Wilfred Ruprecht Bion was a British psychoanalyst of the Kleinian variety, who along with the followers of Anna Freud, make up the two important successor schools of Sigmund Freud. Bion was the first Kleinian president of the British Psychoanalytical Society and was a pioneer in the study of group dynamics, having gained insights on group processes from his experiences as a tank commander in World War I. When World War II broke out, Bion found himself in the army medical corps treating "shell shocked" soldiers in experimental group psychotherapy sessions. He and his colleagues were also charged with developing methods of selecting officers who could best lead in combat and those methods are still used today in industrial-organizational psychology.
Following World War II, Bion helped start the new Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and continued his psychoanalytic training with Klein while conducting research on group processes. Bion was a prolific although abstruse writer who authored 24 books and numerous articles between 1940 and his death in 1979. In the last 15 years of his career, he withdrew from research and focused exclusively on his psychoanalytic craft. He moved to California and devoted himself to treating patients and a few trainees, one of whom was James S. Grotstein.
Grotstein's book is foremost a love letter to his analyst and mentor. With unabashed affection, he likens Bion to Plato, Socrates and even Prometheus, and assures us that although Bion's "ideas still remain below the tip of the iceberg for many," he will "bring these ideas to the surface to demonstrate their theoretical and clinical (practical) usefulness-hopefully in a reader-friendly way" (p. 4). But little biographical or any background information about Bion is provided; indeed Grotstein tells us straightaway that he will "scrupulously" avoid it. Readers unfamiliar with Bion may not even learn from this book that he was British. Grotstein also warns us that his book contains a sparseness of clinical examples, since it is "difficult to find clinical examples that would be clear and precise enough" (p.7). Still, he declares emphatically that this book is directed to the general public, designed to help the lay reader and non-psychoanalyst to better understand and appreciate Bion and his ideas. I wish he had done so.
Grotstein jumps right away into elaborating and musing ("dreaming" as he calls it) on complex concepts from Bion, but he does not define or even introduce them first. The reader is left to go to other sources to find definitions of Bionian terms and concepts, and what is "reader-friendly" about that? How does that make the book one for public consumption?
Grotstein's writing is complex at best and for much of the book is practically indecipherable. Take for example, this passage: "This latter idea, that of entelechy, prompts me to suggest the following: in my opinion, the Ideal Forms generate the infant's own rudimentary (yet to be further transformed) a-elements, which conjoin with the pre-processed sensory stimuli (Bion's 'B-elements') to form what I, along with Ferro, term 'balpha-elements' ('aB', or really, 'Ba': Ferro, 1999, p.47). The whole point here, I believe, is that (a) 'a' precedes 'B'; (b) the a-element may have an earlier beginning in the Ideal Forms, have already been conceived by a hypothesized Intelligence or Presence (Bion's and Meister Eckhart's 'god'), and exist on a gradient of transformational sophistication as it proceeds." (p.46)
Believe me, reading that passage "in context" doesn't clarify a thing; the problem is that there too often seems to be no context. Prior to this passage, we are not told to which Ideal Forms he refers (e.g., Plato?) or what defines Bion's "B-elements." The thoughts appear to have sprung fully matured from the head of our author and right onto the page. Sadly, the majority of the book is like this. Grotstein admits that he has faced critiques before for his writing style, that he has been accused of being too "'Bionian'--that is, 'dense'-- in my style of writing" but that he has strived to make this volume "as explicit and as clarifying" as he could (p. 4). Rather, he cannot shake the habit of writing as did his master, whom he himself describes thus: "Bion's style of writing is unique, often maddening, without proper markings or guideposts to help you anticipate the next turn in the road of ideas he has privately chartered. Often he seems to speak apodictically, not sharing with the reader the provenance of his thought." (p. 11)
There were several times while reading the book that I pictured Grotstein as the Dennis Hopper character in Apocalypse Now, excitedly, maniacally going on and on about Bion being a kind man, a wise man, and then:
"One through nine, no maybes, no supposes, no fractions. You can't travel in space, you can't go out into space, you know, without, like, you know, uh, with fractions - what are you going to land on - one-quarter, three-eighths? What are you going to do when you go from here to Venus or something? That's dialectic physics."
*This is a condensed version of my review of the book in PsycCRITIQUES--Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books, 53(25), 2008.