All his life Donald Winnicott took great pains to present himself as an orthodox Freudian. Yet few ‘Freudians’ have been more radical in their departures from orthodoxy. Winnicott’s central ideas about mothers and infants, about nurture and cure, about the authenticity of self, are evocative and powerful, but they are nonetheless heresy. Freud saw the triangle of Oedipal loves as a crucible for the development of personality; Winnicott focused on the earliest bonding of mother and child. Freud portrayed people driven by the contradictions of desire into frustrating and ambivalent attachments; Winnicott stressed that only in attachments can human beings find an authentic self. And Winnicott’s most important theoretical contributions, unlike Freud’s, are never described in terms of the differences between the sexes.
In his elegant biographical essay, Adam Phillips characterises Winnicott as ‘disingenuous’ in his efforts to disguise his differences with the father of psychoanalysis. His differences with Melanie Klein, his mentor and supervisor, were equally profound. Here, Winnicott’s efforts to present his innovations as compliance with her views were less disingenuous than tortuous. When Winnicott writes about the history of Kleinian and Freudian ideas, it is not as they really are, but as they would have to be for Winnicott’s own ideas to be their natural issue. Winnicott’s attempts both to create his bold new theories and to claim consistency with his teachers raises the question of what there is about psychoanalysis that leads to such gyrations. Phillips helps us to a more sympathetic understanding of Winnicott’s misrepresentations by allowing us to see how the paradoxes of psychoanalysis are lived out by individuals. Freud thought of psychoanalysis as a science, but he also set up an international orthodoxy in which true believers were given ceremonial rings and dissidents were cast out as heretics. His followers have been no less demanding or imperial in their aspirations. Does adherence to psychoanalytic ideas imply loyalty to change or loyalty to church? And if it is to church, whose church?
Winnicott lived his professional life in an institution dominated by that question, in a war zone delimited by the struggle between Melanie Klein and Anna Freud for control of the British Psychoanalytical Society. Each claimed legitimacy by claiming greater loyalty to Freud. For one woman, Sigmund Freud was father to the work that was more than her life’s passion: it was her life. For the other, he was all this and more: her father and her analyst. In the battle of wills and loyalties that followed, there was no room for impartial discussion. For although the purpose of psychoanalysis is to free people from what was most destructive in the Oedipal loves and loyalties, psychoanalysis itself suffers its own family romance. A successful analysis must first create a parental bond or transference: but then the analytical transference and counter-transference must be worked through and finally ‘liquidated’. This is difficult enough when the patient is a lawyer or businessman and will never see his analyst again. But the psychoanalytic movement is made up of people who are analysands-become-analysts. Freud is the figurative Adam of psychoanalysis and every analyst today is his descendant, the child of a ‘training analysis’. In each of these there is love and hate not only for one’s own analyst and his or her theoretical position, but for Freud, the father. And on the other side, in an embattled organisation, how can the analyst be a true analyst to someone he or she wishes to recruit as a follower and ally?
Thus a movement anxious to define and propagate an orthodoxy contains within itself the seeds of rebellion and conflict. The logic of the analytic process is at war with the creation of an ideology and the creation of an ideology is at war with the logic of the analytic process. This paradox was played out in the lives of Freud and Klein: both turned their own children into analysands and tried to turn analysands into their intellectual and emotional children; both inspired brilliant, creative students, and then punished them for the crime of independence, an independence which the logic of analysis itself creates. Klein, for example, considered her association with Winnicott over when he refused to revise his paper on transitional objects so that it more nearly incorporated her ideas.
Winnicott was introduced to Klein by his analyst, James Strachey. Drawn to her ideas, Winnicott asked Klein to supervise his analytic work; Klein in turn asked Winnicott to analyse her son under her supervision. But Winnicott wanted to be himself in analysis with Klein. He abandoned this idea in order to free himself to analyse Klein’s child, refusing only her request that she supervise him. And for his second analyst he chose Joan Riviere, one of Klein’s closest collaborators. Winnicott and Klein continued to keep things in the family when she later analysed Winnicott’s second wife Clare, this at a point when Winnicott was struggling to declare independence from Klein’s theoretical influence. At one point of intense struggle between the two women, Winnicott intervened, visiting Klein to discuss his wife’s case and advising his wife to endure Klein’s lectures in the training analysis, warning her that ‘if you give it up, she’ll never let you qualify.’ Patients or students, dissenters or disciples, psychoanalysts have not always known how to keep the family romance out of psychoanalytic politics.
Winnicott’s relation to Klein was emotionally charged even before the opening acts of these transferential dramas, however. When Strachey, as Winnicott put it, ‘broke into his analysis of me and told me about Melanie Klein’, Winnicott already had his own ideas about how to pursue psychoanalysis with children and his own doubts about Freud’s emphasis on the Oedipal child. He found Klein’s very similar ideas fascinating but troubling. ‘Overnight,’ he wrote, ‘I had changed from being a pioneer into being a student with a pioneer teacher.’ Or, as Phillips puts it, ‘wherever he went, he met a woman on her way back.’ Although profoundly influenced by Klein’s ideas, Winnicott was never close enough for her to consider him one of her own. Phillips describes how, at pains to carve out his own theoretical position, Winnicott evolved a rhetorical strategy that combined elusiveness with distortion of the ideas of others. In the context of the struggle between Klein and Anna Freud, this often meant presenting his ideas by devising a paradox that seemed to resolve a difference between them.
The strategy was neither brave nor particularly effective. But like other analysts caught in the Anna Freud/Melanie Klein wars, Winnicott was fighting for breathing space. Out of the struggle was born the Middle Group within the British Psychoanalytical Society, influenced by but not exclusively allied with either of the factions. An adaptation to life in a war zone, the Middle Group formed no school or training of its own but turned suspicion of dogma into a virtue. It associated dogma with abstraction and obscurantism. Certainly, in Winnicott’s hands, psychoanalysis moved closer to common-sense understandings of health and helpfulness.
At a time when some psychoanalysts were stressing the philosophical impossibility of self-knowledge – in Jacques Lacan’s work the ego is likened to a series of reflecting and distorting mirrors – Winnicott spoke of analysis in far more optimistic terms. Characteristically, he quotes Lacan on mirrors as though in support of his ideas while coming to an opposite conclusion about where they lead. Lacan proposed that when the child looked in the mirror he or she saw a unified image of his own disarray. The self was experienced as bits and pieces, the mirrored self was collected into an image. Phillips captures the difference between the two theorists. Lacan focused on how this ‘disparity – this formative misrecognition – offered the child the lure of a spurious image of completeness that would, in actuality, forever seduce and mislead him’, while for Winnicott ‘mirrors, like mothers before them, could be usefully looked into, because they were potentially, in the fullest sense, reflective ... reliable and accurate in their acknowledgment.’ The adequate mother provides the infant with a reflection of his or her own experience and gestures, and in doing so provides a basis for a sense of self.
The infant, when excited, is on the verge of conjuring up an object suitable to his needs. Ideally, at that moment, the mother presents the infant with such an object – the breast, for example, at the time of feeding – and the child believes that he or she has created it. The infant has an experience of omnipotence which becomes the basis for its development and for the solidity of the self. The mother’s anticipations of the baby’s needs and her precise timing are crucial. But Winnicott believed that by doing what came naturally, most mothers would be ‘good enough’ to provide what the child needed: a context in which to be safely dependent. The optimism of Winnicott’s theory was of course heightened by his translation of psychoanalysis from a theory of sexual desire into a theory of emotional nurture.
For Winnicott, the good enough analyst, like the good enough mother, acts as a good enough host, providing a permissive and secure setting, what he termed a ‘holding environment’. And then, the environment provides the occasion for reparation. In Winnicott’s view, the analyst is able both to recognise and to reconstruct what had been absent in the maternal relationship. What Paul Ricoeur called the ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ in Freud’s work was replaced by an analytic setting in which the patient is enabled, in Winnicott’s words, ‘to reveal himself to himself’. A tragic vision of psychoanalysis as the impossible profession is replaced by something far more optimistic: to the possibility of self-knowledge is added the opportunity for a second chance.
In Winnicott’s work, the analytic enterprise does not hide behind arcane language, esoteric formulations or fantasies of magical expertise. From his first brush with Freud’s work, he had felt a mission to introduce the subject to English people in such simple form that ‘who runs may read.’ He introduced notions – for example, that of the transitional object – which were to put psychoanalytic understandings at the centre of later work on the epistemology of creativity. Transitional objects are those, like Linus’s baby blanket, the tattered rag doll or the bit of silk from a first pillow, to which children remain attached as they embark on the exploration of the world beyond the nursery. The child feels the transitional object as an almost inseparable part of the self, and as the first not-me possession; the object helps to mediate between the child’s closely-bonded relationship with the mother and his or her capacity to experience other people as autonomous beings.
As the child grows, the actual objects are discarded, but the experience of them is recalled in the intense experiencing throughout life of an intermediate space. Music and religious experience share with the early transitional objects the quality of being felt simultaneously from within and from without. So do creative moments in science and mathematics. The idea of ‘formality’ in scientific thought implies a separateness from the fuzzy imprecise flow of the rest of reality. But a scientist using a formal system creatively – and still more, inventing one – has to interweave it with his own intuitive and metaphorical thinking. The idea of the transitional illuminates the holding power of formal systems for people who are in the closest contact with them. Its theorisation is one of Winnicott’s most enduring contributions.
The conflict between Anna Freud and Melanie Klein has been characterised as a struggle between darkness and light. ‘Anna Freud,’ Phyllis Grosskurth said in her biography of Klein, ‘was an expositor of her father’s ideas, but only of those ideas that could be scrutinised in clearly lit, well-ventilated places ... The witches of the night ride on broomsticks and converse with the powers of darkness in Klein’s work, but a Viennese spinster creates a tidy, reasonable world by vigorously sweeping away the cobwebs.’ Winnicott accepted Klein’s ideas about the power and the importance of the infant’s internal world and its objects, the elaborate and pervasive importance of fantasy, and the central notion of a primitive greed. But, like Anna Freud, he also took psychoanalysis out of its darkened room, threw open the curtains and let in the sun.
Phillips’s book makes it clear that what is best in Winnicott is that psychoanalysis is made a part of life, a living theory for understanding a range of human experiences. But it is one of the paradoxes of psychoanalysis that making it a part of life is also what is most problematic about Winnicott. The power of Freud’s discovery is that it describes ‘another scene’, a place that ‘we’ cannot be. The logic of the unconscious is subversive of our everyday understandings, and its truths are unacceptable to them. The psychoanalyst may need to be a good host, but it is for an occasion that must often be threatening, frightening, terrifying. Phillips is adept in describing the impact on Winnicott of living the psychoanalytic tension between loyalty to change and loyalty to church. One misses some discussion of this other paradox – eloquently lived out in the work of a man who tried, against the odds and with dignity, to make his contribution as a sunny Kleinian.
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