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A Beam of Intense Darkness: Wilfred Bion's Legacy to Psychoanalysis

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The author surveys Bion's publications and elaborates on his key contributions in depth while also critiquing them. The scope of this work is to synopsize, synthesize, and extend Bion's works in a reader-friendly manner. The book presents his legacy - his most important ideas for psychoanalysis. These ideas need to be known by the mental health profession at large. This work highlights and defines the broader and deeper implications of his works.It presents his ideas faithfully and also uses his ideas as "launching pads" for the author's conjectures about where his ideas point. This includes such ideas as "the Language of Achievement", "reverie," "truth," "O," and "transformations"- in, of, and from it, but also " L," "H," and "K" linkages (to show how Bion rerouted Freud's instinctual drives to emotions), "container/contained, Bion's ideas on "dreaming," "becoming," "thoughts without a thinker," "the Grid," his erasure of the distinction between Freud's, "primary and secondary processes " and the "pleasure" and "reality principles," "reversible perspective," "shifting vertices," "binocular vision," "contact-barrier," the replacement of "consciousness" and "unconsciousness" with infinity and finiteness, Bion's use of models, his distinction between "mentalization" and "thinking," as well as many other items.

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1 An introduction

ePub

I have been asked to undertake the daunting task of writing a book on Bion that will introduce a distillation and synthesis of his ideas for the general public. Those readers who are already familiar with his works realize how difficult a task that is. Bion’s ideas are highly unique and are presented by him with such density at times that it often is difficult to capture his meaning—but that is Bion through and through. As I wrote in another contribution, his published works remind one of solving a picture puzzle, but one in which the configurations change as one is trying to find the right piece, or of reading Borges’ (1998) “Book of Sand” or “The Library of Babel” where the pages and the books proliferate to infinity as you begin to read them (Grotstein, 2004b, p. 1081). He hated the idea that he or his ideas would be captured and then imprisoned in static “understanding”. Furthermore, as he suggested to me on numerous occasions in analysis, he was more interested in my response to what he said than in my grasp of his interpretations, or, for that matter, his ideas. Likewise, he was more interested in his inner responses to my associations.

 

2 What kind of analyst was Bion?

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Having undergone four analyses, including one with Bion, I am able to compare him with my other analysts as well as with others in general. Let me begin with a statement of his that I heard second-hand from another colleague. Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, Bion confided to this colleague that “American analysts actually converse with their patients!” Bion rarely conversed with me. He was the most disciplined analyst I have ever met. His respect for the analytic frame was always obvious. He would never repeat an interpretation, even if I told him that I had not heard it. He would remind me that it could not be repeated: the time had passed. On one occasion he reminded me of Heraclitus’ koan that one can never step into the same river twice. Virtually the entirety of his relationship with me during the analysis was interpretative. He interpreted frequently and often at length. Yet he was always “Kleinian”—but in his own way. I never read any of Bion’s works while I was in analysis with him and was therefore surprised later when I read his concept of “abandoning memory and desire”. He spoke and interpreted in an active and highly engaged manner; consequently, I don’t know when he found the time to “abandon memory and desire”. I recall, however, that like a scout, he doggedly tracked the sequence of my free associations. I shall soon share with you some of what he said to me, including his first interpretation to me on my first day of analysis with him.

 

3 What kind of person was Bion?

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I put forth the question but have no definitive answer. The person who appeared in the interstices of analytic moments ran the range of distant, withdrawn, disciplined, dedicated, empathic (extremely), personable, warm, interested, friendly—but measured! He did not socialize much to my knowledge with individuals here in Los Angeles, and, reading the accounts of others who worked with him in his “group” days, one gets the impression that his stalwartness and redoubtable individuality may have put people off in England. In public he was quietly but powerfully charismatic. I don’t see him as “one of the boys”. I have often wondered whether he had any close friends. I often wished that I could have known him post-analytically. The London Kleinians discredit “late Bion”: the one after Transformations and particularly the one who emigrated to Los Angeles. This pains me enormously, but I cannot help wondering what they knew that I did not; on the other hand, I rather feel that I, having had the benefit of an analytic experience with him, know something that they did not, and still do not, know. Bion did not reach out. One had to come to him. This is especially true of his writing. I believe that he was honest and trustworthy to a fault and was quietly adamant in his beliefs but was always the consummate gentleman.

 

4 Bion’s vision

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“. . . all the unpublished virtues of this earth . . .”

Shakespeare, King Lear

In 1977 Bion began one of his lectures in New York with:

Well, here we are. But where is “here”? I remember a time when I was at an address—some seventy years ago—which I called “Newbury House, Hadam Road, Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire, England, Europe. Another small boy said to me, “You have left out ‘The World’.” So I put that in to too. Since then I have been told by the astronomers that we are part and parcel of a nebular universe, a spiral nebula to which our solar system belongs. . . . According to the astronomers the spiral nebula, of which our solar system is a part, is itself rotating; it is a long way from one side to the other and a long time . . . before we are at the same spot again—something like twice ten to the power of eight million light years—so far indeed that if we look towards the galactic centre there is nothing to see excepting the remnants of the Crab Nebula which is still in process of exploding. To us it looks immense because we are such ephemeral creatures. [1980, pp. 9–10]

 

5 Bion’s legacy

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Overview

When Rabbi Hillel was commanded by a Roman general to reveal the essence of the Hebrew Bible while standing on one foot, he said: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” While I cannot be quite so brief in epitomizing the work of Bion, I will try to summarize it. Bion pulled the positivistic psychoanalysis of Freud and Klein into the new, uncharted realms of uncertainty: from the strictures and prison of verbal language to a realm beyond and before language. Here one experiences the dread of O, the Absolute Truth about an Ultimate, infinite, ineffable, always evolving, uncertain,1 and impersonal Reality that supplants the putative dread of the positivistic drives. We are born as fateful prisoners to the quality of the maternal—and paternal—container that (who) initially contains our raw dread of O.

Analysts, like mothers and fathers, must be able to descend into reverie so as to be optimally receptive to “becoming” the patient’s anguish—as if by exorcism—and to be able to detect the “name” of the anguish by becoming an “analyst of achievement” who is conversant with the “Language of Achievement”, the ancient and primal pre-lexical/sub-lexical language of body emotions prior to their being felt by the mind as feelings. Emotions (α-elements), which are transformed proto-emotions (ß-elements derived from the impact of evolving O on one’s emotional frontier), are the vehicular carriers of Truth. The recipient of Truth must undergo a transformation of self in order to accept, accommodate to, become, Truth by rendering it first personally meaningful through α-function and dreaming and then objective through an advanced form of α-function and dreaming—that is, wakeful dream thinking (Bion, 1962b), as contrasted with dreaming while asleep.

 

6 Bion’s metatheory

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In discussing Bion’s metatheory, Paulo Sandler (2005) says that:

Bion displayed a distinct preference for developing observational theories [italics added] for the psychoanalyst’s use, rather than for creating new theories. . . . One of the few exceptions, which would remain unpublished during his lifetime, was a paper entitled “Metatheory”. It was an attempt to describe scientifically some elementary basics of psycho-analysis. One of its terms is “Breast”. Like “penis”, “splitting” and “violent emotions” it was devised as a “class of interpretations”. . . . The “interpretation breast” is made in conjunction with the “interpretation penis.” He treats the “name given to the word ‘breast’, as a hypothesis, following Hume’s view “that a hypothesis is the expression of a subjective sense that certain associations are constantly conjoined, and is not a representation corresponding to an actuality.” [ P. Sandler, 2005, p. 91]

Sandler has here grasped the essence of Bion’s enterprise in creating a psychoanalytic theory that was not only based on clinical observation but also included metaphysical concepts: literally, the metaphysical concept of the hypothesis of a breast or penis: in Plato’s terms archetypal Ideal Forms, essences, or in Kant’s terms, noumena or things-in-themselves—that is, not sensible to perception. Of importance also is Hume’s concept of the “constant conjunction”, finding a pattern in which two objects or thoughts become thought of as belonging together. This could apply to the name “breast” becoming affixed to the hypothesis “breast”, It is also applicable to the idea of “pattern”, being able clinically to discern a pattern in the patient’s free associations.

 

7 Bion on technique

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Bion’s contributions to psychoanalytic technique are complex, innovative, profound, and worthy of intense and repeated study. I do not think that I exaggerate when I state that his formulations on technique constitute the most radical paradigm change in psychoanalysis, yet one must acknowledge, as does Paulo Sandler (2005), that some of Bion’s ideas on technique do have Freud’s concepts as their provenance. Psychoanalysis prior to Bion was, however, largely a left-hemisphere technique (text as opposed to process), in spite of Freud’s (1915e) hints about unconscious-to-unconscious communication during analysis. Bion, a keen observer (left-hemisphere: “observation”, “sense”), described a right-hemispheric analytic technique (“attention”, “reverie”, “intuition”)—a state-of-the-art process that continues to impress the world of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.

Bion’s recommendations on technique

Very succinctly, Bion offers five suggestions in relation to technique:

A. Use sense, myth, and passion when conducting an analysis. Sense refers to the use of keen observation by any and/or all the senses. Myth refers to the particular mythic template that may be found to organize and join together the analytic object, the O of the session, which in Kleinian terms is the maximum unconscious anxiety. Bion (1992) suggests that the analyst search for and store myths as the equivalent of a scientific deductive system with regard to psychoanalysis (p. 238). Myths also subtend conscious and unconscious phantasies. Passion designates the analyst’s fluctuating emotional state in resonance with the emotions of the patient. As we shall see, Bion recommends the use of two forms of observation by the analyst: emotional and objective—that is, intuition and attention.

 

8 Clinical vignette encompassing Bion’s technical ideas

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The patient is a 32-year-old screen and television writer who is married, childless, and currently he and his wife are planning to have a baby. He brings the following material on a Monday session (he is in analysis four times per week). He is worried about his mother, who is living in a foreign country with an allegedly unscrupulous man. She is suffering from a progressive dementia, presumably Pick’s Disease. He is also worried about work in his industry. He himself is suffering from Crohn’s Disease, a chronic auto-immune inflammation of the bowel. He had just had a colonoscopy that revealed a slight worsening of his condition.

ANALYSAND I don’t know what I’m most concerned about, my mother, my Crohn’s, my career, or having a new baby—and the cost of that. I called my mother over the weekend but couldn’t reach her. I’m really worried about her. Oh, yeah, I had a dream last night. I was in the jungle with my wife, L, and suddenly encountered a large, menacing snake. I was initially frightened but then recalled my boy Scout training. I located a forked branch of a tree, tore it off, and carefully applied it to the snake’s head so as to impale it. I then felt more confident in myself and in my power to cope with danger.

 

9 Bion, the mathematician, the mystic, the psychoanalyst

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Reading Bion’s works chronologically, one notes several portentous trends. Even his graduation paper (from the british Psychoanalytic Institute), “The Imaginary Twin” (Bion, 1950), was an exceptional, if not highly recondite, contribution, but one written in the classical Kleinian mode. It would not be long before Bion’s uniqueness expressed itself. In “Differentiation of the Psychotic from the Non-Psychotic Personalities” (Bion, 1957b) we begin to see an intrepid, redoubtable, and highly intuitive as well as observant psychoanalytic explorer and voyager, one who has discovered—or perhaps re-discovered—the pathological counterpart to what normally could be called the “divided self” or the self as “conjoined twins”. What I have in mind here is his later excursion into the division of the personality into a normal, conscious, finite self and the infinite self of O, of “godhood”. The reader of his early works can also not avoid noting Bion’s unusually keen capacity for clinical observation.

 

10 The “Language of Achievement”

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“I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

John Keats (1817; cited in Bion, 1970, p. 125)1

Bion adumbrated the concept of the “Language of Achievement” in Learning from Experience (1962b), but he developed it more fully in Attention and Interpretation (1970). He borrowed “Achievement” from Keats along with “Negative Capability”, which is Achievement’s obligatory counterpart. The Language of Achievement (note Bion’s capitalizations) was conceived of by Bion in order to rectify problems he encountered—and believed all analysts encountered—in communicating their analytic experiences with analysands to other analysts. He had created the Grid (1963) for the same reason. With the discovery of O, however (Bion, 1965, 1970), he applied the Language of Achievement to the analyst’s emotional interaction with the analysand. Ordinary language, being sensuously derived, was unsuitable for conveying the ineffability of the analytic experience to analysands, to colleagues, or to oneself. By “sensuously derived”, Bion seems to mean that ordinary language, which he calls the “language of substitution”, is based upon representations of objects: that is, substitutive symbols derived from images that are, in turn, derived from the sense organs. The sense organs are sensitive to external—not internal—stimuli. Sensations produce impressions about the object, but the object’s aliveness and propensity to be in flux defies any representation to reproduce it. Consciousness alone is the sense organ receptive to psychic qualities, according to Freud (1911b) and Bion (1962b, p. 4). Stated from another perspective (vertex), the Language of Achievement is the language of emotions before they become represented as concepts or ideas—and it also is the language of models—that is, analogue models and experiences outside the system under investigation.

 

11 Bion’s discovery of O

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Following a brief clinical illustration in his third major book, Transformations, Bion states:

I am . . . concerned with theories of psycho-analytic observations, and the theory of transformations, the application of which I am here illustrating, is one of them. Can this theory be applied to bridge the gap between psycho-analytic preconceptions, and the facts as they emerge in the session? . . . I shall apply the theory to my own account of the session: something occurred during the session—the absolute facts of the session. What the absolute facts are cannot ever be known, and these I denote by the sign O. [1965, pp. 16–17; italics added]

With this statement, Bion crossed the Rubicon of psychoanalytic respectability in London (as described in chapter 9) and launched a metapsychological revolution whose echoes are still reverberating across the psychoanalytic landscape worldwide. Standing veritably on a “peak in Darien”, he perforated the flat world of Freud’s and Klein’s positivism (the instinctual drives as first cause) and introduced inner and outer cosmic uncertainty, infinity, relativism, and numinousness as its successor. If Bion’s theory of O is correct, then it just may be that Freud’s and Klein’s episteme constitutes an inadvertent manic defence against the primacy (first cause) of uncertainty and the Absolute Truth about Ultimate Reality. In other words, the instinctual drives—particularly the death instinct in Kleinian theory—would be relegated to the status of mediators of O. Ferro (2002a, p. 4) goes so far as to suggest that the death instinct is really a way of talking about the intergenerational neurosis in which, when one generation fails to contain its own O, it unconsciously projects the responsibility onto the next to be its messiah–saviour from O.

 

12 The concept of the “transcendent position”

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I suggest that Bion’s concept of O (see chapter 6) both transcends and precedes and succeeds Klein’s concept of the paranoid–schizoid and depressive positions. I could also have said that it goes beyond not only Freud’s pleasure and reality principles1 and his topographic and structural models of the psyche (Systems Ucs., Pcs., and Cs., ego, id, and superego) but also beyond Freud’s and Klein’s notions of the death instinct, each of which my thesis renders as signifying mediators of O, thereby making O ultimate, though unknowable. From another perspective one can think of O as analogous to “dark matter”—that amorphous mass hidden in our universe that thoroughly perfuses it (Tucker & Tucker, 1988). It also summons concepts of pure ontology for psychoanalysis, especially the idea of Ananke2 (Greek: “Necessity” or “Fate”; Ricoeur, 1970), Lacan’s (1966) concept of the Register of the Real, and Peirce’s (1931) concept of “brute reality”.

I believe that the concept of O transforms all existing psychoanalytic theories (e.g. the pleasure principle, the death instinct, and the paranoid–schizoid and depressive positions) into veritable psychoanalytic manic defences against the unknown, unknowable, ineffable, inscrutable, ontological experience of ultimate being, what Bion terms “Absolute Truth”, “Ultimate Reality”. It is beyond words, beyond contemplation, beyond knowing, and always remains “beyond” in dimensions forever unreachable by man. Yet at the same time, paradoxically, even in its beyondness it thoroughly perfuses and interpenetrates our conscious and unconscious existence and the objects with whom we interact.

 

13 The quest for the truth, Part A: the “truth drive” as the hidden order of Bion’s metatheory for psychoanalysis

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Freud (1915e) conceived of the unconscious as a “seething cauldron” because of the constant irruption of the instinctual drives that he posited, principally the libidinal drive, to which Klein (1935) added the prime importance of the death drive. To Bion the unconscious constituted a seething cauldron because it was the quintessential seat of infinite, ineffable uncertainty, which he designated as O, his arbitrary, unsaturated sign for the Absolute Truth about Ultimate Reality. Quite recently I attempted to amplify, extend, and synthesize Bion’s ideas about the endangering aspects of truth by positing that he hinted at but never came out and said what I now say for him and in his name: that there exists a relentless truth drive in the psyche, which Freud mistook for the libidinal drive and Klein for the death drive (Grotstein, 2004b).

Bion the polymath and erstwhile Oxford student went a step further than Freud and Klein in yet another way. Freud briefly alluded to the ideas of Immanuel Kant but never explicated his ideas, or, for that matter, those of Plato or Hegel, with regard to their proper provenance for psychoanalysis. Bion did. Plato’s Eternal Forms (inherent pre-conceptions, archetypes, “memoirs of the future”) and Kant’s primary and secondary categories and noumena (things-in-themselves) found an enthusiastic reception in Bion’s thinking.

 

14 The quest for the truth, Part B: curiosity about the truth as the “seventh servant”

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After numerous readings of the entirety of Bion’s published works, I was finally struck by what, for me, became a “selected fact”: that the Ariadne’s thread that seems to run through all of his works and ultimately to define them is his conception of the “quest for the truth” (curiosity) (Bion, 1970, p. 46), which I have reinterpreted as the “truth instinct or drive” (Grotstein, 2004a, 2004b). This quest for truth (or truth as an instinctual drive) underlies his whole notion of transformations and the theory of O. In other words, the function of transformation is to transform the Absolute Truth about an indifferent and impersonal Ultimate Reality into personal, subjective truth about reality. Bion lists “Absolute Truth” alongside “Ultimate Reality” as comprising O, together with “noumena”, “godhead”, and “β-elements”.

Transformations operate on the Absolute Truth about Ultimate Reality and the latter’s infinite sets and infinite container to transduce them via α-function from their indifferent, impersonal, and infinite status to personal, subjective meaning, initially in the form of binary oppositions in what Klein terms the “paranoid–schizoid position”, where they are encoded as unconscious phantasies consisting of internal objects as “symbolic equations” (Freud, 1924d, p. 1791; Segal, 1957, 1981) in the form of opposites, such as good versus bad, inside versus outside, and so on, and then sent along to the depressive position (P–S ↔ D) as symbols for whole objects for more objectification.

 

15 Lies, “lies”, and falsehoods

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Elizabeth Tabak de bianchedi (1993) and her long-term study group (de bianchedi et al., 2000) studied “the various faces of lies” in Bion’s work and in the work of others over many years. After considerable deliberation they were able to forge a categorical system of untruths along a gradient: falsehoods or falsities → lies → Lies. (Note that the first “lie” is spelled with a lower-case l and the second with an upper-case L to in order to differentiate significantly between the two.) Bion seems to have been the only—or at least the first—analyst since Freud to deal with the theoretical and clinical aspects of prevarications, including the question of whether liars could even be analysed. Bion, unlike Klein, believed that they could be.

De bianchedi and her colleagues also trace the history of Bion’s encounter with the subject of falsehood and lies, as here:

“What is truth”, said jesting Pilate . . . and would not wait for an answer. . . . We probably cannot wait for an answer because we have not the time. Nevertheless, that is what we are concerned with . . . inescapably and unavoidably—even if we have no idea what is true and what is not. Since we are dealing with human characters we are also concerned with lies, deceptions, evasions, fictions, phantasies, visions, hallucinations—indeed, the list can be lengthened almost indefinitely. [Bion, 1977b, pp. 41, 42]

 

16 The container and the contained

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Early origins of the concept

Of Bion’s numerous contributions, certainly his development of the concept of containercontained ranks as the best-known and most widely used, both in theory and in technique (see chapters 4 and 5). It seems to have been incubating for some time in the observations Bion had made on psychotic patients. We find the first adumbration of the concept in “Development of Schizophrenic Thought”:

In the patient’s phantasy the expelled particles of ego lead to an independent and uncontrolled existence outside the personality, but either containing or contained by external objects where they exercise their functions as if the ordeal to which they have been subjected has served only to increase their number and provoke their hostility to the psyche that ejected them. [1956, p. 39; italics added]

The “negative container”

We can deduce from this and other passages that Bion seems to have come across the idea of a pathological or “negative container” prior to his later formulation of a “positive container”. In a subsequent paper, “On Arrogance”, he states:

 

17 “Projective transidentification”: an extension of the concept of projective identification

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“It is a very remarkable thing that the Ucs. of one human being can react upon that of another, without passing through the Cs.”

Freud (1915e)

Projective identification:
summary of the nature of the problem
and a proposed solution

Of his many contributions to psychoanalysis, Bion’s revision and extension of the concept of projective identification was one of the first and was destined, along with container ↔ contained, to become the most famous. In what follows I explore the origins and varying conceptions about projective identification from differing perspectives but ultimately with the task in mind of revealing Bion’s ideas as well as my own extension of them about the subject.

Projective identification has become a widely used concept in the mental health field but still suffers from categorical confusion in its usage. The principal confusions are as follows: (1) The question of the differences from, as well as the similarities to, Klein’s (1946, 1955) original concept as a strictly intrapsychic, omnipotent, unconscious, defensive phantasy and Bion’s (1962b) “realistic”, communicative, intersubjective extension of it: are the two respective uses of it continuous or discontinuous and/or both, or might they be complementary to each other? (2) Is there a difference between projection and projective identification? (3) When a patient uses projective identification, does he actually project himself into the object or into his internal image of the object, and, if the latter, how can we explain the object’s response to the projective identification? Is there some process in addition to projective identification that allows it to become communicative to another person? Put another way, on the metapsychological level, as contrasted with the experiential level, the subject can only project into an image or representation of the object, not into the external object per se. The projecting subject, however, experiences the external object as containing the projections, and, furthermore, the latter may also experience containing them.

 

18 Bion’s work with groups

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My plan in this work is first to present an overall general review of Bion’s seminal ideas on groups. I think of his contributions as, on the surface, an archipelago of seemingly disparate, disconnected ideas that ultimately reveal to the patient eye a hidden land mass underneath, which connects them. This land mass is the consummate value he accords to emotional truth counterposed to the enormity and consistency of the Unknown, O, within and about us.

Experiences in groups

Bion began his investigative career with the study of groups. There he made a number of significant observations. He formulated the notion that a group consists of individuals each of whom, though an individual in his own right, also contains a group self. There is no such thing as group psychology in its own right.1 The psychology that appears in groups expresses the composite psychological grouping of the group aspect of individuals within the group, in which that of the individual tends to submerge. Bion (1992) was later to express this dialectic as that of “socialism against narcissism” (p. 103). The other way of expressing this idea is that each person can be thought of as a group of subpersonalities, and the group can be thought of as an individual as well as a group. He later dealt with these putative subpersonalities in “The Imaginary Twin” (1950) and “Differentiation of the Psychotic and Non-Psychotic Personalities” (1957b).

 

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