I am not a Parrot: Reading Shakespeare with Wilfred Bion

inside ruin.JPG
Fig and Ivy growing inside C18 ruined palace, Bay of Kotor, 20 July

I’m concentrating this morning on  choosing a passage from The Tavistock Seminars by Wildred Bion.

A reader,  Orientikate, writes to ask where to start with reading Wildred Bion. I found my colleague,  Josie Billington’s book, Is Literature Healthy  (OUP, The Literary Agenda series) is engaging, useful and interesting, so I would recommend that as a starting place. If you want to begin directly with Bion himself, Attention and Interpretation, is, I’m told, a good place. Let me know how you get on.

I’ve used most of my Daily Practice hour in rereading parts of The Tavistock Seminars I read yesterday, looking for a passage to write about. Here it is:

We ought to be cautious and not get too misled by the fact that we can read—that is not good enough. It is like saying that because we can see black and white marks on paper, we can therefore read music—we can’t. So people who aspire to read a Shakespeare play ought to go into a certain amount of training for the purpose, and to have certain minimum conditions in which to read it. Shakespeare wrote, “The raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements“ [Macbeth, I.v]. There is only one word that is at all long—battlements. Put the lot together and you get a phrase that does something to you today. Where that comes from, I don’t know—I don’t know what happens to these things. I am reminded of Milton’s reference to Alpheus: “Return Alpheus, the dread voice is past . . .“ [“Lycidas“] and so on. There he is using the simile of the river that goes underground and then bobs up again somewhere else. Where it comes up and what effect it may have, goodness knows. A wild phrase of that sort goes through the ages. In a sense we could say, “Well, most people in this country talk English, so it’s a perfectly understandable explanation.“ Yes, I don’t want to deny the perfectly simple, straightforward, obvious explanation. What we are concerned with are the other explanations—even wild ones—which may be nearer the truth. ” (from “The Tavistock Seminars” by Wilfred R. Bion, Seminar Two, 4 July 1977)

This is  on the surface a contentious issue for people who practice Shared Reading. In this practice, we teach that there are no wrong answers, that all views are valid, that everyone’s point of view is to be listened to.  We would never say, as Bion clearly does in the  first sentence quoted here, ‘this is not good enough.’

Or would we?

In the teaching of Shared Reading  leadership there are a certain set of precepts, of pedagogical assumptions:

  • literature has much to offer but most people can’t get at that offer because they are afraid of  looking or feeling or being stupid
  • most adults (and many children) have almost certainly been damaged by previous educational experiences, and may be further damaged by this
  • humans need to feel secure, free and at ease before they can learn
  • the  key thing is to create a  sense within the group of security,  of kindness
  • that sense of  kindness is extended by  the Reader Leader’s modelling willingness to listen –  to whatever is said

There almost certainly are other underlying  precepts but these set out our starting place, which is essentially therapeutic: we intend to  ease the pain caused by previous damage in relation to literature or education more  generally.

But the purpose, the ambition, of Shared Reading is not in itself therapeutic, it is pedagogic. We don’t set out to cure people, we set out to  teach them to read literature (which of course  may be  curative, therapeutic or healing but I’m not making any claims for that here).

Therefore, at some point, I would say, a Shared Reading group leader might well say, with Bion, ‘this is not good enough’  as any teacher might of any attempt at something by any pupil. Of course . ‘This is not good enough’ is one of the traumatising responses from  teachers which has  caused so much inability to learn in the first place. Must teaching  then always be unconditional love of the pupil’s work? No. Teaching should involve a relationship of trust between pupil and teacher in which the pupil willing accepts the word of the teacher. Bion says to me ‘this is not good enough’ and I trust him, and our relationship, and myself, and Shakespeare, enough to take Bion’s word as a truth I can  deal with.

But between ‘ Welcome beginner/outsider/non-reader…’ and ‘this is not good enough’ lies a world of experience, growth and learning.  Learning, Bion says elsewhere, is always hard. It’s as if at some level, the biological entity  that is a human doesn’t want to learn – to learn is to change – to change is terrifying.

It is for the tactful group leader,  the careful reader of people, to decide if her group  – all members of it, or only some of them?  only one of them? – is at a point where more might be demanded. And how one  phrases  ‘this is not good enough’ to make it non-traumatic.

That is not a tick-box decision but the  decision of years of experience. I’d want to argue that  all Reader Leaders should be looking to up the stakes whenever they can: we want to get the most out of  each reading experience.

Can anyone read a Shakespeare play? Yes.

Do I agree with Wilfred Bion – that there is something strange and wild about Shakespeare   that evades simply being able to read the black marks on the page? Yes.

What do I think of this statement?

So people who aspire to read a Shakespeare play ought to go into a certain amount of training for the purpose, and to have certain minimum conditions in which to read it.

That is exactly what  we do in Shared Reading: the training takes place on the job, and the minimum conditions are the same as  for all  readings: concentrated purpose, collective attention, personalisation, return to the language, look at the language. The great thing to concentrate on is making live, is not reducing reading to Anyone’s  Notes but to feelings of  the psychological reality that language may offer up.

Shakespeare wrote, “The raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements“ [Macbeth, I.v]. There is only one word that is at all long—battlements. Put the lot together and you get a phrase that does something to you today. Where that comes from, I don’t know—I don’t know what happens to these things.

The Reader Leader must above all be kind, yes, but when a group member tries to short-circuit the experience by looking up the meaning of the phrase in the back of the book, saying ‘ It’s says in the notes in my book that this means…’  then the Reader Leader must be bold, very bold.

Who cares about the notes! the note writer isn’t here, isn’t sitting round the table. The note writer won’t know, and can’t explain, what that phrase does to you. But to lead a group of people into the strange place, where we don’t know what language is doing to us, but might feel it, may be able to express what we feel… that is a bold undertaking. And the group won’t come with you if there is no trust. So your key task, when reading something hard, is to build  trust – trust in your leadership, trust in the text, trust in ourselves as a group (I’ll come to another thought about this, from The Tavistock Seminars, tomorrow). Bion continues:

A wild phrase of that sort goes through the ages. In a sense we could say, “Well, most people in this country talk English, so it’s a perfectly understandable explanation.“ Yes, I don’t want to deny the perfectly simple, straightforward, obvious explanation. What we are concerned with are the other explanations—even wild ones—which may be nearer the truth.

Quite so. We don’t want to deny ‘the perfectly simple, straightforward, obvious explanation’ and indeed may spend quite a bit of time getting to it. But it is  what Bion calls ‘wild’  that is most important – something beyond ‘explanation.’ ‘Other explanations—even wild ones—which may be nearer the truth.’ So that is our job, as Reader Leaders, to create a space in which the wild may enter, and in which readers become students of their own understanding, not reciters old dead stuff someone else decided.  Which is not to say that someone else couldn’t have had a truly brilliant thought about the raven and the battlements  and that it  could be really exciting to  follow someone else’s thought (as I did, reading Josie Billington’s book mentioned above). Only to  make it my own, I have to do something with it, something more than recite it. After all, I am not a parrot.

One thought on “I am not a Parrot: Reading Shakespeare with Wilfred Bion

  1. loubyjo July 21, 2017 / 7:26 pm

    umm have read this through numerous times !!! well all i can say i have a GCSE in English lit and that is all but thanks to you and the reader am looking forward to seeing taming of the shrew at Liverpool library with friend marion who helps ,me run the shared reading play grp mainly Shakespeare although do like Alan Bennett !!! as well and others !
    I am somewhat amused that taming of the shrew was on roughly 12 years ago which had free tickets to go but had a complete breakdown saying dont want to see such drivel !!! and what has it to do with modern day .

    I view Shakespeare differently today but am really no expert and i only took over the grp because noone else wanted to . In the shared reading grp their is a variety if of people who read ranging from no qualification to degrees but whilst reading we all help each other out with what the play is waffling on about !!! some are better than others !!
    we have recently finished merchant of Venice which was extremely moving reading Shylock’s speech saying we all the same and how relevant to modern day with the recent attacks . so yer relevant to today !!

    Although do admit to reading lambs tales of Shakespeare to get general gist and not been to a play without having read it before !!!!

    we prob go off on complete tangents but asked someone why came said I made her laugh better then crying I suppose !!! so the moral of the story you dont have to be academic to enjoy it or even run a Shakespeare reading grp all you is need is enthusiasm and nice grp of people and somehow or other u get by with a little help from your friends !!!!

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