On Preservations and Destructions in the Unconscious: Freud and Bion


In Civilization and its Discontents (1930), Freud initially uses the image of the city of Rome in several historical periods (“Roma Quadrata,” “Septimontium,” the Rome enclosed within the Aurelian Walls, etc.) to stress conservative aspects: nothing that has ever taken place has disappeared. This metaphor was abandoned because, according to Freud, the demolitions and replacements of buildings occur during the most peaceful development of a city. Bion in Attacks on Linking (1959) gives prominence to destructions that are not static and are important in the analytic relationship. Moving from Bion’s clinical reflections, it is possible for the analytic couple to work towards achieving recoveries, transformations and creative redistributions[1].

Perhaps one of the main features of Freud’s theory is a lack of continuity or coherence between different concepts. Sometimes they appear as distinct, and in some cases even as antithetical. It is worth noting that in his An Autobiographical Study (1925) Freud admitted that the theoretical model described in the metapsychology should have been eliminated or substituted with another, one without any consequences on psychoanalysis as a discipline. This can also be found in the posthumous An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1940), in which he deliberately avoids systematically re-conceptualizing and re-contextualizing his early theoretical positions according to subsequent conceptual revisions.

Therefore, we find many considerations on the end and on mourning, caused by what we have lost and on what this works on us. Considerations clearly influenced by the on-going war. In Mourning and Melancholia Freud argues that without a true work of mourning the person cannot recognize and can hence deny mourning itself by searching for substitutive and compensative objects. This leads to melancholia, the other face of which is mania. The melancholic is characterized by “(…) an extraordinary diminution in his self-regard, an impoverishment of his Ego (…) (experienced) as incapable of any achievement and morally despicable” (1917, p. 246).

In On Transience (1915, p. 307) Freud stresses that the First World War “(…) destroyed not only the beauty of the country sides through which it passed and the works of art which it met with on its path but it also shattered (…) our hopes of a final triumph over the differences between nations and races. (…) It revealed our instincts in all their nakedness (…). It made our country small again and made the rest of the world far remote.” Freud’s considerations become optimistic and hopeful only after a true (which means without any maniac substitution) work of mourning, when he writes: “When once the mourning is over, it will be found that our high opinion of the riches of civilization has lost nothing from our discovery of their fragility. We shall build up again all that war has destroyed, and perhaps on firmer ground and more lastingly than before.”

On the contrary, Civilization and its Discontents (1930) is a work quite far from the experience of war and its destructions. It therefore appears as a positive and organized description of the unconscious. Such an unconscious could be defined as ‘conservative,’ since it does not give much consideration to the issue of loss and the need for a work of mourning.

In this paper I shall try to show Bion’s attempt to put together Freud’s different and often contrasting ideas on the basis of the clinical data from analytical relationships with highly destructive patients. This attempt offers an open and non-saturated theoretical framework, one coherent with Bion’s statement according to which “(…) the process is one of awareness of incoherent elements and the individual’s ability to tolerate that awareness (…)” (1992, p. 195).

In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud uses the image of the city of Rome to argue “that in mental life nothing that has once been formed can perish, that everything is somehow preserved and that in suitable circumstances (when, for instance, regression goes back far enough) it can once more be brought to light” (p. 69). He points out that if we want to visualize the unconscious we can do so by visualizing the eternal city throughout time. We see the ‘Roma Quadrata’ (Roman Square) of the Palatine, the Rome of the ‘Septimontium,’ the Rome enclosed in the Servian Wall, and the many eternal cities of successive emperors. In Rome, nothing that has ever taken place has disappeared. We can see all previous phases of the city’s development next to the more recent. “Where the Coliseum now stands we could at the same time admire Nero’s vanished Golden House” (p. 70). It is worth noting that Freud gives up using the metaphor of the past of Rome to represent the psychic past. This is because “demolitions and replace­ment of buildings occur in the course of the most peaceful development of a city. A city is thus a priori unsuited for a comparison of this sort with a mental organism” (p. 71). On this point, Pontalis argues that analysis should not be interpreted as the recovery of an untouched past lying underground since “(…) as far as we go deep underground, the past had just been reshaped and changed” (1988, p. 247, my translation). J-B. Pontalis comments that analysis is not a disinterment of the past that has remained intact underground; “however deep you may go, it is already in itself subject to reshuffles” (1988, p. 247). In conclusion, Freud seems to make some changes to his starting hypothesis when he argues that “perhaps we ought to content ourselves with asserting that what is past in mental life may be preserved and is not necessarily destroyed” (1930, pp. 71-72). However, soon after, he seems to change his mind once more and points out that “(…) it is rather the rule than the exception for the past to be preserved in mental life” (p. 72).

In spite of his clear optimistic but pretentious aims of discovering the stratified traces of the psychic past, according to Petrella (1990), Freud’s reference to Roman archaeology seems to be a sign of faith not in the availability of the object to reveal itself, but rather in the capacity and in the patience of human beings to approach it. Such an approach can take place through the fragile power of their senses and in the critical elaboration of fantastical figuration.

Bion, in a work he presented at the 20th International Congress of Psychoanalysis in 1957, though affirming that an ancient civilization is buried deep in the patient, and stressing the significant role of the most archaic unconscious, takes inspiration from Freud’s doubts on the relative inadequacy of the archeological metaphor and writes that in patients in whom there is a prevalence of stupidity and haughtiness, (the pride that becomes haughtiness because of a predominance of the death instincts): “The spectacle we watch – to take us back to the analogy Freud gives of the archaeologist who discovers evidence in his terrain of research – does not so much suggest the idea of a civilization as of a primitive disaster. For the analyst reconstruction must lean on the hope that his work of research may be put to the service of the reconstruction of the Ego; a hope stunted by the fact that the research work is equaled to an acting out of destructive attacks against the Ego as soon as it is recognized; I refer to the Ego that begins to give signs of itself in either the patient or the analyst. (1959, p. 136). […] The comparison between psychoanalytical and archaeological research suggested by Freud could stand only if referred to an investigation aimed at examining not so much a primitive society but a primitive catastrophe. This similitude should be received cautiously: indeed, during analytic work, what we are presented with is by no means a static situation or one that can be subjected to a straightforward examination, because the catastrophe we are looking for is still moving while we are studying it and has by no means reinstated its state of quiet and settlement. The main obstacle to any progress we mean to apply, in any direction, is represented by the destructions suffered by the tendency towards curiosity, with all the inability to learn that it results in” (Ibid., pp. 154-155). This paper by Bion foreshadows the concept of catastrophic change that would be formulated later and seems to refer to Benjamin in stressing that “the signs of catastrophe refer to something dynamic and not static” (Ibid, pp. 155-156).

I think that Bion implicitly refers to the concept of catastrophic change, one that would be developed later, and appears to refer to Walter Benjamin when he stresses that “this contributes to the impression of a disaster that is dynamic and not static” (p. 102).

More precisely, the impression of a disaster is implicit in the concept of non-linear progress proposed by Benjamin who describes it with a very evocative image in his Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940, pp. 257-8):

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open and his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive the chains of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Domenico Chianese (2015, p. 223) comments pessimistically:

The situation today would seem reversed compared to Benjamin’s times. For many, ruins no longer seem ruins; on the contrary, most people look at them nostalgically, trying to save the image, swapping it with a future they do not see on the horizon. Benjamin’s angel would also be reversed; he would look at the future and not at the past with eyes open wide from fear.

My vision of Benjamin’s angel is not as pessimistic as Chianese’s. The angel feels compassion for the pile of wreckage, but cannot glide down to recompose them, to bring them back to life, because redemption is not salvaging, but transformation, which must always be commended, as it contains the future even in the most difficult historical moments.

Christopher Bollas (2000) agrees with Bion’s posi­tion and argues that if Freud had wanted to adequately defend his metaphor perhaps his dialectics could have led to further elaboration. For Bollas the problem with Freud’s position is that he had concluded that buildings are destroyed and replaced with new ones throughout time and are therefore unable to represent what the unconscious actually preserves. This does not allow to consider all the historical (and psychical) vicissitudes that had led to the definition of these buildings. Now, it is a matter of fact that destructions (not only the transference of events that allow recovery of the past) remain part of the unconscious and their prominence depends on how we desire to view the Rome of our unconscious life. In this sense, we can see both what was preserved and what was destroyed. “The cancellation, the abandonment, the resetting of the heritage of tradition has always been in action as a principle commonly widespread in any presence arrayed in the series of successions” (Emery, 2011, p. 227).

In this sense, I think that it is important to reconsider Bion’s work as a clinician: in the consulting room it is fundamental to focus upon a risk condition of destruction (but not a destruction that has only just occurred). This allows dealing with some reparative and evolutionary possibilities. As we can see, the relationship between conservation and destruction is a central issue in both architecture and psychoanalysis.

The rela­tionship between past and future lies in the transition from destruc­tion to construction. In the deep unconscious city many new buildings have replaced previous ones after demolitions. A new structure is now erected where another had been before. For the person who lives through these moments, there will be always two constructions in mind: the destroyed and the existing one. Destruction and creation are very close concepts; two complementary and co-existing activities. The repression of the destruction and of the traces of what had been and had become a ruin can produce monsters. The quick and anonymous architectonic reconstruction of German cities destroyed in the Second War World (for example Cologne and Dresden) and the consequent cover-up of the ruins (in this sense, ruins become a terra incognita – an unknown land) in which people lived during that war are clear examples of an unbear­able feeling of loss and of a trace of something that cannot be fully accepted and that must be erased. In this sense, the collective memory is built upon the new original myth of the reconstruction of Germany (Guarnieri, 2006). It is: “Individual and collective amnesia, probably influenced by precon­scious self-censorship – a means of obscuring a world that could no longer be presented in comprehensible terms (…). The darkest aspect of the final act of destruction (…) remained under a kind of taboo like a shameful family secret, a secret that perhaps could not even be privately acknowledged” (Sebald, 2001, p. 10). Sebald clarifies that Germany “developed an almost perfectly func­tioning mechanism of repression, one that allowed it to recognize the fact of its own rise from total degradation while disengaging entirely from its stock of emotions” (p. 12). Sebald finds dehumanizing not only destruction per se, but also our capacity of living with and denying it, or at best, of preserving some debris or putting it in a museum.

Sebald admits that, perhaps in a twisted way, he feels at home when he can see the signs of the destruction of his homeland and not its pleasant valleys. Perhaps this is because the signs of destruction represent the powerful and predominant reality of his earliest life (Guarnieri, 2006). The philosopher Nicola Emery (2011) writes:

Desire ceases before an impression of reality and does not allow us to deal with that sense of lack that comes from the retreat of libido from what was loved and is no longer there. Desire therefore illusorily leads to the belief that we can return to a past satisfaction. But this is only a masquerade simulating the past in a hallucinatory way. It is as if nothing had really happened, as if the history of the presence had never been broken up, as if the scars could be cancelled. (…) Embalming is a proper way of forgetting (…), that is, a way of avoiding the difficult work of mourning (p. 232).

The German language shows this very clearly: Andenken (‘remembrance’ in English) is denken an (‘thinking to what will occur’ in English), that means ‘being worried and bustling for the future.’ Taking care of the future is Andenken (‘remembrance’ in English), that is, trying not only to go beyond the past and destroying it but also providing a historical elaboration of it, criticizing it and continuously recognizing it. (pp. 226-227).

Emery argues that recognizing an environmental-social mourning should lead to work the cathexis of the project, that is, to move them from the process of construction – destruction – construction to the process of recovery – transformation – redistribution. In a creative way, we can take and use the terms recovery (or reparation) – transformation – redistribution in analytic work in our consulting rooms. These terms refer to the patient, the analyst, and the analytic couple at work and help to avoid dreaming of discovering huge hidden and perfectly preserved archaeological treasures capable of telling the final truth about the patient’s past.


Benjamin, W. (1940) “Theses in the Philosophy of History”In: Illuminations (pp. 245-255). New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999.


Bion, W. R.:

–        (1957) “On Arrogance”. In: Second Thoughts: Selected Papers on Psychoanalysis (pp. 86-92). (London: Karnac, 1984).

–        (1959) “Attacks on Linking”. In: Second Thoughts: Selected Papers on Psychoanalysis (pp. 93–109). (London: Karnac, 1984).

–        (1992) Cogitations (London: Karnac).


Bollas, C. (2000) “Architecture and the Unconscious”, International Forum of Psychoanalysis, 9: 28–42.


Chianese, D. (2015) Come le pietre e gli alberi. Psicoanalisi ed estetica del vivere. (Roma: Alpes Italia).


Emery, N. (2011) Distruzione e Progetto (Milan: Marinotti).


Freud, S.:

–        (1915) On Transience. S.E., 14: 305-308.

–        (1917) Mourning and Melancholia. S.E., 14: 237-258.

–        (1925) An Autobiographical Study. SE., 20: 3–70.

–        (1930). Civilization and its Discontents. SE., 21: 59–145.

–        (1940). An Outline of Psycho-Analysis. SE., 23: 141–207.


Guarnieri, R. (2006) “La Vertigine della Distruzione”. W. G. Sebald, Psiche, 1: 167-180.


Schinaia, C. (2016) Psychoanalysis and Architecture. The Inside and the Outside (London: Karnac).


Sebald, W. G. (2001a) On the Natural History of Destruction. Transl. by A. Bell (New York: Random, 2004).


[1] Bion 2016 Conference. Emotions, Transformations and Psychic Vitality. Milan from 30/09 to 02/10, 2016.


Cosimo Schinaia is a psychiatrist who had worked as Director of Mental Health Centre of Central Genoa for many years. He is training and supervising psychoanalyst of SPI (Italian Psychoanalytical Society) and full member of IPA (International Psychoanalytical Association) and works in private practice in Genoa. He had published many scientific papers for Italian and international journals and books. He also published the books: Dal Manicomio alla Città (From the psychiatric hospital to the city) (Rome-Bari: Laterza, 1997); Il Cantiere delle Idee (The place in which ideas are built) (Genoa: La Clessidra, 1998); Pedofilia Pedofilie. La Psicoanalisi e il Mondo del Pedofilo (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2001), translated in English On Paedophilia (London: Karnac, 2010), Spanish, Portuguese, Polish and French; Il Dentro e il Fuori. Psicoanalisi e Architettura (Genoa: Il Melangolo, 2014), translated in English Psychoanalysis and ArchitectureThe Inside and the Outside (London: Karnac, 2016); Interno Esterno. Sguardi psicoanalitici su architettura e urbanistica (Rome: Alpes, 2016) will be translated in French and Spanish. [Via Bernardo Castello, 8/18,16121  Genoa, Italy]

Publication Date:

June 28, 2017

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