The analyst’s Oedipal dilemma and the pain of the aesthetic conflict

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In his commentary on his 1953 paper on schizophrenia, Bion remarked that, under the aegis of curing suffering, “a sharpened awareness of painful emotional experiences would be a mark against the approach, scientific or religious, which was responsible”. Donald Meltzer’s notion of the aesthetic conflict implies such an approach. The first aesthetic object is what he calls the “ordinary beautiful devoted mother”, the original prototype of what we encounter over and over in our life-long engagement with the beauty of the world. Even the most devoted ordinary mother, however, is inconstant. She comes and goes in a way that is difficult for her infant to understand, and gives rise to suspicion: is she the infant’s Beatrice or his Belle Dame sans Merci, a source of strength and sustenance or a treacherous demon? Her elusive Giocanda smile is hard to read. Meltzer locates the inescapable conflict between adoration and suspicion close to the heart of the psychopathology we see in our consulting rooms:

The psychopathology which we study and allege [sic] to treat has its primary basis in the flight from the pain of the aesthetic conflict. The impact of separation, of deprivation—emotional and physical, of physical illness, of Oedipal conflict—pregenital and genital, of chance events, of seductions and brutality, of indulgence and over-protection, of family disintegration, of the death of parents or siblings—all of these derive the core of their significance for the developmental process from their contribution as aspects of the underlying, fundamental process of avoidance of the impact of the beauty of the world, and of passionate intimacy with another human being. It is necessary for our understanding of our patients, for a sympathetic view of the hardness, coldness and brutality that repeatedly bursts through in the transference and countertransference, to recognize that conflict about the present object is prior in significance to the host of anxieties over the absent object.

(Meltzer and Williams, 1988, p. 29)

We cure the suffering of the aesthetic conflict only by detaching ourselves from the beauty of the world—a form of psychological self-mutilation. Bion’s K is fundamentally an engagement with the world, whose full beauty we feel only at the price of suffering (tolerating) our painful relationship to it in all its elusiveness.

In his theory of linking, Bion described three kinds of link—L, H and K— which stand, roughly, for love, hate and curiosity. All are passions, but the K-link is fundamentally different from the other two. We may see this if we examine the relationship of each to the aesthetic object. L, standing for love, is what one feels towards one aspect of this object—the beauty of the world, the prototype of which is the ordinary beautiful mother, as seen through the baby’s eyes. It is what one wants to possess forever. H, standing for hate, is what one feels towards the other aspect of the aesthetic object, the Belle Dame sans Merci, originally the treacherous mother whose physical and mental absences and preoccupations break the baby’s illusion of possessing her, and evoke suspicion of treachery bordering even in healthy babies on paranoia. This is an object one wants to be rid of forever. Both possession and riddance are forms of control.

K, in contrast, does not seem to involve a desire to control. K is not Freud’s epistemophilic instinct, a mixture of scopophilia and sadism, or even Mrs Klein’s epistemophilic instinct, originally the desire to know about the inside of the mother, the inscrutable zone of the aesthetic object, as a form of intelligence gathering, the ultimate goal of which is control and power over her. K is more detached than either Freud’s or Klein’s epistemophilia, unconcerned with power and control. K is concerned with loving truth for its own sake, even if painful, perhaps as well for the sake of the relief that knowing the truth brings from the confusion and paranoia that preceded it. The K impulse does not attempt to control what it is learning about; it is interested in how things look when one is not controlling them.

Meltzer recognized the unique role that the K-link plays in the psychoanalytic process (and presumably in psychological development as well) when he wrote that,

The [possessive] lover is naked as Othello to the whisperings of Iago, but is rescued by the quest for knowledge, the K-link, the desire to know rather than to possess the object of desire. The K-link points to the value of the desire as itself the stimulus to knowledge, not merely as a yearning for gratification and control over the object. Desire makes it possible, even essential, to give the object its freedom ... For in the interplay of joy and pain, engendering the love (L) and hate (H) links of ambivalence, it is the quest for understanding (K-link) that rescues the relationship from impasse ...

(Meltzer and Williams, 1988, pp. 27-28)

In the end, the desire for truth, or the quest for understanding, cuts the knot of ambivalence that we feel towards the beauty of the world with all its treacherous elusiveness, and leads us to opt in favour of suffering our engagement with it as it is.


The analyst’s ability to do psychoanalysis depends on his practising a disciplined, radical respect for truth. This means deciding to respect the patient’s personality rather than trying to shape it into a more desirable form (however he might construe that). It means subordinating his desire for cure, improvement, security, or professional prestige to a commitment to faithfully describe his experience with the patient. This is an ethic of respecting the shape of what one finds enough to confine oneself to merely describing it, and to refrain from trying to re-shape or improve it.

Practising psychoanalysis—restricting oneself to making observations intended only as something for the patient to think about, and accept or reject as he sees fit—means putting oneself in a position where the entirety of one’s work with a patient may come to nothing, owing to factors that are in the final analysis completely beyond one’s control. One cannot deliberately bring about the outcome one desires in psychoanalysis, and what is perhaps worse, even trying to do so is antithetical to psychoanalytic work. The psychoanalyst can recognize the humbling realities of the psychoanalytic situation only if he does not need these realities to contribute to his importance (for example, as a healer), and only if he can tolerate realities that do not do so. He must recognize the inevitability of the realities he faces and his own unimportance compared to them.

“Let us endeavour to see things as they are,” wrote Samuel Johnson,

and then enquire whether we ought to complain. Whether to see life as it is, will give us much consolation, I know not; but the consolation which is drawn from truth if any there be, is solid and durable: that which may be derived from errour, must be, like its original, fallacious and fugitive.

(Boswell, 1889, p. 263)


  • 1 This god is similar to the object of worship in Marx’s view of religion as an opiate that keeps people from recognizing the reality of their economic situation.
  • 2 Note the similarity between the two sides of this dilemma and the two types of group functioning: the work group’s need for truth (contact with reality) and the basic assumption group’s need for security.
  • 3 Bion remarked once that the first scientists were grave robbers who plundered the burial grounds at the temple in Ur. This is puzzling until one realizes that the grave robbers had to defy the curse placed on them by the priests responsible for the burial ground. What distinguishes science in this view is its defiance of taboos, including the taboo against deviating from established ideas.
  • 4 Colonus was sacred to Prometheus, who brought fire to mankind, and a suburb of Athens, the city sacred to Athena, goddess of wisdom.


Wilfred Bion. Transformations: Change from Learning to Growth. Heinemann, London, 1965. Also in Seven Servants, Jason Aronson, New York, 1977.

Wilfred Bion. Second Thoughts. William Heinemann, London, 1967.

Wilfred Bion. A Memoir of the Future. Karnac, London, 1990.

James Boswell. The Life of Samuel Johnson, LLD. George Bell and Sons, London, 1889.

Donald Meltzer and Mcg Harris Williams. The Apprehension of Beauty: The Role of Aesthetic Conflict in Development, Art and Violence. The Clunie Press, Old Ballechin, Strath Tay, UK, 1988.

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