Dr. Right

Donald Winnicott was a brilliant and controversial English psychoanalyst who died in 1971. Often regarded during his lifetime by uptight colleagues as an oddity, a “wild” analyst, he has since his death so risen in reputation that a foundation and a journal of Winnicott studies have been started and work that he left behind at his death has been appearing in posthumous volumes. Home Is Where We Start From is a collection mainly of informal talks given to teachers, social workers, and others during the Sixties. Holding and Interpretation is an almost verbatim transcription of the last six months of an analysis; it was published as part of a miscellany some years ago and now appears with an introduction and appendices.

“A writer on human nature,” says Winnicott, “needs to be constantly drawn towards simple English and away from the jargon of the psychologist.” Even Winnicott’s half-dozen books specifically written for psychoanalytic colleagues are blissfully free of jargon, written in his instantly recognizable style, odd, direct, funny, allusive. Home Is Where We Start From is written in that style but is scarcely at all concerned with psychopathologies and their treatment as are those more technical books. It is therefore of special value in being one of the few books where a psychoanalyst—who after all should be a “writer on human nature”—quite unselfconsciously talks to an ordinary readership about how he views life, what his curious job has taught him, why he practices it. In particular we seldom learn from psychoanalysts, who—although they are not quite like physicists or chemists—similarly talk in their own jargon to each other, what they feel their struggle for health is for, where they feel the goodness and the badness of life lie, whether they do hold to some basic concept of good and evil.

Winnicott’s feel for the light and dark in life emerges most distinctly in Home Is Where We Start From. His is a uterocentric philosophy; the male is the peripheral sex; where we start from, like centuries of European art, is a mother and baby together, biologically adapted to nourish each other. The Winnicottian baby is like Wordsworth’s:

No outcast he, bewilder’d and de- press’d;
Along his infant veins are interfus’d
The gravitation and the filial bond
Of nature, that connect him with the world.

But Winnicott’s is not a sentimental or mystical picture of child and mother; it is simply a basically optimistic view that as the human being is usually provided with a suitable environment in the womb, so it emerges into a basically adaptive mother-environment at the start of life. It is central, it is simple, it is enormously ordinary; Winnicott, who started as a pediatrician and continued to work in a busy out-patient clinic, coined the term “good-enough” mothering. (We don’t, though, hear of a good-enough baby; some babies, perhaps handicapped, do let their mothers down.) In an article here on “The Meaning of the Word ‘Democracy,’ ” where he links a…

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