Other Banalities: Melanie Klein Revisited (Book Review)

Title: Other Banalities: Melanie Klein Revisited
Author:  Mills, Jon
Publisher: Routledge, 2006
Reviewed By: Richard Raubolt, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, pp. 13-15

I begin this review with an acknowledgement. I am not a Kleinian scholar. Like most analytically oriented therapists, indeed like most practicing therapists in general, I am familiar with the concepts of splitting, the paranoid–schizoid and depressive positions and projective identification. Yet being familiar with is not the same thing as understanding the nuances and depth of these terms especially within a theoretical, historical and philosophical context. Fortunately in Other Banalities, Jon Mills’s brilliant collection of essays, the Kleinian context is presented with scholarship, texture and diversity. Studies in history, clinical practice, child development, religion and sociology present both Klein’s own theory with extensions, revisions and new applications also on display.

Mills sets the tone for this book in his Introduction, which manages to be insightful, creative and provocative. He wisely notes that Klein acknowledged her indebtedness to Freud even as she boldly went beyond his formulations. Anxiety and death became the cornerstones of her theory as they existed in “phantasy” and were tumultuously transformed from aggression to love if circumstances allowed. Mills highlights unconscious phantasy as central to Klein and post-Kleinians as manifested in the central unifying theme of these divergent book chapters: projective identification.

What is fascinating is the insight Mills develops about the need to protect orthodoxy of even such a revolutionary force as Klein. This book project was deemed “misguided” by Hanna Segal and none of the traditional Kleinians participated in these interdisciplinary chapters. The politics of “schools” apparently die hard or perhaps hardly die.

This review will not permit adequate space to review all the chapters so I will select some that were the most intellectually satisfying. I begin with R.D. Hinshelwood’s clear and well-formulated discussion of the historical and psychoanalytic context of Melanie Klein’s work. He correctly notes Klein’s theories were not well articulated theoretically as they grew out of clinical observations of children, which were ever evolving. She clearly valued experiential over scientific writings. What she did discover, which formed the basis of her theory, was the intense, consuming conflict between love and hate expressed in anxiety. When aggressive feelings are stimulated the child becomes terrified of losing love for the good parent and yet, unable to inhibit these aggressive feelings, projects them outward against a perceived/phantazied aggressor. The child’s hatred is then considered as defensive in nature: Projective identification. In describing this process Klein opened up for study the field of object relations convincingly described by Hinschelwood.

Michael Eigen’s chapter takes the reader into madness defined as the expression of uncontrollable, devouring destructiveness. Written with a poetic feel, Eigen argues psychosis is both the result and attempt to regulate destructiveness that is both inside and outside the individual. At the same time there is the never ending, yet futile attempt to hold onto some goodness in order to survive and offset the death drive. In psychosis this is a losing battle as there is no end to the destructiveness and the primary anxiety of annihilation as the ego splits and breaks apart. Ever elusive, the good object serves to dilute, contain or mute the destructiveness by offering a sense of wholeness and cohesion.

In his chapter Eigen also addresses guilt and reparation, envy and gratitude, introducing Nietzsche, Winnicott, Bion and Lacan. He treats each with an even hand in raising their differences with Klein. One difference he highlights that caught my attention was Bion’s “exploding O” (p. 57) that he believed was active at the beginnings of personality and that Klein’s paranoid–schizoid position was too organized. Bion also believed this psychotic breakdown was different and distributed onto the political/cultural world for later digestion when the capacity was more adequately developed. This latter point has a more dynamic, fluid feel, and a restless energy, than a position, however active, which implies a phase or defined state.

In his chapter Walter A. Davis convincingly and beautifully delineates the unavoidable tragic struggle of the psyche. Resurrecting Freud, Davis defines the central condition of psychic life as “self-torture” (p. 159). For battle we must between the threat of annihilation/destruction and survival/integrity. The pivotal events of such struggles for the young child are manifested through the process of play. Using moving vignettes drawn from his own childhood constructions, he describes the feeling sense of these experiences. Davis also invites the reader to join him:

My hope is that the vignettes will operate like a dream or a day residue to activate processes in the reader’s unconscious that will restore contact with those experiences of childhood that we have lost contact with in psychoanalysis precisely because they cannot be measured or known by behavioristic examination. (p. 166)

What is often forgotten from childhood is the significance of play. In the immediacy of play there is freedom, surprise, creativity and discovery. For Davis such experiences are crucial to the developing tolerance of anxiety and the psychic suffering of the tragic or rather the willingness to bare even embrace the tragic.
In his fascinating chapter Jon Mills brings Hegel into his discussion of Klein’s contributions. While there are many places to enter into these considerations, I would like to briefly begin with Mill’s presentation of the Hegelian unconscious. Hegel believes the unconscious is a nocturnal abyss necessary for imagination and intelligence to develop. This abyss is viewed as the soul that educates itself, “… through it’s various dialectical configurations ascending toward higher shapes of self-conscious awareness” (Mills, p. 133).

These “higher shapes” or forms are restructured, reorganized, and reshaped as each dialectical conflict is sublated (negated yet preserved in part in order to elevate to a higher order) to form the interior of the nascent core of self or ego. Herein lies one of the differences Mills points out between Hegel and Klein. Hegel understands the ego exists prior to birth, emanating from and prepared by the increasing intrapsychic structure of the soul. Hegel posits the first ego object is itself and as such the first experience of splitting seen as the earliest activity of the mind. This process is when the unconscious soul undergoes a separation and projects as external its own internality only then to re-gather it and incorporate it as part of its internal structure. Klein, in contrast, theorized splitting comes later, after birth, with the ego’s first object being the breast. Both would agree, however, that the ego’s original activity is negation: splitting away from what it is not, identifying with and then re-introjecting it in transmuted form.
In his chapter on projective identification, Robert Maxwell Young wastes no time in proclaiming that this mechanism is the single most important and encompassing contribution of Klein’s. According to him it plays the central role in both the paranoid–schizoid and depressive positions from birth to old age. Further he would agree with Pick (1985) that the core of analysis is the projection of the patient onto the analyst with the aim of moving the patient from the paranoid–schizoid to the depressive position. Young refers to this goal rather informally and simply as “tak[ing] back the projections” (p. 61), so that patients reside in the depressive stance where they accept reparative guilt and responsibility for their feelings.

In his discussion of this concept Young is critical of many American analysts that emphasize only the interpersonal aspects of projective identification (Actually, his “instruction” quoted above would suggest this as well). Young notes that such an emphasis diminishes the intrapsychic nature of this mechanism that is a vital component to Klein’s thinking. I believe Young is correct in underscoring the fact that projective identification can occur wholly within the unconscious of one individual with only phantasies of an Other. In other words this form of projective identification is between one part of the unconscious and another. Young helpfully quotes Spillius (1988, p. 81-83) to offer an expanded definition of this mechanism that I find especially pertinent: “The many motives for projective identification—to control the object, to acquire it’s attributes, to evacuate a bad quality, to protect a good quality, to avoid separation—all are most usefully kept under the general umbrella.” (p. 66)

The final chapter I wish to discuss is by James Grotstein, that offers a spiritual and transcendent reading of Klein. Grotstein seeks to integrate Klein’s paranoid–schizoid and depressive positions, Bion’s container/contained and Bowlby’s theory of attachment to offer a comprehensive theory of belongingness that he refers to as the “covenant.” Grotstein, in poetic yet scholarly prose, focuses his attention on the quality of early attachments and primary identification in determining the successful or pathological transition from the paranoid–schizoid to depressive position. Secure attachment is more likely to lead to adaptive challenges being achieved despite the intensity of anxious, persecutory feelings. He succinctly notes that there must be a secure enough “good mother” to hear the complaints about the “bad mother” both by the infant and later by extension the analysand.
Grotstein, however, posits development beyond the depressive position. He suggests that when the necessary mourning and reparations of this position ends, the child is free to move on with/in his or her life. Grotstein then offers another position for consideration: “The next position stop is the transcendent position, where the non-contingent self can flower at last, after having “paid its dues,” so to speak, as a dutiful contingent self in the depressive position.” (p. 115) Explained another way, Grotstein refers to this position as the “addiction to being alive.” (p. 115)

As I conclude this review I am aware I have not done justice to the complexity and originality of the chapters I have cited. I hopefully have provided a taste that will whet the intellectual appetite of the reader and result in a more fully detailed and personal reading of this impressive book. I am also aware I have neglected chapters by Marilyn Charles, Michael Rustin, Keith Haartman and C. Fred Alford, and for this I apologize. These omissions do not reflect on the quality of the writing or ideas yet may inadvertently offer the reader another compelling reason to purchase and savor this book.

Reviewer Note

Karen Zelan has written extensively on the psychology of children’s learning. She is the author of Between Their World and Ours:Breakthroughs with Autistic Children.

Richard Raubolt, PhD, practices in Ada, Michigan

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