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.images

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.


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. 

wilfred_bion.jpg250x256_Q90The 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:

imgresI 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.

wilfred_bion.jpg250x256_Q90Am 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.


imgresWhen 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 mathematicianswilfred_bion.jpg250x256_Q90 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.


Every subject is born into a ‘speaking space’, which is why, before approaching the structure of the I, imgresas 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:

imgres-1In 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:

meltzer_by_Silvia_Neborak.jpg250x190_Q90The 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?