigid codes of behavior.”
The Green Knight, an “old god”, as the personification of sentiently organized impulses, demands a reckoning, a relation of accountability with Sir Gawain, and through the ensuing trial Gawain evolves as a character. On a cultural level, an analogous dynamic is depicted in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, the third play in his Orestia, a trilogy about the fate of the house of Atreus.
In Eumenides, Orestes, son of Agamemnon, is pursued by the Furies (the old gods of justice) under the talion principle for having murdered his mother to avenge his father’s death due to her treachery. Orestes eventually seeks refuge at the feet of a statue of Athena (a new god of wisdom), and she installs a jury to decide his fate. After casting the deciding vote in favor of his acquittal, she persuades the Furies to accept the verdict. Athena then leads them to their new abode and the escort now addresses them as “Semnai” (Venerable Ones), as the Furies will now be honored by the citizens of Athens and ensure the city’s prosperity. Athena also declares that henceforth tied juries will result in the defendant being acquitted, as mercy should always take precedence over harshness. Here culture evolves in the space of the transformation from old gods to new, the zone of SYMBOLIC EMERGENCE (the JURY is a new symbol). The relation here is like that of Hegel’s dialectic: the old gods are superseded by the new, but that supersession is an incorporation and integration, not an alienation, destruction, disavowal or refutation. Here THE FLESH of a new order has emerged and the new LOGOS “mercy” supersedes the LOGOS of “vengeance”: these are opposed orders of meaning yet depend on each other to exist as mercy exists on the basis of vengeance as a possibility.
In other words, this zone of SYMBOLIC EMERGENCE is a kind of threshold — a fleeting moment for realizing some new undefined aspect of being, a moment of becoming or unfolding (TRANSFORMATION). Bion articulates it this way in Seminar Six:
Practice your speculative imagination, consider this: does the infant initiate birth by trying to break out of an intolerable situation, the mother’s womb or the amniotic fluid? If so, it could then feel responsible for making obvious its own existence. In today’s complex situation where there is so much evidence, can we still detect vestiges, very active vestiges of our anxiety, of our fear to express whatever it is we are capable of? We can be afraid of expressing our stray thoughts, wherever they come from, because we are afraid of the reception they will get. And then the poet, the painter, the musician implicit in each of us does not get expressed, for fear it would be destroyed if it were.
Without reception, recognition, and a kind of ‘existential reckoning’ there is no new life (consider also the worldwide mythic themes of resurrection). In this way the Green Knight represents the forces of Nature immanent in our being and the being of the world in which we dwell, sentient forces that demand recognition and in the encounter opens a gap (trial) where a new experience can occur and our becoming more of who we are to be can unfold. From a religious vertex this might be called channelling the divine to manifest itself on Earth, but not in the manner of “the word becoming flesh.” Rather, it is more like our own early and Earthly childhoods were we all struggled in a very concrete way with transforming our flesh (bodily experience) into words and be part of the shared world of meaning, attenuating “the fundamental fact that one is always dependent and alone.” (Seminar six)
III. INVARIENTS & BION’S AESTHETIC ANALYTIC APERTURE
Last night [Seminar Five] Dr. Bion asked us to express our wild thoughts and, at the same time, warned us not to express them too respectably. Then he made the interesting point about the difference between intelligence and wisdom, specifically as regards groups….
1. Emergence, Aloneness and Dependence
Bion responds to this opening question in Seminar Six by returning to the “fundamental fact that one is always dependent and alone.” He then links this with the emergence of life that begins when an infant (or infant in the adult person) is capable of turning what is inside into comprehensible (as opposed to “respectable”) form for the outside — achieve a communication.
So, when an individual … knows he has something to say, the question is whether to say it or not, because he is afraid of discovering either that there is no one to hear or that there is somebody to hear but that somebody will run away. Thus the dreaded isolation is made worse, not less.
This is an elaborated echo of Seminar One, and the question of the emergence of psychic life, where he showed us how to use speculative imagination when he wondered aloud about “when where you born…. Please tell me when your optic pits, and about the third somite, became functional?”
In order to do analysis, he said, analysts must have some way to clear their minds of obscuring memory an desire to zero in on the zone where new psychic life emerges in the here-and-now lived encounter between analyst and analysand. He also emphasizes, as he does here again in chapter six and elsewhere, that the infant is “aware” of its “dependence” and is “alone”, and that these are “fundamental” and painful. And at the end of Seminar One, an idea echoed in Seminar Six, he gives this admonition: “To come back to tomorrow’s session: what you have to do is give the germ of thought a chance …. you have to dare to think and feel what ever it is you think or feel, no matter what your society … or even what you think about it.” (emphasis in the original)
Seminar Two recycles his themes of eschewing the noise to key into the melody or music – where the faint and fragile yet most important emerging notes of life spring forth our spring out: “signs that there is a ghost of a puppet…[that] you may still be able to breath some life into that tiny survival?” [Seminar One]. In Seminar Two the “tiny survival” image morphs into the image of the shipwrecked who have been so isolated that the prospect of rescue terrifies them (the object might miss them or leave), which ADDS TERROR to the situation of this fundamental aloneness and dependence:
So the analyst, in the midst of the noises of distress, the failure of analysis, the uselessness of that kind of conversation, still needs to be able to hear the sound of this terror which indicates the position of a person beginning to hope that he might be rescued…. That is why I don’t like butting in with theories which are out of touch with the actual patient and the actual experience.
3. Recognition and Reception
This theme of the desperate excluded “tiny survival” (embryo, infant, etc.) in need of recognition and reception figures as the main through line in Seminar Six as already described and quoted at some length above. The terror of the shipwrecked [Seminar Two] is a transformation of despair, or, the defense of despair has submerged the terror of not being seen and received when without it one WILL NOT CONTINUE TO BE. Additionally, in Seminar Six, Bion reiterates the need to DARE to express one’s being, particularly in light of the fact that when we take the ‘LEAP OF FAITH’ (Kierkegaard) to express/expose our ownmost impulse of new being for all to receive, that we have to embrace that absence of certainty over what follows — WHAT WILL the MEANING be IF WE DARE TAKE ON THE CHALLENGE of “apocalyptic revelation”?:
And can we further regard or tolerate the meaning which lies beyond the verbal expression? In the Baghavad Gita, Krishna expresses doubts that Arjuna would be able to tolerate the spectacle if he were to reveal himself. In other words, it depends on the meaning which lies beyond the apocalyptic revelation. There are certain gifted people who are able to dare to express what it is that they can hear or see… But none of them can make us look or listen to what is shown or said. We can be as blind, as deaf, as insensible to the composer, the painter, the dramatist who is either in ourselves or outside….. As Shakespeare puts it, “To be, or not to be, that is the question”. He doesn’t say what the answer is; he says,”Wether it is nobler in the mind to suffer slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? that is a choice nobody can make for the individual — except the individual. Only he can decide to be or not to be.
[NOTE: I believe Bion uses the phrase “apocalyptic revelation” to mean a revealing of truth (Alethia) that ends the old world (symbolic order) and ushers in an authentically NEW EXPERIENCE (a new symbolic order). For Gadamer (cf., Truth and Method) a true or authentic experience has to be ‘apocalyptic’ in this sense, otherwise it is not really an experience, just a happening, and event. For Gadamer, only a new experience is a real experience.]
4. Evanescence of Becoming
In Seminar Three, Bion emphasized that in the EXPERIENCE of transference in analysis it is an achievement if the patient is able to bear the fleeting and transitory GAP of new meaning: If you are not my father and I am not bound to my historical ‘son’ relation, that who am I to be for me? to you? for you? to and for the horizon I have thoughtlessly call my life? What spontaneously erupts from me needing reception and recognition? This is the evanescent GAP of potential transformation from symbolic equation to symbol, and in this infinitesimal gap some new quanta of being is released, with a leftover accretion of the event called a memory or an idea (concept) about it. “To be or not to be” the nascent undefined me – that is the question.
Too often we fetishize the memory, the conceptual maps, or “talk about” the experience, passing over the fleeting moment for new beginning and avoid the terror of the question “to be or not to be”…. As Bion writes at the end of Seminar Six:
The aim of analysis is to make the point clear [that we have this preconception there is some parent/authority who knows THE ANSWER], not so that you can go on feeling how important that person [the analyst] is for the rest of your existence, but because you can discard it and make room for whatever ideas you might want to express yourself…. The importance of the analyst’s position is brought to light so it can be discarded…. This is why it is important to learn, if you can, during the transition stage who the musician, the painter, the poet is who is struggling to get free from inside you.
5. Presence in Absence: Bearing wit(h)-ness, Sharing wit(h)ness
What I gather from these Seminars is that Bion’s analytic aperture is primed and focused on being as present and receptive as possible to one’s direct emotional experience of being-with the personhood of the patient from one moment to the next, and having the confidence and awareness to trust that being in touch with one’s immediate, pre-reflective experience of the patient’s experience, no matter how challenging or painful, provides the basic context for comprehending the communications of that “tiny survival” in it’s spontaneous (live) attempts to come into being, to become, to be born, etc. And by bearing the with-ness of how it announces or births itself, as analysts we can verbally give back (share) the nascent experience announcing itself and catalyze the transformation from symbolic equation (domination of the subject by an emotional presence projected into a signifier) to symbol. Through this the “saturated element” becomes “unsaturated” and can then take on a plurivocity of meanings, and the self-hood of the patient feels enriched, more grounded and/ or real and substantive.
IV. Eternal Return & Technical Application
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the very first time.
T.S. Elliot, “Little Gidding”
WHAT IS THE EXPERIENCE YOUR PATIENT IS TRYING TO CREATE IN YOU?
WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
HOW TO/DO YOU RELATE TO IT?
CONTEMPLATE IT: TRY NOT TO ACT OUT ON IT OR DEFEND YOURSELF AGAINST IT THROUGH ABSTRACTIONS, IDENTIFICATIONS WITH IDEALIZED ANALYSTS, THEORIES, OR SENSATIONS OF “CERTAINTY” OR “BEING GOOD” OR “GIVING” OR “CURE”.
MAKE ROOM IN YOUR EXPERIENCE FOR NEW EXPERIENCE TO GROW YOU – AS THE GREEN KNIGHT IN EACH ANALYSAND DEMANDS.
“Where do we go from here?”: being-in the Aesthetic Gap
Can we observe the “thing itself”? Milton says in Paradise Lost [Bk. III]:
So much the rather thou Celestial Light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her power
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.
Last night as I pulled up to the alley that leads into the office building parking lot, I turned on my signal to turn and noticed a car in the middle of the alley; I stopped and was surprised by my lack of hostility. Normally the caveman would have come out and I’d have started cursing this idiot woman for getting in my way. But this time, while I sensed he was with me, he stayed back and I felt a strange kind of widening of my experiential field as I took in this woman in her car. I noticed her noticing me and sensed she felt anxious and guilty and trapped – the way she looked in the rear-view mirror and then across the intersection and up at the light and back again at the mirror, like she was having a hard time deciding what to do. Her being seemed as frazzled as her hair. I felt her helplessness inside me along with my senses of loss, frustration, and compassion. I continued to live in my experiences and have room in myself for hers as they presented themselves to me – in part because I was quiet inside and mindfully holding the tension of what each unpredictable moment might bring — every where-do-we-go-from-here-gap-moment of lived time, one after another. Suddenly a burst of fear erupted — she started pulling her car forward as though contemplating a run of the red light to make her turn and get out of the ally and alleviate her anxiety of feeling trapped… Finally, she backed up, turned her wheels and pulled over to the side enough that I might pass. It seems she finally figured out a way to make room for my experience and her experience to co-exist as well.
Living with her experience in my experience is an aesthetic encounter as I have come to understand it – a frontier where sentient impressions of the other’s spirit as Other emerge within one’s psychic skin or phenomenal body (cf. Merleau-Ponty). It is direct contact, a moment of being-with a priori to calculation or the dualistic modes of thought caught up in tasks like naming, mapping, prediction and control…
In the last seminar is seemed Bion shed more darkness on “countertransference” than Celestial Light. I no longer think this is quite right, and in laying out why, I hope to highlight some of the continuities I find, which, when added to what he gives us in the present seminar, may be pointing to something like his aesthetic sensibility — the lived practice of analysis. In short, I think if one is looking for the conceptual significance of “countertransference” than disappointment is in order; but if one is looking for aesthetic significance then perhaps Bion is opening a path for fruitful analytic contemplations…..
In TRANSFORMATIONS Bion uses painting as a model for examining/explicating psychoanalytic transformations. Painters effect their aesthetic transformations through their aesthetic practices (choice of palette, brushes, brush techniques, etc.). So, how might Bion be trying to guide us into a more aesthetic avenue or sensibility for the invocation of a psychoanalytic space meant for dwelling with clinical happenings as “living experiences?” Perhaps by refiguring analytic techniques as aesthetic transformational practices…
So, in the third seminar, I believe Bion gave us something substantial (not anemic) to work with or work onwhen it comes to thephenomenal domain of countertransference: some clues about the contours of it’s shape as a lived analytic experience – the countertransference sensibility, or aesthetic practice so to speak. As the converse of transference, countertransference is the lived experience (when the analyst has the presence of mind to catch it) of a GAP or caesura between what was or seems real about the patient to the analyst and the “thing itself” (the person – him or herself as he is to and for him or herself in his or her moment to moment unfolding). If I am aware of wanting to criticize my patient, and can become aware of this as a conscious defense against a deeper feeling of being personally dismissed, for example, then I am aware of THE GAP between my version of my patient and who/how “tomorrow’s patient” may actually be. If I can be in-with this where-do-we-go-from-here-GAP long enough, then I stand a chance of becoming aware of the emotional experience my patient is unconsciously conveying, which is stimulating my hostile reflexive experience. So, as an AESTHETIC moment (as opposed to a construct or encyclopedic entry), the experience of “working from one’s countertransference” might be defined by something like:
Patience (as Bion defines this as P/S <==> D/P in ATTENTION & INTERPRETATION)
Wonderment (awe + intent curiosity)
Faith & Hope (also as Bion describes in ATTENTION & INTERPRETATION)
Since countertransference manifests consciously as obtrusive configurations of memory and desire (which may be realized through enactments), then as aesthetic practice we reverse-engineer these obtruding configurations to discern the patient’s opaque visceral-affective communications conveyed by means of projective identification.
In the present seminar Bion continues by talking about what is demanded of the analyst who is going be able to dwell with an analytic experience of counter-transference that is ever present – where we are confronted with NOT KNOWING what or who is emerging (the O of the patient) from the GAP between how I constitute my patient in memory and desire and the shape he or she may take as an unexpected being coming into existence — “tomorrow’s patient”:
Why give these interpretations — Freudian, Abrahamian, Kleinian and so forth — none of which has any effect at all…. It seem to me that the one essential in analysis is that we should be able to go on thinking in a situation which is extremely tense. We are bound to be anxious about our ability to treat and, at the same time, about our apparent inability to do anything about the fact that either the theories of psychoanalysis are wrong, or the idea that the correct interpretation will cure the patient is wrong, or that something else which we do not know is wrong – or all of them….. I would like to continue the discussion in a way more applicable to what we want to know or think about before seeing tomorrow’s patient.
This is the “space and time we are in” as analysts: unknowing PATIENCE, bearing as best we can the experiential shuttling back and forth between painful confusion as though our minds are unglued (P/S) and some transient, infrequent islands of linkage and clarity (D/P), waiting to make comprehensible THIS patient’s “language of the unconscious” at THIS moment, which announces itself AESTHETICALLY, first and foremost:
They all make such a noise that it is difficult to hear what the patient’s body and mind are saying. I have tried to put this rather crudely as divesting our minds of memory and desire so that the noise made by our learning, our training, our past experience, is at a minimum….Then you can begin to hear or feel something which, if it were an inflammation, would cause you to narrow down your view to the site of the infection so that you could look at this spot which is painful. If your patient will allow you to see him or her often enough, if he will allow you to remain silent, if he will allow you to be ignorant, then you may be able to see what this painful spot is — whether it is in the mind or body.
Diagnosis by palpation is an aesthetic practice — the art side of medicine. To accomplish what Bion is describing requires being able to separate out what is one’s own reaction (conscious intrusions of memory and desire) to one’s own “inflammation,” from the shape/nature of the swelling/pain one is actually being put in contact with by means of the patients’ unconscious communications. In more Bionic terms – we need to be able to aesthetically recognize and differentiate our experience of the patient’s “O” as it becomes us, from our counter-transferential reactions based in iatrogenic memory and desire. Bion makes a further (implicit) reference to the counter-transferential difficulties of aesthetically experiencing the gap between memory and desire (counter-transference obtrusions) and maintaining a space and time for new life (the new idea) to emerge from our patients:
As I have said, the occupation of psychoanalysis is a dangerous one, but the analyst cannot deal with that dangerous situation by running away from it. We all know that; we all know it would be no good getting up and leaving the room. What is not quite so easy to see is that we can become absent in mind if we don’t like what the patient is saying
In order to be open to disclose more of the patient’s inner world, to hear and feel the hidden story being told, unfolding in it’s unbearable pain which we risk denuding by reifying it as “transference”, we must continually work to bracket off the artifactual ruins of our own pain that manifest as C-T barriers to deeper emotional encounter. Such barriers are barriers to aesthetic Truth on the model of painters, poets, and musicians. It is Truth that is alive in it’s spontaneous unfolding:
One idea we can pursue is that of the truth. You can feel that a painter is a good painter if his painting is an attempt to show you what is true — the Impressionists didn’t paint in order to make things more difficult to see. You can feel the difference between a musical composition which is an imitation of the truth and another which is the formulation of the truth. In analysis we have to forget whether the interpretation is the right interpretation, or the Kleinian interpretation, or the Freudian interpretation — it is all irrelevant. The only relevant thing is whether it is a true interpretation…. What language should I talk to the patient so that he can understand what I say?
There is one passage at the end of the fourth seminar where Bion provides a glimpse into how he experiences his own analytic-AESTHETIC praxis. He uses aesthetic references, like interpreting an X-Ray (a photograph) based on shading of light and dark and structural or formal aesthetic elements.
These are the problems which we may be able to solve if people come to see us; you may gradually feel — tomorrow, the day after — that there is some evidence which begins to formulate itself in the same way that an obscurity on an X-ray film shows you a pattern. If you know what the skeleton of the chest ought to look like, then you can see on an X-ray film that there is an area of opacity; where a photograph of the skeleton ought to emerge, there is a misty patch. So getting back — or forward — to tomorrow’s patient, I suggest this view where you are vulnerable to anything your senses will tell you: as you watch, you begin to narrow it down, and then ask yourself why you are acting that way. That depends on daring to feel or think whatever you feel or think.
Bion continues (below), extolling a kind of trust of one’s own spontaneous processes as an aesthetic practice: curating spontaneous ideas, images, and sensations which may or may not come to have representational value as one tries to grasp the emerging shapes-into-life, the experience-with/of the patient’s “O”, in order to express them aesthetically — in words that can reach this patient at this moment in a live way.
I have spoken of it before as a situation in which all sorts of thoughts are flying around — the patient gets rid of all his thoughts which then, in my pictorial imagination, are flying around. If you can be wide open, then I think there is a chance that you might catch some of those wild thoughts. And if you allow them to lodge in your mind, however ridiculous, however stupid, however fantastic, then there may be a chance of having a look at them. That is a matter of daring to have such thoughts — whether or not you are supposed to have them or not — and keeping them long enough to be able to formulate what they are.
Might we consider this a praxis of “Dreaming a patient” which requires simultaneously letting the patient “Dream you”? Dreaming is an aesthetic accomplishment is it not, of “the dreamer who dreams the dream” (to borrow a phrase from Grotstein)? From this line of contemplation, the direct experience of the Other, O, The Real, is at heart a kind of Aesthetic “I-Thou” Encounter of sensuous and non-sensuous aspects — drawing in formal (ideational), affective, and sensual-tactile levels of experience and demanding to be given meaningful shape (presence) through expression and mutual recognition.
So, how does one co-ordinate (both locate and bear) being with oneself and the analytic object (better to call it a subject?) without addiction to one’s maps — and the circles and lines (concepts) used to draw those maps up?
Reading this third seminar I am once again confronted with an experience akin to being in biology class looking at a drop of pond water under a microscope: overwhelmed with the perception of multiple layers of enticing stuff going on, overlapping zones of interaction, and yet restricted by my human limitations to focusing on one layer at a time, and having to pick which layer to begin with if I really want to make some meaningful sense of the experience. I have to locate and co-ordinate myself with/to what I co-ordinate as it unfolds before my eyes.
I’d like to ask Dr. Bion if he can tell us more about his idea on the countertransference, because it seems to me that this is the particular type of noise in the analyst’s mind that can be picked up in the psychoanalytic experience. I wonder if it might also contain musical elements, and if so if we should adjust our minds like high-fidelity systems that can not only extract the signal from the noise, but also act like a resonance chamber and allow us to receive the entire range of acoustic stimuli, even if that means that the clarity of the melody is lost.
Based on Bion’s responses to this question, I think it struck him as a “-K” question where as Bion’s aim and focus is on “K” questions, questions that are passionate attempts to grasp real analytic experiences (moments of growth) which emerge from the unknown. It involves being emotionally present with an Other who is not oneself, and the ideas that emerge organically and spontaneously from such an Encounter (in Buber’s sense of that term). Such moments of being lead to emotional re-experiencing and the spontaneous growth of new ideas.
In this regard, perhaps one can read the question as an association. The unconscious subject of the questioner’s mind is in effect texting Bion about the countertransference noise that Bion will be able to pick up in Bion’s psychoanalytic experience of his interlocutor’s question. The second sentence, on this reading, then, is the “noise” he is putting into Bion (projective identification – shout out to S.F.). Moreover, this noise relation is quite omnipotent: his interlocutor wants to be a “resonance chamber” who can “receive the ENTIRE range of acoustic stimuli.” The effect of this would be to kill any real affective link (the “melody”), because it’s not addressed to the flesh and blood Bion – today’s unfolding Bion — but yesterday’s Bion, now idealized or ossified in memory and desire. Not so much about approaching O, but, perhaps, soothing or inciting himself with the sensations of cleverness (autistic shapes).
In his reply, Bion first acknowledges the historical-conceptual importance of the terms ‘transference’ and ‘countertransference’, but quickly qualifies this praise with, “But, like every really good idea, like anything which provokes or stimulates growth, it makes itself out of date at once.” He goes on to describe the real analytic experience of transference (the territory) to emphasize how there is a substantial caesura between the ontological or being level of the experience and the concept (the map) we use to give a handle to it for the purposes of everyday talk. He emphasizes that, “if you are, in fact, having a psychoanalytic experience — that is different.”
After a time, though, the novice begins to understand that the analyst is drawing attention to an actual [transference] experience which he is having…. Your feeling that I am your father or mother can be compared with other ideas you have: you can bring together the idea that I am your mother or father and the idea that I am a stranger whom you do not know. Then you can decide for yourself who or what you really think I am — that is your affair. In that way a new idea is born. The idea that you had before — namely, that I am a blood relation, a father or mother — is transient; it is a temporary idea on the journey of your life…. It is an idea that you have “on the way” — you transfer it to me as a temporary measure on your way to what you really think or feel…. It is another of these places where you stop on your own particular journey…. Where you are now, when you have just seen this point, is already out of date.
Two different “thoughts” beget a new experience which begets new ideas, etc. But these “thoughts” are themselves lived experiences first that take shape on the way to becoming ideas that can have transformative potential. In terms of Existential-Phenomenology, the lived-experience or ontological level, is “pre-thematic”. Once a lived experience is brought into language it is “thematized” (conceptually can be mapped) at a conscious level of knowing.
An implicit model here (from what I recall in Bion’s ELEMENTS of his rethinking the relationship of Unconscious to Consciousness and the Dream Function) seems to be that real analytic experience fosters a “binocular” awareness of the ever circulating kaleidoscope of infantile impressions and urges grasping reality from the right, so to speak, as well as the disciplined contemplation of these impressions along with those of reason and language, grasping reality simultaneously from the left (Grotstein’s “binary oppositional grasp”). And from the proper alignment of this dual grasping — of the permeable, selective CONTACT BARRIER — growth (spontaneous unfolding/revealing) happens. [Footnote: In a future post I will posit that the moment of this proper alignmnet corresponds to what Meg Harris Williams calls the experience of a “moment of being” in her brilliant analysis of psychoanalytic autobiography.]
Once the patient begins to understand what the analytic experience is, then he changes so fast that what he thought or felt at the beginning of a sentence is out of date by the time he has reached the end of it. That is why, when you are satisfied the patient is actually developing, it is as well to be able to forget what you know and discard what you want to happen …. we are liable to slow the patient down by clinging to out-of-date ideas and, as a result, are unable to watch the patient’s progress to some other idea”[point of growth experience]
So, having emphasized that the lived territory is the point and not the map, Bion seems to pivot and talk about the need to avoid missing the patient and the analytic experience by loosing the analytic discipline: the challenge of using our affective receptivity, our task of ‘feeling out’ our patients, so to speak, yet not getting lost in how the ‘facts’ of their being stimulate us one way or the other ideationally, moralistically, or otherwise. Such internal distractions risk taking our mental-emotional focus off the point of unfolding, emerging growth (O). This is the pursuit of analytic Truth, in the Greek sense of Truth (Aletheia), which is a REVEALING, a process, not a static dead correspondence of map to territory. This is also the Aesthetic and Phenomenological sense of Truth – letting what “shows itself show itself in the very way it shows itself from itself.”
It is interesting that Bion ends his series of (K) answers to the above (-K) question using the mathematical model of the circle and it’s tangent to explicate something of the nature of the analytic pair. It is a somewhat ambiguous explication, but I think the following aspects are at least arguable (though I am sure many other ways to read it)
Have we any coordinate system which could give us an idea to where we are, where, the pair are — the analyst and the patient? In the narrative story we get an idea of a person’s development by taking any two points, A and B, and the direction would be from A to B. Those two points, A and B, we could call “real and distinct”. However, suppose those two points were mobile; then they might travel round the circumference of a circle and become “real and coincident”, And if we try to draw in the two points which are real and coincident, we can say that they meet and describe a line which is a tangent.
So far, Bion is talking about the circle and tangent as a representation of the patient and the patient’s growth. Point A is the forever embryo or infant of the patient’s unconscious – the point at which the patient was “born” as a soul, that “tiny survival” that as analysts Bion says we aim to try and “breath life into” (cf, Seminar One). Point B is the patient in the immediate here and now, and when these two points become infinitesimally close, as if to be the same (coincident), we can draw a line between them and a new direction – the tangent – is created that is also at the same time part of the curve of the circle (thanks to calculus). Like the “new idea” Bion mentions in the extended quote above, this new line extending from these points “transfers” or goes “off at a tangent”, so to speak, at the moment of analytic experience, of psychic birth “on the way” to a new experience or “point” in the persons going-on-being (Winnicott) of “their journey.” [Note: This figuration harkens back as an illustration of Bion’s comment at the end of the Second Italian Seminar: “A difficulty would arise if we could introduce this intelligent postnatal person to the highly intelligent embryo who could tell such very different stories…”]
Yet, at the same time this tangent-line juncture seems to represent the analytic pair, he continues in the next paragraph:
Take these two people — the analyst and the analysand — who have met at one point. I don’t know what spiritual route the analyst has taken, the journey that his mind has taken between the point at which it is supposed to begin its existence and the point at which it became coincident with an entirely different personality — coincident and real. Let us suppose that these two points go on with their journey: the analyst and the analysand continue to live; they don’t stop at psychoanalysis; they don’t stop at this point at which they are real and coincident. I was taught to call that “conjugate complex” …. I use these two words “conjugate complex” as imaginary points…. In that way I think we ought to consider, as if it were real, that the analyst and analysand still continue to exist even when the analysis is over, when those two points, which are real and distinct, real and coincident in the analyst’s consulting room, continue in a space about which I know nothing because that mind which is no longer in contact with me has gone I don’t know where.
I think Bion is trying to redirect the group to wonder about the imaginary and the ontological status of our pre-sedimented encounters with Others – where do these moments (“points”) of new being, born of inter-psychic encounter go such that we are left with the sediment of them, so to speak? Are we really only left with the sediment of their fleeting existence in the form of memories? How can/do these “out of date” points become us? Do they continue to operate once apart for both parties in parallel ways (as is implied by the mathematical analogy with conjugate (coupled) complex numbers)? Furthermore, is Bion only talking about the inner object world? Is this a kind of Metaphysical speculation about relations between a kind of personal unconscious and collective unconscious, personal O and impersonal O, as it were?
Unfortunately, this seminar’s original recording was incomplete, so perhaps this is too much like trying to interpret the meaning of a sentence when the predicate is missing, but based on the two questions that follow this quote, it seems the group disappoints him. Whatever Bion meant by his last question, he was posing a question of THE UNKNOWN, seeking, wondering, searching for it’s “pulse” as Meg Harris Williams might call it. The questions he receives, by contrast, seem to be grasping at some illusory KNOWN, wanting Bion to give them THE ANSWER or notarize their answer, as if there is ONE FINAL WORD to be had.
The second questioner wants Bion to “explain to me role of the human need to know” and “what part is played in the patient by the need to express his desire for knowledge to someone.”Bion replies:
I suspect that these are vestiges of fundamental characteristics which have not yet been destroyed either by the inability to tolerate ignorance or by the inability to tolerate the answer. The trouble about curiosity is that it is liable to provoke a response. From what I know about myself, the danger to which anybody exposes themselves by asking me a question is another flood of questions. I do try to resist the temptation to say, “Yes, I know; I know about transference; I know about countertransference.” I am partly assisted by the fact that I don’t know. That picture in which Nansen showed exactly how to get to the North Pole does not tell me — and I would never know — what it would be like to be Nansen wandering in the wastes of the Arctic. I only know a little bit about what it feels like to be me wandering in the realms of the human mind. One hopes that it is a relatively limited sphere — not quite so dangerous, perhaps, as wandering in the realms of omniscience or omnipotence.
So, Bion’s somewhat convoluted/cryptic responses seem to reflect both his wish to be polite and his disappointment, frustration, and even annoyance perhaps with the ongoing, palpable gap between himself and the group. It is as though he wants them to play with him in the unknown and they just aren’t able to meet him there, perhaps caught up in some kind of basic assumption group dysfunction, like looking to him to be the absolute authority and provide them with the omnipotent/omniscient answer – the “final word” on the matter so to speak, which is why he emphasizes that he doesn’t know and emphasizes that he is not omnipotent. This isn’t surprising since one of Bion’s main points through all of these seminars – in spirit if not in text – is that THERE IS NO FINAL WORD ON ANYTHING; the best we have are constantly changing approximations, since truth is a revealing and not a dead correspondence of a map to a territory. And the experience of analysis is being in, going through, giving language to and being changed by wandering with and through the patient’s unfolding unconscious emotional vicissitudes. If you get caught up in maps and mapping rather than the wandering then you may become famous but you’re venturing into the Arctic… (a cold, no-person’s land). “Remember what happened to the Titanic?” … It hit O and sank.
To be dominated or motivated by curiosity, by our wish to know, would seem to be a dangerous occupation, especially if we come across another mind which has the characteristic of omnipotence or omniscience …. As analysts we are always running the risk of questioning whoever or whatever is clothed in authority… arming ourselves by improving such minds or instruments as we have available for investigating the unknown.
This seems to be the main question animating Bion’s mind in response to the seminar participants’ so-called questions. I say “so-called” because one thing that has struck me is the way in which Bion, at least so far in these first two seminars, often times appears to not-answer the questioner at the content or locutionary level, yet in his ostensible manner of non-answering he clearly addresses how the questioner impacts him analytically, the perlocutionary dimension as it were. In this way it seems Bion is “doing” or “being” how he believes the analyst should do or be with the patient, rather than just “talking about it”. The “being it” is meaningful, the “talking about it” is not, or is certainly secondary at best. To the extent this hypothesis is correct, it would be consistent with Bion’s earlier (Attention and Interpretation, 1970) emphasis that what matters in psychoanalysis are transformations O => K, from the ontological or being domain to the domain of knowledge/understanding.
Here is an extended quote of the first question at the beginning of the seminar. I am quoting it in it’s entirety to give the reader the full impact:
Before yesterday’s seminar, I was curious to know what Dr Bion thought about music. I’d been reflecting on an analytic experience of mine when I felt that a woman patient preferred music to analysis and was trying and had begun — to find music in analysis too, for certain reasons: music banished visual experiences, especially terrifying ones associated with phobic space. She was able to dissolve the terrifying experiences of sounds by putting them together in a melody and using only certain sounds or certain limited pitches. If the music was broken down, the sounds took on a terrifying quality reminiscent of the terror of the visual, almost bodily , three-dimensional images of a claustrophobic space. But I had attributed this possibility of seeing terrifying images to her phantasy of a Cyclopean eye — the third mental eye that psychologists talk about — which she seems to see graphically before her.
An experience with another analysand puts me in mind of Ulysses, who turned himself into “Nobody” so as to not be seen and eaten by Polyphemus. So I wondered if Dr. Bion feels we can also invoke a Cyclopean perception that has to do with music and analysis, as some psychologists have demonstrated. Does Dr. Bion think there is any connection between all the problems of musicians who play without reading the notes and others who can only play if they have a score in front of them?
Bion’s begins to respond to this “question” by first pointing out that in analysis that the main reason any analysand comes in for treatment is because of internal conflict, “the real trouble is the patient’s dis-agreement with himself…. However, as a temporary affair, what you can see is something of the relationship between those two people — the analyst and the analysand.”
I would like to suggest that while Bion is ostensibly commenting in a general way on analytic praxis, he is also commenting on how the questioner has struck him — there is a questioner who is split and conflicted between a questioner-he who is looking for a meaningful link with Dr. Bion and a questioner-he who is producing noise that is barley intelligible and meant to distract or derail the possibility of a meaningful link. To put it another way, we might ask where is the “ghost in the puppet” here? I will try to substantiate this hypothesis by a kind of analytic reading (treating Bion’s responses as associative material) and at the same time trying to summarize the spirit of Bion’s ideas, particularly as they relate to lived clinical praxis.
Bion then goes onto to link this so-called question to his conception of REVERSIBLE PERSPECTIVE where the patient unconsciously (for the most part) operates from a model of what is happening between the analytic pair that is not the model from which the analyst operates and this results in impasse because nothing meaningful can be shared experientially; it’s aim to kill all emotional contact and dynamism, a sin qua non in operation behind what Joseph called PSYCHIC EQUILIBRIUM, I believe. Bion might say it represents the secret operation of the psychotic part of the personality, unbeknownst to the non-psychotic part, since it’s operation is a sign of underlying trauma and psychic pain. He does not use the term REVERSIBLE PERSPECTIVE as he does in ELEMENTS but what he describes to the audience is this phenomena, and more importantly, he offers a model for how to deal with it analytically:
Falling back on the report of what happened… what would happen to you if you were bombarded with words as this patient bombards his analyst?
Again, I think it is not much of a leap to suggest that Bion is describing his experience of the parallel process between the questioner and the questioner’s patient and the questioner and Bion. He feels bombarded by the question as I do reading it. It it like vomit dressed up as intelligent, even deep thought. It makes one try to make sense of it as if sense can be made, stimulating desire and memory along the way but in the end one comes up empty. Bion continues:
Suppose the analyst is sensitive to what he is seeing and being told by the patient — that is what we are theoretically supposed to be. Taking first of all the words: what — as far as the analyst is concerned — are the nerve endings which are being stimulated… the remnants of his classical education, knowledge of Greek mythology, knowledge of experience of any other culture. He is now free to show who he is by picking on, say, Greek mythology, or psychoanalytical theory or psychological theory. So from this point of view the analyst is invited to express his opinion of who he is.
So, this “bombardment” (a description of the perlocutionary effect of the communication) has an aim; it is designed to stimulate the analyst’s/Bion’s memory and desire to intrude into the analytic/seminar space, which is not the point of him being there in the seminar any more than it is appropriate analytically for the questioner with his patient. This is a primary function of REVERSIBLE PERSPECTIVE, to distract the analyst and provide the perversely destructive part of the patient with presumed evidence of the analyst’s anti-analytic motives — secretly the destructive part mis-interprets, for example, as if to say, “If I can trick you into being false you must have been a false object all along. I knew it! See there’s nothing/no one here for me as always! So, I need to repress and deny my need for good-breast-you there’s only a bad-self-absorbed one here!”
This reinforces the PATHOLOGICAL ORGANIZATION and leads to or sustains treatment impasse.
The patient is really giving a performance of a full operatic experience, of words and music. The problem is, what is the analyst to do? Whatever he does, the patient will have something to go on, something the patient can then himself interpret
He goes on to say that — and again it is quite ambiguous if he is just making a general comment or referring to his experience of the questioner — “Out of all this variety of material from which I am invited to choose, I would like to select what appears to me to be psychoanalytically relevant.”
So, how does one go about tuning into what is relevant through all the noise? His answer seems to be “reverie” or what he terms in this seminar “speculative imagination,” which requires:
the minimal condition for me to analyze that patient is to be allowed to remain silent, because I don’t want to add my noise to that which the patient is already making. If I am allowed more time to be silent, then I may be able to hear just a little bit more.
Bion then invites the reader to imagine that, “a group is almost like one person spread out over a space,” and to use this exercise when reflecting on the material presented in the question and ask, “who is this person who is saying, ‘terrified… terrified… terrified… terrible’?” This way of sifting through the material allows Bion to use a “selected fact” as both a way to separate out and organize the material, and a focal point for his analytic (intuitive) aperture, to stand in “Faith” (“the disciplined restraint of memory and desire”, cf ATTENTION AND INTERPRETATION) and wait for/catalyze the presencing of “that tiny survival”:
Having taken that sort of group view, narrow down your observation. At this point I would be paying much more attention to this “terrible” and listening to the occurrence, apparently, only of a word; but I would hope, if I am given a chance of remaining silent, to be able to detect a certain similarity about all these “terribles.” And then when I thought that things had gone far enough for me feel that I could formulate my observation, I would do so. But I would ignore all the rest of it.
Some remnant of nascent living-ness, that “tiny survival” who was unable to live is trying to communicate:
The same applies to patient who repeats “terrible, terrible”. And all that is said in a vague hope that somebody will turn up who will be able to understand what he is communicating and will be able to supply the correct mental nourishment. It is a matter of touch and go whether the patient will be able to come to analysis long enough to find out if it is worth doing.
Continuing with his “speculative imagination” Bion then reflects on the origins of this terror. He seems to refer to the battle between the nascent, sane, dependent part striving for contact, and the despair internally generated as a misguided protection by the pathological organization or in his vernacular, the psychotic personality, which using misinterpreting to seduce and or dominate the nascent aspects of self. I will cite at some length because his words are quite poignant:
From day to day, from free-association to free association, one is dealing with a little bit of that fundamental story. In the one instance there is this problem of how to find something to without getting eaten up in the process; in the other how to let anybody know that he is terrified, especially in a situation where there may be nobody. In this way both patients resort to a somewhat obscure, primitive and incomprehensible method of communication. Then they can feel, “Well, nothing comes of it, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not worse than it was before.” But if the analyst has been able to give enough interpretations to lead the patient to think there could be somebody who understands, then terror is released.
To make that point clearer, using a pictorial image: a part of five people were survivors of a shipwreck. The rest had died of starvation or had been swept overboard from the remnants of the raft. The experienced no fear whatsoever — but became terrified when the thought a ship was coming near. The possibility of rescue, and the ever greater possibility that their presence would not be noticed on the surface of the ocean, lead them to be terrified. Previously the terror had been sunk, so to speak, in the overwhelming depths of depression and despair.
So, the analyst , in the midst of the noises of distress, the failure of analysis, the uselessness of that kind of conversation, still needs to be able to hear this terror which indicates the position of a person beginning to hope that he might be rescued.
He returns to the metaphor of the shipwrecked to provide and emphasize his repeated caution of the dangers of those situations when the analyst and patient can become seduced into sensuous comfort by holding onto/focusing on what passes as thinking, understanding, insights, etc., (“cheap cures”), but what are really addictive comforts against awareness of the underlying primitive terrors, including dependency, uncertainty, and feelings of isolation.
He seems to be pointing to what Pascal articulated in his Pensees— existentially, we are all always already at sea — infinity small and vulnerable and surrounded by an infinitely unknowable reality — and that we’re addicted to distractions to take us away from brushing up against this sublime, terrifying, ineffable presencing. How do we try to allow a space for the who that matters to show up through tomorrow’s patient, when doing so puts us in touch with such abyss-mal dreads?
Later on, technique wise, Bion offers three, somewhat cryptic yet related statements:
It is necessary to give an interpretation which lets the patient have a chance of knowing that he has been understood, and a chance of feeling that he will not be incarcerated or devoured….
Whatever body of theory attracts you, you should consider whether there is room in it for the expansion of yourself…. If you find yourself speculating and imagining that this or that story is relevant, you should allow yourself to entertain that speculation in the hope that it might grow into a communicable idea.
It seems to me that Bion’s injunction to make sure that any formulation that one may form, like, become attached to, etc., ought to include the capacity for an “expansion of yourself” is key. Is the experience of an “expansion of yourself” his way of talking about “growth”? Perhaps it’s the equivalent for the analyst when he advises analysts to do in making interpretations to patients — that there be “room” in what one says so patients do not end up feeling “devoured or incarcerated.”
Lastly, the last question posed to Bion in this seminar brings him back to the issue of WHEN is the mind born? In terms of conducting analysis, both WHEN AND WHERE in the ever changing texture of unfolding clinical moments can one detect the edge of emergence, the presencing of Psyche communicating and disclosing, striving to be — finding recognition in being minded and forcing an expansion within each of us from inside out? As analysts, do we allow ourselves to be dreamed by the patient in a way that can upend and expand us???
And to what end? The end is not the analytic relationship it seems, but the use of the analyst, through the analytic relationship, by the patient and for the patient to restore communication and thereby growth within him or herself:
The highly intelligent embryo sees and experiences whatever it sees and experiences; the highly intelligent man or woman also give a very convincing account of what is taking place. A difficulty would arise if by chance we could introduce this highly intelligent postnatal person to the highly intelligent embryo who could tell such very different stories, different narratives about the same facts.
While this copy does no justice to the original, I hope one can get some sense of how Gaitonde (one of India’s most famous Modernist painters) is able to convey the spiritual dimension in his “non-objective” art, the term he preferred to “abstract”, implying that something specific was there even if you couldn’t see it. What seems to be ‘there’ is some ineffable subject grasping you as the viewer as you try to grasp it, something palpable beyond the sensible, so to speak. The feeling of being in front of these paintings is more in quality like that of encountering sculpture – one grasps (is grasped by) the work in a kind of visceral, three-dimensional way. It is more like an full-being encounter than just visual looking… Some friends of ours described the experience as feeling as though someone was looking or speaking to you.
When visiting his retrospective at the Guggenheim this past Christmas, it struck me that Gaitonde had captured two dimensionally the analytic-aesthetic dimension Bion seems to be advocating as the proper analytic aperture.
V. S. Gaitonde (1924-2001): Painting as Process, Painting as Life” continues through Feb. 11 at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, at 89th Street; 212-423-3500; guggenheim.org.
In this first seminar, Bion, on one level, seems to be laying out some of the contours of his psychoanalytic phenomenology. By this I mean to say the analytic aperture — the analytic form of being “a world-disclosing openness” (Heidegger) for and with the patient — he seems to be trying to convey is all about dialing into, aiming one’s sight on, taking in and making room for the ‘analytic object’ to “show itself from itself in the very way it shows itself from itself” as Heidegger defines the aim of his hermeneutic phenomenology in his introduction to Being and Time.
When Bion opens the seminar he takes the reader through a productively deconstructive series of thought experiments and reflections on the nature of psychoanalytic ‘facts’ and “how those facts should be observed by us.” What seems to be his answer through the course of the first seminar is this: analytic ‘facts’ are grounded in the immediate experience of an unfolding inter-psychic encounter. We must remain vigilant against internal sources of obscuring our experiential/intuitional registration of that point of emergence of personal being @ this ontic level of lived experience. We must endeavor to dial into the point/place of witnessing and catalyzing that spontaneous grasp at existence ==> the place/point in time of emerging psychic birth (“Tell me when your optic pits… when your auditory pits became functional”). He most poignantly refers to this in a later passage:
What is the object which purports to be the ghost of an inanimate doll [Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, the doll looking for a soul] and which one would think had been dead all the time, having simply made gestures as if animated, pulled by the puppet-master’s strings? Putting it another way: when you see your patient tomorrow, will you be able to detect, in the material which is available to you, signs that there is a ghost of a puppet? If you can, you may still be able to breath some life into that tiny survival.
By contrast Bion seems to go to some length to emphasize that psychoanalytic ‘facts’ are not theories, even psychoanalytical ones. His point seems to be, consistent with his encouragement to “abandon memory and desire”, not to reify or mentally hold onto any kind of theory, concept, construction or formulation, as doing so obscures, blocks, or prevents being present to the live unfolding of here and now experience. It is all too easy to turn to an inner model of what is happening to avoid the emotional turbulence which invariably occurs in a real “I-Thou” encounter (Buber) with an Other who is not oneself. ‘Facts’ must be lived experiences, dialing into the ontological level of “O” as it were. Detecting such “facts” may involve the apperceptive use of what he calls “constant conjunctions” (names, abstractions, models) in Elements, Transformations, etc. And such analytic facts may or may not have an immediate sensuous manifestation, and may or may not presence themselves according to our “natural attitude” (Husserl) expectations of linear time or spatial contiguity. He exemplifies this with a clinical example:
I would certainly from an analytic point of view, from my experience there are certain ideas which have never become conscious and which even seem to betray their existence in adult life. For example, I have a patient who talks very freely, and at the end of the session I know a great deal — if I were to attach much importance to hearsay evidence — about everybody except the patient. That seems to me to become a bit more comprehensible if one supposes that this patient has tried to get rid of every undesirable thought, feeling, even primordial thought, before he ever had them, so that he is surrounded, so to speak, by the thoughts which are voiced by other people — but never his own thoughts or ideas…. Using as much analytic theory as seemed relevant, I made no difference whatsoever to this flow of material in which everything appeared excepting the patient — the one object which was completely unexpressed.
I hope given what I have summarized that the following “bullet points” follow:
1. focus on the point of emergence of a flicker of life, that spontaneous grasping at existence through the weeds of what is false, where is the meaningful opening in the meaningless noise….
2. ala Husserl’s ‘Epoche’, bracket or suspend one’s natural attitude: one’s preferred theories, memories and desires, etc., for yesterday’s patient and be-with tomorrow’s patient. Make room for the faint traces of that subjectivity other than yourself, what Grotstein calls the “ineffable subject of the unconscious” and the traces of it’s emergence in the immediate here and now of the transference-countertransferece matrix.
3. Dial into the patient’s lived experience first and foremost.
4. Be-with/Observe phenomenologically – in a way that allows what shows itself from itself to be seen in the very way it shows itself from itself.
5. Say what you mean and be direct and to the point.
6. Tune into the shapes of non-verbal, pre-verbal, tactile-level communications.