Of Things Invisible to Mortal Sight: Celebrating The Work of James S. Grotstein honors the long and illustrious psychoanalytic career of Dr James Grotstein, one of the most internationally esteemed analysts and scholars in psychoanalysis. His prolific works span over 40 years, and a great part of them were dedicated to exploring the revolutionary contributions of Wilfred Bion.
To honor James Grotstein is therefore also to honor Wilfred Bion, his mentor, analyst, colleague, and Muse. While Grotstein’s curiosity led him to examine wide ranging theories and orientations, he continued till the end of his life to find inspiration in Bion’s work, and in Bion himself – the genius, mystic, and “extraordinary individual.”
Grotstein was one of the first analysts to examine deeply Bion’s most revolutionary concept – the mystical concept of O. The title of this book – Of Things Invisible to Mortal Sight – based on Milton’s (1667) line from Paradise Lost , pays homage to these mysterious aspects of the mind which reflect that essential source of truth. Grotstein’s encyclopedic exploration of these most profound strata of mental life was driven by truth and the desire to communicate. He pointed out that with Bion, psychoanalysis entered into new territory, for Bion unleashed a revolution on classical analytic theory and technique– and indeed on any theory and technique.
While important, theory and technique are the bare bones of what is needed to become an analyst, for it is in the process of doing the work that one has the chance, as Bion put it, to become a real analyst. More accurately, one must be in a constant process of becoming an analyst, without looking to anyone else, nor to Bion’s or Grotstein’s or anyone else’s theories. Rather one must be, or become, who one is, if one is to have a chance of helping one’s patients to become who they are.
Sadly, James Grotstein died in Los Angeles on May 30, 2015 at the age of 89, but he did have a hand in choosing the contributors to this book, except one – himself. I am pleased to include in this book the last paper he wrote, with the intriguing title, “Bion Crosses The Rubicon: The fateful course – and curse – of O in psychoanalysis, and the furies left in its wake.” While it is unusual in a festschrift to include a work of the person being honored, there seemed to be no better way to celebrate his contribution to psychoanalysis than to give him another chance to speak.
Jim Grotstein’s generosity to an endless list of writers is widely recognised. He read, discussed, and endorsed their books and papers, often with lavish praise, and many of the authors of this book, myself included, count themselves among those writers lucky enough to have been encouraged by Dr Grotstein over the years. With this book, we can at least begin to repay him for his wisdom, erudition and encouragement. In addition to Grotstein’s chapter, Of Things Invisible to Mortal Sight offers fourteen other diverse theoretical and clinical contributions by esteemed colleagues of Dr Grotstein from throughout the world. These prominent psychoanalysts from the United States, Europe, South America, and Israel, include Drs Joseph Aguayo, Lawrence Brown, Michael Eigen, Ofra Eshel, Antonino Ferro, James Grotstein, Celia Fix Korbivcher, Albert Mason, Thomas Ogden, Avedis Panajian, Michael Ian Paul, Lia Pistiner de Cortiñas, Annie Reiner, Carole Tarantelli, Rudi Vermote.
What the work of these fifteen distinctive authors have in common are concerns related to primitive mental states, and even more primal states that Bion (1961) called proto-mental or potential thoughts, and what Winnicott (1965) spoke about as the enduring early breakdown of the infant that has not been experienced. Though deeply buried in a non-place beyond conscious awareness, these unthinkable, unnameable experiences make themselves known in powerful and often destructive ways in people’s lives.
Like the invisible subatomic matter in a particle accelerator which leaves ghostly traces as it is broken down into smaller and smaller particles, evidence of the ghostly traces of those “sub-thalamic” or “subatomic” states of mind can be gleaned by the analyst willing to try to listen to that which cannot be heard of seen through the senses. Examinations of these “ghosts” in the mind can be found in many of the papers in this volume which deal with O, among them those of Paul, Fix-Corbivcher, Eigen, Pistiner de Cortiñas, Vermote, and in Grotstein’s paper, as well as in my own (Reiner).
Dr Aguayo offers a historical perspective on Grotstein’s early work which helped to facilitate a shift toward Klein and Bion’s ideas and away from the ego psychology which dominated American psychoanalysis at that time. Dr Brown examines Grotstein’s own seminal ideas, as does Dr Ferro in his scholarly review of Grotstein’s (2007) major work on Bion’s theories, A Beam of Intense Darkness, and Panajian examines theoretical and philosophical aspects of tolerance. There are many profound clinical accounts – those of Eshel, Ogden, Michael Paul, Tarantelli, and Mason – which also illustrate theoretical ideas that delve into deeply primitive pre-verbal levels of the mind, and the often deadly defenses which plague patients’ lives.
Grotstein was one of the first and most intrepid analysts to delve into this unknown and unknowable realm. He described Bion as “a secular mystic,” referring to him as “the first to establish the new ‘mystic science of psychoanalysis’ ”. In A Beam of Intense Darkness, Grotstein wrote, “[With O] Bion launched a metapsychological revolution whose echoes are still reverberating across the psychoanalytic landscape worldwide”. The idea, however, alienated and angered many analysts, who saw the uncertainty and mystic slant of this unknowable realm as unscientific. Although Bion is now so widely influential, these aspects of his work are still controversial. But he clearly viewed O as a necessary psychoanalytic perspective, central to analytic practice.
He was careful, however, to distinguish the mystical aspect of O from traditional religion which, as I described elsewhere, is the antithesis of O (cf. Reiner, Bion And Being: Passion and the Creative Mind), and to those who still equated O with traditional religion, Grotstein said, “Nothing could be farther from the truth”. Grotstein’s poetic turns of mind and phrase helped give conceptual form to the formless experience represented by O. On several occasions, Dr. Grotstein told me with some regret that he was not a poet, and yet the natural poetry of his mind which graced many of his descriptions of Bion’s concepts, helped to open a door into that infinite realm beyond the physical. Grotstein’s poetry is evident, for instance, in references to the flights from unbearable reality of those traumatised infants he called, “Orphans of O”, or “Orphans of the Real”, and in his description of Bion’s “thoughts without a thinker” as “O’s offspring … intimations of immortality” (Grotstein, A Beam of Intense Darkness).
Although even Grotstein’s considerable linguistic gifts could not define the indefinable O, his fertile mind gave us ways to think about and guide us through very dark areas. This included a lot of words we had to go look up in the dictionary—autochthonous, entelechy, apotropaic—as well as those he coined— “projective transidentification”, the “transcendent position”. He described O as a “truth instinct”, access to which reflects a level of mental integration beyond the depressive position. As Grotstein put it, “[The] evolved individual …who has become O has traversed beyond the depressive position and attained the transcendent position”.
Grotstein loved ideas, he loved learning, and although he also loved Klein, he dared to state that the concept of O may render some aspects of her model, and Freud’s, “an inadvertent manic defense against the reality of the transcendent”. It is not the death instinct or life instinct, Grotstein upheld, but O, truth, which “is the instigator of …persecutory anxiety”. Grotstein held that Bion’s concept revealed the paranoid schizoid and depressive positions to be adaptive defenses against the emergence of that more primal reality – O. Grotstein wrote, “What we commonly call reality is an illusion that disguises the Real (O)”.
In A Beam Of Intense Darkness, Grotstein expressed his intention to “synopsise, synthesise, extend, and challenge Bion and his contributions … in a spirit of active, respectful enthusiasm”. I think he far exceeded this aim, for Bion’s ideas, filtered through Grotstein’s unique perspective, were transformed, thereby providing a different language to help others understand. While the essential truths represented by O have always existed and will always exist, each analyst has to discover them anew in his or her own language to make them personal and alive. The theories which represent those truths thus become new discoveries. According to Shakespeare (Sonnet 59) and Ecclesiates 1:9, “There is no new thing under the sun”, and indeed, human feelings and thoughts are remarkably consistent throughout the centuries. However, each mind is unique and, as Bion said, “Every analyst must find his own language”. The authors in this book give their idiosyncratic experiences and thoughts in their own unique ways as each grapples with the mysteries of the mind that remain always beyond our reach. James Grotstein’s death leaves us with a void, but also with an inspiration to continue to be scrupulous in uncovering what truths we can, to help us to suffer the pain and joy of life, and to make it more meaningful.
Annie Reiner, PhD, PsyD, LCSW, is a senior faculty member and training analyst at the Psychoanalytic Center of California (PCC) in Los Angeles. Her work was profoundly influenced by the ideas of Wilfred Bion, with whom she studied in the 1970s. Her writings appear in numerous journals and anthologies, and she is author of Bion and Being: Passion and the Creative Mind, an examination of Bion’s concept of O through philosophy, theology and the arts, and The Quest For Conscience and the Birth of the Mind. Dr Reiner is also an accomplished poet, playwright, and painter, with four books of poems, a book of short stories, and six children’s books which she also illustrated. She maintains a private practice in Beverly Hills, California.
Her edited collected, Of Things Invisible to Mortal Sight: Celebrating The Work of James S. Grotstein, is published by Karnac this week.