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Review of "Building on Bion"

By Robert M. Lipgar and Malcolm Pines (editors)
Jessica Kingsley, 2003
Review by Dan L. Rose, Psy.D. on Nov 7th 2003
Building on Bion

Wilfred Bion could be seen as the perfect, if reluctant, symbol for the best in contemporary psychoanalytic thought. He shows respect for his past (both Freud and Melanie Klein get respectful nods in his theorizing), yet he is strikingly modern and original. There is none of the enslavement to doctrine that ruins so much psychoanalytic writing in Bion's work. In fact, Bion's borrowings from mathematics, philosophy and mysticism court heresy in the most satisfying way. The full breadth of Bion's vision and conceptual reach is evident in the collection of essays focusing on his early writings found in Building on Bion.

            The book begins with a wonderful introduction by James Grotstien, a theorist whose grasp of Bion is enriched by his own formidable ideas. He sets the stage for what's to follow, touching on Bion's groundbreaking work with groups, his formalizing of psychotic experience and several key concepts, like Bion's elaboration on the concept of projective identification. Grotstien's prose is remarkable. He conveys ideas about the most complex internal states with a clarity and reach that is unparalleled, even by Bion himself.

             The book 's first of two sections is a collection of papers focusing primarily on Bion's exploration of group dynamics and formative experiences in Bion's life relevant to the development of his theories. Robert Lipgar begins the section by delving into Bion's researches on groups, using Bion's own words to guide the reader into an appreciation of the richness of Bion sketches and outlines on group theory. Lipgar calls this a "rediscovery," showing that a thinker such as Bion leaves layers of meaning to be discovered in each reading and rereading of his work. Another paper in this section devoted to Bion's ideas on groups is by Matias Sanfeuntes and focuses on the development of Bion's notions on group dynamics. Sanfeuntes uses the revisions added by Bion to a key paper on group dynamics to chart this progress. Nuno Torres ads a third paper exploring Bion's group theory by comparing and contrasting Bion with the work of an earlier theorist, Wilfred Trotter.

            The remaining chapters in this section are varied in scope. Paulo Cesar Sandler shows how the autobiographical sketches in Bion's war memoirs show the development of key concepts and, most remarkably, how Bion was able to mine his own experiences for fuel in understanding the complexities of the human condition. Finally, Claudio Neri shows through thumbnail sketches and terse commentary or example how several of the concepts Bion introduced that thrive today in Neri's native Italy were defined and developed.

            The final section is a series of papers showing how Bion's ideas are flourishing in the present, particularly through comparing Bion with contemporary theorists or the extension of bionic concepts by the authors. Two papers use the work of the group theorist Foulkes to further bionion ideas. Dennis Brown sets up no less a task than an integration of Bion and Foulkes to create a "metasociology," using the works of several recent theorists to fill the gaps. Malcolm Pines aims a bit lower with an exploration of empathy from the point of view of both Bion and Foulkes.

            The remaining papers cover a broader canvas. Robert Hinshelwood's chapter gives a fascinating account of the difficulty of having a "mind." And the various ways Bion illustrates the ways we crave connection with others but at the same time we are disturbed or altered by the minds of others. Earl Hopper returns to Bion's work with groups and explores the vicissitudes of the unconscious as charted by Bion and advanced by current researches. Finally, Victor L. Achermer dives into Bion's notion of "O" (roughly the true essence of a thing that is being experienced, unfiltered and as it is in its awesome complexity) and the very nature of how we come to know a thing.

            This is without a doubt a richly rewarding and ultimately exhausting text. True, there is a bit of overlap, a skirting of the repetitive and the occasional awe of the subject that keeps an original idea or creative dissention from surfacing. Also, not everyone in the text writes with beauty of Grotstein in the introduction. However, these weaknesses are mere quibbles. Bion's ideas are so rich, his thoughts so startling, that to a greater or lesser degree, everyone in this collection is awakened and has insights to share.


© 2003 Dan L. Rose 

Dan L. Rose, Psy.D. is a Clinical Psychologist involved in direct clinical work and training at Columbus State University and in private practice. His interests include psychoanalysis, neuroscience, religion and literature.