Bion in Brazil: Supervisions and Commentaries, by Gisèle de Mattos Brito

Posted on Nov 15, 2017

How It All Began …

It was back in 1973, and the Sao Paulo Society had newly emerged and was in the process of consolidating its own unique psychoanalytic identity. Dr. Frank Julian Philips took the initiative. Trained in London, analyzed by both Melanie Klein and Bion, he was at that time analyzing many others who would become the pioneering analysts in São Paulo and help spread analysis and Bion’s ideas throughout Brazil. Together with Professor Virgínia Leone Bicudo, director of the Sao Paulo Institute, Phillips organized the first of Bion’s four visits to Brazil in 1973 (the other three were in 1974, 1975, and 1978). The impact of those visits was to prove enormously influential, both in Sao Paulo and in many other Brazilian psychoanalytic Societies that the Sao Paulo group went on to help develop.

On his first visit Bion stayed at Phillips’s house, and Phillips served as translator and interpreter of Bion’s conferences at the Society. Dr. Philips was held in high esteem in psychoanalytic circles and his influence with the São Paulo Society helped in the introduction and acceptance of Bion’s ideas. At the time, we had 122 members in the society, sixteen of whom were full members—half analyzed by Phillips, thirty-six were associates and seventy were candidates. Some had already studied Bion and were familiar with his ideas, while others were encountering his thinking for the first time. But the series of conferences not only represented contact with ideas and psychoanalytic concepts to be learned. Something much more important happened. It was to be a vital and generative experience.

Many of the analysts who attended these conferences and clinical seminars were deeply affected, not only by their contact with the ideas and theories that Bion laid out, but with their experience of the man. Some have reported feeling astonished, even dumbfounded. One senior analyst recalled that his experience at hearing Bion speak over the weekend, was so powerful that he cancelled all of his sessions the following Monday! He spent the day trying to digest what he had experienced and heard, rethinking what he was trying to do in analysis, and wondering how to continue to work in his practice!

Bion’s initial supervisions and lectures produced a considerable hubbub in the society and many members from Sao Paulo and elsewhere, even Buenos Aires, eventually came to the later sessions. But what was it that specifically created that state of animation? Just what impact was everyone talking about that so strongly influenced theoretical and clinical positions in the São Paulo Society and throughout Brazil and Latin America? The feeling was that we were having a unique experience, seeing and listening to a very special person: Bion, the Man and the Thinker.

 

The man

As a man Bion was tall, serious, and circumspect, always available to listen. He was interested, curious, and possessed a wry sense of humor. He preferred asking questions rather than bringing answers and was careful to remind his audience that only those who participated in an experience could really know what that experience felt like. Motivated by his curiosity, he questioned, and with his reflections, he broadened our field of discussion. He constantly brought in new aspects, new points of view, One colleague, a candidate at the time, told me about the impact she felt when she realized that Dr. Bion was able to recognize and understand the feeling that had brought her to the supervision session. Essentially she did not know what was going on with a certain patient. Yes, Bion was able to say he didn’t know either, and then helped us talk about our own ignorance without criticizing or attacking us, without putting himself in the role of someone who was bringing the truth, or offering a palliative or a prescription as to how psycho analysis should be practiced.

We can see in the supervision sessions transcribed here the deep respect with which he treated both patients and colleagues. He was a wise and generous individual and used his culture and knowledge to expand the capacity of his listeners to recognize the complexity of each human being. In this way, he broadened and integrated the knowledge that emerged. This aspect of Dr. Bion’s personality can be seen when reading many of his comments.

Something that caught the attention of a number of colleagues was that Bion seemed to be in the same state of mind from the moment he got up in the morning to the moment he finally went to bed at night. Junqueira Uchôa described an unusual incident that took place after one of Bion’s conferences in 1973.

[The conference] had taken up the greater part of a very long day of work and I asked him if he would like to retire for the night. Without batting an eye he answered: “But at night our mind is always working actively!”

He also commented that, “Years later I realized that what I had seen was the 24-hour functioning of the process he described as ‘dreamwork alpha’.”

 

The thinker

In an article published in the Jornal do Brasil newspaper Bojunga noted that Dr. Bion’s gaze and voice were firm. He opened one conference by saying: “What can I offer you? What can I say this evening? In what area shall I display my ignorance?”

During one conference Dr. Bion told about the time when two thieves raided a sacred tomb in the cemetery at Ur. Then he asked the audience: “Was the thieves’ act courageous? Could it be considered a model for science? Might those thieves serve as patrons for the scientific method?” He then wondered out loud and asked:

What did the thieves feel? They must have been courageous to dare to dig up treasures in a place guarded by evil spirits. To summarize, each one of you who sees a patient tomorrow should feel fearful of the experience. And, in fact, in each psychoanalytic office there should be two frightened people: the psychoanalyst and the patient. If they are not anxious it is because they are limiting themselves to talk about what everybody already knows anyway. The familiar is a temptation, a temptation that is greater for the analyst than for the patient. And this is because psychoanalysis is one of the few frightening occupations that don’t require us to leave home to carry it out.

That is beautiful! He uses the model of an attack on a tomb in the cemetery at Ur to describe the scene he imagined was present in an analyst’s office, namely, tension, fear, and the courage to move ahead. At another point Junqueira Uchôa wrote that:

Bion’s lively presence stirred up respectful expectations in his listeners. Taken up by the magnetism of his solidly structured body and circumspect facial expression, people seemed to be holding their breath in his presence, waiting for the paused distillation of the ideas that flowed from his mind like volcanic lava. The atmosphere around him was dreamlike, as if he were continually weaving a network to catch psychic objects and guide them to the best possible destination.

True to his formulation of the importance of trying to use multiple vertices to discern new relationships between familiar elements, Bion would play freely with ideas and invert points of view. We might say he used bi-ocular visionor that he had a modernistic gestalt, like Samuel Beckett or Ludwig Wittgenstein. In other words, he would often switch viewpoints, take ideas to their final consequences or go beyond what was already thought to be known. He possessed the ability to lead us along paths that have never been taken before. I associate this capacity to the famous poem by the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, transcribed below:

José

What now, José?

The party’s over,

the lights are off,

the crowd’s moved on,

the night’s grown cold,

what now, José?

what now, you?

you who are nameless,

who make fun of others,

you who write verses,

who love, protest,

what now, José?

Got no woman,

got no speech,

got no love,

can’t drink,

can’t smoke,

can’t even spit,

the night’s grown cold,

the day didn’t come,

the tram didn’t come,

laughter didn’t come

utopia didn’t come

and everything ended

and everything fled

and everything rotted

what now, José?

What now, José?

Your sweet words,

your moment of fever,

your feasting and fasting,

your library,

your gold mine,

your suit of glass,

your incoherence,

your hatred—what now?

Key in hand

you want to open the door,

but no door exists;

you want to die in the sea,

but the sea has dried;

you want to go to Minas,

Minas no longer exists;

Carlos Drummond de Andrade

José, what now?

If you could scream,

if you could groan,

if you could play

a Viennese waltz,

if you could sleep,

if you could tire,

if you could die …

But you don’t die,

you are stubborn, José!

Alone in the dark

like a beast of the wild,

without any theogony,

without even a naked wall

to lean against,

without a black horse

to gallop away,

You march, José!

José, where to?

You march, José!

José, where to?2

—Carlos Drummond de Andrade

My impression when reading these supervision sessions is that Bion, like Drummond de Andrade, makes us wonder about the meaning of our own existence and the existence of the world. He challenges us to try to be in contact with the unknown, the unknowable and, at the same time, calls us, as responsible analysts, to work on this enormous—often terrifying and confusing—undertaking of being a psychoanalyst.

Was it coincidental that this poem was written during World War II, at which time Brazil lived under the repression of the Vargas dictatorship? Like José, Bion lived in times of the agony of war. Two wars. And yet he managed to make a good deal from it. He had the strength to move ahead even without knowing where he might be headed, deep in doubt and insecurity, alone in the dark, but with faith and the conviction that we must move ahead.

Traveling along strange and original paths, Bion talked to us about ourselves, and even today he continues to have an impact on us, as he unmasks and illuminates our complicated existence with deep and revealing comments. Through these supervision sessions, he helped us, then, and still helps us today, to make contact with our own unique and individual experiences.

We move ahead, open, expectant, frightened, hopeful, vulnerable … with Bion as our companion …

Gisèle de Mattos Brito is a full member of the Brazilian Psychoanalytic Society of São Paulo, a full member and Training Analyst with the Psychoanalytic Study Group of Minas Gerais, and co-editor of Bion in Brazil: Supervisions and Commentaries, published earlier this year by Karnac.

 

Reviews and Endorsements

‘This wonderfully creative book is an opportunity to witness Bion in action as he gives life to new concepts and thoughts using his pioneering instruments such as reverie, negative capability, and the pre-selected fact, which have since become firmly ensconced in today’s psychoanalytic practice. The book contains an inspiring collection of Bion’s supervisions held in Brazil, each of which is followed by an in-depth commentary by one of the book’s eminent contributors. I found it outstanding for many reasons. Bion left us his theoretical writings which are undoubtedly highly complex and challenging on many levels. In my view, however, it is through his supervisions and seminars that we gain direct access to his thinking, and experience his full vitality and talent as a clinician. Appraising the rich contributions made by patients, analysts, supervisor, and commentators, made me feel as though I were witnessing a boundless and unique work in progress that gestures towards the future. Bion in Brazil will be a source of huge fascination and benefit to all psychoanalysts.’ – Antonino Ferro, President of the Italian Psychoanalytical Association

‘The detailed accounts of seminar discussion and the rich, complex and appreciative writing in the commentaries on these seminars make this book a valuable addition to the existing published seminar material. Bion’s clinical thinking, as João Carlos Braga states in the book, opens “beyond the dimensions of knowing/not knowing, for what is not yet born to the “mind.” It is this aspect — Bion’s receptivity to bringing out in any situation what is mentally nascent and capable of growth — that emerges most strongly in this book.’ – Chris Mawson, training and supervising analyst of the British Psychoanalytical Society, and editor of The Complete Works of W. R. Bion

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