Thomas Ogden: Reading Winnicott
The author offers a reading of Winnicott's (1945 "Primitive Emotional Development," a work containing the seeds of vitually all the major contributions to psychoanalysis that Winnicott would make over the course of the succeeding twenty-six years of his life. The present author demonstates the interdependence of the life of the ideas being developed and the life of the writing in this seminal paper of Winnicott's. What "Primitive Emotional Development" has to offer to a psychoanalytic reader cannot be said in any other way (which is to say that the writing is extraordinarily resistant to paraphrase). It has been this author's experience-which he hopes to convey to the reader-that an awareness of the way the language is woking in Winnicott's writings significantly enhances what can be learned from reading them.
Style and content are inseparable in writing. The better the writing, the more this interdependence is utilized in the service of creating meaning. In recent years, I have found that the only way I can do justice to studying and teaching Winnicott is to read his papers aloud, line by line, as I would a poem, exploring what the language is doing in addition to what it is saying. It is not an overstatement to say that a great many passages from Winnicott's papers well deserve to be called prose poems. In these passages, Winnicott's writing meets Tom Stoppard's (1999) definition of poetry as "the simultaneous compression of language and expansion of meaning" (p.10).
In this paper, I will focus on Winnicott's 1945 paper, "Primitive Emotional Development," which I view as his earliest major contribution to psychoanalysis. I will not be limiting myself to an explication of Winnicott's paper, though a good many of the ideas developed there will be discussed. My principal interest is in looking at this paper as a piece of non-fiction literature in which the meeting of reader and writing generates an imaginative experience in the medium of language. To speak of Winnicott's writing as literature is not to minimize its value as a way of conveying ideas that have proved to be of enormous importance to the development of psychoanalytic theory and practice; on the contrary, my effort will be to demonstrate the ways in which the life of the writing is critical to, and inseparable from, the life of the ideas. 1
Before looking closely at "Primitive Emotional Development," I will offer a few observations about matters of writing that run through virtually the entirety of Winnicott's opus. The first quality of his writing to strike the reader is its form. Unlike the papers of any other psychoanalyst I can think of, Winnicott's papers are brief (usually six to ten pages in length), often containing a moment in the middle when he takes the reader aside and says, in a single sentence, "the essential feature of my communication is this..." (Winnicott 1971 a, p.50). But the most distinctive signature of Wlnnicott's writing is the voice. It is casual and conversational, yet always profoundly respectful of both the reader and the subject matter under discussion. The speaking voice gives itself permission to wander, and yet has the compactness of poetry; there is an extraordinary intelligence to the voice that is at the same time genuinely humble and well aware of its limitations; there is a disarming intimacy that at times takes cover in wit and charm; the voice is playful and imaginative; but never folksy or sentimental.
Any effort to convey a sense of the voice in Winnicott's writing must locate at its core the quality of playfulness. The types of playfulness encountered in Winnicott's writing have an enormous range. To name only a few: There are the un-self-conscious feats of imaginative, compassionate understanding in his accounts of "squiggle games" (1917b) with his child patients. There is serious playfulness (or playful seriousness) when Winnicott is involved in an effort to generate a form of thinking/theorizing that is adequate to the paradoxical nature of human experience as he understands it. He takes delight in subtle word play, such as in the repetition of a familiar phrase in slightly different forms to refer to the patient's need to begin and to end analysis: "I do analysis because that is what the patient needs to have done and to have done with" (1962, p. 166).
While his writing is personal, there is also a certain English reserve to Winnicott that befits the paradoxical combination of formality and intimacy that is a hallmark of psychoanalysis (Ogden 1989). In terms of all these matters of form and voice, Winnicott's work holds strong resemblances to the compact, intelligent, playful, at times charming, at times ironic, always irreducible writing of Borges's Fictions (1944) and of Robert Frost's prose and poetry.
Winnicott's inimitable voice can be heard almost immediately in "Primitive Emotional Development" as he explains his "methodology":
I shall not first give an historical survey and show the development of my ideas from the theories of others, because my mind does not work that way. What happens is that I gather this and that, here and there, settle down to clinical experience, form my own theories and then, last of all, interest myself in looking to see where I stole what. Perhaps this is as good a method as any. [p. 145]
There is playful wit to the words "Perhaps this is as good a method as any."
This seemingly tacked-on afterthought expresses what is perhaps the central
theme of the paper as a whole: To create a "method," a way of being alive that
suits the individual and becomes his unique "watermarking" (Heaney 1980, p.47),
is perhaps the single most important outcome of primitive emotional development.
In the process of coming into being as an individual, the infant (and mother)
"gathers this and that, here and there." Early experience of self is fragmented,
and at the same time, it is (with the help of the mother) "gather[ed]" in a way
that allows the infant's experience of self, now and again, to come together in
one place. Moreover, for the infant, the
bits of others (introjects)-or for the writer, the ideas of other writers-must not be allowed to take over the process of creating meaning. "My mind does not work that way," nor does that of the healthy infant in the care of a healthy mother. The individual's own lived experience must be the basis for creating coherence for one's self and the integrity of oneself. Only after a sense of self has begun to come into being (for the infant and for the writer) can one acknowledge the contributions of others to the creation of oneself (and one's ideas): "... last of all I interest myself in where I stole what."
Winnicott then briefly discusses several aspects of the analytic relationship, with particular emphasis on the transference-countertransference. It is this body of experience that he believes is a major source of his conception of primitive emotional development. I will examine only one brief passage (two sentences, to be precise) of Winnicott's discussion of the transference-countertransference in "Primitive Emotional Development." I have selected these sentences because I find them to be of enormous importance, both from the standpoint of understanding his conception of the workings of the analytic relationship, and from the standpoint of the powerful interdependence of language and ideas in Winnicott's work:
The depressed patient requires of his analyst the understanding that the analyst's work is to some extent his effort to cope with his own (the analyst's) depression, or shall I say guilt and grief resultant from the destructive elements in his own (the analyst's) love. To progress further along these lines, the patient who is asking for help in regard to his primitive, pre-depressive relationship to objects needs his analyst to be able to see the analyst's undisplaced and coincident love and hate of him. [pp. 145-147]
Freud and Klein,
but he also proposes a new conception of the role of countertransference in the
analytic process. He suggests here that depression is not, most fundamentally, a
pathological identification with the hated aspect of an ambivalently loved (and
lost) object in an unconscious effort to avoid experiencing anger toward the
lost object (Freud 1914). Nor does Winnicott understand depression as centered
around the unconscious fantasy that one's anger has injured, driven away, or
killed the loved object (Klein 1952).
In the space of a single sentence, Winnicott suggests (by means of his use of the idea, rather than through his explication of it) that depression is a manifestation of the patient's taking on as his own (in fantasy, taking into himself) the mother's depression (or that of other loved objects), with the unconscious aim of relieving her of her depression. What is astounding is that this conception of the patient's depression is presented not through a direct statement, but by means of a sentence that is virtually incomprehensible unless the reader takes the initiative of doing the work of creating/discovering the conception of the intergenerational origins of dynamic structure of depression. Only after the reader has accomplished this task does it begin to make sense why "The depressed patient requires of his analyst the understanding that the analyst's work is to some extent his effort to cope with his own (the analyst's) depression."2In other words, if the analyst is unable to cope with his own feelings of depression (both normative and pathological), arising from past and current life experience, the analyst will not be able to recognize (to feel in the moment) the ways in which the patient is unconsciously attempting to, and to some degree succeeding in, taking on the depression of the analyst-as-transference-mother.
Those aspects of the analyst's depression that arise from sources independent of the analyst's unconscious identification with the patient's depressed internal object mother are far less available to the patient's ministerings. This is because the patient cannot find in the analyst the depression of his mother, which for nearly the entirely of his life, the patient has intimately known and attended to. The patient is single-mindedly concerned with the depression that is unique to the internal object mother. (Each person's depression is his or her own unique
creation, rooted in the particular circumstances of life experience and personality organization.)
Winnicott is thus suggesting that the analyst must cope with his own depression
in order that he might experience the patient's (internal object) mother's
depression (which is being projected into the analyst). Only if the analyst is
able to contain/live with the experience of the (internal object) mother's
depression (as distinct from his own depression) will the analyst be able to
experience the patient's pathological effort to relieve the mother's
psychological pain (now felt to be located in the analyst) by introjecting it
into the patient's self as a noxious foreign body.