Latest Articles and Papers

Free Associations

| Home | Contents | Rationale | Search | Feedback | Interesting Links |

THE TIGER AND ‘O’

by Meg Harris Williams 

Probably Wilfred Bion’s major contributions to psychoanalytic theory have been in the area of thinking about thinking. He describes the operation of a mysterious process which he terms ‘alpha-function’ upon primitive emotions, to create a foundation for ‘dream-thoughts’ eventually resulting in creative communication. At every stage this process is itself dependent upon the emotional linkages of love, hate and the desire for knowledge; and it co-exists with a parallel but antithetical, destructive process - propaganda, lies and basic assumptions, masquerading as thought but in fact propagating ‘-K’ or false knowledge. Bion’s theoretical works on this subject, his major preoccupation, have been found confusing by many; but his last main work, A Memoir of The Future, has probably been found confusing for different reasons, and it may be harder to see its contribution to the essence of his life’s work. In this paper, I would like to approach the Memoir in conjunction with his other, more straightforward and accessible biography, The Long Week-End, in a way which might make its material more graspable and its contribution easier to think about. I shall not attempt to provide a comprehensive or consecutive view of the books; but rather to point out a pattern of metaphor which, I think, dramatizes the interaction between aspects of K and -K, showing Bion evoking an image of his own thought-process in relation to ‘0’, the mysterious noumenal point of knowledge. 

The Long Week-End is a straight first-person narrative; the Memoir is written in the form of a dialogue between eccentric assortments of voices, each contributing some aspect of Bion himself. Like any other form of literary appreciation or indeed any human communication, my account of their relation is not a purely objective one, since it depends on my own effort to construct what Bion calls a ‘receiving screen’, capable of receiving the facts presented. Thus the pattern which I shall describe involves juxtaposing passages from the two distinct types of autobiography in an order different from that in which they were written. Nevertheless, in its essential elements it should still delineate a Bionic tale of ’transformations in "0"‘. And it is worth remembering that the whole problem of the transmission of experience, and its relation to aesthetic form, is a central concern of the Memoir. As Bion says: ‘I wonder what I do when attempting to draw an analysand’s attention to a pattern’ (M. I, 227; abbreviations are listed with the references). It is by no means obvious what happens when a pattern is ‘drawn attention’ to, any more than when one is ‘drawn’. In order for a pattern to be perceived, as in order for one to be created, there has to be some correspondence in experience between different minds or aspects of the mind. 

In terms of his self-analysis, presented within the autobiographical books, the eternal search for ‘underlying pattern’ in mental phenomena is Bion’s continuous preoccupation, reformulated time and again. It is inseparable from the problem of identity, the question of ‘Who is Bion’ (M. I, 96), and how does he ‘resemble reality’. Bion considers ‘to what does reality approximate’; how to relate phenomenon to noumenon; how to ‘order dimensionless 0’ (M. I, 96). This has always been his concern, but the autobiographies seem to indicate a turning-point in his method of investigation. A new attitude, or a new emphasis, on the importance and capabilities of art, seems to lie behind his new experimentation with ‘artistic’ as opposed to ‘scientific’ genres of writing. Admittedly, in opposing ‘artistic’ to ‘scientific’, one has to bear in mind two different ideas of’ scientific’ activity, which coexist within the Memoir. One corresponds essentially with artistic activity, while the other (as satirized by Priest - ‘truth modified to lie within man’s comprehension’ - or Rosemary) serves to curtail discovery in the field of mental events by imposing a premature explanation. 

In the Preface to The Long Week-End, Bion writes: ‘If I could have resorted to abstractions I would have done so.’ He regards himself as still dealing with the same ungraspable phenomena as in his ‘scientific’ works, but now making use of ‘the serviceability of "as if"‘: of the’ falsifications’, the ‘fictional’ characters who, he says, helped to keep his mental digestive system in working order. Abstract concerns are embodied through characters and dramatic juxtapositions rather than through mathematical formulations. Bion employs this method, not because it is more colourful or accessible to readers, but because he came to regard it as more accurate: ‘Non’ artistic methods of communication are less accurate than those used by artists’ (M. I, 120). He describes how Euclidean geometry became a backwards force because it confined thought within the visually evident, and how Cartesian co-ordinates then enabled more abstract thinking (M. I, 185). Perhaps his own equivalent of Cartesian co-ordinates in a literary genre concerned with conveying the psychoanalytic experience - ‘The Grid’ - became unsatisfactory to him, a backwards force in its turn. In Book III of the Memoir he comes up with the term ‘science fiction’ (used in an idiosyncratic sense whose meaning is clear in its context). This seems to express for him the way in which art can extend science into otherwise unchartable regions of experience, in pursuit of ‘things invisible’ to standard ways of seeing or investigation. The structure of an artistic form is such that it can capture meaning which lies outside its own terms of reference: thus, in Book I, The Dream, Bion describes how a sculpture works on the observer: ‘The meaning is revealed by the pattern formed by the light thus trapped - not by the structure, the carved work itself’ (M. I, 202). The concrete form is also capable of conveying forms from another realm of reality, beyond the phenomena of which it is composed. And the way in which it conveys ‘0’, making known the unknowable, depends upon a particular emotional link with the observer, which Bion describes as ‘passionate love’: ‘Passionate love is the nearest I can get to a verbal transformation which "represents" the thing-in-itself, the ultimate reality, the "0" as I have called it, approximating to it’ (M. I, 197). 

This, then, is the view of the function and potentialities of art which 1 gather from Bion’s autobiographies, where it is indeed a central subject of discussion; and I imagine that his reasons for attempting artistic genres of writing derive from his view of art’s supremacy in the field of mental exploration. That view cannot have been purely a form of intellectual tribute or lip-service, but must have been prompted by an emotional need on his part to find a ‘universe of discourse’ which could relate thought and feeling: for ‘Conceptual thought and passionate feeling are impossible to relate within the confines of existent universes of discourse’ (M. I, 151). (He means, I take it, the ‘confines’ of ordinary scientific investigation and philosophic discourse: "talking-about’.) Bion felt his own ideas, his lifelong process of self-discovery, confined; and it was in response to the driving of a form of ’passionate love’ that he wrote the Memoir of the Future. In one sense the ‘love’ was toward himself; although really of course, leaving taints of egocentricity aside, it was for ‘truth’ itself, in so far as its noumena could only be made known through the phenomena of his own mind and its working. His observation of the ‘facts’ of his own mind in operation, seeing feelingly, is his contribution to humanity-in-general’s contact with ‘reality’. 

It was to stress this relation between art and reality that I used for the title of this essay, ‘The Tiger and "0"‘, linking an image with a metaphysical abstraction. This link is made by Bion in The Dream (M. I, 122); ‘Psychoanalysis itself is just a stripe on the coat of the tiger. Ultimately it may meet the Tiger - the Thing Itself - 0.’ At this particular point the image of the Tiger actually becomes a symbol for ‘0’. In fact it is unusual for Bion to make such a deliberate equation, and one certainly cannot use ‘Tiger equals 0’ as a consistent key to unravel the tortuous metaphysical windings of the Memoir. On the other hand, if one uses this association suggestively rather than as an explanation, it can I think provide a type of ‘receiving-screen’ which enables one to grasp certain essential structural reverberations in the artistic form and, correspondingly, in the thought-process embodied within it. Following the image of the Tiger can lead us into a whole spectrum of dealings with ‘0’ in the autobiographies, ranging from ‘-K’ to ‘K’; from ways of evading knowledge and denying reality, to as near as possible the state of knowledge itself. The ‘tiger’ experience (or matrix of experiences) is a particularly fruitful one to concentrate on, since, as Bion’s quotation about the Tiger and ‘0’ suggests, it recurs in his memory frequently at points of catastrophic change. The hunt for ultimate reality is consummated when the hunter and the hunted meet. And the first passage I want to look at in detail, is in fact the description of the Big Game Shoot in The Long Week-End, which occurred, significantly, on Wilfred’s birthday. Later we shall sec how the association of birth-day in its more fundamental sense (the moment of birth) with a catastrophic ‘hunt’ becomes more symbolic, but all the elements for the Memoir’s symbolism are present in the realistic account of a childhood experience. 

THE BIRTHDAY HUNT (LWE, 16-17) (The references following sub-heads indicate passages to Bion’s work which could usefully be read along with the section.). 

By this stage in Bion’s autobiography, The Long Week-End, we are already acquainted with Wilfred’s childhood terror of ’Arf Arfer’, the daytime nightmare of revenge on his presumption, formed from a linguistic-emotional distortion of’ ‘Our father which art in Heaven’  On the day of a long-anticipated Big Game Shoot which is also his birthday, Arf Arfer appears to the boy both through the agency of his father, and - in a more richly awesome aspect - through that of the tiger who has been shot by his father (at least, in the boy’s fantasy his father being a ‘fine shot’ who hunted with Jim Corbett) As a kind of precursor to his encounter with the tiger, Wilfred is presented with an electric train for his birthday. This is anxiously loaded with significance by his father, who is overcome by humiliation firstly when his prize toy fails to operate, and secondly when he discovers his son has adopted a superstitious Indian method of reparation, evidenced by the ‘greasy mess’ transferred to his own fingers. Both the train and the tiger are clearly associated with a notion of masculinity which the father is trying to instil into the boy, the whole episode has the ring of a failed initiation rite In the first stage, the train which comes to a ‘full stop’ and is then smothered with ghee to revive its workings, evokes a sense of the father’s fear at femininity’s power to make impotent, which in turn evokes terror in the child: ‘Arf Arfer with his great black wings beating had already obscured the sun’. In the second stage, the encounter with the tiger, or rather the tigress in mourning for her dead mate, it becomes clearer how sexual fear and confusion are related to fear of knowledge and ‘reality’ itself. The body of the tigress is kept out of the camp, but her spirit penetrates it all the more effectively through her roar which travels underground, and through her roar, she brings reality into the camp and extends the small boy’s conception of the awesome and majestic qualities of Arf Arfer: 

      That night. Arf Arfer came in terror "like the King of Kings". The hunt had killed a tiger and the 

      body had been brought to our camp. His mate came to claim him and for the next two nights the

      camp was circled by great fires and torches burning bright to keep her out With her great head

      and mouth directed to the ground so as to disguise her whereabouts she roared her requiem  Even

       my fear was swallowed up in awe as almost from inside our tent there seemed to come a great

        cough and then the full-throated roar of the tigress’s mourning. (LWE, 17)  

The earthborn sound of the tigress’s roar, as if by magical acoustics, appears to come from ‘inside our tent’: the boy feel’s inside the tigress as much as he feels she is inside him. Being inside the tent, the source of the roar, has the significance of being inside the mouth, or the belly, the womb, of the tigress  The boy feels ‘swallowed up in awe’, which leads him to the fear of the tigress’s literally eating him: ‘She won’t cat us Daddy? You are sure she won’t?’ Already there is a suggestion of birth and death being the ‘reversed perspective’ of the same process, rather as, in the Memoir, Bion described them as the ‘same instinct’ m ‘different directions’ (M II, 118). And that process is, in a way, a first primitive knowledge of reality, of a Godhead which goes beyond the simple authoritarian and omnipotent qualities of our picture of Wilfred’s father. Despite his shooting prowess and the simple notion of masculinity associated with it, the spirit of the tiger - through his feminine counterpart the tigress - succeeds in penetrating the well organized ‘camp’. Through his encounter with two tigers, male and female, dead and alive, yet both felt as aspects of one being, Wilfred gains a hint of another kind of masculine-feminine conjunction, and through this another kind of Knowledge, which neither his actual father nor mother can offer him (nor any other adult figure in his life. For mother, as well as father, seems to evade the issue or to not understand the nature of Wilfred’s curiosity about the tiger pair and their whereabouts 

"Where is she now?"

"Oh I don’t know child - far, far away I expect. " 

It is clear that he is preoccupied with more than physical whereabouts, since the context goes on to Heaven and Jesus and implications of the tiger’s soul: 

"What is he doing now?"

"Who?"

"Jesus - I mean the tiger." (LWE, 18) 

Wilfred never actually saw either of the tigers, but their internal reality for him was perhaps all the greater for that; the idea of the tiger becomes associated with a reality both infinitely distant from him and within him: in other words, with ‘0’. ‘There are many formulations of dread, unformulated and ineffable - what I denote 0’ (M. I, 87); the arrival of Arf Arfer ‘like the King of Kings’ is such a formulation, of the type that the ‘civilized world’ seeks by sophisticated means to avoid: warding off ‘awareness of something which is dread or terror and behind that the object that is nameless’. Yet the nameless object, the monstrous tiger or its transmigrating soul, its ‘mate’, penetrates Wilfred’s mind despite the civilized world’s efforts to build a wall of camp fires to protect his and their consciousness. 

We shall never know whether the actual Birthday Hunt of 1903 (or whenever) caused Wilfred Bion’s preoccupations with the ‘Tiger and 0’ - as he insists himself, he has no idea who he himself was at that age, and his apparent concern with the past is in reality a concern with the present. One cannot use this episode to construct a cause-and-effect history of complexes and symptoms. One is, however, justified in referring to the written account as a description of a point of catastrophic change, and in noting how elements in it are varied, expanded, repeated, throughout the autobiographical books. Bion ends his account of that day with a description of the jungle night taking over, bringing with it, after human sophistications, ‘the real world and real noise’: 

Intense light: intense black; nothing between; no twilight. Harsh sun and silence; black night and violent noise. Frogs croaking, birds hammering tin boxes, striking bells, shrieking, yelling, roaring, coughing, bawling, mocking. That night, that is the real world and real noise. (LWE, 18) 

Through the animal activity he is of course really describing human activity - but real human activity, not the civilized veneer; the kind of primitive noises for which man has to find an ear before his real knowledge can progress. These are the lights and noises which, in Book 3 of the Memoir, make up Bion’s picture of prenatal life, the kind of life which continues though mostly unrecognized, behind postnatal consciousness, This is the jungle of reality into which one aspect of the Tiger transmigrates, roaming free despite a death. The child Wilfred has one day to renew contact with the tiger whom his father and mother could not help him contain. As he writes, allegorically, in The Long Week-End, in the context of his war experience: 

I was cut off from my base. And the enemy was in full occupation of my mother. "Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new." Yes, woods you fool! It’s there in the jungle that you’ve got to live. (LWE, 114) 

He has to go back to the ‘jungle’ to recover his ‘base’, including the lost image of his internal ‘mother’, who, like his internal father, lives partly in the double image of a tiger, though unrecognized by the civilized parents of actuality. 

THE OTTER HUNT (M. III, 10-12) 

Bion uses the metaphor of a wildlife hunt several times to sketch a scenario for a journey either towards, or away from, knowledge, or for an ambiguous and confused activity which may involve both at the same time. In The Dream (M.I, 9) he speaks of the ‘great hunters’ of psychoanalytic ‘intuition’, saying that we need space for both the great hunters and the hunted, the ‘wild asses’. His ‘psychoanalytic zoo’ (M. II, 20) contains ‘beautiful and ugly’ creatures such as ‘Absolute Truth - a most ferocious animal which has killed more innocent white lies and black wholes than you would think possible’. This ferocious animal can only be hunted ‘in our nightmares’ and contrasts with such things as ‘answers’, ‘dogmas’ and ‘scientific facts’ which are known to us by ‘the pale illumination of daylight’. One of the miscellaneous characters who is given a voice in the Memoir is ‘P.A.’ (a psycho-analyst), who complains:  

While I am “considering”, someone rushes in with the “answer” and there’s no catching up with an “answer”. You might as well try to catch a bandersnatch… I would include in my psycho-analytic zoo a whole series of fascinating animals - if I were sure they would not escape and roam the world as the latest and must beautiful newborn facts. (M. II, 20) 

In the hunt towards illusion and reality, the image of the tiger is extended through creatures as various as the ‘bandersnatch’ and ‘Absolute Truth’; and there is always the possibility of a monstrous ‘escape’ from the control of the hunter, resulting in ‘newborn facts’ which are both dangerous in themselves, and liable to be dangerously misappropriated. 

In the Dawn of Oblivion, Bion describes (through the activity called an ‘otter hunt’) the ambivalent attitude of latency towards ‘newborn facts’ and the idea of pregnancy. It shows how ‘Golden boys and girls all must/ Like chimney sweepers, come to dust’, in a hunt to the death. The hunt ends in another version of the prototypal ‘Arf arfer’ nightmare, with the child pursued by the tiger. The factual basis of the Otter Hunt is given briefly in The Long Week-End (LWE, 68), but in the Memoir it is richly elaborated through realism and dream-story, touching the ‘real night’ of the tiger in the jungle. The ‘hunt’ is seen from both perspectives, the ‘golden boys and girls’ and the tiger-cat, the hunters and the hunted (roles which reverse themselves when day becomes night). Both sides regard the other as an unwelcome foetus: thus the Cat in her soliloquy: 

It is nice to stretch in the sun. Not that there is much. When there is, that B’yrrh-Lady sends those damned children out into it. Why couldn’t she keep them in her womb? Can’t blame her if she chucks the devils out at once… The hell hounds always behave like a fetus - omnipotent, as old as God and as all-knowing, impossible to teach… These devils can’t tell the difference between a flowerpot and a pregnant pot… In the childhood of the race, at least the Egyptians respected animal containers for their content- (M. III, l0-11) 

It is precisely the ‘content’ of the image, represented by cat and flowerpot, which the ‘childhood of the race’, represented by the golden children, wishes to destroy in the game hunt. It is their reaction to being ‘chucked out’ into the sun by their ‘B’yrrh-Lady’ mother. The ‘tent’ in which the child Wilfred heard the roar of the tigress, is converted into a pot, an imprisoning false womb: on the model of a ‘tiger trap’ which he describes being taken to see at the Indian fortress of Gwalior (LWE, 32) and which filled him with inexplicable terror, owing to the fusion of hunter and hunted in his mind. Now, the cat-mother prophesies: ‘Wait till the Great Cat Ra catches them in their dreams’, and sure enough when day becomes night there is a reversal of perspective and the hunter becomes hunted. The boy’s dream: 

Tibs, you are a spoiled cat. No, it’s no good you saying you are a Tiger. If you are a tiger you are really a spoiled tiger - a cat that has been spoiled and has turned into a pussy cat. Cyril laughs when he says “pussy”. He says it s a gross word. Now don’t you turn into a gross cat Tibs. That’s German. I hope I’m not getting afraid of an unspoiled great Kat. Tiger… Tiger… we learnt in school - burning bright. Please sir! Its eyes sir - what dread hands question mark and what dread feet? A stop sir? Yes sir, a proper pause. If the wine don’t get you the women must. It rhymes with dust. (M. III, 10-11) 

In association with the ‘spoiling’ of the ‘tiger’, the degradation of femininity into the ‘pussy’, the cat becomes generalised Female hunting the Male - ‘if the wine don’t get you the women must’. At the same time it transforms into the German army, prefiguring the future war. in another kind of ‘grossness’. Behind both these disguises emerges the real Tiger of the jungle, ‘burning bright’. The dreamer tries to regain control by desperately seizing the rules of grammar (representing the rules of civilized society) and voicing his obedience to commands, as in school and war: ‘Yes sir, please sir, a stop sir.’ However at each point the image of the tiger breaks through - its eyes, dread hands, dread feet. The punctuation with which he tries to contain the nightmare power of the image had been designed by the poet to project it more fully. Yet his dependence on it, symbolizing his reliance on adult society’s authority, is equivalent to the dependence on such things as saluting, polishing buttons, drill, in the army where even death becomes ‘a question of etiquette’ and where Bion’s friend Hauser ‘always shaves before action’. The full ‘stop’ which becomes a ‘proper pause’ echoes the day of the Tiger Hunt when Wilfred’s electric train came to a ‘full stop’ (just as, he pointed out, his tank was to do in the future); and his sister who was in the process of learning to read and punctuate, reiterated helpfully: ‘full stop?’ Whether the dreamer is devoured by the power of knowledge or by its opposite, his omnipotent efforts to imprison and curtail it, the ambiguous hunt ends in the ‘proper pause’ of death. The golden game ‘rhymes with dust. 

In the Memoir, points of catastrophe are frequently introduced by the sound of ‘Arf arf arf’ and the memory of the Tiger. Thus in The Dream a ‘faint sound’ is heard, ‘Arf arf, arf, which is interpreted by the character whom Bion names ‘Myself’::

My God! Here they come again. Those howls! It’s eerie. I believe they are nearer. That! That!… That is a tiger. No: Tigers are only cats. That is no cat. Arf, arf, arfer’s little history of England. You damned hyena! If the wine don’t get you then the women… (M. 1, 107) 

In Arf Arfer’s little history of England, a story of non-development of the mind, if the wine don’t get you then the women must - ‘Mother England’ being an ‘old whore’, a feminine Cronos devouring her sons. In the above passage, the tiger nightmare ends up with a more specific description of a mutilated soldier’s dream: he watches the lawn open up and a woman walk out of it towards him, ‘till he screamed!’ (In the Memoir the woman is his wife, in The Long Week-End, describing the same dream, the woman is his mother.) The tiger nightmare links with a whole pattern of imagery suggesting traps, womb-graves, false births, imprisoned or mutilated foetuses, in a continuous pattern of mutual recrimination between ‘container’ and ‘contained’. 

IN THE TANK: DINOSAUR MENTALITY (LWE, 115. 254, 262: M. I, 94, 69; II, 156) 

Within the psychoanalytic zoo of the Memoir, tiger mentality is extended to - or rather contrasted with - dinosaur mentality, whose orientation to ‘0’ is that of ’-K’ or the depths of non-knowledge in a dangerous and self-destructive fossilization of the primitive. Saurian mentality represents the kind of primitive state which has lost its link with reality and which, unbeknown to itself, can not survive ‘in the jungle’. In this it contrasts with that aspect of tiger mentality’ which, in Wilfred’s original dream, survived bodily death and transmigrated into ghost or soul, seeking a new life far away in the jungle. 

In Bion’s myth in the Memoir, the dinosaurs represent that aspect of man which fails to recognize the seeds of destruction at a point of catastrophic change, and instead of strengthening his endoskeleton, constructs a false exoskeleton which is not protective but destructive of its progenitor. In The Dream we meet Adult Tyrannosaurus and Albert Stegosaurus, and see their reaction to the possibility of a ‘brain’ developing between them. Instead of considering how to promote its development they make a mutual attempt to eat one another: 

         ADOLF: What’s that tiny little thing you’ve got up there?

ALBERT: A rudimentary brain.

 

ADOLF: Hmmm… I don’t like it. Mark my words, it will burst your head open! Chacun a son gout. Ow! What’s that? You’ve shoved your thoughts into me, you vile creature... If this fool Albert thinks I can’t chew up his armour!

 

ALBERT: If this fool Adolf thinks my armour can’t wear down his teeth! (M. I, 94) 

Bion calls this the battle of ’Sade versus Masoch’. The dinosaurs fail to realize that ‘eating’ and ‘being eaten’ are merely parts of one reversible process, (momentarily) giving a sense of illusory supremacy but not contributing to the growth of the dinosaur-mind: ‘Tyrannosaurus didn’t like being eaten… what was amusing and satisfying was the same activity when the perspective was reversed and yet felt quite different - or so it thought. It was not different but "reversed"‘ (M. I, 103). Their sterile activity diverts attention from the real problem of how to deal with the ‘tiny little thing’, the monstrous birth which they have sired: ‘What saurian engendered thought?’ It is an ‘ugly monster, capable of independent existence’ (M. II, 119). And unable to use ‘thought’ for the purpose of developing their species, they find that it destroys them. In the words of Alpha in The Dream, the ‘Mind’ becomes equated with a bomb: 

I knew a delightful old stegosaurus who thought he had found the answer to the tyrannosaurus. But the “answer” was so successful that it turned into a kind of tyrannosaurus itself and loaded him with such fame - not to mention exoskeleton - that he sank under his own weight… Yes, but those same dead bones gave birth to a mind… Now, the Mind… you just try it. Just attach it to your sensory perceptions! (M. I, 68-9) 

And in The Past Presented, Bion images the final catastrophe of saurian man, in a speech by the Priest: 

Here he comes and is just going round the bend! Look out! He’s using an atomic bomb instead of a ball, and… Here is a list of the glorious dead who batted into the third day after all and have come direct out of the computer, the Holy Boast of our civilisation- Quid nunc? these are they who come out of great fibrillation and here endeth the Christ-Semitic era and beginneth the post-fissile quasi-epoch. I only am escaped alone to tell thee… What’s yet to come is still unsure. Man is a discarded experiment like the mammals, like the saurians, like fire, like sparks that fly upward, like troubles when there is no mind to experience them. (M. II, 156) 

This picture of catastrophe is introduced by the ‘savage, wild howls, unmistakably animal’, of the tiger nightmare, and represents one direction into which contact with the tiger can lead: in this case it is the ‘bloodcurdling duet’ of Roland-tiger and Alice-tiger which leads to the fine image of the birth of an atomic bomb and a self-consumed civilization going up in flames: ‘It’s Roland - that is his howl. 1 would know it anywhere. He is calling his mate. That’s Alice – tigerish…’ Nevertheless, in this case, one has ‘escaped alone’ to tell the tale and transmigrate to the new epoch, becoming a Ghost of the Future. 

In The Long Week-End, the place which proves the supreme container for dinosaur mentality and its self-destruction, is the Tank of the war. Time and again the tank is compared to the body of a dinosaur, or to the dinosaurish aspect of the tiger, a sinister trap for man rather than a protective armour. The tanks are ‘prehistoric monsters’ and on August 8th (which Bion calls point of ’-K’, the day on which his soul ‘died’) he registers his fear of the tanks being trapped ‘like dinosaurs in a prehistoric catastrophe’. After his experience he feels himself ’a survival from a remote past’. In The Dream Stegosaurus speaks up to register his recognition of the situation, centuries after his own demise: 

         MYSELF: God’s Englishmen looked so funny going into battle in tanks.

STEGOSAURUS: Like us. Couldn’t move. Sitting target. (M I, 133) 

The tanks can be seen as a sort of perversion of the image of tiger-as-mother: as false mothers of the kind which trap and consume their children. In Bion’s detailed description of the progression of his acquaintance with tanks one sees him re-living the tiger nightmare, as it drawn by an inevitable fascination to act out its unresolved aspects. Thus he is first attracted to the tanks regiment in order to ‘penetrate the secrecy surrounding them’ - the secrecy of the mother’s body in a primeval past. His first sight of a tank is an image of a false birth, like the Gwalior tiger trap: 

I saw my first tank. It blocked the way to camp. The day was hot, sunny, still. The queer mechanical shape, immobilized and immobilizing, was frightening in the same way as the primitive tiger trap near Gwalior; I wanted to get away from it. A metallic hammering came from inside; a soldier got out and the day sprang to life again. (LWE, 115) 

His own temporary paralysis of fear ends when the tank releases its prey. The first time his own tank is hit (LWE, 162), he finds himself repeating the lines from ‘Lycidas’: ‘His gory visage down the stream sent’; recalling how the mother, ‘The Muse herself could not defend her son’; his ‘mother’ is absent and powerless not just physically but emotionally. He describes the tanks as ‘purring’ their way into battle: 

The troops might have been sleepwalking… the tanks rolled up a gentle grassy slope. There was a soft muffled explosion. Robertson’s tank opened as a flower in a nature film might unfold. Another thud; then two, almost simultaneous, followed. The whole four had flowered. Hard, bright flames, as if cut out of tinfoil, flickered and died, extinguished by the bright sun. One tank, crewless, went on to claw at the back of one in front as if preparatory to love-making, then stopped as if exhausted. (LWE, 254) 

The ‘sleepwalking’ dream appears as a primitive mating ritual, a self-consuming love-death. The tank flowering in flames is reminiscent of the camp fires in the jungle and its exotic foliage, and of Priest’s speech about man as a ‘discarded experiment’ ‘like the ‘saurians, like fire, like sparks that fly upward’- Sleepwalking up a gentle grassy slope, the mind is - apparently painlessly - extinguished. 

During the next battle (at ‘Happy Valley’), Bion in a sense ‘sleepwalks’ himself under the alienating influence of influenza and alcohol. He evacuates his own tank ‘before he knows what he is doing’ and abandons it to its inevitable destruction - ‘a total wreck’. Once again he is reminded of the revenge of the Arf Arfer God, the aspect of the tiger which is ‘Lord Cat Almighty’: 

Again I had the sense of being a cornered rat which a giant was nonchalantly aiming to club to death. Even as a rat I was incompetent - like a mouse I had once seen sit up on its haunches in what looked like an attitude of prayer to Lord Cat Almighty who at that moment was luxuriously licking his paws and washing himself. I had escaped - apparently. Who knew what the Lord Cat Almighty was up to during this short respite? “Remember also the humble beasts…” (LWE, 262) 

The phrase about the ‘humble beasts’ was quoted during the description of the Tiger Hunt, in the context of his questions about the tiger’s afterlife: suggesting again the reversal of hunter and hunted, and the tiger avenging her destruction by appearing in her most primitive, vengeful retributive guise. 

Dinosaur mentality is therefore associated with the opposite to knowledge of the mother’s body; it is associated with false knowledge and a destructive kind of curiosity which has to ‘sleep’ before even a chance escape from disintegration can be effected. And this is, from another vertex, a form of false art, divorced from reality, distanced from ‘0’. In The Long Week-End, Bion describes a shelled tank with its charred bodies of men hanging out of the doors; and in the Memoir a member of that tank crew speaks for his experience: 

We burnt a fair treat. Some of us tried to get out, sir, and this made it more real like. The black guts pouring out of the “prehistoric monster” - just like the newspapers say, sir! (M. I, 168) 

The irony comes from the notion of ‘reality’ and the ambiguity of ‘real like’ - like real, but not real. There is in fact no notion of reality, no awareness of ’O’. The soldier accepts that the whole war is an artificial construct, a charade or show, a spectacle, geared to satisfy society’s demands for a false or substitute reality and shield it from contact with any actual reality. The apparent factualness of ‘the newspapers’ is fed on lies. As with the war artists who refused to allow Bion’s tank to be moved until the sketch was finished, the war itself represents a kind of false art. At Bion’s training camp, war is described as ‘big game shooting’ (LWE, 122). It is portrayed as the ultimate hunt, the real thing towards which all his education and training have been leading. Yet in fact, like the adults’ attitude to the Tiger Hunt when he was a child, it is remarkable for its unreality. It is so unreal that he feels he himself no longer exists: he becomes a ‘chitinous semblance’ of himself and ends up as an ‘antiquity’, a ‘survival from a remote past’ - a dinosaur on display in a museum. Bion regards himself as having attained the point of ‘-K’, of false or non-knowledge, on August 8th (when he sleepwalked out of his doomed tank): ‘It is "-K". The date in -K is August7 and August 8’ (M. I, 168); and on that day he ‘died’: 

I would not go near the Amiens-Roye road for fear 1 should meet my ghost - I died there. For though the Soul should die, the Body lives for ever. (M. II, 35) 

His experience of dinosaur mentality during the war separated his soul from his body, but in the opposite way to that assumed by a conventional ‘religious vertex’. Bion feels that it was not his body which failed to survive the catastrophe, but his soul or ghost; and the theme of the entire Memoir can be seen as an effort to renew contact with that lost aspect of himself and thereby with reality itself. 

BREAKDOWN: THE GHOSTS OF IDEAS (M.III, 1-6, 44; II, 177-9; II, 51-3) 

In The Long Week-End Bion described how he lost himself; the Memoir, the fantasy-autobiography, as well as emphasizing mental disintegration, is also devoted to finding himself, through re-living the past until it becomes a new experience, a life of the future. The underlying pattern involves alienated parts of the self undergoing a strange meeting across some formidable gap or caesura, such as birth, death, sleep. At such points, catastrophic change is possible: not only in the sense of destructive breakdown, but in the sense of evolving a new existence, .an idea. Then the feeling is chat ‘the ideas hold me whether I like it or not’ (like the boy Wilfred ‘swallowed up by awe’ in the mouth of the tiger) (M. II, 35). Following the boy Wilfred with his curiosity about the other-worldly whereabouts of the tiger after the hunt, Bion continues his explorations within himself across the boundaries of ordinary daylight consciousness, in the quest for ‘beautiful and ugly’ wild animals such as ‘Absolute Truth’. The ‘postnatal’ discussion groups within the Memoir keep returning, therefore, to the necessity to evolve more sensitive means of mental reception, based on the analogy of animal awareness: 

"They say animals are aware of the imminence of an earthquake. Humans are sensitive to the imminence of an emotional upheaval."

 

"You mean people who are afraid they are going mad, or going to have a breakdown?"

 

"Break up, down, in, out, or through?" (M. III, 102) 

This ‘animal’ sensitivity refers to the necessary qualities of the primitive, like ‘learning the smell of a stone’ - to tiger mentality rather than to dinosaur mentality. It expands the spectrum of awareness from ordinary sensuous actuality, to the ‘infrasensuous’ and ‘ultrasensuous’, in a way more capable of registering the infinite stretch of ‘dimensionless 0’. 

This attempt to expand the spectrum of awareness lies behind Bion’s ‘pre-natal’ dialogue which begins The Dawn of Oblivion. The pre-natals are uncomfortably aware of the approach of a catastrophe, a change of state, of ‘the imminence of an earthquake’; and at the time of birth Psyche and Soma, newly conscious of their separateness, try instinctively to bite and swallow one another. 

SOMA: Who is that?  

PSYCHE: I bit it. 

SOMA: It had just bitten me. Bite it again! That’s my - not it.  

PSYCHE: It can’t be. I put my foot in it - was it your stoma?

You have confused me again. Pain, feet - all mixed up. Why can’t you take your choice? 

SOMA: I do. If you had any respect for my ‘feelings’ and did what I feel you, you wouldn’t be in this mess.  

PSYCHE: I am in this mess because I was squeezed into it. Who is responsible - your feelings or your ideas? All that has me is yours - amniotic fluid, light, smell, taste, noise, I’m wrapped up in it. Look out! I’m getting absorbed! SOMA: I’ll pi you when I’ve absorbed you. All piss, shit and piety. You can idea-lize it - get a good price for it no doubt. Bless me - I’ m getting absorbed too. Help! 

PSYCHE: That’s what comes of penetrating in or out. I’m confused. 

SOMA: That’s what comes of not penetrating - you break up or down. (M. Ill, 6) 

The strange lights, noises and turbulence within the womb as Psyche and Soma separate from one another, represents in a sense the original struggle in the jungle - what Bion called the ‘real night’. It is the prototypal scene of hunting, penetrating, breakdown, absorption. Psyche and Soma’s instinctive reaction is to be tempted into the familiar sade v. masoch ritual of dinosaur mentality; though despite this, at the point of catastrophic upheaval, they do at least recognize their ‘confusion’ and struggle to acknowledge another perspective of penetration and ‘idea-lization’ which could potentially relate ‘feel-ings’ to ‘ideas’, body to mind, through remembering their common origin. 

Equipped with a new vocalization of pre-natal life, Bion gives a revised account of the day of -K, the day on which his soul died while his body escaped from the flaming tank. In this fantasy account, by contrast with the account of actuality in The Long Week-End, he does manage to re-enter the tank when he realizes he has been sleepwalking. This allows his second emergence to take on a new kind of meaning: 

I caught up with my leading tank. I knew the long-range naval guns must get us. "Get out!" I told them, "and walk behind till it gets hit" I set the controls at full speed and got out myself. It raced - for those day- ahead so we could hardly stumble up with it. And then – Then!  the full horror came on me. Fool! what had I done? As I scrambled and tripped in my drunken influenza to catch up with the tank, in the shadow of which I had ordered my crew to remain sheltered, my ice-cold reality revealed a fact: the tank, in perfect order, with guns, ammunition and its 175 horsepower engines, was delivered into the hands of the enemy. Alone, I alone, had done this thing! My pyrexia left to rejoin its unknown origin... I was in; I did get in. A high-velocity shell struck; without thought I shot out of the hatch as the flames of petrol swathed the steel carcass. (M. III, 44) 

The fantasy account, though very similar to the actual events, is antithetical in terms of its orientation towards ‘0’. Instead of a slowing-down of intellect, and excess of stupidity and unreality, the kind of ‘foolishness’ here described conveys a quickening of intelligence, an inspiration: ‘without thought’ implying ‘beyond thought’. The spectrum of everyday values of ‘facts’ and ‘folly’ is stretched to include the infrasensuous and suprasensuous, such that the officer can both re-enter the tank (an impossible feat) and be ejected from its flaming carcass by the power of intuitive knowledge. The image is not a realistic but a fantasy one: it becomes a metaphor for the birth of thought, a kind of resurrection or transmigration of soul, a phoenix-like action emerging from the ashes of the ruined life, the ravaged womb, the broken shell of the dinosaur. Soul outlives body, rather than vice-versa as in the factual account, Bion merely sheds the exo-skeleton, the false protection, of the tank and dinosaur mentality. 

At another point in the Memoir, toward the end of The Past Presented, Bion describes the subsequent encounter between himself as P.A. (the psycho-analyst), and his ‘Ghost’. The Ghost had been released, or lost, at the point of his soul’s death at -K, and he has difficulty in recognizing him. Revising the account of the tank’s explosion is equivalent to returning to the Amiens-Roye road despite the ‘fear I should meet my ghost - I died there’. And this is what happens at the ‘Party of Time Past’ in Book II, which takes place in ‘Purgatory’, to the accompaniment of the ‘resurrection blues’. The partygoers exclaim at the entrance of this ‘awful looking specimen’ with the ensuing dialogue: 

P.A.: I hardly recognised him. It’s my ghost.  

GHOST: I died at English Farm and I’ve been working through Purgatory since. I feared I might become like P.A… You only saw me wearing my Hero dress. I was afraid you’ d see me - as 1 saw poor Gates. (M. II, 177-9) 

Gates was one of Bion’s tank crew who had ‘shell shock’ - which according to P.A., meant he ‘went sane long before the war was over’. Bion sees the shell shock in metaphorical terms as losing the shell of self-deception and ‘going sane’, coming into closer contact with ‘truth’ and ‘reality’. The Ghost also had shell shock, but this was disguised by his ‘hero dress’. Bion, on his fantasy evacuation from the tank ‘without thought’, sheds his shell and hero dress, and after many years of ‘Purgatory’ becomes capable of recognizing his alienated Ghost or spirit. 

Another related recognition drama is portrayed in Book II of the Memoir, this time between the character Roland and ‘Du’, precursor of the prenatal somites in Book III, and suggesting contact with the internal still existing pre-natal world, in a way potentially resulting in the genesis of ideas. This encounter also straddles day and night, waking and dream thought: ‘the night, the dream, is a "roughness" between the smooth polished consciousness of daylight; in that "roughness" an idea might lodge’ (M. 11, 45). Du, like Ghost, represents a roughness, a carrier of ideas; and like that ‘awful looking specimen’ he is at first unrecognized by the mind of which he forms a part: 

ROLAND: You’re an ugly-looking devil. Who are you? Not the devil; A nightmare then? Not a nightmare? You aren’t a fact.  

DU: I am the future of the Past; the shape of the thing-to-come.  

ROLAND: Not a ghost? 

DU: Do I grin like a ghost? How do you like these teeth? All my own. I fasten myself to your psyche - psyche-lodgment we call it. Most amusing.  

ROLAND: Get out you ugly devil! 

Du is the intimate enemy within, the foreigner who is an essential component of the ‘psyche’, ‘ugly’ and savage partly because unknown and unrecognized. He is a kind of Ghost, a Ghost of the Future, a kind of Tiger or wild animal in the psychoanalytic zoo (hence his ‘teeth’ and grin’ like the Cheshire cat); also, following the war metaphor, a kind of German (‘Du’ being intimate ‘thou’). He is associated with the ‘monstrous embryo’ regarded with disgust and suspicion by its progenitors, and compares his knowledge to that of a foetus. ‘Any foetus could tell you that.’ Roland’s mind is defined as a kind of womb, and the question between him and Du is, how does an idea get out? 

ROLAND: What the hell are you doing here Du?  

DU: I told you it wasn’t hell - held perhaps. 1 can kick my way out of here easily. 

One recalls ‘ideas that hold me whether I like it or not’; this place is ‘held’ not ‘hell’ although it feels like hell - a version of the child’s tent penetrated by the tiger’s roar. The boundaries of container and contained are confused; Roland is uncomfortably held by the idea he holds. Du warns of abortion: 

DU: I’m only an idea of yours; You abort me if you kick. around like this. 

ROLAND: You’ve no right to be kicking around if you are only an idea - even an idea in the mind of God. Metaphors have no right to behave as if they were facts. 

DU: Words, words; words have no right to be definatory caskets preventing my birth. I have the right to exist without depending on a thinker thinking all day and night. Come inside.  

ROLAND: No thank you said the fly to the spider.  

DU: Said the fetus to the father - if I may use metaphors borrowed from the world for the living. An idea has as much right to blush unseen as any blush. (M. II, 51-3) 

Roland is fearful of ‘going inside’ in case he is trapped, like the fly by the spider, the tiger at Gwalior, or the boy in the tent. Yet all is reciprocal and ambiguous - who is inside whom? Who is eating, absorbing, hunting whom? The boundaries are confusing, as with Psyche and Soma. Roland tries to create artificial or commonsense boundaries through imposing the rules of language (like the boy dreaming of Tiger Tiger): ‘You aren’t a fact… Metaphors have no right to behave as if they were facts.’ But a new definition of ‘fact’ is required to accommodate Du’s existence, which, he insists, is real and inevitable whether the thinker can use ‘words’ to describe him or not. Du objects to the misuse of words as a false tank-like shell preventing the release of meaning! ‘Words have no right to be definatory caskets preventing my birth.’ 

The dream-dialogue between Roland and Du thus bring us back to the Memoir’s key concern with the relation between experience and aesthetic form: the problem of using words, not as a protection against knowledge, hut artistically, as containers capable of trapping a ‘roughness’ beyond their smooth grammatical form, like the sculpture trapping light through and beyond its tangible sensuous form- The light, ‘0’, the truth, knowledge itself, cannot be possessed or represented in any direct or paraphrase able way; its existence within the experience of man depends upon a complex alliance of identification and aesthetic capacity. At times of catastrophic upheaval, the over-rigid ‘scientific’ definitions of ‘fact’ are liable to explode like the tank with its illusorily protective exoskeletun. Instead, the elastic boundaries of artistic form are necessary to accommodate new loads of meaning and the birth of ideas without breakdown. Man’s relation with unapproachable ‘O’ is like that with the Tiger - an ambiguous symbol both progressive and retrogressive, whose meaning depends upon its use and upon the activity of ‘hunting’ one’s self. Bion warns against, or makes one aware of, the type of automatic or omnipotent mental operation which might commonly be considered ‘thinking’ but which is really more an explaining-away, an evasion or barrier against experience; knowing ‘about’ instead of knowing. Instead, in these last books, he tries to dramatize the very process of thinking itself - the type of thinking which, however imperfectly, ‘shapes the thinker’, and whose reality is seen rather in the changing shape of a mind than in any theory, message or summary of experience.

 

REFERENCES

(The abbreviations following each entry

give the mode of referencing in the text.)

 

W. R. Bion, A Memoir of the Future (Book One). The Dream, Rio de Janeiro, Imago Editora. 1975 (M. I)

W. R. Bion, A Memoir of the Future (Book Two), The Past Presented, Rio de Janeiro, Imago Editora. 1977 (M II)

W. R. Bion, A Memoir of the Future (Book Three), The Dawn of Oblivion. Perthshire, Clunie Press, 1979 (M. III)

W. R. Bion, The Long Week-End. Abingdon, Fleetwood Press. 1982 (LWE) 

First published in Free Associations: Psychoanalysis, Groups, Politics, Culture No.1, pp. 33-56,1985. 

Copyright: Process Press Ltd.  


The Human Nature Review
© Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

US -
 Search:
Keywords:  

Amazon.com logo

UK -
 Search:
Keywords:  

Amazon.co.uk logo

 | Human Nature | Books and Reviews | The Human Nature Daily Review | Search |