Melanie klein

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by Robert M. Young

Melanie Klein was born in Vienna in 1882, the year Charles Darwin died. Freud was 26 that year; Marx died the next year. Klein died, age 78, in London in 1960, having emigrated from Berlin in 1926 at the urging of some British psychoanalysts. My perception is that her influence has grown steadily over the intervening four decades. In some countries it is very great -- Britain, Italy, Brazil, Argentina. In others it is small but growing –- Germany, America. It is said that there are more Lacanian than Freudian analysts in the world. There are, I think, many less Kleinian than Freudian analysts and therapists worldwide. I think it fair to say, however, that her ideas are the most controversial, since many Freudians do not engage with Lacan at all, while people in the broad Freudian movement are very likely to hold strongly negative views about Klein. These may or may not be well-informed.

I will try to characterise her, her ideas and some of those of the people she influenced. I’ll start with a stark summary. She went straight for the primitive. One of her followers said that while Freud concentrated on the structures, the forms of unconscious functioning, she focused on the content of primitive, psychotic anxieties. She believed that the primitive was never transcended, that we never have a maturational achievement permanently under our belts, as it were. A new challenge to our equanimity could arise internally or externally at any time, and much, perhaps all, would have to be fought for all over again. She believed that the internal world was less clearly structured than Freud or his daughter Anna did, that the superego was present from birth rather than being an achievement attained at five or six years of age in the wake of the resolution of the Oedipus complex. She believed that envy and destructiveness loomed much larger in the unconscious than Anna Freud did, though, in my opinion, Sigmund’s views, as expressed, for example, in ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ and Civilization and Its Discontents, were nearer Klein’s than Anna Freud’s. Where Anna Freud gained her reputation from listing the unconscious defence mechanisms available to the ego to keep irrationality at bay and outside of consciousness, Klein argued that the warp and woof of everyday unconscious processes involved violent impulses, splitting, projection, disintegration, treating others as part-objects. Extremely primitive unconscious phantasies (which she spelled with a ph to distinguish them from day-dreaming and imaginings) are bubbling away in the inner world and the simmering of this cauldron is a prerequisite to being able to think at all. The better state of mind which she posited and which Jack Nicholson might call ‘as good as it gets’ is not really very wonderful. It consists of seeing life as a mixture of extreme emotions, involving less violent splitting, treating the objects of our feelings as whole, not as parts, and being motivated by a form of guilt which is reparative, not brittle and punitive. This state of mind, called the depressive position, is astringent and far from conventional ideas of happiness and cannot be maintained as a norm. We can only strive to be in it as much as can be managed. Klein’s view of human nature characterises humankind as more intense, fraught, troubled, nearer the edge, sometimes over it, than the picture painted by other psychoanalysts. Life is harder, more painful, crazier, a perpetual struggle. Henryk Ibsen and Joseph Heller rather than ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘The Sound of Music’. Life ‘is not objective reality but a phantasmagoria peopled with our own fears and desires’ (Grosskurth, 1985, p. 62), ruled more by the turmoil of the inner world than by neo-Freudian adaptations to the outer world.

Klein’s life and her psychoanalytic views were of a piece. Her parents did not choose to have her, her analyst died, her marriage failed, one son died in a tragic climbing accident (some suspected suicide). Her daughter, Dr Melitta Schmideberg, who became a well-known psychoanalyst, fought her histrionically and publicly in the British Psycho-analytic Society, then emigrated to America, then returned and, unreconciled to the end, gave a lecture in London the day of her mother’s funeral, did not attend the funeral and wore a special pair of red boots that day. Like Anna Freud, Melanie Klein had no university education, so going to America where to be an analyst you had to have a medical degree, was out of the question. Anna Freud experienced her as an implacable rival and apostate and fought her in the trenches of the British Psycho-analytic Society until, in the hope of working something out, the society staged a set of bitterly fought controversial discussions over a period of years in the early 1940s, the upshot of which was an historic compromise according to which the Society has three groups -– Kleinians, Freudians and Independents (the last initially consisting of analysts to whom neither Anna Freud nor Klein was willing to refer training cases). The main committees have representatives from each of the three groups, and the Presidency rotates among them. This structure has persisted for over half a century, and it is true to this day that Independents peck Freudians (latterly called Contemporary Freudians), the last group being very much the rump of the membership. Kleinians peck both of the other groups. Indeed, after the Controversial Discussions Anna Freud concentrated her energies on the Hampstead Clinic, housed across the street from where her father had died and where she lived until her death in 1982 with her companion, Dorothy Burlingham. It is now the Freud Museum. She lived 22 years longer than Klein and, like Klein, was surrounded by a deferential and loyal coterie of colleagues. In seminars they always commented in strict order of seniority.

Klein’s colleagues were both highly-creative and fiercely sectarian. Toward the end of her life they created the Melanie Klein Trust, which looked after her heritage. No matter how talented an analyst, if he or she is out of favour with the trust, then he or she is an outsider. The careers of mediocrities who are in with the trust prosper. If you fell out with her or were insufficiently deferential, you left the warm environment of the Klein Group. This happened to Donald Winnicott, who was dropped because he did not pay sufficient homage to her in his highly-original ‘Transitional Objects…’ paper (1951), which he had penned to go into a Kleinian collection but was dropped. He felt that Klein saw him as a lightweight, and even his wife said that he suffered from an innate ‘benignity’, something unacceptable in the prima donna atmosphere of the Freud-Klein controversies. In this conflict of world views (Gross 400) Winnicott refused to take on board three key Kleinian tenets: the death instinct, the paranoid-schizoid position (of which more anon) and the existence of innate envy. On the other hand, he thought her concept of the depressive position was one of the most important in psychoanalysis, second only to the discovery of the unconscious. Paula Heimann, who had been a favourite of Klein’s, left the group because she eventually found its cult of the individual insufferable. Klein was herself very intense and demonstrative; Winnicott called her ‘the Eureka shrieker’ (Gross 121).

From the time when she read Freud’s short book On Dreams in 1914, when she was in her early thirties, she was captivated by psychoanalysis and longed to practice it. The key to Klein’s ideas is her work with very young children, something she was urged to do by her first analyst, Sandor Ferenczi, with whom she worked in Budapest. It is ironic that Anna Freud also worked with children but perceived much nicer people in her patients. Where Anna Freud said very young children could not free associate, Klein saw a rich inner phantasy life reflected in play. Where Anna Freud saw herself as a teacher and her task as education, Klein made deep, even militant interpretations of the anxieties about breasts and other body parts, about hate, tearing, scooping out, biting and murderousness which shocked non-Kleinians.

Melanie was herself conceived by accident, her father was ‘an old fifty’, and there was little affection shown to her by either parent. Her father was weak and unsuccessful, and her mother was contemptuous of him. An adored older sister died when Melanie was four. There was plenty of sibling rivalry in her family. ‘It was’, says her biographer, Phyllis Grosskurth, ‘a family riddled with guilt, envy, and occasionally explosive rages, and infused with strong incestuous overtones’ (Gross 20). She married young -- a chemical engineer. When she married her doting brother went straight downhill to decadence and death, and Melanie was made to feel responsible. The marriage was never a happy one. Klein was depressed and unfulfilled, and her husband was unfaithful from the first year of the marriage. Melanie was clinically depressed and sometimes institutionalised. They parted in 1920, leaving her with three children. I have mentioned the fate of two of them. The third later changed his name to Clyne, presumably to obscure his Jewish origins.

Melanie Klein arrived in Berlin at the age of 38 and remained there for five years. She became a member of the Berlin Society and went into analysis with Karl Abraham who died fourteen months later. Ferenczi and Abraham were regarded by Freud as the best clinicians in the whole psychoanalytic movement. Klein’s findings about aggression, sadism and other intense feelings in the very young child’s mind, along with her brazen and dazzling originality, made some colleagues shy away, others to treat her as wild and still others to hate her. Abraham, while he lived, protected her. Having given some well-received lectures to the year-old, 37 member British Psycho-analytic Society in 1925, she moved to London the next year at Ernest Jones’ invitation. When she came to England, she was in dispute with the Berlin Society, rumoured to be out of favour with Freud and Anna, was a divorcee and had had various affairs. She was the first Continental to be made a member of the British Psycho-analytic Society. Alix Strachey said at the time that she looked like a whore run mad and a dotty woman, but one whose head was filled with things of thrilling interest (Gross 136). Klein’s impact on the place was dramatic, and creativity –- not only hers -- blossomed.

Alas, Anna Freud was both the daughter of the founder of psychoanalysis and a bear of very little brain. Her book on the psychoanalysis of children was at first rejected for publication. When it was eventually published only favourable reviews were tolerated by those around Freud. She claimed that children could not free associate, could not be analysed (only taught) and other unimaginative things. The whole of it was an embarrassing attack on Klein, whose play technique was opening up the inner worlds of children with breathtaking results and consequences for the whole of psychoanalysis. For the next fifty-odd years a conspiracy was maintained to protect the world from seeing this unequal contest clearly –- the creative versus the anointed. In 1932, Klein published The Psychoanalysis of Children, and it was apparent to everyone that it was the most original work which the Hogarth Press had published up to that date. Where the Freudians proposed a model of the mind with clearly differentiated structures and stages of development, Klein presented a much more dynamic set of processes in which a number of emotions and developmental levels operated simultaneously and with tumultuous intensity -– love and hate, projection and introjection, splitting, phantasy, often lording it over reality (cf. Gross 195). Grosskurth calls it ‘a mosaic of turbulence’ (196).

From its founding in 1924 up into the 1940s, the British Psycho-analytic Society was a fiefdom controlled by Freud’s loyal administrator, Ernest Jones, who held or controlled all major offices. Edward Glover was second in command and heir apparent. He was also the analyst of Klein’s daughter, Melitta, and, alas, was in league with her in a hate campaign against Melanie Klein. Throughout the 1930s violent antipathies were building up between Klein and her followers, on the one hand, and Glover and Melitta, on the other. Jones was initially Klein’s mentor: he had even sent his children to her for analysis. He was also the peace-keeper, but he became increasingly ambivalent, and there could be no mediation when the geographical gap was closed, and the dying Freud and Anna moved from Vienna and Nazi persecution to Maresfield Gardens on 6 June 1938 (all of Freud’s sisters perished in the Nazi camps). Freud died on 23 September 1939, 20 days after the war began, having been made a Corresponding Member of the Royal Society during his short stay here. A third of the members of the BPS were by then refugees from the Continent, all allies of Anna Freud.

The polarisation was a caricature, and James Strachey characterised it in a letter as the belief that psychoanalysis is a game preserve of the Freud family and that Klein’s views were fatally subversive. His letter ended ‘bloody foreigners’ (gross 257). Anna Freud protested against Klein’s deep interpretations. Anna claimed she represented her father’s views, which were binding on all psychoanalysts (Gross 314). Klein had a tendency to pomposity and self-righteous behaviour (Gross 200). She was overbearing. Her group was dubbed ‘the Ebeneezer church’. The rowed over internal objects, Klein claimed that there were object relations from birth; Anna Freud claimed that there was a period of primary narcissism. They disagreed over the role of phantasy, which I’ll speak about later. Anna Freud refused to consider processes before second year (Gross 321). Klein claimed that there was guilt from the beginning and a superego before the Oedipus complex. This was surely apostasy. Klein posited preverbal phantasies. Indeed, she focussed on the preverbal and on deeply repressed material and felt that interpreting at this level was where the analyst’s work made a difference. Kleinians stressed the centrality of transference interpretations and the negative transference; Anna Freud’s group denied both. Klein posited innate envy and an ongoing role for the death instinct (which, after all, Freud had insisted upon) while Anna Freud thought children were altogether nicer. Klein, on the contrary, drew constant attention to psychotic mechanisms to the point that she had to deny that she was claiming that children are psychotic.

James Strachey characterised the polarised opinions as follows: ‘”Your views are so defective that you are incompetent to carry out a training analysis or for the matter of that any analysis at all,’ says one protagonist. “Your views are so false that you are incompetent to carry out a training analysis or for the matter of that any analysis at all,” says the other protagonist’ (Gross p.335).

The conflict mellowed as a result of the structural compromise I mentioned earlier and as a result of the ageing of the protagonists. Glover resigned, and Jones retired to the country, but the atmosphere of implacable conflict is not gone, even now. A consultant was called in a few years ago to consider dismantling the historic compromise, but it has still not occurred. Klein remained active and productive until very near the end of her life. Her last paper was ‘On the Sense of Loneliness’. She died in Sept 1960 after a successful operation for colon cancer; during convalescence she fell out of bed, and died of complications from the broken hip.

We might attribute much of this to two strong female personalities, but I don’t think that can explain why, thirty years on, when Kleinianism was found attractive by a few people in the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Institute, a distressingly similar conflict blew up. The result was uproar which became so intense that the American Psychoanalytic Association repeatedly threatened to close down the institute unless they got rid of the Kleinian influence. Of course, part of this is explained by the defensiveness of the Freudian orthodoxy, quaintly referred to as ‘traditional American psychoanalysis’ in the internal memoranda> It was, in fact, made up of elements drawn from German immigrants and the work of Anna Freud, an Austrian. But, as Douglas Kirsner (2000) has shown in an insightful story of this conflict, another important factor was certainly the militancy, contempt and intolerance of the nascent Kleinian group, inspired or at least catalysed by the leading British Kleinians whom they invited to teach them. Herbert Rosenfeld was described as ‘pretty autocratic. He made pronouncements like Moses receiving the tablets on the Mount. He had that character of stating something as the real, ultimate truth, stating as a fact what could not have been more than a speculation’. Donald Meltzer was similarly experienced as arrogant and made a remark which polarised the atmosphere. ‘He is said to have equated Kleinian analysis with contemporary psychoanalysis and classical analysis as belonging to the early part of the century.’ (The head of training at the Lincoln Clinic in London said something similar recently.) Kleinian ideas were taken up by a group of Young Turks who became, as James Grotstein later reflected, ‘unreasonably obnoxious, certain, omnipotent: “We have the truth”. I know I felt that. The trouble is I think we all did ourselves in. We were right but we were wrong’. Grotstein felt that... the visiting British Kleinians made him ‘feel like a naughty colonial’. In Grotstein’s view, ‘While the Los Angeles Kleinians were no doubt scapegoated, the Kleinians also reacted very provocatively and became more strident as the polarisation continued. The polarisation resulted in a decreasing middle ground — the leaders of the institute were seen by many (the Kleinians included) as enemies of the Kleinians whom the leadership purportedly viewed as a threat to psychoanalysis’ (quotations from Kirsner, 1999, ch. 4). It was a very rough encounter, indeed, recalling the most abrasive episodes in the earlier Controversial Discussions in London, where, on one occasion, Winnicott pointed out that there was an air raid going on, so intense was the internal warfare in the meeting. The Los Angeles episode, like the Controversial Discussions, tells me that there is a problem at the heart of Kleinian assertiveness. It is therefore not in the least surprising that many people are wary of Kleinian ideas. On the other hand, Kleinians argue that entrenched orthodox positions have to be attacked. In the history of ideas, as in the history of societies, people in power never relinquish it voluntarily.

I am now gong to take a deep breath and move out of the biographical and historical mode and concentrate on ideas in theory and in clinical practice. Bob Hinshelwood’s Dictionary of Kleinian Thought is over 500 pages long. It has thirteen main entries and 148 subsidiary ones. It is therefore obvious that I cannot be exhaustive. I have been trying in what I have said so far to draw you into a Kleinian world view. In my second lecture I will also say something about some of the ideas of subsequent Kleinians. My aim, however, can only be to whet your appetites and hope to inspire you to read on, seek supervision or perhaps to set up study groups. I am going to try, as I have already begun to do, to convey the kind of minds Klein believed her work with children showed that we have. As Meltzer describes it, Freud's world is 'a world of higher animals', 'creatures seeking surcease from the constant bombardment of stimuli from inside and out'. He contrasts Klein's world as 'one of holy babes in holy families plagued by the devils of split off death instinct' (Meltzer, 1978, part III, pp. 115-16). One is a world of animals as scientific objects reacting to stimuli, the other a world of human subjects haunted by demons. One emphasises the relations with the environment, the other relations with the inner world of phantasy.

This is not merely a difference of emphasis. Matters which may appear on the surface to be about common sense or adult relationships or genital sexuality may also turn out to be about much more primitive psychological levels of distress. Similarly, the difference between the worlds of Freud and Klein may be described as one of level of explanation and of causality. Klein’s most original analysand, Wilfred Bion, put the point clearly in the conclusion to his essay, 'Group Dynamics -- A Re-view', Bion says, 'Freud's view of the dynamics of the group seems to me to require supplementing rather than correction' (Bion, 1961, p. 187). He accepts Freud's claim that the family group is the basis for all groups but adds that ‘I would go further; I think that the central position in group dynamics is occupied by the more primitive mechanisms that Melanie Klein has described as peculiar to the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions. In other words, I feel... that it is not simply a matter of the incompleteness of the illumination provided by Freud's discovery of the family group as the prototype of all groups, but the fact that this incompleteness leaves out the source of the main emotional drives of the group' (p. 188). 'Further investigation shows that each basic assumption contains features that correspond so closely with extremely primitive part objects that sooner or later psychotic anxiety, appertaining to these primitive relationships, is released. These anxieties, and the mechanisms peculiar to them, have already been displayed in psychoanalysis by Melanie Klein, and her descriptions tally well with the emotional states' of the basic assumption group. Such groups have aims 'far different either from the overt task of the group or even from the tasks that would appear to be appropriate to Freud's view of the group as based on the family group. But approached from the angle of psychotic anxiety, associated with phantasies of primitive part object relationships... the basic assumption phenomena appear far more to have the characteristics of defensive reactions to psychotic anxiety, and to be not so much at variance with Freud's views as supplementary to them. In my view, it is necessary to work through both the stresses that appertain to family patterns and the still more primitive anxieties of part object relationships. In fact I consider the latter to contain the ultimate sources of all group behaviour' (p. 189).

I am stressing three themes: the primitive, the psychotic and unconscious phantasy. I'll say something about the term 'psychotic' and then turn to the concept of phantasy and the anxieties which primitive phantasies generate. To most of us 'psychotic' refers to psychosis, a primary disturbance of relations with reality, and psychotic symptoms are an attempt to restore the link with objects (Laplanche & Pontalis, 1983, p. 370). Psychotics are said to be 'out of contact with reality' for much or all of the time. They hear and see things that are not there — hallucinations — and wildly distorted things that are — delusions. In psychiatry the notion of ‘psychotic’ is safely restricted to people designated as ‘mad’.

Kleinians think differently about the psychotic. Psychotic mechanisms and processes are ubiquitous throughout life. I want to turn now to the mechanisms in question and their evolution from the asylum to the nursery. Klein described schizoid mechanisms as occurring 'in the baby's development in the first year of life characteristically... the infant suffered from states of mind that were in all their essentials equivalent to the adult psychoses, taken as regressive states in Freud's sense' (Meltzer, 1978, part III, p. 22). Klein says, 'In early infancy anxieties characteristic of psychosis arise which drive the ego to develop specific defence-mechanisms. In this period the fixation-points for all psychotic disorders are to be found. This has led some people to believe that I regard all infants as psychotic; but I have already dealt sufficiently with this misunderstanding on other occasions' (Klein, 1946, p. 1). Meltzer, a loyal disciple, comments that 'Although she denied that this was tantamount to saying that babies are psychotic, it is difficult to see how this implication could be escaped' (Meltzer, 1978, part III, p. 22).

Kleinian thinking evolved in three stages. As in the above quotation, Klein saw schizoid mechanisms and the paranoid-schizoid position as fixation points, respectively, for schizophrenia and paranoid psychosis the depressive position as the fixation point for manic-depressive psychosis. In the second phase of her thinking, the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions became developmental stages. Her terminology included 'psychotic phases, 'psychotic positions' and then 'positions' (Klein, 1935, pp. 275n-276n, 279). Thirdly, in the work of Bion and other post-Kleinians, these became economic principles and part of the moment-to-moment vicissitudes of everyday life. The notations 'ps' and 'd' were connected with a double-headed arrow — psd — to indicate how easily and frequently our inner states oscillate from the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position and back again (Meltzer, 1978, part III, p. 22). They are elemental and ever-present and constitute the basic tonality of how we feel at all times. In Bion's writings on schizophrenia an ambiguity remained as to whether or not the psychotic part of the personality is ubiquitous or only present in schizophrenics, but Meltzer concludes his exposition of Bion's schizophrenia papers by referring to the existence of these phenomena in patients of every degree of disturbance, even so-called 'healthy' candidates in training to be therapists (p. 28).

I offer here John Steiner’s brief characterisations of the two positions which have come to be seen as the basic modes of feeling between which people oscillate: ‘As a brief summary: in the paranoid-schizoid position anxieties of a primitive nature threaten the immature ego and lead to a mobilisation of primitive defences. Splitting, idealisation and projective identification operate to create rudimentary structures made up of idealised good objects kept far apart from persecuting bad ones. The individual’s own impulses are similarly split and he directs all his love towards the good object and all his hatred against the bad one. As a consequence of the projection, the leading anxiety is paranoid, and the preoccupation is with survival of the self. Thinking is concrete because of the confusion between self and object which is one of the consequences of projective identification (Segal, 1957).

‘The depressive position represents an important developmental advance in which whole objects begin to be recognised and ambivalent impulses become directed towards the primary object. These changes result from an increased capacity to integrate experiences and lead to a shift in primary concern from the survival of the self to a concern for the object upon which the individual depends. Destructive impulses lead to feelings of loss and guilt which can be more fully experienced and which consequently enable mourning to take place. The consequences include a development of symbolic function and the emergence of reparative capacities which become possible when thinking no longer has to remain concrete’ (Steiner, 1987, pp. 69-70; see also Steiner, 1993, pp. 26-34).

Hanna Segal provides a clear and evocative exposition of the depressive position: ‘Melanie Klein considers that there is a crucial step in the infant’s development when he recognises his mother as what she termed a "whole object." This is the time the baby starts recognising his mother and sees her as a real, separate, person. With that recognition there is a fundamental change in the whole mental attitude of the child. Omnipotence diminishes; and there is a recognition of one’s dependence on another human being, seen as a proper person. The egocentric, narcissistic attitude, in which the infant conceives of objects in relation to himself being good for one or persecuting to one, gives way to the relationship to another person seen as having her own feelings, problems, and relations to other people as well as oneself. Towards that person, on whom he depends completely, the infant experiences acute ambivalence. When splitting diminishes he recognises that he loves and hates one and the same person. With that recognition goes guilt about the hatred and fear of losing the object through one’s own aggression. This becomes the basis of a different kind of superego than the savage, hated, and hateful, figure on the part-object level. This situation leads to feeling of pining for the lost object, of the capacity to mourn the loss, and is the basis of normal mourning. But as the situation is full of pain and anxiety of loss it also can mobilise powerful manic defences. But alongside these, another mechanism develops which cannot be properly called a mechanism of defence, since it is not based on denial of the problem, characteristic of defences, but on the recognition of a problem and a new way of dealing with it: that is reparation. According to Klein, reparative impulses play a large part in good human relationships and are also the basis of all sublimation.

‘It is also implicit in Klein’s definition of the depressive position that the Oedipus complex should start at the same time; since in this whole world associated with recognising mother as a whole object, a relation to father is recognised for what it is. So both the ambivalent attacks on mother and the reparative impulses towards her are soon extended to the parental couple in an Oedipal constellation (Segal, nd). I will say more about the Oedipus complex and the Oedipal constellation in my second lecture.

So much for bringing 'psychotic' into the realm of the normal and neurotic. Turning now to 'phantasy', the essays in Developments in Psychoanalysis (1952) are versions of the papers which formed the Kleinian texts in the Controversial Discussions. Many things were at stake, but at the heart of it, in my opinion, was the question of the primacy of the inner world, as opposed to the more interactive, adaptive framework of ideas which came to be associated with ego psychology and, more recently, so-called ‘Contemporary Freudianism’. Anna Freud rebuts the claim that she 'has an inveterate prejudice in favour of the modes of external reality... and of conscious mental processes' (King and Steiner, 1991, p. 328), but I think that the relative weights assigned to inner and outer worlds provides a legitimate demarcation between Kleinian and Freudian orientations. The contrast became even more marked between Klein and her successors, on the one hand, and developments in America, on the other: the school of ego psychology, which is the majority point of view in Continental and American psychoanalysis (Tyson and Tyson, 1990), but it is in a minority position in Britain, where it is associated with The Anna Freud Centre and the contemporary Freudian or ‘B Group’ at the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, where its best-known exponents have been the late Joseph Sandler (1987, 1989), his widow, Anne-Marie Sandler (1978) and his protégé, Peter Fonagy, Freud Professor at University College London.

As a part of the issue over the primacy of the inner world, I believe that people were genuinely shocked by what they thought was sheer craziness and nastiness of the child’s unconscious as described by Klein and her supporters. Indeed, there is in the text of the Controversial Discussions a protest along these lines by Michael Balint, who dryly comments in the discussion of Susan Isaacs' fundamentally important paper (to which I shall turn next) that 'perhaps Mrs Klein is laying undue emphasis on the role of hatred, frustration and aggression in the infant' (King and Steiner, 1991, p. 347). This is an understatement.

I begin with the elementary point (made earlier) that 'phantasy' refers to 'predominantly or entirely unconscious phantasies', as distinct from the sort of conscious fantasies or imaginings we associate with daydreams or idle imaginings (Isaacs, 1952, pp. 80-81). Joan Riviere appeals to Freud's hypothesis that the psyche is always interpreting the reality of its experiences — 'or rather, misinterpreting them — in a subjective manner that increases its pleasure and preserves it from pain' (Riviere, 1952a, p. 41). Freud calls this process 'hallucination; and it forms the foundation of what we mean by phantasy-life. The phantasy-life of the individual is thus the form in which the real internal and external sensations and perceptions are interpreted and represented to himself in his mind under the influence of the pleasure-pain principle'. Riviere adds that 'this primitive and elementary function of his psyche — to misinterpret his perceptions for his own satisfaction — still retains the upper hand in the minds of the great majority of even civilised adults' (p. 41). I suggest — and this lies at the heart of my overall argument — that this point about misinterpreting the reality of the psyche’s experience to the point of hallucination as normal and basic is the essential point — the ur-fact — about human nature as depicted by Klein.

This general function for phantasy is repeated in Susan Isaacs' definition. The '"mental expression" of instinct is unconscious phantasy... There is no impulse, no instinctual urge or response which is not experienced as unconscious phantasy' (Isaacs, 1952, p. 83). ‘The first mental processes... are to be regarded as the earliest beginnings of phantasies. In the mental development of the infant, however, phantasy soon becomes also a means of defence against anxieties, a means of inhibiting and controlling instinctual urges and an expression of reparative wishes as well... All impulses, all feelings, all modes of defence are experienced in phantasies which give them mental life and show their direction and purpose' (ibid.).

When we turn to the content of the phantasies a problem of communication arises: 'they are apt to produce a strong impression of unreality and untruth' (Riviere, 1952, p. 20). This is because when we write or speak about them we are clothing preverbal and very primitive mental processes in the language of words in dictionaries. Phantasies are rendered by patients as black holes, nameless dread, part objects, offal, shit, urine, dreams of wet cinders or barren desert mindscapes, pus, slime, feelings of being overwhelmed, engulfed, disintegrated, in pieces, devoured, falling through empty space, spiders, bugs, snakes. Language drawn from work with autistic patients includes dread of falling apart, falling infinitely, spilling away, exploding away, threat of total annihilation, unintegration (as distinct from the disintegration of schizophrenia), experiencing a missing person as a hole (rather than 'missing' them as not present). The phrase ‘nameless dread’ is often used to convey this kind of feeling.

When I cannot find a piece of paper or go to a room and cannot recall why, I don't just think of age and preoccupation. The fabric of reality is momentarily rent asunder, and in that moment I feel in imminent danger of dying, of disintegration, of unendurable panic. Indeed, I want to die. My childhood was filled with unbearable terrors, some drawn from the radio and movies, some I thought up unaided. I offer these reports as my version of what Klein calls 'a cave full of dangerous monsters' (Klein, 1935, p. 272). My general point is that if you ask the question, 'What is a psychotic anxiety when it's at home and not in the pages of an implausible and nearly unfathomable text by Melanie Klein?', you'll be able to be less sceptical if you interrogate the fringes of your own memories and distressing experiences and, of course, dreams. Elizabeth Spillius points out that ‘unconscious phantasies are somewhat more accessible in early childhood; in adulthood the path to them is indirect, through dreams, in imaginative constructions, sometimes in group behaviour, in symptoms, parapraxes, etc., though always in disguised form’ (personal communication). Psychotic anxieties are ubiquitous, underlie all thought, provide the rationale for all culture and institutions and, in particular cases, help us to make sense of especially galling ways of being.

Klein's views on these matters are based on Freud and Abraham's notions of oral libido and fantasies of cannibalism (Gedo, 1986, p. 94). She refers to sadistic impulses against the mother's breast and inside her body, wanting to scoop out, devour, cut to pieces, poison and destroy by every means sadism suggests (Klein, 1935, p. 262). Once again, the projective and introjective mechanisms of the first months and year give rise to anxiety situations and defences against them, 'the content of which is comparable to that of the psychoses in adults' (ibid.).

Orality is everywhere, for example, in the 'gnawing of conscience' (p. 268). Hunger gnaws, that is, we unconsciously feel attacked by what we lack and urgently need, for example, by the mother’s not coming when we cry: we are enraged. Riviere says that 'such helplessness against destructive forces within constitutes the greatest psychical danger-situation known to the human organism; and that this helplessness is the deepest source of anxiety in human beings' (Riviere, 1952a, p. 43). It is the ultimate source of all neurosis. At this early stage of development, sadism is at its height and is followed by the discovery that loved objects are in a state of disintegration, in bits or in dissolution, leading to despair, remorse and anxiety, which underlie numerous anxiety situations. Klein concludes, 'Anxiety situations of this kind I have found to be at the bottom not only of depression, but of all inhibitions of work' (Klein, 1935, p. 270).

It should be recalled that these are pre-linguistic experiences developmentally, and sub-linguistic in adults. It is a characteristic of the world view of Kleinians that the primitive is never transcended and that all experiences continue to be unconsciously mediated through the mother's body. Similarly, there is a persistence of primitive phantasies of body parts and bodily functions, especially biting, eating, tearing, spitting out, urine and urinating, faeces and defecating, mucus, genitals. Klein’s clinical writings are veritably hard to bear, hard to credit, hard to follow. She is operating — well and truly — in the most primitive parts of the inner world, where dream symbolism meets up with primitive bodily functions and body parts. Her way of describing these phantasies is easy to caricature and becomes wooden when adopted in a parrot-like fashion by inexperienced acolytes. In the subsequent history of Kleinian psychoanalysis, however, her outlook on unconscious phantasy has continued to prevail. Elizabeth Spillius reports that this is one of Klein's concepts which has been 'very little altered' by subsequent Kleinians (Spillius, 1988, vol. 1, p. 2).

However, many Kleinians (though not all, for example, Donald Meltzer) have altered their language and have become more likely to make interpretations in terms of functions rather than anatomical part objects. Edna O'Shaughnessy has suggested the notion of 'psychological part objects' as an analogy to bodily part objects. Spillius takes this up and argues 'that we relate to psychological part objects... to the functions of the part object rather than primarily to its physical structure. It is the capacities for seeing, touching, tasting, hearing, smelling, remembering, feeling, judging, and thinking, active as well as passive, that are attributed to and perceived in relation to part objects'. Spillius concludes her remarks on this change in emphasis in technique by relating it to Klein's concept of projective identification. The functions 'are frequently understood as aspects of the self which are projected into part objects' (pp. 2-5; cf. vol. 2, pp. 8-9).

Klein was untroubled by being called an 'id psychologist' (Gedo, 1986, p. 91). She unrepentantly conceived the analyst's task to be to confront the patient with the content of the unconscious. She did not pursue 'corrective emotional experience' (a goal fashionable among some Freudians), did not encourage regression and the reliving of infantile experiences (nor did she avoid them when they occurred), or explicit educational or moral influences. She kept 'to the psycho-analytic procedure only, which, to put it in a nutshell, consists in understanding the patient's mind and in conveying to him what goes on in it' (Klein, 1955, p. 129). She felt that confidently articulating interpretations of very primitive material in the face of resistance diminishes the patient's anxiety and opens the door to the unconscious. Nor did she shy away from such deep interpretations or transference interpretations from the beginning of analytic work with a patient (Klein, 1975, vol. 2, pp. 22-24; Gedo, 1986, p. 92).

Why is all this such an innovation? Riviere points out that anxiety was of great significance to Freud, but that much of his rhetoric was scientific, especially physiological. He did not concern himself with the psychological content of phantasies. Indeed, he and many of his ‘Freudian’ followers have tended to use scientistic analogies instead of conveying human distress in evocative language. By contrast, 'Anxiety, with the defences against it, has from the beginning been Mrs Klein's approach to psycho-analytical problems. It was from this angle that she discovered the existence and importance of aggressive elements in children's emotional life... and [it] enabled her to bring much of the known phenomena of mental disorders into line with the basic principles of analysis' (Riviere, 1952, pp. 8-9).

Kleinians have consistently written in a language which eschews analogies drawn from natural science, albeit Klein did retain a notion of instinct, even though this was largely redundant as a result of her object relations perspective. They went on to propose elements of a general psychology, including the claim that there is 'an unconscious phantasy behind every thought and every act' (Riviere, 1952, p.16). That is, the mental expression of primitive processes 'is unconscious phantasy' (ibid.). It is not only a background hum, as it were. Isaacs claims that 'Reality thinking cannot operate without concurrent and supporting unconscious phantasies' (Isaacs, 1952, p. 109). And again: 'phantasies are the primary content of unconscious mental processes' (pp. 82, 112). 'There is no impulse, no instinctual urge or response which is not experienced as unconscious phantasy' (p. 83). 'Phantasies have both psychic and bodily effects, e.g., in conversion symptoms, bodily qualities, character and personality, neurotic symptoms, inhibitions and sublimations' (p. 112). They even determine the minutiae of body language (p. 100). The role of unconscious phantasy extends from the first to the most abstract thought. The infant's first thought of the existence of the external world comes from sadistic attacks on the mother's body (Klein, 1935, p. 276; 1946 p. 5). 'Phantasies — becoming more elaborate and referring to a wider variety of objects and situations — continue throughout development and accompany all activities; they never stop playing a great part in mental life. The influence of unconscious phantasy on art, on scientific work, and on the activities of everyday life cannot be overrated' (Klein, 1959, p. 251; cf. p. 262).

These anxieties are not only ubiquitous: they interact in complicated ways. As Riviere points out, 'It is impossible to do any justice here to the complexity and variety of the anxiety-situations and the defences against them dominating the psyche during these early years. The factors involved are so numerous and the combinations and interchanges so variable. The internal objects are employed against external, and external against internal, both for satisfaction and for security; desire is employed against hate and destructiveness; omnipotence against impotence, and even impotence (dependence) against destructive omnipotence; phantasy against reality and reality against phantasy. Moreover, hate and destruction are employed as measures to avert the dangers of desire and even of love. Gradually a progressive development takes place... by means of the interplay of these and other factors, and of them with external influences, out of which the child's ego, his object-relations, his sexual development, his super-ego, his character and capacities are formed' (Riviere, 1952a, pp. 59-60).

Where Freud discovered the child in the adult, Klein discovered the infant in the child and led us to take seriously the abiding role of infantile psychotic anxieties underlying the unconscious phantasies which constitute the inner world of the adult.

I am going to pause here, having sketched Melanie Klein’s ideas of the primitive, the psychotic and unconscious phantasies. Next time I will discuss projective identification, Klein’s most influential concept, and her ideas about the Oedipus complex, along with certain ideas developed by later Kleinians.

This is the text of the first of two talks on ‘Melanie Klein’ and was given at the Tavistock Clinic 18 January 2000, in the series ‘Psychoanalytic Pioneers’, sponsored by CONFER. The later parts of it draw on my other writings.

Klein’s writings are all available in a five volume paperback series published by Virago. Some of her writings are difficult of access but many are clear and accessible. R. D. Hinshelwood’s A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought, which I conceived, edited and published, was specifically designed to make her ideas accessible, and I commend it to you. There are two collection written while she was alive which encompass the Kleinian movement (Klein et al., 1952, 1955), while a more recent two-volume work, Melanie Klein Today (Spillius, 1988), brings the movement up to more recent times. Jean-Michel Petot has written a two-volume close analysis of the development of her thought. In Mental Space I have written an exposition of her key ideas, set in their theoretical context, while in Inside Lives Margot Waddell offers a clinical account of Kleinian ideas of the development of the personality. There are other works in the Kleinian tradition listed below, and Hinshelwood has complied a bibliography which purports to include all Kleinian writings up to 1995. There is also a quarterly journal devoted to Melanie Klein and Object Relations ( Finally, although it offended some of her acolytes, Phyllis Grosskurth’s Melanie Klein: Her World and Her Work (1985) is in my opinion an appropriately Kleinian biography, warts and all.

Anderson, Robin, ed. (1992), Clinical Lectures on Klein and Bion. Routledge.

Bell, David, ed. (1999) Psychoanalysis and Culture: A Kleinian Perspective. Duckworth.

Bion, Wilfred R. (1955) 'Group Dynamics — a Re-view', in Klein et al., eds. (1955), pp. 440-77; reprinted in Bion (1961), pp. 141-91

______ (1961) Experiences in Groups and Other Papers. Tavistock.

______ (1967) Second Thoughts: Selected Papers on Psycho-Analysis. Heinemann Medical; reprinted Maresfield, 1984.

______ (1970) Attention and Interpretation. Tavistock.

______ (1992) Cogitations. Karnac.

Bleandonu, Gérard (1994) Wilfred Bion: His Life and Works 1897-1979. Free Association Books.

Britton, Ronald (1989) 'The Missing Link: Parental Sexuality in the Oedipus Complex', in Britton et al. (1989), pp. 83-102.

______ (1992) 'The Oedipus Situation and the Depressive Position', in R. Anderson, ed. (1992), pp. 34-45.

______ et al. (1989) The Oedipus Complex Today: Clinical Implications. Karnac.

______ (1998) Belief and Imagination: Explorations in Psychoanalysis. Routledge.

Farrell, Em (1994) Lost for Words: The Psychoanalysis of Anorexia and Bulimia. Process Press.

Grosskurth, Phyllis (1985) Melanie Klein: Her World and Her Work. Hodder and Staughton.

Hinshelwood, Robert D. (1991) A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought, 2nd ed. Free Association Books.

______, compiler (1999) ‘Seventy-five Years of Kleinian

Writings 1920-1995: a Bibliography’

Hyatt Williams, Arthur (1998) Cruelty, Violence and Murder: Understanding the Criminal Mind. Karnac

Isaacs, Susan (1952) ‘The Nature and Function of Phantasy’, in Klein et al. (1952), pp. 67-121.

Joseph, Betty (1989) Psychic Equilibrium and Psychic Change:

Selected Papers. Routledge.

King, Pearl. & Steiner, Ricardo, eds. (1991) The Freud-Klein Controversies 1941-45. Tavistock/Routledge.

Klein, Melanie (1928) 'Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict', reprinted in W. M. K. I, pp. 186-98.

______ (1935) 'A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States', reprinted in W. M. K. II, pp, 262-89.

______ (1940) ‘Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States’, W. M. K. II, pp. 311-38.

______ (1945) 'The Oedipus Complex in the Light of Early Anxieties', reprinted in W. M. K. I, pp. 370-419 and in Britton et al. (1989), pp. 63-82.

______ (1946) 'Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms', reprinted in W. M. K. III, pp. 1-24.

______ (1952) ‘The Origins of Transference’, reprinted in W. M. K. III, pp. 48-56.

______ (1955) ‘The Psycho-Analytic Play Technique: Its History and Significance’, reprinted in W. M. K. III, pp. 122-40.

______ (1955a) ‘On Identification, W. M. K. III, pp. 141-75.

______ (1958) ‘On the Development of Mental Functioning’, reprinted in W. M. K. III, pp. 236-46.

______ (1959) ‘Our Adult World and Its Roots in Infancy’; reprinted in W. M. K. III, pp. 247-63.

______ (1975) The Writings of Melanie Klein, 4 vols. Hogarth. Vol. I: Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works., 1921-1945. Vol. II: The Psycho-Analysis of Children. Vol. III Envy and Gratitude and Other Works; 1946-1963; . Vol. IV: Narrative of a Child Analysis. all reprinted Virago, 1988. (W. M. K. )

______ et al. (1952) Developments in Psycho-Analysis. Hogarth.

______ et al., eds. (1955) New Directions in Psycho-Analysis: The Significance of Infant Conflicts in the Patterns of Adult Behaviour. Tavistock; reprinted Maresfield,

Meltzer, Donald (1978) The Kleinian Development Part I: Freud’s Clinical Development; Part II: Richard Week-by-Week; Part III: The Clinical Significance of the Work of Bion. Strath Tay: Clunie.

______ (1992) The Claustrum: An Investigation of Claustrophobic Phenomena. Strath Tay: Clunie.

______ et al. (1975) Explorations in Autism: A Psycho-Analytical Study. Strath Tay: Clunie.

Menzies Lyth, Isabel (1988) Containing Anxiety in Institutions: Selected Essays, vol. 1. Free Association Books.

______ (1989) The Dynamics of the Social: Selected Essays, vol. II. Free Association Books.

Money-Kyrle, Roger E. (1978) The Collected Papers of Roger Money-Kyrle. Strath Tay: Clunie Press.

Petot, Jean-Michel (1979) Melanie Klein, Vol. I: First Discoveries and First System 1919-1932. Trans. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1990.

______ (1982) Melanie Klein, Vol. II: The Ego and the Good Object 1932-1960. Trans. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1991. (There is an illuminating review of these volumes by Elizabeth Spillius in Internat. J. Psycho-Anal. 74: 1274-1280, 1993.)

Rey, Henri (1994) Universals of Psychoanalysis in the Treatment of Psychotic and Borderline States. Free Association Books

Riviere, Joan (1952) 'General Introduction', in Klein et al. (1952),

pp. 1-36.

______ (1952a) 'On the Genesis of Psychical Conflict in Early Infancy',

in Klein et al. (1952), pp. 37-66.

Rosenfeld, Herbert (1965) Psychotic States: A Psychoanalytical Approach. Hogarth; reprinted Maresfield Library.

______ (1987) Impasse and Interpretation: Therapeutic and Anti-Therapeutic Factors in Psychoanalytic Treatment of Psychotic, Borderline, and Neurotic Patients. Routledge, pp. 157-90.

Segal, Hanna (1973) Introduction to the Work of Melanie Klein. Hogarth; reprinted Karnac, 1988.

______ (1981) The Work of Hanna Segal: A Kleinian Approach to Clinical Practice. Aronson; reprinted Free Association Books/ Maresfield Library, 1986.

______ (1990) Dream, Phantasy and Art. Routledge

______ (1996) Psychoanalysis, Literature and War: Papers 1972-1995.


______ (nd) ‘Introduction to Melanie Klein’ (excellent brief


Spillius, Elizabeth B. (1983) ‘Some Developments from the Work of Melanie Klein’, Internat. J. Psycho-Anal. 64:

______ (1988) Melanie Klein Today, 2 vols. Routledge

Steiner, John (1987) ‘The Interplay between Pathological Organizations and the Paranoid-Schizoid and Depressive Positions’, Int. J. Psycho-Anal. 68: 69-80; reprinted in Spillius, ed. (1988), vol. 1, pp. 324-42.

______ (1994) Psychic Retreats: Pathological Organizations in Psychotic, Neurotic and Borderline Patients. Routledge.

Waddell, Margot (1998) Inside Lives: Psychoanalysis and the Growth of the Personality. Duckworth.

Weininger, Otto (1992) Melanie Klein: From Theory to Reality. Karnac.

Williams, Gianna (1997) ) Internal Landscapes and Foreign Bodies: Eating Disorders and Other Pathologies. Duckworth.

Young, Robert M. (1994) Mental Space. Process Press.

______ (1994) ‘New Ideas about the Oedipus Complex’, Melanie Klein and Object Relations. 12 (no. 2): 1-20.

______ (1999) ‘Being a Kleinian Is Not Straightforward’

Most of my writings are available on-line at
References which do not appear in the Readings
Freud, Anna The Psychoanalysis of Children

The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence

Freud, Sigmund (1920) ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, S. E. 18, pp. 7-64.

______ (1930) Civilization and Its Discontents. S. E. 21, pp. 59-145.

______ (1953-73) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 vols. Hogarth (S. E.).

Gedo, John. E. (1986) Conceptual Issues in Psychoanalysis: Essays in History and Method. New York: Analytic Press.

Kirsner, Douglas (2000) Unfree Associations: Inside Psychoanalytic Institutes. Process Press.

Laplanche, Jean and Pontalis, J.-B. (1983) The Language of Psycho-Analysis. Hogarth; reprinted Maresfield.

Sandler, Joseph (1987) From Safety to Superego: Selected Papers. Karnac Books.

______, ed. (1989) Projection, Identification, Projective Identification. Karnac Books.

Sandler, Joseph and Sandler, Anne-Marie (1978) ‘On the Development of Object Relations and Affects’, Int. J. Psycho-Anal. 59: 285-96.

Segal, Hanna (1957) ‘Notes on Symbol Formation’, Int. J. Psycho-Anal. 38: 391-7; reprinted in *Segal (1981), pp. 49-65.

______ (1981) The Work of Hanna Segal: A Kleinian Approach to Clinical Practice. Aronson; reprinted Free Association Books/ Maresfield Library, 1986.

Tyson, Phyllis and Tyson, Robert L. (1990) Psychoanalytic Theories of Development: An Integration. Yale.

Winnicott, Donald W. (1951) ‘Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena’, in Winnicott (1975), pp. 229-242.

______ (1971) Playing and Reality. Tavistock Publications; reprinted Penguin, 1971.

_____ (1975) Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis. Hogarth.
Melanie Klein Trust Home Page


When I took part in setting up the Object Relations eGroup, I assumed that the forum would be devoted to Klein, Fairbairn, Winnicott and more general issues in the object relations tradition. This has not occurred. I am also struck by the demise of the Melanie Klein Home Page. By contrast to these facts, the Bion forum is thriving. I draw the conclusion that there is a place for a forum devoted to Klein and the people and ideas in the tradition which she began.

I will also in due course set up a Melanie Klein Home Page with references, links and other pertinent materials.

One of the things I hope will flourish on this eGroup is that people will draw others’ attention to new publications and offer comments on and reviews of them.

Subscription and comments by people critical of Kleinian ideas are welcome, as long as they are put in a civil and constructive way, but I confess that my main aim is to foster discussion among essentially people sympathetic to Kleinian ideas.

To join the eGroup, send an e-mail with no message to

The eGroup's messages, calendar, document vault, and more are available on the web at

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