In The Mystery of Things, Christopher Bollas has compiled a series of essays touching on a range of topics – but all hovering around a central core insight into the psychoanalytic process.
The essays, some more easily followed than others, are replete with extremely valuable insights and examples from his own practice. In addition to his thorough and experienced knowledge of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic theories, Bollas brings a broad base background in literature, art, linguistics and philosophy.
My first reading of Bollas, The Shadow of the Object, one is tuned into the realities and possibilities of the pre verbal aspects of transference and counter-transference in the therapeutic experience. The “un-thought known” is the phenomenon focused on in that work. In Mystery, this aspect of transference in treatment is expanded to address its meaning for understanding the essence of psycho-analytic theory and treatment. Very influenced by the English Object Relations tradition so patent in his earlier work, one is surprised and provoked by Bollas’s definition of himself as a radical Freudian.
Throughout these stimulating and informative essays, the underlying theme is the radical nature of Freud’s discovery of free association and free floating attention as the heart of the therapeutic experience for both patient and analyst. For Bollas, interpretation, as important as it is, takes a back seat to the radical core requirement of the psychoanalytic situation: a mutual attention to and allowance of the influence of the unconscious in the treatment encounter. Bollas sees this discovery of Freud’s not simply as a therapeutic technique, but as a monumental shift in the Western’s tradition of understanding the depths of human relationships and communication; a veritable paradigm shift in western epistemology.
In his chapter on the Goals of Psychoanalysis, this is clearly brought forth: the goal of psychoanalysis is the experience of this reality within the context of the “Freudian pair”. In Mystery the mutual experience of this phenomenon far transcends a ‘method’ or a ‘technique’ but is the experience of a radically new dimension of human experience; one that transforms one’s experience of being a self and opens the way to the realization of continuously new possibilities in our relationships.
This realization is the point of psychoanalytic treatment.
The stimulating elaboration of this theme throughout the chapters of Mystery, are well worth the effort of being forced to slow down and listen. Covering a range of patient’s presentations within the challenge of the therapeutic requirements outlined, a rich array of treatment situations reinforce the main theme in thought provoking ways. One recommendation: it might be useful to read the last chapter, The Mystery of Things, first.
As a therapist who has not been trained in psychoanalysis and whose practice is without the intensity of a 3-5 times a week exposure to clients, Bollas’s work has been extremely valuable in plumbing the depths of the requirements of the therapeutic attitude for any kind of psychotherapy. The ‘radical-ness’ of Freud’s discovery of this method lies in the realization that, essentially, therapy is not a technique, but the allowance of an event to occur between therapist and client; an event that in the deepest tradition of Western humanism, requires a fundamental attitude of availability to the influence of each other’s unconscious.