Psychoanalysis is itself a defense against trauma: Wilfred Bion, post 2

This is my second post on Wilfred Bion and trauma. It makes sense on its own, but it will make the most sense if you read the previous post, “Bion’s Trauma and Trauma Theory” (

Wilfred Bion is not well known among trauma theorists, and is not generally considered a trauma theorist. I think he should be. Taking Bion seriously leads to the conclusion that psychoanalysis has focused too much on the internal sources of distress; it should pay more attention to trauma, the experience of obliteration. This post has been inspired by James Grotstein’s A Beam of Intense Darkness: Wilfred Bion’s Legacy to Psychoanalysis. The conclusions are my own.IMG_1140,colorcurve,autocolor,crop2

Pariah of “O”

For many years, Bion was considered the intellectual successor to Melanie Klein, the founder of object relations theory. His elaboration of projective identification as a means of communication, and his theory of container and contained, became fundamental to Kleinian theory, “basic components of the ‘post-Kleinian’ episteme in London.” (Grotstein, p. 20) Then Bion developed the concept of O, which represents the absolute. The absolute of what is the question. I think O represents the absolute of trauma. However, most of what Bion wrote about O is more recondite, Zen-like. In any case, Bion’s elevation of O resulted in his fall from grace in London psychoanalytic circles. He became a “pariah of O,” in Grotstein’s phrase. The pariah moved to California, where he received a warm welcome. I’ll let you decide if that’s ironic.

Through the abandonment of ego we become O. The analyst achieves this by living “without memory or desire or sensation,” entirely within the moment, but O is not a strictly psychoanalytic concept (Bion, 1970, pp. 34-35). Encountering O is encountering reality in as unmediated fashion as it is possible for humans to do. O is beyond words, beyond symbols. O, says Grotstein, “is but another name for “being or Existence-in-itself.” (p. 135) It resides within as much as without, so that O is as much about being in immediate contact with one’s unconscious as it is with the external world.

Orphan of “O”

I don’t really think this makes much sense. But those who write about Bion in a sympathetic vein, such as Grotstein and Meg Harris Williams, think that he may have reached O when he “. . . died on the Amiens–Roye Road on August 8, 1918,” as Bion puts it in an autobiography published more than fifty years later.

Bion, a tank commander, took shelter in a bomb crater with a young soldier in the midst of a terrible shelling during WWI. The young soldier’s lung was torn away by shrapnel, and Bion couldn’t help him, couldn’t let him in, wishes the soldier would die, so he (Bion) would be free of the boy’s suffering. Bion makes half-hearted attempts to comfort the soldier, but is himself too terrified to do more. The result was that at age 20, Bion became an “orphan of O,” sacrificed to “nameless dread,” the latter a term of Bion’s referring to a state of mind that is unthinkable.

An analysand of Klein after the war, she failed to analyze his dread, presumably because trauma of the type Bion experienced was not an analytic category of hers. For Klein, it all comes from within. The result was to leave unanalyzed, and thus untreated, the part of Bion “who was amberized on the holocaustal side of O,” as Grotstein dramatically puts it (p. 119). Or as Bion put over fifty years later,

I would not go near the Amiens-Roye road for fear I should meet my ghost – I died there. For though the Soul should die, the Body lives for ever.” (Memoir of the Future, p. 257)

What this means for psychoanalysis

Grotstein argues that the concept of O transforms psychoanalytic theory. The pleasure principle, the death instinct, what Melanie Klein calls the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions, all become defenses against the experience of O, what Grotstein calls ultimate being (p. 121).

I think Grotstein is right, but I would put it differently. The experience of O is similar to what Jacques Lacan calls the Real. “The real is impossible,” says Lacan, and with this he means that it is beyond language. As adults we most frequently encounter the real whenever we are forced to confront the materiality of our existence. This encounter is usually experienced as traumatic since it challenges our sense of reality: the symbolic way in which we have ordered our defenses against the real. That is, the way we get on with life. As Lacan puts it, “the real is that which does not depend on my idea of it.” (Lacan, Seminar 21; Fink, pp. 142-143)

From this perspective, virtually every concept of psychoanalysis is a symbolic attempt to master the real, to make it a matter of reality, which can be symbolically mediated and made knowable and acceptable to humans. In other words, psychoanalysis is a defense against trauma, the intrusion of that which cannot be symbolically expressed and mediated. This includes not just psychoanalysis, of course, but all of human expressive activity that is in any way symbolic.

This isn’t bad. It just needs to be recognized, so that we do not understand psychoanalysis as a search for the truth of the inner world. Psychoanalysis is a search for the way in which we defend against the real. At the same time this search is the defense.

One might argue that there is a parallel or analogy between psychoanalysis as a defense against the real and the experience of trauma. I would argue that the experience of the real is trauma, and that all of psychoanalysis is an organized defense against this trauma. Better an organized than a disorganized defense in most cases, for an organized defense keeps us from going crazy. But it is worthwhile and important to step back and see psychoanalysis in this light.

I think this is what Bion’s O did for him, especially if we see O as Bion’s way of talking about an intensely traumatic experience that he never got over. His increasingly imaginative and inventive autobiographies, particularly A Memoir of the Future, are an attempt to approach O through the language of art; at the same time his autobiographies are artistic defenses against this experience. Or as Bion puts it in A Memoir of the Future, “there are many formulations of dread, unformulated and ineffable – what I denote 0.” (p. 77)

I don’t think Bion got very close to O. The more we try to sneak up on O, the cleverer we get, the more it steals away. I think Bion comes closest in the section called “Amiens,” in his War Memoirs 1917-1919, in which he describes his battlefield trauma in straightforward narrative ( But it took him longest to get there. “Amiens” was a fragment at his death, edited and published by his widow.

Not just Bion’s theories, but every psychoanalytic theory is a defense against O. This is as it should be. This is what civilization is for. Psychoanalysis is more reflective than most enterprises about what it is doing, but precisely because its theories presume to be about nameless dread we should not forget that they are at the same time a sophisticated defense against nameless dread. In other words, they give it a name. Trauma is this name, and even the most fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis are defenses against this trauma. This cannot be changed, nor should it be. But it can be recognized.


W. R. Bion, Attention and Interpretation. London: Karnac, 1984.

W. R. Bion, A Memoir from the Future, 3 vols. in 1. London: Karnac, 1991.

W. R. Bion, War Memoirs 1917–1919, ed. Francesca Bion. London: Karnac, 2015, second edition.

Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995. (Lacan’s Seminar 21 is unpublished)

James S. Grotstein, A Beam of Intense Darkness: Wilfred Bion’s Legacy to Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac, 2007.

Meg Harris Williams (1985), “The tiger and ‘O’: A reading of Bion’s Memoir of the Future.” Free Associations, 1: 33–56.


Comments (3)

  1. a couple of years ago i read some book ob wilfred bion: experiences in groups, elemente der psychoanalyse, lernen aus erfahrung. i was startled how reading bion helped me understand what happens in politics. somebody pointed me to your book group psychology and political theory which i liked very much.

    i like your thoughts about bion and his trauma as well. interesting how somebody who could not contain his trauma for (almost?) his whole life was able to give us so helpful theories (most helpful to me the theory of alpha and beta elements and his notion that beta elements can’t be dreamt about; the theory takes away the obsession to understand everything and thus – for me – helps living with the not-understandable).

    thank you!

  2. Katherine

    I agree withe previous commenter.Bion’s writing seemed hard for me to understand but how you have expressed it here has made me relise what he was talking about and I do find it valuable and also very intriguing.It seems astonishing he could work with patients who had suffered a great deal and even become psychotic.I feel there is goodness in the world when we learn of such people.


    Yes to you both, and sorry Karl for taking so long to reply. At first it seems odd that someone who had trouble containing his trauma would become a doctor and theorist specializing in containing trauma. But actually, who better? Fred

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