Dialogues from the Italian Psychoanalytic Journal - Archive

Comments by Nicola Abel-Hirsch


Comments by Nicola Abel-Hirsch

As many readers will know Bolognini speaks from considerable experience. He is an ‘inside witness’ who was present at “plenary sessions at IPA Congresses in the eighties and nineties …producing three performances all rigorously impermeable to each other”; “a dark, austere church in Utrecht, during which a debate was held about … the existence of three Training Models (of which two, the French and the Uruguayan, had existed for decades but been denied until that moment)”; the collegial thinking of “the Theoretical Working Party of the European Psychoanalytic Federation (EPF)”; and a great deal more. He has a fine capacity to observe, and an unusual grasp of the importance of attending to our ‘groupishness’/group behaviours.

We hear in the opening paragraphs that he is going to explore not the “”what” of analysts’ orientation and theoretical baggage … but the “”how” of their training and development in this sphere”. Bolognini draws attention to “the fundamental importance of the powerful, inescapable, and never sufficiently analysed transference of individual analysts to their formative Authors and Schools” and says that he is going to try and distinguish between cases of real assimilation and integration and those of a “substitutive identification”. In relation to analytic groups he differentiates between groups that can view themselves as part of the psychoanalytic whole, and those who put themselves in the position of holding ‘the truth’. His hope is:

“to help reduce to some extent the excessively idealizing residual transferential components which may interfere with analyts’ use of the broad and richly detailed contemporary theoretical-clinical heritage. …They [Authors and Schools] should be regarded as admirable tools rather than as absolute truths.”

I am from one of the groups (Kleinian) not infrequently criticised for behaving as if they have the ‘the truth’, and from a Society (British Psychoanalytical Society) that in the 1940’s managed not to split and in the process of this devised what I will call ‘institutional pluralism’.  On reading Bolognini’s paper I grappled with the notion of ‘theoretical pluralism’. Of course I thought, of course I want there to be respect and open-mindedness in the analytic community, but what place does ‘theoretical pluralism’ have in my being an analyst myself (setting aside that we are probably more pluralist than we are conscious of). In trying to get further with this question I became quite stuck at times and alternatively overfull of thoughts (or were they just good stories). Then a phrase came into my mind – ‘analytic blood’. In what way is having a theory deep in one’s ‘analytic blood’ different from the fundamentalism that is Bolognini’s concern? I suspect one telling feature is whether the theory is ‘alive’ in it’s own right. An example! – Hanna Segal was my first superviser (over 20 years ago) and after qualifying I also edited her last book. In retrospect I realise that through this time I was asking some pretty specific questions that I suspect went to the heart of what I personally needed to grasp in order to be an analyst. These questions were to do with the difference between psychotic and neurotic functioning and in particular the nature of the borderland between the two. After completing her book I turned back to the writings of Bion (through which I had first come to analysis). More recently I have become a training analyst and during this time have also been in further analysis myself with an Independent analyst. About a year ago I had an unexpected experience. What I had learnt from Segal, all that time ago, began to come up in my mind and to make a deep sense in my clinical work. The clinical theory in my ‘analytic blood’ hadn’t been diluted over time – there it was. By contrast, my conscious awareness of it seemed dependent on my having come to be in a state that was capable of re-receiving it. This fits with what Bolognini says about the need to become separate from ones ‘Author’ in order to integrate rather than imitate their work. 

In thinking about our relation to theory I also had in mind how much we don’t want to knowabout the psychic realities we enter with our patients. Take this quote from Bion:


It may sound as if I’m stressing the obvious unnecessarily. I don’t think so, because I think it is the easiest thing in the world, what with the patients trying to deny the reality of what we are trying to draw attention to, and our own dislike of what we feel we ought to draw attention to, that you can very easily get into a state in which you gradually drift into a position in which you talk not English, but jargon, and in which you talk about the non-existent. It simply becomes a complete myth. Now the serious thing for analysts about this, is that the situation gradually gets more and more intolerable. One is reduced more and more, to denying the reality of something of whose reality we have been at some point absolutely convinced, and which is the one thing that we are really in existence to deal with.

(Bion 2013 pp. 37–38)

Bion thought that a cause of the proliferation of theory was a defensive move away from the difficulty of the analytic task. What best keeps us to the ‘bloody’ task? Bolognini takes care to differentiate between ‘superficial eclecticism’ and ‘theoretical pluralism’. My own instinct is that to know deeply enough to help one stay with the analytic task restricts the number of theories we can really have ‘in our blood’. (Bion has much of interest to say about his own relation to such theories)

All that said, the Kleinian familial blood in my analytic veins was significantly augmented in my training by what I have called the ‘institutional pluralism’ of the British Society. Devised in the 40’s this has an important dimension to do with power, but staying with it clinically, it requirespeople in training to have one of their supervisers from another group. I asked the Independent analyst Michael Parsons, who was able to see me, and I have been back for further supervisions with him since then too. It is not reported by everyone to be a helpful experience, but overall, requiring people to have an experience – at depth – of an analyst from another group potentially introduces an appreciation of difference and the weight of other viewpoints into our analytic blood too.

In the process of writing this comment I have read Bolognini’s paper a number of times. Struck by the concept of ‘theoretical pluralism’ I have responded to this with some thoughts about my Kleinian ‘analytic blood’, and thoughts about the British Society’s ‘institutional pluralism’. What also came to the fore in reading his paper is the light he throws on the general need of analysts to work together– clinically, theoretically and ‘organisationally’ – at home and abroad. His paper not only informs, but invites the reader to use it as a tool with this goal in mind. It put me to work – I have found it very thought provoking.



Wilfred Bion: Los Angeles Seminars and Supervision (edited by Joseph Aguayo & Barnet D. Marin; London, Karnac, 2013.


Nicola Abel-Hirsch is a Training Analyst of the British Psychoanalytical Society, and works in private practice in North London. Her publications include editor of Hanna Segal’s last book Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Routledge 2007) and Bion 365 Quotes(Routledge 2019).


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