Leigh Tobias, PhD, FIPA, is a Training and Supervising Analyst and member of the Infant Observation Faculty at the Psychoanalytic Center of California. She is currently President of the PCC. She also serves as an on-site supervisor and faculty member for the Wright Institute, Los Angeles. She is Past President of The Confederation of Independent Psychoanalytic Institutes (CIPS). She is Secretary of the North American Psychoanalytic Confederation (NAPsaC). Dr. Tobias maintains a full-time private practice with adults and couples in Beverly Hills, CA.
Joseph Aguayo, PhD, is a Training and Supervising Analyst at the PCC. Co-editor with Barnet Malin, MD of: Wilfred Bion: Los Angeles Seminars and Supervision, (Karnac, 2013) Dr Aguayo also led a CIPS seminar on Clinical Bion last year. He participated last summer in a panel presentation on aspects of Bion’s work in his late, California period at the IPA Congress in Prague (Tobias, IJPA, 2013). He will publish his invited lecture on Bion’s work on memory and desire, presented recently at both the British Psychoanalytical Society in London and the Societat Espanyola de Psychoanalisi in Barcelona (Aguayo, IJPA, in press). He will also present at the International Bion Conference in Los Angeles in October 23rd and 25th as well at the IPTAR Bion Conference in New York on November 21st and 22nd. He is now also a guest member of the British Psychoanalytic Society.
This piece reviews Aguayo’s work on Bion’s clinical thought with these various analytic audiences.
LT: You found different audiences for your work on Bion in these recent lectures—can you share some of your thoughts about your experiences?
JA: Yes, speaking broadly, Bion’s work is generally more well-known and accepted in Europe and South America than it is here in the United States. (There are obvious exceptions, such as Los Angeles, where some of Bion’s analysands, such as Jim Grotstein, James Gooch and Michael Paul live and publish on his work). Yet this scene in America is also changing. With the imminent publication of Chris Mawson’s edition of Bion’s Collected Works, I think we will see a steady increase in conferences here in the United States on Bion clinical studies. Think about it: Wilfred Bion is the only recent analyst who has entire conferences, such as the bi-annual International Bion Conference, (which this time around is being held in Los Angeles) dedicated to elaborating on ideas he bequeathed to psychoanalysis. At my home institute, the Psychoanalytic Center of California, our 4 Annual Bion Conferences have been subscribed to capacity. So yes, there is a burgeoning wave of Bion conferences, one that is just beginning to crest in the States.
As to the European reception of current Bion studies, it differs from institute to institute. Since Bion of course was a long standing member of the British Society, his work is well known there—and analysts are likely to take a particularly discriminating view of which Bion they favor most—and least. Until recently, I would say that the Bion up through the memory and desire paper of 1967 was the one most favored by London analysts, but even that position has given way a bit more recently. On the balance, British analysts think it desirable to be balanced and nuanced about which aspect of Bion’s work should be admired—and which aspect should be critically questioned. On the other hand, it was very moving to see that in Barcelona, there exists a Bion seminar that is a reading group that has discussed his works on a weekly basis for over 10 years. I think we may see more phenomena like this in the United States in the coming years—i.e. more critical and balanced studies of Bion’s clinical thought that are taken up in on-going study seminars.
LT: You’re saying this reminds me of a related question. I think it is true that many American analysts relatively unfamiliar with Bion’s work find it rather daunting to take on the study and reading of material that most of us would agree is dense and often rather difficult to read let alone understand. How have you tried to meet the challenge of respecting the complexity of Bion’s thought while trying to make his ideas accessible?
JA: Well, this is a big part of this current exploration. In one fundamental way, I think that the boon of Bion’s Los Angeles Seminars is that at the crucial point in 1967, he finally began to make his work on analytic technique transparently known. Bion’s challenge then was to make his ideas on near-psychotic and psychotic states of mind clear enough to a group of American-trained Freudian analysts who were by and large unfamiliar with Klein’s ideas, let alone those of Bion, who was rightfully her theoretical successor. In Los Angeles, Bion deftly handled this problem by speaking in rather plain and direct English, using copious clinical examples with his colleagues there. Of course, by presenting his work on the analyst’s abandonment of memory and desire as a fundamental stance to be taken by the analyst, he created quite a stir and controversy. I think this kind of turbulent reception was to his liking—and along with the otherwise favorable reception he received in Los Angeles, he then decided to relocate and practice there in 1968. I find Bion’s clinical and conceptual clarity in those LA Seminars quite moving, as he was attempting to reach an audience of listeners that soon became his colleagues.
Los Angeles in 1968 was also a cultural hot-bed for controversial ideas—and as Douglas Kirsner has pointed out in his book (Unfree Associations) on the history of American analytic institutes, Los Angeles was viewed back then as a sort of strange outpost, particularly by the American ego psychology establishment back East. Where else but Los Angeles could Kleinian ideas have taken root at that time? I think this atmosphere fit Bion’s programmatic agenda rather well; he had grown tired of what his wife termed their ‘cozy domesticity in England.’ His work was so lauded in London that as he said, he had been ‘loaded up with honors and sunk without a trace.’ It is hard to imagine how Bion accomplished so much noteworthy published work during the 1960s while he was burdened with so much committee work and time-consuming administrative posts in London, such as being head of the Melanie Klein Trust as well as President of the British Society from 1962 to 1965. Restless and creatively ‘hedged in’ in London, he sought new challenges and he found them in Los Angeles. When he published his first paper there in 1967, ‘Notes on Memory and Desire,’ it received both extremely critical/skeptical as well as laudatory reviews. This sort of experiential turbulence fit the bill, so Bion then embarked on what turned on to be a 12 year California adventure. Los Angeles also allowed him the time to pursue his analytic passion for writing—and so he did while steering clear of committee work.
But in terms of Bion’s Los Angeles Seminars, which we are so fortunate to have, (thanks to Barnet’s father, Arthur Malin who had the foresight to record them) we can both read and listen to Bion’s work, and we see that there was a high-level of exchange and questioning at the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Institute back in 1967. It is especially riveting to listen to Ralph Greenson, one of Anna Freud’s leading advocates in the United States, engage in a spirited and critical inquiry with Bion. Think of it: since American psychoanalysis back then was mainly a matter of medical men trained in psychiatry, there was a lot of interest in psychotic patients, ones that had been deemed beyond the analytic pale by Freud himself. Yet there was a practical issue as well: what were analysts to do with near-psychotic and psychotic patients besides put them in psychiatric hospitals? Bion’s work sought to shed light on what was extremely controversial back then, namely the Kleinian proposition that such states of mind were psychoanalytically treatable on an out-patient basis.
It was only later that this beginning dialogue between London Kleinians and Los Angeles Freudians deteriorated into camps and turf wars in Los Angeles. I feel fairly sure that the animosity that subsequently developed is in part a function of how much attention Bion and subsequent British Kleinian émigrés, such as Albert Mason and Susana Issacs garnered, particularly amongst younger candidates and members. The ‘Time of Troubles’ as it is called in the 1970s was a result of conflicting claims marshalled by rather charismatic personalities. But before it became a turf war, Bion’s work, which emphasized understanding and broadening the scope of patients that could be seen by analysts, stands as exemplary, as he did not emphasize his work as being the representation of some superior conceptual model. So long story short: it was not a war in Los Angeles from the start. Bion came into an American Freudian theoretical milieu from a London Kleinian one; and he welcomed the opportunity to explore and publish his ideas, taking up cutting edge ideas in the last phase of his very creative psychoanalytic career. His ‘language’ was new here and along with him came Mason and Issacs, all of which signaled an American cultural assimilation (and eventual clash) with Kleinian ideas. This of course received great impetus from the work of other American analysts, most notably James Grotstein, who almost from the outset, became an enthusiastic proponent of Bion’s rather radical ideas.
It is also interesting to note Bion’s age when he moved here; he was 70. As an historian, I think, what makes it possible for such an established analyst to pull up stakes, and move their family and practice to a new city with a very different cultural climate? I can only offer the beginnings of an answer to this very interesting question. It could have been financial, it could have been feeling ‘saturated with honors’ so that he felt he could not sense that his work was actually being engaged with in London; it could have been the cultural ferment of ideas that the West Coast seemed to represent at the time. That is an on-going part of Los Angeles as a site of reception for Bion’s work, and into this ferment he arrived. There was something also in the way the L.A. analytic community responded to him—for good and for ill. Yes, his work was received here, but he also could not avoid being idealized and lauded by some as a sort of analytic ‘guru’ or ‘genius.’ I think that this latter experience of ‘gurufication’ has obscured somewhat the understanding of Bion’s work in a balanced and nuanced way.
All in all, these types of disjunctions are a fascinating topic to explore. There are other factors in Bion’s reception as well. Americans historically do not take well to being ‘colonized,’ especially by people with British accents! So I think there was this additional tension—Bion was rather welcomed as a visiting lecturer, but the matter changed when he decided to live and work in Los Angeles. Many analysts felt his ideas were intriguing, but too different from what they knew or felt comfortable with. They tended to hold their theoretical Freudian ground, especially when younger candidates and members began seeking out Kleinian analysis and supervision. It all wound up taking on a rather war-like, right and wrong atmosphere—and intelligent and informed debate fell by the wayside.
LT: It seems to promote the idea we need more critical studies of Bion, especially here in the United States.
JA: Yes, I agree with you. It has been amazing to participate in the uncovering of new Bion materials, such as those that were only available on audio-recordings until recently. While I have published another recording of Bion’s 1975 lecture on the ‘Caesura,’ (Howard Levine and Larry Brown, eds., Growth and Turbulence in the Container/Contained, 2013) there are still new materials to harvest. I am particularly excited about the upcoming clinical Bion lecture that I will give at IPTAR in late November because now that we have another clinical seminar that Bion gave in Los Angeles in 1967, it can be compared with the invited lectures Bion gave at IPTAR in 1977. What would a comparison of these two sets of lectures tell us about the evolving nature of Bion’s clinical ideas in his ‘late’ period? Did his ideas evolve over this time or is it, as some have thought, a de-evolution, when Bion descended into what some consider a meandering, excessively free-associational style of thinking and discourse? Also of tremendous interest, what were the circumstances by which Bion was invited to lecture at IPTAR? In this respect, I think we are fortunate to have some eye-witness accounts, reminiscences by New York analysts, such as Bennett Roth and Bill Fried, who were both present at the IPTAR lectures, but also went along to have some supervisory work with Bion himself. I think it very important to archive these experiences, so we have another sense of how Bion’s work was received here in the United States.
The long and the short of it: I think Bion clinical studies are beginning to crest here in the United States.