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 “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 on when it comes to the phenomenal 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)
  • Humility
  • Discipline
  • 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”:

imgresWhy 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:

wilfred_bion.jpg250x256_Q90They 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.