A Beam of Intense Darkness: Wilfred Bion’s Legacy to Psychoanalysis (Book Review)

Author:  Grotstein, James S.
Publisher:  Karnac Books, 2007
Reviewed By:  Pauk C. Cooper, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, Winter 2009, pp. 25-26

I would like to begin this review with a phrase from Grotstein’s dedication. It captures the spirit of imaginative inquiry that Bion advocates through his writing; a spirit and a sensibility that is essential to psychoanalysis and that infuses this book with life; a spirit that Grotstein wholeheartedly conveys in his expression of gratitude to Bion for “… encouraging me to play with your ideas as well as my own” (unnumbered page). I feel welcomed by Grotstein, into a creative reading. Space exists for one’s own Truth to evolve through one’s relationship with the text. Grotstein exemplifies this approach to being with and responding to Bion through his own creative peregrinations throughout. He notes, “it is not so much a faithful rendering of his ideas as my digestion of his work at the moment!” (p. 5).

The book is a welcome addition to a expanding number of thoughtful reflections and creative extensions of Bion’s work that have appeared over the past decade including Eigen, 2004; Ferro, 2005; Lopez-Corvo, 2006; Ogden, 2005; Rhode, 1998. Grotstein’s edition is a challenging, but extremely rewarding book. Despite my ongoing interest in Bion’s writing, the challenge for me resides in Grotstein’s approach to the subject matter, which, to paraphrase his expression, “disturbs my universe” through a generous offering of an incredibly comprehensive, at times exhausting, personal and creative text that operates successfully on a number of levels stretching out between informative and performative writing.

Grotstein provides an encyclopedic, occasionally repetitive elaboration of all of Bion’s key ideas, too numerous to list here. The text at once becomes biographical, autobiographical, exegetical, critical and creative and goes beyond simple renderings of Bion’s concepts. The reader will note hints of idealization sprinkled generously throughout the text despite Bion’s repeated warnings and protestations. For instance, from his analysis with Bion, in response to an interpretation, Grotstein said, “‘I follow you.’ He [Bion] responded with, ‘Yes, I was afraid of that!’” (p. 32). I am reminded of Bion’s caution to “Beware the charismatic individual” (1975, p. 251).

Grotstein goes straight for the heart of Bion’s epistemology through the latter’s notions of Faith in “O,” uncertainty,“ at-one-ment,” negative capability, and Language of Achievement, to name a few. He details how these notions, which are central to Bion’s psychoanalysis, engender a radical change in psychoanalytic model building and in working out precise clinical interventions. In so doing, according to Grotstein, Bion points to the mystical potential in all of us. He writes “Bion has enfranchised mysticism as an invaluable and obligatory component of psychoanalytic epistemology” (p. 3).In this way he carefully charts a middle-ground in Bion’s work that balances seemingly disparate cognitive, intuitive, scientific, biological, philosophical, and mystical elements into a cohesive whole. Despite this wide-range of influence, he clearly emphasizes Bion the psychoanalyst and non-religious mystic; more the creative dreamer living in the undefined uncertain infinity of psychic experience than the thinker who simply discovers within the limitations of what can be defined as limited, which Eric Rhode describes as lexical: as if “there is a dictionary, call it history, possibly, which can fill any gap” (1998, p. 20). In this process, Grotstein proceeds to unpack Bion’s key concepts, often with his own spin and elaboration. Chapter Twelve on the “transcendent position” exemplifies one creative elaboration worthy of the reader’s repeated attention.

One aspect of this volume that I would like to comment on is the seamless integration of abstract ideas with experience. Bion’s inventive use of language is complex and unique. As the literary scholar Mary Jacobus notes, “At times he writes like a lucid cross between a latter-day Wittgenstein or Beckett and a 1960’s new-math teacher—analytically, laconically, abstractly, unstoppably” (2005, p. 259). In this respect the difficulty for the writer seems to lie in the common pitfall of over-quoting and simply paraphrasing Bion. Grotstein has negotiated this problem beautifully. Rather than working through a vicariously lived paraphrasing or “re-interpretation” of Bion’s “O.” He operates, as I see it, through multiple ongoing realizations and expressions of his own experiencing “Being O,” which he seems to embrace and then willingly lets go of. Grotstein then moves on before the experience becomes reified and over saturates the psychic space from which his creative insights seem to have evolved from.

As text, this process evolves out of Grotstein’s autobiographical narrative, which I experienced as moving, playful and often quite intimate, especially as Grotstein brings the reader into his analysis with Bion. I find these self-disclosures to be deeply personal, touching but not overbearing. They seem to highlight experientially rather than distract from the points under discussion. This autobiographical orientation reflects a refreshing trend that has increasingly filtered into contemporary psychoanalytic writing. In this manner, Grotstein’s personal narrative exemplifies, through his own experiences, the subtle and elusive concepts that he writes about. It is through this autobiographical narrative, the significance that Bion attributes to the relationship between self and other as a crucial facilitator of the deepening and expanding evolution of inner exploration characterized by Grotstein as a movement from impersonal “O” (Truth) to personal “O” (truth) that makes the abstract aspects of the discussion come alive.

With this autobiographical groundwork in place, Grotstein proceeds to weave a seamless connection to Bion’s theory of thinking by linking the impersonal and the personal to beta elements (raw sensory stimuli of emotional experience) and alpha elements (“the elementary alphabet of thoughts” p. 68) respectively. In this manner he establishes a clear connection to an important discussion of Bion’s radical conceptualization of psychoanalytic technique. For example, he emphasizes the ongoing oscillating dynamic between projective identification and the analyst’s capacity for reverie as a successful or unsuccessful communicative function. This movement away from an exclusively linear and positivist model in turn anticipates contemporary relational models in fundamental ways. Clinically, this perspective attunes the analyst to often subtle shifts in the analysand’s communications in relation to the analyst’s shifts in attention to the analysand and to the analyst’s own internal experience as the analyst “dreams” the session.

Evolution, in its infinity is unending. In this respect, this book serves as both a culmination and as a starting point for further “dreaming” psychoanalysis into the future. The multi-level approach to the format and content renders the work accessible to a wide readership, including the educated non-professional public, graduate students, psychoanalytic candidates, clinicians who are increasingly becoming interested in Bion’s ideas, long-time Bion scholars, and psychoanalytic educators. Selected readings from the book that I assigned stimulated an animated and fruitful discussion among advanced candidates in the Bion reading course that I teach for the Institute for Expressive Analysis in New York City. Personally, I find myself inspired by the passion and integrity that Grotstein brings to this work.

Paul C. Cooper
New York, N.Y. 10016


Bion, W. (1975). A memoir of the future. London: Karnac Books (reprinted 1991).
Eigen, M. (2004). The sensitive self. Middletown, Ct.: Wesleyan University Press.
Ferro, A. (2005). Seeds of illness, seeds of recovery: The genesis of suffering and the role of psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.
Jacobus, M. (2005). The poetics of psychoanalysis: In the wake of Klein. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lopez-Corvo, R. (2006). Wild thoughts searching for a thinker: A clinical application of W.R. Bion’s theories. London: Karnac Books.
Ogden, T. (2005). This art of psychoanalysis: Dreaming and undreamt dreams and interrupted cries. London: Routledge.
Rhode, E. (1998). On hallucination, intuition and the becoming of “O.” Binghamton, NY: ESF Publishers.


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