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Francesca Bion
The Days of our Lives





The following text is from an address Mrs Bion gave in April 1994 in Toronto and Montreal, Canada. It was first published in The Journal of the Melanie Klein & Object Relations Journal, Vol 13, No.1, 1995.

This is my first visit to Canada. I know and am known by very few people in this vast country, so we start on an equally unfamiliar footing. However, as you and I have come together, I assume that there is someone who is of mutual interest to us and whose name is familiar to us all.

After recently re-reading most of Bion's writings, I found myself with conflicting feelings about this talk. On the one hand, what can I possibly add to what is already to be found in his collected works and those of others who have written about him? On the other hand, there is so much I could say on my favourite subject that selection becomes a problem if I am not to exceed the limits set by the clock, and thereby leave you wishing you had stayed at home.

Before studying the work of original thinkers in the field of human behaviour and the human mind, it is surely valuable to know what influences and experiences contributed to their personalities, especially as seen through their own eyes. We are fortunate to have a record of Bion's own impressions of his first fifty years in The Long Week-End and All My Sins Remembered. Less fortunately, we are left with an impression of unrelieved gloom and of his dislike of himself. I tried, therefore, to present a more balanced view by publishing a selection of his letters to the family written during the following thirty years, giving it the title, The Other Side of Genius. For those who have not read those books, a brief biographical outline may be the best way of setting the scene.

Wilfred Bion was born in 1897 in Muttra in the United Provinces of Northwest India where his father was an irrigation engineer. He had one sister, three years his junior. At the age of eight he was sent to school in England never to return to the India he loved.

His years in the prep school were unhappy ones. To a child of eight it must have seemed as though some incomprehensible and disastrous turn of events had deprived him of parents, home and sunshine, and had dumped him in an alien land inhabited by nasty little boys and cursed with an even nastier climate. It was more than three years before he saw his mother again - and then, momentarily, did not recognise her. By the time he entered the senior school he had adapted well, joined the 'enemy' and enjoyed the next five years. He always said that what saved him was his large size, physical strength and athletic ability.

He left school in 1915, just before his eighteenth birthday, and joined the Royal Tank Regiment in 1916. He was posted to France where he was on active service until the end of the war. He was awarded the DSO (Distinguished Service Order), the Légion d'Honneur (Chevalier) and was mentioned in dispatches. The chapter on the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 in The History of the Royal Tank Regiment, includes the following:


Some of the tankmen fought on when 'dismounted'. A striking example was that of Lt. W. R. Bion who, when his tank was knocked out, established an advanced post in a German trench with his crew and some stray infantry, and then climbed back on the roof of his tank with a Lewis gun to get better aim at an opposing machine-gun. When the Germans counter-attacked in strength he kept them at bay until his ammunition ran out and then continued to fight with the use of an abandoned German machine-gun, until a company of Seaforths came up. Its commander was soon shot through the head, whereupon Bion temporarily took over the company. He was put in for the VC (Victoria Cross) and received the DSO.

After demobilisation at the end of 1913, he went up to Oxford to read History at The Queen's College. Compared with undergraduates entering university from school, he and others were 'old' war veterans and must have been in disturbed states of mind.

Nevertheless, his years there remained a cherished memory all his life, not least because he was a first- class athlete (playing rugger with the Oxford Harlequins and captaining the water polo team). He also remembered with gratitude conversations with Paton, the philosopher, and regretted not having studied philosophy.

On leaving Oxford, having disappointed his tutors by not achieving a First Class Honours degree - due, they said, to the strain of recent fighting) he tried school-mastering at his old school for two years. and then embarked on medical studies at University College Hospital in London, already knowing that he was primarily interested in a strange, new subject called 'psychoanalysis'. He said he wisely avoided disclosing this at his initial interview; he mentioned, instead, his athletic successes at Oxford and, lo and behold! he was offered a place.

As with his time at Oxford, the memories of these years from 1924 to 1930 were vivid and enduring. He was especially impressed by, and admired, Wilfred Trotter who was not only an outstanding brain surgeon, but also wrote Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War. This was to prove an important influence on Bion's interest in, and nascent theories about, group behaviour. It was first published in 1916 when the horrors of the First World War had already exposed the crass stupidity of leaders of nations and armies alike.

Bion had no copy of the book. It may have been among those he lost during air raids over London in the early thirties and by the fifties it was out of print. So I had not been able to read it until a few years ago when by, by chance, I came across a copy for 20p in an antiquarian bookshop in Oxford - a happy example of serendipity.

Trotter makes observations which remind one strongly of Bion's later views. He speaks of man's 'resistiveness to new ideas, his submission to tradition and precedent'; of 'governing power tending to pass into the hands of a class of members insensitive to experience, closed to the entry of new ideas and obsessed with the satisfactoriness of things as they are'; of 'our willingness to take any risk other than endure the horrid pains of thought'. Of the war, then in its second year, he wrote, 'Western civilisation has recently lost ten millions of its best lives as a result of the exclusion of the intellect from the general direction of society . . . so terrific an object lesson has made it plain how easy it is for man . . . to sink to the irresponsible destructiveness of the monkey'. And twenty years later, 'man' was at it again.

After obtaining his medical qualification Bion spent seven years in psychotherapeutic training at the Tavistock Clinic , an experience he regarded, in retrospect, as having been of very doubtful benefit. In 1938 he began a training analysis with John Rickman, but this was brought to an end by the Second World War.

He joined the RAMC in 1940 and worked in a number of military hospitals, trying to introduce new methods for the treatment of psychiatric casualties. (This period is covered in detail in Eric Trist's valuable contribution, 'Working with Bion in the 1940s: The Group Decade', included in the book, Bion and Group Psychotherapy.)

The Northfield Experiment, ill-fated and short-lived, was one of the earliest group therapy projects. He was also Senior Psychiatrist to the WOSBs (War Office Selection Boards) set up to select officers capable of leadership, using the way candidates dealt with the tension arising in working groups to judge their suitability. What he learnt from these wartime experiences formed the foundation of his group work at the Tavistock in the years immediately after the war, culminating in his papers published between 1948 and 1951 in the Journal, Human Relations.

Early in the war he married a well-known actress, Betty Jardine, who tragically died when their daughter was born in 1945. So at the end of the war he was left grieving, with a baby to care for, very little money and no immediate regular income to depend on.

He returned to the Tavistock Clinic, having written very little up to that time (a paper entitled 'The War of Nerves', in a collection called The Neuroses in War, published in 1940, and 'Intra-group Tensions in Therapy', based on the Northfield Experiment, published in 1943) but in the next five years he had the opportunity to exercise his exceptional abilities: he worked with many different kinds of groups, took a major part in the whole re-organisation of the Clinic, chaired the Planning Committee and the Executive Committee, entered into analysis with Melanie Klein, and set up in private analytic practice in Harley Street.

He was also Chairman of the Medical Section of the British Psychological Society to whom he delivered a paper, 'Psychiatry at a Time of Crisis', in 1948. In 1950 he gave his membership paper to the British Psychoanalytical Society, 'The Imaginary Twin'.

So, when we met at the Tavistock in 1951, he had already written his last group paper and had a full-time analytic practice. It was mid-March and we were married in early June. This sounds rather like rushing from impulse to action without any intervening thought: be that as it may, the partnership endured.

It was not long before I was asked to persuade Bion to agree to the publication of the group papers in book form. But, as he explained in the Introduction, he was 'reluctant to do this without changes embodying later experience'. The inclusion of the 1952 paper, 'Group Dynamics: A Re-view', went some way towards achieving this.

Due to his absorption in psychoanalysis, the writing of seven papers between 1952 and 1957, and his habitual lack of interest in past work, he always preferred to concentrate on the present - Experiences in Groups was not published until 1961. It proved to be his most successful book in terms of copies sold. Its success surprised him, especially as he was used to being told by reluctant publishers in the sixties that his books sold, 'very, very slowly'.

The demand for it continues thirty years after its publication and forty years since the original papers were written. I have lost count of how many foreign editions there now are; I do know that from an aesthetic point of view the Japanese is the most beautiful one to look at.

Melanie Klein was not sympathetic towards his group work; in her opinion it was at odds with analytic work. She was suspicious of some of his psychoanalytic theories, although she did ultimately acknowledge their validity. Bion, on the other hand, did not regard group work as totally divorced from that of analysis. He wrote, in the Introduction to Experiences in Groups:

I am impressed, as a practising psychoanalyst, by the fact that the psychoanalytic approach, through the individual, and the approach these papers describe. through the group, are dealing with different facets of the same phenomena. The two methods provide the practitioner with a rudimentary binocular vision.

He was convinced:

of the central importance of the Kleinian themes of projective identification and the interplay between the paranoid-schizoid positions. Without the aid of these two sets of theories I doubt the possibility of any advance in the study of group phenomena.

Some of what he says in that Introduction was prompted by the frequent question, 'Why did you give up group work?'

He was already engrossed in the practice of analysis while taking groups but ultimately realised that, for him at any rate, to practice both methods in parallel , so to speak, would not be beneficial to the group, the individual or the analyst.

In the light of his increasing experience and changing views in his practice of analysis, the papers of the fifties were published in 1967 as Second Thoughts with his commentary, a critique, to accompany them. His continuing work with psychotics formed the foundation of the four books of the sixties - Learning from Experience, Elements of Psychoanalysis, Transformations, and Attention and Interpretation. The formidable difficulties involved in the analysis of such patients is clearly revealed in his occasional writings both before, during and after the production of those books: they show in detail the evolution of his ideas and theories. They were published in 1991 under the title, Cogitations, the name Bion gave them. They clarify many of the obscurities in the books; in my opinion he pruned away too much of the enormous amount of preparatory work that went into the final product, leaving extremely concentrated faits accomplis and earning for himself the reputation of being, at best, difficult to understand, and, at worst, incomprehensible and crazy.

André Green wrote in a detailed and valuable review of Cogitations. 'Compared with Bion's published works, the Cogitations are thrilling to read and often less difficult to assimilate, because the author's formulations are less condensed and because he makes us witnesses to the process of the unfolding of his thought. We literally follow him.'

He often talked to me about his feelings of being totally in the dark, unable to make any headway towards fathoming a patient's behaviour. There were infrequent occasions when he felt he had a glimpse of understanding, only to fall back almost immediately into doubts about the possibility of any effective treatment. He would say, 'I'm in the wrong job', or, 'It's beyond me', or, 'I can't make head or tail of it.' He would sometimes emerge from his study, where he had been deep in thought, struggling with these seemingly intractable problems, looking pale and what I can only describe as 'absented'. It was alarming until I realised that he had been digging so deep into the nature of the psychotic mind that he had become 'at-one' with the patient's experience. Very rarely, he was elated by a sudden flash of understanding; I remember him exclaiming, 'I must be a bloody genius.' But he would soon after decide that it had been a 'blinding flash of the obvious'.

As an administrator he was an outstanding influence; he could pinpoint the crux of a problem and keep discussion 'on track' in committee. With his acute mental vision and unerring instinct he never allowed the trees to obscure his sight of the wood. Time wasting was anathema to him: his heart would sink if, having completed a meeting's agenda, someone said, 'I would just like to raise the question of. . .'

Arriving back late, he would exclaim to me, 'Have they no homes to go to!'

He never sought positions of responsibility - they were thrust upon him: Director of the London Clinic of Psychoanalysis from 1956-62; President of the British Psychoanalytical Society from 1962-65; Chairman of the Publications Committee and the Melanie Klein Trust; and member of the Training Committee from 1966-68. In spite of his deep dislike of evening meetings - two or three a week at the end of an already very long day's work - he accepted these positions as his contribution as a senior member of the Society.

Looking back, it surprises me that in the midst of so much work and so many commitments, we had any time for a private life. However, weekends were sacrosanct times for relaxing with the family, conversation, listening to music (our tastes were catholic but favourites were Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Britten and Stravinsky), reading, contemplating and writing. He once said, 'I want to be a psychoanalyst. But I do not want that experience to make it impossible for me to have a life worth living where I could never go to the theatre or a picture gallery or paint or swim.'

The children looked forward to his reading to them at bedtime; he was their friend, talked to them as equals, was gentle and even-tempered. I do not recall ever hearing him raise his voice in anger, but angry he certainly could be - the look in his eyes and a cutting remark were signs of stormy weather. He derived intense pleasure from the children's successes, but never made them feel diminished by their failures which he regarded philosophically as a normal part of life. He restrained his natural anxieties to allow them to go their own ways, although he was always ready to offer advice, based on his own experience, which was usually given in a light-hearted, amusing way. Parthenope recalls an episode (included in her 1987 paper, 'Why we cannot say that we are Bionians'):

'I was about to leave, at the ripe age of eighteen, for a long period of study in Italy. The day before I left, my father called me into his study, saying that he wanted to speak to me. I entered the room; silence - he was writing and perhaps had not noticed my presence. after a while, and without feeling at all enthusiastic about the matter, since I expected some sort of rather oppressive 'good advice', I said, 'I'm here.'

'Oh yes, I just want to say two things to you before you leave. First of all, remember to go and see the contemporary paintings in Palazzo Pitti too' (as much as to say, don't think that Italy and Italian culture are things of the past; they are alive and developing), 'and then this is for you when you get lost'. 'This' was a map of Europe and Asia Minor.'

Remembering his own medical school interview, he advised Julian, 'Be sure not to mention any interest in psychoanalysis.' Julian has said of him (during an interview for a 1990 article about the Northfield Experiment and the subsequent treatment of mental distress during the Second World War): 'It was evident to me from an early age that my father was a man of tremendous courage and immense compassion. Because of his degree of self-control this was not always immediately apparent.'

When Nicola told him that she had gained a place at Cambridge University, he said, 'Well done.' He paused, and then, with a mischievous smile, added. 'Pity - wrong university.'

I knew him as a man of strong emotions who evoked equally strong feelings in others. He was deeply moved by beauty in all its forms. He had a wry sense of humour and an appreciation of the ridiculous; there are many stories told of his droll remarks (some of them apocryphal) that were impossible to anticipate and always took one by surprise. When all is said and done, his published letters illustrate his unique qualities more strikingly than any number of anecdotes ever could.

During the sixties we spent holidays in Norfolk where we had a cottage on the North coast. Bion infected the children with a love of that area known to him since boyhood, and had visited often during the twenties and thirties. The bracing climate and austere landscape were very much in tune with his temperament. We all remember vividly the fascinating country walks, the endless supply of beautiful churches to explore, ice-cold swims, lark song, primrose picking - and he made it all precious with his deep fund of knowledge and reminiscences. He particularly enjoyed painting there; its clear air and wide skies make it a painter's paradise - provided you can prevent the easel from being blown away by the constant wind.

Books and book collecting played a prominent part in our lives; conversation at mealtimes usually led to a gradually increasing number of reference books between the plates. He always declared that he felt guilty about spending a great deal of money on books which, he complained, only turn into millstones whenever they have to be moved. Most of ours are much travelled: six thousand miles to Los Angeles, and another six thousand back - there were, inevitably, many more on the return journey.

Our peripatetic years began in 1967 when Bion was invited to work for two weeks in Los Angeles where a few analysts were interested in the theories of Melanie Klein and hoped to persuade a Kleinian-trained analyst to move to California to work with them.

Our decision to uproot ourselves in January 1968 was not an easy one; we had doubts and fears about the wisdom of such a major upheaval and worried about leaving the family. But on the plus side it offered Bion the possibility of freedom to work in his own unorthodox way a freedom he felt he did not have within the Klein group. He had for a long time experienced a sense of being, as he expressed it, 'hedged in.'

Many of the British psychoanalytic community were shocked and baffled; as well as genuine regret at losing him, the reactions ranged from surprise to the assumption that it was his way of going into retirement, to incomprehension, to disapproval and to dire warnings of culture shock and imminent racial bloodbaths in a land of drug addiction and weird cults. The dangers to be faced turned out to be of a somewhat different kind from those visualised by the prophets in London: the likelihood of being sued by paranoid patients; of being prevented from practising by the authorities on the grounds of lack of American medical qualifications; of not having a leg to stand on in a court of law as a 'resident alien'; of actively hostile neighbours; even the possibility of making an adequate income was in doubt for a time. These were the serpents in that Garden of Eden where the sun shone, the flowers bloomed all year and the swimming pool beckoned.

Change the vertex again - as Bion might say - and I see many valuable, long-lasting friendships, generous hospitality, wonderful art exhibitions, thrilling orchestral concerts and recitals at the Music Centre and UCLA. Our experiences were as diverse as the country itself and its inhabitants. I must pay tribute here to our many Californian friends for their help, support and invariably stimulating company. I miss them still.

The anxieties associated with the fundamental change in professional status and the loss of a sense of security (probably illusory even in one's own country but usually assumed to exist) added stresses to the already difficult job of psychoanalysis. But from what Bion told me and what I sensed, his work did not suffer; his courage and characteristic reaction to a challenge were beneficial stimulants.

A society fed on distortions of the truth, facts spiced with phantasy, lying by omission, the encouragement of false expectations, presents a rocky foundation for a structure based on truth, but psychoanalysis has to be practised in the real world, however adverse the circumstances.

In late 1971, when we had been in California for almost four years, Bion wrote in his cogitations, 'The relationship between myself and my colleagues in Los Angeles could be accurately described as almost entirely unsuccessful. They are puzzled by, and cannot understand me - but have some respect even for what they cannot understand. There is, if I am not mistaken, more fear than understanding or sympathy for my thoughts, personality or ideas. There is no question of the situation the emotional situation - being any better anywhere else.' Nevertheless I am sure that California provided the environment, both emotional and physical, in which he could break free, develop further his individuality, think what he called 'wild thoughts', give free rein to 'imaginative conjectures' - there is always the chance that they may turn into realisations.

In the mid-70s, the growing interest in so-called 'Kleinian' analysis caused consternation in the 'traditional' American Psychoanalytic Society. Bion said, in a 1976 interview, '...American psychoanalysts think that psychoanalysis will be undermined by sanctioning psychoanalysts who support the theories of Melanie Klein.' He was reluctant to be drawn into this kind of controversy, regarding it as an irrelevant waste of time. He succeeded in preserving his independence by remaining an 'outsider'; he was not a member of any American psychoanalytic society, institute or group.

His South American travels began in August 1968 when he was invited to work in Buenos Aires for two weeks. Unfortunately, I could not go with him, so my comments are based on what he told me in letters at the time and in conversations later, He enjoyed the experience immensely, and repeatedly said, 'How I wish you had been there!' He formed a sympathetic relationship with the analytic society there, some of whom he had met previously in London. One particularly valuable result of the visit was the stimulus it provided for the writing, and publication in 1971, of Introduction to the Work of Bion by Le6n Grinberg, Danío Sor and Elizabeth Tabak de Bianchedi. A new edition has recently been published with additional material on later works.

His next working trip was in August 1969 to Amherst College in Massachusetts, for a Group Relations conference. This was the second and only other time he went without me; it was school vacation time, and I took the children on a tour of Oregon. His letters made clear that the usual group tensions and hostilities made themselves felt no doubt exacerbated by the presence of the Great Guru Bion. As he wrote to me, 'The continual 'Bion - Bion Bion' did ultimately make me a bit angry and impatient.'

The next two years were a time of adjustment, of building up a practice, and of setting to work on The Dream which became the first book of the trilogy, A Memoir of the Future. It was published in 1975, followed by The Past Presented, in 1977, and The Dawn of Oblivion, in 1979. The three were finally published in one volume in 1991, fulfilling a wish I had had for ten years.

This exciting and disturbing 'magnum opus' (it is certainly a hefty tome of almost seven hundred pages) is a fictionalised, dramatised presentation of a lifetime's experiences, filled with a crowd of character; voicing the many facets of his own personality and thought, at the same time we recognize ourselves among the dramatis personae. Had he remained in England he would certainly not have felt able to express himself in this frank and revelatory way. I saw the change in him and the relief he felt in throwing off some life-long restraints. He wrote in the Epilogue: 'All my life I have been imprisoned, frustrated, dogged by common-sense, reason, memories, desires and - greatest bug-bear of all - understanding and being understood. This is an attempt to express my rebellion, to say 'Good-bye' to all that. It is my wish, I now realise doomed to failure, to write a book unspoiled by any tincture of common- sense, reason, etc., (see above). So although I would write, 'Abandon Hope all ye who expect to find any facts, scientific, aesthetic or religious in this book', I cannot claim to have succeeded. All of these will, I fear, be seen to have left their traces, vestiges, ghosts hidden within these words; even sanity, like 'cheerfulness', will creep in.'

In 1972 Bion gave three talks to the psychoanalytical society in Rome. I hesitate to use the word, 'lecture,' because he always spoke extempore, with no notes of any kind, declaring that he didn't know in advance what he was going to say. In this way he achieved an immediate contact, made all the more effective by his commanding presence and piercing eyes.

The invitation to visit São Paulo for two weeks in 1973 was prompted by Frank Philips who had also left London in 1968 and is still working in São Paulo.

Brazil, with its repressive military government at that time, widespread corruption and economic chaos, seemed unlikely soil in which psychoanalysis might flourish, but adverse circumstances can provide growth both in individuals and societies. It was an intriguing prospect. Bion had already met some of the Brazilian analysts in London during the fifties and sixties and had found them receptive to his ideas and to those of Melanie Klein. They are charming, affectionate, cultured people - a pleasure to know and to work with.

His visit aroused great interest and the lectures attracted large audiences. Curiosity and unrealistic expectations were fuelled by absurd press coverage about 'the most famous psychoanalyst in the world', (although this was no worse than a New Yorker's reference to him as 'the hottest thing in town'). It dismayed and amused him, but exposure to such journalistic exaggeration is one of the occupational hazards faced by those who, whether they like it or not, are elevated to a kind of messianic status. As he often remarked, it is akin to being 'loaded with honours and sunk without a trace'. Fortunately for psychoanalysis, he succeeded in keeping both feet firmly planted in reality.

He took pleasure in the work and was stimulated by it. At the lectures I sensed a marked willingness and desire to grasp his ideas, and there was plenty of lively participation. For those unfamiliar with his style, expectations would probably have needed adjustment; those looking for cut and dried answers to their questions were disappointed. He agreed with Maurice Blanchot's statement that 'la réponse est le malheur de la question'.

He said, ''answers' are really space-stoppers, a way of putting an end to curiosity, especially if you believe the answer is THE answer'. On another occasion he explained, 'When I feel a pressure - I'd better get prepared in case you ask me some questions - I say, 'To hell with it. I'm not going to look up this stuff in Freud, or even in my past statement - I'll put up with it', but of course I am asking you to put up with it too.' And again, 'If you are looking for answers to questions. you will not find them except through your own intuition and understanding.' Accordingly, his replies were aimed at clarifying the problem by approaching it by an indirect route, in due course it became clear that the apparently irrelevant answer had in fact illuminated the area of the question and beyond, like a circular tour bringing the traveller back to the point of departure but now seen with increased knowledge and experience gathered on the journey. As Bion might have put it, 'back to a higher point on the helix.'

The following year, 1974, he was asked to go to Rio de Janeiro for two weeks, followed by one week in São Paulo. He welcomed the opportunity, although he had some misgivings about the wisdom of going again so soon after the 1973 visit. His schedule was, as usual, a heavy one: five evening lectures each week, and seven or eight hours of seminars and supervisions daily. He was skilful in pacing himself - he regarded this as highly important in any job - he could carry a heavy load of work without any apparent falling off in quality. He was also able, like Winston Churchill, to fall asleep for a few minutes and wake refreshed. In this age of rapid communication, the precedence accorded to speed - speed tests, speed reading, snap decisions, 'quiz' contests aiming for answers in seconds or even instantaneously - leaves less and less opportunity for leisure, that is allowance to think or act without hurry. Bion used to quote from Ecclesiasticus (xxxviii, 24), 'wisdom cometh to the learned man by opportunity for leisure.'

He asked, 'Is the growth of our wisdom likely to keep pace with our intelligence? It is a matter of the greatest possible urgency that the human animal should discover what sort of animal he is before he has blown himself off the earth.'

In 1975, Dr. Virginia Bicudo asked us to spend a month in Brasilia. That year was the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of the city; to mark the occasion, four meetings were held at the Bunti Palace to provide a panel of discussants (including Bion) with the chance to express their opinions, hopes and fears about this unique capital. Apart from these meetings and three evening talks at the University, clinical seminars and analytic sessions filled the four weeks, five days a week. In addition to analysts from Brazil, there were some from other parts of South America who attended the seminars to take advantage of a month of concentrated work.

The fourth, and last, visit to Brazil was for two weeks in 1978. Here again, he worked in the same concentrated way: he held fifty clinical seminars, daily consultations, and ten evening meetings. Such a volume of work demonstrated his remarkable vigour and stamina at the age of eighty.

There were many other working visits between 1976 and 1979: they included Topeka, London (four times), Rome (twice), Lyon, Paris, New York, and Washington.

During the seventies I undertook the task of editing his work for publication - in addition to typing, proof-reading and corresponding with publishers which I had already done for many years. It was obvious that he would never have the inclination to do the job nor the time available if he was to continue with the all-absorbing occupation of creative thinking and writing. By that time I felt that I knew him and his way of working and expressing himself as well as anyone was likely to, and being present at all his talks made it easier to recall not only what he said (if recordings were of poor quality) but also how he said it. A tape recording tells you only a limited amount about a speaker; it presents an editor with the problem of how best to transfer the spoken word to the printed page, preserving the individual style and spontaneity while at the same time producing smooth-flowing prose. The most difficult part of the whole job was persuading him to read the finished product; it would have been easier to get a child to take a dose of foul-tasting medicine. He expressed his feeling somewhat crudely but graphically: 'I don't like examining my own vomit.'

The books which grew out of the talks and seminars of the seventies - Brazilian Lectures, Bion in New York and São Paulo, Four Discussions (held in Los Angeles) and Clinical Seminars (in Brasilia) reveal more about his convictions, his personality and his methods than any of the earlier writings; they are an invaluable extension of the theoretical books. They contain much that is applicable to whatever discipline you follow: there is no trace of jargon and he manages to discuss complex matters in simple language that is nevertheless penetrating and filled with wisdom.

By 1978 we were seeing less and less of our family owing to their work commitments; after lengthy discussions during that year and early 1979 we decided to return to England but were unwilling to sever ties with California entirely. We sold our house and bought an apartment, hoping to divide our time between the Western world and Europe. Arriving in London on September 1st, Bion set to work (as usual) while I once more went house-hunting in the Oxford area. There were a few analysts in Oxford at that time, including Oliver Lyth, Isabel Menzies, Donald Meltzer and Matti Harris. Bion's arrival added a stimulus to the hope that the nucleus of a psychoanalytic group could be formed where none existed.

Having found a suitable house, we moved in at the beginning of October, the container arrived from the docks, and unpacking began. I recall the hours we spent emptying cartons of books, a tedious job but one mixed with the pleasure of meeting 'old friends' again.

It has been suspected and believed that Bion wanted to return to England because he knew that he faced imminent death, but although it would have been natural for him to accept that at the age of eighty-two his days were numbered, taking steps to keep a foothold in California and agreeing to work with a group in Bombay in January 1980, were not the actions of a dying man - unless he is given to gross denial. Bion was, above all else, scrupulously honest with himself and others.

He became ill in the third week of October: myeloid leukaemia, diagnosed on November 1st, developed with extraordinary rapidity and, mercifully, quickly led to his death on November 8th.

I turn now to those aspects of his work that were of major concern to him and to which he returned time and time again in conversations with me. I do not want to appear to be preaching what I do not practise, so let me once make it clear that I base what I say on what I learnt during twenty-eight years as receptor and confidante, and also through subsequent reflection and experience during the fifteen years since his death. I have discovered that, as with a successful analysis, the close collaboration of a marriage makes it possible for learning and development to continue with increasing strength after its ending. An analyst's job is a lonely one: even communication with colleagues cannot take the place of contact with a close companion in whom to confide doubts, struggles, fears and even, occasionally, the feeling that a piece of work has been well done.

First and foremost he placed respect for the truth without which effective analysis becomes impossible. It is the central aim and as essential for mental growth as food is for the body; 'without it the mind dies of starvation.'

Bion viewed the concept of truth in different ways: the usual, everyday meaning; the search for truth by those engaged in music, painting, sculpture, and so on; and the fear of knowing the truth 'which can be so powerful that doses are lethal.' And then there is the kind of Truth that is both elusive and unattainable. In his own personal search he constantly forged ahead through mental complexities with an intensity which was almost tangible, and as soon as he had overcome his 'monster', he moved on as if driven by an irresistible force to the battle.

Experience taught him the value of respect for the patient and for the unique knowledge that the patient has of him or her self. No other information about the patient, from whatever source, is of such benefit. To quote him: 'If the analyst is prepared to listen, have his eyes open, his ears open, his senses open, his intuition open, it has an effect upon the patient who seems to grow.'

He advocated the use of speculative imagination or imaginative conjecture, without which the analyst will not be able to produce the conditions in which the germ of a scientific idea can nourish. At the same time he should keep it disciplined and avoid being a prey to a state of rhapsody, that is metaphorically drugged with optimism, pessimism or despair. In other words, be rid of memories and desires. These interfere with the analyst's ability to focus all attention on the 'here and now' they are illuminations that destroy the value of the analyst's capacity for observation, 'as a leakage of light into a camera destroys the value of the film being exposed.' Psychoanalytic observation is concerned neither with what has happened nor with what is going to happen, but with what is happening. Every session must have no history and no future - the only point of importance in any session is the unknown.

It is hard to know why this recommendation - to all appearances one of obvious common sense - should have been adversely criticised and, one suspects, wilfully misunderstood. Bion knew that it is extremely difficult to achieve and can at first arouse fear and anxiety in the analyst, but he also knew from experience and perseverance, that it makes possible what he called 'at-one-ment' with the patient. By divesting the mind of these temptations, 'the noise made by learning, training and past experience is at a minimum.' Those who have succeeded in putting this technique into practice have found it profoundly beneficial. I know that it was central to Bion's own analytic method.

He stressed the need for awareness of the dangerous nature of the psychoanalytic experience: it is a stormy, emotional situation for both people. The analyst, like an officer in battle, is supposed to be sane enough to be scared while at the same time remaining articulate and capable of translating what he is aware of into a comprehensible communication.

The development of his ideas associated with the impressive caesura of physical birth occupied him for a considerable time, leading to some intriguing suggestions about the effects of pre-natal on post-natal life, particularly, but not exclusively, that of the psychotic individual. Since he wrote his paper, 'Caesura', in 1975, there has been much research into the pre-natal behaviour and responses of the human foetus. Only two weeks ago I saw a film about experiments in foetal education leading, so the researcher claimed, to increased intelligence and maturation postnatally. In The Dawn of Oblivion there is a particularly apposite conversation between Somites, Soma, Psyche, Infancy, Childhood and Maturity.

Of the birth of an idea he said, 'Each time somebody has a new idea, it at once becomes a barrier, something difficult to penetrate; instead of being liberating, it becomes imprisoning.'

He well knew from personal experience that original thinkers face, first, the struggle to express new concepts, and then the opposition and hostility of those who are unwilling to suffer the turbulence involved in making a similar effort. In New York, in 1977, he said:

Whether it is a group of people or an individual which is giving birth to an idea, the pains which are associated with that experience are extremely upsetting and disturbing, and somebody will certainly try to put a stop to it; nobody likes pain. I should be surprised if the phagocytes do not collect and try to gobble up this new idea before it gets more troublesome, before it turns into a contagion or an infection.

He regretted the difficulties and restraints imposed by the exclusive use of verbal communication in analysis. He was aware that, in order to compensate, the analyst should be acutely aware of the necessity of using all the senses to pick up messages, however faint and of whatever kind, from the patient. He envied the poets, painters, sculptors, composers of music, mathematicians, who can communicate in a way that is penetrating and endures. Nevertheless he was able to have a lasting effect on people through the way he expressed himself verbally, and also through some indefinable non-sensuous quality. Siegfried Sassoon wrote of his delight of knowing and talking with Walter de la Mare,

'I have never been in his company without a sense of heightened and deepened perception. After talking to him, one goes away seeing the world with rechristened eyes.' I have heard the same thing said of Bion; sometimes a single meeting has been remembered with gratitude for many years afterwards.

He emphasised the importance of interpreting a silence - or what seems to be a silence. He said, of the patient who is silent all the time:

Restricting ourselves to verbal intercourse won't get us far with this kind of patient. What kind of psychoanalysis is needed to interpret the silence? The analyst may think there is a pattern to the silence. If he cannot respect the silence, there is no chance of making any further progress. The analyst can be silent and listen - stop talking so that he can have a chance to bear what is going on.

To quote him from another occasion:


Some silences are nothing, they are 0, zero. But sometimes that silence becomes a pregnant one; it turns into 101 - the preceding and succeeding sounds turn it into a valuable communication, as with rests and pauses in music, holes and gaps in sculpture.

He drew attention to the state of mind that the analyst has to be in during the analytic session; the margin between being consciously awake, able to verbalise impressions, and being asleep, is extremely small. He found that 'being on the right wavelength is comparatively rare and has to be experienced to be recognised.' He told me that he also sensed this when alone in deep thought; he would 'wake up' to find light had been shed on a previously 'dark spot.' (Freud's words in a letter to Lou Andreas Salomé.)

Bion found it useful to consider the existence of a thought without a thinker. On a tape, recorded before a visit to Rome in 1977, he said:

If a thought without a thinker comes along, it may be a stray thought, or it could be a thought with the owner's name and address on it, or it could be a wild thought. The problem is, what to do with it. Of course, if it is wild, one might try to domesticate it. If its owner's name and address are attached, it could be restored to its owner, or the owner could be told that you had it and he could collect it any time he felt inclined. Or, of course, you could purloin it and hope either the owner would forget it, or that he would not notice the theft, and you could keep the idea all to yourself.


A word about the Grid: when he was working on its construction in the early sixties, I remember that he became very enthusiastic about its possible use as a tool for the analyst - but not, as he pointed out, for use during the analytic session. An unpublished paper he wrote in 1963 has recently been brought to my attention. It is a more detailed explanation and discussion of the Grid paper given in Los Angeles in 1971 (and published in 1977).

He says: 'The procedures I advocate do help to keep the analyst's intuition in training, so to speak, and do help in impressing the work of the sessions on the memory.'

There are those who have found it of value, and continue to do so, but he gradually became dissatisfied with it as he realised its shortcomings. In Rio de Janeiro in 1974 he said,

'The Grid is a feeble attempt to produce an instrument - not a theory. I think it is good enough to know how bad it is, how unsuitable for the task for which I have made it. For me it is a waste of time because it doesn't really correspond with the facts I am likely to meet.'

As regards the writing of patient notes, he ultimately found them useless and irrelevant. This was, of course, his personal opinion and not necessarily a recommendation to others. He recognised the risk in not being able to produce detailed information about a patient as evidence in a court of law, but was willing to take it. There was a time when he made lengthy, detailed notes; finding them unsatisfactory, he tried other methods, but gradually discarded them all. He found that what might have helped to clarify his thoughts immediately after sessions, clarified nothing at all later.

The way in which he 'recorded' clinical experience was by incorporating it into his writing - a much more valuable method of 'thinking through' the associated problems. As he says in the introduction to Second Thoughts:

Memory is born of, and only suited to, sensuous experience. As psychoanalysis is concerned with experience that is not sensuous - who supposes that anxiety has shape, colour or smell? - records based on perception of that which is sensible are records only of the psychoanalytically irrelevant. Therefore in any account of a session, no matter how soon it may be made after the event or by what means, memory should not be treated as more than pictorialized communication of an emotional experience.

During the late seventies he used another method of re-experiencing sessions by drawing captioned caricatures of patients. I suspect that this may have been as good a way as any. It is a pity that, for obvious reasons, they cannot be published.

While on holiday in France, six months before he died, he recorded some thoughts on tape. Part of what he said makes a fitting conclusion to these reminiscences of him and of our years together.


'Comparing my own personal experience with the history of psychoanalysis, and even the history of human thought, it does seem to be rather ridiculous that one finds oneself in a position of being supposed to be in that line of succession, instead of just one of the units in it. It is still more ridiculous that one is expected to participate in a sort of competition for precedence as to who is top. Top of what? Where does it come in this history? Where does psychoanalysis itself come? What is the dispute about? What is this dispute in which one is supposed to be interested? I am always hearing - as I always have done - that I am a Kleinian, that I am crazy; or that I am not a Kleinian, or not a psychoanalyst. Is it possible to be interested in that sort of dispute? I find it very difficult to see how this could possibly be relevant against the background of the struggle of the human being to emerge from barbarism and a purely animal existence, to something one could call a civilised society'.




Copyright © 1995 Francesca Bion.


 
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