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44th Annual Congress of the Canadian Psychoanalytic Society

Emotional Turbulence: Working Clinically with Unformed Experience

May 31 – June 2, 2019
Sutton Place Hotel, Vancouver, BC

Avner Bergstein, Israel Psychoanalytic Society

“How are we to see, observe…. these things which are not visible?” (Bion, 2005). How does felt experience become thinkable? And what of a painful something which exists in the body, but which never becomes emotionally invested thought? How do we speak about the impact of what is unverbalisable and irrepresentable? How do we as analysts work with the ineffable, the inarticulate? With what is difficult in our patients?

These questions about connecting with subjective experience are central to contemporary psychoanalytic thinking, across the range of different schools of thought. Freud’s discovery of the unconscious obscured the fact that some, not all, parts of the unconscious can be known by the symbolic traces it leaves on our conscious waking lives. His dynamic repressed unconscious was a part of a much larger formless, not organized or articulated nor articulable subset of “proto” psychic elements that could be called the unformulated or unrepressed unconscious (Levine, 2013:43) and which may not be available to our senses.

While Winnicott writes of the fear of breakdown and the pull towards it, Bion writes of catastrophic change and the fear of it. Both meet in the sphere of the unrepressed unconscious. Both focus on the dread of encountering emotional truth encapsulated in the unmentalized, unrepressed unconscious, threatening the mind with a psychotic state. Yet both contend that this encounter, facilitating the integration of remote and unmentalized parts of the self, can save the personality from mental catastrophe, or alternatively from psychic death as a defense against it (Bergstein, 2014b). This interest in the unrepressed unconscious has broadened our notion of therapeutic action. The aim of lifting repressive barriers has been widened to include a process that involves extending the boundaries of the self to include split-off parts by analytic containment.

Along with different contemporary conceptualizations of the unconscious and unconscious processes have been changing formulations of the aims of psychoanalysis. At the centre of the change in the aims of psychoanalysis, based on the concepts introduced by Bion, is the function of transformation and emotionally invested symbolic creation. Although there are different views on transformational processes among contemporary theorists, converging formulations of psychoanalysis are concerned with how to bring those “not-yet emerged elements” of experience to a form capable of joining an associative network of feelings, thoughts, desires, and memories, so they can be discerned and forgotten; experienced in a way that they become unconscious.

What in the relationship with the analyst can set back in motion a suspended process of waking dream-thought to connect different and remote parts of the self?

The psychoanalytic quest is not traversing the caesura so as to arrive at a safe harbour, but rather widening the capacity for motion and free flowing between the two river banks. The mere movement and transition are what matters, and not its direction, hence there is no notion of moving forward towards a goal, a cure. The movement itself is what expands the mind and facilitates psychic life.” (Bergstein, 2013: 626).

This brings to the fore the complexity of what activates symbolisation or makes for its absence; the intrapsychic and intersubjective processes through which representations come to be formed, or not, and the psychotic and psychosomatic phenomena in both analysts and “patients who fear catastrophic change” (Bergstein, 2014b). All have implications for the analyst’s functioning and interpretation. Bergstein develops Bion’s idea of using processes of reverie and affective elaboration of analysts’ and patients’ concrete experience as instruments of intuition and as a means of traversing the gap between mind and mind. He proposes “the way to psychic transformation is pinned in the possibility to experience the past in the present, for the first time, in the transference. This, I suggest, is possible primarily through the analyst’s capacity and willingness to experience the agonies of breakdown in his flesh. It is the analyst who must «agree» to experience a catastrophic change, to lose his identity, even if momentarily,… (2014b:864).

Bergstein, A. (2013). Transcending the Caesura: Reverie, Dreaming and Counter-Dreaming . Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 94(4):621-644
———-. (2014a). DÉPASSER LA CÉSURE: RÊVERIE, CAPACITÉ DE RÊVER ET DE CONTRE-RÊVER. L’Anneé Psychanal. Int., 2014:113-140
———-. (2014b). Beyond the Spectrum: Fear of Breakdown, Catastrophic Change and the Unrepressed Unconscious. Rivista Psicoanal., 60(4):847-868
Bion, W. (2005). The Italian Seminars. London: Karnac
Levine, H. (2013). “The colourless canvas: representation, therapeutic action, and the creation of mind.” In: H. Levine, G. Reed, D. Scarfone, eds, Unrepresented States and the Constructon of Meaning. Clinical and Theoretical Contributions (pp. 42-71). London: Karnac

Avner Bergstein is a training and supervising psychoanalyst with the Israel Psychoanalytic Society. He maintains a private practice with adults, adolescents and children and has worked for some years at a kindergarten for children with autism. As the author of numerous papers and book chapters elaborating on the clinical implications of the writings of Meltzer and Bion, he conducts seminars focusing on primitive mental states. His papers have been translated into German, French, Spanish and Portuguese. He has also translated and co-edited the Hebrew translation of a number of psychoanalytic books, including works by Bion, Tustin and Ogden. Writing in a clear and lucid manner, Avner Bergstein integrates Bion’s sometimes highly theoretical thinking with everyday clinical practice, to facilitate his dense and condensed formulations and make them clinically accessible and useful. His first book, Bion and Meltzer’s Expeditions into Unmapped Mental Life (Routledge 2019) is written for psychoanalysts and psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapists who are attracted to Bion and Meltzer’s radical thinking.

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