The Freud Museum

Events Archive

10 May 1997

Bion Centenary Conference

Conference Report

Wilfred Bion is one of the truly great thinkers in the history of psychoanalysis. Many of his ideas have entered the mainstream of psychotherapy, and we were delighted that his daughter, the psychoanalyst Parthenope Bion-Talamo, agreed to open the conference. We were doubly pleased that she decided to call her talk 'Bion: A Freudian innovator'. Beginning with an amusing aside -'People often ask me 'Did he read Zen Buddhism?, but they never ask 'Did he read Freud?'' - Parthenope embarked on an exposition of some of the major elements of Bion's work. She showed the numerous links with Freudian concepts and the transformations he effected in them based on his own experience. Bion's was a dynamic theory and he regarded concepts as tools and not dogmas.

Donald Meltzer's paper 'The evolution of object relations' was a masterly performance in the true sense of the phrase. In trying to describe the idea of a 'nebulous object' - when most of us think of an object as discrete and bounded - he delivered his talk with gaps and ellipses, pauses and moments of reverie, evoking a sense of connection between the idea of an 'object' and the actual mechanics of communication. Along the way he paid tribute to Bion's genius and his remarkable ability for 'savage' self criticism.

If Meltzer focused his attention on the internal object, David Taylor elucidated the relationship. In his talk after lunch 'Learning and some of its problems', he showed how Bion created in a sense a new theory of knowledge as a way of dealing with the mind/body problem which has bedevilled Western thought for hundreds of years. This has crucial implications for analytic practice, where interpretations by the analyst may correspond to relationships to parental figures, or to activities like feeding, giving, withholding and so on. He emphasised that in any psychoanalytic theory of knowledge, the Oedipus complex will be central - as it was for Bion.

David Bell's paper also contained a theory of knowledge. But in his case he was concerned to delineate 'the capacity to believe' in the first place. Tracing a lineage from Freud's papers on psychosis, he showed how in normal mental functioning a distinction between the internal and external world comes about, and the consequences of the failure of this capacity in schizophrenia. The result is what Bion described as -K; a world of negativism and desolation, without belief, in which all links between objects are destroyed. David argued that the delusions of the schizophrenic, in an attempt to recreate a world of meaning, nevertheless retain an imprint of this psychical catastrophe.

The day ended with some lively exchanges which were expertly refereed by Robin Anderson, who not only chaired the meeting with some aplomb, but gave a moving personal tribute to Wilfred Bion to start the day. We would also like to thank Jean Arundale, editor of the British Journal of Psychotherapy, who first proposed the idea of a Bion Centenary conference for this year's joint event. Papers from the conference have been published in the Journal (Autumn 1997).

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