After finishing Hester yesterday I had that dislocated feeling you get when you’ve been deep in an overwhelmingly powerful book and then it ends. You come out again into the light of day, blinking, needing to readjust, missing people. I didn’t want to start a new novel, so I looked in the Kindle library for something that would take my mind off the absence of Hester and give me something else to concentrate on – a business book can be good in these circumstances, and I’ve got two or three good ones on the Kindle. I considered rereading The Hard Thing About Hard Things by XXX and also Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull, both contenders for the most intelligent book about work related stuff. But then my eye was caught by The Tavistock Seminars by Wilfred Bion. I had forgotten that I’d read this before, but my travelling companion tells me that I have and not only that , when I started reading good bits out to him, they were the same good bits I’d read last time, a few years ago when we were visiting Cuba. These highlights were my own!
I hope it is not too much of surprise that I couldn’t remember I’d read it before. It’s hard stuff, and I was reading without writing about it, which is a bit like looking at stuff on telly. You just watch it and it probably doesn’t affect you very much. The only way hard stuff becomes part of me is if I write about it or try to run a class on it. Both of these modes require me to do something with my thoughts, to give them form, to know them. So I thought I’d read tiny bits of them here for a few days.
These Tavistock seminars – transcriptions of recordings made in the 1970s – are not easy for me to read – it’s a kind of writing I struggle with, in a subject area about which I’m ignorant.
Bion has some ideas which I think are useful to me and I want to understand more about other things he has thought. He might be able to help me formulate some thoughts of my own for which I don’t at present have the mental equipment. Here’s one example.
He’s answering a question about psychoanalysis and vocabulary – a recurring problem for him – is it ‘mind’ we are talking about, or is it ‘personality’, is it ‘psyche’, or ‘soul’ – then he suddenly has this wonderful image of not being able to see the thing we are talking about and trying to understand:
If an individual finds that he cannot see, then the chances are that he will use a stick that he waves about, prods the ground, and seems to rely upon it to give him information. He learns how to use it and appears to be able to diagnose or interpret what he gets from striking other objects or feeling that the ground is soft or sandy. What kind of stick or instrument do we use when we are concerned with what is supposed to be the human mind in order to supply us with facts we might be able to interpret? Psychoanalysis is alleged to be one of them.
The image of the blind person using a stick to gain information is a great one because the stick is both crude – compared to human eyesight – and really useful. A person without sight who learns to use such a stick is able ‘to diagnose or interpret’ parts of reality through the stick. This is terrific, much better than no stick. But it remains crude, too. Especially when the lack of sight, and the stick, are metaphors. The stick is a theory, we bang it about, we use it to prod, and we can learn to understand some things about the underlying, unseen, unseeable reality through way the stick gives back.
I notice here he says ‘what is supposed to be the human mind’, as if even that is an actually absolute unknown.
There is an earlier part – sorry, I’m jumping around here, not reading them through, when he talks about ‘mind debris’. Everything that has happened, that you’ve thought and been taught, traumas you’ve suffered, norms you have absorbed, all debris, clutter.
The patient, he says,
presents me with what I now think of as ‘mental debris’ – all this stuff that has accumulated between the time of birth and that particular morning
I find this idea – of mental debris – astonishing and interesting and useful. I don’t know what use to make of it yet. Because part of the debris I’m hanging on to is that I’ve learned stuff and I don’t want to call it ‘debris’. But what Bion is good about is pointing to ‘liveness’ of thought and I believe there is something live here.
Tomorrow I’ll start again on this and read from the beginning.