Christopher Bollas and the “Elaboration of the Self”: Experience and Uniqueness

by João Paulo Ayub


Elaborate Selves: Reflections and Reveries (Routledge) is a volume of interviews published in 1997, in which some psychoanalysts and culture scholars were invited to compose a set of analyses and reflections on the “status of the self in the contemporary world”.1 According to Anthony Molino, interviewer and book editor, the breakdown of traditional or even of those identities founded on the pillars of modern rational knowledge, as well as the proliferation of socio-political phenomena responsible for the “undoing” of time/space in experience throughout the globe, make it extremely pressing to think and understand the constituent elements of subjectivity. Montaigne’s epigraph, which opens the presentation of the book, gives the tone of the challenge to the interviewees: “We are all made up of fragments…” Thinking the Self among the fragmented parts that constitute it requires, therefore, an effort of transversality between knowledge and practice from different fields of research.fingerprint

Psychoanalysis, as a spearhead subject of the twentieth century (considering that Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams waits for the date of 1900 to be published), has responded, since the beginning, in its own way and with considerable success, to the challenges of thinking about the decentralization of the subject in modernity. In this sense, the investigation of subjectivity gained a hitherto unpublished record from the investigations of Freud and his successors on the human unconscious.

Christopher Bollas, psychoanalyst and author who interests us in this brief commentary, is the first interviewee presented in the book with an interview given to the anthropologist and literary scholar Anthony Molina. One can say that Bollas stands out as a thinker deeply committed to the Freudian heritage and its developments: it is worth mentioning Bollas’s recurring references to the invention of the psychoanalytic session and the ‘way of thinking’ stemming from the encounter between patient and analyst, which he calls the ‘Freudian pair’. However, going beyond his Viannese master, he would already be in a position to claim, from his work that is composed of literary and psychoanalytic writings, a unique position among great thinkers of culture dedicated to the unfathomable meanders of existence. Bollas’s writings dazzles people in the field of psychoanalytic studies (his natural environment of intellectual formation and clinical trajectory), but not only. His gaze on the Self — on the modes of development that constitute it — also invites a common thought to the other areas of the humanities.39961757-fingerprint-wallpapers

Many questions pertaining to Bollas’s intellectual formation, his analytical experiences, and his own psychoanalytic affiliation go through the astonishing and friendly interaction of questions and answers throughout the interview. Among them we find curious remarks about the influences to a certain extent ‘veiled’ from the French psychoanalytic tradition, about the unfolding of its theoretical development. His father, of French origin, would be, for Bollas, this natural and unthinking entry into French thinking and its singularities. All this gains a special nuance from a look at the whole of his work, since the English psychoanalytic school is somewhat more evident among its sources of inspiration in psychoanalysis. England was the country chosen by Bollas to continue his training after moving from the United States, at a time when he discovered the psychoanalytic thinking. However, it is worth emphasizing that Bollas’s outstanding place is due to his ability to reinvent the tradition inaugurated by Freud (or speech, as Foucault wanted) and to drive it through territories never before covered by analytical thinking. And here I am referring especially to the theme of human uniqueness and its record in experience, a kind of very particular unfolding of the self that Bollas called “personal idiom.”

The understanding of the universe of experience and its implication in psychic development constitute a precious key to Bollas’s investigations into the elaboration of the Self. At some point in that interview, Anthony Molina — the interviewer who pursues Bollas’s conceptual developments at the same time as the conversation between the two admits of advances and creative retreats proper to dream — recovers the etymology of the word ‘experience’, highlighting its connotations of ‘trying’ ‘risk’ , ‘adventure’… elements imprinted in this ‘crossing’ or ‘passing’ that also come close to ‘fear’ and ‘danger’… this way of looking at the subjective realms of human experience, as well recognizes Molina, is, for Bollas, ‘pivotal’, and must be considered “from the cradle to the grave.”

His attentive gaze on experience has made possible a rich thought of such uniqueness, as opposed to the structural determinants of psychic development that imprison subjects in a limited series of registers that can be universalized: it is worth remembering the two main forms/psychoanalytic boxes of the twentieth century, hysteria and neurosis, responsible for the formatting of clinical experience. In this sense, a decided bet of the psychoanalyst is given to the component of ‘mystery’ that entails the endless adventure in which individuals engage themselves. Through a gesture that resounds a deep respect for the immanence of relationships and the irreducibility of the events that form the existence, Bollas admits ‘a non-knowledge’ in front of the unique design of each individual:

Anthony Molina: Again, on the true self, you write: “A genetically biased set of dispositions, the true self exists before object relating. It is only a potential, however, because it depends on maternal care for its evolution.” This could read like an essentialist argument, one that some orthodox Jungians might favor. Was that your intention?

Christopher Bollas: No, though I don’t disagree it’s an essentialist position. I am arguing that we begin life with an essential core, with a nucleus of logic… logical nuclei… or, let us say, with “positions” waiting to come into existence, that we somehow have to account for. How can each infant be so different from any other infant? Forces of Destiny had on the cover sets of human fingerprints. So, what is the psychic correlate of the human fingerprint? I think there is something psychically as irreducibly different about each newborn as the irreducible difference of a fingerprint. And because I don’t know where this intuition comes from, I rest back in the area of genetic predisposition. Of course, there is a fetal existence, the incredible evolution before birth when the fetus is influenced by the world and engaged in relation to the inside of the mother’s body, and to objects beyond the inside of the body. Already then, the “something” that we are is in the beginning of a process of fragmentation, of a creative fragmentation that depends on both its own creativity, as well as on the mother’s and the father’s medium of care: on whether objects are provided for infant and child to use and through which to disseminate themselves.

It becomes clear to Bollas, in this part of the interview, that there is no explanation for the advent of the uniqueness (‘true self’ or ‘fingerprint’), but the acceptance of his infinite character that results in a process of permanent demands: the self ‘wishes’ to be unique, and, to do so, it unfolds itself in the midst of the tessitura of destiny. Stepping back to the initial question by Molina, the one about the confirmation of a fragmented and even multiple nature of subjectivity in contemporaneity, it is possible to think with Bollas that, despite this tendency of the self in singling out, it is always possible to record the possible contours of experience… the contours of the domains of experience depends upon its unfolding, multiplication, or even, at worst, its petrification. A life of impoverished experiences and relationships devoid of meaning has repercussions on an egoic development equally impoverished, making it impossible for the self to unfold.

For Bollas, it is through a permanent taking risk that experience, with all that it bears of an “unthought known” (the self, the ‘personal idiom,’ the receptive unconscious, etc.), that one sets out in search of “aesthetic moments” capable of providing new outcomes of the self on the elements of culture: a poem, a song, a novel, a film, a landscape, etc… As Bollas says: “creative dissemination of the self in formation.” His experience with Melville’s Moby Dick is also presented during the interview. Recalling his studies in literature, Bollas mentions, taking himself as a reference, the moment in which parts of the self borrowed the aesthetic elements of the book, and used it in order to be transformed into new modes of being.

For all this, it is possible to say that the encounter between Bollas and Molina surprises us mainly because we are introduced to a psychoanalysis capable of betting on the transforming capacity of the ‘transformational objects’ (another important Bollasian conceptual key, which concerns the process in which it is given to the self the possibility of unfolding in the world), and that is not bound to the determinants of a fault inscribed in a distant childhood past… Conversely, from Bollas we have an opening to a beautiful glance towards the future.


  1. In addition to Christopher Bollas, Michael Eigen, Polly Young-Eisendrath, Samuel and Evelyn Laeuchli and Marie Coleman Nelson are the other interviewees in the book.