THE ORANGE COUNTY PSYCHOLOGIST FEBRUARY 1993
The Shadow of the Object by Christopher Bollas Reviewed by: Lawrence E. Hedges, PhD
The British Independent Group of psychoanalysts over the years has claimed a number of remarkable and original thinkers, but none more articulate and clarifying of our work than Christopher Bollas. A native son of Laguna Beach, California, Bollas completed a Masters degree in Social Work at Smith College and his doctoral work in literature at the University of Buffalo prior to pursuing training as a psychoanalyst in the British Psycho-Analytical Society.
Bollas’ brilliant and insightful papers since 1979 have been collected and reworked in his book. The Shadow of the Object. But the roots of Bollas’ thinking are nowhere more evident than in his 1974 paper, “Character: Language of the Self,” which unfortunately was not re-published in the collection. In this scholarly paper, Bollas reviews Freud and others on the topic of remembering and repeating. Bollas takes the position that character is essentially a form of memory. He develops the thesis that each individual has a particular character that is an Idiom through which the person both remembers and expresses memories from early childhood. He argues that the classical theory of character is not sufficient to explain how each of us differs and how our characters constitute a unique type of language through which we express daily the history of our self. I believe this paper is the only one of its type in the literature, in that it makes character come alive as something that is critical memory to be listened to as the clinical situation unfolds.
Of special interest is another paper, also not included in the collection, “The Aesthetic Moment and the Search for Transformation” (1978). As a student of art and literature, Bollas has developed a keen interest in the nature of the aesthetic experience, the nature of the aesthetic moment. He reviews many notions about aesthetics from artists, art critics, and a variety of others. He asks, “When we look at a beautiful landscape, or sit before a painting, look at a sculpture, or read a text, and we feel a sense of inspiration or awe, what is the nature of that sense or feeling? What exactly is the aesthetic moment, a moment that exists in time?” We should not be surprised that in developing his thesis, Bollas takes us back to the primordial union of mother and child. He considers the aesthetic moment as an occasion in which the subject feels as if he or she is being cradled by space and time itself. The aesthetic experience recreates an early ego memory when our reverie was provided by maternal attentiveness, and when we lived in states of transformation sustained by some form of love and perceptive acuity that came from outside us, from the mothering environment.
“The Transformational Object” (1979, in 1987, pp. 13-29) contains the kernel of almost everything Bollas later considers. In this paper, he argues that the infant’s earliest experience of the mother is not as an object but as a process. The infant’s state of mind and physical being are actively and regularly transformed by the mother’s mental and physical activities. These alterations or transformations occur before constant object recognition is possible, so that it is ironic that these basic identifications with the mother’s carets king processes and with the transformations of self states are, in (act, correct, though magical, in their origins. Bollas points out that Freud unwittingly (and forgivably) created an ambiance in arranging the psychoanalytic situation such that the transformational aspects of early mothering are acted out, or lived through, by two people in the course of psychoanalysis. The body of Bollas’ work focuses on this central transformational feature of the analytic environment and of appropriate resulting analytic technique, aspects which have largely escaped our attention just as they escaped Freud’s.
One brilliant tour de force first presented at the Helsinki Congress in August, 1981, is “The Self as an Object” (1987, pp. 41-63). This paper is of extreme clinical value because it opens for consideration an entire realm of transference possibilities that have been little attended to prior to this time. Bollas develops the thesis that each of us looks after our self as an object of our perception and of our management. He explores different ways in which we take our selves as objects. The way we think about our selves, the way we talk to our selves, the way we take care of our selves, the things we believe we deserve for our selves, the abuse we manage to offer to our selves-all of these are ways in which we notice, handle, manage, think about, and experience our selves as objects. Taking our self as an object recreates important transference elements of early object relations in which we were the object of the other’s care.
“The Self as an Object” and “The Transformational Object” provide a nucleus of Bollas’ thinking, which promotes listening during the clinical hour for the variety of ways in which people experience themselves, the analytic ambience, the analyst, the transformational process, and various aspects of the countertransference. In the paper on the relation to the self, Bollas uses the word “countertransference” in a way we have not heard before, when he talks about the person’s beginning protest of the way that they find themselves caring for themselves. That is, as various relations to the self as an object begin to wax more clearly through time, the analyst is in a position to help support ever-so-slight movements or impulses against mat treatment of the self. Such protests Bollas refers to as countertransference to the treatment of the self as an object, and are traceable to the ways in which the nascent self was regarded and treated by early love objects.
Throughout Bollas’ papers we find ah extraordinary balance of theoretical idea with clinical material. He has a gift for being able to speak an idea he is sketching out, a notion that he is playing with in his mind, and to enrich it with human example. As we read his work we have the sense that he is always creating, that he is vitally alive when working and writing, that he is carefully thinking about himself and about experiences of his reader. We sense he is having fun experiencing himself and experiencing the people he works with. He tells us the idea he is considering and then tells us about the people who have helped him give flesh to his sketch.
“The Trisexual” (1987, pp. 82-98) is an extended case study. He develops the thesis that there is a particular type of narcissistic character who seduces members of both sexes in order to appropriate sexuality and, eventually, to defeat sexuality. The trisexual does this successfully, and his partners do not find themselves hating him as he is known to be rather an extraordinary character and his many loves are no secret to anyone. Indeed, he introduces his new lover into rather privileged social relations. “The essence of his unconscious activity is to engage both sexes and himself in adoring regard for his body self, such that his continued presence in the lives of his former lovers is as a memory of sweet embraces. This constitutes an eroticization of memory that Bollas links up with the idea that the subject recreates aspects of his early life with parental objects.
In “Moods and the Conservative Process” (1987, pp. 99-116) Bollas demonstrates through theory and clinical example that moods conserve memories. We have a certain social license to experience moods, or mood space. We let people around us know, “Don’t bother me today, I’m in such and such kind of mood.” In the use of moods we need to consider the extent to which the goal is the manipulation of the other, and the extent to which it is not a manipulation, but an opportunity to experience important aspects of private life. Moods may be significant psychic states that constitute important forms of memory. In mood; we relive certain experiences that we felt were life-defining as children, and which were beyond cognitive representation.
The theme of representation through reliving runs throughout Bollas’ work. Many aspects of our lives, and therefore of our transferences, are subject to cognitive and symbolic representation. But there are many forms of memory and reliving that are not a part of cognitive or symbolic representation, but which are enabled to come to life in the overall ambiance of psychoanalysis. These memories may appear in transference states, or in countertransference within the psychic states of the analyst. Not all that we experience is mentally representable in the traditional sense. A mood is one such state of being that conserves through a special kind of experience, not representation, early childhood states of mind and object relations. Moods recurrent in the analytic situation tend to conserve or to preserve in memory certain aspects of early object relations. A mood records the state of being with the object the moment before the person was traumatically abandoned. That is, there may have been points at which the parents or the parental environment was no longer able to sustain the presence with the infant. The mood preserves the moment before the break in the object relatedness.
In “Loving Hate (1987, pp. 117 -134 [sic]) Bollas argues that not all forms of hate are destructive. Indeed, there are certain forms of hate in which the subject aims to conserve the object. Through clinical examples, Bollas demonstrates how intense hate may be a form of loving object cathexis that enables the subject to sustain some form of passionate relation. The concept of hate as a conservation of object relation rather than an act of destruction follows from his previous paper on moods as conserving object relations.
In “Normotic Illness” (1987, pp.135-156) Bollas uses Winnicott’s idea that there is a disorder along the lines of too much objectivity. He defines a clinically observable phenomenon characterized by the absence of subjectivity or the absence of psychic life. He holds that normotic people or “normopaths,” as McDougal calls them, were not mirrored by their parents in such a way as to affirm the presence of childhood and imagination’s subjectivity. Instead, the parents successfully managed to direct these children to acquisition of material objects and eventually toward seeing themselves as material objects.
In “Extractive Introjection” (1987, pp. 157-172), Bollas examines those object relations that are characterized by one person’s theft of another’s psyche. He includes examples from ordinary life, such as those occasions when another person’s excessive verbalized guilt leaves us feeling emptied of our own guilt He includes clinical examples in which the analysand either robs us of important parts of our own thinking and feeling, or else is so empty of his own psych* life that we may unwittingly assume that all of our interpretations are generated from within ourselves. The process of extractive introjection is characterized by one person’s violent introjection of another person’s psyche with the effect of robbing the person of contact with that part of the self that has been stolen.
In The Liar” (1987, pp.173-188), Bollas holds that in countertransference, the analyst is often put through an experience that recreates the patient’s early object world. In the treatment of Jonathan, a psychopathic liar, Bollas found that he could not tell what was true and what was false. This led to a decreasing ability in the analyst’s capacity to differentiate fantasy from reality. The paper illustrates how the analyst puts his own psychic state to use in considering how this reflects something of Jonathan’s state of mind when a small child. He further considers something of the psychodynamics of lying.
In his now classic paper, “Expressive Uses of the Countertransference” (1987, pp. 200-235), Bollas demonstrates how he conceptualizes the countertransference in ways that haven’t been so clearly done before. Following Heimann’s concept of heightened responsiveness, he argues that the analyst must consider his thinking and feeling as part of the environment created by a patient. In a sense, the analyst is the other patient. In some disturbed analysands who cannot free-associate, the inevitable source of free-associative material is the analyst. He concludes the paper with a series of clinical examples of when and why he thinks it is useful for the analyst to provide selected disclosure of countertransference responsiveness.
As we begin to form a close being state with the person on the couch we find ourselves identifying with the child self of the person to such an extent mat we may then have a variety of countertransference reactions that need to be expressed. We object to the way that we are being treated. Or we are not certain where we are or who we ate to be, or the way in which the person is using us as an object. So as we begin to speak the countertransference, we express what the child self could not speak.
My brief paraphrases of Bollas’ carefully thought through and formulated papers hardly do his work justice, but I have offered these to illustrate the highly unusual set of ideas he is developing. In his follow-up book, Forces of Destiny (1989) Bollas takes up the subject of the “true self in another original series of papers. Winnicott developed the “false self” concept to highlight the structure that represents conformity to the idiom of maternal demand and frequently contrasted it with the notion of an instinctually-based natural or true self. Bollas, in his same illuminating style, pursues the possibilities of our true nature as it can be revealed through the analysis of “the unthought known.”
The Shadow of the Object and Forces of Destiny represent formidable original rethinking of major psychoanalytic ideas. The necessary revisions in analytic technique that arise from Bollas’ rethinking are richly illustrated with a variety of human interactions. That each chapter stands as a gem in itself reflects Bollas’ way of working-that is, noticing something mat piques his creativity and developing a paper about it. Consequently, these are not books to be pursued rapidly, but to be read slowly and piecemeal so that the flavor of each idea can be savored. The books then find their way to the shelf of books and papers to be carefully re-read later. Regardless of your analytic orientation, you will enjoy Bollas’ writing immensely, because it is so clinically provocative.
Bollas, Christopher, “Character The Language of the Self.” International Journal of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy. (1974. 3:4, 97-418).
“The Aesthetic Moment and the Search for Transformation.” Annual of Psychoanalysis (1979. 6385-441).
The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known. London: Free Association Books, (1987).
Forces of Destiny: Psychoanalysis and Human Idiom. London: Free Association Books, (1989).
Reprinted from the Psychologist Psychoanalyst Volume XI. No. 4 Fall. 1991
Submitted to the Psychologist for publication by James Gilbert.