A Farewell to Neville Symington

Neville Symington, a member of the British and the Australian Society died on 3rdof December in Sydney. He was 82. Neville was internationally known and highly respected. He worked in the Adult Department of the Tavistock Clinic from 1977 until 1985 when he emigrated to Sydney. He served as Chairman of the Sydney Institute for Psychoanalysis and as President of the Australian Psychoanalytical Society He wrote twelve books, including one with his wife Joan, and many clinical papers. In 2013 he received the Sigourney Award. Some novels begin as short stories and expand. To write about Neville’s extensive contributions is like condensing a novel into a short story. We often begin with the history of a person’s ideas and show how they develop over time, how they expand and interlock with others past and present. To convey a sense of the man, his interests, his qualities as a thinker, as a colleague, I have chosen four experiences that he spoke and wrote about, which serve as an introduction to him. They were, in my view, his north, south, east, west; he lived and worked within these reference points.

The first he detailed in a paper calledThe Personal Mystery of Being, written seven years ago. Neville was a Catholic priest before he became an analyst. He described his experience of listening to lectures on ontology. His lecturer was a man called George. Within a few minutes of hearing George begin his first lecture, Neville heard a new voice. This is how he described his reaction.

'He was talking from his own soul...in that very first lecture my heart opened to what he was revealing. There had been a yearning in me from my earliest days to understand the world in which I found myself. Now here at last I had found someone who wanted to understand the universe in the deepest way...I sighed with inward relief. I had arrived home. I had found what I had been looking for all my life...at the end of that year [of four lectures a week] a foundation had been laid in my heart and mind which has never left me.’
Neville had grasped two truths. First that there is reality, there is Being. The second that he exists and that he had a beginning on the day he was born and would have an end on the day of his death. ‘A light shone in my mind’, he said, ‘the moment when I saw the being of the universe in the mirror of my own soul. This is not the sort of thing that anyone can teach you. George did not teach it to me; he spoke of it and I, in a moment of wonder, suddenly grasped it. It [was] an act of inner creation. Once seen it is never lost. It is part of my own being. I believe that I grasped being, because George had grasped it in his own heart. Because it was a personal possession for him, or, more accurately, he was personally possessed by it, so I was able to grasp it.’

The second experience was his analysis with John Klauber. Again, Neville’s words. 'I was analysed by John Klauber. I came to him very definitely ill and in a state of inner and outer disarray, and I emerged from analysis some seven and a half years later a changed person. Although I contributed to this result, I know that his mediation of the analytic process was crucial. For Klauber it was the truth that healed. In the introduction to his bookDifficulties in the Analytic Encounter he says, “I believe that truth is the great corrective by which, with the analyst’s help, patients heal themselves.”

‘When I think of my experience with John Klauber and read through some of his papers, I am struck with amazement at his stress upon the person…I have become more and more interested in the nature of the human person. What is a person? What is different about a person from a mere individual? Is it that in the person there is an inner imaginative and spontaneous response whereas in the individual this is lacking? This imaginative response occurs at a deeper stratum of the personality than that of language. Klauber’s conversational response was the linguistic manifestation of something much deeper. I believe that emotional reciprocity is what creates the person. After this, the two most valuable principles that I have retained is his instinctive respect for the freedom of the individual and his oft stated dictum that the analyst’s first job is to make emotional contact with the patient.’

The third experience Neville outlined in his paperThe Patient Makes the Analyst. The English analyst Nina Coltart once said: ‘By fifty you have the face you deserve and by fifty you are the analyst you deserve to be. (She was estimating qualifying at forty and then working for ten years). Neville knew that when he graduated, he was an analyst in name. He took on a patient and after seeing her for many years he said, ‘I have no doubt whatever that I became an analyst through the treatment of this patient.’

He learned much from that patient. In my view he became a wordsmith. He took as much care and thought with how he spoke to her as a poet does who writes within strict form. Because of anxiety, or ignorance, or adherence to theory or dogma, the analyst can make a fundamental mistake. He installs his authority in the mind of the patient, or attempts to do so. This goes nowhere. Or makes the matter worse. The anxiety, ignorance and dogmatic adherence are really protections used by the analyst to avoid experiencing his own psychotic parts. These parts that we fear are in fact the source of the greatest riches.

The fourth experience leads on from the third. While conducting this analysis, Bion who then lived in California came to London and Neville saw him for supervision. Bion, Neville said, ‘had that rare gift of being able to make comments without interfering with the me-ness of interpretations.’ With his patient Neville was finding out that, as he put it, ‘The sensitive intuition of a psychotic patient…knows instantly when I am speaking what I think and when I am speaking what I have been told’. Bion could emotionally and imaginatively place himself in the presence of Neville and his patient in Neville’s consulting room. He spoke of what he saw and offered it to Neville for him to see if it was useful.

I think, in Bion, Neville found another George. A man who, when he applied himself to his area of interest, allowed it to deeply impact on his soul. He thought and spoke from a place deep within himself.

I first met Neville in 1979. I attended his lectures at the Tavistock Clinic in London. His lectures offered stepping stones, into the past, into the future, into an internal world, into a world of ideas. (Those lectures became his first bookThe Analytic Experience.) I felt something then that would take some time to articulate. It is this: for a person, freedom and creativity go hand in hand. Freedom is not license. Freedom is the removal of constraints that others or circumstances have placed on our minds, but more often the constraints we have placed on our own minds, constraints we have grown to live with and have forgotten how they got there. Finding them, articulating them and their removal requires emotional engagement with another human being.

I began to learn those things in Neville Symington’s presence forty years ago.

The English writer William Hazlitt said, ‘Most men’s minds are like musical instruments out of tune. Touch a particular key and it jars and makes harsh discord with your own.’ Neville knew he needed to keep his own mind in tune. His lectures and his twelve books often ploughed the same ground, going deeper, keeping the mind in tune, keeping the mind free. He offered space, for exploration, for conversation, for further thought. He encouraged you to move outside and beyond psychoanalytic ideas, to philosophy, to literature, to art, to science, to anything that caught your interest.

I am grateful to have had as a lecturer, as a colleague and a friend, a man who, with feet firmly on the ground could point to minute changes of light and shadow inside the mind of another human being, a man who could rise up and take a bird’s eye view, a man who if he grabbed hold of his opinions too tightly and required forceful challenge, could, respectfully release his grip, a man who each day marveled at the simple, mysteriousfact of possessing precious life, a man who, as his life receded, spoke openly of gracefully relinquishing that life.

I know I speak for many when I say I’ll miss him.

Neville Symington (left) and Maurice Whelan (right)

Maurice Whelan

Sydney, Australia.
Member of The Australian Psychoanalytical Society
Fellow of The British Psychoanalytical Society

Maurice Whelan
grew up in Ireland. His initial studies were in philosophy and theology. He worked in London as a social worker and did his psychoanalytic training with the British Society. He moved to Sydney, Australia in 1992. He served two terms as Chairman of the Sydney Institute for Psychoanalysis. He is a training analyst with the Australian Society.  He has published numerous articles and books: on education, psychoanalysis and the English essayist William Hazlitt; he is a published novelist and has written four books of poetry. His latest book, Summoned by the Tides; Cultivating a Mind in Mindless Worlds, will, he hopes, be published in 2020.

Please find a link to further tributes to Neville Symington on The Australian Psychoanalytical Society website: https://www.psychoanalysis.asn.au/neville-symington