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The Clinical Thinking of Wilfred Bion

by Joan and Neville Symington

London & New York: Routledge.

Pb Pp. xvi+198. £15.99

Reviewed by Robert M Young

Amazon US | UK

I have been teaching Bion to psychotherapy trainees and students in Psychoanalytic Studies for many years. I have also published earlier writings by both Joan and Neville Symington which I regard as excellent. I therefore took on the job of reviewing this book with a real anticipation of benefiting from their thinking about Bion. However, as I began to read it I quickly became bewildered and uncomfortable.

Bion’s work is not easy of access. One often feels after reading and re-reading an essay or book of his that one simply could not tell someone else what it said, while at the same time feeling that one has taken in something important. There is a feeling of being inward with and changed by something profound which one cannot articulate. There aren’t many expositions of Bion’s work, but there are a few, and only one of them, Gérard Bléandonu’s Wilfred Bion: His Life and Works 1897-1979, is mentioned by the Symingtons; they see it as complementary to their book. I found this odd, since with such an opaque writer one needs all the help one can get. I was particularly surprised that they nowhere draw on R. D. Hinshelwood’s A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought (where, among many examples, there is a fine exposition of how Bion elevated ‘container-contained’ into a whole theory of human nature), Donald Meltzer’s extensive writings on Bion (e.g., The Clinical Significance of the Work of Bion; Studies in Extended Metapsychology: Clinical Applications of Bion’s Ideas. Clunie, 1978, 1986), those of Meg Harris Williams (Free Associations no. 1, 1985) or (particularly since they profess to focus on the clinical) the collection of Clinical Lectures on Klein and Bion, edited by Robin Anderson.

These omissions set for me a keynote of curious bewilderment which I never shook off. They begin with a number of grand, sometimes grandiose, claims about Bion,           

Psychoanalysis seen through Bion’s eyes is a radical departure from all conceptualizations which preceded him. We have not the slightest hesitation in saying that he is the deepest thinker within psychoanalysis — and this statement does not exclude Freud. If the reader registers no shock if she is not flabbergasted to realize that all that she has understood is now in the balance, if she does not gasp in horror to realize that she has to start all over again, then we have failed dismally in our task and the book will have been a failure (p. xii). 

So ends the Preface. My reaction to this is to feel that I am required to be complicit with an idealization of Bion which instructs me to see him as sui generis, not (as I do see him) as a remarkable, great, profound clinician and theoretician. That will not do: no gasp of horror, no good. In the service of these claims, we are asked to grant that Bion sees no causal connection between sexual drives and symptoms (p. 3), that we have to ’ditch the pleasure principle’ (p. 6), that ‘the individual’s need for self-understanding has no place in Freud’s conceptualization’ (p.8). And that takes us only to page 8. On page 10 we get a very eccentric definition of religion: ’a model of the human being as a creature of intentionality that transcends immediate physical needs’. Well, I don’t think many enlightened atheists, humanists and psychologists would take exception to that concept of humanity, but I doubt very much that they would call it religious. This theme in the book has aroused sardonic comment in the pages of The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis (79: 417-20, 1998).

Lessons learned from the academic discipline of the history of ideas make it implausible for anyone to be as original as the Symingtons say Bion is: all ideas grow from and within traditions of thought. The philosophy of science teaches us that making no assumptions can’t be done, either. Bion is surely original enough without having to break with the past as decisively as they claim he has done. In asserting their case (for they do not really argue it), they crudely and unnecessarily caricature and belittle Freud and Klein. I think it would have been enough to place Bion in the object relations tradition; that would encompass the decisive break with the libido theory and instinctual reductionism.

We are given a charming account of Bion’s character and biography, but it would have benefited considerably from drawing on some of the writings by his military and clinical colleagues in Bion and Group Psychotherapy.  In the matter of his biography, as well as throughout the book, the Symingtons disarmingly tell us that they have ’neither the time nor the ability’ for scholarship, but this is surely no excuse for not doing one’s homework and reading and citing the relevant literature on their chosen subject. I call the failure to do so a culpable primitivism.

The heart of the book is an exposition of ‘the Grid’ a conceptualisation of Bion’s which he presented as a paper in 1963 (‘The Grid’, in Taming Wild Thoughts. Karnac, 1997, pp. 6-21) and published in book form in Second Thoughts in 1967 but which he did not continue to develop systematically in his later writings. I am grateful for this exposition, since the framework of concepts it contains is not easy to grasp or to work with. However, I have to say that I think that most students of Bion would not agree that the grid lies at the heart of his mature thinking and would (and have done in their comments to me about this book) find it eccentric for the Symingtons to make the claim that ’The scheme around which his mature thinking is symbolized and structured is the Grid’ (p. xiii). Maybe so, but, as I say, that’s not my opinion or that of many who know their Bion. I agree with them that the Grid is ’a way of looking at how thinking processes can develop and the mental moves which oppose this development’ (p. 44) and that many of his basic concepts find a place in it, but I also think that he did (and we can) use these concepts independently of the arcane study of the Grid which in some hands is treated with reverence which is reminiscent of something between Masonic rituals and phrenological lists of faculties. Indeed, although the authors stress that their approach is clinical, as one analyst who esteems the Symingtons put it to me, where in the realities of present-day clinical practice is there time after a session to review it in terms of the eight rows and six (or n...) columns, generating 43 or n... boxes, of the Grid?

There is also the odd fact that the Symingtons do not reveal to the reader what Bion himself later said about the Grid — so odd that I did some research on this matter. The following exchange took place in New York in 1977: 

Observation: You have not talked about the Grid. 

Bion: As soon as I had got the Grid out of my system I could see how inadequate it is. [He later added: He put in his thumb and pulled out a plumb, and said, ‘What a good boy am I!’” But the satisfaction does not last for long. As a pictorial model I suggest the boy sucking his thumb, pulling it out of his mouth to examine it with admiration, but in time becoming dissatisfied. What I experience is that ‘theme with variations’.] 

Question: Is it not workable? 

Bion {Added later: It is for you to decide whether it is any use to you. If it is not, do not waste time on it. The same applies to any future Grid that I might formulate.] 

Question: Is it hard? 

Bion: Not for me — only a waste of time because it doesn’t really correspond with the facts I am likely to meet (Bion in New York and Sao Paulo. Clunie Press, 1980, p. 56). 

I add to this that Paulo Cesar Sandler, a Brazilian analyst, wrote to the Bion email forum in 1997, as follows: 

When Bion was among us Brazilians, back in the seventies, he was repeatedly asked about the Grid. He remarked... something like this: “Forget it. I already forgot it. I made it many years ago. It serves for nothing.” He would say this again in his New York conference [quoted above]. 

When, in the context of writing this review, I asked on the Bion forum on the internet if he had abandoned the Grid, his daughter, Nicola replied, 

Extract from the seminar transcript published in a recent issue of the Journal of Melanie Klein and Object Relations (Spring 1999):  

'the Grid is a very bad and inferior instrument. It's the best I can do, but it's a bad one . . . it's like a ruler; a ruler is not a theory, but it is made of a theory. It's an instrument and you may or may not be able to use the instrument to measure, say, inches, or millimeters, or meters by it, for what that's worth, or it might be a watch that you can use to mark the passage of time - assuming that there is such a thing.'  

I have memories of him talking about it in a rather disgruntled way (that was probably in the early 70s), but I think that to say that he abandoned it would be putting it too strongly: he was never very satisfied with it, but found it illuminating to develop and think about - it then was simply absorbed as part of the evolution of his thinking. If my mother has any further views about this I will pass them on.  

Nicola Bion  

She later added. ’My mother says that all the information she has about Bion's attitude towards the Grid is in her introduction to his paper on the subject in Taming Wild Thoughts (Karnac, 1997)’,

where Francesca Bion wrote, inter alia, 

He produced plenty of evidence to highlight the deficiencies of the Grid: “I can say that an early casualty in trying to use the Grid is the Grid itself.” But he goes on, “Nevertheless, its use has made it easier for me to preserve a critical and yet informative, illuminating attitude to my work (Bion, Two Papers: The Grid and Caesura (1977). Karnac, 1989, p. 6). In 1974, in Rio de Janeiro, he said, “The Grid is a feeble attempt to produce an instrument.... I think it is good enough to know how bad it is, how unsuitable for the task for which I have made it’ (Bion, Brazilian Lectures (1974/75). Karnac, 1990). 

Of course, the Symingtons have a perfect right to argue that Bion was making a wrong judgement in dismissing the Grid. (Indeed, others have carried the idea further, and Paulo Sandler has taken it into other spatial dimensions: sandler@uol.com.br) They also have a right to provide a detailed, lengthy and helpful exposition of it. Even so, I think that they should have told us about Bion’s retrospective view of this idea. Not to have done so is misleading in that it fails to share with us Bion’s own mature evaluation of the concept, one with which I, among many others, agree.

I think that concentrating on the Grid occurs at the expense of devoting more attention to Bion’s later, longer and more novelistic and impenetrable writings, e.g., A Memoir of the Future and Cogitations. I also think that his work on groups, though it commands more space in the book than the later writings, is insufficiently explored. It is here that Bion tells us very clearly what is new and important in his thinking. He is calling for a whole new level of understanding, which builds on Freud’s work and takes it further in alliance with and influenced by Klein: 'Freud's view of the dynamics of the group seems to me to require supplementing rather than correction' (Bion, ’Group Dynamics — A Re-view’, in Klein et. al., eds. New Directions in Psycho-Analysis, 1955, p. 475). He accepts Freud's claim that the family group is the basis for all groups but adds that 

this view does not go far enough... I think that the central position in group dynamics is occupied by the more primitive mechanisms which Melanie Klein has described as peculiar to the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions. In other words, I feel... that it is not simply a matter of the incompleteness of the illumination provided by Freud's discovery of the family group as the prototype of all groups, but the fact that this incompleteness leaves out the source of the main emotional drives of the group (ibid.). 

Further investigation shows that each basic assumption contains features that correspond so closely with extremely primitive part objects that sooner or later psychotic anxiety, appertaining to these primitive relationships, is released. These anxieties, and the mechanisms peculiar to them, have already been displayed in psychoanalysis by Melanie Klein, and her descriptions tally well with the emotional states 

of the basic assumption group. Such groups have aims 

far different either from the overt task of the group or even from the tasks that would appear to be appropriate to Freud's view of the group as based on the family group. But approached from the angle of psychotic anxiety, associated with phantasies of primitive part object relationships... the basic assumption phenomena appear far more to have the characteristics of defensive reactions to psychotic anxiety, and to be not so much at variance with Freud's views as supplementary to them. In my view, it is necessary to work through both the stresses that appertain to family patterns and the still more primitive anxieties of part object relationships. In fact I consider the latter to contain the ultimate sources of all group behaviour (p. 476).  

In Bion's view, then, what matters in individual and group behaviour is more primitive than the Freudian level of explanation. The ultimate sources of our distress are psychotic anxieties, and much of what happens in individuals and groups is a result of defences erected against psychotic anxieties, so that we do not have to endure them consciously. Bion says of the group, 

My impression is that the group approximates too closely, in the minds of the individuals composing it, to very primitive phantasies about the contents of the mother's body. The attempt to make a rational investigation of the dynamics of the group is therefore perturbed by fears, and mechanisms for dealing with them, which are characteristic of the paranoid-schizoid position. The investigation cannot be carried out without the stimulation and activation of those levels... the elements of the emotional situation are so closely allied to phantasies of the earliest anxieties that the group is compelled, whenever the pressure of anxiety becomes too great, to take defensive action (Bion, 1955, p. 456). 

I think that gives us a good picture of his relations with Freud and Klein — originality within a tradition. I do not understand why the Symingtons have such a need to startle and create false dichotomies. When they do turn to historical accounts, there accounts are — to say the least — sketchy (e.g., pp. 74 sqq.).

Bion takes us to a new and deeper level of understanding of the human mind in the individual, groups and institutions, draws on primitive, psychotic processes to illuminate normal and neurotic functioning and shows us the ubiquity of psychotic processes. The Symingtons account of Bion, for all its grandiose and eccentric readings and emphases, does help to illuminate his writings, but I cannot summarise their expositions here. About half of the book is not about the Grid, and I found their accounts of Bion’s concepts moderately helpful, while their own clinical vignettes are particularly helpful.

There are those who say that no one should try to make Bion accessible — that only working one’s way through them can lead to enlightenment. I am not among them, though I do believe that there is no substitute for reading and pondering his works, hard as that process is. I wish they had written a more modest book, one befitting the modesty they attribute to him. The book they have written looks suspiciously like a foundation stone for a religious rendering of psychoanalysis, one which subsequent writings and appearances of Neville (though, as far as I know, not Joan) Symington, lead me to be concerned about. For example, a flyer for a conference at the Tavistock Clinic in September 1999, says, in part, 

Neville Symington believes that only through a religious philosophy can a person achieve a fruitful, creative life... He has developed a new theory of sanity and madness based upon a religions philosophy of personal life and freedom. 

Don’t get me wrong; I do not deplore religion. In fact, I miss it in my own life, though I cannot see my way to adopting one. On the other hand, I take grave exception to the phrase ‘only through a religious philosophy...’ I mention these more recent claims by Neville Symington, because I feel that the evangelical and pontifical elements of this book on Bion are illuminated by his recently declared views on religion, and I am consequently led to conclude that The Clinical Thinking of Wilfred Bion is, in large measure, a very particular, idiosyncratic and controversial rendering of Bion’s thinking.

 To appear in Psychodynamic Counselling

 Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ
robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


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