By Rob Weatherill
Winnicotts famous phrase, ‘There is no such thing as a baby’, builds on the work of Melanie Klein and her repeated insistence that mental health depends on what she calls, in the jargon of Object Relations theory, ‘the internalisation of a primary good object ¹’. The human infant, in its utterly helpless state, demands the care and protection of another a more or less devoted caretaker or in the words of one American populariser psychology, ‘we have need of someone in early life who will love us to bits’. The infant will eventually comes to internalise this care-taking which will be the basis for its emotional security in the world.
In his book Playing and Reality, and elsewhere, Winnicott talks about the provision for the infant of a primary illusion, where at first what the baby urgently wants and hallucinates is at that very moment of hallucination provided by the real mother! The breast is present at precisely the same time that the baby hallucinates a feed. Winnicott understood that this exact adaptation to the baby’s needs is part of the almost telepathic communication that the mother develops towards the end of her pregnancy with the infant she carries. This magical provision creates an initial confidence ² in desiring. The world is indeed a good place!
Then must come a progressive disillusionment, classically associated with weaning and in Klein’s terms, the ‘depressive position’. But the disillusionment, the inevitable sense of loss and separation, can only be borne by an infant already secure in the goodness of the world through primary illusionment. In the absence of this security, loss becomes catastrophe. Instead of the installation of a primary good object, the vacancy is filled with bad objects which create a sense of danger, menace, persecution and anxiety. Later in life, other people in the subject’s world become imbued with strangeness and the subject withdraws into himself for safety and security. In Fairbairn’s terms, this is the “schizoid” personality. More generally and widely the subject becomes depressed by her bad objects, who silently attack her and put her down. The whole emotional climate will tend to be inhabited by absence which through projection into the outside world becomes loneliness, estrangement and dislocation.
Winnicott. in a paper in 1958 entitled. “The Capacity to be Alone’ foresaw an optimal situation in which, ‘the ability to be truly alone has as its basis the early experience of being alone in the presence of someone’. He goes on to take up the sentence, I am alone, in detail. The use of the word “I” implies much emotional growth, a unit status separate from the world; the words “I am” indicate that there is not only a subject but a subject who is alive and has being; and finally “I am alone” can only be conceived by an infant who has been guaranteed the reliable presence of another during the prior stage of absolute dependency. He goes on to say that this situation, ‘makes it possible for the infant to be alone and the enjoy being alone, for a limited period’. This enables the infant to gain a foothold in the world.
Melanie Klein is generally regarded as being the originator of the Object Relations movement within psychoanalysis. The primary focus of the Object Relations approach concerns the security of the self. Do I have a viable self? Can I form healthy relationships? How real do I feel? Do I belong? Am I in or out of touch with reality? Fundamentally can I trust others?
Object Relations theory has been foremost in teaching us that the self is not a pre-given. The self is not a biological or psychological substrate that can be taken for granted (3). Crucially, the self is built up through relations and deep engagements with other people, especially the mother at first before opening out to wider identifications. However, the modern world is alienating, dislocating and violent, making deep relationships upon which the self is built much more problematic. Hence the more recent clinical preoccupation with so-called narcissistic and schizoid phenomena. The therapeutic task is to provide a situation where real, true, spontaneous relating can maybe re-start.
However Klein, in a paper in 1963, entitled, ‘On the sense of loneliness’, always the most pessimistic of the Object Relations theorists, speaks of an inevitable loneliness. She says: ‘I am referring not to the objective situation of being deprived of external companionship’ , but, she suggests that this essential state of loneliness, ‘derives from the depressive feeling of an irretrievable loss’. Klein was well placed to speak about loss, with the early losses in her own family of origin, Sidonie and Emanuel, the disaffection of her daughter Melitta Schmideberg, and the death of her son, Hans. However, she is hinting in this late paper to an absolute loss which lies at the heart of life.
Winnicott’s suggestion that the infant is cared tor with the initial provision of the primary illusion of having created its world, must nevertheless be seen as just that – illusion. This illusory provision enables us to play in the world on our own and with others. Indeed it enables us to be, to exist and to live, to bear solitude without being lonely. No one should doubt the absolute necessity of this illusion, for, as T.S. Eliot famously said, human beings can bear very little reality. However, this ludere, this “playing” is proof against the horror of the real. The dimension of loneliness, its persecutory and deadening quality, belongs to this dimension of the real which is ever- present beyond illusion.
Today, it is not cool to be alone, or to admit to being lonely. Now, it is as if the whole world conspires to ensure that we are not and can never be lonely. Muzac accompanies us everywhere, in all public spaces, in supermarkets, shopping malls, even in the labour wards of our maternity hospitals. My younger son was born to Chariot’s of Fire, and when I asked those in attendance if the music could be turned down or even off, I was told in no uncertain terms that the music helps the progress of the labour. And if there is no external music, when we are out for a walk by the sea, along the pier, or in the country, we tune in to our walkmans to heighten the plea sure of the event. The birdsong and the waves are not loud enough. The radio, the television, the computer or a video are always on in most of our homes. There are more and more talklines, chatlines, helplines, hotlines, commentlines to enable us to speak to each other and console each other. There is clearly a conspiracy abroad that we must never be alone. Never before in human history have we been surrounded by so many human voices and activities, so much opinion, so much entertainment, so much discussion. We are more in touch than ever before! Take the hugely unifying effect of sport, particularly soccer, which crosses all boundaries of intellect, class, race and gender, all the things that traditionally have separated us. In this cultural space, we can all be together, we can share the same language and emotional excitement and disappointment. With the advent of global capitalism, we can now be “at home” anywhere in the world. Tune in to the local FM station and there is the identical trans-cultural music. When I phone a large corporation or multinational, I am immediately on first name terms with my friend in the “customer care” department. All this creates a mass feeling of togetherness of community.
If this is a conspiracy with which we all collude, what is it a conspiracy against, what is being hidden from us? Why such a need to makes us feel not alone, not an out sider, not in anyway excluded or discriminated against? Why such a need for inclusiveness? And for our part, why such a demand to be included? Perhaps, the subliminal answer is that people have never been so lonely; that now everyone is alone and that this is the best kept secret at the end of the twentieth century. Not only this, but worse, the depth and degree of loneliness is increasing at a dangerous rate creating an ever more manic need to disavow and negate.
Not so long ago, loneliness could co-exist with belongingness and indeed loneliness and solitude could be differentiated. Solitude was part of living with others, a necessary part of the rhythm of the social, at one time going out to others and at another withdrawing for recuperation and recreation in solitude – our capacity to be and to enjoy being alone. Now this rhythm is occluded or pre-empted by the intrusion of mass global entertainment that holds the thin line of illusion between us and the void. The response to the void, when it does catastrophically open up, is ever more violent denial leading to addictions and abuse. Increasingly unable and ill-prepared to tolerate being alone, we demand ever more entertainment and gratification in order to stay cool. Being alone today is more than just bearing the absence of others, it is experienced personally as a radical failure of the post-modern moral imperative, namely, to succeed, but more especially, to enjoy widely and to enjoy continuously. The lonely person feels acutely a failure, persecuted by the manically smiling, laughing, joking simulations that people the media.
Psychotherapy may indeed play its part in this denial. For those who can afford it, the availability of a therapist may stave off the brutality of the real. This, it will be argued, is all for the good, for we all need our illusions. On the other hand, opponents of psychotherapy and counselling have argued against the unreal hopes raised by the “therapy culture”, hopes for personal autonomy, empowerment, healing and integration. They would argue that the claims made are overblown and not scientifcally verifiable. Be that as it may, but there is another objection coming from a dif ferent source, namely from a philosophical position that has influenced psychoanalysis in particular(4). The legendary silence of the psychoanalyst bears witness to the inevitable and ineluctable encounter, not so much with the other person, the client or analysand, but with what is referred to as Otherness (with a capital ‘O’) itself. Otherness refers to what lies beyond the play of illusion, what is essentially ungraspable and never able to be incorporated into lived life, whether that of the analyst or the analysand. It is in face of this wholly estranging Otherness that both participants in the analytic encounter are situated. Neither can know this Otherness, and by implication neither can know the Other in herself. There can be no suggestion that this Other can somehow be resolved or integrated into life or relationships. The illusion that it might be is what makes modern relationships so painful and fractured. Whatever is resolved and integrated during the progress of a therapy, which may be all to the good, is definitely not Otherness. There can be no question of “getting in touch with your Otherness”, for this getting in touch, in so far as it happens, must be a further play of illusion. Otherness remains permanently and irrevocably outside. This approach refers to a radical un-familiarity which poses itself potentially within everything that is familiar, a questioning of every assumption. Otherness, which can never be assumed or assimilated, questions us.
Our current fascination with the paranormal, with the unfamiliar at the heart of the familiar is connected to Otherness, as alien, as horror, as danger, as radical impossibility. As the normal has become so banal and so pervasive, the paranormal entices as an alternative world, an extra-terrestrial world with which we are inclined to flirt. The lonely person stands exposed, as situated on the outside, as abandoned, as lost, yet still in life with “no exit”. Suicide becomes a real possibility. The lonely person stands face to face with the real of what Martin Buber referred to as “cosmic homelessness”. The lonely person is like the psychotic, whom Ronald Laing described as the “person without friends, without conviviality”. Psychoanalysis stands with this loneliness at the heart of human subjectivity and our being in the world. Loneliness haunts what post-modern theorists term the”hyperreal” (5), the more real than real, the forcing of mediated reality on us at every moment. The noise of the hyperreal, its violence (6), its invasion of privacy, its grand attempt at the exorcism of loneliness, may yet condemn us all to isolation. Baudrillard refers to the system’s cool indifference to us, which paradoxically estranges us in its constant seduction.
In his paper in 1963, “Communicating and not Communicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites”, Winnicott sums up his work: “This is my main point, the point of thought which is the centre of an intellectual world and of my paper. Although healthy persons communicate and enjoy communicating, the other fact is equally true, that each individual is an isolate, permanently non-communicating, permanent ly unknown, in fact unfound’.
1. It is accurate to use the term “object”, and more generally, Object Relations, because the mother for the infant is not human in the whole separate individuated person adult sense of the term. The mother is an object of the infant’s imperious drives. The sense of the mother as a person belongs to a later phase of development, and only then if all has gone well in the intervening period. Hence, we retain the term Object Relations and resist the temptation to rename the movement Human-Relations.
2. Confidence in the literal sense of faith with oneself. Without this faith, the drives are felt to assault us from the outside, persecute us, and primitive defences will need to be resorted to for protection.
3. Or as Saul Bellow says, in a different context, there is no guarantee that a child will automatically become a human being.
4. I am thinking of the work of Jacques Lacan, but what follows also owes a great deal to Emanuel Levinas.
5. See, for instance, Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, Picador, 1987, Trans. Harcourt Bruce Jovanovich Inc. See also Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil. Paris, Editions Galilee. London,Verso 1993. Translated by James Benedict.
6. I have enlarged upon this theme and others in a recent book, The Sovereignty of Death, published by Rebus books, London.
M. Klein, Envy and Gratitude & Other Works 1946-63. Delta 1975.
D.W. Winnicott, The Maturation Processes and the Facilitating Environment. Hogarth Press 1972.
Playing and Reality. Tavistock 1971.
Rob Weatherill’s background is in education. He has been a psychotherapist in private practice since 1978 and teaches psychoanalysis on a number of graduate and post-graduate courses in Dublin. He has written widely in journals in Ireland and abroad. He has contributed articles to The Irish Times on psy chotherapy. He is the author of Cultural Collapse (Free Association Books, London, 1994). He is a co-contributor to Living Together, edited by David Kennard and Neill Small (Quartet books, London, 1997), and author of The Sovereignty of Death, published by Rebus Press, London, 1997. He is a present editing a textbook on the death drive, The Vicissitudes of the Death Drive, to be published by Rebus books in 1998.
Address for correspondence. 12 Crosthwaite Park, East, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin. Tel. +353-1-2805332.