Brief Observations on Memory and Desire

In 1967, Wilfred Bion published “Notes on Memory and Desire”, in which he famously advocated “eschewing” both memory and desire as obstacles to the analyst’s unfettered engagement with the patient. In the years since, this short piece has helped clinicians abandon rigid theoretical precepts and clinical agendas in favor of a more direct focus on the patient’s emotional experience.

At the same time, however, there seems to be a blind unquestioning of Bion’s advice in the analytic community generally. Even now, 45 years after the essay’s publication, it is not uncommon to hear someone declaim, “Abandon memory and desire” with an air of irrefutable authority. More experienced clinicians usually add, with a wink, “Of course, that’s not really possible.”

I take that observation seriously. Bion’s counsel works well as a spur to theoretical humility and wisely encourages an attitude of openness to new experience. From a contemporary intersubjective standpoint, however, I struggle with a number of somewhat arbitrary dichotomies I find embedded in his formulations. These problematic epistemological assumptions raise significant questions about the real world possibility of Bion’s approach, as well as the validity of his underlying theoretical suppositions.

Bion begins by stating, “Memory is always misleading as a record of fact, since it is distorted by the influence of unconscious forces.” He then proposes similar thoughts about desire. In this way, he divides experience neatly between those processes “distorted” by unconscious forces, and “facts”, which are theoretically distortion-free. Such a presupposition, however, as Gadamer (1966) explains it, is belied by the intrinsic embeddedness of all psychological processes in historical and relational contexts that create delimiting horizons, so that no “fact” is received immaculately free of personal prejudices. That would certainly include “facts” about patients.

Bion then claims that memory and desire “deal respectively with sense impressions of what is supposed to have happened and sense impressions of what has not yet happened,” and by contrast, “(p)sychoanalytic ‘observation’ is concerned with what is happening” (italics in the original). Here, Bion bifurcates past (memory) and future (desire) from present (psychic reality,) ignoring the intrinsic interpenetration of all three time frames. For example, a basic premise of psychoanalysis is that one’s history impacts both who one is in the present and one’s hopes and expectations for the future. Meanwhile, one’s future plans certainly affect what one is doing, thinking, and feeling in the present. In point of fact, it is literally impossible to focus only on the present while eliminating the past and the future, because all time frames always embed the others.

Bion goes on to recommend that we eschew both memory and desire and focus our clinical attention only on “aspects of psychic reality” such as the patient’s anxiety, which he claims is not related to sense impressions: “anxiety has no shape, no smell, no taste; awareness of the sensuous accompaniments of emotional experience are a hindrance to the psychoanalyst’s intuition of the reality with which he must be at one.” But his distinction between “psychic reality” and sense impressions reflects the traditional Cartesian mind-body split that separates emotions from their biological substrate. Anxiety, for example, has many sensory aspects, including rapid eye movements, hypervigilance, altered vocal tonality, and a changed facial expression, all of which are received by the analyst in the form of sense impression, as is the case with any relational experience. In fact, it is extremely likely that the phenomenon Bion (1962) refers to as alpha function is, to a great extent, the product of unconscious, rapid-fire sense impressions on the part of both the analyst and the patient.

At the end, Bion suggests that the analysts’ “interpretations will gain force…because they derive from the emotional experience with a unique individual and not from generalized theory imperfectly ‘remembered’.” This formulation, however, seems to falsely dichotomizes theory and direct experience, which necessarily interpenetrate. The clinician’s theories, for instance, form part of the lens through which he experiences his patients, which help shape his interpretations, which impact patients’ emotional experience, which will be interpreted by the analyst in line with his theories, or change his theories, etc., etc., in an ever repeating cycle. As a germane example, the idea that one should eschew memory and desire is itself a theory that influences (consciously and unconsciously) the analyst’s experience of the patient.

Ultimately, I see Bion’s advice as fundamentally unsound and impossible to achieve. But if I am right, then what are we to do with memory and desire? My answer is that they, like all psychological phenomena, are emergent from the patient-analyst interactions, and the best thing to do is to observe them well. Be curious. Ask many questions about them. For instance: What do I remember (or forget) about this patient? Why am I remembering (or forgetting) this and not that? Why am I remembering (or forgetting) something about this patient when I don’t with other patients? What desires emerge with this patient (or not)? Why does this patient desire something from me (or not)? To what aspects of theory do I cling with this patient? Which do I have a hard time remembering…or forgetting?

Obviously, there are many, many more that could be asked, but the point, I hope, is clear. Memory and desire are not simply isolated biological processes to be turned on and off. They are, more usefully, important subjects for analytic observation and understanding.

Bion’s Last Laugh

Although I find it difficult to accept Bion’s counsel at face value, there is a way in which I find it impossible to ignore. As I age, I’ve discovered that both memory and desire have begun to “eschew” themselves, and I am afraid that I am rapidly approaching the day when memory becomes a desire and desire only a memory. In other words, sad to say, the older I get, the more I’m forced to take Bion’s advice…whether I like it or not.


Bion, W. (1967). Notes on Memory and Desire. Psychoanalytic Forum, 2:272-273

Bion, W. (1962). Learning from Experience. London: Maresfield Reprints

Gadamer, H. G. (1966). The Universality of the Hermeneutic Problem. In Linge, D. (1976), Hans-Georg Gadamer: Philosophical Hermeneutics, p 3-17. Berkeley, CA: University of Berkeley Press

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