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Aesthetic Conflict and its Clinical Relevance

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Donald Meltzer coined the term 'aesthetic conflict' to describe the emotional complexities of the 'apprehension of beauty'. It had its roots in art, literature, infant observation, and above all, in clinical experience. This concept affirmed and illustrated Bion's formula of L, H, K (Love, Hate, and Knowledge), together with its negative (minus L, H, K) as a revision of Klein's fundamental emotional dynamics of Envy and Gratitude. As such, any emotional situation may be read in terms of either struggling with or retreating from the aesthetic conflict that occurs naturally at all key points of psychic development.Meltzer could be said to have encapsulated the essence of Bion's post-Kleinian trajectory when he wrote that 'If we follow Bion's thought closely, we see that the new idea presents itself as an emotional experience of the beauty of the world and its wondrous organisation.'The contributions in this book are by analysts and therapists from a wide variety of countries working with both children and adults. They have all, in individual ways, found 'aesthetic conflict' a useful frame of reference in terms of illuminating the significance of clinical observation, understanding countertransference responses, or practising the psychoanalytic method itself.

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1. Seduction and Aesthetic Conflict

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Didier Houzel

Psychoanalysts return over and over again to seduction. Contemporary theoreticians of psychoanalysis have taken up and developed Freud's legacy concerning seduction. In the 1980s, in spite of being distant from each other both in terms of their filiation and their theoretical orientations, two authors reinstated, almost at the same time, and each in their own way, a theory of seduction. Donald Meltzer was the first to introduce, in 1984, a new form of the theory of seduction with his hypothesis of aesthetic conflict. A little later, Jean Laplanche (1987) renewed Freud's first hypothesis by proposing his theory of general seduction.

The theory of aesthetic conflict

It is worth remembering that Meltzer calls aesthetic conflict the intense emotional experience, of an aesthetic nature, that the baby has at birth when faced with the external world that he is discovering, and which for him is the source of sudden sensory stimulations of an intensity for which his intrauterine life had not prepared him. In the external world, the chief source of stimulation for the infant is his mother and, more specifically, the mother's breast, an object that meets his preconception in Bion's sense, and which he cathects in the mode of wonder. But this wonder is accompanied by anxiety linked to the unknown nature of the internal psychic qualities of the mother. Meltzer summarised the problem the baby is faced with by attributing him with these words: “Is it just as beautiful on the inside?”

 

2. Love in the Countertransference

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Mariza Leite da Costa

This clinical picture is an account of my powerful emotional experience in psychotherapy with a boy of exceptional intelligence, who I shall call Roger, and who was six years old at the start of treatment a year ago. I have seen him for twice weekly psychotherapy.

I shall give the barest details of his history. Roger is the first child of a professional couple on their middle forties, followed closely by a second, a girl, conceived when Roger was four months old. The parents are working long hours and are both not very much involved with the care of their children. Actually, they are left almost always with grandmothers and nannies. The family rarely has a meal together and the children used to eat in front of the TV. Roger does not like to bite hard solid food; he mainly eats minced meat and pasta.

The mother was depressed before, during, and after Roger's birth, and actually until I referred her for therapy one year ago. The paternal grandmother told me in an interview that before Roger's mother married her son, she was very much in love and engaged to another man but was not allowed to marry him because of his family's racial prejudice.

 

3. On Aesthetic Transference

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Izelinda Garcia de Barros

The likelihood of an aesthetic strand of transference arose from a particular countertransference experience that did not seem to be fully comprehended by the recognised phenomena of positive or negative transference. Just as the loving transference actualises experiences of pleasure and satisfaction, and the negative transference pushes us back to the frustrations experienced in relation to the external primary object – later internalised – the aesthetic transference would have its roots in primary desire, linked to curiosity about knowing the object.

The concepts of aesthetic object, aesthetic experience, and aesthetic conflict, widely discussed by Meltzer at numerous points of his work and brought together in his book The Apprehension of Beauty gave me the theoretical foundations to develop the theme of aesthetic transference. A brief reference should therefore be made to the origin and development of these concepts which, I believe, connect with his commitment to illustrate the applicability of Bion's model of the mind, especially his theory of thinking, in clinical work. On the growing expansion of Bion's thinking in his clinical work, Meltzer in his lectures in Sao Paulo (1996) commented that rather than having any systematic contact, his work ‘slowly grew inside me, and grew in my consulting room without my realising it’. He said Bion's ideas enabled us to observe and listen to clinical material in a completely new way.

 

4. A Fox in a Castle of Words

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Marina Vanali

I had the pleasure and the honour to follow Dr Donald Meltzer for eleven consecutive years, when, together with my group of colleagues from Savona and Milan, we used to spend a week in summer in Oxford to supervise clinical cases with him. Thanks to his deep and creative thinking, he has bequeathed us a very inspiring legacy. And one of the most innovative and cutting-edge concepts of post-Bionian psychoanalytic thinking is definitely the aesthetic conflict. We can share with our patients the process that develops in the consulting room and then we can stop and reflect upon it. Generally, elements related to the aesthetic conflict appear over a period of several sessions; sometimes they are manifest clearly in just one session.

I would like to speak about George, a fourteen-year-old boy, at a point we had reached after two years of therapy with weekly sessions. I will make a brief summary of why he had come and the development of our relationship at the beginning. Then I will focus in particular on a full session in which, to my mind, the emotions related to the aesthetic conflict became very meaningful.

 

5. Rekindling the Spirit of Growth: An Aesthetic Encounter

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Ellie Roberts

Melanie Klein (1932) established the child-analytic space, analysing hundreds of children and introducing the profession not only the immediacy of the unconscious in children's symbolic play in the consulting room but also to its primacy for both adults and children in communicating states of mind. In truth, she was demonstrating how language is not the only form communication of thought takes. A contemporary and pejorative view of work with adult patients would be that the analyst can get carried away with a discursive following of the narrative, ignoring the unspoken communications. The presentational form of symbolic communication (Langer, 1942) through play relates to a child's phantasies. But most importantly, these early phantasies and intuitions can be accessed in adult work too, but usually through analysts exercising restraint in using their intellectual minds and in waiting for a meaning to emerge between the two people in the room. These moments of symbolic communication are often more easily recognised in the work with children.

 

6. Aesthetic Conflict and Infant Observation

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Deborah Morley

I would like to reflect upon how the infant observation undertaken during training remains at the heart of my clinical practice, and give an example of how the complex identifications deriving from that foundational experience resurge to help elucidate problems with patients. I have looked back through my notes of that time and find its vividness continues to underlie my understanding and response with patients and shall give one example.

The infant observation

It had taken nine months to find a mother willing to be observed, and in a sense ‘my’ mother and baby couple felt like my own baby which had been gestating all that time. In the yoga group where I ‘found’ her she appeared as a vision of beauty to me, and during the first observations I awaited every utterance with awe. Yet from the first meeting, shortly before the birth, there was a fragility, a sense of loss, expressed first of all in the fact that packages of ‘baby things’ were unopened in the lounge, which the mother-to-be explained by saying they preferred to do it this way until they were more certain that nothing would go wrong. The midwife had said the baby was in the right position but mother felt ‘the baby isn't ready to come out’. Perhaps it was a sense of foreboding that it would indeed be a difficult birth. I had some gloomy thoughts about the position of the house next to a cemetery. Yet she also commented that the baby was and would be ‘very happy’, which highlighted for me an ambivalence of feeling between the vision of beauty she appeared standing in the doorway, and an intense anxiety. It seemed to correspond to my fear of losing my infant observation; I was already required to be a non-interfering container, above all of my own emotions. It was not so simple to be an observer. I felt bound from the beginning in a complex mix of identifications.

 

7. The Aesthetic Conflict in Everyday Life

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Jennifer Kunst

This paper explores the aesthetic conflict in everyday life as revealed in a passionate encounter between an ordinary beautiful baby and an ordinary devoted beautiful mother. It is a non-clinical case of a two-and-three-quarter-year-old girl working through her reluctance to see and bear what Meltzer called the ‘dazzling sunrise’ of separation and loss, the excruciating pain and beauty of the depressive position. It recounts an experience that she and I lived out together in a childcare setting, an experience of ambivalence in which the love (L) and hate (H) links collided. It demonstrates how the quest for understanding (K) and the capacity to bear notknowing can rescue a relationship and a crucial developmental process from impasse (Meltzer and Williams, 1988).

One might ask why a non-clinical example is offered in a volume about the clinical applications of the aesthetic conflict. For me, the answer is two-fold. First, it is well-known that the study of children's play, like the observation of infants, is an avenue to better understanding the primitive developing unconscious mind and the earliest dynamics between a baby and mother. Second, as Meltzer himself suggested, our knowledge of normal development is the basis foundation for our understanding of pathological development. In order to understand the patient who comes to us for treatment, we must keep in mind the ordinary baby and childhood experiences that set his or her development into motion. Meltzer believed that every patient we see in our consulting rooms was born an ordinary beautiful baby who experienced the aesthetic conflict in early life. He wrote:

 

8. A Child's Vicissitudes over the Aesthetic Conflict

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Marisa Pelella Mélega

The drive to know the aesthetic object (curiosity) can become dangerous, ugly and painful. As Meltzer said in The Apprehension of Beauty, the entire world of psychopathology can be understood as a withdrawal from the state of aesthetic conflict. But retreating from the urge to know is also dangerous, as exemplified by Bion in his use of the legend of Palinurus (Mélega, 1996). On the complex experience of the beauty of the world, established in the earliest relationship with the mother, depends the activity of symbol-formation. I would like to describe the case of a young boy whose analysis took place in the 1980s and which I have reviewed in this light.

Hugo was eight when his parents brought him to see me, concerned about his aggression, lack of competitiveness and focus, requiring constant help from his mother for his school work, and by his frequent headaches and diarrhoea during school tests. They believed him to be intelligent, but overly childish. He is often very sad, frequently crying when unable to complete a particular task and giving up, which has often happened in sports activities. The children in the neighbourhood have rejected him in their games.

 

9. The Role of the Paternal Function in the Aesthetic Experience

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Gianna Polacco Williams

In this chapter I wish to investigate the role of the paternal function in the aesthetic experience focussing on separateness as an essential condition for the aesthetic experience to take place. The paternal function, not necessarily performed by the actual figure of the father, can be seen as providing a third element, a space, between the mother and the infant, the analyst and the patient.

I would like to present some clinical material in which I wish to focus on the presence or the absence of a paternal function – that is, the function, not the person as such.

I have suggested before (Williams et al., 2004) that ‘dyadic’ is a questionable word, since if there is a relationship and not a fusion between mother and baby there must be a third element. An authentic dyadic relationship needs therefore to be triadic.

This paper is about the third element necessary, in my opinion, for the aesthetic experience to take place.

 

10. The Beauty of Development and the Ugliness of Stagnation

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Irene Freeden

Meltzer's ‘Concerning the stupidity of evil’ (1989) is a short paper, yet a most intellectually stimulating and inspiring one – an elaboration of the intersection of epistemology, aesthetics and ethics. How can we understand the relationship between truth, beauty and goodness? Donald Meltzer's answer lies in sincere emotional knowledge of the turbulence of love and hate that can bear ambivalence. The ensuing true passion motivates ethical behaviour and aesthetic creativity. Truth is central to the practice of psychoanalysis. It emerges as a result of sincere interaction between transference and countertransference; the truth of the past as experienced in the consulting room in the understanding of the emotional experience of the present. This is the basis upon which new ideas are created. This is the beauty of the process and it gives birth to hope. To achieve this aim, though, we must wade through an ugly mire of lies from the couch – day in and day out. My initial reaction to ‘Concerning the stupidity of evil’ was a thought about Picasso's Guernica. Beautiful it is not, though the force of its truth is tremendous. The hope for goodness in the world may be there only in the eyes of a beholder, though I think it has to be assumed – it isn't just a painting of despair. Its beauty lies in the passion of its truthfulness.

 

11. ‘I See not Feel, How Beautiful they Are’

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Dorothy Hamilton

David, in his early to mid fifties at the time of his therapy, had since early adolescence experienced occasional intense states triggered by the sudden apprehension of beauty in nature. In these, he felt himself enter a distinct change of being, one that had a trance-like quality to it. Over time, he had discovered descriptions that told him others experienced similar states, sometimes though not necessarily so closely associated with beauty or nature. These included, for instance, Berenson's ‘aesthetic moment’, the Shamanic ‘non-ordinary reality’, and, of particular interest to David, the phenomenon of ‘nature mysticism’. A hallmark of such states – including those, like Aldous Huxley's, entered through drugs – is that while they last, they are experienced as self-evidently the ‘real’. ‘Ordinary’ reality is felt to be one-dimensional and mundane, a state to which one is reluctant to return. A further key characteristic is a deep sense of knowledge of the object of the experience.

 

12. Narcissus Rejects: The Surrender to Beauty

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Neil Maizels

It seems both a great pity and yet fully plausible that the huge significance of the aesthetic conflict as propounded by Donald Meltzer and Meg Harris Williams in The Apprehension of Beauty (1988) has not easily been assimilated into ‘mainstream’ psychoanalytic theory. In some cases it has aroused bemusement, bewilderment and annoyance.

But such is the magnetic pull and beauty of the theory of aesthetic conflict itself, that an invitation to speak of its impact in the consulting room must also afford an opportunity to engage with that theory, and grapple with its implications and interaction with other theories.

As with Melanie Klein's theory of unconscious envy, it is a very complex, yet far-reaching concept – affected by, and affecting, almost every aspect of the psyche. Like unconscious envy, the stifling of our capacity to be moved by beauty impinges on the capacity for giving and receiving love – indeed, for faith in the whole world as a benevolent and generous creation of which we are invited to drink in and to enjoy. If we are unable to find, or to enjoy, beauty in our daily worlds, then like Iago, we are doomed to a faithless life of wrecking, cynicism, scavenging and spoiling – a truly joyless and fringe-dwelling experience.

 

13. How the Aesthetic Conflict Comes to Life

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Lennart Ramberg

Experiencing the aesthetic conflict presupposes that through our emotions and different forms of vitality we can sense and perceive a direct nonverbal attachment to life and to significant others, and for a while shut out our continuous verbal encoding of the ongoing situation. If not, our internal dialogue will have a life-dampening quality at the expense of direct experience. This unguarded opening up for joy, beauty, curiosity, but also for ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ is certainly important in analysis, especially when viewed from its aesthetic vertex. In this paper I follow primarily Meltzer's ‘aesthetic conflict’ formulated in the Freud–Klein–Bion tradition; in another context I integrate this with other clinical theoretical traditions and neuroscientific findings. Meltzer's concept implies that the patient can separate from the internal mother, not control her through intrusive identifications. The aesthetic conflict often is most violent in the threshold and weaning phases, and at its most unambiguous in the true depressive position. (Meltzer, 1988, pp. 26–29).

 

14. Nobody's Boy: Beauty as an Element in Psychic Recovery

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Dawn Farber

As a practitioner of contemporary multi-perspectival psychoanalysis, unless I am especially anxious or feeling lost in a therapeutic relationship, theory is not in my conscious mind. But all the theories that have moved me are indelibly part of the matrix of my mind, and in some instances they shape the way I hold the clinical experience. I have found that clinical work undertaken when Meltzer's aesthetic conflict spontaneously rises to the foreground as a compass inevitably shares the poetic and dramatic qualities of the theory – while not necessarily sharing its poetic brilliance. As in love, the ragged moments and the impasses created by apprehension are as inevitable as the recovery of beauty in clinical work.

G, a 42-year-old physician in an organisation for workers’ compensation cases, initially came to see me as he was in constant conflict with the female office manager. He complained bitterly, ‘She doesn't understand me’ – the psychoanalytic cautionary tale as overture, which I came, necessarily, to take very personally. G was the sixth of twelve children in a fundamentalist Christian family, living in poverty in a small coastal town. His mother, a locally renowned anti-abortion activist, played the organ in church and taught piano for a living; father did garden maintenance. He told me his mother had given up a very promising career as a pianist at age 20 to marry father, a misanthropic autodidact, prone to frequent rage attacks on the entire household, as he found the noise of the children he had spawned though not fathered intolerable. He and the older boys constructed a jerry-built row of cells resembling a motel at the end of their lot for all the children.

 

15. Transference-Love and its Vicissitudes

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Avner Bergstein

Psychoanalysis began with the treatment of Anna O, and one might say it began at the point where the analyst could not contain and bear his patient's love for him. In the more widely known version, Breuer who had become increasingly fascinated with Anna O's treatment is thought to have ignored his wife and consequently evoked her jealousy. Belatedly recognising her discomfort, Breuer abruptly terminated Anna O's treatment. Shortly thereafter, he was called back to find her in the midst of a hysterical childbirth. He calmed her down and, the next day, took his wife on a second honeymoon. Freud recounted this story to his wife, Martha, who ‘identified herself with Breuer's wife and hoped the same thing would never happen to her, whereupon Freud reproved her vanity in supposing that other women would fall in love with her husband; “for that to happen one has to be a Breuer”’ (Jones, 1953, p. 225). Freud, it seems, denied the possibility that one of his patients might fall in love with him, whereas Martha seemed to intuitively understand the universal nature of the phenomenon. Freud's delayed recognition of the widespread potential for transference-love (Freud, 1915) may reflect its very force and threat, then, and to this very day too (Spector-Person, 1993).

 

16. The Barbed-Wire Hole of Despair: Retreat from Aesthetic Conflict

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David Brooks

Bion has provided a formulation for psychoanalysis in which the aim is to create a space in which the ‘I’ can emerge – a space which can have some life breathed into it, and become a real, unique, and alive address for a meaningful self. He writes:

What is that object which purports to be the ghost of an inanimate doll and which one would think had been dead all the time, having simply made gestures as if animated, pulled by the puppet master's strings? Putting it another way: when you see your patient tomorrow, will you be able to detect, in the material which is available to you, signs that there is a ghost of a puppet? If you can then you may still be able to breath some life into that tiny survival. (Bion, 1977b, p.9–10)

This case study explores some clinical implications of an early trauma, where a primordial lack of mother–infant aesthetic resonance left my twenty-something patient, Peter, with a black hole of unrepresentable pain in which an ‘I’ could not be found, called by Symington (2000) ‘imprisoned pain.’ This is an account of coming to realise how an intellectually and musically gifted, bright, articulate, and impeccably responsible young man has been trapped in an experiential world of ineffable existential anguish – a psychotically organised ‘false self’ (Winnicott, 1965). As D'Ostiani poetically describes it: ‘From the bottom of the abyss, far beyond the bisarre distortions the psychosis has forced on him, two sane eyes look back at ours, and a personality imprisoned within an absurd mechanism calls for our help’ (1980, p. 91). Peter experienced his existence as deformed and insecure, to the degree that he pronounced: ‘I am an abortion.’

 

17. Passion and Anti-Passion in the Bion-Meltzer Ethical-Aesthetic Model

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Renato Trachtenberg

The core proposition of this paper is that the encounter described by Meltzer as taking place in the aesthetic conflict between L, H, K and minus L, H, K is an encounter between passion and anti-passion (envy). The difficulty of tolerating the mystery in the aesthetic conflict, caused by the pain of uncertainty, weakens from the outset the possibilities of passion – the integration of the positive links (Meltzer, 1986). As a consequence beauty and truth disconnect. We could say that form and function are no longer experienced as binocularly intertwined. ‘What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth’, writes Keats (1987, p. 37). The greater or lesser distance between beauty and truth and the aesthetic object indicates at which pole of the spectrum we are: passion or minus passion.

From the point of view of development, the problem of integration is not so much one of the conjunction of good and bad, or love and hate, but of passion in its function of linking the emotions: a link that first comes into being with the aesthetic conflict aroused by the initial love-at-first-sight and the reciprocity of the mother–baby relationship.

 

18. Concerning Aesthetic Reciprocity

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María Haydée Castellaro de Pozzi 1

I wish to address the concept of aesthetic reciprocity presented in the notion of aesthetic conflict introduced by Meltzer, and to reflect about the way in which it influences our work with patients.

The beautiful is not for Meltzer a synonym for the cute; rather, it is that which awakens a passionate response. He also tells us that the apprehension of beauty holds in its nature the same apprehension of its destruction. In The Apprehension of Beauty he writes:

This is then about the human condition. What man knows the heart of his beloved, of his son, or of his patient, just as well as he knows the heart of his enemy? (1988, p. 22)

Every illness will essentially be an escape from this essential conflict. This does not invalidate other complexes previously described – the Oedipus conflict, etc. With patients in analysis, if it is possible to progressively elaborate or tolerate this conflict, it will be possible to increase the capacity for passionate response towards aesthetic objects such that the three links will become integrated. This greater disposition to respond passionately enables the patient to come emotionally closer to their internal objects. Meltzer links this definition of passionate response to a musical composition in which different parts or voices introduce themes which are then repeated in a more complex form.

 

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