Bion Today

By Paul Schimmel

Bion today ed. Chris Mawson, The new library of psychoanalysis, Routledge, London/New York, 2011

Contents: 21 essays including an introductory essay by the editor. These essays are divided into 6 groups: Introduction to Bion; Mainly Conceptual; Mainly Clinical; Aesthetic; Group Mentality; Later Bion.

This book has some very good essays, and quite a number that, although not necessarily unsatisfactory, could well have been omitted. The book overall, and some of the essays, lacks the economy that I link with Bions own exposition of his ideas. It seems to have become too thick; my association is with Bions comment about the Establishments capacity for loading an individual with honours until he sinks without a trace.

In the period of relative silence that followed Bions death in 1979 his writings had to speak for themselves. Then, gradually, from out of silence, other voices began to make themselves heard. Perhaps, responding to the challenge of interpreting and commenting on such an original and abstruse body of work, these early voices often seemed to speak with a considered clarity. However, over time, the volume of commentary and critique has gradually increased to a level where it may be making Bions own voice harder to hear.

In the interval to the present, Bions writings have not changed; only the interpretations that have been placed upon them. The question that arises when reading a collection of interpretations and developments of Bions thinking, such as offered in Bion Today, is whether each essay is potentially a real encounter with an aspect of Bion today, or is it something else.

A number of the essays seemed successful in furthering the encounter with Bions thinking, and its clinical implications. I will comment on just two of these. The first is Bion: the phenomenologist of loss, by David Bell. Bell begins his essay by delineating what I felt was the appropriate field of enquiry: In a way that is not true of any other contemporary psychoanalytic writer, we are still dealing with the consequences and implications of Bions ideas. Bell explores in a straightforward way one of Bions central concepts, namely how the development of alpha function is understood as founded upon the capacity to sustain the experience of frustration borne of absence. Central to Bions project, Bell writes, is the elucidation of the phenomenology of loss and absence. Bell considers how the difficulty of bearing absence is a central task for both patient and analyst. He goes on to link this understanding to the problem of the subversion of the analytic task by knowledge substituted by religion or cult, including the cult of psychoanalysis.

Another successful and searching essay is Bions critical approach to psychoanalysis, by Rudi Vermote. Vermote considers the epistemological status of Bions O. He identifies different images of, and stages in, Bions clinical and conceptual formulations, arriving in the third stage at the concepts of the psychoanalytic object and O. He then explores some clinical implications of Bions late formulations. The strength of this essay seemed to derive from the authors wide knowledge of Bion, and his capacity to formulate the evolution of Bions thinking.

By comparison I did not experience Antonino Ferros essay, Clinical implications of Bions thought, as pushing towards a deeper exploration or understanding of Bion. While Ferros work has its origins in Bions thinking, it is nevertheless an original development, and Ferros emphasis on the idea of narrative derivatives, and his exposition of his way of working with them, seems, at least to me, to be moving on from, or away from, Bion. We might say that Ferros formulations saturate Bions concept of alpha function. Valid as this may be, I think the clinical approach Ferro elaborates in this essay leans away from the essential, and more radical, implications of Bions thinking. As a result I felt it was one of those which could have been omitted.

The section of the book entitled Group Mentality was perhaps the strongest overall. This was as a consequence of two particularly interesting papers on group work, including clinical material, by Caroline Garland, and John Gordon, and a thoughtful commentary by Robert Lipgar, arguing that the validity and relevance of Bions thinking and theories about groups has been confirmed, rather than disconfirmed, over time.

The strength of these papers seemed to contrast with what appears to be our collective neglect in paying attention to the group. If, as Bion seemed to suggest, the understanding of collective phenomena is as vital to understanding the human condition as is the understanding of the individual mind; if, the two are different aspects of one psychic reality, why do psychoanalysts often seem not to want to struggle with being in the group? A paragraph from Caroline Garlands paper offers one interesting direction for consideration:

One of the most prominent fears of joining a group is that even the little you have will be snatched from you, including life itself. It requires an internal revolution to feel that if you think you have almost nothing, you will get more by giving away the little you have and this can only be learned by experience. It is, however, the basis of cooperation, something that Bion considered a prerequisite for effective work in the group.

The section of the book entitled Aesthetic has two very interesting papers: W.R. Bion and T.S. Eliot by Anna Dartington, and Bions transformations: art and psychoanalysis by Janet Sayers. I thought these two essays, along with a detailed consideration of Bions Memoir of the future, by Meg Harris Williams, might have been better employed as the beginnings of a separate volume on the links between Bions thinking, and art and creativity. Valuable though they are, the focus of the current volume would also have been sharpened by leaving them out.

For the reader who is happy to create his or her own coherence from this wide selection of views on different aspects of Bions thinking, this book will not present a problem. However I found myself wanting to be offered greater coherence, and some of the aesthetic satisfaction that arises from this. The grouping of the essays seemed rather arbitrary at times, and should have been simplified. I felt more work could have been done to organize the material, possibly, for example, around one or both of, a conceptual clinical axis, and an individual group axis.

The introductory essay by the editor Chris Mawson, offered some interesting commentary but did not seem to go far enough towards synthesis of the material. Also, in the latter part of this essay he reviews and summarises the contents of all the subsequent essays. This added about 16 pages to the volume, which seemed largely redundant.

In his essay Mawson addresses the interesting question of the originality of Bions thinking. He suggests there are compelling reasons for regarding the main thrust of Bions work as having clear lines of continuity with that of Melanie Klein. As T.S. Eliot has cogently argued [1], the individual talent of a poet must develop within the poetic tradition, which it may then transform and transcend. Mawson notes how Bions thinking was necessarily dependent upon the tradition within which it is developing, however in emphasising this side of the equation, there is some risk of underestimating just what a radical transformer of tradition Bion was.

Despite these reservations there is much of value in this book; not least of which was its reminding me of the need to go back to Bion himself.

  1. T.S. Eliot. Tradition and the Individual Talent. In The Sacred Wood. London: Methuen, 1920.