The Dead Mother: The Work of André Green (Book Review)

Author:  Kohon, Gregorio
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 1999
Reviewed By: Barbara Stimmel, Spring 2004, pp. 48-49

André Green has had an impressive, ongoing impact on French, British, and more recently American, psychoanalysis. He is internationally known. Until recently, when perusing the American analytic literature, it has been too easy to remain ignorant of Green’s thinking and the fact that he has been working at the forefront of psychoanalysis for more than forty years. His work is powerfully characterized by the privileging and clarification of the complexity and centrality of the negative.

Green’s introduction to psychiatry, in 1953, occurred when he won the concours, which brought him to St. Anne’s, “the Mecca of [French] psychiatry.” One comes to appreciate how, as in most things, the end was apparent in the beginning, as when he announced to his world-famous mentor, Henri Ey, that he, Green, was “… not a psychiatrist.” It is in the context of the negative, that which he was not, that Green began to define what he would soon become, a psychoanalyst.

Green was introduced to Lacan in 1958 and he very quickly became “seduced” by his brilliance, kindness, and ultimately, his perversity. He found himself caught in triangular relationships set up by Lacan, with Green often being the preferred object. However, he was able to extricate himself, finally rejecting Lacan by 1967. One of his biggest criticisms of Lacan is that he was intellectually dishonest in his claim to represent a return to Freud, “ [He] cheated everybody… the return to Freud was an excuse, it just meant going to Lacan” (p. 24).

It was in the cauldron of French psychoanalytic thinking and politics and against a Lacanian backdrop, that Green laid the groundwork for his own enduring imprint on the changing map of psychoanalytic ideas. His independence of thought was demonstrated early on when, building on Diatkine, he boldly criticized Lacan for the damage done to psychoanalytic theory by insisting that the unconscious is structured as a language. Green’s interest in preserving the essential nature of the drives in human psychology led him to develop these ideas into a book, Le Discours vivant, enraging Lacan in the process. This book on affects was the beginning of Green’s growing and rich body of work in which he pushes the envelope of psychoanalytical critical thought.

He believed that “something had to be done” given that psychoanalysis was heavily under the sway of American ego psychology with its emphasis on adaptation. Green offered a focused rebuttal, by replenishing our appreciation of the Freudian imperatives of drives, negation, sexuality, and object relationships. The “biological roots of the mind” are the underpinnings of Green’s work as he repeatedly confronts the restrictions of narrowing schools of thought, especially the destructive impact of Lacan’s psychoanalytic nihilism, which threaten to ignore these sina qua non of Freudian psychoanalysis. Yet all the while, Green responds to and capitalizes on emerging ideas as dialectical mechanisms for his own Freudian elaborations. Two English (rather than French!) analysts are essential mainstays of these developments—Bion and Winnicott.

Green avers that psychoanalysis is based on the negative, that which is absent, that which is lost, and that which is always latent, much like the unconscious itself. Repression and representation are critical variables and in this way, Green enfolds Freud’s basic elements and actions of the mind to explain his own model. For Green, the negative is a normal, necessary aspect to development, likening his thinking to Winnicott’s interest in the absence of the mother in ordinary ways and Bion’s use of the representation of the maternal container to master separation.

This normative model provides a context for Green’s seminal paper, “The Dead Mother.” In contrast to the missing mother, the one who has died, Green’s mother is psychically dead while physically available, thus confusing and terrifying the child. Green builds this dynamic, all too familiar, encounter on the scaffold of Winnicott’s work on transitional objects, space, and, Green’s valuable addition, time—or, as he puts it, the journey. He claims, (contrary to Masud Khan, an acknowledged authority on Winnicott) that the negative, in both senses of the word, bad and not-present, are to be found in Winnicott even if not clearly explicated. Green brings to life, ironically, the deadening decathexis of this kind of mother by her child. The non-presence of the mother becomes an object, if you will, one tenaciously occupying a central position in the child’s psyche. Non-existence is paradoxically therefore the most intense psychological experience of the child, and then the patient, with myriad, confounding clinical conundrums following suit.

Green’s paper, like much of his writing and thinking on borderline states and hypochondriasis, is amplified, even characterized, by metaphors and abstractions, in ways which often distance the reader from his indisputable intellectual vivacity. Kohon’s The Dead Mother is an outstanding aide to this paper, and to the mind of Andre Green in general. Whether this book provides for the reader a first-time meeting with Green or an encounter with familiar ideas, Kohon and his authors are interesting interlocuters both on their own as well as in their roles as middlemen and woman (!) between the reader and Green. The book begins and ends with Green himself, in a freewheeling discussion between Kohon and Green as the opening move, and his paper “The Intuition of the Negative,” in Playing and Reality as the final word.

One finds complete consonance between Green’s spontaneity in the beginning and his reasoned psychoanalytic discourse at the end. He is refreshingly honest and always intellectually provocative, thereby demanding close attention from the reader who is eager to know him, and his thinking, better. This describes the experience of reading Green altogether, one which demands constant reflection and review of one’s ideas and convictions to see which are strengthened and which require an expansion of thought. And it is not that one never disagrees with Green (for example, I find myself arguing with his rejection of the death instinct in favor of a concept he calls “disobjectualizing function” precisely because for Green this latter is not characterized by aggression—while the death instinct, in its negation of libido, is) or finds one’s own theoretical apprehension claimed by Green as a “discovery” of his (for example, the paradox inherent in the transitional object which has to do with what it is not, as much as what it is – to my mind a basic, obvious way of working with and conceptualizing transitional phenomena, be they feces, thumbs, or blankets.)

All of this simply demonstrates that Green keeps the reader in ongoing, lively conversation with him. One struggles to keep up, is delighted to skip ahead, and always wants to come back and check to see if she is headed in the right direction. This kind of exchange occurs when in the presence of an enlightened thinker, an eager teacher. Perhaps one signpost of this aspect of Green is that he had three analyses, surely a hallmark of one who needs to know. People who need to know usually want others to join them in the search for knowledge; the contributors to this volume are obviously stimulated by this need and by its outcome.

A book comprised of papers by several authors about the work of another is often a failed enterprise; one organized around the particular interests of those participating often with indirect, even scant, attention paid to the author being celebrated. The opposite is true in this case so that the papers are complementary to one another as well as to “The Dead Mother” itself. The papers are far-ranging presentations based on much clinical data, psychoanalytic history, cultural plurality, and philosophical musing. Bergmann, Bollas, Kohon, Lussier, Modell, Ogden, Parsons, Perelberg, Phillips, and Sekoff each writes a paper worth the price of the book: personal while broadly applicable and in constant interaction with the ideas of Andre Green.

As the title of the book conveys, their realized intent was to resonate with more than one of his papers, even one with such an important place in our literature. And this attribute of the book is isomorphic with Green’s body of work itself, as it folds, or perhaps better put, it unfolds in on itself, like a piece of origami with each facet being a necessary and fascinating part of the whole. They introduce him, they enlarge upon him, they revise him, they play with him. Their papers, preceded by Kohon’s disarming interview, pave the way for Green’s clinical and theoretical tour de force.

The Dead Mother: The Work of André Green, its editor and its authors, do justice to his work by invoking and explaining: syndromes and complexes, femininity, death as an inversion of life, modifiers and extenders, dead fathers too, gradations of aliveness, and passion—for life and for death. Rather than summarize the book in its component parts, I would suggest that the reader find for him or herself the unique way the participants add to the luster of their celebrant; and then appreciate the gestalt of psychoanalytic clarity and challenge that emerges as a result of this exchange.

And what is finally best about a book such as this, when done well, is that it highlights, rather than overshadows, its honoree. Thus a book review of this sort perhaps ends best by returning to Green himself. His paper which comprises the last chapter of the book includes a clinical relationship that Green has with a patient seen by and (as Green eventually realizes) written about by Winnicott in his paper on transitional phenomena in Playing and Reality. That these ideas of Winnicott are those with which he is “playing” in this chapter (much like the authors above do with his ideas throughout the book), helps make palpable to the reader Green’s pleasure, intellectual excitement, sense of privilege, and dazzling display of psychoanalytic creativity. It is his emotional salience and vibrant intelligence which is what is best about André Green’s work, encouraging those who read, write, practice, and dream psychoanalysis to remain engaged in the continually humbling yet constantly inspiring challenge of the analytic relationship.

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