Melanie Klein: Her World and Her Work
Bloomsbury/Freud: The Letters of James and Alix Strachey, 19241925
“Limbs shall trample, hit and kick; lips, fingers and hands shall suck, twist, pinch; teeth shall bite, gnaw, mangle and cut; mouth shall devour, swallow and ‘kill’ (annihilate); eyes kill by a look, pierce and penetrate; breath and mouth hurt by noise, as the child’s own sensitive ears have experienced. One may suppose that before an infant is many months old it will not only feel itself performing these actions, but will have some kind of ideas doing so.”
This is the Kleinian baby, in a graphic account written by one of Melanie Klein’s followers. It is certainly a far cry from nursery life as it has been viewed through the ages. The quotation encapsulates the theories about early child development which Klein has contributed to psychoanalysis and which—in Britain—have caused immense dissension. It is a different matter in the United States. (An American would-be analyst who wanted to train in London in the Fifties was told, “You will never be accepted in American psychoanalysis. Mrs. Klein’s theories are all wrong.”) In this thorough and scholarly biography Phyllis Grosskurth for the first time pieces together, with the help of Klein’s son and the British analysts she interviewed, the life of this extraordinary woman and the factors in it that influenced her theories.
Melanie Reizes was the daughter of a Polish Jewish dentist and was brought up by a powerful and difficult mother. She left an unfinished autobiography in which she describes her mother glowingly—“My relation to my mother has been one of the great standbys of my life. I loved her deeply, admired her beauty, her intellect, her deep wish for knowledge”—but this is one of the many distortions in the autobiography, and the family papers Phyllis Grosskurth has consulted reveal a very different picture of her mother as interfering, dissatisfied, and possessive. Weirdly, she helped to make ends meet by running a shop that sold snakes—but had a horror of them. Melanie was the youngest of four children and fought fiercely not to be outdistanced. “I absolutely was not shy,” she declared of her childhood days (people who knew her later in life could certainly scarcely imagine Mrs. Klein as ever having been shy). She was an unplanned child, though, and felt neglected by her father. In view of her theories which make so much of the child’s relation to the breast, it should be noted that she was breast-fed—on demand—by a well-endowed wet nurse.
“From the envy, aggression, and sibling rivalry within her own family, Melanie Klein had an abundant material from which to formulate her later theories,” says Grosskurth of the Reizes family. Melanie tried to turn her mother against her elder sister. Her brother Emanuel was at odds with their father, who made a favorite of the elder sister. Emanuel and Melanie were very close, and he wrote her adoring letters. He died of tuberculosis when she was twenty, and she was to grieve over it all her life.
Though Melanie had wanted to be a medical student, she got engaged at eighteen and married at twenty-one to Arthur Klein, with whom she was “up to a point in love.” A daughter and then a son were born; but things did not go well. The couple had settled in an obscure town where Melanie found no congenial company; as well, her now widowed mother moved in with them. Melanie had “nerves” and traveled around to sanatoriums while her mother took over the children and deluged her with letters full of advice. The household moved to the more stimulating surroundings of Budapest, a third child was born. From this period, between 1913 and 1920, a number of poems and prose fragments by Melanie Klein survive; the gist of them is a longing for freedom and fulfillment and, at times, for escape by death.
By her thirties, therefore, Melanie Klein had experienced enough to make her ripe for the discovery of Freud’s work and of the presence in Budapest of a distinguished psychoanalyst, Sándor Ferenczi. By now her mother had died, and the ostensible reason for her starting psychoanalysis was depression aggravated by grief. Arthur Klein was away at the war, and the shaky marriage that had caused “nerves” was falling apart. She joined the Budapest Psychoanalytical Society and presented a paper on child psychology—based on her son Erich. The two older children had been partly brought up by their grandmother, but Erich was subjected to the full blast of psychoanalytical scrutiny. He had therapy sessions with his mother every day; not something that he enjoyed, he told Phyllis Grosskurth (“I’m glad I was spared Melanie Klein as my mother” was R.D. Laing’s comment to the author).
In 1919, after sixteen years of marriage, the Kleins separated, and a divorce took place a few years later. The following year, aged thirty-eight, Melanie Klein moved to Berlin (anti-Semitism was rife in Hungary) and set up as a psychoanalyst in earnest. Already she had strong convictions about the need to analyze very young children, and she developed her play-therapy techniques with the child patients she was seeing. She was still analyzing son Erich and, true to her beliefs, she ascribed his problems to sexual anxieties rather than to a broken home, a depressed mother, and a change of city. By 1924 Klein was a full member of the Berlin Psychoanalytical Society and having further analysis with Karl Abraham.
Which is where the Strachey correspondence of Bloomsbury/Freud comes in, being letters written from Berlin and London in 1924–1925. James Strachey was a member of the celebrated, cerebral family and brother of Lytton Strachey; his wife Alix, a bluestocking and a member of the same Bloomsbury set. They were not the only Bloomsbury members to be dedicated to psychoanalysis; Adrian Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s brother, and his wife Karin trained as analysts; Lytton Strachey, in a letter appended to this book, was congratulated by Freud on the insights in Elizabeth and Essex. Though Virginia Woolf was hostile to psychoanalysis, the two worlds of Bloomsbury/Freud were not as removed from each other as they sound. But there is, all the same, an incongruity about the juxtaposition that gives this correspondence a particular charm.
Alix Strachey was in Berlin, also being analyzed by Abraham, while her husband at home in London earned their precarious income from a few patients; they wrote each other several times a week. While James writes of amateur dramatics at Ham Spray (“It was a sort of Beaumarchais farce of extreme complexity, in which everyone’s sex was doubly disguised”), Alix reports on the Berlin analysts—Fenichel (“He’s migrated for a year or two from Vienna to get a little extra polish on his brain. A good idea”), Theodor Reik (“bound[s] like a jelly & snort[s] like a porpoise”), Hanns Sachs (“I went to the Union Palais de Danse with Dr. Sachs, & we, literally, hopped it together”). From England, Lytton is said to be writing a life of Jesus (“I can’t think it’ll be a very interesting work, though I suppose it may be amusing”); in Berlin, Alix takes the high Bloomsbury tone with the dreadful foreigners (“My good man, saving music & intellect—which may be everything—they are hopeless. They’ve simply not the remotest idea of how to conduct their lives”). James reports a letter to the press from Clive Bell accusing Dr. Freud of having the artistic taste of a housemaid; Alix is sighing, “Oh, for a select Bloomsbury party!”
Among the Stracheys’ claims to remembrance is their connection with Freud translations. James slaved over the work; Alix, with her degree in languages, advised. We see crucial phrases taking shape:
They want to call “das Es” the Id. I said I thought everyone would say “the Yidd.” So Jones said there was no such word in English. “There’s ‘Yiddish,’ you know. And in German ‘Jude.’ But there is no such word as ‘Yidd.’ “—“Pardon me doctor, Yidd is a current slang word for a Jew.”—“Ah! A slang expression. It cannot be in very widespread use then.”
Alix Strachey’s introduction of Melanie Klein to England was in its way to be equally far-reaching. “Die Klein,” as Alix calls her, was conducting her child analyses in Berlin but was dissatisfied with her position and with the resistance to her ideas on Frühanalyse (analysis of young children). Alix Strachey’s freewheeling descriptions of her form a splendid counterpoint to Grosskurth’s more sober picture; Alix was amused, impressed, yet patronizing in the ineffable Bloomsbury manner. On the one hand Melanie Klein “really is the only person who’s ever regularly analyzed children”—but she is “rather tiresome as a person—a sort of ex-beauty and charmer.” “Her mind really is an awful mess—tho’ I also believe it contains the key to many things”; and “She is rather limited, you know. It’s so odd when one constantly finds how perspicacious & really intelligent she is in her analyses”; and “She’s a dotty woman. But there’s no doubt whatever that her mind is stored with things of thrilling interest.” The “ex-beauty and charmer” aspect is caught in fascinating glimpses of Mrs. Klein at play. At a ball—
She was most elaborately got up as a kind of Cleopatra—terrifically décolletée—& covered in bangles & rouge…frightfully excited and determined to have a thousand adventures…
a sort of ultra heterosexual Semiramis in slap-up fancy dress waiting to be pounced on, etc. etc.
These letters of Alix Strachey’s bring out a characteristic of Melanie Klein which is less apparent in the biography, a sort of appealing naiveté—compared, at least, to Bloomsbury sophistication.
Alix Strachey was impressed at once by the first lecture by Klein she attended. Klein’s theories, of course, were to evolve considerably. At this time she was arguing that, in Alix’s words, “children (from 2 3/4 upwards) were already wrecked by the repression of their desires & the most appalling Schuld bewusstsein” [awareness of guilt] but the Berlin opposition was arguing that “we mustn’t tell children the terrible truth about their repressed tendencies…. (a) They couldn’t understand & (b) They’ld faint with horror (!)” Alix was interested enough to send an English summary of the lecture for James to circulate:
The paper was based on a number of child-analyses carried out by Frau Klein herself, & showed how the same factors that existed in the psycho-neuroses of adults could be found in the obsessional acts, morbid anxieties & various inhibitions of children…. According to her experience the Oedipus-complex, in the sense of a marked object-choice, was to be found at a very early age; it was present in her youngest patient, a child of 2 3/4…. Her method was to allow her small patient the freedom of her room, & to encourage it to play with the toys in it, or to invent games with her, or to tell stories; while she herself would at the same time observe its acts & words & interpret their meaning as she thought the occasion suitable.