Vera Barbosa 



Review of Sarah Nettleton’s The Metapsychology of Christopher Bollas: An Introduction, Sao Paulo, Escuta, 2018. 

Key words: Christopher Bollass metapsychology, personal idiom, receptive unconscious, unthought known. 

In about thirty years of direct contact with the Bollasian work, Sarah Nettleton, a psychoanalyst in London, had the opportunity to examine the author’s thinking, to be supervised by himself, and to become one of the editors of his books. Determined to share her experience, she has taught Bollas’s theories in various countries. 

In 2017, Sarah’s book The Metapsychology of Christopher Bollas: An Introduction, was published by Routledge, in England, and is now released in Brazil by Editora Escuta, in an exquisite translation by Liracio Jr. and preface by Amnéris Maroni. 

Enthusiastic and inspiring, Sarah fluently guides the reader through the work of this psychoanalyst whose contribution to contemporary psychoanalysis is of unquestionable importance. Bollas comes from literature, history, and the arts; he is the author of some books in these fields, but Sarah’s guide deals specifically with the author’s psychoanalytic work. 

Bollas started his psychoanalytic training at the British Society of Psychoanalysis. He studied and worked at the Tavistock clinic, trained at the Institute of Psychoanalysis, became interested in French psychoanalysis, and worked with J. B. Pontalis and André Green. He was professor of psychoanalysis at the University of Rome. He held workshops with psychoanalysts in Sweden, Germany, and USA. He has received considerable influence from psychoanalysts such as H. Kohut, W. R. Bion, J. Lacan and D. W. Winnicott. He made a return to S. Freud and created a work integrated by a theoretical plurality endorsed by this unusual variety of influences, which allows him a style and language of his own. That is what Sarah shows us in her book. Sarah introduces Bollas’s ways of expanding the language of psychoanalysis, as well as his comprehensive model of psychic functioning. Because this model is not systematically organized in the author’s writings, Sarah structured her book in a way that enables the reader to understand the framework of Bollasian thinking, by pointing to the location and access to essays and concepts in his work. It is from this perspective that Sarah’s book can be considered a guide, or as she herself puts it, “a kind of route map”, which allows the reader to better apprehend and immerse into Bollas’s work. 

The book has 12 chapters that address the central themes of the Bollasian theory and technique, such as the receptive unconscious, the psychic genera, the personal idiom, the unthought known, the self and the character, the evocative object, the unconscious complexity, the free association and the Freudian pair. With indications of location of each one of them in the book. 

Initially, Sarah deals with the psychic duality, a modality existing from the birth as forms of being, whose balance influences all aspects of the relations with intrapsychic life and with the world. Several pairs of concepts such as the repressed unconscious and the receptive unconscious, the psychic genera, and the psychic trauma represent this duality, which pervades all the Bollasian metapsychology. Throughout the chapters, we are shown how Bollas goes beyond the classical psychoanalytical concepts and presents new ones. Starting from the Freudian unconscious, he does not cling to the repressed unconscious, but includes and explores the concepts of receptive unconscious, creative unconscious and psychic genera, suggesting the presence of other mechanisms crucial for the expansion of the mind and for the development of the self, and proposes a new metapsychological model. In his model, the process of creative receptivity is the process by which the unconscious mind expands and is structured, dynamically and changeably, engendering a particular type of psychic organization of experience that results in new and creative conceptions of life. 

To understand this theme, Bollas invites us to think of dreaming. He says that dream is an unconscious process of complex creative activity, sophisticated thinking that contemplates past, present and future and brings together thousands of thoughts and affections implicit in the experiences of the day. The dream constitutes complex object relations, in which the figure of the dreamer appears with his many selves, while one part is represented as the self that experiences, the others can appear as characters of the drama. A theater, whose plot content cannot be the fruit of a repressed unconscious, but of a receptive, intelligent, and creative unconscious. 

Sarah makes it clear how Bollas reviews valuable concepts of psychoanalysis and re-signifies them. Among them is the concept of self: for Bollas, there is a plural and unlimited self, constituted and organized through intersubjective relationship, according to the internalized parental process. A self that is, at the same time, subject and object, one that dialogues with itself in order to organize the daily life, to expand lived experiences throughout life and to manage feelings. This self has an essential core, which provides a unique aesthetic form of being for each person, which Bollas calls the personal idiom. Idiom is a kind of fingerprint, it simply exists, and it is irreducible and irreplaceable. It has an innate drive to express and elaborate itself, and it actively seeks interaction with the outside world, relationships with cultural and social devices, encounters with objects that enable creative and transformational engagement. 

The personal idiom begins to be developed in the first phase of an infant’s life, prior to language, when the first transformational object — the mother — is perceived as a process of transformation and will influence the baby throughout life. The mother teaches the child her logic, the child assimilates it operationally, and before she is capable of mental representations, she already has the foundations of being and relating. As Bollas says in The Shadow of the Object, “the grammar of being precedes the grammar of the object.” This knowledge transmitted by parental relations and acquired by the baby was not established through mental representations and becomes part of what the author define as unthought known, one of the central concepts of his theory. The unthought known is made up of existential experiences that create unconscious grammars of being and relating and changes of baby self state; such experiences are deeply formative, but they are not consciously remembered, they are not thought of. 

Bollas refers to the language of the self, whose grammar we mentioned above, with the term character. The way we interact, as we unconsciously communicate with our objects, reveals ourselves to the other, but never to ourselves. There is, then, a disconnect between our awareness of ourselves and the unconscious effect we have on others. When faced with what the world perceives, we feel an impact because we can never know our own character. 

In his theory of the receptive unconscious, Bollas shows the importance of the object world for the formation and functioning of the mind, of the selection and use of objects as a means of expressing and elaborating the personal language. There is a stage when the child becomes aware of the integrity of the object that Bollas defines as perceptual identification; this stage involves the recognition that the object has a distinct existence of the self and that the self is affected by the object, and, at this stage, it is the specificity of the object that matters. The object is perceived by its own identity and loved by what it is not because it reflects the self; therefore, the object has a distinct existence of the self, being the self affected by it, which causes the jouissance of difference. For Bollas we seek and select objects that offer different forms of experiences, which affect us structurally by their individual and conceptual integrity. And there is no difference to the unconscious between an animate and inanimate evocative object, in fact, every time there is an encounter, the aspects of the inanimate environment will also affect us because we are affected by the structural integrity of the thing itself. Bollas writes that we can use an object both for projective purposes, for projective identification with the object, and for interaction, and these two aspects, projective and perceptual, tend to occur simultaneously. However, not every object is evocative, we also have the terminal objects, which incorporate primitive states of defense and renunciation and do not allow the elaboration of the idiom, and they disconnect the subject from his unconscious creativity and his desire to connect with the external life. The choice of the object is a form of unconscious thought that meets some internal need of the moment. 

The concepts appear to be separate in Bollasian metapsychology, but they are closely connected and the analyst must keep this complexity in mind to avoid reductions and to creatively explore the analysand’s internal and external relationships in order to allow him to develop consciousness and curiosity about the complexity of his worlds. Bollas emphasizes free association as a means of gaining access to the thread of the complex web of the unthought known, which through association will gain access to consciousness. Central in any analysis, free association is the basis of psychoanalytic work with all kinds of pathologies. It is a therapeutic process in itself, a tool that develops the capacity for new connections with the unconscious and the creative elaboration of the personal idiom and the transformation of the self. For this to happen, it is critical that the analysand is encouraged to speak freely about what goes through his mind, and that the analyst should remain in a state of suspended, receptive, but not intrusive attention. This enables the analyst to articulate, explore and understand the contents that emerge from the complexity of the unconscious. The communication of the unconscious, given in this new relation of object Bollas calls the Freudian pair, reveals the analyst’s unconscious wisdom and the analyst’s ability to respond unconsciously. 

All these theoretical concepts allow openness in the analyst’s experience with his patient. Belonging to in a single school of psychoanalysis, in Bollas’s view, restricts the analyst to a unique way of thinking and relating to his patient. The greater the scope of the analyst, the greater the potential to go beyond the analysis of pathologies, to attain the complexity of the mind, and to enable the transformation of the self. For this reason, in spite of offering a different model of the structure and functioning of the mind, Bollas defends theoretical pluralism. 


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