Bollasing the Clinic


Amnéris Maroni

  1. Introduction

Some memorable pages in the book Forces of Destiny, by Christopher Bollas[1], demand our close attention, because they redefine the analytical setting in a radical fashion. Let’s not forget that Bollas is a contemporary writer and a singular Winnicottian and Bionian analyst. On an interview for Revista Percurso [2], Bollas tells us his intellectual trajectory: before becoming a psychoanalyst, he passed by literature and history, and as a direct consequence of those experiences, he acquired a “foreign perspective” on psychoanalysis, a perspective that allows him to read and practice the psychoanalytic clinic in a quite peculiar way.

Each one of the ideas I’m going to display on this text transpire that singularity that is Bollas’s personal idiom. I’m going to follow, step by step, his reflection on the analytical setting: from the motivation that drives many analysts to make new propositions of the setting in connection to what we could call new pathologies, to the new unique theoretical premises presented by Bollas, which demand new transformations.

Bollas believes that, today, in the psychoanalytic clinic, we can rarely see a neurotic patient who’s able to free-associate, a patient committed to the exercise of analysis in such a way that it could enable her to overcome resistances and elaborate the unconscious psychic conflict. Currently, the psychoanalysts’ offices are inhabited by new pathologies—schizoids, borderlines, normalpaths, narcissistic people: these patients can’t speak, or else, because they’re distrustful, they don’t dare to speak up. The changes in the setting should focus on these patients, as well as on the new rules for the practice of psychoanalysis. Keeping those patients in sight, the analyst-interpreter should become a subject in the analytical field, thus, offering herself to serve the patient and establish a dialectics of difference (BOLLAS, 1992, p.85). this crucial transformation is Bollas’s starting point, inspired by D. W. Winnicott and R. W. Bion. From this debate on, I’m going to bring up Bollas’s unique theoretical contribution in relation to the personal idiom and the transformational object. I feel that these two theoretical keys will allow us to better understand the reason why the psychoanalytic setting must be reframed.

Bollas’s interlocutors don’t constitute the starting point of this debate, and they’re virtually implicit: he names them, but doesn’t assign any polemic to that naming process. However, I think it’s necessary to bring this debate up in order to show the difference and the contrast among the many practices involved.

  1. Dialectics of the Difference

The proposal is: to create a dialectics of difference between analyst and analysand. That dialectics walks hand in hand with the notion of not knowing, something that is extremely valued by the author. In the dialectics of difference, the analyst becomes a subject in the analytical field—once she establishes a relation with her own subjectivity. It means that the analyst uses her subjective idiom on behalf of the analysis, therefore, Bollas acknowledges that the personal idiom always mediates the relation between the unconscious and its laws (BOLLAS, 1992, p.88). Bollas asserts that both Winnicott and Bion were courageous leaders in the evolution of the analyst as a subject, especially the last (BOLLAS, 1992, p.67). Many others—Marion Milner, Harold Searles—stop being just analysts-interpreters and try to become “subjects in the total field of analysis” (BOLLAS, 1992, p.68). That’s why he goes on and writes: “never two analysts would say the same thing to the same patient” (BOLLAS, 1992, p.88).

It is remarkably valuable for the readers when a psychoanalyst offers her mental framework as an invaluable source of information. That’s precisely what Bollas does. The changing from analyst-interpreter to subject in the field of psychoanalysis depends on the integrity of the relation between the analyst and her own subjectivity, and from the continuity of the auto-analysis. The proposal is to put together, or else, to associate “the narrative the analyst makes of her subjectivity to the analyst’s person” (BOLLAS, 1992, p.69).

We should bear in mind that the analysand notices the peculiar way in which his speech, dreams, and fantasies are organized by the analyst. What is more, the analysand accurately discerns many aspects of his analyst’s personality. Taking all that into account, Bollas’s proposal to change the analyst into the subject in the analytic field is simply more honest and more beneficial for both partners. That is to say, the analytic setting will count on two subjects, two subjectivities, the analyst’s, and the analysand’s. How is created, between them, the dialectics of difference? I’ll describe right below the steps for that to take place:

~ The analyst doesn’t agree with herself when she feels that the associations that led her to a certain interpretation is mistaken, or when she realizes, in the following session, that such interpretation supplants a previous observation. In that case, the analyst carries out a self-criticism and tells her patient: “I’m wrong”. I quote Bollas: “Whenever I disagree with myself, I destroy a previously established piece of knowledge. Subsequently, I make up its opposite, a space that has, now, a non-knowledge, and that recognizes the presence of a unthought known, which can find its way back to the knowing” (BOLLAS, 1992, p.82).

~ The analysand doesn’t agree with the analyst: whenever Bollas realizes that the analysand doesn’t agree with his interpretation, he doesn’t hesitate in saying: “You don’t agree”, and he tries to introduce the difference factor (BOLLAS, 1992, p.82). Thus, the dialectics of difference is slowly built up. The analysand has difficulties in diverging from the analyst, and, in order to establish the dialectics of difference, it is needed that the analyst guides the analysand towards that direction! I quote Bollas: “I want to be free to disagree with my analysand. And I want her to be likewise free to disagree with me. In my experience, the analyst can offer this option of disagreement right at the beginning of the analysis, even with those patients who are apparently so much narcissistic and borderline that one would think that they wouldn’t bear an interpretation they might consider as annoying or just mistaken” (BOLLAS, 1992, p.82). As a matter of fact, Bollas invites the analysand to dispose of the analyst’s associations or reflections that he, the patient, believe to be going awry; he suggests that the patient picks up the reflections she feels more pertinent, and she is even encouraged to choose the meanings from the analyst’s reflections (BOLLAS, 1992, p.85). That is to say that, in fact, each session is the result of a partnership.

~ The analyst doesn’t agree with the patient; in order to make that non-traumatic, and make it essential to the analysis, the analyst should express the possibility of disagreement, and that should be in an irrelevant moment, early on in the analysis. I quote Bollas: “I think I have a way of seeing what you said, a way that is different from your understanding of the subject. You said you don’t care about the facts you just reported, but I disagree: it’s clear they’re important” (BOLLAS, 1992, p.83). Bollas used to say to one of his schizophrenic patients, who very often got infuriated with him: “Well, we don’t agree, isn’t it? You think X, and you might be right. However, I think Y”. Consequently, it opens a new possibility to challenge the other, the patient. More interesting yet, if the patient idealizes the analyst and this interprets by asserting his subjective existence, the analyst offers herself to thought of as an object by the analysand! I quote Bollas again: “When I correct myself, when the patient corrects me, when I challenge the patient, when the patient challenges me, when I defy the patient, when the patient defies me, I figure out, during the sessions, what is for me a more trustworthy analytical mutuality” (BOLLAS, 1992, p.92). By her turn, the patient gains more trust in the partnership, as well.

~ Patients quite often need to know how the analyst thinks, before they commit themselves to figuring out their own selves, and Bollas provides all the relevant information: how he came to feel what he feels, how he reasons the way he does presently. That’s necessary and can address some patient’s basic needs: some of them need to be seen and reflected by a good and healthy container (BOLLAS, 1992, p.88).

~ Still trying to draw up the concept of dialectics of the difference, according to Bollas, it’s up for the analyst to unravel for the analysand more and more of the analytical proceedings. Which are the analyst’s psychic processes that lead him to a certain interpretation? I quote Bollas: “When a patient expresses the need to know why I conjured up one interpretation, I’ll tell her how I devised my interpretation. […] Sometimes the patient doesn’t ask me why I came to a certain interpretation, but I’ll say that I want to indicate how I came to it, and I’ll chart the road taken. That is one of the main aspects, both in authorizing and in limiting the function of the subjective” (BOLLAS, 1992, p.82). Bollas let his patient take a peek through a half-opened door to this psychic process, disclosing for the analysand some instances of the analyst’s thinking process.

To Bollas (it seems to me a crucial point!) the establishment of a dialectics of difference is all-important for the use that patient has to make of the analyst in the transference. I remark that because one could think that the dialectics of difference—that is, the relation between two subjectivities, so to speak, on equal foot—would hamper the patient’s regressive process, something that’s necessary and constitutive of a good analysis. It is so true! Taking advantage of the dialectics of difference, an intense transference regression—when the patient needs to get very ill in front of the analyst—might be held at the same time that the analyst performs his interpretative function.

Accordingly, the dialectics of difference—the analyst’s self-disagreement through self-analysis and counter-transference, the analysand’s disagreement with the analyst, which is stimulated by the analyst herself, and the analyst’s disagreement with the analysand—all of that engenders two subjects, two subjects in the analytical field, even though one of them is the analyst, and the other the analysand—even if, not rarely, they represent thought objects to one another. The places are preserved in the dialectics of difference, although they aren’t symmetrical as in the orthodox psychoanalysis. It is exactly in that “between”—of disagreements—that one opens up the possibility of not-knowing, or rather, of non-knowing embedded in the knowing, and of the knowing embedded in the not-knowing. Now, that is only possible by nurturing the dialectics of difference. It is so because the dialectics of difference is synonymous of the “between world”—that is my own perception–, and that is in this “between world” where the not-knowing inhabits.

  1. Knowing and Not-Knowing: A Key Point in the Analytical Game.

There’s an unavoidable tension—I would say a permanent one—between knowing and not-knowing, and that’s why not-knowing is an emotional achievement; no doubt it is a difficult achievement, but to Bollas it is a key point in the analytical game, if the analyst intends to reach the potential space that yields an inner analytical canvas where the analysand’s personal idiom is outlined. That personal idiom which, beyond the pulsional aspect, refers to the true self, to the states of the self and to the experiences of the self, ultimately accessible only through the analyst’s not-knowing. A particular kind of not-knowing is fundamental for the progressive registers of the self, and also—attention, please—to nurture an intimacy with the other. To be nurtured, the analytic intimacy demands not-knowing, and promotes, for both partners, a sort of pleasure, the pleasure of cultivating a potential space in one another’s mind. It also propitiates the opening of the potential space of and in the analytic session—it’s right there that the paradox of both knowing and not-knowing inhabits; in such emptied space, new meaning possibilities might emerge for both partners.

Bollas doesn’t hesitate to tell us the “extraordinary experience of not knowing what an analysis was, despite the fact of him being an analyst himself” (BOLLAS, 1992, p.73). To be an analyst is necessary to develop the not-knowing; until the end we don’t know what an analysis really is, nor who the analyst is. Does it mean that we are talking about someone who ignores his own being? To a certain extent, yes; and Bion (1970) unequivocally said the same when he referred to that mental structure deprived of memory and desire.

On a state of floating attention, for ten hours a day, and for thousands of hours during our analytic life, keeping oneself as much as possible without memory, without desire, and without rational comprehension, it is reasonable for us to think that we have a sense a little strange of our being as analysts. The same could be said of the analyst’s interpretations: where do they come from? Bollas answers: “one never knows” (BOLLAS, 1992, p.74). Nevertheless, we have already seen that the analyst Bollas, though not knowing the source of his interpretations, he can, to some degree, chart his mental itinerary, and show it to the analysand. By the way, he insists on the need of doing that.

Many factors are essential for the analyst so that she might give up of her knowing and, gradually, might deconstruct herself, in search of a not-knowing. I want to point out two of them:

  1. a) The personal idiom, the true self and/or personality—turned synonyms by Bollas—they’re innate, and this innate singularity aims at coming true; if the patient isn’t able to do that, he falls ill. We only know that, and that isn’t enough. We know very little of the true self, of the personal idiom.

Innatism is common in many psychoanalytical authors: Melanie Klein, Carl Jung, W. R. Bion, D. W. Winnicott. However, these pre-conceptions (Bion’s definition) cannot be conclusively explained. Bollas goes even further and contends that the nucleus of the personality—the personal idiom/the true self—is itself innate. We have to cope with the not-knowing since the very beginning, since the very beginnings of this impossible practice we call psychoanalysis.

  1. b) When everything goes well, when we find and internalize good transformational objects, starting with our mother, we externalize and build up progressively, in culture, our personal idiom/true self, and we continuously find and select new cultural objects to articulate them and disclose them to ourselves; but it makes us more and more mysterious, more and more puzzling. After all, being our own enigma is vital to our creativity.
  2. Wake up, Love, and Call the Thief! Call the Thief!

Now we have enough information to ask who are Bollas’s implicit interlocutors. I want to note that our author is very shy and definitely doesn’t want put himself against the psychoanalytic tradition, and I’m going to respect his position; however, by doing so, I’m going to bring up some of his implicit interlocutors anyways. His main implicit interlocutor is that kind of analyst who ensures himself, soothes himself, making use of a certain practical application of psychoanalysis, a dogmatized practice; such analyst knows what an analysis is, and he also knows what it is to be an analyst (BOLLAS, 1992, p.76-77). This kind of analyst is assured of his knowing and he’s far from cultivating any not-knowing—at least in the intensity with which Bollas invites us to do. Bollas doesn’t believe, too, that there’s something such as “interpretive neutrality” or a “surgical posture” […] that provides someone with a state of mind of emotional coldness” (BOLLAS, 1992, p.74).

I particularly like a phrase by Bollas that I’ve already quoted: “Never two analysts would say that same thing to the same patient” (BOLLAS, 1992, p.88). I take that phrase as an opening for the analyst to become, more and more, a subject in the analytical field, henceforth committed to his subjectivity, to his emotions—in place of the interpretive neutrality, and of the love some analysts show for the method!

Bollas takes a step further when he states: “I don’t agree with both those analysts who translate, systematically and rigorously, the patient’s speech into transference interpretations (all for the sake of pure analysis), and with those who believe that each patient needs a constant adaptation, affective and interpretative, on the analyst side, in order to feel herself understood” (BOLLAS, 1992, p.92). The first practice is simply boring and develops a vicious cycle for the interpretations; Bollas aptly tells us that such kind of practice erodes the analysand’s ability of self-analysis and “deform the conscience, leading it to a secondary process on the mentalization of the psych life, whereas, virtually any discourse can be immediately translated into a transference response” (BOLLAS, 1992, p.92). The second practice simply expels the analytical element from the analytical scene, inasmuch as the analyst search for positions of identification with the analysand in order to provide empathically adjusted answers.

The conditions for achieving the not-knowing, as well as a pleasure, as we have already seen, depend on the analyst becoming a subject in the analytical field; it’s also necessary to foster conditions that provide for a dialectics of difference. The not-knowing also derives from the staged destruction /deconstruction of knowing about the patient, therefore, there are people who don’t give it up anyway, so that the interpretation are bound to repeat themselves, even if there are some occasional variation, then the analysis discords with its own definition and purpose, morphing itself into a predictable routine. This analyst’s attitude of not being able to give up his knowing—giving up his interpretations which might even have previously been thought-provoking, but now are just a new and undesirable burden for the analysand—it guarantees that he, the analyst, “can keep his position”—transference position—and doesn’t compromise in absolute. Analysts of this strand, who seem to know so well her analysand, says Bollas, they, indeed, do not appreciate them.

I’ve noticed that Bollas doesn’t present on his books a complaint, that pops up very often among psychoanalyst of the orthodox school: the famous negative transference, which renders the patient “motionless”, turning him resistant to the analysis, and quite often into an aggressive type. In Bollas’s clinic it seems not to take place and, to my thinking, the reason is very simple: the negative transference and the resistance to analysis—which sometimes leads the patient to a particular kind of madness—are bred by the very analysis! They appear and they grow, and cause much suffering in the analysand, because of the asymmetry in the relations between analyst and analysand, once the analyst, contrary to Bollas’s procedures, impose her interpretations, and they might be very mistaken, but the analyst doesn’t apologize, instead, she clings to the psychoanalytic method, and to her own psychoanalytic theory, preaching it obsessively against the patient! I said it is a particular kind of madness because it comes about exactly at the very place where the patient assumed he would find help, that is, in the psychoanalyst office. “Call the thief, call the thief!”, that’s what the patient, submitted to such scenario, could say, in an appeal of supreme humor.

In Chico Buarque’s song Wake up, Love, “if you run, the beast catches you, if you stay, it eats you”. This is the patient’s dilemma above described, and it isn’t so unusual as we would like to think. It isn’t also rare that the patient gets expelled from a psychoanalyst’s office because he isn’t liable to be analyzed. In plain twenty-first century, we shouldn’t forget Karl Popper’s words about that kind of psychoanalysis: it isn’t scientific because there’s no way to “probe” the truth incorporated by the analyst and his method; it has always to do with the patient’s resistance. That is to say, to Popper, psychoanalysis would be a pseudoscience because it violates the principle of falsifiability, once the Freudian theories are irrefutable. Obviously, I don’t think so, but I believe some psychoanalytical practices effectively give such impression.

  1. Creation of Potential Space in the Setting

Ignoring is a precondition to knowing, and keeping in the analyst’s inner canvass the analysand’s personal idiom is fundamental. However, by means of her knowing deconstruction, and of the factor Bollas called dialectics of difference, and after many useful interpretations that free the analysand’s memories and inform him about his own way of functioning, it is created between them an emptied space, a potential space—paradoxical definition—a space which is unique of the session, one that can receive information from the unconscious pertaining to the two psychic systems, what, otherwise, would be impossible. What really matters here (and is very Bionian!) is this collecting vase that receives new inputs of meaning and unthought known.

Here, Bollas follows Bion step by step: remind that to Bion, the unthought known create the mental structure. That is to say, first the unthought known, which create the mental structure/ thinking device, shows up, and they shall think such unthought known. The thought comes before the thinking act! To Bollas, in the same fashion, the repeated correct associations made by the analyst—chosen and amended by the analysand—taking place during the analytical work, which contribute to the mental structure being developed in the sessions. He thinks that associations are reflections—and maybe we could call them unconscious thoughts. He defines as “processing medium” the mental structure that is built up, step by step, by both partners. Previously, I’ve called that a “potential space” in/of the analysis. I think that for those who have a Bionian/Winnicottian feeling, the development of such potential space or processing medium is something infinitely more attractive than the orthodox psychoanalytic practice.

According to Bollas, that’s the way we establish a “basic dialectics, a dialectics I believe to be present in the essence of creativity, in the living, a dialectics between the knowing (the organization, the vision, the becoming coherent) and the not-knowing (the relaxation, the not perceiving) (BOLLAS, 1992, p.80). The author adds that it is what makes possible “a feeling of trust in the process of reflection” (BOLLAS, 1992, p.85) and what allows the analysand to use such thinking process on his behalf.

For all these reasons, I’ve found in Bollas’s propositions, in the resignification of the setting, a source of smart and honest ideas in relation to the other, the other-patient. To conclude, a sort of bombastic Bollasian assertion: “There isn’t such thing as the psychoanalytical practice” (BOLLAS, 1992, p.92). That assertion invites us to take into account the multiple practices available and, surely, to “create our own practice” (BOLLAS, 1992, p.92).



[1] BOLLAS. Christopher. “The Wall and the Interpretations”. In: Forces of Destiny—Psychoanalysis and human idiom. R. J. Imago, 1992.

[2] A semiannual magazine of psychoanalysis, edited in São Paulo, by the Sedes Sapientiae Institute.

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