Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Bionians, at Play in the Fields of Their Lord

 Here are three short excerpts from a single, randomly chosen spot (pages 4 to 5) in a fairly recent book of Bionian psychoanalysis called Ghosts in the Consulting Room: Echoes of Trauma in Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2016). By "Bionian," I mean deeply influenced by the work of analyst Wilfred Bion (1897-1979). Quotations from the book are in red here, with yellow highlight on the errors therein.

Harris (2013) wrote about Bion’s well-known ideas about death in life in the context of his advice to analysts to work without memory or desire: 'This is Bion’s famous instruction to the analyst: work in the present moment, without reference to history and desire.' (Bion, 1967, p. 612)

This is wrong. The phrase Bion used was "without memory and desire." He was drawing upon T.S. Eliot, who was drawing upon Chaucer, who was drawing upon Lucretius (as usual with Bion, he gave no attribution to those sources). 

But let us introduce another Bion quote to add to the complexity of Bion’s relationship to temporality. To wit: 'I died on August 7th, 1917, on the Amiens-Roye Road. (Bion 1982, p. 265.)' 

No. The date Bion specified was August 8th, 1918, not August 7th, 1917.

James Grotstein, Bion’s analysand, thinks that Bion remained stymied, stuck, hopelessly lost in the wake of the death of that beloved friend in 1917. Grotstein ends his discussion of Bion’s memoir with this comment: 'Someone once said that Bion was “miles behind his face.” I take this to mean that he was withdrawn, lonely, and unreached.' (Grotstein, 1998, p. 613)

Also wrong, in at least three ways. First, James Grotstein adulated Bion for 35 years, praising him in hyperbolic, fawning language in publication after publication, as part of a successful effort to build a kind of cult around the man he idealized. He never called Bion "stymied, stuck, hopelessly lost," and that view does not fit at all with the myriad assessments Grotstein did make of his hero. 

Second, the soldier who died horribly in the foxhole he shared with Bion on August 8th, 1918 was a private whom Bion pseudonymously calls "Sweeting," apparently taking the name from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night ("Trip no further, pretty sweeting"). This hapless soldier was by no means a "beloved friend" of Bion; at any rate, there is no evidence of this in the memoir or elsewhere, and the text seems to suggest they hardly knew each other. This supposed close friendship is a bizarre invention.

And third, as mentioned, the year was 1918, not 1917.

The point of my fault-finding is not to cast aspersions on the work of distant colleagues, whom I'm not even naming here because I'm reluctant to dent anyone's afternoon. Nor is it to impugn the editorial rigor of the publisher. The point is to illustrate, one more time, the anti-scholarly textual practice of the Bionian subculture. Those who toil in the Bionian field consistently present a markedly low standard of accuracy in their productions and, oddly enough, this trait is itself a legacy of Dr. Grotstein (1925-2015). Afraid of competing with the Master, Grotstein neutered himself in several ways; the major form this took was the obsessive praise of Bion that drives, and suffuses, Grotstein's work. Somewhat less obviously, Grotstein also inflicted upon himself a mental block against accurate quotation of anyone except Bion. Check any literary quotation in his entire oeuvre, and you will find it contains at least one error. Getting things wrong is simply part of the Bionian style. For a while I thought this was due to a repressed contempt for poetry, an alien resource they tend to deploy as a kind of credibility-enhancing decoration. But in some cases, it seems, the habit of misquotation and making-things-up affects even their presentation of the Master himself. Live and learn.