I wrote this review which was first published in Australasian Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. 31. no 1 ( 2013).
Christopher Bollas, China On The Mind, Routledge, London and New York, 2013.
In a sense Christopher Bollas’s ‘China on the Mind’ is a timely piece. China is now taking its place as a significant world power commanding recognition in a way Westerners can no longer ignore. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Western colonisers, bent on transmitting their version of civilisation, were met by resistance and withdrawal. The West retired, snubbing China, rendering it mysterious and ineffable, isolated and unreachable far too different to think much about. During Mao Tse Tung’s leadership from 1949 until the early 1970s, the West, in the form of the United States and Australia pretended mainland China did not exist. Taiwan, an island, was recognised instead. Britain recognised mainland China in 1950. In its turn, China, the Middle Kingdom, neither heeded nor needed the West nor anyone else for that matter, even as Mao Tse Tung’s Great Leap Forward of the 1960s sent its younger generations to root out old traditions and foundation texts in an effort to join the modern world (Han Suyin, 1967, pp.48-49). But the elders prevailed. Secretly. They maintained Chinese culture, keeping the teachings of the old philosophers and poets hidden beneath the covers of Mao’s Little Red Book. Since Mao’s death ventures into western thought, begun during the early twentieth century, have resumed. In China, psychoanalysis, first introduced in the 1920s, is now being rediscovered by younger generations.
In an interview for the online journal Line of Beauty in 2011,Christopher Bollas described China On The Mind, that he was then writing, as a ‘very strange book’, predicting it would probably not be a big success (Bollas, 2011). It began as a series of lectures for Korean students and was rejected by the course conveners as potentially offensive. But, encouraged by his publisher, he has now released it as an essay. Beginning as an exploration of the differences between Eastern and Western thought it has morphed into a theory of mind that has significant implications for the future study of mental processes. Bollas writes:
In the brief 100 years since psychoanalysis has become the core introspective philosophy of the West, how do we understand its intriguing unconscious integration of eastern and western frames of mind? The maternal order that is foundational to psychoanalysis has been subjected to an ongoing repression within the psychoanalytical movement, but since this represents an eastern way of being and relating, is it possible that growing commerce between east and west will re-repress the maternal order and challenge …paternal focus that has so bound psychoanalytical discourse? (2013 pp 13-14).
There are indications that the individualism of western psychoanalysis and psychology is under critical scrutiny in China. In a case study published during 2011 Psychoanalyst Zhong Jie argues that a patient’s sense of duty to his work unit is not defensive but an expression of his sense of place within the collective. He explains: the concept of oneness (He-Yi) is probably the most important Chinese philosophical idea for understanding the relationship between humans and nature. He continues, this supports the Chinese belief in keeping harmony (He-Xie) and peace (He-Ping), and is the most important principle in Chinese society and family, and also in the Chinese mind and heart. Necessarily, then, needs for freedom, autonomy or earning respect are secondary principles that are controlled by the overriding principle of oneness (Zhong 2011, pp. 218-226).
China, the centre of Eastern thought,is the location of its foundation texts, even as Japan and Korea have developed their separate forms. Bollas sets out not just to understand the complementarities between the eastern and western minds, but also to demonstrate the unity between them. He is not the first in the psychological field to attempt this. Singapore based psychologist Michael Harris Bond, who has sought to integrate eastern and western subjectivities, has provided a seminal text on the psychology of Chinese people used to brief Western diplomats (Bond, 1990). The idea of the East as against West is also a western construct: a division between self and other. Bollas proceeds cautiously, recognising that the categories ‘East’, ‘West’, ‘Oriental’ and ‘Occidental’ are somewhat simplistic, arbitrary and reductionist in their nature nor is the distinction between them absolute. They are also in certain and specific ways inaccurate(p.2). Bollas acknowledges he will have to settle on half truths to develop [his] argument(p.2). One risk is that he will be viewed as utilising ‘Eastern’ culture to develop his particular view of psychoanalysis with the result that the more salient issue, concerning the meaning for the development of psychoanalysis as a theory of mind of the encounter between cultures with very different foundation matrices, will be lost. His writing is densely layered, building upon his earlier work some thirty volumes – exploring the articulation of the authentic self in psychoanalysis. He is setting the stage for a new creation, a third thinking space, neither one nor the other, but an embodiment of both. His concern is with the interrelation between the individual self and the ethical, social, and divine order of things arguing that this anticipates his broader argument concerning the conflict between the individual and the large group (p.5). Bollas is adding to a body of work on transculturality in group analysis which has enabled commonalities to emerge from profound diversities in cultural matrix including language – within the large group setting (Brown 1996).
Although it appears that difference between Eastern and Western thought is so wide as to be insurmountable, Bollas argues that Eastern and Western thought represent different parts of the mind(p.2). While East and West both regard life as a journey, the two have diverged since antiquity, emphasising different aspects human being (p.7). Western culture is representational, Bollas says. Content is the core of the communication. The eastern mind is presentational, concentrating on the form of being (p.6). Historically the western mind is of the paternal order. categories of communication…are language dependent. These convey the views of the father and, later, the assumptions and laws of society(p.3). Focus is upon exploration of the material world. Logic, rationalism and the focus on the individual have been guiding principles since Plato’s time in Ancient Greece. Myths and legends honour its adventurers, their quests and triumphs, representing and assuming the superiority of western culture. The East, beginning with Turkey and thence towards China, Japan and Korea, followed a different route, concentrating on the maternal aspect of being. Bollas explains: the maternal order refers to the forms of knowledge conveyed to the self as foetus, neonate and infant, prior to the acquisition of language. This is presentational knowledge. The world, as thing, presents itself or is presented and thus leaves impressions on the self(p.2). The mother ‘instructs’ the infant through her actions, Bollas continues. The infant learns from its environment: through sensation- touch, taste sight and sound, transforming these into experience ( p.3). The maternal order emphasises the obligation to live in harmony with nature within the social, natural and cosmic world (p.8). Now, despite following these differing trajectories, East and West are starting to turn to each other Bollas says. In so doing [they] can be seen to complement each other, even if such contiguity may be conflicted(p. 8). Bollas contends that the work of Khan and Winnicott in Britain has enabled the development of a form of psychoanalysis resonant with eastern thought, even though they apparently failed to recognise this antecedent(p.10).
We journey with Bollas as he explores each of the foundation texts: The Book of Changes (I Ching), The Book of Songs, The Book of Rites: and their interpreters Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tsu and Zhuangzi.. We listen to the ancient poets as he draws connections between these and the form embodied in psychoanalysis. Bollas considers each of the texts, beginning with the Book of Changes. Here, each moment is one for contemplation. The player of the I Ching recognises that each of us is chance personified Bollas writes. He continues [This is] not simply a metaphor for the diverse idioms of a human life; playing this game is to unfold in fields of variant human experience… to discover how destiny is entwined with fatep.25). Each throwing Bollas concludes, is an action thought that enables us to think our existencep. 25). The Book of Songs elaborates the idea of selfhood expressed through poetry. Bollas explains: the poem especially is a part of mental life. To hear a poem is to think unthought known experiences; as essential to a Chinese person as language itself(p. 29). Poetry expresses the form of experience. The self lives in a poem, as an individual but also part of shared human experience down generations. A person’s being is transformed…through poetry, into its representatives in the natural world; individual idiom is transferred into selected poetic objects (p.34). We might see this in the writings of Han Suyin, whose allusions to the work of poet Li Po thread through her interpretation of Chinese culture to western readers (Han Suyin, 1942, 1967). Similarly Mao T’se Tung’s composition and reading of poetry, if not his use of Confucian form, serve to elaborate his response to various events in his life. Individual idiom can be detected in the poetry through the ages Bollas writes. It is not in the objects but in the form the poet arranges them (p.34). In this way, he continues,generations have worked to create a mentality that will both house the individual and weave him into the world within which he lives and from which he must depart.(p.34).
If The Book of Songs finds resonance in Winnicott’s conceptualisations of the true self, then The Book of Rites concerns the false, protective self. Confucius, the main interpreter of The Book of Rights, posited an order of being in relation to others so as to tame and manage nature a process elaborated upon by Lao Tsu. Both argued for the ideal self, able to live in harmony with nature. These writings order thought and one’s place in the social and familial structure, teaching what it is to be moral and ethical person. And lest it be assumed there is no Oedipal configuration…there are unusual restrictions placed on the eldest son in the filial relation to the father and to elders,Bollas writes. The Book of Rites teaches the distinction between men and beasts….[it] boils down to a set of regulations which aim to prevent the sort of mess Oedipus got himself into with Jocasta (p.44). To read the Tao Te Ching ‘The Way’- is to be reminded of Bion’s remarks on the ineffability of ‘O and one’s struggle with ‘K’ and ‘-K’.Implicit is the idea of the maternal function or reverie, and in analysis, Bion’s notion of evenly suspended attention irritable reaching for fact and reason. A baby and mother act and react upon each other ostensibly building a history together. We are formed and reformed in relationship with others. The Tao takes this further: we are each our own but inevitably a part of the whole even before birth.
In Western psychoanalysis the unconscious is the self’s creativity Bollas writes (p.60). It combines paternal and maternal the boundedness of the analytic hour the paternal – holding the [maternal] space (p.61). In the work of Winnicott and Khan, Bollas says, we can see the intersection between presentational and representational order. The analyst stands aside, enabling and holding the space for free association thoughtless speech .Through this it is possible to surmise the patterns of these relationships between self and other, to hear a stunningly articulate private discourse(p.110). The analyst’s quietness, by not interfering with the analysand’s gesture or speech, allows the patient to hear from themselves, from their parents, from their ancestors, and from their culture(pp. 110-12).
One always exists in relation to the environment. One is a singular entity and yet irrevocably part of something larger, simultaneously influencing and being effected by its process. A mother and her infant act upon each other, forming and shaping one another. Each movement or gesture between them originates in past family and social relationships. As a member of a couple, family or group we each embody a heritage that is familial and social, past and present. It is a view resonant with Chinese Eastern thought: the individual holds a place in harmony with the broader matrix. Individualism, so prized by westerners, emerges in relationship with the whole.
Already Bollas’s book has its detractors. In a review published online in April 2013, Thomas Friedman argues that Bollas’s ‘idealism’ of Eastern thought also undermines the psychoanalytic project, by introducing a religious point of view through a back door approach of linking Chinese philosophy with the psychoanalytic praxis(his term) of Donald Winnicott and Masud Khan Friedman continues, a further connection is made to the psychoanalytic theories of Melanie Klein, Bion and Rosenfeld as he morphs his book from the Chinese philosophers to his own preferred view of psychoanalysis Not only that but Bollas encourages the abandonment of free association, and the importance of verbal memory(Friedman, 2013).
While respondents to this piece criticised Friedman for his errors concerning Bollas’s views on free association, Bollas’s and Friedman’s essential conflict over the nature and purpose of psychoanalysis, which has its roots in the history of psychoanalytic thought, remains. From 1920 through to 1940s psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, a member of the Frankfurt School of Social Research, criticised the notion that psychology applied only to the individual. He eventually rejected Freud’s libidinal theory as he sought to reconcile Marxist and Freudian thought. Following Bachoven’s idea of the maternal principle he developed a theory of the mature individual existing within a social and historical matrix (Jay, 1971, pp.91-100). In his forward to Peter Rudnytsky’s edited collection of essays, Rescuing Psychoanalysis From Freud (2011) Brett Kahr asks us to consider that Freud may not have understood his creation. By ousting or marginalising his detractors, amongst them Jung, Stekel, Adler and Ferenczi, Freud threatened to limit psychoanalysis by his conservatism and orthodoxy. Rudnytsky’s recovery of these and other analysts, and his development of a ‘thought-line’ from Ferenczi through to Winnicott and Coltart also rescues psychoanalysis’s creative and maternalist – potential (Kahr in Rudnytsky, 2011, p.xvi). Similarly, Bollas says Freud misunderstood his discovery. ?reud found psychoanalysis. It might have been a gift from the East of which he was unawarep.134).
Friedman, who fears for the scientific recognition for which psychoanalysis has strived since Freud, shares much with Zhong Jie (2011) who wonders about the potential loss of Chinese culture as a result of globalisation. It has only just survived Mao’s attack. Bollas is also concerned about the future of psychoanalysis but in a different way; unless psychoanalysis can re-integrate maternal and paternal principles it risks being lost. He suggests that group relations work might help to engender a transgenerational social mind [with] the task of collecting a vision of a de-centred mind, a mind that could never be individually or even nationally defined, but that can be positioned as a potential space for group thinking (p. 117). This is not about recognition of East as exotic, nor merely giving it a voice: both these positions privilege western thought and detract from Bollas’s central thesis the integration of the maternal and paternal in mental functioning. It is rather more than an interesting idea or product of Bollas’s antipathy to psychoanalysis as Freidman and his ilk imply. As Chinese psychoanalyst Yang Yunping writes: psychoanalysis belongs to no-one. It overflows from the framework that attempts to constrain it despite those professional societies that appear to wish to represent it absolutely(Yang 2011, pp.733-743).
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