Introduction by Paul Schimmel:
Welcome everybody to this series of five lectures on the life and work of Wilfred Bion. My name is Paul Schimmel from the Sydney Institute for Psychoanalysis. I am just going to make a couple of brief comments just to try to introduce the topic and put Bion a little bit in context, in the context of the psychoanalytic tradition. The poet T S Eliot wrote an essay called Tradition and the Individual Talent and in this essay Eliot points out that the creator, the original thinker or poet by necessity has to come out of the tradition. In other words he is pointing to a kind of paradox that to be truly original or to be truly innovative, one has to have assimilated the tradition into one's self. Bion of course was a, I would say, a creative psychoanalytic genius but he also had the benefit of course of coming after other creative psychoanalytic geniuses, particularly of course Freud and Melanie Klein whose thinking he had thoroughly assimilated and of course he was in analysis with Klein as you will hear. Freud had a great intuitive capacity for insight into a great many things but in the end his metapsychology ,as he called it, I do not think ever fully cohered but conceptually I think there was always some difficulties with his metapsychological system.
Klein on the other hand developed quite a coherent theory but a much more narrowly focused one. She was particularly interested in the first year of life and the early development of the mind and the integration that takes place in the first year, her idea of a development from paranoid schizoid to the depressive position. But Bion seemed to have this capacity to shed new light on many different things but also to integrate all of those elements into an over-arching theoretical structure. He also had the capacity to bring his philosophical background, his background in the philosophical tradition to bear on the psychoanalytic tradition. So he made an extraordinary contribution and hopefully we will be able to develop some thinking about some elements of that in these lectures and just to finish I am going to give you a quick quote from a book by Bleandonu, a French writer, about Bion, published about 15 years ago now and in this quote he is just commenting on Bion's writing style. He says "Bion's writing has been received with enthusiastic admiration and irritated rejection in equal measure. Often judged on hearsay as reading it demands effort and introspection. However, the investment of intellectual effort demanded of the reader is amply repaid with extraordinary insights and real intellectual pleasure and there is no doubt that Bion's writing repays repeated readings". So one thing hopefully from these lectures you might feel motivated to go and read more Bion or to read him for the first time if you have not before. So it just remains to introduce Neville who is speaking tonight and I think he is probably pretty well known to most people if not everybody. He is a training analyst with the Australian Psychoanalytical Society and is probably best known for his numerous publications, books that he has written and public lectures. I just want to mention one of the books which is a book on Bion written in collaboration with his wife Joan and that's the book I think it is called the Clinical Thinking of Wilfred Bion which is a very good introduction to Bion and to be recommended. So the topic tonight is Bion and the Man.
Neville Symingtons Lecture
Brief trajectory of Bions life
Neville Symington: Thank you Paul. I am just going first to run very quickly through a schedule of Bion's life and then I just want to take up particular aspects of his character and lastly, in the last 10 minutes, I will speak a little bit about my own personal contact with him. You must of course realise you are not hearing about Bion, you are hearing about Bion filtered through someone called Neville Symington. So I will just run through a quick schedule of his life. He was born in India of English parents. His father was a civil engineer. His father was one of four brothers and three of the brothers married three sisters. So he was brought up in India until the age of 8 and, as was the custom with expatriate English people, at the age of 8 he was shipped off to England to go to a public school. He went first to what is known as a prep school a school to prepare him for the rigours of public school. The Public School he went to was Bishop's Stortford. So he was born in 1897, he was shipped off in 1905 and he was there until about 1915 which was just after the first World War had broken out. He says at one point in one of his letters to Francesca, his second wife when he was engaged to her,
"How people can think of childhood as happy I do not know. A horrible bogey-ridden demon-haunted time it was to me and then one has not the fortitude or the callosities perhaps with which to deal with it."1
I have some idea that childhood was not a welcome thing for him. As soon as he had finished school at 17 or 18, the first World War had broken out so by the age of 19, he was a tank commander on the eastern front in France in the war of the Allies against Germany. During that time he was actually recommended for the VC. He did almost all he could not to get that and in this endeavour he succeeded and he got the DSO, the Distinguished Service Order. I cannot spend time unfortunately on his time in the war but he describes it in his book The Long Weekend. It is very well worth reading and it is a horrific account of his experiences during that war. The war finished in 1918, he was de-mobbed and he went straight away to Oxford. At Oxford he read history and it is mentioned that in the time that he was reading history he became also interested in philosophy and particularly Kant and Schopenhauer and one or two others.
When he had finished at Oxford he had a desire to learn French and he went to Poiteirs for about 18 months to improve his French. When that was finished he went back to Bishop's Stortford School, where he had been as a boy, as a teacher. He was there not very long when a very strange incident occurred which I have never seen properly explained but I will just read it to you as Blandonu recounts it in his biography of Bion. He says "A surprising event concluded Bion's teaching career. He was friends with one of the students, an intelligent and athletic boy whom he had invited from time to time to have tea at his house. Bion thought this boy must have a very attractive mother or sister and suggested that he might bring his mother with him to tea. The mother arrived by herself and was far from being the beauty he had imagined. He found a large, gaunt, flushed, shifty and uncommunicative woman who seemed to be hostile towards him. Although tea was convivial enough, the next morning Bion was summoned by the head master who had been notified by the mother that her son had been the victim of sexual advances from his teacher and despite his protests, Bion was asked to resign on the spot which he did." I have never really seen much elaboration and account of that but it is a strange incident.
So that takes us to about 1922 and he then went off to study medicine at University College and he would have been there from 1922 until somewhere towards the 1930s. He must already have realised at that time that he had problems and he went into psychotherapy treatment with Dr Hadfield. Dr Hadfield was quite well known at the time and he wrote a rather famous book on nightmares. Bion refers to him as Mr Feel-it-in- the-Past and having had some analysis or psychotherapy with Hadfield, he then went and had analysis with John Rickman. Rickman was a well known analyst in the British Psychoanalytical Society. He was analyst to some other people we know like Pearl King and so on. Sometime during this period he proposed marriage to the sister of an old school friend of his and after a short while she turned him down. He felt rejected by it and when I come to talk about his character I will refer to that again. Towards the end of the war, in about 1943, he married an actress Betty Jardine. He had been married to her for about one year or 18 months when she became pregnant. He was in fact in Normandy when she gave birth and he received a telegram to say she had given birth to a baby girl who was named Parthenope. Three days later he got a telephone call to say that his wife had died just very suddenly. It seems to have been an embolism to the heart and he of course rushed home and so he was there bereaved of his wife and he had this young baby Parthenope to look after. The other thing that happened during that time (we are now in the second World War) is what is known as the Northfield Experiment. It is there where he started some of his group work and I am not going to talk about that because I am sure Jim Telfer will be talking about it next week. There is just one thing I want to say which I think is significant to Bion's character, that when he arrived at Northfield he found himself the whole time that he could not get down to any piece of work. Someone would rush in and say "Oh so and so wants permission to go on leave", "Someone else wants to be spoken about to know whether his mother can come and visit him" and so on and so on. These are all soldiers at Northfield who had "neurosis". I think many a person would have just put a notice on his door that said not to be interrupted between say 10 and 12 in the morning but Bion had the notion that if he was being interrupted and not able to get on with work in this way, it must somehow be a symptom of what was happening in the place as a whole. So he set up all these different groups for these soldiers to engage in and it was in fact a very fruitful experiment. They did crafts, dancing classes, wood work, metal work, learning to cook, all these sort of different groups and in a very short time the whole place became much more disciplined and ordered.
He reached the end of the Second World War and he then went into analysis with Melanie Klein and he was eight years in analysis with her, from 1945 to 1953. Before that analysis was finished in 1951 he married again to Francesca. Francesca was very much younger than him. Francesca is still alive in fact and she is responsible for publishing some of these books which are very valuable in terms of understanding Bion better. He had two further children, Julian who was born in 1952 and then Nicola in 1955. Then we have the period of his classic papers and books in the 60s and 70s and in that time he became Director of the London Clinic for Psychoanalysis. He also became President of the British Psychoanalytical Society but then in 1968 he made a decision to move to Los Angeles in California and he was there for 11 years and carried on his analytic work there. He finally returned to England permanently in 1979 and bought a house at Abingdon which is just near Oxford but he had not been there very long when he developed leukemia, a very serious very virulent leukemia and on notification that he had it, he died one week later on 8 November 1979. That is just a rough trajectory of his life.
Bion The English Man
Now I just want to take up certain themes about his character. One of the first things, and I am starting at a slightly lower level and building up, is that he was very typically English. There is a figure of speech which is called litotes which is the opposite of hyperbole. It is that slightly ironic use of an expression where you underestimate the actual event that is happening. For instance, when he was giving some of his seminars at the Tavistock, a discussion came up at one point about nuclear arms and he said
"Yes, we have become very good at making fireworks".
That typified his ironic English humour. Also if you read the Brazilian lectures that he gave later in life, in one of the talks that he gives he tells of a very disturbed young man whom he was seeing and it is incidentally well worth reading and he ends like this - he says
"One day I received a message. The patient had left his room and had been found dead in the fields some 20 miles from London. I cannot say that I felt I had done well. On the other hand I cannot say that I even felt sure what the mistakes were that I had made but I certainly could not believe that anybody could regard that as a satisfactory analysis of a witty, intelligent, clever, cooperative and friendly young man".2
That is to my mind also typical of that type of figure of speech known as litotes. It is very very typically English and for instance, Joan and I told in our book the time when Albert Mason went to him for supervision saying:
"...and you know the patient when he is in bed at night he turns the light on to see if he is still in bed or not".
But when saying it he had an absolutely deadpan face. I am slightly familiar with this as I was trained in the tradition that said you must never laugh at your own jokes. There is another thing that is relevant and you can see it in various references that he makes. The Public School that he went to was Bishop's Stortford in Hartford. Now one of the things that I myself am not unfamiliar with is being shipped off to a Public School in England but one of the things that I learned and I do not think that anybody taught me but it is one of those things that one just imbibed. One must never ever ask a public school boy to what school he went because there was a hierarchy of these schools. If you had been to Eton it was alright, Harrow, Winchester, okay but Bishop's Stortford, nah uh. So one must never ask someone and he speaks about it when he goes to Oxford that he felt that sense of inferiority that he had been to a rather lesser Public School. I mention this because it seems to me it was quite elemental to his character. He had the demeanour, typical of a middle-class Englishman.
Bions cruelty and madness
Now the next thing I want to get on to is his own madness and a cruelty that went with that madness. So when, during the first World War, he got the DSO he came back to London to receive it and he went to Buckingham Palace, as did the others who were going to receive decorations. And I might just tell you this is rather again typical Bion. He is in the queue to receive the medal and the king, King George V, is there handing out the medals to each one and the Sergeant Major behind him said to him:
"You must not start chatting to the king".
So he went up timidly to receive the medal but the king started chatting to him, saying:
"Oh so you received this medal for the operation at Cambrai in Eastern France ?"
and Bion replied and spoke with the King. Then Bion says with characteristic wit:
So that is again rather typical of him but anyhow when he came out from Buckingham Palace, his mother was there and he was walking down The Mall with her. He was clearly in a very grim state and he says
"My mother defeated and helpless in the face of my taciturn moroseness, asked if I knew the riddle of the miser's most hated flower. It is the anemone she cried because it reminds him of someone saying any money any money. My response was a stoney silence which was so hostile that it frightened me". 5
Then at another point in that same account during the first World War, this was another visit when he was allowed to come back to England, and he says
It is an amazing statement when you read what was going on at the front and his friends being killed by shells and so on and that was preferable to being with his mother. So he clearly had a very severe problem and I have personally no doubt that it was a psychotic problem that he had. I will read you the whole of a passage because I think it illustrates a cruel madness rather well. He bought a house at Iver which is to the west of London, not very far outside of London, and he hired the services of a nurse to help look after Parthenope. This was before his second marriage. Then he says this in this account
"That something was wrong must be wrong was brought home to me one weekend when I was sitting on the lawn near the house and the baby was crawling near a flower bed on the opposite side of the lawn. She began to call out to me. She wanted me to come to her. I remained sitting on the lawn near the house and the baby was crawling near a flower bed on the opposite side of the lawn. She began to call out to me. She wanted me to come to her. I remained sitting. She now made to crawl towards me but she called out to me as if she expected me to come and fetch her. I remained sitting. She continued to crawl and now her calls became distressful. I remained sitting. I watched her continue on this painful journey across the vast expanse as it must have appeared to her that separated her from her daddy. I remained sitting but felt bitter, angry and resentful. Why did she do this to me? Not quite audible was the question why do you do this to her. The nurse could not stand it and got up to fetch her. No, I said, let her crawl, it won't do her any harm. We watched the child crawl painfully. She was weeping bitterly now but sticking stoutly to her attempt to cover the distance. I felt as if I were gripped in a vice, no I would not go. At last the nurse having glanced at me with astonishment got up, ignoring my prohibition and fetched her and the spell snapped. I was released. The baby stopped weeping and was being comforted by maternal arms but I, I had lost my child. I do hope there is no future life." 7
Then he refers to Betty, his first wife who was the mother of Parthenope,
"I begged Betty to agree to have a baby, her agreement to do so had cost her her life. I had vowed to look after this child. It was not a promise to Betty, it was a promise and a vow to myself. It was a shock, a searing shock to find such depth of cruelty inside of myself. I have often since recalled Shakespeare's words 'Nymph, in thy orisons. Be all my sins remembered'".
This is at the beginning of the second of his two autobiographical volumes. It is quite clear to me that to the extent that he resolved this resentful, morose, sort of cruelty, that it was due to his analysis with Melanie Klein. I am sure it must have been one of the reasons why he decided to go to her and why he was in analysis for eight years. So then I will just quote you something he says in relation to this which I think is important
"While listening to the patient the analyst should dwell upon those aspects of the patient's communications which come nearest to arousing feelings corresponding to persecution and depression. In my experience this gives a good check on the soundness of one's interpretive validity as anything I know On the whole I am more satisfied with my work if I feel that I have been through these emotional experiences than I do if the session has been more agreeable. I am fortified in this belief by the conviction that has been bourne in upon me by the analysis of psychotic or borderline patients. I do not think such a patient will ever accept an interpretation however correct unless he feels that the analyst has passed through his emotional crisis as a part of giving the interpretation".8
That is to me a very striking statement and his certainty about it. I think it is clear to me that he continued to have crises but managed to contain them even his later life. He says
"The practising analyst must get hardened to mental breakdown and become reconciled to the feeling of continuously breaking down. That is the price which we have to pay for growth. Take your choice, mental stagnation and decay on the one hand or perpetual upheaval on the other. Like living in the middle of a mental breakdown without being clear whether one is breaking up or breaking down".9
I am sure that was also his own experience. That is a section I have referred to as his cruelty and madness.
There is something else which is I think personally was also very characteristic of him and is obviously related to what I have just said. I have referred to this as intensity and distance. It seems to me absolutely clear that he engaged with patients with extreme intensity. The recommendation that one often hears, do not get involved, is something that he would have absolutely repudiated, of that I am quite quite sure. He was someone who experienced things with great intensity but then that strange way in which apparent opposites seem conjoined. I do not think they are contradictory; they go together. He was also able to look at himself, as it were, from the outside and he refers to himself quite often as if it were someone else looking at himself. Great shared intensity and apparent distance are married partners. I mentioned that he got engaged, it must have been sometime about 1925 or somewhere around about there and then that after fairly a short while his fiance rejected him and brought it to an end. Blandonu says this about this incident:
"Fifty years later Bion had still not worked through the pain of this rejection. It is not funny, it hurt, it still does. Later during a weekend at the seaside Bion met the couple unexpectedly and he said 'If I had had my service revolver with me I would have shot him. Then I would have shot her through the knee in such a way that the joint could not be repaired and then she would have a rigid leg to explain to her future lovers' ".10
So you can see that he was someone with a great intensity and it also goes the other way if you read the second half of this book, known as The Other Side of Genius, those are the letters which he wrote to Francesca when he was engaged to her. They are remarkable letters and I would highly recommend you to read them if you want to get a sense of his character. I will just give you an example of his, in a way, clearly deeply in love with Francesca and he expressed it in letter after letter after letter and I will just quote to you two of them where he says:
"If this is a dream, my dear, it is the longest and most marvellous dream I've ever had. If it is not a dream then I don't know how to contain myself. My goodness, I think how lovely, how lovely she is and she has promised to marry me. How extraordinary. I must have got myself muddled up with someone else. What ever shall I do. Will she be very disappointed when she finds out what a dreadful ordinary type of person I am and then I feel rather sad and I begin to hope that you rather like ordinary people and that you really know I am ordinary and love me just the same." 11
Then he says at another point:
"I am a very ordinary sort of man my dearest but with your love I should be a happy one and no-one can ask for more than that. Success as the world rates it, an outward show, are quite agreeable if they come along but they are very much by-products which I think come a very long way behind ordinary contentment and happiness."12
I am just going to give you one or two other quotes. There is one thing I might just say there. I was saying about his understatement which is very typically English but actually the way he expresses himself to Francesca is absolutely untypically English and if you say well this is a contradiction and not consistent then all I can say to that is that if you introduce me to someone whose character is totally consistent I would be quite sure that you have imported the person from another planet. This planet does not produce people who are totally consistent
I will give you a few more quotes from these remarkable letters:
"Your remark that you did not know what relatives I had has made me think I should devote this letter for you to know about the awful sort of family that you are about to become a member of, the Bions. The first and fundamental thing to realise is that they are all, and as far as I am aware without exception, completely cracked. This is the more difficult because they possess a sort of cunning that has kept them out of the looney bin" 13
and then he mentions
"Poor uncle Walter right at the end when he was 80 odd he had a temporary phase of sanity and realising that he had wasted his life became extremely cross with everyone and everything and so they shut him up in a looney bin. I always thought it very hard lines as it really was the only time in his life when I heard him say a sensible thing".14
This is just to give you some idea of the way he opened his view when he was thinking about psychotic patients in that he always opened the type of lens much more widely. He says for instance
"We assume that the psychotic limitation is due to an illness but that of the scientists is not. Investigation of the assumption illuminates disease on the one hand and scientific method on the other. It appears that our rudimentary equipment of thinking thoughts is adequate when the problems are associated with the inanimate but not when the object for investigation is life itself. Confronted with the complexities of the human mind, the analyst must be circumspect in following even accepted scientific method. Its weakness may be much closer to the weakness of psychotic thinking than superficial scrutiny might imagine".15
He says many other things; for instance a slight shiver goes down my spine when I hear people talking about interjecting a good object and he says that
"a good object is one that is created by the child through the stimulation from the mother"
and he says that
He elaborates this quite a bit further in Attention and Interpretation.
I will give you just one of two other quotes in this vein.
"I am not greatly interested in psychoanalytic theories. If one gets trained one can go and look them up in a book but the practice of analysis is the only place where it is possible to read people and not books. It is therefore a pity to spend time which could be spent in reading a person, in reading book instead". 17
I will give you two more quotes. This is more just to give you a flavour of him
"We might look at a pair of socks and be able to see a mass of holes which have been knitted together. Freud describes something of this kind but said that the person had a phobia which made it impossible for him to wear socks. I suggest that the patient did not have a phobia of socks but could see that what Freud thought were socks were a lot of holes knitted together. If this is correct, terms like phobia in classical analysis do not do justice to the facts and in particular do not do justice to the extreme capacity for observation which is natural to some patients just as it is natural for me in my gross macroscopic way classically to see a pair of socks, this kind of patient has a visual capacity which is different making him able to see what I cannot see"18
and he makes this type of point a great deal and in my opinion where he developed the idea of O, he was putting psychoanalysis on a completely different foundation from Freud. He says for instance in one of his letters to Francesca,
"My analytic work convinces me that it takes a long time before people are able to bear a realistic contact with what other people are rather than with some artifact with which they are familiar".19
He makes the point, not there but he makes it in one or two other places that we produce the theories of other people as a type of artifact to protect us from the actual reality of the person that we are engaged with. He does not just look within the psychoanalytic authors, he goes to Kant, to Hume, some of the early Greek philosophers like Democritus, to the scientist Poincar and so on. Therefore he acted also in ways which quite a lot of analysts would disapprove of. I can give you a couple of examples. One of his analysands was a man called Bob Gosling. I dedicated my book A Pattern of Madness to Bob Gosling as I knew him well and he became a friend. Bob was in analysis with Bion and he was in analysis with Bion when he got married and he asked Bion if Bion would like to come to the wedding and Bion came. He was there among the guests and Bob told me that of course a discussion about it came up in subsequent sessions but I feel fairly sure that a lot of people would think that was not kosher. However, I personally think that some of these things that he did, he was able to do because I think he really understood what analysis was and therefore was not tied up with what one might call the secondary issues. Also when he was in California, there was a couple and I think they are coming here next year to the Frances Tustin Conference, Jim and Shirley Gooch and he was there in Los Angeles for about eight years and he saw first Jim Gooch for four years and then he saw Shirley for four years. There is a Brazilian man I know who went into analysis with Bion and he started in Los Angeles, Bion went to London and then Bion had a house in France where he went on holiday and Junqueira also went there and continued his sessions. I am not saying whether that was necessarily a good thing or a bad thing but it was a form of practice that was quite different from what would normally be recommended. I remember once fairly early in my career I had a patient who got a chair in a particular subject at university and he invited me to the inaugural lecture and I did not go and I did not go because I did not think that was the right thing to do but I am quite certain I was wrong not to have gone.
I am sure his analysis of Melanie Klein helped him tremendously to overcome the resentment, the madness, contain the madness, contain the cruelty though I think all the slight signs of that cruelty even subsequently. I will just give you two quotes which makes me think that he, in later life - I think he if you look at his early papers and the interpretations he made and then later the type of interpretations that he made, they strike me as profoundly different. I know someone who was in analysis with one of Bion's analysands and he had a terrible experience with that analyst and then years later he went into analysis with Bion and he said one day to Bion "I can't understand how this other analyst is the way he was when you had analysed him" and Bion said to him "He had a different analyst". I think it is clear that Bion had developed and changed and freed himself from a particular school of thinking and in one of his later works which was published as Bion in New York and So Paulo. Someone asks him,
"The Kleinians say that one uses ones own fantasy therapeutically. One's own countertransference reaction, all of one's reactions to the patient and some kind of unconscious communication between the patient and analyst"
and Bion says
In the same book someone asked him
"I had the impression from a seminar of Donald Meltzer's I once attended that Melanie Klein gave off interpretative remarks almost constantly and that these were in order of ruminations and she ruminated aloud" 21
and Bion says
"I would not have called them ruminations but I think that she did give a constant stream of interpretations. Latterly I would have thought that they were too coloured by a wish to defend the accuracy of her theories so that she lost sight of the fact that what she was supposed to be doing was interpreting the phenomenon with which she was presented". 22
In another place he says this
"There are analysts who carry their professional activities into their homes and cause a great deal of trouble by interpreting in psychoanalytic terms the behaviour of their families. I am not suggesting that we should stop being psychoanalysts but while you may have some psychoanalytic idea in your mind about the behaviour of a son or daughter or husband or wife, you do not have to interpret them. If I started interpreting the behaviour of members of my family I should certainly be afraid that the family was being deprived of a father and getting an analyst instead. That may be a lucky thing for the family or it may not". 23
That is typical of his humour again of course.
Now you see Bion obviously knew that Melanie Klein had analysed a couple of her children and I have always personally thought that the reason that Melitta Schmideberg came to hate her mother was that she was deprived of a mother. I think it seems to me clear that Bion distanced himself from almost all the theoretical schools in which he was reared and with his formulation of O, he put a different groundwork to the whole theoretical structure in which he had been trained.
Bion and Religion
I want to just say something about Bion and religion. I want to just make this point. There is a Latin American character called Lopez-Corvo who wrote a book on Bion, I do not know, three, four or five years ago. I cannot remember the title of it now not surprisingly. He says that "There is no hint in Bion of any type of religious sentiment or religious understanding". I will quote to you though what Bion says:
"Psychoanalysts have been peculiarly blind to this topic of religion. Anyone recalling what they know about the history of the human race can recognise that activities which could be called religious are at least as obtrusive as activities which could be called sexual. In the domain of the physical, if a human being were spoken of as having no alimentary canal, one would think here is a monster indeed. It bears no resemblance to the human animal. If that is so then one wonders on what grounds a mind or personality could be regarded as a human personality or character if it had missing one of the main departments of mental activity".25
So it is quite clear that he thought that and I do want to make the point, it was not to do with denomination I mean in his definition of religion was not in that type of sphere but to me I have seen not only Lopez-Corvo make that remark, I have seen several analysts make similar remarks and it is extraordinary. It reminds me about 10 years ago or so there was an exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. I think it was something like from Monet to Picasso or I cannot remember the title of it but there quite a lot of Picasso's paintings and there was one room in what they call the red period and the blue period and so there is a painting of a young girl in a red skirt and beside it there is the legend, the bit of blurb about it, that said "In this period and in this painting Picasso painted without any type of expression on people's faces". You look at the painting and there is this young adolescent girl with a pouty expression on her face. The man who wrote that just could not have been looking at the painting. He had read books of course which said that during the red period Picasso did not give expression to people's faces and he did not look at the painting. It is slightly similar with Lopez-Corvo and other people. I just want to say something about this because for instance someone who had no type of grasp of religion would not have done what he did which was recommend that people read, for instance, The Ascent of Mount Carmel by John of the Cross and the other person he recommended was Meister Eckhart and I just want to give you just a couple of quotes from these. John of the Cross, for instance, says
"In the process of understanding one cannot introduce a principal without first expelling from one's self the opposing principal which proceeds it because it stands as an impediment to the new one because of the opposition that exists between the two principals". 26
Bion says that sort of thing frequently and mystics as opposed to what might call people of religious devotion, all had that type of view. I will just give you two quotes from Meister Eckhart. To me one of the most valuable things that Meister Eckhart said. He said
and I thought that was one of the most wise things anyone has ever said because actually a great deal of things that we bow our heads to are as primary are in fact secondary and I think Bion differentiated clearly between what was primary in psychoanalysis and what is secondary. Giving an interpretation, on the couch, 50 minutes, 40 weeks a year, they are all secondary. I am not saying they may not be important but they are secondary. They are not actually the core of the matter and I think and Bion knew this which is the reason he quotes the mystics; also I think it is relevant that John of the Cross was put in prison and also Meister Eckhart was condemned as a heretic. That is I think one of the reasons why Bion made such a point about being against the establishment and he writes about the mystic and the group in Attention and Interpretation. I will just give you one other quote from Eckhart which is so you might think came from Bion. He says
Everything that is to receive and to be receptive must and should be empty. The masters say: If the soul had any colour in it when it observes, it would recognize neither the colour it had nor that which it had not. Since, however, it is empty of all colour, it recognizes all colour.28
See Bion is saying the same thing when he recommends clinicians to approach a session without memory or desire.
Personal Experience of Bion
I will come now to what I said at the beginning. I will just tell you a little bit about my own experience of him. I had the good fortune in the late 70s whenI had qualified as an analyst and was working at the Tavistock Clinic. For two subsequent years Bion came from Los Angeles in June/July type of time and he gave seminars at the Tavistock but he also used to give seminars to the Klein group at the Institute to Psychoanalysis and being greedy I used to go to both. I went to those for two years running. One thing, when he was giving a talk or seminar and then when he stopped for the discussion and someone asked a question, you would quite often wait two or three minutes before he answered. He was absolutely still and then slowly he started speaking and when you heard him start you would think this had nothing to do with the question and then you slowly began to realise that it was. Then I will tell you this. In one of the seminars at the Klein Group at the Institute of Psychoanalysis here was I just qualified as an analyst a year or so before, he said
"Most analysts do not believe that this strange conversation works".
I was amazed at this. It so happened I had arranged to go for supervision to him a few days later. I said to him
"I was very struck by this statement that you made"
and he looked at me, he said
"Nevertheless, listening to many clinical accounts I have come to believe it is true".
I personally think he is right. There are various reasons that make me believe he is right and I will give you one aspect of this. When I was presenting the patient for whom I took for supervision which I will speak of a bit more about in a moment, I would say something and he would say
"Now tell me the next bit of the conversation and tell me the next bit of the conversation".
Bion would never have used a term like clinical material. I said jokingly recently at a talk I was asked to give, when I was a child I remember going with my mother to a drapery shop and she would order 8 metres of material to make some new curtains and a big roller would come out and would be pulled up and a metre long ruler would measure 8 metres and it was cut off. So when I hear people talking about clinical material it arouses these nostalgic memories but I am always disappointed, no material appears. You see, I do not actually think you have to use these phrases if you believe that conversation works. That is one aspect of it but I will just tell you one or two other things that happened. I was at that time I was seeing a woman who had had a psychotic breakdown and I had not in any way been trained for what occurred. I have actually given a talk about this in the past here but for about the first three months or so she just spoke in a fairly normal way and then there was a break and I could see the moment she came in that her eyes looked at me with a type of state of terror and she sat down and about 10 minutes went by and she would say something like "blue circle", another 10 minutes would go by, "giraffe". I thought my heavens what am I to do here. I had just this conviction that I must somehow try to keep in communication with her so I weaved a tale and said
"I think you think of me as a very superior being looking down on you and you feel cold and empty as a result".
I had no idea whether it was right or wrong but this form of communication went on for about three to four months. It is quite strange, at that time, I was going for fortnightly supervisions to Herbert Rosenfeld who was a great doyen of psychosis but when I came to present I did not present this woman. I think it was that I sensed that I was too unconfident in myself and that if Rosenfeld said you need to say this and he spoke in a rather type of dramatic way, it would have upset my type of sense. Anyhow, after about three to four months, I was coming away after a session and I had two thoughts. One: I was fed up with doing this, just fed up with it. That was one thing. I have of course since learnt that when that sort of thing happens it is a communication. The second thing that happened: I had read somewhere and it might have been in Bion or some philosophical work that consciousness is the integrating of disparate parts so I suddenly thought to myself I am being consciousness for her. It also taught me a great deal about transference because I realised that transference had nothing to do with one being a figure of some sort but I was, as it were, the repository of consciousness. The next session when she came in and she started with these disparate bits, I said to her
"You want me to weave these into a pattern because you believe you are unable to do it yourself".
I told Bion this and he said to me in his rather Churchillian way of speaking
"and what was her response to this interpretation of yours ?".
I told him that she became absolutely furious and angry and said I was cold and inhuman. He looked at me, again it must have been two minutes with great owl-like eyes and he said:
"I think that was a correct interpretation".
Then the same woman used to complain bitterly that I did not understand women's problems. I was a typical male chauvinist that did not understand women's problems. I told Bion this and I said to him
"I think there is something true in what she is saying, that I don't understand, I am not sensitive enough to her problems particularly as a woman" but I said "She also delivers it with extreme sadism".
He just said this:
"Strange thing sadism. It only works if the victim is helpless".
He did not say anything more. He had that quality and I think that was the way his mind worked. He did not ask me whether I was sure that I was not being masochistic. Nothing like that. He was made a type of philosophical statement and I think that is the way his mind worked and of course it was also certainly for me, much much more effective. The other thing that happened right at the beginning when I started to tell him, he just said:
"and she had the idea that you'd be able to help her".
Nothing more. Actually extremely important because I realised the mere notion that I put myself forward to be able to help her already creates a very omnipotent type of view. I was an omnipotent figure in her mind. Again Bion had that slightly laconic way of putting it. I remember also I told him that she very rarely produces a dream. He said:
"well you know, when someone tells a dream they feel you are looking right into them and it is exceedingly painful".
I could tell that he could really feel the pain of that.
I will just end with a statement again by Francesca at the end of this book where she gave a talk after he had died which I was fortunate enough to hear also. She ends that by saying:
"My granddaughter, aged 7, put into words what so many of us felt after Wilfred's death. 'I didn't realise I knew Grandpa so well' she said'" and then she says "his love, wisdom, affectionate humour, sympathetic concern permeated our lives. I believe we should continue to feel, sometimes with surprise that we didn't realise we knew him so well". 29
It is a strange thing but I felt I knew him quite well from those just fairly brief encounters. The other thing is I felt certain I was sitting at the feet of genius. The thing that convinced me of it was his simplicity. I think all geniuses at core have been deep but exceedingly simple. He did not say anything complicated to me. Everything he said was quite simple but deep. With that I will end.
Paul Schimmel: So we will have some discussion or comment if anyone has any thoughts or questions.
Neville Symington: The other thing that is probably worth saying, there were people who hated Bion and quite a number of people said, you know, he had become senile and stuff. When I saw him for those supervisions, I cannot remember it was either 1978 or 1979, he died later in the year 1979. It was one of those two years, I cannot remember which now. He was absolutely on the ball, you know, and he was sort of sitting up in a hard chair as fit as anything. For instance, I can think of various analysts, when he wrote transformation which was when he developed the idea of O, I think that even analysts who knew him very well saying of course he had gone off a bit then. I think it is complete nonsense.
Audience member: How old was he when he died and what did he die of?
Neville: He died of leukemia. He was 82. He was born in 1897. A very sad thing, you know, with that first wife dying, in 1997 there was the first Bion conference in Turin put on by his daughter, Parthenope. She was married to an Italian musician living in Turin, and about five or six months later she was killed in a car crash so it was sad.
Audience member: Thank you very much. Just in the notion as Bion as mystic, you mentioned two mystics essentially Christian or Catholic. Was he influenced by other religious traditions that you are aware of ?
Neville: I do not know. I do not know the answer to that. My sense of it is, I do not know if anyone here has read Aldous Huxley's book The Perennial Philosophy. Aldous Huxley in the book goes through the mystics within Christianity, Judaism, Sufism which is you know part of Islam and also Buddhist mystics and Hindu mystics and quotes from the Upanishads. I mean the point of that book is that it points to the similar themes that are in all those mystics and all those mystics were nearly always not popular in the actual traditions in which they lived. I would be very surprised if Bion would not have been influenced by those. I may be imaging this, but I think The Seers of the Upanishads, I am sure he had read some of them.
Paul Schimmel: You are probably aware, but the last lecture is on the topic of Bion the Mystic too. One has the impression that he absorbed sublimely the mysticism of Indian inherent in Indian culture as well as a child.
Neville Symington: Yes, he was planning to go back to India. Actually I think he had a plan to go back the year after but he died. I think he was planning to go back in 1980. He was looking forward to it. I know one or two Indian analysts that he had conversations with and so on.
Audience member: Thank you very much. I found it very inspiring. What I wanted to ask you about was this idea of putting theory aside, that theory is actually something that keeps us comfortable and does not really necessarily help us see. The connection with what you were saying about the secondary and the primary. Actually what he was sort of on about at the deeper level of theorising when he is thinking about life.
Neville Symington: It is slightly complicated. A theory is, as I understand it, what one might call an intellectual elaboration of a phenomenal image. Therefore it does not have sufficient abstraction in it to be able to be a lens through which to see this person, that person, the other person and therefore what is slightly complicated is he made a differentiation between what he called a theory and model. What he meant by theory was that deeper level of abstraction and you see I personally think that the deeper level of abstraction means actually a mentality and then a model is something lower down which already has some phenomenal elements in it and therefore he said you need to always go between what he called the model and the theory. I personally would not have used the word theory and so I gave this example recently, I have given it a few times and people would probably be fed up with me for giving it. If you say that this glass holds lets say a quarter of a litre, if you put water in it, wine in it, whisky in it, orange juice in it then the volume is a reality. It is not a theory, volume is a mental reality but it does not interfere with the content and it is exactly the same with certain other mental realities such as a value or a relationship. A relationship is a mental reality. As soon as you get to a theory, a theory is nearly always generated by someone who has had particular images which they have then developed into a theory but it is not actually my perception. It is not actually my understanding. It may be Freud's, it may be Winnicott's, it may be - funnily enough I remember very well with that same woman that I presented forcing a Winnicott type of thing on her and that finally she managed to bang into my head that this was not right, you know, and a Winnicott theory is alright for Winnicott. It is no good for me or for you. You may be inspired by particular aspects of it or he may say something that generates a formulation that is okay. To my mind, one of the biggest mistakes and I hope I am not treading on Jim's toes here, is when people talk about taking a Bion group. Only Bion takes a Bion group. Nobody else has taken a Bion group. Bob Gosling told me once that at one of the Leicester conferences to which Bion attended, he was sitting next to Bion and people were talking about Bion this, Bion that, Bion the other. Bion turned to Bob and said:
"Must have been a very interesting man this Bion".
What he means is it is not him. It is the same as when Tolstoy said, for instance, "someone who was a keen follower of Tolstoy, visited Tolstoy in his home and the chap said:
"I am a very keen Tolstoyan".
As soon as he had gone, Tolstoy turned to his family and said:
"In other words he has views which are totally different from mine".
This is right you see, only Tolstoy has that and I think Bion has frequently said things like:
"You may need a theory to begin with when someone comes in because you feel nervous and anxious but then you have to abandon it when you see the person".
That statement that I quoted to you here where he says in the letter to his wife that he thinks that people defend themselves against the actual contact with another person as he or she is, he says his analytic work has convinced him of that and I am certain that is true.
Audience member: I do not want to make any pleas for consistency but could I get you to comment on two sort of interesting sort of inconsistencies or unusual conjunctions. The first one is ab anitio. Bion is a very unusual surname, an English surname. I wonder where that comes from.
Neville Symington: Oh, it is a Huguenot name. They were Huguenot originally and I cannot remember exactly when they moved from Southern France to England but I think I seem to remember reading somewhere they fled to England when the Catholic Church was persecuting the Huguenots. Something like that, I cannot remember exactly but that goes back some way. I mean I do not know quite how many generations. I mean it is a French name.
_ Audience member:_ The other thing is that moving from London to California in 1968 is not exactly a typical, you know, career trajectory of someone who is a quintessentially British psychoanalyst at the age of 70. I think it was Frank Lloyd Wright who was said to have said that if you have America and turn it on its side, everything loose falls into California and he does not strike me as being that loose sort of person.
Neville Symington: I do not exactly know why he went. When he developed his way of thinking, he gathered around him a certain number of senior analysts in the British Society and he said he realised that people simply did not understand what I was talking about. Then he was invited actually by Brandchaft to go to Los Angeles and incidentally ideas like a career choice I think were totally foreign to him. I mean he went I think because, I think he had exhausted what he had actually in London, you know, he had reached this epitome of his understanding and I think that is one reason. I think it could also be and I was going to quote it at one point but I will not but you see I think the reason his parents sent him to a lesser public school as it were in England, was they were not very well off and he always struggled a bit for money. He was never very well off. I think it could be, I mean he was much much older than his wife and he obviously knew that he would die long before her and he had three children. I do not know whether that was a factor but he may have thought that he would earn more there. I personally also think he wanted to get out of the slight hothouse of the British Society and they are very - I mean the British Society is one of the best analytic societies but it is still there are very rigid type of views and so on within the institute, less so at the Tavistock. I personally think he probably wanted to get out of it and have a bit of freedom of thought. Whether it was successful from his point of view is another matter. I have slightly the feeling he was perhaps a bit disappointed with what happened there. I do not know.
Audience member: I was just curious about Parthenope like when you talked about his madness and his cruelty and the baby crawling across the lawn and then I think you said he said I lost my daughter then. How was their relationship in the end? Do you know much ?
Neville Symington: I cannot really answer that. I mean I knew Parthenope and I cannot really answer. I do not know, you know, but later when he married, this was before he married Francesca. He says in one of his letters to Francesca something like:
"You brought Parthenope back to me"
"You have enabled me to find my daughter again"
or something like that.
Paul Schimmel: Okay, well I think we are out of time so thank you Neville for a very inspiring and enlightening conversation about Bion. Next week Dr Jim Telfer is going to talk about Bion and the Group. Thank you.