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.

The Risk Business: Just Started Hester by Margaret Oliphant


Tradescantia growing from a rock face at a bus-stop, Kotor Bay, 17 July

Loubyjo tweeted me yesterday to say  ‘You can’t have started all these books at the same time!’

Quite right.

I’m just trying to catch up on my holiday backlog, now I’ve decided to list everything I read.  It’s not going to be a very long list once I am back at work: I’m lucky to get through a book each month then – which is partly the reason for instituting Daily Reading Practice here. But now, on holiday? With nothing to do all day but swim and find food – sometimes I’m reading more than one book a day. So I want to get them on my ‘Just Started’ list help my annual record… Everything started will be listed, but only things I really want to recommend will be  listed as ‘Just Finished’.

About two days ago I started Hester by Margaret Oliphant. Not finished yet but  must start recommending.

I’ve read it before, maybe twice, but a long time ago, at least ten years, perhaps more like fifteen, twenty years. The edition I’m reading is the OUP World’s Classics – edited by Philip David and Brian Nellist. Excellent edition! I remember them working on it and  the date inside is 2003. But I don’t remember rereading then… They were the early days of starting The Reader  – everything is a blur.

Initially, I read Hester along with a lot of other work by Margaret Oliphant, while writing my Ph.D. – A Beleaguered City (1880) was a key text  for me – something to come back to here another time. But  the  ‘Chronicles of Carlingford ‘ series – Salem Chapel, Mrs Marjoribanks also really enthralled me. How can there be such a great writer who hardly anyone has heard of?

And so to Hester.  it’s about two women, rather alike, clever, proud, judgemental, certain of themselves, one a teenager and the other aged sixty-five… and how they do or don’t get on. It’s about being a  powerful woman in a man’s world.  Its a story set in and around a bank, and is partly about risk. Not many novels enter this territory! I’m absolutely loving rereading it.  It has made me wonder why so few contemporary novels  care about the complex inside of human experience. Are we done with that? Obviously not, if you read Home by Marilynne Robinson, or The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. But they are rare beasts. Most novels don’t come close.

But back to Hester. You can read it online here.

Just one example for today. There has been an odd pause in a conversation, where Mr Rule, who has worked at the bank, seems to imply some problem, if Catherine Vernon were willing to look at it. But she is not, she passes the pause as if it were nothing. At Some level she can afford to. Nothing has hurt her for long while. She’s not looking for problems.

“We will not inquire too closely what he means,” said Catherine Vernon with a smile. “Anyhow it is very sweet to be able to retire while one has still command of all one’s faculties, and see the young ones come in. Of course one does not expect to live for ever. We are all in the Sunday period of our lives, all of us here.”

“Not I,” said the old clerk, “with respect be it spoken: I have had my Sunday and am ready to begin again, if there should be any need of me.”

“Which there is not, thank God,” she said heartily. And again there ensued that little pause. Was it possible she did not observe it? No one echoed the sentiment, no one even murmured the little nothings with which a stillness, which has a meaning, is generally filled up by some benevolent bystander. What did it mean? Hester asked herself. But Catherine took no notice. All had gone so well with her. She was not afraid of evil tidings. Her affection for the young men, her relations and successors, was calm enough to secure her from the anxious prescience of love. She took her life and all that was connected with her, with that serene and boundless faith which is the privilege of the untried soul. Catherine would have resented beyond everything else the imputation that her life was without experience. She had gone through a great deal, she thought. The evening long ago, when she had been told that the credit of the Vernons was at stake, and had roused herself to redeem it, had been the highest crisis and turning-point of existence to her. What had happened since had been little in comparison. She had not known what anxiety meant in the deepest sense of the word, and what had happened before was so long over, that, though she recollected every incident of that early time, it was apart from all her after-life, and never influenced her practical thoughts. She did not pay any attention to that pause which might have awakened her suspicions. There was no foundation in her for suspicion to build upon. She was so sure of all connected with her, and of herself, the first necessity of all.

This is a long hard look at a moment in a life where something happens that can easily be ignored,  is most often ignored. But Margaret Oliphant – look her up, read  the excellent Autobiography – had had a very hard life, had taken all the responsibility for  supporting a family, knew what trouble was, knows that these small moments add up. The novel, in one sense, is about such moments.

So you don’t read a  tiny pause on a conversation, so what ?

Hester, nineteen, is able to read it well enough to know it means something, though she can’t make out exactly what. Hester hasn’t the experience yet to understand  the detail of such a moment. But she’s got a kind of survivor’s instinct about it. Catherine, for all her sixty-five years doesn’t have that.  Prior hard experience might have taught Catherine to feel the  little wobble in the moment, but ‘all had gone so well with her. She was not afraid of evil tidings.’ A kind of  mental, emotional cushion,  or is it a callous, grown by absence of hard knocks, wads her against potential damage.  But we need to feel the real knocks, don’t we, to know where the obstacles and dangers are. Or instead of pain, Love might have given you ‘prescience’, but Catherine didn’t love, just lived a ‘calm affection’.  So another potential danger-spotting faculty is  cut-off.  Catherine suffers ‘the privilege of the untried soul’  – a fine privilege when  all is well,  but a deep disability in hard times.

There’s a lot more of this – the novel is absolutely full of, it’s made from,  such psychological observation. but I must stop writing now as I need to get back to my reading…