- The Evocative Object World by Christopher Bollas
Routledge, 126 pp, £13.50, October 2008, ISBN 978 0 415 47394 1
- The Infinite Question by Christopher Bollas
Routledge, 192 pp, £13.50, October 2008, ISBN 978 0 415 47392 7
Christopher Bollas is perhaps the most prolific and widely read psychoanalytic author at work today. It’s easy to see why this should be so. His books are written in a conversational style that quickly establishes a friendly, frank relation with his reader, and he exudes the confidence of a master practitioner: he is above all a man of (clinical) experience. He knows his way around – and is happy to introduce you to – the intricate workings of the psyche. He makes the ideas of Freud, Klein, Bion and Winnicott vivid by using examples from richly described clinical settings as well as daily life. He is also in dialogue with these writers, offering amendments and revised formulations. Over the years I have heard numerous mental health professionals and professors in the humanities say that it was Bollas’s work that enabled them finally to understand the concept of object-relations. The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known is required reading for anyone interested in how object-relations make an impact on the internal object world; and Hysteria shows, better than any other book I know, why hysteria is still a clinically significant concept. Anyone whose heart sinks at the thought of turning to DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) should go to Bollas, who shows what dynamic psychological thinking can do.
In The Evocative Object World, he brings us back to the psychic significance of everyday reveries:
You are riding in a train, absorbed by the sights flying by. It passes an airport, crosses a canal, traverses a meadow, climbs a long, low hill graced by rows of vineyards, descends into a valley choked with industrial parks … Each location evokes sets of associations. The airport reminds you of the coming summer and your holiday abroad. It recalls the plane that brought you to this part of the world in the first place; the never-ending expansions of airports … Crossing the canal you think of a longed-for trip on a canal boat, yet to be accomplished, signifying the potential remainders of a life … You think of your mother and father-in-law’s former house which was alongside a small canal. You might also think of the dentist and a root canal. And so it goes.
For Bollas, following Freud, psychoanalysis is a peculiar extension of such ordinary meanderings of the mind. Indeed, Freud likened free association to sitting by a train window and describing the passing sights to a fellow passenger. He discovered that if one could allow one’s mind to wander but at the same time monitor its journey, one found all sorts of weird connections. In general, the thoughts would not display a rational structure, yet via temporal or spatial contiguities, similarity of sounds, memories of smells or tastes, metaphorical jumps, sharing a syntactic shape and so on, they would reveal strangely familiar lines of thought, moving out in many directions, of which one had been unaware. Freud’s achievement, in Bollas’s view, is not the discovery of the repressed unconscious, which he thinks has been fetishised, but ‘Freud’s insistence that the most valued material is to be found in the seemingly irrelevant’, his view of ‘the quotidian as a valued source of human truth’.
Vol. 32 No. 7 · 8 April 2010
Jonathan Lear, in a review of my books, writes that I make ‘claims that simply aren’t true’ (LRB, 11 March). One of his instances is that I write: ‘Freud was never able to decide whether every dream was a wish-fulfilment.’ Lear omits my next sentence – ‘He found dreams that seemed to be beyond the human wish’ – and then quotes from Beyond the Pleasure Principle, having found dreams that are not wish-fulfilling. Thus I have said something that is simply not true because Lear has eliminated the qualifying sentence.
In fact Freud changes his mind again in Beyond the Pleasure Principle when he concludes that even traumatic dreams are wish-fulfilments. Why? Because even though no one would wish to have a bad dream, dreaming transforms shocking events into less disturbing thoughts through its novel way of restaging things. In the New Introductory Lectures, written towards the end of his life, Freud concludes that ‘the wish-fulfilling function of dreams is not contradicted by anxiety-dreams.’ Is the issue settled? I am not sure. And typically, Freud aimed to keep his intellectual options open.
My theory that dreams fulfil the wish to dream is for Lear a non sequitur: ‘Even if a dream is the sort of thing that would fulfil a wish to dream, it does not follow that every time there is a dream there is an antecedent wish to dream that it fulfils.’ It is my theory but Freud’s as well; traumatic dreams fulfil not the wish to revisit the dream’s disturbed contents for their own sake (a matter of content) but because the dream will transform them (a matter of form).
Lear disagrees with my point that Freud failed to distinguish adequately between form and content. I do not argue that Freud did not know the difference but that he did not create a sustained view of form, which led him now and then into unnecessary confusions in his theory of the mind. In The Evocative Object World I draw attention to a crisis created by such confusion. In The Ego and the Id Freud felt forced to conclude that his theory of the unconscious was invalid because the contents of the repressed and the agency that repressed them were both unconscious. ‘We must admit,’ he wrote, ‘that the characteristic of being unconscious begins to lose significance for us.’
Why is this important? Freudian psychoanalysis is therapeutically transformative not only because it unearths repressed mental contents, but because Freud created in the psychoanalytic relationship a new form of communication that changed people’s lives. But his failure to appreciate the formal effects of the analytic process on the analysand has left both psychoanalysts and the lay world inadequately aware of how psychoanalysis works.
Vol. 32 No. 9 · 13 May 2010
Christopher Bollas takes me to task for using the phrase ‘simply not true’ to describe his claim that ‘Freud was never able to answer the question … isn’t every dream a wish-fulfilment?’ though Freud categorically claimed in 1919 that traumatic dreams are not wish-fulfilments and held onto this view for the remaining two decades of his life (Letters, 8 April). Bollas also rebuffs my assertion that he was wrong to claim that ‘Freud’s error was to confuse mental content with mental form,’ though Freud explicitly warns the reader of this confusion and says: ‘It is the dream-work which creates that form and it alone is the essence of dreaming.’
Bollas accuses me of artificially weakening his case by not quoting him saying of Freud: ‘He found dreams that seemed to be beyond the human wish.’ But he wrote that sentence to support his overall thesis that Freud was never able to make up his mind. Obviously, someone who didn’t make up his mind would be likely to think, on the one hand, that dreams seem to be wish-fulfilments, and on the other, that some seem not to be. But my point is that Freud clearly did make up his mind that traumatic dreams are not wish-fulfilments. I didn’t quote that sentence because it neither strengthens nor weakens Bollas’s case. In support of his position, the one passage Bollas quotes from Freud is: ‘The wish-fulfilling function of dreams is not contradicted by anxiety-dreams.’ To be sure; but Bollas’s claim in the book isn’t that Freud did not make up his mind about anxiety dreams, but that he didn’t make up his mind about whether every dream is a wish-fulfilment. Freud did reach a settled view that traumatic dreams are not wish-fulfilments. Thus he did reach a settled view that not every dream is the fulfilment of a wish.
Bollas says his position is that Freud ‘did not create a sustained view of form’. This is a plausible view (though not one I share), but what he says in The Evocative Object World is that Freud’s error was to confuse mental content and mental form. It is this claim of error and confusion that I said was not true. In the later chapters of The Interpretation of Dreams as well as in his essay ‘The Unconscious’, Freud puts in a tremendous effort to distinguish the forms of unconscious mental activity from the content of unconscious thoughts.
University of Chicago
Vol. 32 No. 10 · 27 May 2010
I had a dream last night … that Jonathan Lear and Christopher Bollas had decided to continue their spat outside of your letters page. Will your next issue confirm this as a wish-fulfilment?