Filming Bion’s ‘A Memoir of the Future’, by Meg Harris Williams

The Becoming Room

This book, whose writing spans 33 years, records a series of experiments in dramatizing Bion’s A Memoir of the Future. The main project was an unfinished film made in Delhi in 1983 under the auspices of Donald Meltzer, Martha Harris, and the Roland Harris Educational Trust.

The film was an ambitious venture born of the inspiration of a young Bombay psychoanalyst, Udayan Patel, and his friend Kumar Shahani, who was already known as a brilliant formalist art-film director. They had already approached Bion who had agreed to take part in a documentary film in India, the country of his childhood, but died shortly before he was due to go out there. The idea of a film continued, if anything more enthusiastically than before, but in a changed form. Shahani and Patel came to England shortly after Bion’s death to investigate the possibility of a biographical film about Bion with particular emphasis on his Indian childhood. They met with indifference or hostility from most of the London psychoanalytic community which is one reason why the film was never completed.


Scene from the film

Nonetheless the script and about 40 minutes of filmed sequences exist, only recently edited and put in order. The idea of the film was to help students appreciate the Memoir as a vehicle for Bion’s mature metaphorical and autobiographical mode of expressing his ideas about how the mind works, in particular the mind as a dramatic group of internal characters or ‘vertices’. That is, to show that Memoir is a serious work despite being entertaining, and not ‘utter nonsense’ as it was dubbed by one highly respectable analyst. It illustrates Bion’s preoccupation with the struggle of the mind-group to achieve work-group status and to avoid sabotage by the basic assumption group of its own internal ‘establishment’: a struggle which mirrors that of the individual in the social or professional group.

Although based on Bion’s autobiographical material, the progression of the film is not chronological. Rather it is structured around this core theme of how an internal work-group may evolve from the initial strictures of a basic assumption mentality; and shows the instability and fluctuating nature of this evolution. Scenes from childhood interweave with dreams or phantasy meetings of the internal group, drawing on central metaphors rooted in his childhood experience of family, fiction, Indian and English religion, and history. Hence the Tiger Hunt, the Train and `electric city’, the Run; hence Krishna and Christ, the Devil and the Virgin, the `green hill’ of sacrifice.  These conflicts represent the positions and processes defined by Bion as `Pairing’, `Dependence’, and `Fight-Flight’, and the movement towards `K’ (Knowledge) or away from it to `-K’. Each character or vertex – religious, scientific, artistic – has both a developmental (evolutionary, endoskeletonal) and an establishment (claustrophobic, exoskeletonal) condition.

220px-Wilfred_Bion_1916-Wilfred Bion in uniform in 1916 (1)

Wilfred Bion in uniform in 1916

The conflicts become manifest at key `caesuras’ or points of catastrophic change which, within the film, include birth, the transition between India and England made at the age of eight, and the First World War – all of which contribute to Bion’s metaphor of `invasion’ of the self.  The film begins and ends with an image of the birth of its subject, Wilfred Bion – the first caesura.  The temporal circularity emphasises another kind of progression: the development of the relationship of the internal characters, in a way which also evokes the intuition of their origins in pre-natal experience.

Although the film’s nature is experimental in that it explores the film medium in terms of certain psychoanalytic ideas, the dramatization of these internal conflicts is intended to speak to a wider intellectual audience with a general concern for education. It is not really ‘about Bion’ but about Everyman, making use of the self-analytic picture which was Bion’s final legacy to the rest of us. The idea is not to tell us more about Bion – a private person whom we shall never know – but as with all artistic ventures, to help us learn more about ourselves.

Despite the unfinished nature of the film sequences, many of the people who took part in its making (including its wonderful cast of actors) retained a special loyalty to the whole experience which took on the significance of a life event for those concerned. In response to this, I later wrote a verse narrative for Alaknanda Samarth who played young Wilfred Bion’s Ayah, and a one-act play, for Tom Alter who played his Father, both based on the filmscript; these are also included in the book, together with a commentary on the film itself.

The ‘becoming room’, as well as the film cutting room, is the mental space within which the personality either becomes itself (in the Platonic sense), or fails to do so. As Bion used to say, he was not a psychoanalyst, he was merely ‘becoming’ one.

37754Meg Harris Williams, a writer and artist, studied English at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford and art at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, and has had a lifelong psychoanalytic education. She has written and lectured extensively in the UK and abroad on psychoanalysis and literature, and teaches at the Tavistock Centre in London, and the University of Surrey. She is married with four children and lives in Farnham, Surrey.  Her most recent work, The Becoming Room: Filming Bion’s A Memoir of the Future, is published this week by Karnac Books.

2 thoughts on “Filming Bion’s ‘A Memoir of the Future’, by Meg Harris Williams

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