Relics of Bion in Beckett: ‘Attacks on Linking’ in Beckett’s letters; Closed Systems and a Mapping of the Mind in Murphy and ‘The Grid’

Between January 1934 and December 1935 Samuel Beckett underwent psychotherapy at the Tavistock clinic with the then little known psychotherapist, Wilfred Bion. Bion has become best known for his work on the psychology of groups, although much of his work, such as ‘The Grid’, focuses on the development of and capacity for thought.1

Bion writes that ‘when two personalities meet, an emotional storm is created’.2 Here, I will conduct an examination of a small part of the emotional storm and its aftermath that occurred when Beckett underwent psychotherapy with Bion during the 1930s. Bion himself believed in the importance of investigating the interaction between analyst and analysand, demanding that we examine ‘not the analyst; not the analysand […] but the caesura, the link, the synapse’.3 My examination of this link will consider how Bion’s thinking, in particular his concept of ‘The Grid’, resounds in Beckett’s novel Murphy, and will also touch upon the attempt by Beckett to attack this link in his letters in a manner which pre-empts Bion’s later paper ‘Attacks on Linking’. As ‘The Grid’ (1977) was written almost forty years after Murphy (1938), just as ‘Attacks on Linking’ (1959) was written decades after Beckett’s letters concerning his therapy (1934-1936), Bion’s influence upon Beckett in this respect is inevitably retrospective: ‘Nachträglichkeit, or back formation’, as Steven Connor calls it, borrowing Freud’s term.4 However, even if the relics of Bion in Beckett’s work are retrospective, this does not detract from the fact that there is a profound and important crossover in the intellectual pathways of these two men, who also worked together briefly in a therapeutic context in the 1930s. With regards to this time the pair spent working together and the effects it had upon their work, Didier Anzieu, in his 1989 paper in The International Review of Psycho-Analysis, asks: ‘was it Bion who taught Beckett the term splitting or Beckett who suggested the idea to his analyst?’5 The ultimate unanswerability of this question does not detract from the fruitfulness of an analysis of relics of Bion in Beckett’s work, or the importance of the thought of each to the other. Even if, as Anzieu observes, we cannot be clear about exactly who influenced whom, we can still advantageously see their psychoanalytic encounter as a catalyst, a moment of mutual influence which triggered similar intellectual ideas in both men. Or to put it another way: even though, as Jung said in the lecture to which Beckett accompanied Bion during his analysis, the subject I will be dealing with is ‘a domain where speculation is so easy and where proof is so difficult’, I still share Anzieu’s conclusion that ‘Bion and Beckett will each have represented for the other his secret imaginary twin’ and similarly agree with the approach of Victoria Stevens in a recent paper on Beckett and Bion in the Psychoanalytic Review.6 Here, Stevens explains that despite the fact that ‘it is impossible to know’ the exact ways in which Beckett and Bion influenced each other, it is undeniable that ‘the question of influence is fruitful […] in the context of the concepts and themes that are present in the work of both men’.7 Shared concepts and themes abound in the work of Beckett and Bion, and beg to be explored.  My specific exploration will consider Murphy in the light of ‘The Grid’, and will focus on the way in which these texts share an obsession with ‘closed systems’.

  1. Wilfred Bion, ‘The Grid’, in Two Papers: The Grid and Caesura (London: Karnac Books, 1989), 1-34. All quotations are from this edition []
  2. Wilfred Bion, ‘Making the Best of a Bad Job’, in Clinical Seminars and Other Works, ed. by Francesca Bion (London: Karnac Books, 1994), 321-332 (321). []
  3. Wilfred Bion, ‘Caesura’, in Two Papers: The Grid and Caesura (London: Karnac Books, 1989), 35- 59 (56). All quotations are from this edition. []
  4. Steven Connor, ‘Beckett and Bion’, The Journal of Beckett Studies, vol. 17.1-2 (2008), 9-34 (13). []
  5. Didier Anzieu, ‘Beckett and Bion’, The International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 16 (1989), 163-169 (in original) (165). []
  6. C. G. Jung, ‘Lecture III from The Tavistock Lectures’, in The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, 20 vols (London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977), XVII, 70-101 (70); Anzieu, 169. []
  7. Victoria Stevens, ‘Nothingness, Nothing and Nothing in the Work of Wilfred Bion and in Samuel Beckett’s Murphy’, Psychoanalytic Review, 92 (2005), 607-635 (610). []

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