The Italian Seminars

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Previously unpublished in English, this book comprises lectures W.R. Bion gave in Rome, in 1977. The volume consists of questions from the floor and Bion's fascinating and, at times, controversial answers. The lectures are divided in two: the first part was organized by the Italian Psychoanalytical Society and the second by the Via Pollaiolo Research Group. Bion's replies examine such diverse subjects as difficulties in the interaction between the therapist and the patient; music and psychoanalysis; non-verbal communication in the consulting room; and methodology in psychoanalysis.'What I want to draw attention to is this idea that the human animal has a mind, or a character, or a personality. It seems to be quite a useful theory, and we behave as if we thought it was more than that. When it comes to being psychoanalysts and psychiatrists, this cannot be treated as if it were simply an entertaining theory. Nor do patients come to see us because they are suffering from an entertaining theory. We could say that there is one collaborator we have in analysis on whom we can rely, because he behaves as if he really had a mind and because he thought that somebody not himself could help. In short, the most important assistance that a psychoanalyst is ever likely to get is not from his analyst, or supervisor, or teacher, or the books that he can read, but from his patient.'- W.R. Bion

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1. Rome, 8 July 1977

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First, I must apologize for not being able to speak Italian, but I am consoled by the thought that the subject I want to discuss is one which I find very difficult to talk about in any language, even when I am able to mobilize all the English that I know. I shall have reason to revert to this point later.

What are we concerned with? What are we all here for? What are we going to talk about? Of course, we could say “psychoanalysis”, but the word simply doesn’t mean anything. It is a term which is used if we want to “talk about it”, but it doesn’t say what “it” is. You can’t smell it, you can’t touch it, you can’t see it, and indeed it is very difficult to say what the sensible component of psychoanalysis is.

In so far as we claim to have a scientific outlook, it is usually supposed that there must be some supporting evidence. What I would like to touch on here is how important it is to have a foundation of fact, and how those facts should be observed by us.

My training in the British Institute of Psycho-Analysis, my experience with John Rickman, with Melanie Klein—all of it was verbal. Are we supposed to be blind and deaf to everything except what comes in through the ears? When a patient comes to see me, there is, in fact, a body which I can see for myself, and to that extent I can fall back on the evidence of my senses and on the information which my senses bring me. I don’t think that we can afford to ignore what our senses tell us, because the facts are very few anyway.

 

2. Rome, 9 July 1977

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Q: Before yesterday’s seminar, I was curious to know what Dr Bion thought about music. I’d been reflecting on an analytic experience of mine when I felt that a woman patient preferred music to analysis and was trying— and had begun—to find music in analysis too, for certain reasons: music banished visual experiences, especially terrifying ones associated with the phobic space. She was able to dissolve the terrifying experiences of sounds by putting them together in a melody and using only certain sounds or certain limited pitches. If the music was broken down, the sounds took on a terrifying quality reminiscent of the terror of the visual, almost bodily, three-dimensional images of a claustrophobic space. But I had attributed this possibility of seeing terrifying images to her phantasy of a Cyclopean eye—the third mental eye that psychologists talk about—which she seems to see graphically before her.

An experience with another analysand puts me in mind of Ulysses, who turned himself into “Nobody” so as not to be seen and eaten by Polyphemus. So I wondered if Dr Bion feels we can also invoke a Cyclopean perception that has to do with music and analysis, as some psychologists have demonstrated. Does Dr Bion think there is any connection between all this and the problem of musicians who play without reading the notes and others who can only play if they have a score in front of them?

 

3. Rome, 10 July 1977

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Q: I’d like to ask Dr Bion if he can tell us more about his ideas on the countertransference, because it seems to me that this is the particular type of noise in the analyst’s mind that can be picked up in the psychoanalytic experience. I wonder if it might also contain musical elements, and if so if we should adjust our minds like a high-fidelity system that can not only extract the signal from the noise, but also act like a resonance chamber and allow us to receive the entire range of acoustic stimuli, even if that means that the clarity of the melody is lost.

BION: The idea of the transference and the countertransference has been extremely productive, provocative and growth-stimulating. But, like every really good idea, like anything which provokes or stimulates growth, it makes itself out of date at once. When individuals are exposed to the analytic experience for the first time, they don’t understand what that experience is or what its name is. Nor does the analyst say, “You are experiencing transference to me”—that is a technical term which is useful for people who have already had the experience of psychoanalytic training. After a time, though, the novice begins to understand that the analyst is drawing attention to an actual experience which he is having. If he is becoming an analyst, then he may reach a point where we could say, “That is what we mean by transference—that is a transference manifestation. Your feeling that I am your father or mother can be compared with other ideas you have: you can bring together both the idea that I am your mother or father and the idea that I am a stranger whom you do not know. Then you can decide for yourself who or what you really think I am—that is your affair. In that way a new idea is born. The idea that you had before—namely, that I am a blood relation, a father or mother—is transient; it is a temporary idea on the journey of your life. From that point of view the technical term “transference” can be seen to have a resemblance to ordinary usage. It is an idea that you have “on the way”—you transfer it to me as a temporary measure on your way to what you really think or feel. At the same moment the new idea that you have is a temporary one and will be discarded sooner or later. It is another of these places where you stop on your own particular journey. If you could look at these various ideas which you have in the course of this experience with me, you might be able to trace a sort of map showing the stations of your journey from point A to point Z. Where you are now, when you have just seen this point, is already out of date.”

 

4. Rome, 13 July 1977

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In some ways it is an advantage to me to know that I don’t know any Italian, because I think you can be misled by thinking you do know Italian. Patients seem to talk French, or English or Italian, but what we want to hear is not any of those languages. I find it difficult to say what language we need to listen to; the nearest I can get to it is to say that it is the language of what Freud would call “the unconscious”.

I have seen this stated most clearly recently by Dr Matte Blanco, who mentions this peculiar fact of Freud sometimes talking about “the unconscious”, and at other times talking about something as “unconscious”. They are two different things. Furthermore, I have come across material which seems never to have been what Freud would have called “conscious”. Dr Segal described a situation in which a patient says it is obvious that somebody who is playing the violin is masturbating. I had a patient who, I began to feel, wore his mind inside out—that is to say, like clothes worn inside out: what ought to be on the inside is on the outside. Falling back on metaphorical language, I could say that the patient behaved as if his unconscious was outside. So the interpretations which we would think appropriate formulations of unconscious thoughts and ideas are, in fact, ordinary statements to the patient. He has no difficulty whatever in thinking that the analyst is saying things which are obvious. On the other hand, if we resort to ordinary speech, waking thought, conscious thought, the patient says, “I don’t know what you mean.” He has no difficulty in understanding a psychoanalytic interpretation of something we could regard as “unconscious”, but he cannot understand the language we talk when we are wide awake, fully conscious and aware of what we call the “facts”, “reality”.

 

5. Rome, 15 July 1977

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I don’t know “us”, and I don’t think that we know “us” either, because we—whoever we are—have not met before. We are none of us who we were even an hour ago, so I shall start by having a speculative imagination, something that is not a fact, an imaginary fact. When there are a lot of individuals here, there are also a lot of thoughts without a thinker, and these thoughts-with-out-a-thinker are floating around somewhere. I suggest that they are looking for a thinker. I hope that some of you will be prepared to allow them a lodgement in your minds or personalities. I realize that that is asking a lot, because these thoughts-without-a-thinker, these stray thoughts, are liable also to be wild thoughts. And nobody likes giving a home to wild thoughts which are then said to be your thoughts. We all like our thoughts to be domesticated; we like them to be civilized thoughts, well-trained, rational thoughts. All the same, however wild, however irrational, these thoughts may be, I hope that you will dare to give them a temporary lodgement and that you will then provide them with a suitable verbal costume so that they can express themselves publicly and be given an airing even if they do not appear to be very well fitted out. I hope that these speculative imaginations will have a chance of achieving a certain degree of respectability, so that they can exist even in a scientific community. Like speculative reasons, they are feeble creatures, easily destroyed.

 

6. Rome, 16 July 1977—Morning

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Q: Last night Dr Bion asked us to express our wild thoughts and, at the same time, warned us not to express them too respectably. Then he made an interesting point about the difference between intelligence and wisdom, specifically as regards groups. I’d like to ask Dr Bion if putting one’s wild thoughts into respectable form might not be equivalent to intelligence, as opposed to wisdom—in other words, a particularly well-masked form of destructiveness.

BION: It is much more difficult to reply to that question when it applies to one’s own thoughts at the time. There is no way of avoiding the fundamental fact that one is always dependent and alone. When I use those words, I am using relatively highly developed articulate speech about something which is basic, fundamental and has to be experienced. Even the infant has to be able to solve that problem; it does not like the feeling of dependence or the feeling of loneliness, isolation—nor do any of us. I can practise my speculative imagination and say that the infant feels that it may express its feeling of isolation by crying, supposedly for assistance from whatever it is dependent on—the breast, the mother, the parents. Both the infant and the parent have this same problem. The child one suspects of being psychotic or borderline psychotic can be so terrified of its feelings that it expresses them by crying for help, constantly, tirelessly. But the parents do tire; their problem is whether to nurse that infant or whether to escape from the sleepless situation. So when an individual—as, for example, here— knows that he has something to say, the question is whether to say it or not, because he is afraid of discovering either that there is no one to hear or that there is somebody to hear but that somebody will run away. Thus the dreaded isolation is made worse, not less.

 

7. Rome, 16 July 1977—Afternoon

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BION: Does anyone feel the urge to express an idea or have an idea expressed?

Q: I’d like to ask something: against the background of informal thinking of the last few days, and influenced by what Dr Bion has said at our meetings over the past week, the question of a concept of time occurred to me several times. The way things emerge in the present had seemed to me to be a peculiarity of the group situation, but it also came up, for me, in a dyadic setting— not only as a trick of the trade, but as the only possible way to relate or, rather, to exist. Well, how does Dr Bion see time? Is it a property of space? Is it the act of linking or the conscious link between two or more spaces? Is it the way we perceive our mental space as alive and filled with living objects? … How are we to ensure that the concept of relativity that follows from the abolition of definitions does not coincide with stasis?

BION: It would be interesting to know what has stimulated or caused this particular topic to be initiated. As it has been initiated here, it may be possible to form an idea about the source from which this problem has been derived. We can hear the actual person who has asked that question, so we can locate among all of us individuals the particular geographical spot at which this idea of “time” has emerged. We can also feel that we would like to be able to locate the space from which it originated—it would appear to be at a particular spot, which we could describe by giving the name of the person asking the question or by observing whereabouts in the room it seemed to arise. So far, it lies within the capacity of our senses; we can use our eyes and our sense of hearing; and we can use both the binaural capacity and the binocular capacity to see the point of intersection. Suppose—or, in other words, imagine, use your speculative imagination—that this group has a character. Going on from there and making a further supposition, a further speculation, could the fact that that sort of thought or idea was given expression be regarded as evidence for the existence of the mind or character of the group? Could we compare it with another collection of people? Would they also give evidence of being concerned with this question of time and space? It seems to me that they would, because if I look at today’s newspaper, I see a date mentioned on it; it is stated there that in someone’s opin-ion—and it isn’t usually disputed—we occupy a particular point in time. If we look at the paper we may also get evidence that someone believes that this is a particular geographical space: if we examine the stone monuments, we get what appears to be evidence that there used to be groups that also thought so at a different time from the present one. So there does seem to be evidence—at least to me—for the existence of a human mind. I wonder if a scientist would be convinced that this was evidence of the existence of a human mind; I could ask him what evidence he had for supposing that there was such a thing as civilized or group behaviour, but it depends on what we consider to be “evidence”. We are familiar with people who regard psychoanalysts as being wildly astray in their various theories, hypotheses, but I would like to know what the physical scientist’s criterion is and how he considers what he regards as evidence for facts as in any way different from what I, for want of anything better, regard as facts myself.

 

8. Rome, 16 July 1977—Evening

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Freud was impressed by certain caesuras, but they are, in fact, multitudinous. Birth and death both seem to create a mental turbulence; it is possible that we ourselves notice the upheaval when we are born and change from a watery fluid to a gaseous fluid, from the amniotic fluid to air. But it is the birth of someone else which creates the disturbance in the already existing people—usually the mother and father. Death also creates a disturbance in the survivors. But that doesn’t mean that birth or death are of any importance as far as the individual is concerned. We can easily imagine that if we fail to be born adequately that would create a disturbance; similarly if we fail to be adequately killed, or fail to die.

When I was studying medicine I became familiar with the saying, “Do not strive officiously to keep alive”, meaning “Don’t go out of your way to keep somebody alive, officiously”. Thanks to the scientists it is now possible to keep certain bodily functions operat-ing—for whose benefit I don’t know. Recently there was a notorious case in which the parents were extremely anxious that all this apparatus should be allowed to cease functioning so that the patient, their daughter, could die. Their wish was disregarded. The antivivisectionists used to object to animal nerve-muscle preparations which were used in the teaching of students in physiology. The case to which I refer was one in which the human being was used like a nerve-muscle preparation. Cui bono? To whose benefit is it?

 

9. Rome, 17 July 1977

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We are all concerned with mental health from a responsible position. I am not considering as a part of our immediate discussion what we as individuals feel; as people in a position of responsibility with regard to patients, what we feel mentally or physically is a matter of no consequence whatsoever. It matters to us individually, but to no one else. It doesn’t matter how tired we are, how physically or mentally ill—all those are matters of complete indifference. They are only facts, like any other facts about which we can do nothing and about which nobody else is going to do anything either. Your mental or physical health is a fact like the weather or the geographical location in which you are working, which is otherwise of no consequence. Whatever those facts may be, as responsible people we have to exercise our skill; we have to be capable of thinking clearly, no matter what is going on.

Our problem is how to be sensitive to the sufferings of people who come to us for assistance, but not to be so affected by them as to interfere with our thinking clearly about the work in hand. In certain situations we can be unmistakably aware of the danger in which we are, particularly those in which we are threatened with physical violence. It is still important that we should continue to think clearly even when it is also clear that our lives are in danger. But most of the time, that sort of danger is not at all obvious; our circumstances can appear to be comfortable and consequently reassuring.

 

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