The Mamas and the Papas (Book Review)

Book:  Between Winnicott and Lacan: A Clinical Engagement
Edited by
:  Lewis A. Kirshner
Publisher:  Routledge, 2011
Reviewed By:  Gregory Novie, Spring 2012, 192 pp.

Like Queequeg and Ishmael in "Moby Dick," Lacan and Winnicott are strange bed fellows. In this collection of nine essays, various authors find common ground between these two divergent thinkers. Lacan, the enigmatic and distant "father," and Winnicott, the warm and nurturing "mother." As Kirshner writes in the first sentence of the introduction:

The theme of this volume is the possibility of a psychoanalytic treatment that can move between two seemingly incompatible theories of the origins and structure of the human psyche…For Winnicott, the essence of psychoanalytic practice was the here-and-now, dyadic relationship of analyst and patient, with its recapitulation of early infant development, contained within the setting of a holding environment. By contrast, Lacan emphasized close attention to the language of the analysand and placed the analyst in a nonrelational position as the other." (p.ix)

Kirshner's hope is that an appreciation of both theories can inform a dialectic in the mind of the analyst: "conceptualizing the dual role of analyst as other and as intersubjective participant represents the basic challenge of a dialectical reading of the two theories" (p.xii). He added that "it would be a great loss if their works were left as isolated historical relics in the stream of fragmented therapeutic methods and diverse approaches that characterize the current psychoanalytic scene" (p.xvii).

My own work in understanding Lacan intersected with Lewis Kirshner. About 15 years ago I heard Kirshner speak at an annual convention of the American Psychological Association. His topic was the Lacanian unconscious, and listening to him I felt moments of understanding out of the fog that I had experienced in reading Lacan. When I returned to Arizona I called Lewis and asked if he would be available for telephone supervision. I had a patient in analysis and wanted to experience this treatment through a Lacanian lens. For the next year and half it became Friday mornings with Lewis (and Lacan). I believe this experience made a difference in helping my patient as well as my understanding of a theory and technique I continue to find compelling.The two theorists had some personal contact, and Lacan referred to Winnicott on more than one occasion during his Seminars, mostly during the 1950s. Lacan had little use for any analyst from the British tradition of object relations; however, he found something in Winnicott that intrigued him. I think there were two central concepts where they intersected: the transitional object/space and the creation and composition of the self/subject. Among the ways they differed was Winnicott's essential hopefulness in the humanist tradition and Lacan's rather bleak view, from his structuralist vantage point. On the surface at least, their respective visions of what a psychoanalytic cure entailed were different, but in the spirit of a "clinical engagement," Jeanne Wolff Bernstein wrote:

From a Lacanian perspective, the goal of analysis does not lie in the discovery of a true self waiting silently to be detected but rather in the unearthing of the the object a, "the virtual object that is the cause of desire" [Kirschner, 2011, p.xiv] that lies behind the subject and all of its imaginary identifications with the Other that serve to fill up the hole left by caesura from the Other…subjective freedom could come only with the acknowledgement of the fundamental lack that was necessary for the constitution of the subject." (p.127–128)

But in this quote there is in both conceptions an essentialist "something," be it waiting to be detected, unearthed, liberated, and so forth. Winnicott espoused the more essentialist idea, that a True Self was waiting to be freed from a False Self construction. Lacan never used the term "self," but his alternative representation was the subject. Their convergence lies in the notion that there is something inherently false about how we experience ourselves, with Lacan describing the ego as an alienating identity arising out of the Mirror Stage—a fantasy construction of wholeness out of chaos and disintegration.

In her essay "Thinking in the Space between Winnicott and Lacan," Deborah Ann Luepnitz focuses on two issues that highlight similarities and differences between the two. The first issue is Lacan's subject and Winnicott's self, whereas the second is the goal of analysis/therapy. Both agree that early development involves a falseness, an alienation of ourselves as to who we are. Winnicott believed that a True Self existed behind the protective screen of a False Self and through a good-enough mother/analyst the True Self could emerge to the light of day. Even acknowledging that this is a simplistic rendering, the journey of Lacan's authentic subject is harder to grasp, in part because of Lacan's opaque and confusing style of writing. The subject is more of a creation than a thing waiting to be unearthed or liberated, more of a process that is fluid, not static. The subject is created in the movement of its desire, and such desire is given birth through the desire of the Other.

In its creation, Winnicott's True Self relies on the mirroring gaze in the holding space of good-enough mothering. Luepnitz describes how for Winnicott the "matrix of the self " (p.9) is a three-point structure—infant, mother, and the area or space of illusion created by the two. For Lacan, the subject is a political, not an intersubjective (in the sense of a dyad), entity within a four-point structure—das Es, one's objects, ego, and the Big Other (a place, not a thing, akin to death, God, fate) (p.8). Luepnitz cites a 1966 statement of Lacan's, reformulating Freud's overarching goal of analysis as "woll Es war, soll Ich werden"("where Id was there shall be Ego"). Lacan's statement was "There where it was…it is my duty to come into being" (p.13). This suggests to me an emptiness, a void, or what Lacan preferred, a lack. Luepnitz goes on to trace how over the years Lacan changed his ideas about the goal of analysis, but one aspect remained unchanged:

Throughout, he (Lacan) maintained that the analysand must experience the destitution of the analyst as "subject supposed to know" and see him or her finally as no more nor less than the objet a—the cause of desire. (p.12)

Winnicott, on the other hand, facilitated the analysand's identification with his or her analyst. A patient whose childhood lacked sufficient maternal care could use the "good breast" of the analyst and, further, "in some cases, only a 'regression to dependence' would be sufficient to break through the False Self system" (p.11). Lacan would be more interested in helping a patient understand the signifiers that relate to their desire for such a relationship and their experience of its lack. Still, for Lacan, Luepnitz quotes Jacques-Alain Miller's statement that "the age of interpretation is behind us" (p.12) to underscore that in a Lacanian analysis the analyst must keep vigilant about not fostering an idea of psychic coherence through interpretation at the expense "of letting 'it' (the unconscious) speak" (p.12).

Imagine two figures meeting on a bridge— Winnicott and Lacan. Do they come from opposite sides? Yes, the tenor of this whole book and, in particular, James E. Gorney's essay "Winnicott and Lacan: A Clinical Dialogue," suggests so. But my reading of Gorney's essay is that he sees Winnicott as the bridge to Lacan: "[the] creation of the play space is a necessary precondition for these signifying processes to become manifest in a clinically accessible sequence" (p.61).

Further, Gorney states that: Through receiving a reliable maternal provision (holding) that engenders confidence, the child (or in this case the patient) can begin to play in the transitional area where reality and fantasy are kept usefully blurred…This is critical in treatment because it is within the zone of play as it opens up that the creative expression of the signifier may first be heard." (p.60)

Gorney then gives a very useful example of these processes. His patient, Mr. D, had many times placed his hand on his forehead while lying on the couch. One day he revealed that the glare from a lamp was bothering him and he asked if it could be turned off. Gorney immediately got up and turned it off (maternal provision), and before each subsequent session Mr. D would worry if Gorney remembered to turn it off. He always did. Mr. D's response to this months later was "I can't tell you how much that means that you remember" (p.55).

As a result of the establishment of a transitional play space from a holding environment, the emergence of a crucial signifier for Mr. D was possible. This signifier was the word "King" and the signifying chains associated with Mr. D's history and the dialectic of his desire.The unraveling of such chains leads to what Gorney and others (Davione & Gaudilliere, 2004) describe as "the voice of the Other may be heard" (p.59). This voice is heard as an "increasingly complex and resonant narrative…and that interpretation of his long-standing wish to be a king…exposed the metaphorical function of a whole range of regal signifiers…Mr. D was finally able to relinquish his current version of a lifelong unconscious fantasy" (p.59).

The "Other" as described here is that part of Mr. D's subjective experience that had been frozen or ossified as part of the ego's fundamental alienation from such experience, from the emergence of the subject and his desire. This appears to me as the same psychic trajectory of the journey from a False Self to a True Self.

In "Vicissitudes of the Real," Mard Ireland weaves together her understanding of how Lacan and Winnicott use the Real with illuminating clinical examples. Ireland starts with Winnicott's idea of the goal of analysis—to feel real. I would add that experiencing oneself as a desiring, speaking subject would be the Lacanian version of this notion: "to feel real." The image of a "weaving" is also important here. For Winnicott the foundation for aliveness is the "provision" of good-enough mothering complete with optimal failure. Ireland argues that Lacan's version of "provision" is: an adequate weaving of the Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic registers by the primary object who gathers together the diverse manifestations of the incipient infant subject, thereby setting the conditions for his/her emergent subjectivity. (p.66)

Ireland plays off the polyvalence of the word "real" and indeed harkens back to Freud in describing the importance of the realness of the letters themselves, particularly in dreams. Lacan, of course, took this further in his seminal work "The Agency of the Letter" (Lacan, 1977). In the clinical vignettes Ireland relates how the "real" aspects of letters, such as the first word of her last name, begin to "move" (my quotes) from the register of the Real to the Imaginary as the letters begin to elaborate aspects of the transference. Ireland states that for Lacan "psychoanalysis is the treatment of the Real by the Symbolic" (p.69). I wonder how this differs from Freud's "Wo Es war soll Ich werden"—where Id was there shall be ego. The Real for Lacan is the register of experience that cannot be symbolized, that resists being symbolized. Is that not the repressed unconscious?

This inability or difficulty in symbolization arises out of the terror of the Real. Clinically this is most intensely experienced with patients who have suffered severe childhood trauma, and indeed Ireland's Ms. G fits that description. In both Freud and Lacan's conceptions there is a transformation, but I think that what it is that is being transformed is described differently. For Freud it is a structure and for Lacan it is a way of being, and hence, a process. The journey to a desiring subject has to remove the constraints of a Lacanian alienated ego or a Winnicottian False Self.Ireland offered the possibility of a new "middle school" of psychoanalysis bridging Lacan and Winnicott and cites Luepnitz, who presented such an idea at the 2005American Psychoanalytic Association Spring Meeting. Reading Ireland's descriptions about her internal theoretical dialogue during sessions with her two clinical examples led me to think of a number of ideas about some of my own patients, and this is a testament to how well she was able to weave together theories of Lacan and Winnicott into the here and now of analytic work.

Every psychoanalytic theory postulates early trauma and environmental failures in the genesis of psychosis. How these failures affect a self or a subject is the topic of Lewis Kirshner's essay "The Problem of Psychosis.." In Winnicott's system, the mother's mirroring role is fundamental for the infant's ability to eventually engage in a subjective experience of self. In his clinical vignette of patient Mrs. Good, it was the blank look (a failure of mirroring in the Imaginary realm of Lacan) on the face of a woman she knew that triggered her psychotic episode of paranoia. Kirshner discussed similarities between the two theorists regarding the mechanisms by which such psychic injuries lead to psychotic phenomenon. The deficient mothering for Winnicott is particularly destructive when it occurs before the basic organization of a self begins to coalesce. Kirshner refers to this as "precocious trauma (leading to) a fragility of transitional space, which can collapse, telescoping imaginary and real when a mental link to the primary other cannot be maintained" (p.103).

Lacan conceptualized such early deficits in his term "foreclosure," a fundamental weakness or absence of primary repression. Further,something at a primal stage of development interferes with the symbolic elaboration of early experience…lacking access to the symbolic use of language, the subject is consequently burdened by a slippage or loss of meaning and a concomitant closeness to the real…They do not enter psychic life where they can be elaborated and processed but remain as parts of an incomprehensible reality. (p.103)

Because of the severity of such early deficits, psychotherapy is capable of, in Kirshner's words, "supporting the subjective coherence and identity" (p.103) rather than the more extensive psychic change we work toward with less disturbed patients. Free association does not lead to a deepening exploration of chains of signifiers, but rather empty speech that can't penetrate the hardened shell of delusional defense. The capacity to be a part of the symbolic as a speaking subject is foreclosed given the anxiety and fear of such close proximity to the real. There is no "as if " or transitional place or position to play in.

Jeanne Wolff Bernstein, in her essay "The Space of Transition between Winnicott and Lacan," depicted quite different perspectives between the two when considering the analyst's position. In some ways these positions seem diametrically opposed, Winnicott providing the holding and nurturing of a repair, using interpretations mainly to show the patient how little he knows. I had the notion that Bernstein's Lacanian bent (she has written many articles on Lacan but none on Winnicott) showed in how she discussed Lacan's criticism that Winnicott was encouraging an identification with the analyst, that the goal of analysis was for the patient to become like the analyst. This would be trading one form of alienation for another, while the "subjective truth" of the patient remains unspoken, unlived. Winnicott waits patiently, empathically for the True Self to emerge, implying there is a structure already constituted but trapped by the trauma of early developmental failures. Bernstein characterized Lacan's actions as an "unearthing" and that"subjective freedom" arises from "the acknowledgement of the fundamental lack that was necessary for the constitution of the subject" (p.128). Lacan's intent was to strip away imaginary identifications that served only to keep silent one's "subjective truth." He considered "the nothingness of his own being" as the ultimate empathy for another.

For Bernstein, a crucial similarity between the two theorists was Lacan's objet a and Winnicott's transitional object. Although a structuralist early in his career, Lacan seems very unstructured-like in his conception of objet a—it is not a structure but a process that can be "only momentarily apprehended in a gaze, a tone of voice, a fleeting sensation…markers of the early primordial loss" (p.126). Both concepts arise out of primary loss; they are substitutes, they are illusions of fulfilling the lack created in the gap between perfect and good-enough mothering, that is, failures of attunement.

The challenge of living creatively in a postmodern world is taken by Mari Ruti, who draws on Winnicott and Lacan for guidance in how to realize such living. With both theorists Ruti believes it is a matter of shedding illusions and misconceptions. For Winnicott it is the giving up of the False Self to enable the True Self, in all its essentialist glory, to emerge. Lacan's vision is not so glamorous but in its own right no less optimistic. Lacan's ego is an alienating identity, a collection of narcissistic fantasies that bury the subject under their own considerable weight. Lacan's subject is not of an essentialist origin but rather a potentiality, a process whereby the desire of the Other is replaced by the desire of the subject. It is not compliance to the Other, just as the True Self rejects the compliance inherent in the False Self.

Ruti regards creative living as a signifier that a transformation is underway from oppression to freedom. Reading Lacan, Ruti believes that it is only when one can accept and tolerate the incoherence and fragmentation at the core of human experience that creative living can begin to emerge. She writes:

How, then, does the Lacanian subject find meaning in its life? Lacan's answer is that it is only by accepting lack [and lack of coherence—my addition] as a precondition of its existence—by welcoming and embracing the primordial wound inflicted by the signifier—that the subject can begin to weave the threads of its life into an existentially evocative tapestry. (p.136)

With Winnicott, Ruti contrasts his position with the phenomenological problematic of self-actualization:

The phenomenological self thus realizes its potential to the extent that it refuses to settle into a specific conception of what it means to be a human being. In this sense, self-actualization has nothing to do with discovering the fixed essence of one's being but rather with feeding the spark that makes continuous self-renewal possible. Winnicott, I would maintain, has an idea similar to this one about what it means to fulfill one's potential—what it means to live in the world in creative ways…the Winnicottian True Self holds itself open to constant reconfiguration. (p.140)

What it means to be human is the quintessential question of psychoanalysis. In his essay "Human Nature: A Paradoxical Object," Francois Villa takes one on a journey: Winnicott's lifelong journey in trying to answer this fundamental question, culminating in the posthumous publication of his final work, "Human Nature," a work he labored on for decades. Unlike constructivist conceptions, there seems an essentialist quality to Winnicott's conception of human nature. We all emerge from a state of nonbeing to being and carry within us (at birth) the "nature" of humanity from its origins. For Freud this was perhaps termed phylogenetic memory and Lacan the Symbolic Order, but Villa is careful to caution that while these terms overlap, they are not interchangeable. What marks the individual as a subject is the capacity to create something in the crucible of the outside and the inside. Lacan might call this the Imaginary realm of experience and Winnicott the transitional space.

Villa's apropos ending on Winnicott's "Human Nature" is about health and the psychoanalytic cure. He writes:

For there to be health, it is necessary that in the beginning there exists fundamental, inherent aloneness…throughout the life of an individual there continues a fundamental unalterable and inherent aloneness…aloneness connects individuals, primarily and indestructibly, with the human community. (p.158–159)


Analysis would thus strive to complete the developmental task of achieving emotional maturity, which means recognizing that in reality it is life itself that is difficult…humans resist taking this step to avoid the painful effects of the depressive position…(they are) ready to do all and anything, as long as it allows them not to see the real source of their difficulty. (p.156)

We continually evolve our theories about human nature, how it develops and how it goes awry. We do this to inform the clinical engagement. In the months that I have been working on this paper I have found myself thinking of both Winnicott and Lacan—I will be listening in a session and then realize "maybe that's what he meant." Clearly we are born into a system, a family, a culture, a world epoch. The emerging self or subject is constituted in a relational space and what happens in that space, what is transformed or created inside as a result of that space, is our concern. I think it fitting that I close with a quote that James Agee borrowed from the Wisdom of Sirach:

"Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us."


Davoine, F., & Gaudilliere, J. B. (2004). History beyond trauma. (S. Fairfield, Trans.). New York, NY: Other Press.

Kirshner, L. A. (2011). Between Winnicott and Lacan: A clinical engagement. New York, NY: Routledge.

Lacan, J. (1966). Ecrits I. Paris, France: Seuil.

Lacan, J. (1977). Ecrits. (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Luepnitz, D. (2005). Toward a new middle group. Paper presentation at the American Psychoanalytic Association Spring Meeting, Washington, D.C.


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