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Swimming beside the Whale: On Christopher Bollas

Updated: Aug 1, 2019

Christopher Bollas may be likened, in contemporary psychoanalysis, to a “force of attraction,” to borrow Pontalis’s expression. He is a signal theoretician and practitioner of this arduous discipline in our time. He is the author of numerous books, beginning with The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known (1987) and most recently Meaning and Melancholia: Life in the Age of Bewilderment (2018). He has evolved over his lifetime from student to teacher of literature and psychoanalysis, from analysand to analyst, and from reader to writer, without however distancing himself from any of these starting points; on the contrary, the teacher has assimilated the student, the analyst has assimilated the analysand, and the writer has assimilated the reader. And so he has given workshops across the world over many decades on listening to the unconscious in the psychoanalytic process, in addition to practicing psychoanalysis in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Where does Christopher Bollas come from? Psychoanalysts have every reason to be wary of biography; biography tells us something, though not always enough (which is, perhaps, one reason we choose to become psychoanalysts). Bollas’s father was French but moved to Argentina and England before coming to the United States. His mother was from California but he was born in Washington, DC in 1943. As a small child the family moved to Glendora in California and then to other towns before settling in Laguna Beach on the California coast (Jemstedt in Bollas 2011, p. xiii). All this and more family and individual history might be important to state. Yet, a single sentence in particular from Christopher Bollas’s allusions to his upbringing found scattered among his writings stands out: “As an eleven-year-old I was once swimming off the coast, about one hundred metres off shore, when a very small California grey whale—which didn’t seem small to me at the time!—passed right by me” (Molino 1995, p. 206). What defining meaning impressed itself on the young Christopher as the encounter with the whale unfolded and, later, in its après-coup? It comes as no surprise to

Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in John Huston's Moby-Dick (1956)

learn that Bollas completed a doctoral thesis on the author of Moby-Dick. He admits however that at the time he was unaware of its connection to his boyhood encounter. Soon after he would interrogate the great many facets of the psychoanalytic object, beginning with its function as a transformational process—brought about and maintained for the infant in his or her exchanges with the mother—through his reflections on the reciprocity of evocative objects, notably the links between mother and child and between analyst and analysand, but also how physical objects affect us.

No object, if one may so call it, draws his attention as much as the unconscious, his principal preoccupation. This is perhaps because no object refuses categorization as much as the unconscious. “[M]y intention here,” Bollas writes in the introduction to The Shadow of the Object, “is to argue that the unconscious ego differs from the repressed unconscious in that the former refers to an unconscious form and the latter to unconscious contents.” (Bollas 1987, p. 8). “Unconscious organization,” he writes in “Articulations of the Unconscious,” “is capable of both receiving or repressing ideas. I pay special attention, however, to its receptive function, because this has not been adequately conceptualized” (Bollas 2007, p 36). And The Infinite Question closes with this reflection: “The interrogative function of our unconscious constantly works on that knowledge which we bear within ourselves as our unthought known, just as the force of this knowledge inspires intrapsychic curiosity” (Bollas 2009a, p. 153). (Sarah Nettleton, Bollas’s leading expositor, writes that the unthought known “refers to the infant’s unconscious, learned assumptions about the nature of reality, based fundamentally on experiences that register in the mind before the advent of language” [Nettleton 2017, p. 27].) Bollas emphasizes the unconscious’s “interrogative function,” qualified as “infinite.” Knowledge acquired is always partial knowledge and its incomplete character, inherent to its structure, inevitably prompts further questioning. “We go on writing poems because one poem never gets the whole account right. There is always something missed. At the end of the ritual up comes a goblin” (Ted Hughes) (in Fass 1971, p. 15). Like Ahab seeking out the great whale or the poet inescapably surprised by the sudden appearance of the goblin, by necessity Christopher Bollas pursues deeper knowledge or, perhaps more accurately, he opens himself up to receiving this knowledge. “The receptive unconscious or, to put it differently, unconscious work that is engaged in reception, is the work that Freud describes when he argues that the analyst’s unconscious ‘receives’ the analysand’s communications” (Bollas 2009a, p. 14).

In the course of his cardinal accounting of free association, Christopher Bollas refers to Freud’s “Two Encyclopedia Articles” (1923), in which Freud describes the cast of mind the patient is to settle into when beginning treatment: “on the one hand to make a duty of the most complete honesty while on the other not to hold back any idea from communication […].” Among the material the patient is asked to disclose is what Freud describes as that which is “irrelevant to what is being looked for” because, he emphasizes: “It is uniformly found that precisely those ideas which provoke these […] reactions are of particular value in discovering the forgotten material” (quoted in Bollas 2009b, p. 7-8). Free association requires free speaking (Phillips), speaking that is free of any orientation given by the analyst so that, precisely, it may meander without apparent logic from one subject to the next. Only then may certain communications convey forgotten unconscious material.

Roland Barthes, in his last published book, likewise reflected on the matter of outwardly unconnected detail. La chambre claire (1980) is among his most private works, as it was written when he was grieving his mother’s death. While the essay is described as a “note on photography,” with considerations of photos by Nadar, August Sander, Stieglitz, Kertész, and Avedon, among others, it participates in the work of mourning as Barthes, unable to recall his mother’s appearance, contemplates a photograph of her as a young girl in a winter garden. The photograph, what Christopher Bollas would call an evocative object (Bollas 2009b, p. 79-94), is the book’s absent center as it is not reproduced there. The otherwise mundane detail of her hands joined together by a single finger in “an awkward gesture,” “like children often do” (p. 106; my translation, here and below), evokes “the affirmation” of her “gentleness” (p. 107), and at last Barthes is able to recall her features.

Roland Barthes distinguishes in La chambre claire between two aspects of a photograph, its studium—“the application of a thing, the taste for someone, a kind of general, assiduous investment, certainly, but without any particular acuity” (p. 48)—and its punctum—“which leaves the scene” without being consciously sought out, “like an arrow, and pierces me” (p. 49). He characterizes the punctum as “that wound, that sting, that mark made by a pointed instrument” (p. 49). Importantly, he writes that it is often enough a “‘detail’” (p. 73). Note here that he places detail in quotation marks as if to say, Well, a detail may in fact be merely a detail but sometimes it is not; sometimes it is not tangential at all but on the contrary that which endows the photograph with affective meaning. In this instance, it is the detail of the little girl’s “awkward gesture” that reveals the unconscious repressed content which, till then, was inaccessible to Roland Barthes due to the intensity of his psychic pain.

I’d like to posit an affinity between the punctum in a photograph that so deeply affects Barthes’s sensibility and what is seemingly irrelevant in the analysand’s speech—that which interests most particularly Freud and that which composes the receptive unconscious. The punctum arises out of the background of the studium, or the receptive unconscious, and into the center of consciousness. If it has this revelatory capacity, it is precisely because it is an apparently irrelevant detail and so it catches the viewer off-guard, just as the analysand’s Einfall, that which “falls” (or springs up out of the depths, like Moby-Dick) from his or her mind, interrupts the flow of speech to indicate something that might be unconsciously significant. As Barthes writes, “Giving examples of the punctum is, in a certain way, opening myself up” (p. 73). The punctum is the unexpected boyhood encounter with the whale, true, but even more so it is what the child swimmer in the vast sea is able to do creatively in terms of enabling psychic growth throughout life that seems paramount.


Barthes, Roland (1980). La chambre claire: note sur la photographie. Paris: Gallimard/Le Seuil.

Bollas, Christopher (1987). The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known. London: Free Association Books.

Bollas, Christopher (2007). The Freudian Moment. London: Karnac.

Bollas, Christopher (2009a). The Infinite Question. London and New York: Routledge.

Bollas, Christopher (2009b). The Evocative Object World. London and New York: Routledge.

Bollas, Christopher (2011). The Christopher Bollas Reader. Arne Jemstedt (introduction) and Adam Phillips (foreword). London and New York: Routledge.

Fass, Egbert. “Ted Hughes and Crow.” London Magazine (new series, January 1971, volume 10, number 10).

Freud, Sigmund (1923). “Two Encyclopedia Articles.” SE 28.

Molino, Anthony (1995). “A Conversation with Christopher Bollas.” The Vitality of Objects: Exploring the Work of Christopher Bollas. Joseph Scalia (editor) and Malcolm Bowie (preface). Middleton: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Nettleton, Sarah (2017). The Metapsychology of Christopher Bollas: An Introduction. London and New York: Routledge.

Pontalis, J.-B. (1990). La force d’attraction. Paris: Le Seuil.

Christopher Bollas (from

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