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’.

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