10. Without Memory or Desire


“The fortune we seek resides in the very unprofitable, modest, and completely disrespected arena of one person encountering another as they blunder about their life at home, in the office, when out for a walk, travelling on a bus, or even when shopping. Can we learn at these moments to eschew our memories and desires and share an experience with another person that can be seen as establishing a form of contact?”

Wilfred Bion, was a psychoanalyst who created a gulf between himself and his prevailing tradition; at the time represented by Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein. He was born three years before Gadamer but died twenty-three years before him. As far as we know they never met, however their ideas do seem to overlap quite agreeably in the area of conversation. According to the wonderful Joan and Neville Symington, Bion encouraged leaving “psychological comfort” for the more exciting prospect of venturing “forth into the unknown”, to “risk the terror.”1 Shades of Nietzsche’s distaste for comfort being evident and notwithstanding, Bion recognised the limitations of his chosen discipline and wanted to find a more genuine approach that connected the analyst to the patient. The push for Bion, after twenty years of working in the fields of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, came with the realisation that “certain people seem to understand and agree with the analyst’s interpretations, yet remain untouched by analysis.”2 One particular example was a patient who, after working with Bion for some time and giving outward signs of “apparent acceptability” to Bion’s “various interpretations,”3 committed suicide.

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Such an obvious divide between rational thought, expressed through communication, and the emotional response of choosing suicide crystallised in Bion the need to re-think the workings of psychoanalysis and starting afresh. Extrapolating from other instances, perhaps less dramatic than the example given, Bion understood that if patients remained “untouched by analysis” then he needed to suspend all previous psychoanalytic thinking, such as Freud’s and Klein’s, to allow for a clean start and a new model to be born.

To effect such a re-birth, a change was needed and for Bion that change started with the recognition that within a psychoanalytic session the therapist also brought their own emotional responses, feelings, and desires into the room. For Bion, the analyst was not a robotic being detached from the proceedings that entered, conducted, and then exited the session completely clean and unchanged. The reality of encountering the patient and the session was often a time to roll up one’s sleeves and get stuck in, personally wading through muck, grime, and mutual influence. The conception of the observer / critic / analyst suspended from the scene, like the eye of God, didn’t track for Bion. Rather, he knew that they were fully present as thinking, feeling and emotional beings. Such ideas were already present in psychoanalytic activity, with concepts like transference, countertransference and projective identification coming into the psychoanalytic arena; however, they were bit players, secondary themes, or backdrops to the main performance. Bion’s move was to place the emotional presence of the analyst front and centre regarding what took place in the psychoanalytic session. Setting out on this particular path, Bion confidently strode further down this previously hidden tree-lined boulevard, with stride after stride taking him away from the comfort of all prior psychoanalytic procedure or theory.

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Revolutions, after their first intoxicating breath of what one believes is fresh air, come beset with the same problems to solve that were so apparently mis-managed by the previous administration. In our case, upon realising the importance of the psychoanalyst’s emotions, Bion had to find a method of incorporating this realisation within a psychoanalytic structure that led to an interpretation of the patient’s ‘problem.’ As Joan and Neville strive to make plain, even when observing the phenomenal content of the session, the emotional atmosphere, and the analyst’s own emotional state, the analyst is still left with the problem of how to analyse such phenomena.

Borrowing from philosophy, mathematics and even psychoanalysis, Bion attempted to illustrate such phenomena, but found himself in a community of one when having to analyse and process the data according to principles. By his own hand, though, he had carved out the space to construct a completely new design and as such presented his fellow psychoanalysts with two governing principles for determining a patient’s progress: “the emergence of truth and mental growth.”4 Such a neat and velvet-covered result, however, contained within it an iron rod of integrity that meant his principles were not to be mere platitudes. For Bion, the discovery of truth as a purpose of psychoanalysis was a commitment to be seen through to the bitter end, no matter how terrifying the ride for both patient and analyst. The white knuckle roller coaster that Bion wanted analysts and patients to hop on board in order to release them magisterially into the realm of truth, was a little different to the safe and comparatively sedate entertainment Freudian patients were asked to participate in.

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Prior to Bion, and the extreme sport of truth searching, psychoanalysis was locked inside a Freudian bowling alley where one had to wear regulation footwear and adhere respectfully to the ‘pleasure-pain principle’. Under Freud’s company protocol, analysts were instructed to observe patients behaviour according to that which provided them pleasure and that which provided them pain. Bion, the revolutionary, however, did not dismiss Freud’s principles out of hand and burn the bowling alley down. Rather, he understood that that Freud only provided for certain sectors of the community and that other factions needed more facilities; from simple skateboard parks to black run ski slopes. So as well as conceding that a patient might act according to the pleasure – pain principle even in a psychoanalytic session and avoid the pain of confrontation by nodding along with their analysts interpretation, that same patient might actually unlock themselves if they underwent the emotional equivalent of a ‘no-holds-barred’ cage fight. For Bion, the challenge would be to get to the truth of why the patient acted to minimise the pain of arguing in the first place and then, from that potentially bloody and bruised starting point, work to effect the healing process by encouraging ‘mental growth’ in the patient / analyst sessions.

Bion, the revolutionary, thus issued his edict that all analysts should free themselves from wilful behaviour and gorging: “The first point is for the analyst to impose on himself a positive discipline of eschewing memory and desire. I do not mean that ‘forgetting’ is enough: what is required is a positive act of refraining from memory and desire.”5

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According to Bion, memory is dependent upon the senses and comes under “subordination to the pleasure-pain principle”6 because the governing senses are also so subordinated. Consequently, memory is seen as an unreliable source for the attainment of the analyst’s goal, due to its adherence to a different set of values, viz. the ‘pleasure-pain principle.’ Desire, obviously, can equally be seen to adhere to the ‘pleasure-pain principle,’ but interestingly Bion doesn’t make this explicit, rather he focuses his attention upon the connection between desire and thoughts, with the latter being “formulations” of the former. To make this point, Bion tells us that “thoughts are not verbal formulations merely [but can] be harboured almost unaware [as] reminiscences or anticipations.”7 Consequently, by their association to desire, thoughts come under the auspices of desire and as such are related to the ‘pleasure-pain principle,’ and therefore must also be eschewed.

Having taken away varying tools of the psychoanalytic trade, Bion then proceeds to explain why his confiscation must be so harsh: “The ‘memories’ and ‘desires’ to which I wish to draw attention have the following elements in common: they are ready formulated and therefore require no formulation; they derive from experience gained through the senses; they are evocations of feelings containing pleasure or pain.”8 In very simple terms: because the analyst’s memories and desires are already “formulated” they leave no space for the patient to affect the analyst or the interpretation. If one analyses with memories and desires, then there is no real need for the patient because the ‘pleasure-pain principle’ of the analyst won’t allow the patient to affect the outcome that has already been achieved by the analyst. So, Bion insisted that memories and desires be eliminated from the analyst’s connection to the patient: they are obstructions.

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Some further examples give a different dimension to these twin devils, memory and desire, because not only do they obstruct but they also disrupt. This is evident in the countless episodes of regular patients seeing their analyst twice a week over a period of months or years whereby maps are keenly built up by analysts and their patients based upon memory so that each remains static to the other, as they also do unto themselves. Patient A continues to be the same patient as yesterday, and the day before, etc. Such a “collusive relationship,” Bion states, prevents the “emergence of an unknown, incoherent, formless void.”9 So, memory is no longer innocently obstructing progress, but is now malevolently disrupting the relationship between analyst and patient by making it atrophy.

Desire can also operate for Bion in the same detrimental vein: “A certain class of patient feels ‘possessed’ by or imprisoned ‘in’ the mind of the analyst if he considers the analyst desires something relative to him – his presence, or his cure, or his welfare.”10 The desire to cure, according to Bion then, actually places restrictions around the patient, which, on “a certain class”, can disrupt the patient’s progress because they can become “dominated by the ‘feeling’ that [they are] possessed by and contained in the analyst’s state of mind.”11 Clearly, for Bion, this is disruptive to the care of the patient, due to the analyst actually instigating further mental regression through their desire to cure.

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Having successfully beaten his enemy to the ground, Bion stands astride his victim and with blood coursing through his veins moves in for the kill. Or, to put it another way, probably milder, having made the case for the elimination of memory and desire in the analyst, Bion moves on to consider how someone could achieve this effect. The difficulty is of course, that Bion’s bloodlust and menacing threats, for all their bravado and show waver at the end, not through any fault of their own, but because their adversary is not corporeal: there is no blood to spill, no head to remove and raise aloft triumphantly. Bion’s nemesis is not something to which one can readily neuter. They can be no carving off of memory and desire from the analyst’s brain. Instead, one is left with a far harder challenge than visceral slashing and slicing.

Bion crafted an image of the human as one that has wrapped rationality, thought, and language, around a more primitive inner being that is sometimes censored, lost, or argued away. This, of course, is central to psychoanalysis in general. Bion’s difference, however, is his realisation that for the analyst to recover any understanding of what occurs at the patient’s level of the inner being rationality, the analyst’s old friend – with its cohorts of memory and desire – does not necessarily help and is in fact more likely to obstruct and disrupt this form of understanding. Instead of pursuing the patient rationally the analyst needs to turn inwards on themselves as well.

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For Bion, it was obvious that the analyst cannot connect with the deepest recesses of the patient’s being without attempting to connect with their own. If the analyst pursues a ‘rational’ path, then there will be a clash of two different modes of functioning which will frustrate any potential connection, because the experience that both are trying to share becomes blocked by the analyst stepping outside of that experience all the time in order to interpret, value, or judge, according to a remembered or desired criteria. Bion, therefore, asked analysts to stop being scientists, in the strict sense of the word, and become once more experiential beings that interact with the world and are capable of really communicating with others, to the extent that a Gadamerian ‘common language’ might be created together in that moment.

An epistemological standard in the field of analytic philosophy can help here: Mary is a young woman who has spent all her life in a black and white room, she has never seen or experienced any colour, but she has scientifically studied everything that there is to know about colours and what it would be like to experience them. The question about Mary, then, is does she really know what it is to experience colour? Can it really be stated that she knows what that experience will be like? Whilst the debate in epistemological circles will continue ever onwards, Bion’s answer would be that she couldn’t possibly really know without coming out of the black and white room. Bion’s ultimate lesson for his analysts then, is that only by coming out of their scientific rooms can they really connect to their patients, by experiencing with them, so as to allow the possibility of ‘truths’ evolving and emerging.

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Gérald Bléandonu in his biography and exposition of Bion’s work describes this mode of practice as “a kind of anti-thinking.”12 Fortunately, it is not within our scope to follow the shock waves set off by Bion within his discipline. Instead, the fortune we have to seek resides in the very unprofitable, modest, and completely disrespected arena of one person encountering another as they blunder about their business at home, in the office, when out for a walk, travelling on a bus, or even when shopping. Can we learn at these moments to eschew our memory and desires and share an experience with another person that can be seen as establishing a form of contact? Can we reach the point where we create a common language together? Can we be instructed by Bion, in order to get past own our obstacles and sit side by side with the analysts as they learn his lesson? Are we ready to put to one side our proudly nurtured epistemologies, built up throughout the course of our lives as coping mechanisms and ways that we understand and react to the world around us, in order to have a real dance with no safety net?

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Looking into the eyes of another is an enormous act, if it is done properly. More often than not there is a mountain to climb. Personal obstacles, detritus, and bizarrely formed theories swerve into position, as if to ‘protect’ us from the infinite array of potential experiences that might ensue once we open our eyes. Can we converse without memory or desire? Can we allow ourselves to be open to the terror of what might happen if we do? Is it unethical to not even try?

This last one I can answer and it’s with a resounding “Yes”.


  1. Symington, Joan & Neville, The Clinical Thinking of Wilfred Bion, 184.
  2. Ibid. 171.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 2.
  5. Bion, W., Attention and Interpretation, 31.
  6. Ibid., 30.
  7. Ibid., 30-31.
  8. Ibid., 31.
  9. Ibid., 52.
  10. Ibid., 42.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Bléandonu, G., Wilfred Bion: His Life and Works 1897-1979, 218.

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