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The Vale of Soulmaking

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The post-Kleinian model of the mind, as developed by W. R. Bion and Donald Meltzer, is essentially an aesthetic one. It is founded on Melanie Klein's discovery of the "internal object" with its combined masculine and feminine qualities and ambiguous, awe-inspiring nature. Turbulent emotional experiences are repeatedly transformed through symbol-formation, on the basis of the internal relationship between the infant self and its object; and the aesthetic containment provided by this "counter-transference dream" (as Meltzer put it) enables the mind to digest its conflicts and develop.This search for a pattern that can make "contrary" emotions thinkable is modelled by all art forms and accounts for their universal significance. It is a process that can be observed particularly clearly in literature, in the form of the romance between the poet and his Muse (the traditional formulation of the psycho-analytic internal object). This book explores the "counter-transference dreams" of some of the inspired symbol-makers who have been most influential in forming the modern aesthetic perspective in psychoanalytic thinking, including Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Homer and Sophocles. It concludes with a discussion of Bion's autobiographical works, which are the final expression of his own conception of the aesthetic model.

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1. The stroke of the axe

ePub

The process of condensation operates on the myth of the emotional experience in the same manner as a set of chessmen stand in symbolic relation to Gawain and the Green Knight, Morte d’Arthur etc In the mythic stage of recording an emotional experience, as in many discursive dreams, the meaning is still open to many interpretations. But as the condensation proceeds, and finally results in a highly condensed symbol, say the Queen in chess, the meaning is now “contained”, no longer open to multiple interpretation. It must now be “read” or understood, grasped. Thus a symbol may be said to be “close to the bone” of mental pain, for it pinpoints the zone of conflict.

Donald Meltzer1

Milton said it was not necessary to have spurs on the feet and a sword laid on the shoulders to become a knight in the service of truth; and he exchanged his long-cherished intention to write an Arthurian epic for the subject of Paradise Lost.2Once upon a time, however, the sword and spurs were obligatory equipment in any romance about soulmaking. Chivalric quests and rambling dream-poems are the standard genres of medieval literature. The fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is exceptional in the tautness and sophistication of its telling. Written in dense and vigorous alliterative verse,3 it crystallizes the stylized elements of medieval fiction into a richly woven tapestry of emotional tensions. Yet it is essentially a fairy-tale, with the same enduring qualities of archetypal significance. It tells of Gawain’s interaction with the mysterious forces represented by the Green Knight and his Lady, the spiritual governors of the Castle of his inner world. In the Lady with her ambiguous love we can see the original Belle Dame Sans Merci of the aesthetic conflict; in the Green Knight with his dual nature, both human and transferential, we can see the beginnings of the psychoanalyst and his “countertransference dream”.4

 

2. The evolution of Psyche

ePub

The tragic element in the aesthetic experience resides, not in the transience, but in the enigmatic quality of the object: “Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips / Bidding adieu.” Is it a truthful object that is always reminding the lover of the transience, or a tantalizing one, like La Belle Dame? The aesthetic conflict is different from the romantic agony in this respect: that its central experience of pain resides in uncertainty, tending towards distrust, verging on suspicion. The lover is naked as Othello to the whisperings of Iago but is rescued by the quest for knowledge, the K-link, the desire to know rather than possess the object of desire. The K-link points to the value of the desire as itself the stimulus to knowledge, not merely as a yearning for gratification and control over the object. Desire makes it possible, even essential, to give the object its freedom.

Donald Meltzer1

The genesis of the Romantic poets’ view of the aesthetic object— the Muse with her storehouse of poetic images—lay in Satan’s description of Eve in Paradise Lost:

 

3. Milton as Muse

ePub

What is to be sought is an activity that is both the restoration of god (the Mother) and the evolution of god (the formless, infinite, ineffable, non-existent), which can be found only in the state where there is NO memory, desire, understanding.

Wilfred Bion1

When Keats was on his Scottish walking tour the summer before Tom’s death, gathering materials for poetry, in particular for his projected Miltonic epic Hyperion, he wrote to his friend Bailey that the first thing he intended to do when he got back was to “read that about Milton and Ceres and Proserpine”.2 The passage he refers to is marked in his copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost, with the following note:

There are two specimens of a very extraordinary beauty in the Paradise Lost; they are of a nature as far as I have read, unexampled elsewhere—they are entirely distinct from the brief pathos of Dante—and they are not to be found even in Shakespeare. These are according to the great prerogative of poetry better described in themselves than by a volume. The one is in the following—”which cost Ceres all that pain”—the other is that ending “Nor could the Muse defend her son”—they appear exclusively Miltonic without the shadow of another mind ancient or modern.3

 

4. The fall and rise of Eve

ePub

A Poet can seldom have justice done to his imagination … it can scarcely be conceived how Milton’s Blindness might here aid the magnitude of his conceptions as a bat in a large gothic vault.

John Keats1

Daylight is safer; although one must remember that so great a protagonist of Heavenly Light was not saved from blindness, the domain of the infinite and the horrors of the formless, any more than the Forms of Plato saved him and his public-thing from the poets.

Wilfred Bion2

The Keatsian ideal of becoming a “fledged” poet who can “fly through air and space without fear” is founded on the poetic flights of Milton in Paradise Lost. “Through utter and through middle darkness borne”, or floundering between “waters dark and deep” and the incomprehensible “void and formless infinite”, the poet is as much an explorer within the extraordinary landscapes of his own poem as is Satan, winding his “oblique way” in pure air, or “Treading the crude consistence, half on foot, / Half flying”. This sense of a difficult adjustment to the texture of his own poem, and to the new areas of experience that each section explores, is expressed by Milton vividly and sensuously in the four invocations of the Muse, which occur at the beginning of Books I, III, VII, and IX. In these Milton portrays with a unique clarity the relationship between the infant-poet struggling to develop and his dependence on the maternal Muse, who both makes known the mental dangers of poetry and guides the poet through them. This could be said to be the primary subject of his poetry, continually revised and re-experienced in the light of the world of circumstances. The Muse both dipped him in and saved him from the “horrors of the formless”, just as Satan was rescued from the “bottomless abyss” by his still smouldering spark of godliness and led to discover the shape of his inward agony in God’s new creature, man—which is why Blake considered Satan to be Milton’s hero, saying, in his famous cruel joke, that Milton was “a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”3

 

5. Oedipus at the crossroads

ePub

Nothing is here for tears; nothing to wail
Or knock the breast, no weakness, no contempt,
Dispraise, or blame; nothing but well and fair, .
And what may quiet us in a death so noble.

Milton1

The patients, for the treatment of whom I wish to formulate theories, experience pain but not suffering. They may be suffering in the eyes of the analyst because the analyst can, and indeed must, suffer. The patient may say he suffers but this is only because he does not know what suffering is and mistakes feeling pain for suffering it.

Wilfred Bion2

The plays of Sophocles became available in print in the Western world in the sixteenth century, and their influence on English literature must be inestimable. Although Shakespeare is said not to have read Sophocles himself, it is hard to believe that the author of King Lear was not aware of Oedipus the King. Certainly Milton’s Paradise Lost is imbued with the Sophoclean preoccupation with the nature of the search for knowledge and its relation to “sin”; and his last work, Samson Agonistes (Samson suffering), is modelled directly in theme and form on Oedipus at Colonus, the final vehicle for the wisdom of Sophocles’ old age. The three plays that tell the story of Oedipus span the second half of Sophocles’ long life. They represent an inquiry into the nature of suffering and its potential for either creativity or soul-entombment. They dramatize, in effect, the distinction Keats made between the vale of tears and the vale of soulmaking. This is essentially the same as that formulated by Bion in terms of the kind of pain that causes “symptoms” while enclosing the mind in a sort of comfortable pessimism, as opposed to the pain that is truly felt mentally—which he calls “suffering”. The first type of pain is non-developmental, repetitive, as in the revenge cycles of classical and neoclassical tragedy. It finds expression in the continually reiterated choruses about how “man is born to suffer”, in the sense of meaningless, predestined persecution:

 

6. The weavings of Athene

ePub

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken

John Keats1

Many heroic liars existed before the many-wiled Odysseus was saved by his dog from everlasting night.

Wilfred Bion2

The thought-wanderings of Oedipus in his search to know himself—to find the symbol of his identity—had their literary origin three hundred years earlier in the story of the homecoming of Odysseus, sung in the “shadowy halls” of the Achaean kings by the blind bard known as Homer, and his followers. This “song for our time” emerged at the crucial, fluid point in history when the rhetorical patterning and acute audience-sensitivity associated with the oral tradition was enhanced, rather than replaced by, the new potential of the written word to fix and hold meaning. It was also the historical beginning of the sea-empire, the civilization marked out by the criss-cross-ings of Poseidon’s ships, as celebrated in the swansong of Oedipus at Colonus. The actual poem of Homer’s Odyssey, as distinct from the legend that circulated during the medieval period, had a profound influence on Milton and other English poets following its rediscovery in the early Renaissance.3 It is the sensuous reality of the poem, not the paraphraseable sequence of events, that embodies the “weavings of Athene”, the poet’s Muse. The poem is an extraordinarily complex narrative structure of flashbacks and enfoldings.4 These relate, on one level, a straightforward adventure story; on another level, making use of the emotional juxtapositions suggested by the structure, they convey an internal network of family conversations taking place through the mediation of Athene. The main protagonists in this narrative web are Odysseus and his wife and son, though other household characters are also included. Eventually it results not only in Odysseus regaining his earthly home, but in the remaking of his troubled marriage and the maturing of his son, symbolizing the new mentality of the king of Ithaca.

 

7. Cleopatra's monument

ePub

Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat… we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.

Peter II.3.12-13

There is a qualitative aspect of sincerity that has to do with richness of emotion. Clinical work strongly suggests that this aspect of the adult character is bound up with the richness of emotion characterizing the internal objects. It can be distinguished from other qualities such as their strength or goodness. It is different from their strength or integration. It seems perhaps most coextensive with their beauty, which in turn seems related to capacity for compassion.

Donald Meltzer1

Shakespeare’s search for “the noblest Roman of them all”—idealized in Brutus, undermined in Hamlet, begun again in Lear, incomplete in Othello, eventually finds fulfilment in Antony, the archetypal pattern of the heroic or great-souled magnanimous man.2 And his magnanimity finds its ultimate expression in the achievement of a marriage of homophrosyne, like Odysseus—an equal love. It is the “new heaven, new earth” heralded in the Bible and referred to by Antony, half-jokingly, at the opening of the play when Cleopatra demands to know “how much” love he has for her:

 

8. Creativity and the countertransference

ePub

Donald Meltzer

On creativity

I am going to speak about creativity not in a descriptive or behavioural sense, as when we say: “this person is very creative”; but, in a more precise and definite mode, I am going to talk of creativity as a phenomenon of the personality, of the family, and of the culture. I will speak of Bion as a genius who in a certain sense produced everything that he did produce as though in a dream. I will describe him as someone who struggled, who made some errors, who corrected himself and often did not know where he had arrived. A creative genius is someone who permits his own internal objects to give him new ideas— even if he does not understand them or cannot use them: his function is to receive them, and he possesses the art of transmitting them. There is a distinction between invention and discovery. Invention is a function of the self—discovery, a function of the creative self.

I will start with Bion’s theory of thinking and his particular formulation of the grid. The grid was a means chosen by Bion to describe the processes by which thoughts evolve and the method of thinking. Bion made a very precise distinction between mental processes of an adaptive, contractual, or quantitative type, which, he said, made part of the exoskeleton of the personality, and the processes founded on emotional experience—creativity, symbolic representation, and dream thought. This emotional and symbolic aspect of the formation of the personality was considered fundamental by Bion for its development. He thought that the formation of symbols to represent emotional states was something initiated between the tiny baby and the mother. He believed that the maternal reverie, the dream thoughts that the mother transmitted to her little baby, was something the baby can internalize in such a way as to form the endoskeleton of the personality that would then permit him to think in his turn. The structure of the personality, according to Bion—and in agreement with Money Kyrle’s view—was something that built up step by step while undergoing cognitive development. Every point in development involves the acquisition of new ideas or concepts placed on top of already existing ones. The impact of the new idea on these pre-existing concepts involves an experience of catastrophic change.

 

9. Post-Kleinian poetics

ePub

the Privilege of seeing great things in loneliness

John Keats1

yet not alone, while thou Visit’st my slumbers nightly

John Milton2

What are the implications for both psychoanalysis itself and for psychoanalytic writing (and reading), of the post-Kleinian view of psychoanalysis as an art form? Bion, says Meltzer, treats psychoanalysis as “a thing-in-itself that existed in the world prior to its discovery by the mystic genius of Freud who gave it form”.3 Bion sees the process of coming to knowledge in terms of transcendence, breaking through the barriers of lies and basic assumptions. “What sort of artists can we be?” he asks.4 Meltzer also sees psychoanalysis as an art-form, in which the psychoanalyst’s quest for meaning is driven by awe of the beauty of the method that can make contact with the mysterious creativity of internal objects. But both have an essentially Platonic view in which the psychoanalytic activity takes place under the aegis of a source of knowledge beyond that already known by the self. The analyst is an observer of the shadows on the wall of the Cave. Whatever the interpretive terminology used during the course of the analysis or in the written formulations of hindsight, the practice of the psychoanalytic method is governed by this underlying Idea of psychoanalysis. Indeed, it is not the analyst who is conducting the analysis; he is being conducted, led, by his objects in communion with those of the patient.

 

APPENDIX A. Rosemary's roots:

ePub

Who alive can say,

“Thou art no poet; may’st not tell thy dreams?”

Keats1

Paul: But he attributed his escape to the Offices of the Heavenly Muse—…

Roland: You mean to say you think we ought to take his description seriously? Of course it’s wonderful poetry—

P.A.: “Of course”, but Virgil and Homer and Milton were not writing “poetry”; they were writing “seriously”. They wrote poetry because it was the most serious way of writing.

Wilfred Bion2

In his quest to discover the truth about himself, Bion uses the freedom of the autobiographical books to remember, or rather to relive in the present, the teaching-by-example of those who contributed to the qualities of his internal objects. Here he endeavours to shed the obscuring veil of respectability that, he felt had always hampered him, and to follow the example of the poets—to “write seriously”, despite his intense frustration at feeling unable to achieve poetic expression. In the Memoir he invites a gamut of internal voices, ranging from pre-natal somites to “Eighty years old”, to engage in a conversation under the aegis of “O”, the realm of the Unknown and ineffable. They try to align their conflicting vertices into a receptive pattern in which the truth can lodge. Meltzer writes:

 

APPENDIX B. Confessions of an emmature superego or, the Ayah's lament

ePub

Averse narrative fictionalizing the genesis of Bion’s ideas, in the voice of the “ayah” of his Indian childhood. I wrote this originally to be performed by Alaknanda Samarth, who played the child Bion’s ayah in the unfinished film of A Memoir of the Future. The narrative is spoken by the voice of the ayah-as-goddess, the oriental aspect of Bion’s internal mother /object. In the autobiographical books she is a shadowy figure, realized most graphically perhaps in the character of Rosemary: so, like one of Bion’s “empty concepts”, she can be filled with meaning. She appears in various guises, from the Great Cat Ra (the Tiger) to the knowledge-containing Skull. Her story follows as in a dream-sequence the autobiographical history of the Memoir and The Long Week-End, from pre-natal life and its passionate origins, through childhood in India and in exile in England, to the war and its re-living through psychoanalysis. The narrative dramatizes the implications of Bion’s concept of “home leave” (the enforced distancing from his emotional roots), which may be said to constitute the origins of his differentiation between positive and negative states of emotionality—a clarification that, when successful, leads ultimately towards the birth of thought. For Bion repeatedly describes his actual life-experiences as taking place in the realms of “minus K”. It was their re-living in the form of dreams that constituted, for him, learning from experience.

 

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