‘Character and interformality’ is one of the most impressive chapters from the book The Christopher Bollas Reader, published in London in 2011. Since his first books, in the late 80’s, especially in Forces of Destiny, which now gains a new translation and edition by the Brazilian publishing house Escuta, Bollas has dealt with the debate on the “true self” as the core of our being, a legacy D. Winnicott. In the Preface, written by Bollas for this 2018 new English edition (included in the Brazilian translation), the American psychoanalyst opens some doors of perception concerning this discussion which I believe it find a more finished formulation exactly in this chapter that we translate and we are posting in the blog Why Bollas.
In his new Preface, Bollas states that the Winnicottian heritage was an important move in the development a psychoanalysis of the human character. Bollas’s ambition is to draw a theory of “subject relations” — something new if we take into account the vast contribution of the multiple schools of psychoanalysis to a theory of “object relations”. For that purpose, the author suggests we conceptualize the true self as our only form-in-being, or idiom that expresses itself through our effects on the other: a process that we called “interformality”, in 2011, and draws our attention.
In this chapter, Bollas discusses character and character disorders, re-signifying this discussion from Winnicott — this interest in character, in psychoanalysis, has been present in S. Freud, W. Reich, and Karl Abraham.
In his book Hysteria (Escuta, 2000), Bollas allows us to understand the relationship between his metapsychology and the psychopathology when he shows the difference between character and character disorder. Our character and our idiom can unfold and, through such process, they gain a trajectory, a destiny, even though we might have many psychopathological traits: neurotic, hysterical, autistic, psychotic. The psychopathological traits do not prevent the unfolding of our idiom/character. And yet, when we have a character disorder, when we are fixed on the mother, in the pregenital phase, we develop a hysteria, a perversion, a psychosis, a phantasmagorical personality… Fixed in the mother figure, we are predictable, we repeat the scenes endless times and of course, we are ‘tellable’, but we cannot unfold our personal idiom, our character, our true self. Character disorders put a halt to someone’s trajectory, imposing a painful fate. The true self will only be able to unfold again when and if the analysis free the patient from his fixations, especially from the fixation on the mother. Liberated, character unfolds itself, and Bollas’s metapsychology shows all its power.
These are the main points structuring this brilliant chapter, ‘Character and Interformality’. It is already clear, I suppose character/idiom/true self are, for Bollas, synonymous references opposing character disorders. Put differently, if a character disorder emerges, a part of the being — and who knows how big that part can be! — will petrify. From here on the proper adventure of this chapter begins.
According to Bollas, we can narrate, from various perspectives, the character disorders, when the character/idiom becomes petrified in psychopathology and can no longer unfold. And yet, without psychopathological entrapment, the word does not reach the character, the form, the person’s idiom! The character — the true self for Winnicott — generates an infinite number of spontaneous variations from his central aesthetic intelligence.
A person’s biography may, of course, be written, but something escapes the best biographer’s grasp, because the personal idiom, the aesthetics of being cannot be expressed! To describe the immanent is always a temptation and arouses an unusual pleasure, and yet we cannot do it to the end. By that I mean that a self — its contents, its trajectory, its history, its tastes, aspects of its personality — may be represented to a certain extent, but the character/idiom does not re-present itself, they demand to be presented: the word it does not reach them. A person’s spirit cannot be represented!
A patient in a psychoanalytic setting will use the word and the analyst will interpret sequences of unconscious thoughts, but in relation to the personal character/idiom that the analyst experiences with his patient and vice-versa cannot fit the interpretations, perhaps some observations; the character is irreducible, it is not susceptible of changes, transformations and interpretations.
The character, rather, the exchange between characters — analyst and analysand, teacher and students, among friends — is transforming by the affections they trigger, by the effects, by the movement they produce. By action. A fruitful exchange between characters is a guide to action. And yet, the characters cannot be described or expressed. Then the silence imposes itself and the omnipotence of saying everything, through the word, crumbles. We have to accept the idea that something exists and… yet give up the effort to verbalize it. Why is a character’s aesthetic/idiom so transformative for me? Why are the impressions of this character, in my being, so indelible, irreplaceable, magical in its ability to produce an unforgettable fold? Quite often our encounter with another character is traumatic and not infrequently we need to speak, speak, speak and… we fail in the attempt to represent the presentations of the lived experience. It is this profound communication that matters, and yet nothing can be said about it!
When we have a lot of familiarity with someone — parents, patients, friends, a great love — we can, without they telling us, to guess who he/she has been with because we might quickly perceive the thoughts and feelings projected on him. This kind of unconscious communication is called projective identification in psychoanalysis. But it’s not about it we’re talking about when we refer to characters’ exchanges. For this last exchange, projections, identifications, representations are not enough.
In the exchanges between characters what counts are the affections, the effects, the movements triggered between the two participants in this deep communication, a singular feast of intimacy. And to better understand such exchange, we need to use perceptual identification, and with it a reception intelligence: the ability to allow the self to be impressed by the other.
To wrap up, I ask: Does the Bollas’s character affect you, move you, guide you?
The BOLLAS, Christopher Reader. ‘Character and interformality’. London/New York. Routledge, 2011.