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International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 86:1523-1528

Whose Bion?
Edna O'Shaughnessy
I thank the Editors, Glen Gabbard and Paul Williams, for inviting me to be one of three contributors to a series about one of the most gifted analysts of our time: W. R. Bion (1897-1979). His work continues to attract and influence analysts of different orientations in whose books and papers will be found widely different readings of his writings. It is these ‘different readings’ of Bion that I shall enquire into—the books and papers themselves being beyond the scope of this short piece. First of all, there is the reading of Bion's opus itself. What I regard as his powerful and original contribution to psychoanalysis begins with his first papers on groupsin the 1940s and continues through the two subsequent decades. During this time, Bion (194851, 1950, 1952, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958a, 1958b, 1959, 1961,1962a, 1962b, 1963, 1965, 1966, 196 7a, 1967b, 1970) wrote on an astonishing range of subjects—groups; schizophrenic thought and language; the mind and world of psychosis in contrast to neurosis; a theory of thinking; psychic transformations; arrogance; hallucination; learning from experience; the elements and the practice of psychoanalysis. After a study group lasting eight years, Leon Grinberg, Dario Sor and Elizabeth Tabak Bianchedi published in 1975 the first exposition of these ideas. In the preface to their slim and valuable volume, the authors remark on ‘the particular impact of the experience of immersing ourselves in Bion's thought in all its depth and of finding it surprisingly coherent …’ (my italics). I think the key to this coherence is Bion's ever present concern with the instinct to know—the K link, as he calls it, and I think this is also the main reason why Bion's writings are of such notable psychoanalytic significance. From the start, K was—and so it has remained—at the very centre of psychoanalysis. Freud wrote in 1919, for instance, ‘we have formulated our tasks as physicians thus: to bring to the patient's knowledge the unconscious, repressed impulses existing in him, and, for that purpose, to uncover the resistances that oppose this extension of his knowledge about himself’ (p.159, my italics). Bion's wide-ranging work advanced our understanding of K in clinical practice, and furthermore brought about an overall shift in psychoanalytic theory by placing K in a new positionwhere it has the same pre-eminence as the instincts of love and hate, so that instead of a duality there is posited a trio of interacting human instincts: love, hate and trying to know— L, H and K. That there are different readings of Bion's work is a tribute to its originality and richness; even rereadings reveal, as they do with any classic work, new things previously missed. However, I think different readings are also encouraged by qualities intrinsic to Bion's style. He has vivid ti tles: ‘Attacks on linking’ (1958), ‘Opacity ofmemory and desire’ (1970, pp. 41-54); memorable sentences:

- 1523 ‘The choice that matters to the psychoanalyst is one that lies between procedures designed to evade frustration and those designed to modify it. That is the critical decision ’ (1962b, p.29); and striking descriptions: container-contained. He invents tools: the grid, types of transformations; and coins new terms when he needs (as he explains) no penumbra of previous associations, e.g. α-and β-elements, αfunction. And he offers a new symbolic armoury. Bion desires to disturb the reader's complacency and to be what he calls ‘pro-and e-vocative’ by means of a language that is designedly new and unsaturated so as to leave room for the reader's thoughts and meanings. These striking qualities of language, in combination with Bion's vigorous disciplined thought, give his brilliant texts of the 1940s, 50s and 60s a high tension, which, with the newness of a terminology that takes them away from old psychoanalytic controversies, has enabled them to leap the barriers of our plurality. After these main writings, however, in my view, Bion's thinking becomes less disciplined, and his language then begins to suffer the defects of its qualities. By ‘less disciplined’, I mean mixing and blurring categories of discourse, embracing contradictions, and sliding between ideas rather than linking them. These features are apparent, indeed intentional, in A memoir of the future (1975, 1977, 1979); they are part of the spirit in which Bion offers his autobiographical trilogy. They are present, too, in his later psychoanalytic papers and in the seminar records. Consider one small example of what increasingly becomes an overall style: Bion writes, ‘I shall use the sign O to denote that which is the ultimate reality represented by terms such as ultimate reality, absolute truth, the godhead, the infinite, the thing-in-itself’ (1970, p.26). This statement mixes the psychoanalytic idea for which the signO was originally introduced with the vast ‘penumbra of associations’ of an assortment of philosophical ideas. Earlier, in Learning from experience (1962b), O, as

for example. Others choose and use Bion's later writings on clinical practice. Among important examples are Ogden (1982)with his idea of an ‘analytic third’ constructed by patient and analyst. too pro-and e-vocative. and many analysts (well known and too many to cite) in Britain and elsewhere have found in Bion's writings fertile ideas and clinical inspiration —though in different ways. how shall a reader align O if it is to denote. a resistance stirs within us against the relentlessness and monotony of the laws of thought and against the demands of reality testing. Moreover.part of his exploration of K. a contradiction is being embraced—with pleasures and perils for the text. All of this taken together illuminates the nature of clinical practice. Later. as a means of communication. How then shall we read Bion? Is being in rapport with God and the Godhead to do with O or to do with psychosis? Or both? If both. and also more directly. And. In her introduction to Ferro's book. Some. the thing-in-itself’. and the role of K and K between analyst and patient. But this is a psychoanalytic model of mysticism. and weakened by riddling meanings. with Bion's observation about the meaning of symbols for the psychotic patient? In ‘The mystic and the group’. the defects of these very qualities make the texts too open. for example. absolute truth. literal reading of Bion can be found in Eigen's 1998 book in which therapy (among other things) is seen as a form of prayer. Furthermore. from a contradiction any proposition follows. Caper offers an opposite reading: My own reading of Bion suggests that his idea of the mystic and the group is an abstraction from psychoanalytic experience—specifically. 420) . containment and resistance. There are many analysts who would disagree that Bion's conception of clinical practice is closely related to the Kleinian development of Freud (I discuss this dispute below) and who use Bion's formulations to underpin different conceptions of the interaction between patient and analyst. especially what he says about the mystic and faith. (1998. ‘the godhead’. 33). As I see it. if we follow through the two lines of thought. projection. Contradictions have their appeal: breaking the laws of thought and reason brings a quantum of verbal fun. not a mystical model of psychoanalysis. my reading of Bion's opus is that the arresting qualities of language in his main writings free the reader's thinking. Reason becomes the enemy’ (1933. p. but that. Grotstein. in a review of their book.1524 logically demonstrable. and Ferro (1999) with his distinctive conception of analysis as a ‘bi-personal field’ formed by the projections of patient and analyst. Symington and Symington (1996) read Bion as claiming that the aim of a psychoanalysis is to come as close as possible to a mystical experience. he offered a cluster of new ideas about the relation he named ‘container-contained’. used as a defence in the way described by Melanie Klein. Freud observed how ‘when life takes us under its strict discipline. denotes the process and experience of getting to know—in opposition to the static state of possessing knowledge. No one could doubt that Bion has illuminated the relations between patient and analyst. the ‘transformations’ of experience. has an excellent discussion of the particular way in which Ferro understands and uses Bion. such transgressions lead us to anything and everything we fancy —because. he showed how projective identification. p. Thus. For such a reading. for another). 65)—a statement that instantly resonates with clinical experience of psychosis in psychoanalysis. between these extremes. as is readily . the godhead. as discovered by him and others. Bion states.… Bion is providing a model of mysticism abstracted from his psychoanalytic experience of the interplay of interpretation. Bion's earlier work rather than being developed. Others read Bion's opus oppositely and see his later writings not as less disciplined and proliferating of meanings. Spillius (1999). p. and had his own perspective on Freud's evenly suspended attention: the analytic state of mind is based on the eschewing of memory and desire. or a projection of some state of mind. Interestingly. in scientific writings. enters into transference and countertransference. Yet. for example Bléandonu (1994). In a complex and detailed exposition. among other ultimates. as O mingles with ‘ultimatereality.1525 - . ‘When the psychotic symbol is met with in practice … it indicates that the patient is in private rapport with a deity or demon’ (1970. A ‘mystic’ in this reading is a new idea or something that conveys a new idea (this may be an interpretation. but as freely transcending caesuras in a way that brings the author's thinking to a culmination. Texts with contradictions risk an unending proliferation of meanings. especially about clinical practice. 1981. In ‘Dreams and occultism’. the infinite. the experience of a new idea or state of mind being resisted. is confused. as his late thinking becomes less boundaried. then. He saw movements in the session as oscillations between Klein's two positions (PS ↔ D). see. in my opinion. take something of a similar view. there are various shades of opinion. A simple.

‘Psychoanalysis seen through Bion's eyes is a radical departure from all conceptualizations which preceded him’. if they are misreadings. do not—in the end—require a thinker or even an author. are also something of an irony. x). an inexhaustible world of significations. I place it too alongside Winnicott's contributions. which. nor simply a reflection of past animosities. For sustained readings of Bion's opus as a transformation within psychoanalysis. in part. Foucault (1977) asks ‘What is an author?’ He writes. I think it is sometimes difficult to see what is new and at the same time not be blind to what is old though said in new terms.xii). transformation as opposed to discontinuity. write Symington and Symington (1996. our subject is young. sacred texts.119). a reader can easily unshackle his formulations from their source in the history of psychoanalysis. reprinted in Bion (1961). Bion WR (1950). however. or free them from their connections with his contemporaries or even from their evolution in his own writings. All this is to say that I do not see Bion as a revolutionary thinker who makes a new Bionian world that breaks with what was there before in the way Einstein's General Theory of Relativity is discontinuous with Newtonian physics. . Given the magnanimity of Bion's spirit. The truth. one that accords with Bishop Butler's maxim that ‘Everything is what it is and not another thing’. He writes ‘Change is best approached as a matter of transformation. see e. Do different readings of an author like Bion. London: Heinemann. There is a further question: What is the nature of the text? Foucault reminds us that texts are of different kinds. What this means for us is that as widely different readings of Bion multiply. Experiences in groups.An enduring quest in Bion's work. p. p. But others—even though Bion himself never tired of acknowledging his debt to Freud and Klein—read Bion exactly so. whereas fiction and scientific writings are subject to commentary and criticism. in Foucault's words. 3-22. is ‘The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning’. especially Rosenfeld (1952) who in the early 1950s broadened projective identification into a whole mode of relating to an object that could help the analyst to understand the transference situation. or of our plural psychoanalytic perspectives—though all these may enter into why one reading rather than another is preferred. Consequently. They are open to criticism and his psychoanalytic writings belong not to any one of us but to the ‘systematic ensemble’ that is psychoanalysis. Bion's work is also inter-related with Segal's (1957) differentiation of symbolic equations and symbols. scientific writings have. the Symingtons and also André Green. for instance.… The truth is quite the contrary’ (p. says Foucault. still in the state of an over-exuberant plurality like 19th century chemistry. and as also being interdependent with the work of contemporary colleagues. connecting Bion instead with Winnicott. I follow Schafer and read Bion's opus as a transformation of the work of his predecessors.1526 the genial creator of a work in which he deposits. it is too soon to seek a universallanguage for psychoanalysis. There are. was a search for the unique elements of psychoanalysis. with infinite wealth and generosity. whose writings are designedly so open textured. Bléandonu (1994) and Meltzer (1978). surely. References Bion WR (1948-51). The imaginary twin. some see more than a divide. say. matter? Yes.g. so that these multiply diverse readings of his writings. they are not merely a matter of a choice of emphasis —on. since they belong to the assemblage of investigations which constitutes psychoanalysis. Human Relations I-IV. Sacred texts can have only exegesis. though arising from his texts. we need to return attentively to his texts and read them as a thrift barrier to the proliferation of any meaning we might just fancy. Furthermore. ‘We are accustomed … to saying that the author is .g. Some analysts have seen a radical divide between Bion and Klein. they see an antagonism. e. Bion's writings are not sacred texts. and fiction. he would of course like us t o exclude any false directions in his thought and to save and develop the truths —truths which. accounts for our diverse approaches and terminologies. as he himself might say. I come now to a large and contentious issue: How shall we view Bion's highly original work? As a development of what was there before? Or as a radical discontinuity? Roy Schafer (1997) contends that ‘there is bound to be continuity within change’. ‘a membership of a systematic ensemble’ that needs to be taken into account. Bion had the further hope that psychoanalytic elements might be shared by all psychoanalysts. we should think of ourselves as engaged in the study of transformations in theory and practice rather than radical discontinuities’ (p. Our contrary readings of Bion arise from complex sources. to be used in clinical work and in a tool like the grid. And because Bion's language is so different fromother psychoanalytic writings. and also scientific and studious discourses. 1967. especially Freud and Klein. and accept Bion and reject Klein. In my opinion. In: Second thoughts.

The bi-personal field: Experiences in child analysis. Psychoanal Forum 2: 272-3. J. SE 22. 120 p. Int. 31-56. 43: 306-10. Introduction to the work of Bion. London: Free Association Books. 198 p.1528 - Article Citation [Who Cited This?] O'Shaughnessy. Projective identification and psychotherapeutic technique. Heimann P. Grinberg L. Rio de Janeiro: Imago. 440-77. Money-Kyrle R. Madison. New directions in psychoanalysis. 220-39. 122 p. Wilfred Bion: His life and works. p. [→] Spillius EB (1999). In: Klein M. [→] Bion WR (1966). 231 p. Hahn A. CT: International UP. London: Karnac. 82 p. Rosenfeld H (1952). London: Heinemann. 198 p. London: Routledge. 1980. Strath Tay: Clunie. Attacks on linking. Psycho-Anal. The clinical thinking of Wilfred Bion. J. Second thoughts: Selected papers on psychoanalysis. Psycho-Anal. [→] Eigen M (1998). London: Routledge. de Bianchedi ET (1975). 1897-1979. In: Klein M. [→] Bion WR (1962b). 303 p. 159-68. Wilfred R. 173 p. New directions in psychoanalysis. Money-Kyrle R. (2005). Book 2: The past presented. p. Grotstein J (1981). [→] Bion WR (1975). 236 p. 86:1523-1528 . 38: 266-75. J. Int. Learning from experience. J. Ferro A (1999). London: Tavistock. Psycho-Anal. [→] Bion WR (1965). A memoir of the future. Elements of psycho-analysis. Psycho-Anal. [→] Bion WR (1957). [→] Bion WR (1958a). Int. (1958b). 181 p. Int. Notes on the theory of schizophrenia. Foucault M 1977). Bion. Heimann P. [→] Schafer R (1997). Rio de Janeiro: Imago. 39: 144-6. Int. New York. J. 271 p. Bull Br Psychoanal Soc 5. In: Ferro (1999). London: Tavistock. Language counter-memory practice. Freud S (1919).1527 Bléandonu G (1994). [→] Bion WR (1962a). Catastrophic change. p. 40: 308-15. Symington N (1996) [Review]. A memoir of the future. What is an author? In: Bouchard DF. Notes on memory and desire. A perspective on his life and work.. 39: 341-6. 195 p. London: Heinemann. Bion WR (1967a). Group dynamics: A review. Psycho-Anal. SE 17. The differentiation of the psychotic from the non-psychotic personalities. In: Do I disturb the universe? A memorial to Wilfred R. London: Heinemann. Bion WR (1979). Psycho-Anal. Bion WR (1970). On arrogance. Bion WR (1967b). NY: Cornell UP. Bion WR (1977). Introduction. Int. The Kleinian development. On hallucination. Bion WR (1954). [→] Bion WR (1963). Strath Tay: Clunie. J. Ithaca. Book 1: The dream. Psycho-Anal. 279-80. London: Tavistock. 139 p. p. Psycho-Anal. Int. Experiences in groups and other papers. Symington N (1996). 1-35. 210 p. 144 p. Transformations: Change from learning to growth. 39: 111-31. Symington J. editors. E. The clinical thinking of Wilfred Bion. [→] Bion WR. Pajaczkowska C. Int. Lines of advance in psychoanalytic therapy. Notes on the psychoanalysis of the superego conflict in an acute catatonic patient. London: Tavistock. translator. translator. Strath Tay: Clunie. London: Heinemann. Tradition and change in psychoanalysis. J. Dreams and occultism. J. . J. The psycho-analytic study of thinking. Psycho-Anal. Psycho-Anal. The development of schizophrenic thought. A memoir of the future. Sor D. 38: 391-7. Language and the schizophrenic. Whose Bion?. [→] Bion WR (1961). Attention and interpretation: A scientific approach to insight in psychoanalysis and groups. Notes on symbol formation. Symington J. 35: 13-8. J. p. 220 p. [→] Ogden TH (1982). Int. Meltzer D (1978). Book 3: The dawn of oblivion. [→] Bion WR (1955). London: Free Association Books. the psychoanalyst. Int. Bion WR (1956). .Bion WR (1952). 79: 417-20. Int. Caper R (1998). 37: 344-6. Psycho-Anal. Bion: The man. the mystic. [→] Bion WR (1959). The psychoanalytic mystic. NY: Aronson. Segal H (1957). Freud S (1933). 420 p. editors. J.