Sharing Secrets

Jonathan Lear

  • 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’.

The ‘Freudian pair’, as Bollas calls it, of analyst and analysand is constituted so as to allow wandering thought to flower. The to-and-fro of the pair facilitates what he calls a new form of thinking. Bollas speaks of the maternal function of the analyst, but it seems more like midwifery to me: facilitating an environment in which the analysand can speak herself in the presence of another. It’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t participated in this seemingly simple process how surprising it can be. Over time, the analysand will find herself sharing ‘secrets’ that, before speaking them, she did not know she had. There is more privacy in this pair than one can preserve on one’s own.

Bollas makes two crucial points. First, as the analysand ‘succumbs to freedom of speech’, what will emerge is utterly idiosyncratic. When people recount their dreams many of them will describe being inside (or outside) a house, with a strange person outside (or inside) trying to get in (or out); but as the analysand calls up the associations the dream has for her, and then her associations with those associations, unique lines of significance begin to appear – desires, hopes, fears, jealousies. To be sure, there are things in common: all humans share certain primordial problems, and we tend to draw on our cultural heritage for imaginative sustenance; but beyond that we are all idiosyncrasy. When interpreting dreams, Freud said, their images should not be decoded according to fixed symbolic meanings, but located in the peculiar context of the dreamer’s life. This distinguishes psychoanalysis from other forms of talking therapy, and lends remarkable vibrancy to the psychoanalytic process. (Freud did later insert an ill-thought-out addendum on typical symbols, having just read a book on the subject; the editors of an even later edition changed this to a free-standing section, and Hollywood took it over. Thus Freud is remembered for a idea inimical to his theory.)

Second, Bollas tells us that what tends to emerge from free association is an array of psychic structures. He speaks of the evocative object world: ‘One of the intriguing features of an analysis is the fact that patients have these organised inner compositions which, like magnets, attract further impressions and serve as the core of the self’s creative articulation.’ This seems exactly right, and very important. What comes out of a successful analysis is the discovery not of a hidden desire but of primordial structures of motivation that organise one’s experience of self and world.

If you want a textured sense of what this means, read The Infinite Question, in which Bollas presents the notes from three cases, along with his own supervisory comments. The pages are printed Talmud-style, with the text of the analysand’s associations along with the analyst’s interventions in one column, and in an adjacent column Bollas’s observations on the meaning of the process as a whole. This is excellent sport. If you want, you can second-guess the analysand, the analyst and the supervisor. But, to keep the Jewish association going, it is even more fun to read the book from back to front. It has an appendix which gives the complete case notes without the supervisor’s comments. One should, I think, start there; then turn to the middle of the book, where one can reread the material along with Bollas’s comments. The introduction can be read as though it were his conclusion.

Bollas is a fan of walking in cities. ‘Living in a city,’ he tells us, ‘is to occupy a mentality.’ He speaks of an architectural unconscious: not only the countless mental forces that went into the creation of these buildings, then settled into the background of shared public awareness, but also the barely noticed idiosyncratic associations the buildings evoke as we move through a familiar city. I live in Chicago, a few blocks from Obama’s home (before he moved) and beside a lake almost as long as England. As I walk north along the water’s edge towards the city centre, the overwhelming lake – how could it not be the sea? – is on my right, its colours and moods changing every day. Monet taught me how to see it. Straight ahead, on my left, is the Chicago skyline. A few miles along, two trees seem to grow up out of the water, in a large V-shape, like a giant catapult. Standing between the trees you can line up the entire cityscape. The conversation Socrates and Phaedrus had about beauty must have taken place here; somehow, the story has been transposed to the outskirts of Athens.

‘When we traverse a city,’ Bollas says, ‘we are engaged in a type of dreaming. Each gaze that falls upon an object of interest may yield a moment’s reverie.’ It is, he thinks, important that we don’t know the names of all the buildings, don’t know their history – just as it is important on a country walk that we don’t know the names of all the trees, flowers and geological formations. He suggests that we do better to ignore the naming of objects so as to remain within the realm of the visual imagination and dwell in the emotional resonances of form. Each of us, Bollas thinks, has a need for what he calls the evocative object: ‘To build the evocative on whatever scale is to open the psyche-soma, seemingly expanding the mind and the body in one singular act of reception which links the new object to the pleasantly surprised subject.’ He notes that when we take in a ‘breathtaking’ sight it is, on occasion, actually breathtaking. The mouth opens – almost like a startled infant – and out comes a very physical ‘Ahh’ or ‘Oooh’. The spectacle disrupts the normally involuntary and unconscious process of taking a breath.

Bollas pities those who dislike their surroundings. They are ‘in a sad state of disrepair, for they are denied the vital need for personal reverie.’ (I remember living in a town I didn’t like. Waiting at a red light, I would think: ‘How many more times before I die do I sit in front of this light?’) He uses the term ‘aesthetic dejection’ to describe not merely a person’s inability to make evocative use of surrounding objects, but a form of depression which they know can’t be resolved. About a bad marriage he writes:

Such couples can plough on in a state of aesthetic dejection until they die, with nothing in common but shared misery and hatred – something that can be remarkably binding. Although each will no doubt point to endless shortcomings in the other, if they are to escape from their predicament they will need to understand that their dejection does not derive from personal failures. They are simply not a match, and the despair they feel is due to an irresolvable dejection.

In a therapeutic situation, one tends to see such couples late in their lives. There is clinical truth in the well-known punchline, ‘We wanted to wait until the children died.’ As Bollas puts it: ‘Ageing has a strangely sobering effect on the omnipotence of any conviction.’

These books are themselves evocations: they evoke a sensibility, the feel of psychoanalysis. They are not meant to convince a sceptic. Rather, they are for those who are already interested in psychoanalytic ideas and would like to know how they are expressed in a clinical setting and in everyday life. Call it preaching to the choir if you will, but I’ve always thought the choir a good place to direct one’s efforts. Presumably they know something about music; and, whatever their doubts, they have at least made it to church. My problem with these books lies elsewhere. Because Bollas is so good at drawing us in and encouraging a sense of trust, I find it all the more irritating when he makes claims that simply aren’t true. He says, for example, that Freud was never able to decide whether every dream was a wish-fulfilment. But in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud came to recognise that a significant class of dreams – those ‘which occur in traumatic neuroses, or ‘which bring to memory the psychical traumas of childhood’ – should not be thought of as wish-fulfilments.

Bollas also says that ‘Freud’s error was to confuse mental content with mental form.’ But in an important footnote about the dream-work, added to The Interpretation of Dreams in 1925, Freud says:

I used at one time to find it extraordinarily difficult to accustom readers to the distinction between the manifest content of dreams and the latent dream thoughts … But now that analysts at least have become reconciled to replacing the manifest dream by the meaning revealed by its interpretation, many of them have become guilty of falling into another confusion which they cling to with equal obstinacy. They seek to find the essence of dreams in their latent content and in so doing they overlook the distinction between the latent dream-thoughts and the dream-work. At bottom, dreams are nothing other than a particular form of thinking, made possible by the conditions of the state of sleep. It is the dream-work which creates that form, and it alone is the essence of dreaming – the explanation of its peculiar nature.

To take another example, Bollas claims that Freud ‘failed to see … something quite simple: any dream fulfils the wish to dream – thus every dream is a wish-fulfilment.’ This is 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. And when it comes to traumatic dreams, the idea that they fulfil the wish to dream is like saying that my wish to stop sneezing is fulfilled when someone punches me in the nose.

Elsewhere, Bollas suggests that the first psychoanalytic interpretation in Western culture is given by Tiresias when he says to Oedipus: ‘Creon is no hurt to you, but you are to yourself.’ Obviously, Sophocles’ Oedipus tyrannus has been psychoanalytically suggestive. And there are occurrences in psychoanalysis – remembered dreams for instance – that are experienced as though they were oracles. But not just any oracular utterance is psychoanalytic. For Tiresias’ interpretation to be psychoanalytic there would have to be some reason for thinking it was based on his insight into Oedipus’ psychodynamics, rather than his own spiritual, supernatural powers or his better knowledge of the social context. On a more mundane plane, there have long been self-pitying drunks, people who get enraged at imagined slights, people who trip themselves up in romantic quests, and oafish tyrants who destroy their own kingdoms. And there have long been observers who tell them that they have nobody to blame but themselves. That communication alone does not make them psychoanalysts. Bollas gives no textual support for his claim that Tiresias’ challenge is a psychoanalytic interpretation, and I don’t believe there is any.

For all that, the large-scale themes of these books ring true, the clinical writing is beautiful and Bollas raises one issue in particular that deserves further thought. He says that dreaming is a form of thinking: the form of unconscious representation. This fits well with Freud’s claim that repressed unconscious mental activity proceeds in its own peculiar way, which he called the primary process. This is a restless activity in which associations between ideas appear – from the perspective of conscious thought – weird and uncanny. These unconscious processes respect neither the law of non-contradiction, nor the constraints of time. And they regularly express themselves in and through the body: Freud called it ‘organ-speech’. If we take seriously the idea that conscious and unconscious thinking really are different forms, then it would seem that psychoanalytic therapy ought to understand itself as facilitating communication between these forms. But then what is the formal unity of that process? The answer to that question would tell us what psychoanalysis is. It would also help us to understand what we are talking about when we speak of the psychic unity of a human being.