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 free social system with natural child upbringing, he appends a footnote:
The ordinary good home is something that defies statistical investigation. It has no news value, is not spectacular, and does not produce the men and women whose names are publicly known. My assumption, based on 20,000 case histories taken personally over a period of twenty-five years, is that in the community in which I work the ordinary good home is common, even usual.
This trust in ordinary rightness is refreshingly far from the usual tendency of mental health professionals to see the world as a huge hospital full of “cases” sadly in need of their skills.
But he is not by any means rosily optimistic, for where natural adaptation in infancy goes wrong or is substituted by intellectual formulas a fairly bleak outlook is foreseen by Winnicott. And of course the baby does not stay forever in paradise; but Winnicott makes clear his belief that maternal adaptation does generally last long enough to form “the gravitation and the filial bond / Of nature” that connect the child with the world. Frustration and disappointment and surprise begin to happen, but not so soon or suddenly that a simple early continuity is broken. Roughly, Winnicott sees people as divided into those who had too much of such early traumas and so have a shaky sense of self, and the rest of the world; the people who know they exist, and those who aren’t sure. “It is only on a continuity of existing that the sense of self, of feeling real, and of being, can eventually be established.” Those who don’t have this continuity may end up by organizing a very competent “false self” (Winnicott’s pupil, R.D. Laing, has made much of this concept) and go right through life feeling that their real vitality is somehow blocked off from them. Matthew Arnold’s poem, “The Buried Life,” seems to refer to this:
But often in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on forever unex- pressed.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ’tis not true!
It can also happen, Winnicott argues, that because the dreadfulness of early trauma has to be denied at all costs, for some people the sense of being real may only exist at the price of cutting out imaginative life. For these people, he asks,
to what extent are they denying a fact, namely, that there could be a danger for them of feeling unreal, of feeling possessed, of feeling they are not themselves, of falling for ever, of having no orientation, of being detached from their bodies, of being annihilated, of being nothing, nowhere?
If imaginative energy is kept busy fending off such horrors, there is little left over for living.
When he reaches back to the traumas that damage us, Winnicott can empathize equally vividly with infant or mother:
I’ve watched and talked to thousands of mothers, and you see how they pick up the baby, supporting the head and body. If you have got a child’s body and head in your hands and do not think of that as a unity, and reach for a handkerchief or something, then the head has gone back and the child is in two pieces—head and body; the child screams and never forgets it. The awful thing is that nothing is ever forgotten. Then the child goes around with an absence of confidence in things…. [Children] remember that suddenly the continuity of their life was snapped, and their neck went back or something, and it came through all the defences, and they reacted to it, and this is an extremely painful thing that has happened to them, something they cannot ever lose.
There is a very unsentimental pessimism here about good and bad luck in life.
The theory of Winnicott’s that has attracted most attention is his work on the “transitional” object or area. It is part of this theory about early bonding of mother and infant and he recurs to it often in these talks. Psychoanalytic theory has never really had a place for creativity and imagination, only for symptomatology and fantasy; it has been shot through with envy of the artist and the baby and the happy person and with a wish to drag them into the consulting room and find out what’s wrong with them. But it seems as though Winnicott went so truthfully through identifications with baby and woman and man that he could allow and marvel at the world’s naturalness, and find a place for it in the theory.
His notion is that before the growing baby is quite ready for the harsh facts of outside reality there is a time when he feels he is the absolute creator of the objects that cross his path. This is strength and delight to him. Certainly it would be hard to claim that a young baby is clear about what is himself, what is not-himself, and where not-himself goes to when it moves out of sight. Winnicott argues that the area, transitional between fact and fancy, where the baby half-creates, half-discovers the objects in his world, is the same area where, in adults, play and humor and acting and art spring from, all the more richly if there was a rich experience during babyhood. It is the area of symbol; and we are symbolic animals.
By her high degree of adaptation at the beginning, the mother enables the baby to experience omnipotence, to actually find what he creates, to create and link this up with what is actual. The net result is that each baby starts up with a new creation of the world. And on the seventh day we hope that he is pleased and takes a rest.
To go back to the Wordsworthian baby—
From nature largely he receives; nor so
Is satisfied, but largely gives again,
For feeling has to him imparted strength,
And powerful in all sentiments of grief,
Of exultation, fear, and joy, his mind,
Even as an agent of the one great mind,
Creates, creator and receiver both,
Working but in alliance with the works
Which it beholds.
The baby “gives again,” is “creator and receiver both.” But where this early creativity goes wrong, Winnicott believes, the individual “must go on pushing round omnipotence and creativeness and control, like trying to sell unwanted shares in a bogus company.”
Winnicott is a psychoanalyst therefore who offers a very clear version of what health is—not something that has to be bought by the hour from a professional. The world is full of it, and of pain and disaster. The most Winnicottian and accessible of the papers collected in Home is Where We Start From is the one on “Living Creatively.” It is a subject that has been buried in clichés, but by it Winnicott does not mean either being a great artist, or going in for aerobics and assertiveness training. Creativity “is the retention throughout life of something that belongs properly to infant experience: the ability to create the world…. By creative living I mean not getting killed or annihilated all the time by compliance or by reacting to the world that impinges; I mean seeing everything afresh all the time…. When we are surprised at ourselves, we are being creative, and we find we can trust our own unexpected originality” (he is talking of cooking sausages).
In these articles Winnicott does not define people, as psychoanalysts tend to do, in terms of their defenses, but in terms of richness or poverty of feeling. In a talk on the aims of psychoanalysis he describes a good outcome as “not just a cure of symptoms, but a more widely based personality richer in feeling and more tolerant of others because more sure of himself”; and in “The Concept of a Healthy Individual,” that we should think “in terms of freedom within the personality, of capacity for trust and faith, of matters of reliability and object constancy, of freedom from self-deception, and also of something that has to do with richness rather than poverty.” As far as actual therapy was concerned, he was something of a minimalist; though he believed that certain patients, those with traumas going back to infancy, needed very long and deep analysis and has described them in his more technical books, he often saw children—with whom he had extraordinary rapport—only very briefly before handing them back, without jealousy, to their parents’ care.
The word evil is unfashionable and is certainly never used by Winnicott, but from his picture of ordinary goodness and health we infer the opposite: sterility, constriction, and, in particular, envy. He sees good things as always in danger from the envy of those who feel deprived of them:
It is always the natural things that get spoiled…. To those who have more than a certain degree of lack of freedom because of having to cope with the effects of an environmental or perhaps a hereditary failure, health is something which can only be looked at from a distance, and cannot be reached, and those who attain health should be destroyed. The amount of resentment that accumulates in this area is terrific.
And elsewhere he says that “the unhappy will try to destroy happiness. Those who are caught up in the prison of the rigidity of their own defences will try to destroy freedom.” In the few talks that touch on social issues he links a healthy social and political structure with healthy growth in childhood, and social repression with the constricted character’s envy of freedom. (One would like to challenge him, of course, on wider implications; what about third-world political misery, where the enemies of childhood are not feeding schedules or rigid training or lovelessness, but straightforward hunger and disease?) Freedom, both personal and social, he sees as precarious a thing. “The fact that men in slavery love the idea of freedom does not mean that they will love freedom when they are free. At first taste of it, at any rate, they are paralyzed by it.” And he has no hopeful illusions about our exhausting the wish to fight wars.
Home Is Where We Start From gives a good flavor of Winnicott to the ordinary reader; Holding and Interpretation is another thing altogether. It consists of some one hundred and fifty pages of dialogue between analyst and patient over the concluding months of about a hundred sessions, of an analysis that dates back in time some thirty years. Since a full verbatim transcript of even a few months’ analysis would be enormously wordy, the whole is condensed to about two or three pages per session; this is off-putting because it makes the dialogue very laconic and unlike ordinary speech.
In addition there is the fact that this patient’s outstanding characteristic, as he himself knows, is a terrible lack of spontaneity, an inability to bring his real self into contact with other people. It was the fact that he managed to laugh out loud at a cinema that gave him his first hope that psychoanalysis was helping him; his part of the dialogue is obsessional and repetitive and indeed boring (“I never became human. I missed it,” he says). He cannot play. But he has an odd ability to fall briefly asleep or into a daze during his sessions and to report what he dreamed, and at times this does give the difficult narrative a certain fascination. Winnicott’s colleague and editor, Masud Khan, says in his introduction that he thinks Winnicott took such detailed notes partly to stay awake himself, to keep his mind from “dropping” the patient (as in the example of the mother letting the baby’s head fall back traumatically).
Winnicott has his secret note taking, the patient has his secret couch-sleeps, and the curious treatment takes its course. The lesson for the clinician, says Khan—and this really is a book for the clinician—is that “one must not try to cure a patient beyond his need and his psychic resources to sustain and live from that cure.” Even with deep analyses Winnicott could be something of a minimalist, not trying to play God, not particularly optimistic about what could be done for people, able to see far into a patient’s sickness and yet leave things alone where they needed to be left.
For all his personal diffidence Winnicott was arrogant about what he had managed to see and achieve, though. “It is always a steadying thing,” he writes, “to find that one’s work links with entirely natural phenomena, and with the universals, and with what we expect to find in the best of poetry, philosophy and religion.”
July 17, 1986