Beckett and Bion
This paper was written for the Beckett and London conference which took place at Goldsmiths College, London in 1998.
The ascertainable facts about Beckett’s period of psychoanalysis with Wilfred Bion are, like the prayers of the lukewarm soul, faint and few. Beckett was a young man of 27 who had taken the first steps in his literary career, with the publication of `Whoroscope’, Proust, Echo’s Bones and, shortly after beginning analysis, More Pricks Than Kicks. After his years of promise and freedom at the Ecole Normale, during which time he came to know Joyce and begun to make out a reputation and literary career for himself, Beckett had suffered a series of reverses. The terms of his fellowship required him to return to teach at Trinity College Dublin; Beckett loathed teaching and quickly sank into his characteristic condition of shabby apathy and depression. During the year, his father, who seemed to have been an important counterweight to his domineering, demanding mother, died of a heart attack. It may be that Beckett experienced this as a confirmation of the loss of his second father, Joyce, who had broken angrily with him after Beckett’s abortive affair with Lucia, who was herself sinking more and more inexorably into illness. Beckett underwent something very like a breakdown; he resigned his fellowship at Trinity, and it seemed he would be unable to make a living as long as he was in Ireland. His depression expressed itself in endless unshiftable colds and flu, boils and cysts and panic attacks accompanied by palpitations and sensations of suffocation. He was persuaded by his friend Geoffrey Thompson that his symptoms might be of psychosomatic origin and managed to persuade his mother in turn to let him come to London in late 1933 specifically in order to undertake analysis. Early in 1934 he began therapy at the Tavistock Clinic with Wilfred Bion (Knowlson 1996, 175-81).
Bion was a trainee therapist, who was himself undergoing analysis with J.A. Hadfield, whose work and influence were dominant in the Tavistock at this time. Bion, six years Beckett’s senior, had fought with distinction in the First World War and, after taking a degree in history at Queen’s College, Oxford, had taught for a short time at a minor public school (his own) and subsequently undertaken six years of medical training at University College, London with a view to becoming a psychoanalyst. After qualifying as a doctor in 1930, Bion joined the staff of the Tavistock Clinic in 1932 (Bléandonou 1994) . I take this account from Gérard Bléandonou’s Wilfred Bion: His Life and Works 1897-1979 (1994), which itself relies heavily upon the two volumes of Bion’s (unconcluded) autobiography, The Long Week-End 1897-1919: Part of a Life (1982, repr. 1991) and All My Sins Remembered and The Other Side of Genius (1985).
The analysis was difficult but sustained for nearly two years and seems to have had some benefits. Beckett and Bion were both intractable characters who encountered and provoked considerable resistance in each other; but, though Beckett remained doubtful about and hostile towards psychoanalytic theory and procedure, Bion seems to have had the intelligence and breadth of cultural awareness to gain Beckett’s respect. Late in the analysis, Bion suggested to Beckett that he attend a series of lectures being given at the Tavistock by C.G. Jung. In the lecture, Jung spoke of the mechanisms of splitting and dissociation within neurosis and psychosis and, in response to a question after the lecture, told the story which was to haunt Beckett of a young girl afflicted by premonitions of death who, Jung said, had never properly been born. Deirdre Bair’s account of the analysis (Bair 1979) is reproduced almost unchanged by Bléandonou (1994, 44-5).
Late in 1935, Beckett announced and subsequently carried out his intention of terminating the analysis at the end of the year. He had begun Murphy, his first masterpiece, during analysis; breaking off from analysis seems to have enabled him to complete the novel in the following year. As some have suggested, this is a pattern which is repeated later and in different ways: the breaking off from psychoanalysis produces a complex, non-analytic, but nevertheless reparative response in Beckett’s own writing.
Nevertheless, one cannot help but feel that something more momentous should surely have ensued from this meeting, at a formative time for both of them, of a man who was to become perhaps the most important European writer of the 1950s and 1960s, and a psychoanalyst who was to become one of the most famous and distinctive English psychoanalysts of his generation. Although Bion undoubtedly remembered his analysis of Beckett, he never referred to it directly in his psychoanalytic, creative or autobiographical writing, and Beckett seems rarely to have spoken again of what he may have come to regard as an unproductive and even misguided episode in his life. According to Deirdre Bair, however, he was interested enough in the difference between Kleinian and Freudian psychoanalysis to enquire about it of his nephew in 1960.
It is hard to repress the instincts of biographical curiosity when thinking of Beckett’s experience of psychoanalysis; the temptation to find in the analysis a particular determinate cause for some immediate and contemporary effects in Beckett’s writing is irresistible. We are not wholly without evidence of the effects of the analysis on Beckett during this time, for it recurs in his many letters to Thomas MacGreevy. My suggestion, however, is that, whatever evidence of this kind there is now available, or might be forthcoming, it could contribute only towards, to borrow the title of Bion’s remarkable autobiographical polylogue, A Memoir of the Future; its interest would always be proleptic, its actuality turned towards and hollowed out by the disjoined futures of the two men who were to have no further direct dealings with each other. For the meeting between Beckett and Bion was a coincidence of prospects, as the path of the man who still had it in him to be Samuel Beckett converged with that of the man who had yet to become Wilfred Bion.
Of course, it is also possible to see that future as itself significantly defined by the unsatisfactory and unconcluded experience of the psychoanalysis. This is the line taken both by Bennett Simon (1988), who sees Beckett and Bion as `imaginary twins’, whose meeting in 1934-5 established the terms of a shared `gestalt’, defined by the concern with the possibilities of understanding and communication against the background of psychotic denials of meaning and human communication.
Didier Anzieu, a French psychoanalyst who was himself profoundly influenced by Bion’s pioneering work with the psychodynamics of groups during the War years and after and has written a number of essays on the work of Beckett, argues that Beckett’s most productive period from 1946 onwards was the result of a decisive break from his mother tongue and culture and that Paris provided him with a space of play – a Winnicottian `transitional’ space – of which he had earlier been deprived by the suffocating influence of his mother and cultural context. Anzieu argues that the process of writing the Trilogy both recapitulated and brought to completion the truncated analysis with Bion of 1934-5:
The originality of Beckett’s narrative writing derives from the attempt (unacknowledged and probably unconscious) to transpose into writing the route, rhythm, style, form and movement of a psychoanalytic process in the course of its long series of successive sessions, with all the recoils, repetitions, resistances, denials, breaks and digressions that are the conditions of any progression. (Anzieu 1983, 80; my translation)
In a later essay, Anzieu focussed on Mercier and Camier and How It Is, two works in which he believed Beckett completed the imaginary break from Bion which had been left painfully uncompleted by the actual termination of the analysis. Anzieu too concludes that the analysis of 1934-5 established a secret and continuing rapport between the writer and analyst: `For each of these creators the other seems to have been his secret imaginary twin…the complementary double who constitutes a decisive stage in the creative process’ (Anzieu 1989, 168). Anzieu assumes that Beckett’s analysis was concluded unsatisfactorily and prematurely – though one wonders what a succesful conclusion would have meant for Beckett. Might it perhaps have led to the dousing of Beckett’s gloom in the well-adjusted domesticity evoked in `From An Abandoned Work': `I could be sprawled in the sun now, sucking at my pipe, patting the bottoms of the third generation, wondering what there was for dinner.’ Remarkably, Anzieu accords to Beckett a capacity for auto-analysis which had previously been assumed to have been possible only for the founder of psychoanalysis himself. At the same time, there is a familiar kind of psychoanalytic appropriativeness in this judgement, for it suggests that, having broken off analysis, the only route to psychic reparation lies in the reincorporation of its procedures. Just as the refusal of psychoanalysis is always read as a psychoanalytic symptom, so the resolution of psychological problems must always it seems be attributable to psychoanalysis carried on by other means. Nevertheless, I am in agreement with Simon and Anzieu in seeing the forms of Beckett’s mature, post-War work as a significant response to the experience of his analysis.
It might be possible to read, over a longer term, a similar answering response to the experience of the analysis with Beckett in Bion’s turn, late in his life, to the very different kind of work represented by the autobiography and the fictionalised autobiography. If this were to be read as a response by Bion, not just to one of the most important first analyses he undertook, but also to the response to the analysis which Beckett’s work and fame might have represented for Bion, we might have an example of the most long-range and delayed-action countertransference on record. In any case, we are not dealing here with a simple event or experience, the nature of which is given in itself and goes on to exert an influence over subsequent events. In both cases, the meaning of the analysis would have been produced by the process of Nachträglichkeit, or back-formation described by Freud; would have been determined by the subsequent developments which may appear to have been determined by it. We may say of Beckett’s analysis perhaps what Bion says of the material uncovered by analysis: `in the analysis we are confronted not so much with a static situation that permits leisurely study, but with a catastrophe that remains at one and the same moment actively vital and yet incapable of resolution into quiescence’ (Bion 1984, 101).
So, in reading the encounter of Beckett and Bion, it is interesting to attend not only to its resumptive or recursive temporality, but also to its two-sided transferential nature. My concern will not be simply what Beckett got from the encounter with Bion, or even what Bion got from the encounter with Beckett; it will be with the nature of the conversation, perhaps one should even say the tergivisation, conducted by and between the work of this curious `pseudocouple’. As the two men went their separate ways, their concerns and procedures came closer and closer together.
In a curious way the work of Bion would itself come to provide a sort of rationale for this way of proceeding. At the time that Beckett underwent his analysis, the work of J.A. Hadfield, Bion’s own analyst, was dominant at the Tavistock Clinic. Hadfield insisted on a rather reductive notion of analysis as the identification and uncovering of traumatic events in the life of the patient. In this view the analysis itself was an instrumental and not a constitutive procedure; thus the effects of transference and countertransference in the analytic session itself were regarded as at best a kind of distracting noise. Bion first underwent analysis during the late 1920s with an analyst whom he refers to disaparagingly in his autobiography only as Mr. FiP (Mr. Feel it in the Past); judging from the alarming crudity of the views expressed in Hadfield’s published work, one would have thought that the description might equally well apply to Hadfield himself, with whom Bion was in analysis during the years with Beckett (Dicks 1970, followed closely by Bléandonou 1994, 43). It is clear that the most distinctive feature of Bion’s mature psychoanalytic theory would be the way in which it focuses not on the uncovering of origins through the psychoanalytic session but the discovery and elaboration of a kind of psychoanalytic rationality in the session itself. Where the procedures of traditional analysis remained archaeological, the procedures proposed by Bion were open and transformative. Where traditional analysis used the session to work on time, we might say, Bion’s worked towards a kind of analysis that would form its own open temporality with no given point of culmination. We could push this a little further and say that, where traditional psychoanalysis functioned like a nineteenth-century inheritance plot, in which the forward movement of the narrative is defined by the desire to retrieve the past, and this forward movement culminates and concludes with the reappearance of that past, the kind of analysis proposed by Bion would inhabit the looped, interrupted, convoluted duration of the modernist or postmodernist text, in the form represented by Beckett’s Trilogy, and anticipated in Beckett’s own attempted rescue of the work of Proust from the atemporal condition of consummated unity; in a review written in the early months of his analysis, Beckett protested that Proust’s work was `the search, stated in the full complexity of all its clues and blind alleys, for that resolution, and not the compte rendu after the event, of a round trip’ (Beckett 1983, 65).
Bion’s work goes through four phases after the War, corresponding roughly to decade divisions. First of all there is work on the interactive processes of groups, which occupied Bion from 1940 to about 1950 and resulted in his Experiences in Groups of 1961. This is followed by a series of papers concerning the nature of psychosis, which Bion wrote during the 1950s and reprinted in the collection Second Thoughts in 1967. These papers reflect Bion’s growing involvement with Melanie Klein, and her own focus on the problems of treating psychotic patients, dating from her paper `Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms’ in 1946 (Klein 1975, 1-24). Particularly significant in the light of Bion’s earlier involvement with Beckett, perhaps, are the essays `The Imaginary Twin’ (1950) and `Attacks on Linking’ (1958). This indicates that Deirdre Bair is very wide of the mark in suggesting that the analyst with whom Beckett worked in the middle 1930s was a Kleinian, since it seems unlikely that Bion would have come significantly under the sway of Melanie Klein at this very early stage in his career. It is perhaps not inconceivable that Bion became a Kleinian partly because of first having to have been, for a short while, a Beckettian. What commentators charmingly call Bion’s `psychotic period’ gives way during the 1960s to the concerns of what is known as his `epistemological period’, during which he developed his most original, but also his most difficult and demanding contributions to psychoanalytic theory, in the explorations of the nature of thinking and knowing in the psychoanalytic process. Bion’s epistemological period is represented by the four books which he later gathered together as Seven Servants (1977): Learning From Experience (1962), The Elements of Psycho-Analysis (1963), Tranformations: Changes From Learning to Growth (1965) and Attention and Interpretation (1970). The final period of Bion’s life and work is characterised by a remarkable reaction against the formality of psychoanalytic theory and the turn to literary and aesthetic modes of enquiry in his own fatly inquisitive, formally unsettled trilogy of autobiographical polylogues gathered together in A Memoir of the Future (1990) .
I want to focus mostly on Bion’s writings in the second `psychotic phase’, which coincides rather intriguingly with Beckett’s own most productive years after the War when he was writing the Trilogy and the early plays. Among the most suggestive concepts in Bion’s writing for the understanding of Beckett’s works, and perhaps also for the understanding of the hypothetical link between Beckett and Bion, is the concept of the `attack on linking’ which Bion developed in a series of papers from the 1950s. In these papers, Bion begins to explore the experiences of negation and negativity which are to form an important part of his work for the rest of his life. He reports on patients who display in their attitude towards the analyst and the analytic session a hostile inability to tolerate the possibility of emotional links. Central to Bion’s account is the mechanism that Melanie Klein called `projective identification’, which Bion defines as `a splitting off by the patient of part of his personality and a projection of it into the object where it becomes installed, sometimes as a persecutor, leaving the psyche from which it has been split off correspondingly impoverished’ (Bion 1984, 37). Bion later referred to this mechanism rather more crisply as `evasion by evacuation’ (Bion 1984, 117).
It may be helpful here to recapitulate Melanie Klein’s formulation, following the work of Karl Abraham, of what she calls the paranoid-schizoid and depressive phases of mental life. The paranoid-schizoid position is characteristic of the first four months of life. In it, violent and sadistic impulses, especially towards the breast, coexist with positive and libidinal impulses, and result in a splitting of the breast into a good object and a bad object. The bad object becomes the source of persecutory anxiety and threatens the destruction of the ego. In this stage, the ego can tolerate anxiety only by replicating the violent division between good and bad objects in its own self-constitution, taking in the good and disgustedly, anxiously, disavowing or expelling the bad. The psychotic patient recapitulates the disintegrated condition of the paranoid-schizoid stage. After about four months, the depressive position may be attained. In this, the mother may begin to be grasped as a whole person, in whom the good and the bad are combined. The anxiety here is not of imminent destruction by the aggressive bad object, but of the loss of the mother.
Bion’s most extended treatment of the theme of the attack on linking is to be found in the essay `Attacks on Linking’ of 1959. Bion begins this essay in orthodox enough fashion, taking the `phantasied attacks on the breast as the prototype of all attacks on objects that serve as a link and projective identification as the mechanism employed by the psyche to dispose of ego fragments produced by its destructiveness’ (Bion 1984, 93). However, if projective identification constitutes an aggressive denial of the integration of the self – a dissociation of the links between good and bad objects which form part of the self – it is also a mechanism whereby the self can establish and maintain relations with what it has expelled from itself and thus eventually, perhaps, acknowledge and reintroject them. In projective identification, it seems, bad images are often not so much expelled, as loaned out to another, for possible reclaiming at some later time. This other is often the mother, provided she consents to act as the screen or detoxifying repository of the terrors and horrors expelled from the self in the interests of its self-preservation. However, in the cases of psychosis or borderline psychosis analysed by Bion, the mother has either refused to act as such a repository, or has aroused the envy and hatred of the child for her very equanimity, or failure to be harmed in exercising this function. Under these circumstances, the failure of the link constituted by projective identification then gives way to an angry denial of the link by the patient. Because the mechanism of splitting keeps open the possibility of a relation to what is split off, it is the activity of splitting that is thus itself denied. More is in store:
Furthermore, thanks to a denial of the main method open to the infant for dealing with his too powerful emotions, the conduct of emotional life, in any case a severe problem, becomes intolerable. Feelings of hatred are therefore directed against all emotions including hate itself, and against external reality which stimulates them. It is a short step from hatred of the emotions to hatred of life itself. (Bion 1984, 107)
However, this denial of the links preserved in projective identification, or the denial of linking-through-denial, can take place only through a recapitulation of the primitive process employed in the first place to deny or split off intolerable feelings, which is to say through a return to projective identification:
this hatred results in a resort to projective identification of all the perceptual apparatus including the embryonic thought which forms a link between sense impressions and consciousness. The tendency to excessive projective identification when death instincts predominate is thus reinforced. (Bion 1984, 107)
Elsewhere, I have suggested that Beckett’s later work, and especially Worstward Ho demonstrates the kind of alternation between assertion and denial which is to be found in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Connor 1992, 80-9): Bion’s work now seems to me to suggest an even closer parallel to the spiral of affirmation-negation-affirmation, and the principle of a narrative progress achieved through subtraction, denial and disaggregation, that becomes the engine of Beckett’s work from 1934, the year in which both his analysis and Murphy were begun. This mechanism is displayed, for example, in Malone Dies, in which Malone’s way of talking about his own death, is to talk about something else entirely, in the irregularly resumed and abandoned narratives of the lives of Saposcat and Macmann, which are intended to keep alive until the last minute Malone’s vigilant distance from his own imminent extinction. In The Unnamable, this process of disidentification becomes both more urgent and paradoxical. The speaker begins by claiming that he will do without projective identifications:
All these Murphys, Molloys and Malones do not fool me…They never suffered my pains, their pains are nothing, compared to mine, a mere tittle of mine, the tittle I thought I could put from me, in order to witness it. Let them be gone now, them and all the others, those I have used and those I have not used, give me back the pains I lent them and vanish, from my life, my memory, my terrors and shames. (Beckett 1959, 305-6).
But the speaker discovers that the attempt to dissolve these phantasms, or, in Kleinian parlance, to reintroject them, in the interests of confronting and uttering himself, can be brought about only by further internal proliferations. No matter how many layers of inauthentic accretion and surrogacy are scoured away, there are always further calcifications of `vice-existers’ to be dealt with.
Bion’s interest in his writings on psychosis in the 1950s is focused particularly on the role that the attack on linking plays within the analytic session itself. The figure of the analyst is crucially involved in the drama of projective identifications, since the analyst may be called upon to play the part of the mother prepared to introject the negativity projected into her by the anxious child; just as the mother may come under attack as the inadequate repository of feelings, so too may the analyst, and the process of analysis itself. The particular form which this attack often takes, Bion suggests, is an attack on language as the medium of symbolic and cognitive linking. In an earlier paper, `Notes on the Theory of Schizophrenia’ (1953), Bion had discussed an interesting regression in the case of schizophrenic patients who had begun to exhibit increased verbal powers and confidence. Such patients were moving, Bion believes, from a psychotic-schizoid phase of split and multiple identity to a depressive phase characterised by anxious integration and synthesis. But the very capacity for synthesis requires the recognition of the loss or unreliability of good objects; it creates links between the safely dissociated portions of the psyche and arouses painful tensions between them. At this stage, hostility begins to be directed towards the words and the verbal thought that the patient (correctly) blames for the increase in his or her pain. There may be a return to the process of splitting, as language itself is projected into the person of the analyst:
The patient at this stage becomes frightened of the analyst, even though he may concede that he feels better, but, and this is where the kernel of our problem lies, he shows every sign of being anxious to have nothing whatever to do with his embryonic capacity for verbal thought. This is felt to be better left to the analyst; or, as I think it more correct to say, the analyst felt to be better able than he to harbour it within himself without disaster. (Bion 1984, 26)
The patient may either direct more hostile attacks on the analyst, and on the capacity for verbal thought that has been lodged in him or her, or may become able to reintroject that capacity. In `Attacks on Linking’, Bion gives an example of the former effect, in a patient who, when confronted with a suggestion that he might have feelings of affection and respect for his mother, suddenly began to gasp and stammer; Bion suggests that this is an enactment of the attempt, not just to disavow the link with the mother, but also to mount an assault on language itself as the medium of connection between analysand and analyst and thus `to prevent the patient from using language as a bond between him and me’ (Bion 1984, 98).
Another form which the assault upon the linking function of analysis-as-language may take is the breaking off by the patient himself of the analysis. The possibility that Beckett’s own discontinuation of his analysis with Bion at the end of 1935 also involved or was associated with an attack upon language in its integrating function is strengthened by the remarkable and often quoted letter to Axel Kaun that Beckett wrote a few months later, a letter in which he articulated his hostility towards language and intention to build an art around its systematic molestation:
It is indeed becoming more and more difficult, even senseless, for me to write an official English. And more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it. Grammar and style. To me they have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true gentleman. A mask. Let us hope the time will come, thank God that in certain circles it has already come, when language is most efficiently used where it is being most efficiently misused. As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing – begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today. (Beckett 1983, 171-2).
I think we should see this statement as a prolongation of an attack upon the integrating function of language as interpretation which Beckett may have begun in the discontinuation of his analysis. Analysis provided a kind of mythical scene which allowed Beckett to separate himself from the language of the interpreter, and language as such insofar as it was split off and lodged in the person of that interpreter.
As I observed earlier, the discontinuation of his analysis seemed to coincide and even perhaps stimulate the completion of Murphy. Psychoanalysis features in the novel, if at all, only in disguised and travestied forms: in the starchart which Murphy commissions and uses for his own purposes, which may display the simultaneous narcissism and dependency of the analysand, and suggest that the wisdom of the analyst is scarcely superior to the quackery of the haruspicator. But it is at the end of the novel, which Beckett wrote after having visited Bethlehem Hospital where his friend Geoffrey Thompson had come to work, that Beckett seems to enact his own aggressive break with psychoanalysis, in the displacement of the complexity of the analytic situation into the sadistic arrangements at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat. In particular, I think that we may see the encounter between Murphy and the near-catatonic Mr. Endon as a determinate refusal both of the possibilities of the psychoanalytic relation and of the language in which it is conducted and upon which it relies. Murphy hopes to be able to share Mr. Endon’s condition of withdrawal. At the climax of the novel, he is forced to recognise the impossibility of this contact. The whole scene may be read as a knowing refusal of the possibilities of the transference in psychoanalysis, as Murphy sees the fact of his inconsequence to Mr. Endon, who represents a principle of unanalysability, and unrepresentability, and thus a refusal of the communicability posited in analysis.
This refusal may even be solidified in Mr. Endon’s name, which appears to say death (ending) to the life (bios) seemingly proposed in Bion’s name. If `Bion’ were an affluent `be-all’, then Endon would be its answering `end-all’. If `Bion’ exhorts one to go on, to go `beyond’ into being, Mr. Endon offers only stasis, repetition and negation. Indeed his distinctive manner of saying no, by playing the chess game backwards, is enacted in the negation in his name, which reverses the word `no'; this being the first appearance in Beckett of that darkly palindromic alternation of `no’ and `on’ which is to feature so often thereafter. And where the particle `bi’ of `Bion’ also suggests binarity and dialogue, the particle `en’ which evokes innerness in Greek, suggests an endogenous, inner-directed autonomy. This play between the call to binarity and unresponsive innerness is enacted in the gaze exchanged between Murphy and Mr. Endon. One might suggest that this very breaking down of names is evidence of that drive to disaggregation which interested Bion. We might also observe, however, that the play is of such a kind as to create and preserve the links of association between the lexical particles that it permutates. The gaze exchanged between Murphy and Mr. Endon appears to confirm Mr. Endon’s inviolable remoteness; but it also demonstrates the implication of Endon and Murphy in each other’s separateness.
Didier Anzieu suggests that Bion’s name is subject to a similar process of simultaneous rending and preservation in the names of Bim and Bom, the nurses in Murphy and Pim and Bom in How It Is (Anzieu 1989, 167). The permutated names of What Where seem clearly to be offshoots of the same stock.
Hereafter, throughout the texts of the 1950s and early 1960s, Beckett elaborates his attack on the symbolising, integrating functions of language, and the concomitant claims of the analyst or interpreter. `No symbols where none intended’, he concludes in Watt. The struggle against language is identified with a struggle against a series of mysteriously oppressing tyrants, whose motivation appears always to be to force a coherent ego or human nature upon the speaker of Beckett’s fictions. These figures begin with the innocuous figure of the one who demands Molloy’s narrative, and progress through the tyrannical Youdi and his agent Gaber, who extort Moran’s report; and harden at last into the figure of Basil and the `college’ of tyrants which the speaker in The Unnamable evokes at various points through his monologue. The hostility towards interpretative language of a psychoanalytic kind may also have generalised into the amused hostility towards interpretation which became so notable a feature of Beckett’s dealings with the world of academic criticism. Pressed to offer explications and judgements, Beckett strove to maintain an absolute split between the work and its meaning, in an attempt at once to exercise an absolute control in and over language, and to disavow the controlling functions of language altogether.
The tyrants who attempt to force their language upon the speakers of the Trilogy and the later Texts for Nothing seem mostly to be male. In the light of Anzieu’s judgement that Beckett needed to break away from the specifically maternal form of domination and suffocation, it is interesting to find an enactment of verbal aggression in Molloy that is simultaneously an aggression towards the figure of the mother.
I called her Mag, when I had to call her something. And I called her Mag because for me, without my knowing why, the letter g abolished the syllable Ma, and as it were spat on it, better than any other letter would have done. And at the same time I satisfied a deep and doubtless unacknowledged need, the need to have a Ma, that is a mother, and to proclaim it, audibly. For before you say mag, you say ma, inevitably. And da, in my part of the world, means father. Besides, for me the question did not arise, at the period I’m worming into, I mean the question of whether to call her Ma, Mag, or the Countess Caca, she having for countless years been as deaf as a post. (Beckett 1959, 17-18)
Leslie Hill has suggested that this episode embodies a struggle between the assimilative sound of the `m’ and the violent expectorant gutturals of physical rejection – emphasised by the name `Countess Caca’ and, in the original French, the word `crachait’ (Hill 1990). This insight points us towards the extraordinary corporeality of linguistic process in the Trilogy, in which the drama of utterance is embodied in terms of violent alternations of incorporation and emission. The speakers seem engaged in a desperate struggle to expel language from themselves, in acts of utterance that are also, in Heidegger’s bogus etymology, attempts at `outerance’. Molloy likens his writing to the metabolic alternation of dish and pot; Malone comes to the climax of his narrative with `gurgles of outflow’, and the speaker in The Unnamable represents his language in terms of every kind of bodily emission, from the tears that flow unceasingly from his eyes, and which he compares to `liquefied brain’ (Beckett 1959, 295), the negations with which he `plops’ on his characters (U, 340), to the streams of puke and urine to which he compares his speech:
I have to puke my heart out too, spew it up hole along with the rest of the vomit, it’s then at last I’ll look as if I mean what I’m saying, it won’t be just idle words. Well, don’t lose hope, keep your mouth open and your stomach turned, perhaps you’ll come out with it one of these days. (Beckett 1959, 338)
Bion returns frequently in the essays of the 1950s to the dangerous process of secondary fragmentation resorted to by the patient who, `regressing from the depressive position, turns with increased hatred and anxiety against the fragments that have shown their power to coalesce and splits them with great thoroughness; as a result we have a danger of a fragmentation so minute that reparation of the ego becomes impossible’ (Bion 1984, 80-1). Bion sees such processes or phantasms in psychotic patients as an intensified form of splitting, in which undesired or uncontainable feelings and ideas are not so much fragmented as pulverised (the narrator of `From An Abandoned Work’ regrets the loss of this capacity to destroy the form of undesirable thoughts: previously, they would have been `atomised…before as much as formed, atomised’).
Often this seems to result in forms of thinking and speaking that express themselves in oral-excretory forms, for example in the patient who remarked that he used his intestine as a brain (Bion 1984, 40), or the patient who felt `that good interpretations from me were so consistently and minutely split up by him that they became mental urine which then seeped uncontrollably away’ (Bion 1984, 95). Later in his life, Bion came to believe that the process of thinking was indeed a modification of the oral-alimentary process. Perhaps the most striking of these examples is the exchange that Bion reports in `Notes on the Theory of Schizophrenia’ of 1953 with a patient who seems to be experiencing a sense of physical dissolution comparable to that experienced by the speaker in The Unnamable:
A tear welled from his eye and he said with a mixture of despair and reproach, `Tears come from my ears now’….After this had been discussed it was seen that tears were very bad things, that he felt much the same about tears which came from his ears as he did about sweat that came from the holes in his skin when he had, as he supposed, removed blackheads or other such objects from the skin. His feeling about tears from his ears was seen to be similar to his feeling about the urine that came from the hole that was left in a person when his penis had been torn out; the bad urine still came.
When he told me that he couldn’t listen very well I took advantage of his remark to remind him that in any case we needed to know why his mind was full of such thoughts at the present juncture, and I suggested that probably his hearing was felt to be defective because my words were being drowned by the tears that poured from his ears.
When it emerged that he couldn’t talk very well either I suggested that it was because he felt his tongue had been torn out and he had been left only with an ear.
This was followed by what seemed to be a completely chaotic series of words and noises. I interpreted that now he felt he had a tongue but it was really just as bad as his ear – it just poured out a flow of destroyed language. (Bion 1984, 29-30)
This seems to resemble very closely the dissolving, dismembered body that the speaker in The Unnamable imagines for himself, with `tears coursing over my chest, my sides, and all down my back’, as he thinks of his hair, eyes and ears falling away from his body. But Beckett’s work in The Unnamable seems also to call for the terms of a theory that Bion was not to develop until the 1960s, though it is clearly latent in his earlier work on psychosis. Bion came to see the drama of linkage and `inchoation’ in terms of a complex psychical interplay of what he called the container and the contained. The function of projected identification is now seen in terms of the attempt to fit meaningless or malevolent contents into a container, the archetypal form of which is the mother’s breast, but which can also be fulfilled by the analyst, the analytic scene, or its language. Bion distinguished the positive forms of the container-contained relation, which actually lead onwards to further development from negative, or parasitic forms, in which the container may be persecutory, neurotic or otherwise constrictive (Symington 1996, 50-8). Bion came to see psychic development as a matter of discovering or creating positive rather than negative forms of the container/contained relationship.
The question of containment has great importance in the verbal-corporeal phenomenology of the Trilogy. For the speaker in The Unnamable the process of logorrhoeic outpouring is the reflex of a process of unwilled introjection. He thus alternates between the sense of painful constriction and purgative, but disorientating evisceration:
it is they who dictate this torrent of balls, they who stuffed me full of these groans that choke me. And out it all pours unchanged. I have only to belch to be sure of hearing them, the same sour old teachings I can’t change a tittle of. (Beckett 1959, 338)
In the absence of a sustaining relationship between container and contained, there is only the alternation between a language that presses in remorselessly on the speaker from the outside and the language with which he seeks to expel that language. Beckett’s letters of 1934-6 give hints that he underwent something of the same alternation between intake and discharge, an alternation whose effect is to deny the possibility of a middle term between these opposite operations, in an abolition of self into metabolic operations. Such an abolition of self into process is apparent in this following account of a new bodily `excitement’ which Beckett wrote to MacGreevy during the first of his returns to Ireland during his analysis:
My latest bit of excitement was a sebacious cyst in my anus. I went with it to Allan Thompson who advised me to go into Richmond for a couple of days and have it excised, to which I agreed. But on the way home from him it began to discharge which has saved me for the moment. But it will almost certainly form again, like the one on my neck that gave me so much trouble. Such an old crock I begin to feel. I beg him to tell me what to do even to be fairly well and he can find nothing better than “eat well” and a prescription to stimulate the appetite. I eat all I can stuff. [Letter to Thomas MacGreevy, 29.1.35, Trinity College, Dublin, MS 10402.]
Bion suggested that such paranoid feelings of assault from the outside can be the result of an acute and sustained splitting of the self. The incapacity to effect reintrojection results in a sense of persecutory penetration or reentry by these projected or split off entities: `whether he feels he has had something put into him, or whether he feels he has introjected it, he feels the ingress as an assault, and a retaliation by the object for his violent intrusion into it’ (Beckett 1959, 40-1).
The terms of Beckett’s fictional verbal-corporeal economy in The Unnamable perhaps recapitulate some of the features of his own psychosomatic suffering, or the sufferings he was persuaded to see as such. The Job-like physical tribulations which led Beckett to seek psychoanalysis, in which boils, cysts and dermatological lesions featured prominently, also suggest the importance of the relations between contained and container. A Bionian interpretation would suggest that the pulverisation and morcelization of the ejected contents of the psyche seek a form or receptacle. In the absence of such a container, these ejected non-contents come to seem more and more toxic and persecutory. They form what Didier Anzieu, who has developed Bion’s notions of the container-contained in his work on the skin ego, calls a toxic skin, a shirt of Nessus, a tormenting carapace which denies permeation and interchange, asphyxiating its victim. Boils are the perfect somatic compromise between the eruption and flow associated by Bion with the process of uncontrolled psychotic splitting and the false or hardened exoskeleton which the self’s detritus forms around it, taking the place of the container that might genuinely `hold’ the ejected portions long enough for them to be acknowledged, and thus reincorporated. In The Unnamable, the process of speaking is split agonisingly between the condition of a content which wishes to be free of its oppressive container and the process of containment itself. In one passage, the speaker passes in quick succession through the metaphors of a plaster-cast, a carapace, a balloon and a wall:
Do they consider me so plastered with their rubbish that I can never extricate myself, never make a gesture but their cast may come to life?…I’ll sham dead now, whom they couldn’t bring to life, and my monster’s carapace will rot off me….They’ve blown me up with their voices, like a balloon, and even as I collapse it’s them I hear….I am walled round with their vociferations, none will ever know what I am. (Beckett 1959, 327-8)
Throughout The Unnamable, the sufferings of the skin are the caustic encrustation upon the self of the feelings which have been put outside it, and the violent reassertion of a sense of shape, volume and limit which the process of evacuation had tended to destroy, and which must then be subject to further assault. We should remember that the opening story of Beckett’s More Pricks Than Kicks, `Dante and the Lobster’ had concerned the sufferings of a crustacean, or, to be more precise the suffering posed by the question of whether a crustacean can suffer.
However, it is important to recognise that the painful, disintegrating drama of The Unnamable is not the same as the psychotic symptoms explored by Bion at the same time, and perhaps encountered some twenty years previously in his analysis of Beckett. Nor am I proposing that Beckett presented in his analysis the kind of symptoms which Bion was later to describe as psychotic. For the drama of `inchoation’, to use a Beckettian word of Bion’s, is itself contained within the frame constituted by the work as a whole. The book is both an act of utterance, and the staging or ostension of such an act; the locutionary act constituted by The Unnamable as a whole therefore serves as a container for the incontinent verbal spillage of which it consists. Of course, much of the fascination and danger of The Unnamable and the Trilogy as a whole comes from the fact that this structure of containment is itself as as subject to assault as the structure provided by the psychoanalytic process as discussed by Bion. The consolation provided by the knowledge that, after all, this is not the testimony of a soul in hell, but the simulation or staging of such a testimony in the form of a book written by Samuel Beckett in a room in Paris, is strangely fragile, since the writing so often seems to erupt out of its containment, swallowing its frame, as it were, and drawing it inwards into its process of ceaseless evacuation. But the hypothesis of this container remains. It is this paradox which allows those wonderful manoeuvres, executed, as it were, in ontological mid-air, in which language suddenly knits together the process of its unravelling – `Talking of speaking’, the voice in The Unnamable suddenly muses, `what if I went silent?’ (Beckett 1959, 309) – or provides moments of ironic containment such as the following, when Beckett allows us to draw breath in the gap opened up between writing and the speech which it simulates:
How, in such conditions, can I write, to consider only the manual aspect of that bitter folly? I don’t know. I could know. But I shall not know. Not this time. It is I who write, who cannot raise my hand from my knee. It is I who think, just enough to write, whose head is far. I am Matthew and I am the angel, I who came here before the cross, before the sinning, came into the world, came here. (Beckett 1959, 303)
Here, it is writing which provides the ground against which speaking figures. More often, perhaps, and as Didier Anzieu suggests, it is the vocality of the voice itself that comes to constitute that frail supporting membrane within, or upon which the work of splitting, fragmentation and disavowal is permitted to occur. The attack on linkage, which has intensified into an attack on meaning and language as such, is made possible by a vocality which constitutes the missing skin or container. The success of the auto-analysis conducted by the Trilogy, suggests Anzieu, depends upon
a voice which provides the one who emits it with that sonorous envelope with which it has failed to be surrounded, a voice as precious to be heard as a birth in the pharynx. (Anzieu 1983, 84)
Anzieu’s conception of the sonorous envelope is central to his remarkable theory of the importance of the skin as ideal, ego-forming container, a theory which in its turn derives a great deal from the work of Bion on the relations between the container and the contained (Anzieu 1989). It may be therefore that Anzieu’s voice adds to the transferential conversation established between the work of Beckett and Bion, both triangulating it, and bringing it full circle.
I have suggested that the acts of aggressive disidentification which drive the work of the Trilogy are formed within a context of hostility towards language and interpretation in which the experience of psychoanalysis may have played an important part. In Beckett’s 1937 letter, it appears to be a masculine language, the language of `official English’ which is to be attacked. In fact, I think that the attack on the functions of linkage and containment is achieved by a kind of identification with a masculine language, a language that enables the assault upon the threatening and essentially maternal matrix to proceed. In a reversal of the usual symbology, flow, in the form of excremental expulsion, is associated with masculinity, with contents that refuse their container, while the possibility of linkage, framing and containment are seen as female and subject to assault on these terms.
Beckett appears to have turned to the concreteness of the drama in an attempt to supply for himself that necessary containment which his fiction had learned so terrifyingly to dissolve. However, the interdependence of the container and the contained, or of the assault upon and the reconstituted need for containment, is suggested by the fact that Beckett did not turn to the drama after the extremes of The Unnamable but before them, Waiting for Godot being written between the second and third books of Beckett’s Trilogy. In his later work, Beckett moves away from this fixation on the female as the container, which is both needed and furiously assaulted, and comes, by accepting the matrix of the female, to be able to occupy it. Thus there is a move from the blistered, encrusted, and as one can say, self-destructively encysted language of Dream of Fair to Middling Women to the smoother, more lyrically iterative verbal membrane or integument characteristic of the later dramatic writing whether in fiction or drama. This allows no easy achievement of repose, the return to Belacqua-like uterine enclosure longed for throughout the early work; rather it allows the inhabitation of a specifically female suffering, a recognition that the female is not merely the container but also a suffering content. The assault upon linkage continues, the identification of the self with plurality and expulsion is as strong in Not I as in The Unnamable; but this assault is no longer seen as an assault upon the female or the maternal as such. The female provides a kind of abode, a place of temporary sojourn, from within which the experience of evacuation may be evoked.
I have concentrated on the relations between the work of Beckett and Bion in the 1940s and 1950s. But this is far from being the end of the transferential, resumptive conversation between their works. As both Bennett Simon and Didier Anzieu have suggested, Bion’s later work shows a contradictory structure which seems irresistibly like that in Beckett’s work. Bion insists on reducing to rule and tabulating the multiplicity of different kinds of cognitive operation at work in the session. At the heart of his work is the Grid, a diagram which he evolved in order to distinguish and display the range of different kinds of thought, statement or cognitive operation employed in the course of psychoanalysis. But the grid is itself a heuristic device, less a means of fixing the forms of analytic encounter by distribution as of apprehending the drama of transformations and relativities at work in psychoanalysis. The tension between the desire for more and more rigid definition and greater and greater abstraction on the one hand, and greater and greater complexity and reflexivity on the other reaches a kind of peak in the extraordinary Lewis Carroll-like mathematical schemes of Transformations (1965). Ultimately, Bion’s attempts to generate a reliable mathematical model of psychoanalytic understanding, by bringing Kleinian notions into relation with logical and epistemological theory, led him beyond systematisation. Bion’s work of psychoanalytic cognition aims to put tolerant knowledge in the place of negativity and intolerance of frustration; it is Hegelian in that it proceeds through encounter with the negative in order to grow into positivity, to give formlessness a form. The motto for this adopted in Transformations is the creation of the universe described by Milton in Book III of Paradise Lost as
The rising world of waters dark and deep
Won from the void and formless infinite
Mathematics means nothing more than the capacity to make negativity thinkable, to give it a conceptual container:
The configuration which can be recognized as common to all developmental processes whether religious, aesthetic, scientific or psycho-analytical is a progression from the `void and formless infinite’ to a `saturated’ formulation which is finite and associated with number. (Bion 1975, 170).
Growth depends upon being able to abstract and thus to hold within the self conflict and negativity. But at the same time, Bion also seems to recognise that the very desire for number, containment, saturation, may itself be a reaction of rejection, or intolerance:
Confronted with the unknown, `the void and formless infinite’, the personality of whatever age fills the void (saturates the element), provides a form (names and binds a constant conjunction) and gives boundaries to the infinite (number and position). Pascal’s phrase `Le silence de ces espaces infines m’effraie’ can serve as an expression of intolerance and fear of the `unknowable’ and hence of the unconscious in the sense of the undiscovered or the unevolved. (Bion 1975, 171)
Ultimately, this apprehension will move Bion further and further away from psychoanalytic theory and procedure. What Bion and Beckett came to have in common was a highly-developed capacity to confront and contain negativity combined or alternating with a growing impatience with the distorting effects of such saturation. Beckett’s work moves from what may be called the paranoid-schizoid state of The Unnamable, characterised by an open, uncontrolled process of splitting, projection and persecutory relations to the depressive state of the later work, in which similar material is staged and so to speak analytically contained. We may perhaps gloss the Kleinian paranoid-schizophrenic position with some remarks of Bion’s regarding the space of what he calls the condition of `- K’, or non-knowledge in analysis. As opposed to the knowledge space `in which traditional analysis takes place and classical transference manifestations become “sense-able” ‘, there is a `- K space’, which may be described as `the place where space used to be. It is filled with no-objects which are violently and enviously greedy of any and every quality, thing, or object, for its “possession” (so to speak) of existence’ (Bion 1975, 115). Beckett’s move to the drama, and the theatricalisation of the later prose pieces, especially Company may be read as a way of turning maximal dissociation into ambivalence; if The Unnamable offers us a voice deprived of, or forced to create its own scenography, even as it aggressively destroys it, Company, Ill Seen Ill Said and Worstward Ho permit the creation of a matrix, or mis-en-scène, if only in the stable structures of repetition and permutation.
But we can also use Beckett’s work, so to speak, to interpret Bion’s. For, where Beckett appears to move towards the depressive position, Bion’s later work is driven by a dissatisfaction with the means of cognitive saturation, a sense that the means employed to tolerate and integrate negativity may in fact not be a holding open, but a denial in the face of the Pascalian dismay. Thus, in A Memoir of the Future, Bion’s work moves towards the pluralising of consciousness and cognition achieved in The Unnamable.
So, rather than looking for the influence of Bion or the experience of psychoanalysis more generally on the work of Beckett, I have suggested that Beckett’s and Bion’s careers interpret each other in significant ways. The distinctive turn in Beckett’s work which psychoanalysis may, through a process of Nachträglichkeit, have helped to effect is a discovery of himself through a turn to the other. For the excavatory solipsism of the Trilogy derives its energy from alterity; the aggressive purging of the other from the self reveals that the self will never glimpse or grasp itself except through the apertures of its inauthentic others. `The battle of the soliloquy’ as Beckett described it, is a battle with and against these others, a speaking to oneself via their speech. Like psychoanalysis (as opposed perhaps to psychoanalytic theory), it demonstrates `How little one is at one with oneself’ in Moran’s words; as both Beckett’s and Bion’s final works show, it is a battle that is played and won, or successfully lost, if at all, only and always in company.
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