Christopher Bollas’s Poetic Listening



João Paulo Ayub


“…when it comes to character reception, the analyst’s sensibility is akin to the frame of mind one is in when listening to poetry”.

Christopher Bollas


Christopher Bollas is a singular author within the psychoanalytic tradition. Such a statement could be illustrated from an ensemble of concepts, theories, and developments in clinical practice that abound in his books (The Shadow of the Object, Forces of Destiny, Being a Character, The Freudian Momentum, among many others). Or, taking into account his (political) proposal of a possible (non-destructive) coexistence between schools of psychoanalysis, we again find ourselves in front of a leading figure in an environment so often muffled by the noisy sound of centralizing and excluding figures and groups.

Considering his essay ‘Character and Interformality’, which integrates the essay collection The Christopher Bollas Reader, I would like to think about the singularity of Bollasian psychoanalytic proposal in terms of a precious encounter between psychoanalysis and art/literature1. In other words, I want to highlight what qualifies his work as a true guide to the poetic listening to the human experience. From his encounter with the literary expression Bollas extracted not only the foundations of his intellectual formation (it is worth remembering that he wrote a doctoral thesis on literature, besides being the author of three published novels). His look on the aesthetic experience constitutes a kind of pulsing core of his thought, and it is also a lively account from which he articulates the human event to its great creative potentialities and ways of living.

For Bollas, the life that unfolds in “forms of being and of relating” can only be properly understood and experienced through an opening (reception) essential to the “play of forms” that constitutes it. We are faced with a fundamentally procedural conception of human life: the flow of life, the Being made through process, is form and formation in the world and relationships… In a unique fashion, Christopher Bollas sets out in search of this dimension of human existence which is not exhausted in the symbolic register of language (“the verbalized”), which articulates itself beyond/below it, in a paradoxical movement between the ‘sayable’ and the unspeakable in all experience. Exactly because it is quite sensitive to the Being that escapes the attempts of framing, classification and description, what matters in the Bollasian psychoanalysis the “being-as-being”, which manifests itself in addition to explicit contents or themes: “In an analysis, (We shall see below that the perception to which Bollas refers is a singular quality of listening, welcoming and expressing forms or traits that are unconsciously hinted — the ‘receptive unconscious’” — in the encounter between two or more selves.)

There is, in this way of conceiving the experience, the refusal of a precedence of the representational domain in the scope of human relations. The quality of the experience that interests the author is one that is “presented” at each time, at each encounter, through a “deep communication” between two idioms… an exchange of possible forms (‘interformality’) and ways of being which are carried out in the movement which consists in affecting and being affected by the other (and by the world)… This movement, witnessed by the author himself in his own friendship relations, cannot be described or formulated in words:

My friends and I can talk about all kinds of things, but there is one profound issue that we can never put into words. I cannot tell my friend why they are so important to me, how I feel the shape of their being carrying itself through me, residually organized in an internal matrix of the mind assigned to their being; nor can I ask ‘who am I?’ — much as I would be most curious to love to know who I am to my others.

In order to try to grasp what escapes the contained/manifest meaning of the words/narratives, Bollas goes towards literary expression, carrying the notion of character into clinical practice. The character, as a set of traits or shapes, corresponds to the “DNA of individual being. One’s self as idiom of form…” It is not just a set of meanings (contents) gathered around closed individualities, but a “pattern of being and relating generated by each person’s self’s idiom.” Thus, for Bollas the human character is much more than a set of meanings, traits, names and descriptions, but everything that in-forms the experience through actions: “Character speaks through musical objects, through painting, through dance, and so forth.”

Literature, cinema and theater are therefore a privileged place of aesthetic inscription, that is, an enabling environment for the play of the forms and ways of being that give life and feed to the characters. For example, we might think of the aesthetic quality of the “dancing plastic bag” scene in Sam Mendes’s American Beauty film and the meaning of that “play of forms” for the formation of Ricky Fitts’s character, a young man that feeds on the images captured on his camera2.

Ricky, Jane e a dança do saco plástico



In American Beauty the meaning of life is experienced in an agonizing way. The characters seem to be doomed to the emptied existence of the American suburbs. And the shapes captured by Ricky’s lenses reveal themselves in moments of deep gentleness, loneliness and helplessness. In a moment we are faced with a true ‘aesthetic moment’, Bollas would tell us, capable of restoring (evoking) experience to a way of being that goes beyond the immanent register of a life that has been emptied, of human relations that are brutally impoverished. Faced with the images of the plastic bag dancing in the wind, Ricky tells Jane Burnham:

Do you want to see the most beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed? It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing, and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. And this bag was just, dancing with me, like a little kid beggin’ me to play with it—for fifteen minutes. And that’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember—I need to remember. Sometimes, there’s so much beauty in the world—I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart is just going to cave in.

The bag was “dancing” with Ricky; the shapes captured by him made up his character’s idiom… and, as a kind of great treasure kept, Ricky lent his “play of forms”, or way of being, to his friend Jane, revealing through his idiom “this great life behind things”. Ricky’s dissatisfaction with the playback of the scene in the video (“it is a lower replacement”) makes us think, as well, of the impossibility of representing the aesthetic experience experienced by the character. However, Ricky recognizes the quality of memory evoked by images… the procedurality of forms is unrepresentable and indescribable, but it can and must be recollected! At the end of the scene, Ricky finds himself totally overwhelmed by the recorded beauty, and Jane, as if sending back to Ricky the impression of the “effect” caused by his character, shakes his hand.

Character exists as a mode of action; and, as it is acting and performing, there is always a gap, in mental exercise, which needs to apprehend the character’s “effect”: “The character of the analysand uses the analyst through countless micro-actions that in-form the analyst of that individual’s idiom. The challenge of this fact of life is that we cannot translate it into words.” Communication between characters entails enormous complexity. According to Bollas, in a given representation of the self or other, one must be able to perceive what appears unconsciously (“unconscious form of the narrative”), revealing an “unthought known.” As Bollas shows in his relationship with his friends, it does not matter so much what is said, when the essential, “the shape of their being carrying itself through me,” is inapprehensible in terms of a purely descriptive account… This form of “deep communication” between two selves, which Bollas calls “interformality” (which should not be mistaken for intersubjectivity), gains its specificity if we think of the living and dynamic context of the “analysis setting” (a “theater” specially designed for the expression and recognition of the analysand’s aesthetic form). In this sense, it is up to the analyst to perceive/welcome the traits in the analysand’s character:

To analyse, in this area, is to engage in perceptive identification, which is derived from the work of the receptive unconscious.

To receive another’s character requires an unconscious decision on the recipient’s part to allow this. This decision may be communicated as the intelligence of reception, the capacity to allow the self to be impressed by the other. The roots of this capacity are pleasurable; they reside in the mother’s receptive relation to her infant, and we carry it forward as adults in the way we enjoy receiving other people and the object world.

To engage this receptiveness in the psychoanalytic space the analyst must empty his mind, to be in Bion’s terms ‘without memory or desire’, so that unconscious character-perception is possible.

It is crucial to say that the verbal dimension of this encounter based on interformality, when the analyst participates in the reception of the analysand’s idiom, owes its existence to the need of witnessing on the part of the analyst. Witnessing, in the sense expressed by Bollas, does not refer to the analyst’s interpretations and comments on the analysand. Witnessing the forms that make up the analysand’s idiom is a unique way of being present and perceiving the character’s aesthetic form: “Indescribable, yet at the heart of human communication, this fact needs verbal witnessing.”

The poetic listening proposed by the Bollas’s psychoanalytic approach is, I believe, one of the great moments of expression of the singularity of his thought. Bollas has allowed the clinical practice (and beyond) the reception and recognition of an aesthetically qualified existence, as it is clear in this beautiful passage:

People may be drawn to one another because of similarities in their personal tastes and formal approaches to life, or they may be attracted to differences, but either way in a thriving interformal relation the participants will be inviting greater, deeper and more extensive interformality. Two people who are intimately into one another have found ways to engage one another’s formal expressions. Actions may be few, words silent, but there will be a matrix of formal understandings. Form to form, one being to another being, is part of the unthought known. The unthought known may indeed be the basis of a jouissance of the interformal real, the bliss of thoughtless engagement between self and other.

Bollas’s psychoanalytic project confers ontological dignity to the procedural nature of the encounters and their sensitive dimension (aesthetic experience). I have tried to illustrate it here by resorting to Bollas’s aesthetic/literary form of the character. It is a bet on the experience that does not allow itself to be flatten by impoverished representational contents. And this is, no doubt, something extremely important.


  1. The passages quoted throughout this commentary were all taken from the essay ‘Character and Interformality’. Bollas, Christopher. The Christopher Bollas Reader. Routledge, 2011.

2.Available at:


The Christopher Bollas Reader. ´Caracter and Interformality´. London/New York. Routledge. 2011.


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