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The Apprehension of Beauty

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This volume has grown over the years as a family project of Martha Harris, her two daughters Meg and Morag and her husband, Donald Meltzer. It therefore has its roots in English literature and its branches waving wildly about in psychoanalysis. It is earnestly hoped that it will reveal more problems than it will solve.

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1. The Apprehension of Beauty (1973)

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Donald Meltzer

It became a fundamental tenet of Melanie Klein's views on infantile development that the accomplishment of a satisfactory splitting-and-idealisation of self and object was a primary requirement for healthy development. By means of this mechanism, in her view, it becomes possible for an idealised part of the infantile self to ally itself with an idealised object, in the first instance the mother's breast, as the bulwark against persecutory anxiety and confusion. The confusion, particularly between good and bad in self and objects, is by this means separated in a categorical way: exaggerated and rigid, it is true, but affording a working basis for the task of gradual reintegration of the split-off aspects in the course of development, as the values of the paranoid-schizoid position are gradually replaced by those of the depressive position, with the egocentricity relinquished in favour of concern for the welfare of the loved objects of psychic and external reality. This gradual shift in values has a sweeping effect upon judgement and the estimation in which are held the various attributes of human nature. Thus goodness, beauty, strength, and generosity replace in esteem the initial enthralment to size, power, success, and sensuality.

 

2. Aesthetic Conflict: Its Place in Development

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Donald Meltzer

The evolution of the model of the mind which underlies the observation and thoughts of psychoanalysts has been a quiet and covert one in many respects but its nodal points are clearly marked by the progression Freud–Abraham–Klein–Bion. What began as a hydrostatic model for the distribution of psychic energy in the spirit of nineteenth century physics, gradually shifted its analogy. The emergence of the genetic aspect brought forth the archeological metaphor; the replacement of topography by structural imagery introduced a social comparison (the ego serving three masters); the replacement of ‘mechanism’ by ‘unconscious phantasy’, the insistence on the ‘concreteness of psychic reality’ and the introduction of an ‘epistemophilic’ instinct to replace Freud's ‘sexual researches of children’, shifted the biological model of the evolution of the individual mind from a Darwinian to a Lamarckian basis. By 1945 the Kleinian model had achieved this modification of the evolutionary simile of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, on the basis of a strengthened position for identification processes and thus of a view of development which emphasised relationship with objects rather than anything equivalent to survival of the fittest. Melanie Klein's 1946 paper ‘Notes on some schizoid mechanisms’, which introduced the ideas of projective identification and splitting processes, shattered the assumption of unity of the mind, which Freud had already begun to do in his paper ‘Splitting of the ego in the service of defence’; it furthermore opened up a multiplication of the ‘worlds’ of mental life in a way that even the ‘concreteness of psychic reality’ had not envisaged.

 

3. On First Impressions

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Donald Meltzer

Our growing respect for the unconscious mind as the locus of creative thought has not yet encompassed the vital question of its role in discrimination and judgement. While we are ready to accept that the massive equipment of this unconscious mind may put before us its imaginative conjectures, in as many forms and from as many points of view as it is capable, we are still prone to reserve for the function of consciousness (which, after all, we feel more to our credit and for which we are therefore more ready to accept responsibility) those finer functions which have to do with the correspondence of the hypothesis of meaning or significance to the observed phenomena which it is meant to cover or explain.

In ‘The knowledge of character’, William Hazlitt wrote:

First impressions are often the truest, as we find (not in frequently) to our cost, when we have been wheedled out of them by plausible professions or studied actions. A man's look is the work of years, it is stamped on his countenance by the events of his whole life, nay, more, by the hand of nature, and it is not to be got rid of easily. (Hazlitt, 1821)

 

4. On Aesthetic Reciprocity

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Donald Meltzer

The little chapter on ‘First impressions’ must serve as a guide line to our exploration. We know from ethology the powerful effect of imprinting in establishing a bond at a primitive level, the level of adhesive types of identification, of conditioned reflexes and of automatic obedience (or disobedience?). We want to trace and explore the comparable phenomena at the level of mentality of emotion, symbol formation, thought and judgement. There is indisputable evidence from the analytic therapy of psychotic children that the bonding at the imprinting level can be overridden by a failure of emotional bonding. Where this occurs we have been overly ready, as psychiatrists, to ascribe this deficit to extrinsic factors: foetal distress, immaturity, prolonged labour, etc. Almost always one can find some such extrinsic factor on which to hang a causal explanation. But the therapeutic process with such children – of which number James, described in the introduction, is far from atypical – suggests a more intrinsic problem that requires our understanding. It has no explanatory power and must remain somewhat conjectural, but it is powerfully evocative. We want to suggest that these children, in one way or another, have been overwhelmed by the aesthetic impact of the outside world and the prime object that represents it both concretely and symbolically: the mother, her breasts and nipples, and her eyes and mind.

 

5. The Role of the Father in Early Development

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Donald Meltzer

The move from theorising about mental states to building models of the mental apparatus enables us also to move from a linear phase-organised theory of development to a more imaginative field-description of the process. We evolve ‘stories’ about a mind that builds itself by ‘learning from experience’ and develops faults and distortions from the evasion of the truth about these experiences. The ‘story’ that we carry into our consulting rooms as the backdrop for understanding and describing the phenomena we encounter with each individual patient is something of a prototype. In no sense is it ‘normal’ statistically, yet it is far from idealised since it includes a description of the steps in cognitive development and structuring of the personality with many nodes of conflict. Each one of these nodes is a point for the origin of distortions and faults. A backdrop of cognitive development and structuring implies the operation of thinking to resolve conflicts of meaning and, while it undoubtedly contains an internal logic, it is in no sense linear in the manner of theories of ontogenetic biological development. Rather it tends to present a somewhat spiral configuration, like the analytical process itself, thus giving a new meaning to Freud's concept of working-through.

 

6. The Problem of Violence

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Donald Meltzer

When Bion, in his pre-psychoanalytical work as a psychiatrist, first drew the distinction between the mental apparatus and what he called the ‘protomental apparatus’ (Experiences in Groups), he laid down the groundwork for the differentiation between those operations which involve meaning (and the formation of symbols for representing meaning), and those which merely involve signs and their manipulation by logical operations. Signs are indicators of information; but meaning must find its representation in symbols in order that the emotionality of human relationships may be thought about and evolved. States of mind may be communicated by primitive means such as projective or perhaps also adhesive identifications, but these transmissions have not of themselves the capacity for growth and evolution in complexity, sophistication, generalisation or abstraction. Mathematics and logic are the sciences of signs and information; psychology and philosophy are the sciences of meaning and symbols. To seek to bridge them, worse still to confuse them, indicates a failure to grasp the central fact, that they relate to different worlds: the outside world, and the inner world of psychic reality.

 

7. The Undiscovered Country: The Shape of the Aesthetic Conflict in Hamlet

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Meg Harris Williams

(i) The mould of form

Hamlet is probably Shakespeare's most enigmatic play. Founded on the metaphor of internal ‘eruption’, it explores the endeavour to find a container for the new and monstrous mystery which rears its beautiful and ugly head. Both the world of the play and the constitution of the hero are shaken by turmoil when it appears that the phenomenon of psychic growth is not a naturally-unfolding process but ‘shakes our disposition’ with ‘thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls’; and the structure of the play undermines the classical self-contained model of the revenge tragedy which is its anti-type.

The quality of ‘mystery’ which everyone recognises in Hamlet is of its essence: not just in relation to the theme of not ‘plucking out the heart of the mystery’ as Hamlet describes it, but also in relation to the complex and ambivalent way in which the play takes hold of our imagination, as observers and in a sense participants in its emotional struggle: we who, like the puzzled crowd at the end, are ‘but mutes and audience to this act’. The play make it clear that the experience of mystery is not a facile or passive one of wondering acceptance, but one which involves violent antagonism and ambivalence; its latent drama seems to exist in images beyond the reach of our thoughts – as in the oedipal conflict which lies, suggestively, always between the lines, and often grating against the overt drift of the revenge plot. As mutes and audience we follow the hero, with a peculiar mixture of adulation and irritation, as he attempts to disentangle the riddle of his ‘uncle-father's’ incestuous marriage and murder, from the mystery of the ‘undiscovered country’ from which no traveller returns. This is ultimately his own inner self, whose image hovers always out of reach, sometimes glimpsed beyond the images of his mother or of Ophelia – yet, as with Orpheus and Eurydice, always frustrated or falsified by the unreal responses of others, whenever any potential point of recognition or mutual understanding appears within reach. Time and again, attempts to pursue the developmental mode of ‘exploring the mystery’ are converted, through an instantaneous switch of energies, into the essentially destructive and violent mode of ‘solving the riddle’: not just by the visionless characters but also by the hero.

 

8. The Place of Aesthetic Conflict in the Analytic Process

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CHAPTER EIGHT

The place of aesthetic conflict in the analytic process

Donald Meltzer

In considering the conflict of emotion aroused by the aesthetic impact of the object, it is necessary to relate this struggle to our existing model of the mind in its various dimensions, in the sense of extended metapsychology. Earlier chapters have dealt mainly with the dynamic, economic, genetic and geographical aspects, but aesthetic conflict has an important relation to mental structuring also. Insofar as the conflict over the manifest exterior and the ambiguous interior of the object stirs the epistemophilic instinct, it clearly makes an important – perhaps the major – contribution to the shaping of the place of K in the balance of L, H and K in the knowledge-seeking life of the individual. Melanie Klein and Bion, in particular, have traced the importance of the qualities of the object with regard to the evolution of the superego functions of internal and external objects. The vigilance, intelligence and uncorruptibility of these objects are surely the infantile basis of honesty; for long before an ethical preference can be embraced, despair of being able to deceive one's objects enforces integrity. The policeman at one's elbow is an essential bar to self-deception; love of the truth comes much later.

 

9. The Retreat from Aesthetic Conflict: Cynicism, Perversity and the Vulgarisation of Taste

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CHAPTER NINE

The retreat from aesthetic conflict: cynicism, perversity, and the vulgarisation of taste

Donald Meltzer

Freud's discovery of the key to masochism, which he described so wonderfully in ‘A child is being beaten’, awaited the recognition by Melanie Klein of the mechanism (phantasy) of projective identification to give it clear clinical application. The deviousness of the masochistic manoeuvre and its close connection with virginal anxieties leaves very little doubt that when in the fixed pattern (rather than its reversible form of sadomasochism), whether of sexual perversity or of more social and moral variants (or extrapolations), it is the masochist whose phantasy life calls the tune. By its nature, masochistic longing easily finds its partner, because brutality is so common a feature in character or so easily provoked. But more important than this ease of enactment is the fact that the participation of the sadist does not require so complex a phantasy but lends itself to the simple acting out of the social processes of our hierarchic structures, based as they are on tyranny and submission, privilege and obedience.

 

10. Recovery of the Aesthetic Object

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CHAPTER TEN

Recovery of the aesthetic object

Donald Meltzer

Surely it is a rare thing in the development of a child for the original passionate response to the beauty of the world and of the mother, her breast and her face as the objects of its passion (but also the symbols of the experience), to remain undiminished. The various stations in development at which the sensibility to beauty and the engagement in the aesthetic conflict are partially, or sometimes totally, sacrificed can be arranged in a characteristic list: prolonged separations, physical illnesses, weaning, birth of the next baby, the advent of social experiences (creche, school, etc.). To this list of experiences which have a certain traumatic impact we must add the great continual factor of the family culture. Every family is divided in its ethos to some extent between the task of helping children to develop their individuality and the intention of training them for obedience to the adaptational demands of the community at large. This pressure towards obedience, sanctified as it is in all sorts of irrefutable ways, offers the child a ready-made escape from feeling and thinking for himself. The most striking example is the loss of imagination and emotional vibrance in the latency period of adaptation to the requirements of school-type education.

 

11. Holding the Dream: The Nature of Aesthetic Appreciation

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CHAPTER ELEVEN

Holding the dream: the nature of aesthetic appreciation

Meg Harris Williams

(i) Aesthetic appreciation through symbolic congruence

Oh! then the calm

And dead still water lay upon my mind
Even with weight of pleasure, and the sky
Never before so beautiful, sank down
Into my heart, and held me like a dream.

The Prelude, (II. 177–181)

In these lines from The Prelude Wordsworth captures the essence of aesthetic appreciation through symbolic congruence: the ‘fitting’ of the individual mind to the aesthetic object, in such a way that boundaries merge and yet the independent integrity of both partners in the drama – internal and external world – is affirmed and radiates significance. He does this without any selfconscious rhetoric relating to the ‘pathetic fallacy’; no ‘as if's or personifications; it is simply described as a fact, that the mind at the bottom of the lake of consciousness is pressed upon by the weight of water reflecting the sky, in such a way that it both holds and is held by this ethereal expanse of light which has taken on a quality of weight and density – sinking ‘down’ (as if like a stone) yet in fact like a ‘dream’. The alternation of down and up-movements, suggesting increase and decrease in density, confirms the sense of dissolving and reforming boundaries, as mind seeks congruence in nature and through this, the experience of becoming known. Likewise, in ‘The luxury and necessity of painting’, Adrian Stokes speaks of architecture as being a ‘solid dream’, in which ‘directions and alternatives and the vague character of a weighty impress’ are captured, held, integrated with ‘full cognisance of space’, until the ‘changing surfaces, in-out, smooth-rough, light-dark, up-down, all manner of trustful absorption by space, are activated further than in a dream’. And as an extension of this, Stokes describes aesthetic response in general, as recalling and holding the ‘feel’ of a dream:

 

12. The Shadows in the Cave and the Writing on the Wall

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CHAPTER TWELVE

The shadows in the cave and the writing on the wall

Donald Meltzer

Sitting in a consulting room some two thousand hours a year watching the shadows on the wall of one's mind, would certainly seem an ascetic and fanatical thing to do were it not for the intimate companionship with the patients. There can be no illusion of being able to look into the mind of the other person, but the situation and method does certainly encourage and develop an ability to look into one's own, and an interest in the events found there. But occasionally an essentially unpleasant event occurs; instead of pictures, one's dreams of the patient's dreams, writing appears, as on a word processor. This is unpleasant because it seems to carry an imperative that drags one to the typewriter to record the experience. And in time a book accumulates and must be rewritten and assembled to look like a unified, scholarly, respectable opus. Such is my resentment of these two types of confinement that have overtaken an outdoor boyhood, that I feel at the end of each book I should be entitled to please myself. And this of course means to say what I mean, which in turn implies to make a fool of oneself, to embarrass one's friends and give one's enemies a good tooth-hold on the hamstrings. I remember how Adrian Stokes begged me to change the silly phrase ‘sermons to siblings’. And I heard that Winnicott, at a scientific meeting, held up a copy of The Psychoanalytical Process to praise it, adding that of course the last chapter was complete nonsense.

 

Addendum I: Concerning the Social Basis of Art

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ADDENDUM I

Concerning the social basis of art1

Donald Meltzer and Adrian Stokes

MELTZER: You have asked me to amplify what I said in our conversations that followed your paper ‘Painting and the inner world’, read to the Imago Group.

As a practising psychoanalyst I shall draw from clinical and theoretical knowledge the implications of Melanie Klein's discoveries, with the aim of adding to what has already been written by Dr Segal and yourself. On that foundation I shall try to extend understanding of the relationship between the artist and his viewer: hence, more widely, my concern, in this dialogue with you, will be the social value of art from the psychoanalytic angle. But first I shall want to comment on art as therapy for the artist, especially in regard to one of the themes of your paper.

Freud, and other writers following his lead, considered artistic creativity to be a part of mental functioning very closely related to dream formation. They have explained the manner in which artistic creativity, like the dream, is taken up with a working over in the unconscious of the residues of daily experiences, particularly those of the repressed unconscious. The Kleinian approach to art has tended to emphasise a more systematic self-therapeutic process of working over and working through the basic infantile conflicts that go on in the depths in relation to internal objects. The most constructive part of this process attempts to build a firmer passage from the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position by way of internal object relations, consolidating, stabilising the internal world.

 

Addendum II: Mindlessness – The Developmental Relation of Psychosomatics, Hyperactivity, and Hallucinosis

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ADDENDUM II

Mindlessness: failure and reversal of alpha-function as a model for relating psychosomatics, hyperactivity and hallucinosis

Donald Meltzer

This chapter, had it been possible to write it earlier, would have rightly belonged to Studies in Extended Metapsychology, since its main focus is on the operation of alpha-function, its failures and their clinical consequences. However the clinical material has a thrust in another direction which suits it well to the present volume: namely the close relationship between aesthetic and erotic impact.

By naming the mysterious function of symbol formation and leaving it ‘empty’, alpha-function, as essentially unobservable, Bion has laid the groundwork of a model which divides the functioning of the mind into two great areas. While these have a certain resemblance to Freud's distinction between systems conscious and unconscious, and thus between primary and secondary mental processes, it has a different emphasis. It stresses the movement from disorder to order rather than from excitation to quiescence. Freud's model, under the later structural theory, envisages the ego's role as being directed towards the evacuation of excitation within the boundaries acceptable to superego and external world authorities. In Bion's model the self, with the aid of primal internal objects (the thinking breast), seeks to bind the emotional experience through alpha-function, to create thereby the symbols which make dream-thoughts possible as the foundation for rational thinking processes, including the transformation into language. Memory, as a constructive process (Schilder), is thus made available as a mental function, contrasting with recall as a neurophysiological one (computer function).

 

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