Looking for a Father (i)

Admittedly at first sight this post doesn’t seem to have much to do with climate,  but there are five parts and it will get there.

One of my favourite authors is Christopher Bollas, a member of the British school of psycho-analysis whose inspirational founder was D.W. Winnicott.  Winnicott’s great insight was that human infants are born extremely prematurely (on brain size we should be born at twenty-one months like the elephant) and, because of that, to begin with the infant is physically separate from his/her mother but psychologically not separate from her and still part of her.  “The child” Susie Orbach tells us “ experiences itself and its mother as being within the same physical and psychological world inside  a common boundary”.  Winnicott (who really did take a close look at babies ) also thought that infants suffer unimagineably terrible traumas after birth.  With no ego (in the psycho jargon a kind of armour plated outer self that protects the vulnerable inner person) infants suffer acute and terrifying experiences of total annihilation of their tiny being.  For them the smallest physical discomfort, falling over or missing a feed, is a direst destruction of their  inner being.  No wonder they scream and yell as if they were in torture chambers.  But if the infant has no ego of his own, he is protected from these primal terrors by the all-encompassing love of his mother – “the good enough mother” as Winnicott calls her.  As yet, according to Winnicott,  the infant is not yet a person but “an armful of anatomy and physiology”.   There is not yet the centred reality of an individual but only ‘the still dispersed ego-nuclei”.  Lying blissfully within the containing circle of his mother’s psyche and totally absorbed in her, the infant is not yet differentiated  from her in a  first phase of life that the psycho-analysts call symbiosis.  It is only when he begins to emerge from this totally integrated maternal state of being that he will acquire sufficient independence to become a separate person.


Where Bollas differs from Winnicott is that he thinks the infant begins to become a person while still within the symbiotic state.  Indeed, it is this initial integrated experience of being one with our mothers, part of her subjectivity,  that enables us to become persons and capable of subjective and not merely objective modes of knowledge.  In fact (I may be going a bit beyond Bollas here )   you could define a human person as  a being capable of subjective experiences in which you feel fused with the object of knowledge and not, by definition, distanced from it as in objective knowledge.  It is because of this first absorption into the subjectivity of our mother that we become capable of loving things and not just desiring them, of intimate personal relations with other people (Rex in Brideshead Revisited is a brilliant portrait of somebody who lacks this dimension), and taking delight in art and beauty and nature for their own sake and not for the pleasure they give us, hard as it is sometimes to separate the two. (to be continued).




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