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Christopher Bollas is a prominent, widely-read British psychoanalyst and theoretician, the author of more than a dozen books on psychoanalysis, a novelist, and ex-professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He says that "the people of the Eastern world think differently from the people of the Western world" and that his book "aims to explore the Eastern mind" (2); The motives for doing so are implicit in much of the book but aren't spelled out until near the end, as we shall see.
China is a study of various polarized dyads, bifurcations. The principal pairs are 1) Eastern/Western ways of thinking, 2) the maternal/paternal order of thought, 3) Winnicottian/Freudian psychoanalytic modalities, 4) the self and the group, and 5) poetic-presentational/narrative-representational language. These aren't simple dichotomies. For example, Bollas tells us that
[t]he central idea explored in this book is that when we refer to a difference between Eastern and Western ways of thinking we are talking not about different minds but about different parts of the mind. Historically, Eastern thinking has tended towards forms of thought that are based on 'the maternal order' while Western thinking reflects forms of thought derived from 'the paternal order'. (2)
This maternal/paternal distinction is fundamental. Bollas explains it in considerable detail throughout the book. In the Introduction, he tells us that
[t]he maternal order refers to the forms of knowledge conveyed to the self as foetus, neonate and infant, prior to the acquisition of language. This is presentational knowledge.... The paternal order refers to those categories of communication that are language dependent.... Of course, in reality mothers and fathers regularly utilize both of these orders." (2-3)
Bollas weaves a complex, loosely-organized exploration of the dyads, expanding his descriptions, qualifying and softening the contrasts, identifying analogies and other connections, spelling out critical differences, advocating integrations, showing historical roots. He cris-crosses this material poetically, circling around and returning to the same basic contents and issues time and again. Often I wasn't sure where he was heading. His style seems close to the classical Chinese way -- "fundamentally a-syntactical, non pronominal, tenseless" (108), close to the position taken by one modern Korean poet: "I do not want to write in chained words. Chained words tell of things in chains" (120). He has much to say about many things, ranging from lengthy descriptions of key Eastern literature to lengthy discussions of contrasting (maternal/paternal order, Winnicottian/Freudian) psychoanalytic approaches. I found the two chapters that focus on the problems of the individual and the group (chapters 8 and 9) particularly interesting. He has some intriguing things to say here -- for instance, about the psychotic core of groups, and about the phenomenon of what he calls 'negative hallucinations' (100-101).
The book identifies a number of important issues and problems that stem from these various dichotomies, singly and in combination, and points to the need for integrations. For example, Bollas wants to see whether, and how, "the Daoist, Confucian, Zen Buddhist and psychoanalytic perspectives could combine ... for the psychological understanding of the human animal, in individual and group life" (106). He says that
[t]he maternal order that is foundational to psychoanalysis has been subjected to an ongoing repression within the psychoanalytical movement, but since this presents an Eastern way of being and relating, is it possible that growing commerce between West and East will de-repress the maternal order and challenge the hermeneutically-bound, causal-inclined paternal focus that has so dominated psychoanalytic discourse? These are the questions that guide this work. (14).
It seems that it is this, then -- the hope of developing a psychoanalysis that has integrated the maternal and the paternal orders -- that was Bollas' principal motivation for writing China.
The book is likely to interest psychoanalysts who want to know more about their discipline's ties to Eastern thought, and Sinologists who are interested in identifying parallels between their studies and psychoanalysis. Literature along these lines has existed for some time now, and it is growing rapidly. I am familiar with some of it but don't know it well enough to see where Bollas' book might fit, what is new about it. In any case, it is a short and entertaining book, so it is worth at least a cursory look.
I do have some reservations, though. While I sympathize with the great difficulties such attempts must encounter, still, I would have liked to see Bollas at least offer some ideas about how one might begin working toward the several significant needed integrations he identifies and advocates. For example, Bollas calls for a psychoanalysis that will integrate maternal ('Winnicottian') and paternal ('Freudian') perspectives and approaches. Since this is his field one might expect some suggestions, but I found none. Another shortcoming is that his poetic style necessarily leaves some apparently important ideas fuzzy -- e.g., the concepts 'trans-generational' and 'group' mind (112-117).
But my main discontent with China, although perhaps idiosyncratic,is what seems to me Bollas' rather parochial view of Western thinking. He believes that "psychoanalysis has become the core introspective philosophy of the West" (13) -- a suspect claim to say the least, remarkably narrow. For example, there is no mention of the highly relevant critiques of terms that presumably refer to the contents, processes, capacities and properties of a person's 'inner world' -- critiques developed by philosophers such as Wittgenstein or Heidegger already in the early 1900s (see for example Johnson, 1993; Stern, 2004, 1995; Braver, 2012). There is no mention of Iain McGilchrist's highly valuable, suggestive work on lateralization (McGilchrist, 2009); of Alva Noë's on consciousness (Noë, 2009); or of Stanislav Grof's highly unorthodox, psychoanalytically rooted work concerning the perinatal and transpersonal dimensions, work that greatly extends the reach of both Winnicottian and Freudian analysis (Grof, 2000). The polarities Bollas identifies, addresses, and seeks to integrate are but special cases of an underlying fateful bifurcation that manifests in many guises and contexts, and that for centuries, even millennia, has successfully resisted numerous attempts at integration. This important, meaningful, informative wider aspect and history of polarization should give pause to any aspiring integrator. Here it is ignored and remains unaddressed, and that, in my view, significantly diminishes the value of China on the Mind.
Braver, Lee. Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012.
Grof, Stanislav. Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2000.
Johnson, Paul. Wittgenstein: Rethinking the Inner. NY: Routledge, 1993.
McGilchrist, Iain. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
Noë, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009.
Stern, David G. Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
———. Wittgenstein on Mind and Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
© 2013 Louis S. Berger
Louis S. Berger's career has straddled clinical psychology, engineering and applied physics, and music. For the past four decades his major interest has been in clinical psychoanalysis and related philosophical issues. Dr. Berger has published 9 books, most recently a trilogy comprising Language and the Ineffable, Humanity's Madness, and Averting Global Extinction, as well as over 50 journal articles and book reviews.