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.

IMG_0487SUPPOSE 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.


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.

imagesSo, 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?

Simageso, 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 imgresor 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 securimagese”…. 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 unfolimgresding 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 imageswithin 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!

imgresThis 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]



[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. 

640px-William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_The_Remorse_of_Orestes_(1862)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, conwilfred_bion.jpg250x256_Q90sider 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)


Last nigh60084826t [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.

wilfred_bion.jpg250x256_Q90So, 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)

 2.  Vulnerability

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: 

imgresSo 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”?:images

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 pointwilfred_bion.jpg250x256_Q90 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”