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Narcissus and Oedipus

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Freud organised the theory of the child's journey to adulthood around the myths of Narcissus and Oedipus. In this intelligent study, the author re-examines these myths to see if a radical reinterpretation of them will give birth to new sets of images through which psychoanalysts can contemplate the contemporary patient.

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1. Primary narcissism and primary fusion/union

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The difficulty for primary unity theories is the formulation of difference. It takes at least two x’s - people or messages - to make a difference. Without difference, there is no change and no development. When there is only one thing - as expressed in the primary autism postulate - or two things in a relationship of perfect fusion or unison, nothing happens, because there is no new information. Each person is drawn to the other in a relationship of replication. This is an extreme case. Although the state of oneness or fusion can facilitate human development, as in the post-partum period when the close tie between mother and infant guarantees survival, its persistence can lead to various narcissistic pathologies, an excellent illustration of which is offered in the exchange between Narcissus and Echo.

Freud made an all-important qualification to his use of the bird’s egg ‘fiction’ - namely, ‘provided one includes with it the care it receives from its mother’ (Freud, 1911, p. 220). Freud’s point, taken up by writers such as Mahler and Winnicott, is that, in the first hours and days of infant life, the mother seeks to replicate the intra-uterine relationship. For her, this goal is temporary, since she is aware that, in physical reality, she and her infant are distinct. It is proposed that the infant, on the other hand, wishes to maintain the illusory relationship as long as possible. For Freud, the law of conservation of energy appeared to be one of the most powerful organising principles in human psychical development. The wish to maintain the status quo or to return to a previous state of equilibrium is given more weight than the desire for new relationships, accomplishments and knowledge. This gives the psychoanalytic conception of development a curiously backward-turning direction. In much psychoanalytic theory, there is a tendency to assume that the most primitive state not only provides the template for all future experience but is also the preferred state. Freud stated that man is ‘incapable of giving up a satisfaction he had once enjoyed’ (Freud, 1914, p. 94) and, in his paper on narcissism, he concludes that ‘the development of the ego consists in a departure from primary narcissism and gives rise to a vigorous attempt to recover that state’ (Freud, 1914, p. 100). On balance, therefore, reality, relationship and change create an excess of unpleasure when compared to the self-contained state of primary narcissism. The satisfactions of achievement are related to the mastery of anxieties attendant upon the loss of the primary state. In the state of primary narcissism or primary autism, the achievement of a state of near-perfect homeostasis is postulated. But the external world must impinge; change is necessarily painful. The eggshell cracks, the infant feels dismembered or split. These are all absolute terms, in which change is conceived of as traumatic.

 

2. Primary internal object-relationships

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Melanie Klein

In the early years of psychoanalysis, Anna Freud and Melanie Klein pioneered the field of child psychoanalysis in Europe. Both sought to portray the inner life of the child from infancy to adolescence. Through the medium of play and the tools provided by Freud for adult analysis, they tried to understand the ways in which the child constructed external reality to form a ‘psychic reality’ or ‘phantasy’ world. Anna Freud’ came over to England with her father from Vienna in 1938. Melanie Klein was born in Vienna but had trained and undergone personal analysis in Budapest and Berlin with two eminent psychoanalysts, Sandor Ferenczi and Karl Abraham. In 1926, she arrived in England at the invitation of a Welshman, prominent in the British Society of Psycho-Analysis, Ernest Jones. As Freud had shocked the intellectual world with his revelation of the sexual life of ‘innocent’ young children of only 3-4 years of age, so Klein exposed this world to the ruthless, innately destructive desires of infants’ wishes, which, moreover, were directed specifically towards their principal love-object, the mother. Whereas Anna Freud adapted her father’s technique to the developmental levels of children of different ages, Klein pursued the rigorous, analytic technique employed in adult analysis. She believed that children could form a transference on to the analyst and that the analysis should be confined to interpretative interventions. Unlike Freud and Anna Freud, she believed that the young infant was a moral creature. (This belief is reflected in the dating of the development of the ‘super-ego’.) Maturity was marked by a modulation of this persecutory, archaic morality, a development which usually took place after about four months of age.

 

3. Primary object-love and primary affectional bonds

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Michael Balint

Michael Balint, who was born in Budapest in 1896 and was analysed by one of Freud’s earliest followers and colleagues, Sandor Ferenczi, was one of the foremost pioneers of the object-relations school. Together with the Scottish psychoanalyst, W. R. D. Fairbairn, he might be regarded as the forerunner of the British ‘Middle Group’ of analysts - a group which continues to play an important role in the integration and clarification of Freudian and Kleinian theory. In 1939, Balint came to England, where he made important contributions both to the developing theory of psychoanalysis and to general psychiatry and medicine. He is particularly well-known for his innovative groups for general practitioners; through these groups, which were attended by doctors from all over Britain, Balint was able to bring psychiatric and psychoanalytic insights into the lives of the general public (Balint, 1957). Balint’s relational concept of ‘primary love’ brought an entirely new perspective to the theory of infancy and a focus on relationships which was quite different to that of Anna Freud and Melanie Klein. Ferenczi had made a particular study of mother-child relations and his interest in the strength of the mother-infant relationship continued to inspire the Hungarian school of psychoanalysts centred in Budapest. Ferenczi introduced the phrase ‘passive object-love’ to describe the infant’s self-centred, but absolutely dependent, love for the mother. In the 1930s, Michael Balint, his wife, Alice, and colleague, I. Hermann, published a series of papers in which they emphasised the importance of the infant’s primary instinct to cling. Hermann observed clinging and grasping movements in the early weeks of the life of infant apes and human babies. He did not postulate that these behaviours were evidence of a primary object-relationship, but Alice and Michael Balint combined his observations with Ferenczi’s concept of passive object-love to form their new concept of ‘primary object-love’. Primary object-love acknowledges the active role played by the infant, illustrated by his clinging tie to the mother. Primary love is thus descriptive of an active love of the mother. The Balints’ view of a primary object-relationship is similar to that of Melanie Klein in that the infant is active and his love is egocentric. However, although unaware of his mother’s interests, the infant’s relationship is neither destructive nor dominated by orality.

 

4. Interactional synchrony and mutuality

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Donald Winnicott

Donald Winnicott has been a pivotal figure in the development of child and family psychiatry and child psychoanalysis in Britain since the 1920s when he first started his career in paediatrics. As a member of the Middle-Group of psychoanalysts, neither wholly Freudian nor Kleinian, Winnicott’s viewpoint is close to that of Balint and Bowlby in that he stresses the primacy of the mother-infant tie from the point of view of both mother and baby. Like Balint and Bowlby, he has made his psychoanalytic perspective accessible to the general public through his capacity to communicate with non-professionals as well as professionals who are not analysts, such as parents, nurses, midwives, social workers, general practitioners, paediatricians and teachers - that is, anyone who has entered the world of children. Like the above two authors, his written work has been addressed to both specialists and to the general public. His three small volumes (The Child and the Family (1957a), The Child and the Outside World (1957b), The Family and Individual Development (1965a)) are practical enough to have been broadcast and read by thousands, while his four volumes of collected papers (1958b, 1965b, 1971a, 1971b) form a major contribution to the specialised field of child psychoanalysis.

 

5. Narcissus: an ‘average’ history

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Let us now turn to the myth and read of the birth of the hero, Narcissus, and the unfolding relationship between him and his mother, Leiriope. In the words Freud used to describe his reconstruction of the Oedipus legend (Freud, 1939), the following account is presented as an ‘average’ story of Narcissus’ short life. We are told that Leiriope gave birth to ‘a child with whom one could have fallen in love even in his cradle, and she called him Narcissus’ (Ovid, 1955, p. 83). Through the naming of her child, Leiriope already announces some of her expectations. Graves tells us that the narcissus was also called ‘leirion’ (Graves, 1955, p. 288). The leirion was a three-petalled blue fleur-de-lys or iris which was sacred to the Triple-Goddess and worn as a chaplet when the Three Solemn Ones, or Erinnyes, were being placated. It flowers in the late autumn, shortly before the ‘poef s narcissus’, which, Graves says, is perhaps why Leiriope has been described as Narcissus’ mother. Leiriope means literally the face of (-ope) the leirion. It appears, therefore, that the narcissus flower either had another name, the leirion, or it closely superseded the flowering of the leirion. We may infer from Leiriope’s choice of a name that a child represented a strong wish for closeness and even for the birth of a version of herself.

 

6. Narcissus and Echo

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Let us return to the story of Narcissus, this time to the meeting between Narcissus and the nymph, Echo. Sixteen years have passed. The adorable baby is now a handsome teenager, beloved by many. ‘Among these lovers was the nymph Echo, who could no longer use her voice, except in foolish repetition of another’s shout. We may imagine that Echo is just the sort of woman whom the son of Leiriope would choose and spurn. In Chapter 5, I presented a picture of the baby Narcissus with his mother. In this chapter, I describe the kind of love-affair which can transpire when early symbiosis goes on too long. The exchange between Narcissus and Echo tells us what happens when a certain kind of baby becomes a teenager. For although Narcissus cannot tolerate separateness and difference in a relationship, the folie & deux created by perfect mirroring is also unbearable. He spurns his echo. The myth is, after all, about someone who, in the end, desperately wants to become separated from his illusions and, in particular, his fascination with his own image. The link between Narcissus and his love is like a rubber band or bow-string which never snaps. Over and over again, Narcissus turns his back on his lover. But, in so doing, he turns him or her into his follower, his shadow. He tries to go forward, to put all behind him, but always through the very act of trying to bend the world his way, he springs back to face the same old boring, empty face. He is drawn back to the shadow. Unknowing, since knowledge demands difference and a third term, he is forced to repeat the engulfing twosome.

 

7. The concept of transitional schemas

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Between the two stages of development named after the two great myths of psychoanalysis, Narcissus and Oedipus, I posit a transitional stage - a stage characterised, as you might expect, by the use of transitional objects and the emergence of transitional phenomena. According to my interpretation, the myth of Narcissus and Echo illustrates a relationship of synchrony, undiffer-entiation and mutual illusion; the Oedipus Rex dramatises various conflicts related to individuation, agency, responsibility and knowledge. During the first stage of development, the mystery for both partners is to join in the dance;1 during the second stage, each partner must solve the problem of disjunction that is part of the riddle of life. Oedipus’ task is to clear away the delusions in which he was all too happily enmeshed before he consulted the Oracle. By his answer to the riddle of the sphinx, Oedipus “becomes a man’ who walks on his own two feet. In the tragic myth of Narcissus and Echo, echoing and mirroring synchrony is achieved at the expense of mutuality and dialogue. Oedipus’ journey from Corinth to Thebes ends in tragedy because he is implicated in two dramas, adoption and incest, which bring his project to no avail. In the play,2 Sophocles’ use of both themes makes nonsense of the notions of adult intentionality and responsibility which, in the play, the character of Oedipus portrays. Tragedy reaches an excess when the mother, who discarded her offspring on the barren hiUside, gives willing entry to his seed, and when the son, whose father practised philocide, commits parricide.

 

8. The ‘fate’ of the transitional object

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In the previous chapter, I discussed Winnicott’s view of the use and misuse of the transitional object. Recently, there has been discussion over the ‘fate’ of the transitional object. Let us consider three alternatives:

1 The transitional object is held on to and becomes a ‘patch’.

2 The transitional object is replaced by an inner representation of the mother and/or her regulatory, soothing functions.

3 The transitional object loses significance because of an expansion of sensibilities and interests beyond the mother-infant relationship.

In this chapter, I present a case in which a transitional object was used as a patch rather than a bridge, thereby losing its transcon-textual and playful quality.

A comparison of the views of Donald Winnicott and Marion Tolpin

Marion Tolpin, a child psychoanalyst, has written about the role of the transitional object in the development of a cohesive self (Tolpin, 1971). Using Kohut’s concept of ‘transmuting internalization’, Tolpin takes issue with Winnicott over the ‘fate’ of the transitional object. In her view, the transitional object loses meaning just because the transitional object does ‘ “go inside” ‘; the ‘soothing functions of the transitional object’ become part of an individual’s ‘mental structure’ and ‘precisely because of this the treasured possession is neither missed, mourned, repressed, nor forgotten. It is no longer needed’ (p. 320). However, by focusing on the gradual internalisation of the soothing and regulating functions of the transitional object, Tolpin overlooks the transitional or bridging aspect of the transitional object which becomes ‘diffused’ into the ‘intermediate territory’ between ‘inner psychic reality’ and ‘the external world’ (Winnicott, 1953, p. 5). Also, the play element tends to diminish when the object is viewed solely as a comforter. According to Winnicott, a comforter lacks the quality of a true transitional object. The comforter is a simple substitution for the mother or her functions and is closer to a patch over the hole created by separation.

 

9. The watching agency and its products

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Freud and transitional phenomena

In this chapter, I examine Freud’s account of the stage of development which falls between primary narcissism and the oedipus complex. Although Freud did not use the concepts of the transitional object and transitional phenomena, his understanding of ‘the watching agency’ and its products can be compared with Winnicott’s work in this area. Though there is some overlap in their accounts of specific transitional phenomena, their views on the developmental significance of these phenomena differ radically.

Freud said that primary narcissism is transformed, via repression, into conscience or the watching agency. The watching agency is both a transformation of the primitive, narcissistic ego and, at the same time, it contributes to the foundation of the mature ego. Contemporary Freudian writers have developed Freud’s ideas and have linked some of the products of the watching agency described by Freud, such as memory, dreaming and the sense of time, to the emergence of transitional phenomena. The development and function of the watching agency, for instance, links closely with Tolpin’s account of the child’s internalisation of the mother’s regulatory, care-taking and soothing functions. The watching agency could be viewed as the mental structure which renders the child’s attachment to his transitional object redundant.

 

10. The Theban legend: Oedipus the King

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Men of Thebes: look upon Oedipus.

This is the king who solved the famous riddle
And towered up, most powerful of men.
No mortal eyes but looked on him with envy,
Yet in the end ruin swept over him.

Let every man in mankind’s frailty
Consider his last day; and let none
Presume on his good fortune until he find
Life, at his death, a memory without pain. (Sophocles)

In some versions of this much interpreted myth, we are told that, even before Oedipus was born, his life was clouded with the presage of disaster for Apollo’s oracle had nothing but ill to foretell of him. Laius, who was grieved by his prolonged childlessness, secretly consulted the Delphic oracle which informed him that this seeming misfortune was a blessing, because any child born to Jocasta would become his murderer. In Aeschylus’ play, Laius is told, ‘Do not beget a child; for if you do, that child will kill you.’ Laius

therefore put Jocaste away, though without offering any reason for his decision, which caused her such vexation that, having made him drunk, she inveigled him into her arms again as soon as night fell. When, nine months later, Jocaste was brought to bed of a son, Laius snatched him from the nurse’s arms, pierced his feet with a nail and, binding them together, exposed him on Mount Cithaeron. (Graves, 1955, vol. 2, p. 9)

 

11. The riddle of life

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‘What being, with only one voice, has sometimes two feet, sometimes three, sometimes four, and is weakest when it has the most?’

‘Man, because he crawls on all fours as an infant, stands firmly on his two feet in his youth, and leans upon a staff in his old age.

I have linked the Oedipal phase with the age of enquiry and exploration which begins when the child is able to crawl and which is well underway when the child takes his first steps. This stage progresses with the child’s pronouncement of the T and the concomitant development of language, and his use of identity as a secure base for exploration. It culminates with the comprehension of the ‘reality principle’, which I associate with the capacity to relate to an order of things outside the area of subjective control and wishes. Transitional schemas assist in the differentiation of the personal from the consensual. In my interpretation, the riddle offers an invitation to leave behind the world of concrete action (characterised by analogical communication) and to enter a new domain of information and knowledge (characterised by paradoxical and digital communication). The riddle is a word-puzzle. In Sophocles’ play, we are told that Oedipus’ downfall is brought about by ‘blind deeds’. Actions are taken because of a lack of understanding. The acquisition of language allows the child to participate in an interpersonal world of ideas. The child and his parents are freed from communication through action. The relationship becomes less intense and immediate. Words may wound or soothe but they do not physically strike or stroke.1

 

12. Knowledge and the tragic vision

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Freud and Wilfred Bion

In the next two chapters, I review two approaches to the origins and growth of knowledge. The first I refer to as the tragic vision, through which knowledge and pain are deemed inseparable. In the second, knowledge is connected to ‘a holy curiosity’ which does not arise in a dominant context of pain. In the final chapter of the book, I relate these two views of the origins of knowledge to attitudes, such as despair and optimism, towards the limit of man’s knowledge. I suggest that our feelings about limitation are grounded not only in our ideas and phantasies about the origins of knowledge (for instance, that it is forbidden), but in our most primitive notions of externality. And, again, our formulations relate to our respective conceptions of infancy and infant-mother relationships. Does the boundary inside/outside represent an exclusion or castration which cuts us off from what lies on the other side? Or does it represent a potential space, offering an infinite expansion to our limited sensibilities? To one person, the realisation that his or her mind is but a tiny part in a larger whole brings feelings of relief and comfort, whereas, to another, this realisation is experienced as a humiliation or a castration.

 

13. ‘A holy curiosity’

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The important thing is not to stop
questioning. Curiosity has its own reason
for existence. One cannot help but be in
awe when one contemplates the mysteries of
eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure
of a reality. It is enough if one tries to
comprehend a little of this mystery each day.
Never lose a holy curiosity.

(Einstein, in Clark, 1973)

Contemporary views on exploration

In this chapter, I attempt to outline an alternative view of thinking and exploration in which the varieties of mental functioning develop in the context of presence and minimal frustration and are linked to the emergence of transitional objects and phenomena. Knowledge and pain, thought and absence, are not necessarily connected although knowledge, thinking and speech are related in some sense to negation. A sense of separateness and the experience of separation may influence the development of verbal thought and speech, but traditional Freudian/Kleinian theory represents the mental processes involved in differentiation and separation-individuation in polarised terms (e.g. splitting and hatching). These theories reflect the pathologies they explain in that, like the psychotic child, they posit a gap where there should be a bridge.

 

14. The limits of knowledge and the castration complex

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Freud linked the resolution of the Oedipus complex with the ‘castration complex’. Thus, for Freud, the castration complex was associated with questions of knowledge as well as the very particular reference it held in relation to the penis. I suggest that the castration complex is linked with the realisation that individual knowledge is limited. The resolution of the Oedipus complex entails a renunciation; not only must the child give up the fantasy that he can have an exclusive relationship with the parent of the opposite sex, he must also accept that there is an objective order of things which he will never completely understand or control. In some cases, this realisation is experienced as a castration or narcissistic blow. The blow is to the child’s budding feelings of power and curiosity and to the satisfactions gained by learning.

Psychoanalysis has interpreted Oedipus’ acts of banishment and self-mutilation as evidence of the castration complex (Freud, 1940, p. 200). Oedipus, it is said, punishes himself for his incestuous relationship with Jocasta. In my view, Oedipus’ self-mutilation does not only signify guilt, but his renunciation of power in the face of forces over which he has no control. Freud spoke of the fate of the Oedipus complex in different ways. In ‘The dissolution of the Oedipus complex’ (1924), Freud writes that the Oedipus complex is dissolved, it succumbs to repression and is followed by the latency period. Freud also discusses the ‘demolition’ and ‘destruction’ of the Oedipus complex. He asks, ‘What is it that brings about its destruction?’ It is the experience of painful disappointments which the boy suffers from his mother’s transference of her love to a new arrival and which the girl suffers from harsh punishments from her father who she liked to think loved her above all else. Even when none of these special events occur, the absence of satisfaction ‘must in the end lead the small lover to turn away from his hopeless longing. In this way, the Oedipus Complex would go to its destruction from its lack of success, and from the effects of its internal impossibility’ (Freud, 1924, p. 173).

 

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