Into Fiction, Through Catastrophe. A Conversation



In this interview, psychoanalyst and JEP co-editor Anthony Molino engages Christopher Bollas in an exploration of the radical turn in his recent literary output.  Focusing primarily on his novels Dark at the End of the Tunnel and I Have Heard the Mermaid Singing, Bollas here discusses in detail his move away from the traditional psychoanalytic essay into the realms of fiction (and theatre).  Finding the former suitable to “a much more radical form of theorizing” psychoanalysis, Bollas explores both the internal pressures to which he responded in resorting to the genre, as well as contemporary societal pressures and themes which the genre more readily accomodates.  Among these are analyses of modern-day Islam’s rise and revolt against the West, and of what Bollas sees as the loss of character in our globalised consumer culture: expressions both of the “catastrophe” that engulfs and pervades our culture, the determinants of which remain, for the most part, “unconscious”.



Anthony Molino: Since the publication of The Mystery of Things (1999) and Hysteria (2000), you have turned out three novels and a collection of plays.  The novels, especially—Dark At The End of The Tunnel, I Have Heard The Mermaids Singing, and Mayhem—seem to want to pursue a new way not only of writing about psychoanalysis, but literally of writing psychoanalysis.  Can you explain this most recent and, indeed, prolific turn?


Christopher Bollas: I now give only one or two public presentations a year that require me to write an essay.  I prefer small working groups to the larger public event.  That means that I am booked up to three years ahead of time and usually around 15 months before the engagement I am asked to give the title of my talk.  So I come up with something.  And some years ago I came up with “Object and Other” and didn’t think about it any further.  Ordinarily about a year before I write an essay for presentation I ask myself, ‘so what’s up?’, and I hope I get some feedback.  But that did not happen in this case.  I deferred the question and asked it about 10 months before the event: still no reply.  Then 8 months: same thing.  By then ordinarily I would have assembled whatever thoughts I had about a topic and at least unconsciously I would be working on it, adding bits here and there, on a daily basis.  Bits to my notebook.  I usually write the essay three months before the engagement, but when that time rolled around I was no where near to writing the essay and the institution sponsoring the event was now asking for a translation of the draft.  It was the first writing block in my life and although I would haul myself to my desk and sit before the computer admonishing myself to get going, no luck.  But one Saturday morning I sat at my desk, spontaneously decided to write about this topic from a fictional point of view and I wrote it in one sitting.  I booted the problem over to an imaginary psychoanalyst who was thinking about it, but who had no answer to the question.  That struck me as about right, so the character and I were on the same page so to speak.


A.M. Your reply speaks to the genesis, if you will, of this turn in your work.  But beyond its origins, it is a turn in which you have persisted—for approximately five years and three novels now—with more to come!  This leads me to presume that you’ve come to elect the form of the novel, again, as a way of writing psychoanalysis and grappling with its status in our world today…


C.B.  After I discovered how liberating this form was, then I certainly elected to follow that path.  I do think for me it is the right thing to do now because I have come to find the traditional psychoanalytical essay oppressive and not such a creative form.  I also enjoy the greater freedom fiction allows to my own unconscious to have it’s say in representation.


Is it your impression, or indeed intention, that fiction of your kind can be deployed in the service of theorizing?  A recent review of your novels identifies therein a number of concepts you’ve contributed over the years to the language of psychoanalysis (Fate, Destiny, Object Use, Transformational Objects, Personal Idiom, Aesthetic Style, Character), and has me wondering if the freedom the genre allows also makes for a space for the further elaboration and dissemination of these concepts.  Or, perhaps, for the germination of new theoretical constructs?


I do think fiction allows for a much more radical form of theorizing than can take place in an essay.  For example, I found that by using the conceit of different characters reporting books they have read—a book on the oppression of black men or a book on Middle East conflict—that I could put forward psychoanalytical perspectives in very short space.  Also, by using circumstance—such as a conversation between two characters ending because they have come to the end of their walk—I can throw forward quite radical ideas without the burden of proof weighing down the writing.  I have been able to ‘say’ more in these three novels then I have in any comparable number of essays that touch on the same topics.  Of course, we all know that novelists intentionally used this form for the exploration of the human mind and the nature of human relations.  The history of the novel is, in many respects, a history of theory making.  The down-side is that because this is just fiction an astonishing number of people, and I mean well-educated people, think that it is therefore not real!  So the problem to some extent is with the readership as people still think much the way they did in the 18th century that fiction is not reality.  When I proposed to the Editor of International Journal of Psychoanalysis that they consider reviewing my novellas, pointing out that to me this was another way of thinking about psychoanalysis, I was summarily dismissed: “We do not review fiction.”  Astonishing really.  But fortunately other journals, such as Psychoanalytic Review, the Australian Journal of Psychotherapy, the Journal of the British Association of Psychotherapists, JEP and Psyche (the German analytical journal) are more up to this kind of thing.


Your reply has me thinking that our theories and theory-making are often referred to—especially by critics of psychoanalysis—as a form of fiction.  In a way, Freud, Klein, Bion, Winnicott, Lacan—even Bollas!—have all conjured up fictional accounts of the human mind and life.  Or what you’ve referred to as differing “modes of perception”.  Assuming you agree with this premise, are your own novels, in some way, paradoxically part of an established tradition in psychoanalytic writing, or at least an expression of what we might call a shared aesthetic that looks for ever-new ways of thinking and representing itself?


Making fiction and writing an essay are different mental phenomenon.  If they were the same then the difference between the two would not only be meaningless, but difference itself would succumb to the hegemony of sameness.  When commentators argue that Freud or Winnicott’s writings are poetic, or, that their cases read like fiction, they are trying to find some way to identify something unique about the psychoanalytical essay or the writing of a case.  I do not think these are fictions, they are psychoanalytical writings.  The fact that I could no longer write like this is not a repudiation of that form of thinking or writing—and it is unique—but a comment on my own unconscious block at the time.  On reflection I think I had simply tired of that venue for thinking.  I was also fatigued by my own voice as a writer of that kind of prose.  For me writing fiction was liberating, but for a full time novelist the personal account of the self’s relation to that form of thinking and writing could be quite different.


In Dark at the End of The Tunnel you deal squarely, and what I found to be honestly and compassionately, with a topic psychoanalysis often eschews: the darkness of death.  In the recent literature, I know only of Franco De Masi’s Making Death Thinkable tackling the theme, which you vivify in the touching relationship between the psychoanalyst and his dying female patient, Selina Tano.  Can you comment on this preoccupation?


Dark followed the death of two friends, one who I was just really getting to know—and liked him the more I knew him—and one whom I had known for 25 years and who was a remarkable and profound man.  My father had died two years before and had given, much to his own pleasure, a death-bed speech to my brothers and myself.  He had not prepared it, but he certainly was “up” to death.  I also had my own brush with death round about this time, so it was in the background.  But I had no idea that I was going to write about it.  It showed up.  As it did one thing lead to another and I was able to write about some aspects of my work with a patient who was dying.  I have for a long time been struck by the phrase “loss of life” which seems to me more apt than “one dies.”   The tragedy for the dying person—if he or she has time to think about it—is that one is losing one’s life and contact with the living.  I believe the mourning over this loss of life that occupies the dying person has been overlooked and submerged in the too familiar notions of the stages of dying: i.e., I can’t believe it is happening to me, I am furious and whatnot.  I do not think death as such is so shocking.  It is the loss of life.  And that continues to interest me.


You mention the work of mourning.  In a review of your novels, Pina Antinucci cites Jean Clair,  former director of the Picasso Museum in Paris and of the Biennale in Venice, who recently organized an exhibit on ‘Melancholia’ at Paris’ Grand Palais.  By tracing the history and vicissitudes of the concept of depression from antiquity through today, the reviewer claims that ”Clair speaks directly to our world’s inability to mourn.  And in so doing, he puts forth the scandalous proposition that we consider the work of mourning as the paradoxical ‘utopia’ of our post-historical times.  A utopia for the post-historical subject who can no longer distinguish between past, present and future…”  Do you see your own work, concerns and characters reflected in such a “utopia”? and can we speak of mourning as a contemporary quest of sorts?  I recall Adam Phillips years ago being quite critical of just how acritically analysts celebrate and bandy about the concept…


I don’t believe it is only mourning that our culture refuses.  It is thinking.  So if we do not think about who we are, where we are, where we have come from, where we are going, and what effect we have on our world, then we are not aware of our identity, we are not aware of what we ‘have’, so we will not know what is loss, and without such self-awareness of course there can be no mourning.  We thought Freud’s discovery of psychoanalysis was the beginning of a new era, and, at least through to the middle of the 20th century, that seemed to be the case.  Freud infused Western culture and it looked as if this would be generative and generational.  But I now think Freud and psychoanalysis marked the end of an era, not the beginning.  I think the existentialist movement—the time of our last great thinkers—was the end of the search for meaning.  I believe we now live in a time that was foreseen by Eliot in the Wasteland.  In Theraplay I attempt to “stage” our time, not equationally.  I hope I have found future figures that nonetheless are our ghosts living purely as functional beings, without meaning.  In Theraplay and in Apply Within I try to explore the loss of character endemic now to our time and the self—asset stripped—living in the so-called globalized world.


I’ll come back to your plays later.  I find intriguing your reference to existentialism, having already noted elsewhere that your novels evoke for me the work of Albert Camus.  Your character of the psychoanalyst seems to descend, in a peculiar sort of way, from the line of  protagonist/anti-heroes of works like The Stranger and The Fall, and the Catastrophe—on which I’d like you to elaborate—readily echoes Oran’s plague.


Fiction captures the atmosphere of an era, far more so than non-fiction.  I was certainly influenced by the writings of Camus because he established a mood—one of reflective remove from the march of horror—and I was also transformed by the surrealist brilliance of Ionesco.  You want to discuss the plays later, but my novellas are part drama.  The crowd scenes, for example, are meant to be like the Greek chorus, reflecting the psychotic element of the social order.  Ionesco also used the crowd, the herd, to echo the mass movements of fascism and communism, but for me his plays capture the impossibility of the individual life amidst the mass.  I think the existential anti-hero may be the last personification of self before it succumbs to mass commodification.  The characters in the novellas are just on the cusp of discovering that they are living in a world where the unconscious has departed and where there is no longer a memory of the search for individual meaning.  The plays extend this realisation so that the characters in a play like Apply Within are simply functional beings.  Still I find there is some possibility of redemption in all of this.  People remain people.  Their failings and vulnerabilities become ironic portals to a different world than the one proposed by the commodifiers.  In human failure one finds a comedic talent—symptom as joke so to speak—that could put a wrench in the production of false selves.  The novellas intend to find that redemptive dimension and to illustrate how in human imperfection one finds strength that inevitably collides with mass movements.  We are a long way down the road from the era of Camus.  His generation were just coming out of the trenches of war and Resistance and their literary works were like an après coup that generated fierce debate around them.   They benefited from the fact that in fighting Nazism they had fought evil.  But we—and by we I mean the Western World—cannot occupy this innocent place precisely because we are now the Nazis and we choose not to know it.  Our occupation and oppression of the rest of the non-industrialised world in which millions are dying every year of starvation and death by ordinary diseases is calling up our opponents: the anti-Nazi.  But that figure is horrifying.  Made ill by us.  Mad.  An ignorant army of millions of dispossessed people who will try to destroy us and may manage it.  And we still refuse to discover who we have become.


Your answer suggests an acute awareness of this troubled historical moment of ours, and indeed both your novels published to date unfold in the diffuse, eery ooze of an otherwise unnamed Catastrophe.  In I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing, published before last summer’s London bombings, you imagined a terrorist bomber seeking the help of the psychoanalyst so as to carry out his deadly mission, and thus make one of your few explicit references to the threat posed, say, by today’s Islamic fundamentalisms.  In recent weeks, we have seen angry, mindless hordes driven to violence across the globe by the supposed sacrilege of a Danish newspaper’s publication of cartoons representing the Prophet.  Isn’t it also a bit simplistic to say that we are our era’s Nazis, when so much of the world, arguably, inhabits the kind of “primitive”, or un/self reflective, medieval mindset that Freud fathomed in works like The Future of an Illusion and Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego?  Your analysis of our occupation and oppression of the Rest almost seems predicated on a Marxist analysis that shies away from considerations other than the socio-economic.


If we look specifically at the world of Islam, most historians agree that in after the Ottoman Empire this civilisation declined as it drew into itself.  It regarded Western developments—especially science and armaments—with disdain and elected to live on its past accomplishments.  It would be folly to blame the West for this.  But Western policies toward the third world—in the middle East, Africa, South and Central America and elsewhere—have been to exploit vast populations, turning a blind eye to continued colonial activities.  The US and other governments have again and again supported dictators who have oppressed and terrorised their own people.  We knew this.  We continued with our policies.  To this extent I liken us to the Nazi occupation of Europe.  The US and Western governments are hated by most of the rest of the world population and hated for good reason.  My point is that we have destroyed people.  The destroyed, driven mad by us—and their own leaders who are our puppets—are now the return of the oppressed.  We are now to pay a huge price for more than 50 years of such oppression.  Camus, Sartre, Fanon, and others were deeply disturbed by this oppression and this was a time, also, when psychoanalysts were taking up literary arms against Western oppression.  But now the West has cut its ties to thinking about this issue.  Links have been broken.  We have forgotten who we propped up and what they did.  Even as we do it now—through the outsourcing of torture and Guantanamo—we are still oblivious to our own criminal activities.  When the cartoons stirred up Islam, they did indeed rouse the insane.  If we are not responsible for the entire history of their descent into madness, we discovered them in this condition and we have exploited them, which is a very grave crime against tens of millions of people.


Are your plays and novels, then, to be understood as the equivalent of what literary arms can be taken up today by psychoanalysts? or do you intend, at the least, to disturb the slumber of fellow analysts and waken us/them—in your words–”to what we have become”?


I do not have an agenda for my novels and the plays.  I write them because I enjoy doing it and because it allows me a range of thought-possibilities denied to me by the more limited form of the essay.  I do not, for example, know what will happen in the novels or the plays.  I just begin and something shows up.  But if we stand back and have a look, it does seem to be the case that sometimes the psychoanalyst, a flawed hero, is disturbed by his profession.  Unsurprisingly it seems to me, he finds within the analytical movement what we can think of as the ordinary fascism of everyday life.  There are points where I quite agree with his views, especially on the here and now transference, but there are other points he makes that I consider silly or evidence of different forms of prejudice.  He is impulsive and careless at times.  Most of the analytical readership thinks the psychoanalyst is myself and although that is certainly true at times the aspects of him that I most like are the not-me dimensions.  It was becoming tedious to represent my own views in prose.  So I am glad this character has shown up and the not-me is a relief.


Is not Christopher Bollas also disturbed by aspects of his profession, and does he not suffer—and therefore knowingly choose to denounce in his work—the “ordinary fascism of everyday life”? the dehumanization of depression, say, and the Orwellian politics of today’s pharmaceutical industry?  Your novels, like it or not, do mark a break within the world of psychoanalysis—so much so that the IJPA, in refusing to review them, evinces its own (our own?) narrow-mindedness and parochialism…


The IJPA’s refusal was, to my knowledge, simply categorical.  They do not review fiction.  I have no reason to believe that they did not wish to review my work because of my views.  I do of course understand the point you are making, that certainly I personally must have views that are placed with some of my characters.  But if I were to embark upon a commentary in which I agreed to point out where I was in these works then I think I would defeat them.  In turn, I think I would limit the possibilities of my own within this realm which I find liberating.  Looked at another way, have I suffered from and do I oppose the ordinary fascism in psychoanalysis?—the answer is yes.  Do I wish to discuss this from a personal point of view?  The answer is no.  We all suffer in life and I am no exception.


I should clarify.  By no means is the emphasis of my question on what you, personally, suffer or may have suffered.  But where psychoanalysis is concerned, in an interview we did a decade ago, already then you claimed that psychoanalysis had “to survive ‘the psychoanalytic movement’.  If it survives psychoanalysts and their schools, then it will grow and develop.  But this remains to be seen…”  Already then you perceived normalizing or conformist tendencies (in training, thinking, the transmission of psychoanalytic knowledge and the power relations that inhere therein) that troubled you, which your novels and plays do seem at least to acknowledge.


It should not be a surprise that psychoanalysts in groups behave no differently than other groups.  For a long time I was under the sway of a wish that, as psychoanalysts had been analyzed, they would have a better understanding of, amongst other things, human destructiveness.  I believed that they would therefore behave differently.  I now know this is not so.  I often tell myself to get over this disappointment, but obviously—even in the fiction—I continue to protest this fact.  A few analysts over the decades have tried to address this issue but it is surprising how quiet we all are about the distressing reality that psychoanalysis really has no effect on the behaviour of psychoanalysts.  We are, therefore, our own worst advertisement.


Earlier in our conversation you mentioned your writing for the theatre, recently collected in Theraplay & Other Plays.  Is it just an impression of mine, or is the vision you bring to the stage generally a starker one than inhabits your novels? Redemption, as you put it—the reclamation, today, of a life of meaning and the possibility that the individual unconscious can indeed be recognized and engaged—seems more within the reach of your fictional creations than your stage characters, whom I’ve had occasion to describe as a Giacometti-like, “alexithymic army of post-human beings.”  Can you discuss the differences? in your experience writing fiction or theatre, in the characters that end up in one genre or the other, in the visions these propound, the concerns one or the other addresses…


A novel demands that the author create some kind of world.  Even if the characters are more like vehicles for ideas—which is true of my fictional characters—one must still attend to them to make them credible as imaginary others.  Also, my fiction is clearly comic and that genre means that every so often something is quite amusing, thus breaking up whatever is transpiring.  The plays are different.  One does not have to create a world.  Indeed, the plays which some see as Beckett-like, may only be two people talking in such abstract terms so that for a long time the audience may have little idea what is going on.  Reference points may be barely visible, reality suspended, connections absent.  Theatre of this kind can approximate the workings of the unconscious in a way that the novel never could, not even the novels of Joyce, Robbe-Grillet, Faulkner, or Saramago.  At the moment I am writing what for lack of a better term one could call dramatic fragments or poetic dramas.  They are written like poems and have stanzaic structure.  But they are simply conversations between two anonymous characters about highly abstract anxieties or interests.  They are even more open to this kind of thinking than the plays proper.


Both genres, in any case—and perhaps this new form with which you are experimenting as well—are vehicles for you to evoke or represent our contemporary Catastrophe.  What do you see as the fate of the unconscious in this era of diffuse, worming, stratified yet all-engulfing crises?  Again, your stage characters especially seem alien to its workings—and seem, tragically, all the more realistic for it.


It is quite challenging to represent the departure of the unconscious as participant in contemporary culture and yet keep it on stage in the act of representation.  So the characters in the plays are rather empty beings, asset-stripped by decades of soul-mining by social structures with vested interests only in profit margins.  The unconscious as a figure—as something the audience feels is present even if absent from the individual character—occurs as the form the plays take, the kinds of dialogues between characters. The unconscious has receded if you will into the medium of representation itself, retreating into language-in-itself…


In preparing for our interview, I found myself reflecting—thanks to your work—on the implications for unconscious life in this confounding time of ours.  (One need only consider the recent waves of Freud-bashing, the DSMing of our human condition, the lobbying to patent human genes, or our global denial of the Other—unless or until forcefully democratized and commodified, and made unto our likeness…) And in so doing,  I began to wonder what this turn in your work must reflect of your own personal and professional life.  Now in your 60s, you’ve about reached the age when Jung, for example, became disillusioned by what he saw as modern man’s break from the psychic richness and connectedness of African and New Mexican tribes, or when Freud looked with pained disenchantment, between the two world wars, at man’s monstrous, murderous capacity for evil and destruction.


My turn to fiction in some ways is a return to the 1960s as it was then that I wrote plays for a brief spell.  Along with all my childhood objects, they were burned in a fire set by an arsonist who torched a block of storage lockers.  Several of the plays were produced this year at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, so this was an evocative moment as that is the city where my first lot of plays were written.  In other respects, however, I have had occasion to reflect on that period of time.  I was involved in the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley.  I had been active in the civil rights movement in the South and later became an ally of the Black Panther Party in California.  But looking back it is interesting to contrast the American left with, say, the French left.  The American left was almost completely without psychological insight into themselves and were not interested in psychoanalysis, while this was certainly not to be so in France, as 1968 launched Lacan.  Even though American writers looked deep into the soul of man, American letters—when compared to Europe—have had very little impact on American consciousness (or indeed the American unconscious).  Every European country I know of has valued its great writers, but this is not so in America and has never been the case.  American writers rarely even attend to their society but reflect this life—as outsiders—by concentrating on the individual as a kind of isolate, even when surrounded by social forces.  For several decades now, however, we have witnessed the rise of globalisation, part of which means the export of American culture across the globe.  We can see the mind-numbing effect of this form of trade.  Indeed we are now at the point where there is little difference between European and American culture.  Visit Paris and you might just as well be in an American theme park.  And Florence might just as well apply for American citizenship.  The transformation of value, from an individual who lives in a culture and who means something to himself and others, into a commodity asset strips the human soul of its worth.  We live in an age where there is no longer meaningful contact with unconscious life; in fact, where the idea of the unconscious is often held in absolute contempt.  This stretches into the realms of psychoanalysis, where analysts have for the most part lost touch with what Freud proposed as the unconscious.  There is little use of theory of free association, although lip service is paid to it.  But analysts come to the clinical hour with an agenda—i.e., finding the transference, finding the drive derivative, finding the castration complex, finding the intersubjective or whatnot—that not only canalises psychoanalysis, but is part of the social simplification of mental life.  Regrettably, psychoanalysis is now part of the problem and no longer part of the solution.  A few writers seem to know this and they are trying to address it, but they are up against the “movements” in psychoanalysis that are only interested in promoting their own limited brand of psychoanalysis—at the expense, moreover, of all other theories and forms of practise.  Psychoanalysis, then, has become a commodity, marketed by middlemen who work within an intellectual-corporate structure.  If I am not optimistic about the short term—and I see no evidence of a big shift in Western thought, much less within psychoanalysis—then I am not pessimistic about the long term future.  Psychoanalytic theory was an important revelation within the history of Western consciousness.  If it has been repressed, as looks to be the case, it will certainly return some day.


Published by I.S.A.P. - ISSN 2284-1059