International Centennial Conference on the Work of W.R.Bion

The live presentation of this paper, as it was delivered in Torino, can be downloaded here.

Laying Low and Saying (Almost) Nothing


"The Tar-baby said nothing, and Brer Fox, he lay low."

"Don’t jump to conclusions, Griselda."


Perhaps I ought to start with a very brief introductory note on my use of language: one of my friends noticed, quite a few years ago, that when speaking in public about W.R.Bion I tend to oscillate (rather disconcertingly, I gather) between referring to him as "Bion" and referring to him as "my father". At the time we rather laughed it off and went on to more serious matters. But I have done a little thinking about it since then, and have come to the conclusion that this is not so much an indication of a serious, pathological, "split" as a natural outcrop from whichever field of thought it is that I am engaged on at the time. By this I mean that if I am thinking of him as I remember him personally - and when I was a child, he was just "Daddy", and in fact was not yet a psychoanalyst anyway - I tend to use a more familiar term, but if I am thinking about his theoretical or clinical writings, then I tend to refer to him as "Bion" , which seems to me to be normal in a scientific paper. Since today I do intend to speak about his theoretical work, but approaching it via memories from a long time ago, I will no doubt move from one usage to another. You have been warned!

The two quotations that I have chosen as a starting point come from children’s books that my father either read to me as a rather small child, or gave to me when I was a little older. They were the first things that came into my mind while I was rather idly wondering whether there might be traces in his private, personal life, which would show some sort of coherence with his later writing; things which perhaps illuminate his character, a certain type of philosophical attitude towards life in general, which could have merged in with his later rigorous thinking. In Italian we say "Il buon giorno si vede dal mattino" (Later events are foretold by their first burgeonings). I am not really talking about extra-analytical sources for his thinking, which was in any case most firmly rooted in Freud, because at the moment I am more interested in trying to capture something of the over-all flavour of his personality as it emerges from a glance at some of his general reading. Reading was a very important part of our family life, as my father read to us children in the evenings at weekends, as Francesca did during the week, and we were almost all rather precocious and deicated readers, having complete access to the ‘library’ (which really meant books in cases all over the house). Nemesis has in any case caught up with the only one of us who could have been said to be a slightly less enthusiastic reader (in the sense that when called or searched for she wasn’t absolutely necessarily reading, but sometimes did other things too) since my sister Nicola now works as an editor at Oxford University Press.

So, after this digression, back to work! As to Bion's writings that I have in mind as the base camp, so to say, for my brief paper today, Notes on Memory and Desire, (1967) as well as some later comments on the same ideas in Cogitations, are the main ones - though in fact you can find references to his clinical technique, as well as the theorisation on this subject, scattered through many of the clinical seminars held in different countries. There is a very great difference between the style of Notes on Memory and Desire and the later seminars, but, although the latter are much more discursive, they are only apparently less rigorous, and the main ideas remain the same. These can be briefly summarised: the analyst should rid his mind (perhaps, for the sake of political correctness, I ought to say "its mind", but this seems to be going rather too far with analytical neutrality) of extraneous, permeating thoughts and emotional states. He should actively try to get rid of conscious searching for memories of the patient such as "what on earth was the dream that this person told me in the last session, and to which he is now referring without giving me any clue about the contents?" as he should also rid himself of desires, of whatever sort, such as wishing for the end of the session or week, or hoping that the patient will get cured, or even desiring to understand.

I will come back to these points later:

The first quotation comes from one of the Uncle Remus stories, The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story, which is part of the saga of the unending struggle between Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, who was his sworn enemy. In this particular story, Brer Fox makes a sort of statue of tar mixed with turpentine and sets it in the road along which the rabbit will be passing. The tar-baby, of course, does Not reply to Brer Rabbit’s polite greeting - so Brer rabbit, punches, kicks and butts it with his head, to teach it a lesson in good manners, getting completely stuck in it, all four paws and his head too, while Brer Fox lies low, and the tar-baby goes on saying nothing. As a matter of fact, the two lively characters in the story must also have "run" together somewhat in my mind, as I remember my father misquoting it as "Brer Fox, he lay low and he said...Nothing". Naturally, I may be wrong about its being his misquotation (although he frequently did so, just slightly, adopting and adapting phrases to his own need) and it may simply be mine. The pertinent aspect of this, in any case, is that I now tend to think of Bion as an analyst partaking a little of the characteristics of all three figures, the fox, the tar-baby and the rabbit. (This might be said to be a sub-set of his internal group!)

For example, his comments on alpha-elements in Cogitations make it quite clear that there really were moments when he felt "stuck", like the rabbit, and that he was only able to get clear of the morass by thinking very deeply about his own emotional reactions to the atmosphere in the consulting room. (Not to be confused with the idea of using one’s countertransference, which he liquidates rather scathingly in Bion in New York and Sao Paulo.) Furthermore, one gets the impression from several people who had been in analysis with him that he must, at times, have seemed rather like the tar-baby, too, saying almost nothing, or perhaps nothing at all. And as for the fox? Well, from my childhood memories of him, I can imagine my father "laying back" in the rocking-chair in his consulting room and just waiting to see and to feel his way through what was about to happen - although not with the malicious intentions of the story-tale fox.

The complex concept of working without memory or desire links up, in fact, with the idea of trying to purify your mind, letting what is inessential sediment somewhere and drain away, so that you could have the ‘laying low’ without the sneaky or violent element.... although it is interesting to note that analysands with paranoid streaks frequently comment that they cannot stand the analyst’s silence precisely because it does feel malicious and threatening to them, as though they were being spied on with evil intent. Another aspect of laying low can be seen in the firm decision not to fall in with the analysand’s unconscious ploy of seducing the analyst away from the present moment, for example, as I said earlier, by mentioning a previous dream while being very careful not to give him even the slightest of hints about its contents. This can be dealt with on the spot, to my mind, by interpreting - or simply mentioning - the fact that the analysand seems to be desirous of distracting attention from what is going on now. One may also be fortunate enough to be able to detect the dominant emotion which is suffusing this way of speaking, as the analysand may have already given hints through other phrases, or his behaviour, as to which emotion is the principal one. It is sometimes possible to tell whether he is feeling envious of the analyst, or reluctant to ‘come into’ the session at all - he might have been late - or whether he is just trying out the analyst’s capacity to remember him and not get him muddled with someone else. This latter attitude, then, might come either from doubts lying behind feelings of omnipotence (You couldn’t possibly forget me! - or could you?) or else from despair at ever being able to make any sort of impact on anyone. This possibility was brought home to me by a very depressed patient who was absolutely amazed on discovering that I actually did remember things that had been said to me even years back, without any muddling with other patients. From the patient’s point of view, it was a question of discovering in my mind a vital container, whereas from mine, it was alpha-elements again, working as selected facts to illuminate a whole series of events in such a way that they make ‘new sense’.

The other points that arise in connection with ‘laying low’ include simply sitting and waiting, with the negative capability involved in this stance, not striving after answers of any sort. It is interesting that Bion mentions understanding as being one of the things which one must not actively seek, as well as the ‘cure’ of the patient. To his mind, any extraneous desire was damaging to the analyst’s capacity to concentrate on the present situation, but I would add that these two in particular are perhaps worse than others, since they open the flood-gates of the analyst’s own anxiety about his ability, and anxiety is not a useful companion in the consulting room, unless it arises from the reception of conscious or unconscious communications from the patient.

The second quotation comes from a book about a little girl staying in a strange house full of all sorts of curiosities, through which she is accompanied on nocturnal explorations by the cuckoo from the cuckoo-clock, who tries to persuade her to stop making logical (or illogical) leaps in her reasoning processes. This, I feel, is a particularly strange quotation to have come into my mind in this context, and I might have thrown it out as not being relevant, were it not for the fact that intuition in a session (and not only the analyst’s) has to be backed up by hard rational thinking. So though one’s intuitive flash - the spontaneous presentation to one’s conscious mind of an alpha-element - may seem perfectly correct, it is not enough, on its own, to serve as an interpretation, although it will probably merge with other things, including a private (to the analyst) process of reasoning about the other parts of the mosaic of fragments that this alpha-element ‘makes sense of’, to form the base for an interpretation.

The other side to this quotation is naturally Griselda’s curiosity about the enticing things in the house, which the cuckoo tried to keep ‘open’ and ‘alive’ by not coming to precipitous conclusions, encouraging the little girl to go on observing. This seems to me to tie up with Bion's ideas on the stifling of curiosity by premature answers, as in the quotation from Maurice Blanchard which was ‘bestowed’ on him by Andrč Green, and as exemplified by the second column of the grid. This particular column sometimes seems rather less useful as an idea against which to check your own interpretations as well as the analysand’s remarks, but in fact the attacks on the furthering of the thinking-feeling process are a fundamental aspect of analytical exchange, and the possibility of their subtle occurrence should always be kept in mind. In my early days as an analyst, I coined the phrase (in my own private language for thinking about my work in): ‘ "stop it" interpretations’. This referred to those which made the patient suddenly ‘dry up’, in an unpleasant fashion as though they had been shamed or bullied into silence, and I think that they had a lot to do with my own unconscious counter-transference. Analytical practice and attempts at putting into practice the discipline advocated by Bion "without memory and desire" have greatly improved this slight tendency on my part, which was certainly an attack on both the patient’s and my own curiosity.

Speaking of curiosity, it is noticeable how Bion's treatment of the subject has moved slightly from the Freudian-Kleinian base of almost exclusive concentration on the oedipal contents to a greater interest in the mechanisms and uses of curiosity (and misuses) of curiosity itself.

In any case, I feel that these two quotations, together with the backgrounds of the stories from which they come, can give us an inkling about Bion's general philosophical attitude to life - not so much his real philosophical leanings, which were neo-Kantian as much as anything else, but in the sense of his way of taking things. This attitude certainly included a capacity for ‘not jumping to conclusions’ which he developed more as he grew older, even reaching the point of eliminating conclusions altogether, as towards the end of his life he spoke of interpretations themselves as being not only transient - staging posts on the way somewhere else - but also as being in a certain sense ‘too late’. By the time the analyst reaches the point of formulating an interpretation, which indicates the conclusion of a process of thought which has come about between analyst and analysand, he is talking about a state which is already past; the analytical couple has already moved on. So no interpretation can be a conclusion, and I may add that my father didn’t think much of death as indicating one, either - it was merely an end. His idea of a suitable epitaph for his tomb was "Snuffed out", but none of us in the family quite felt that we agreed.

In fact, the very lively and numerous attendance at this Conference itself seems certainly to bely his having been ‘snuffed out’, although for some years after his death, about ten, I would say, very little notice was taken of his work at all.

To sum up, then, even leaving to one side all Bion's copious reading of Chinese and Indian philosophers and western Christian mystics, who certainly gave further substance to his practical experience of analysis and to his intuition growing through practice, I think that, from what I have said, it is possible to see certain traits of his personality present as rather basic ones, which then melded with everything else to form his particular mental world. I also think that he wished to introduce his children to this sort of mental attitude of thoughtfulness and patience at an early age, perhaps so that we too would have found it a useful backgound to our thinking. In fact, in the professions which we have chosen, which are all traditional ones in the Bion family (my brother Julian being a medical doctor, a specialist in intensive care, so perhaps, on the somatic level not so far from the other, psychic, pole of psychoanalysis), all require us not to jump to conclusions, not to stifle our imagination and curiosity and generally speaking, try to provide ourselves with the best possible conditions for thinking.

Bion's writings on the Theory of technique are aimed at helping analysts to be free of preconceptions and so freer to think: I hope that this Conference will turn out, with your help, to be in the same spirit.