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Four Comments on: The Names Of O: Is Bion A Mystic? By Giuseppe Civitarese

By Howard B. Levine, MD


  1. In The Realm Of The Impossible –


We are faced with an impossible task. How to understand and find words to speak of the ineffable? Our capacity for language is bound to the domain of K. It is finite, while the relevant aspects of the true subject of analysis – emotions and somato-psychic states – are infinite.  The challenge that this presents is similar to the problem faced by certain philosophers (e.g., Plato, Kant) when trying to determine and describe what is “real”; or mystics when trying to apprehend or describe their intuitive Experience[1] of the Godhead. For Bion and certain poets, it is an inherent problem of the human condition. Recall the refrain from T.S. Eliot’s poem, Sweeney Agonistes: “It ain’t no good, it ain’t no good, I gotta use words when I talk to you”.

We know that even as we attempt this effort that we shall fall far short, because the infinite cannot be mapped upon the three dimensional finitude of the cognitive capabilities of the human psyche (Bergstein 2019). And yet this is the task that Bion sets for himself and challenges us to attempt as well, prompted by the clinically driven need to understand and describe the Experience of the analytic process.

Bion understood that the most he or we could do was ‘try to make the best of a bad situation.’ Nevertheless, he felt the attempt was well worth the effort. It is the problem of ‘publication’ that analysts face, as we try to put our Experience (O) into words (K) whenever we offer an interpretation to a patient or try to convey the Experience of an analytic moment to other analysts. The challenge and the danger, even in such a successfully achieved, scholarly, informative, well-written and encyclopedic attempt as this article given to us by Civitarese, is how to find a language that defies Wittgenstein’s assertion: “Of that which one cannot speak, remain silent” and yet does not end up sounding like Lucky’s monologue, when commanded to speak by Pozzo in Waiting For Godot.

This matter of publication is an endless – and often endlessly frustrating – task, reminiscent of Sisyphus and the rock. But Bion recognized its urgency and encouraged us to join him in trying to attempt it. His rationale for doing so was similar to that of his decision to conduct public supervisions. There, he spoke about how he understood the analyses presented to him, telling his audience that he wished to convey something about how he believed that he understood something about his Experience of analysis not so that they will understand or do analysis as he believed that he did, but so that they might understand something further about how they understand their Experience of analysis.[2] And for Bion, understanding and learning from Experience – i.e., truth – was essential for psychic growth and homeostasis and for the maintenance and construction of one’s personal identity and self. It is what binds us together as a species and makes us human.


  1. Is Bion a Mystic?


Bion was not a mystic. He was an epistemologist, a phenomenologist, a dialectical thinker and a man of his times. He had a broad and deep liberal arts education, a strong philosophical bent and was deeply impressed by contemporary formulations and advances in abstract mathematics and theoretical physics, especially Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which he seemed to believe gave scientific credibility to the constructs of Plato and Kant.[3] This background, joined with that of his war experiences, is very different from that of contemporary readers, who are apt to be embedded in and accustomed to positivism, empiricism and the scientistic hope of absolute progress and technological mastery of nature.

As Civitarese makes clear to readers, Bion offers us many ‘visions’ of O. These multiplying vertices and their accumulating metaphors and approximations produce a demand upon our minds for work in trying to grasp our Experience. They are Bion’s way to stimulate and set in motion still further attempts to articulate and qualify the ineffable in the minds of his readers.  In so doing, he offers us a psychoanalytic perspective that might help us to understand something about mysticism rather than a mystical perspective of psychoanalysis (Caper 2020).


  1. A Matter of Definition


In a previous essay, I linked O to that which may be registered, somewhere, somehow, but has not yet achieved the level of organization that could quality it as being represented in the psyche in Freud’s sense of the term[4]:

O is the term that Bion used to refer to the moment-to-moment existential reality that each of us inhabits by virtue of our existence. It is a term whose meaning intersects that of “The Unconscious,” because by definition O is only partly knowable, noticeable or capable of being reflected upon, despite the fact that for each of us and in each moment it is fully ‘lived.’ In that sense, some part of O is and will remain outside of conscious awareness– i.e., evade our knowledge and awareness about it – even while it is what we are and what we become. It is important to note, however, that the part of O that remains beyond consciousness, is not repressed, but is unrepresented, unformed and in some part will remain so….

While O cannot ever be fully known, there is always a part of O that is potentially emergent and in process of transformation. This forms a reservoir of developmental potential that each of us can and must draw upon as we move forward in life. From the vertex of psychoanalysis as a therapeutic praxis, this emergent potential is an important component source of the ‘truth’ that Bion (1970) felt the psyche needed, the way the body needs alimentation, in order to grow.” (Levine 2016, pp 377- 378).


  1. The Pragmatics of Praxis –


Throughout his writing and increasingly in his later work, Bion was concerned with the problem of how new ideas can be “born(e)” in both the sense of coming into being, and in the sense of being suffered, tolerated and kept fresh and alive in the face of the pain of human self-awareness and existence. He was keenly aware of the confusion and uncertainty that is inevitably present in the analytic situation and the dialectical relationship and tension that exists between the possibility of making new discoveries and the inevitable tendency of the human psyche and the group to resist new knowledge by assimilating whatever is foreign, strange or unfamiliar to that which was previously known.

Bion repeatedly asserted that the uncertainty, ambiguity and even terror of the analytic situation fosters a tendency or wish to reach for the familiar. This tendency can extend to the repetition of known and familiar circumstances and feelings and even lead to the defensive creation and use of analytic theories and orthodoxies that are intended to hide our ignorance or repudiate what is novel and previously unknown.

For Bion, the whole purpose of the analyst’s presence in the analysis is to help precipitate and offer the patient something new; i.e., some observation, interpretation and/or Experience that the patient had not yet recognized or ‘suffered’:


“… to spend time on what has been discovered is to concentrate on an     irrelevance. What matters is the unknown and on this the psycho-analyst            must focus his attention.” (Bion 1970, p. 69).


It is this focus, inextricably linked in Bion’s thinking to the capacity for negative capability and the eschewing of conscious memory and desire that will hopefully lead to processes that will prove transformative in allowing both patient and analyst to precipitate and recognize new and evolving states of being.

A good deal of confusion and debate among analysts exists concerning the extent to which Bion is therefore advocating a technique that centers upon new experience (O) rather than interpretations (K). The danger of sterile intellectualization is always present. It is all too easy for the clinical situation to devolve into an experience that is like psychoanalysis rather than one that is psychoanalysis. However, a careful study of reports of Bion’s analyses (e.g., Junqeira de Mattos 2016)) would have us recognize that at-one-ment and explicatory (saturated) interpretation are inextricably linked and are both necessary to the process of the cure.

To be in a relationship with an attuned, receptive and interpreting analyst is a unique and singular Experience and as such will play its role in setting in motion the clinically necessary oscillations between Transformations in both O and K. Thus, Bion (1970) tells us:


O does not fall in the domain of knowledge or learning    save incidentally; it can ‘become’ but it cannot be ‘known.’         It is darkness and formlessness but it enters the domain of K when it has evolved to a point where it can be known, through knowledge gained by experience, and formulated in terms derived from sensuous experience; its existence is conjectured phenomenologically.” (p. 26).


It is this phenomenological conjecture that stands at the center of Bion’s work and has been so carefully presented to us by Civitarese in this latest attempt to clarify the nature and Experience of the analytic process.




Bergstein, A. (2019). Bion and Meltzers’ Expedition Into Unmapped Mental Life. London and New York: Routledge.

Bion, W.R. (1970). Attention and Interpretation. New York: Basic Books.

Britton, R. (2016). Non-analytic influences on the psycho-analytic theorizing of Wilfred Bion. In: Levine, H.B. and Civitarese, G., eds. (2016). The W.R. Bion Tradition. London: Karnac, pp. 29-38.

Caper, R. (2020). Psychoanalysis In A New Register: Reflections On The Language Of The Unconscious. London: Routledge, 2020.

Junqueira de Mattos, A. (2016). Impressions of my analysis with Dr. Bion. In: Levine, H.B. and Civitarese, G., eds. (2016). The W.R. Bion Tradition. London: Karnac, pp. 5-22.

Junqueira de Mattos, A. Brito, G, and Levine, H.B, eds. (2017). Bion in Brazil.  Supervisions and Commentaries. London: Karnac.

Levine, H.B. (2016). Is the concept of O necessary for psychoanalysis? In: Levine, H.B. and Civitarese, G., eds. (2016). The W.R. Bion Tradition. London: Karnac, pp. 377- 383.

Levine, H.B., Reed, G. and Scarfone, D. (2013). Unrepresented States and the Construction of Meaning. London: Karnac/IPA.

Levine, H.B. and Civitarese, G., eds. (2016). The W.R. Bion Tradition. London: Karnac.

Snell, R. (2016). W.R. Bion: His cultural, national and historical background and its impact on his thinking. In: Levine, H.B. and Civitarese, G., eds. (2016). The W.R. Bion Tradition. London: Karnac, pp. 39-46.



Howard Levine is a member of the faculty and a supervising analyst at the Massachusetts Institute for Psychoanalysis (MIP), a member of the faculty at the Psychoanalytic Institute of New England East (PINE) and is in private practice in Brookline, Massachusetts. He is a member of the American Psychoanalytic Association and IPA, a founding member of the Group for the Study of Psychoanalytic Process (GSPP) and the Boston Group for Psychoanalytic Studies, Inc. (BGPS).

[1] I use the form ‘capital E’ Experience to denote the totality of raw existential Experience (O) and the form ‘small e’ experience to denote that portion of Experience that can come to be known (K).

[2] See Junquiera de Mattos, Brito and Levine, eds. 2017.

[3] See for example Britton 2016 and Snell 2016.

[4] See also Levine, Reed and Scarfone 2012.

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