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The Aesthetic Development

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'Few people would be better qualified than Meg Harris Williams to write this innovative and eagerly anticipated post-Kleinian book. Deeply versed in the opus of Bion and Meltzer, Harris Williams enhances the concept of "catastrophic change". The analyst who "eschews memory and desire" observes the subtle interplay of transference and countertransference (Meltzer's "counter dreaming") as it works through aesthetic conflicts. The ensuing reciprocity of the patients and analysts unconscious is revealed as the aesthetical and ethical basis of psychoanalysis. In that sense the psychoanalytical process parallels that of poetic and artistic inspiration. They are all generated by creative internal objects. Harris Williams' intellectual tour de force demonstrates convincingly the human capacity for symbolic thinking that underlies literary, artistic and psychoanalytic creativity. Her encyclopaedic understanding of literature, art and psychoanalysis contributes to this book's virtuosity.'- Irene Freeden, Senior Member of the British Association of Psychotherapists

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CHAPTER ONE: Psychoanalysis: an art or a science?

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This chapter is intended to map out the epistemological background to the field of inquiry of the present book, with its focus on the artistic qualities of psychoanalysis. In subsequent chapters, I shall go into more detail over some of the features touched on here—in particular, the nature of symbol-formation, inspiration, the psychoanalytic (or self-psychoanalytic) dream encounter, and I shall also say more about the central aesthetic concepts of Bion and Meltzer.

The modern answer to the question “art or science?” must be “both”. As Meltzer says, “The great artist and scientist has always been the same person” (1975, p. 221). The interest of the question lies in the way artistic or scientific aspects interrelate in the quest for knowledge of the mind; and the way this quest is perceived (as well as performed) will be dependent on one’s model of the mind. Just as Aristotle defined man as a “political animal”, which accounts for his lying and manipulative propensities, so Bion sees man in his truth-seeking capacity as a scientific, artistic, and religious animal. These are all orientations concerned with reality, whether external or internal, and Meltzer would say they all focus on the “aesthetic object”, whether this be an internal object, an artwork, or the world itself. In the domain of psychic reality, the interdependence of the domain and the instrument for investigation places knowledge about the mind beyond the reach of single-vertex science; therefore, the spirit of scientific inquiry needs to be modified by these other “vertices”. It is the tension and overlap between them that is important:

 

CHAPTER TWO: Aesthetic concepts of Bion and Meltzer

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In The Claustrum, Meltzer writes that the “heart of post-Kleinian psychology” consists in the addition of geographic and episte-mological aspects of mental functioning to Freud’s original categories of dynamic, genetic, structural, and economic. He then adds, “Whether the aesthetic aspect will eventually take on sufficient distinctness to add a seventh category remains to be seen” (1992, p. 50). To help give “distinctness” to the aesthetic category is essentially the aim of this book.

In this chapter, I would like to review two of the key concepts at the heart of the Bion-Meltzer model of the mind: Meltzer’s “aesthetic conflict” and Bion’s “catastrophic change”. They are key concepts because they structure the whole process of “learning from experience” in Bion’s particular sense of that phrase: the process of mental development with all its ethical, emotional, and cognitive implications. Any vital work of art can be said to be about them, and they embrace all the other aesthetic concepts of Bion and Meltzer: the thought without a thinker, the observer-observed, the positive and negative Grid, container-contained (Bion), the “generative” theatre of meaning, dimensionality, reciprocity (Meltzer), the “combined object” that governs the ethics of the inner world, and the relinquishment of memory and desire (Bion)—Keats’s “negative capability”.

 

CHAPTER THREE: The domain of the aesthetic object

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Bion first speaks of “the domain of Aesthetic” in Transformations, where it appears as the new Idea on the expanding horizon of psychoanalytic thinking, accompanied, like all preconceptions about to find their “realization”, by a sense of puzzlement, yet, at the same time, inevitability (1965, p. 38). It is the place where the “real psychoanalytic experience” with its “depth-stirring qualities” lies buried, like the Sleeping Beauty, among the myriad turbulences of the oceanic unconscious. It is the “void and formless infinite” where, as Bion often quotes, Milton made his difficult descent and discovered his insight, “up led” by the heavenly Muse. Bion said that he, like Milton, “visited the bottom of this monstrous world beyond the stormy Hebrides” (1985, p. 17)—a reference to the “whelming tide” in Lycidas—and discovered he knew even less than Palinurus about the “stormy seas of sex”: a metaphor for the generative, yet overwhelming, idea of the combined object from which all the Platonic forms emanate. In Marvell’s terms:

 

CHAPTER FOUR: Sleeping beauty

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In her paper “Towards learning from experience in infancy and chidhood”, Martha Harris stresses the limitations of the psychoanalytic understanding of the means by which qualities of the object become introjected into the structure of the personality:

Introjection remains a mysterious process: how do involvement and reliance upon objects in the external world which are apprehended by the senses (and, as Wilfred Bion has pointed out, described in language which has been evolved to deal with external reality), become assimilated and transformed in the mind into what he calls “psychoanalytic objects” which can contribute to the growth of the personality: This is a process about which we have almost everything to learn. [1978; Harris, 1987c, p. 168]

However, one of the ways we can learn how it happens—even if not why it happens—is by observing how symbols are formed in art and poetry. Although Bion said that alpha-function was unobserv-able, it is possible to observe the evolution of poetic symbols through the close analysis of poetic diction. In this way, tracing the poet’s “intensity [in] working out conceits” (as Keats put it) we can find a congruence in our own mind between observer and observed.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: Moving beauty

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Bion and Meltzer were both, especially in their later years, concerned about the “durability” of the psychoanalytic spirit in the midst of the “clamour of gang warfare” and the economic pressures of a conformist society. The true psychoanalytic spirit, if it can be found among the brambles, is the one that should live for “hundreds of years” and reaches right back to the archaic origins of mind, and is only accessible through the countertrans-ference dream of an art form. In the Bion-Meltzer view, psychoanalysis—that single stripe on the coat of the Tiger—existed in the world for centuries as a sleeping idea awaiting discovery by Freud, who “gave it form” (Meltzer, 1978a, Vol. III, p. 2). It was finding form that enabled him to think the underlying thought of psychoanalytic process. The Platonic artist-lover-scientist seeks for the idea of the beautiful “through all the shapes and forms of things”. And, as Keats showed us, the light-winged spirit of the Nightingale moves from one form to another and sings in the next valley-glade.

 

CHAPTER SIX: Psychoanalysis as an art form

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The aim of this chapter is to make more distinct the sense in which psychoanalysis may be considered an art form, as Bion and Meltzer always hoped. They believed that identifying analogies with existing art forms would benefit the practice of its own relatively new method: “a new method as old as religion and art ... but more poorly implemented than the arts which have developed their craft for several millennia” (Meltzer, 1994b, p. 474). The future of psychoanalysis, said Meltzer, rests on “the method and the process it engenders” (1986, p. 210), and our improved understanding of the process as an “aesthetic object” (p. 209) leads to a new conception of the psychoanalytic method as an art form in which two minds together read this aesthetic object, and each gain in self-knowledge.

An aesthetic model of psychoanalysis, which is in line with artistic and poetic ideas of creativity, presupposes a more complex and dramatic field of operation than the models of single-vertex science or softhumanism (subjective relativism). The domain of modern psychoanalysis, Bion says, is “much wider than that known to classical analysis” (1973-1974, Vol. I, p. 39). It is based on tolerating contrary emotions of love and hate, establishing tensions between different cognitive perspectives, and seeking for congruences. These emotional and cognitive tensions create a scientific-aesthetic-religious space (Bion) that “scintillates with potentiated meaning” (Meltzer, 1983, p. 148). This is the space in which symbols are formed which contain the meaning of emotional experiences— Bion’s “facts of feeling”.

 

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