Investigating Bion’s aesthetic turn: A Memoir of the Future and the 1970s MATT FFYTCHE
Research into Bion’s work of the mid-1970s, and in particular the trilogy of ‘postmodern’ novels collected as A Memoir of the Future (1991) – The Dream (1975); The Past Presented (1977); The Dawn of Oblivion (1979) – is the least developed area of Bion scholarship. The relative neglect of this period in the psychoanalytic journals, taken in conjunction with his stepping down from the presidency of the British Psychoanalytical Society in 1965 and his departure for Los Angeles in 1968, has helped create the perception that the later 1960s and 1970s constitute a major break with the epistemological phase of Bion’s work and with the British psychoanalytic establishment – a mental transition to a new and foreign territory (see, for instance, the criticisms raised in O’Shaughnessy, 2005). Advocates of the late work, such as Grotstein (2007) and Harris Williams (2010a), have in their own way conﬁrmed this assumption by locating it as a ‘turn’ towards the aesthetic – implying, variously, a greater degree of interest in poetry, creativity, dream or mysticism. This poses some interesting questions in terms of sources. It can lead naturally to the assumption that Bion was reading new authors and discovering new ideas which were inﬂecting the epistemological work of the 1960s in an entirely new direction. Various inﬂuences have been proposed in passing, including the impact of the Californian environment and the spirit of 1970s counter-culture; the long-term inﬂuence of Bion’s 1930s analysis of Samuel Beckett (Connor 1998); the encouragement of another analysand, Roland Harris (Harris Williams 2010a, p. 28); and another long-range inﬂuence, C.J. Jung, whose work Bion had encountered at the Tavistock lectures in 1935. Moreover the aesthetic element in Bion’s work can be conceived in various ways: as a shift from the conceptual to the sensuous; as an exploration of aesthetic pattern (Harris Williams 2010a, p. xi); as a ‘poetic’ model of the unconscious (Reiner 2008; Harris Williams 2010b); as a turn towards autobiography; or as a greater concern with myth and mystical experience (Grotstein 2007; Symington and Symington 1996). For the purpose of this brief review of sources, I want to begin by reframing this debate in simpler terms, which is a question of whether we are witnessing the modelling of a new determining principle within Bion’s
approach to psychoanalysis (for instance, a ‘poetic’ or ‘aesthetic’ model displacing the previous epistemological work) or whether the major transition is one of expression or presentation – the use of an aesthetic form. It may be that ultimately these factors cannot be so easily separated, but in the ﬁrst instance I want to make the case that nearly all the key theoretical ideas expressed in works such as Memoir are either extensions, or sometimes close repetitions, of propositions or tendencies put forward already in the work of the 1960s; what changes more radically is the mode of expression. I am therefore going to proceed by examining ﬁrst the ideas that might have led to shifts in Bion’s epistemological approach, and will then consider the inﬂuences on Bion’s style of writing as a separate question. I will end with a brief consideration of ‘dreaming’ in the work of the 1970s.