July 10, 2017

Barbara Browning Quote


Maybe you're thinking I should take everything my friend Lun-Yu tells me with a grain of salt. She also told me that day one of her favorite psychoanalytic theorists was Wilfred Bion. I'd never read Bion before, so after she left I read a bit about him, and I found online the complete text of a seminar he held in Paris in 1978. The beginning of this seminar is very interesting. At least it was to me. Bion says that he wants his listeners to imagine a scenario: they're seeing a new patient, a twenty-five-year-old man who comes in complaining of some dissatisfaction in his family life. Bion says he's not sure what family the man is referring to, and asks his age, which the man gives as forty-five. Bion is confused. He just said the man was twenty-five, and then he notices that the patient has wrinkles, and appears in his sixties. He asks his listeners to consider this confusing state of affairs and to determine whether they would, under the circumstances, take on such a patient.

He says the question is much like the question of what you would do if you walked into a bookstore, picked up a book, and read the scenario he just described. He asks you if you would continue reading this book. Then he says, imagine it's not a book, but a piece of music. Or a building you're in, and you see the way the light falls, you see the colors coming through the window. Do you want to think about the window some more?

I imagine these questions were somewhat perplexing to some of the participants in the seminar. At one point in the transcript, someone in the audience makes an "inaudible reference" to "psychotic experience." Bion calls that a very "cerebral" question, not a practical one to the analyst. He says that analysts shouldn't be blinded by labels like manic-depressive or schizophrenic. Rather, they should be asking themselves what kinds of artists they are and whether there's an interesting spark that occurs with a potential analysand that might lead to something productive in the consulting room or, as he puts it, the "atelier." Somebody asks what an analyst is supposed to do if he's not really the artistic type, and Bion says that if that's the case, then the person's in the wrong line of work. In fact, he says, he doesn't even really know what would be the right line of work, since a person needs to be an artist in everyday life.

Then he throws out the term artist, which has obviously become meaningless. The point is, he tells them, that reducing things to "scientific" diagnoses or narrow definitions is really the death of things. "You will have to be able to have a chance of feeling that the interpretation you give is a beautiful one, or that you get a beautiful response from the patient. This aesthetic element of beauty makes a very difficult situation tolerable."

Obviously I loved that. I wrote Lun-Yu and told her about the seminar I'd read and how it had moved me. She said, "Oh, that's the 'bad' Bion, from his mystical phase. That's also the part I love best." Apparently sometimes he wasn't quite so wacky.

- Barbara Browning, The Gift


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