Spending an hour with Wilfred Bion

wisteria trunk.JPG
Wisteria trunk, 2-3 feet in diameter, in Perast, Bay of Kotor. 19 July. How old can this magnificent plant be? 

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.

Why bother?

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.

6 thoughts on “Spending an hour with Wilfred Bion

  1. mitchell July 19, 2017 / 8:43 am

    just thinking about intuition/or gut are they part of our soul .ore stick we use when were blind

    • drjanedavis July 19, 2017 / 7:10 pm

      Hhm thats a good question!
      For me – think they are part of our soul (or whatever you call it) because intuition/gut feels integral part of us… even though I often dont quite know what my gut feeling is …

  2. helenwillowsblog July 19, 2017 / 1:55 pm

    really interesting passages. As GPs we deal with a lot of mental debris, I often feel we’re sifting though it, looking for the nuggets that are relevant, although all is relevant in some way of course.

  3. loubyjo July 19, 2017 / 9:23 pm

    i also understand alot about mental debris unless you get the right help at the right time the problems just get bigger and harder to get rid of such as u should do the dishes after eaten every meal and saying deal with it later you end up with a much bigger problem,
    The mind is fascinating but so complicated and it seems to be getting worse with the ever growing waiting lists for help but although people say it could be our modern way of living but it also alot to do with life centuries ago when their was much more danger about so people had to be alert to threat with good reason otherwise be eaten but today the threats maybe different but the brain still reacts the same way this is how things like ocd occur ahhhh lecture over !!!!!!
    some brain debris is good as we remember not a good idea to sit right by a blazing fire as we remember got to hot which is good as dont get burnt but some debris from our life experiences changes our whole personality and we end up in panic mode maybe for ever

    • drjanedavis July 20, 2017 / 6:06 pm

      yes, really agree, Lou. The sad thing is when you can see a set of behaviours that worked once as suit of armour in a difficult situation or were just the right thing under those circumstances, but you can’t get rid of it – the armour-plating, the now pointless behaviour… I’ve moved on but my old ways have become mental debris I can’t easily get rid of…!
      Perhaps that’s just ‘normal’. The thing Bion seems interested in – both for individuals and for institutions (e.g. I’m thinking of The Reader) – is how you can still have liveliness inside these external shells that get formed. Will be reading a bit more Bion tomorrow… But I feel a Sparks Dayschool coming on…

      • loubyjo July 20, 2017 / 7:01 pm

        oh yes please says Louise !!!!!! drives me crazy people who say that but still not so annoying when say it my self but yes that would be so interesting love that about not able to get rid of the armour !! so true

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