The Good Doctor

Human Nature

by D.W. Winnicott
Schocken, 189 pp., $19.95

This must be the fifth or sixth posthumous book by the English psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott to appear since his death eighteen years ago. The appearance of these ghostly volumes is curious; it is not explained in them why so much material was left unpublished or why it has come out so slowly. Moreover, there is something denatured about these books, lacking as they do the living authorial voice behind them, and on the whole what was published during Winnicott’s lifetime is more interesting.

The publishers say on the jacket that this is the most important of the posthumous books, and Human Nature is certainly an ambitious title. The book is put together, in rather confusing order, from lecture texts that were frequently revised, and was definitely intended by Winnicott to be a statement of his entire theory. But it lacks the illustrations from sessions with his patients that were scattered about in his earlier papers, and lacks also the unpredictability and fun that made him such a fine lecturer in the flesh. But—for clinicians chiefly—the outline of his theory about how human beings develop and function is all here.

Why should American psychoanalysis and psychology take notice of him? Mostly, I think, because he goes beyond conventional psychoanalysis to a concern with “being” itself—that is, with how a baby learns to feel that it exists and that, separately, the world outside exists. Winnicott sees this as important not only because many patients come to therapy with a shaky sense of self but because these very primitive concerns remain part of our mentality throughout life—indeed, they are central in philosophy and to much of introspective twentieth-century art. Kafka is writing about them, and Beckett; but the starting point of psychoanalytic explanations in general is the young child with an already solid sense of self. Psychoanalysis’s future, perhaps, lies in going back to earlier stages.

Of course Winnicott’s schema is speculative, and often far-fetched. But he was in a better position to explore this hinterland than most psychoanalysts because of his long experience as a pediatrician and consultant in a children’s department, and also because he sometimes took patients of a psychotic type (not always with success, he explains).

One of Winnicott’s first postulates is that birth, and even prenatal experiences, are registered by the baby’s brain and remain important unconscious memories (it is interesting that erstwhile fashionable LSD experiments seem to have found a wealth of perinatal material that were relived under the drug). This may have implications for therapy; elsewhere he has described child and adult patients who seem to regress to birth experiences during their sessions. In fact Otto Rank raised this question as long ago as 1924 in The Trauma of Birth, but without any therapeutic consequences. Freud himself called birth “both the first of all dangers to life and the prototype of all the later ones that cause us to feel anxiety.” In view of the worldwide use of rebirth as a religious symbol, perhaps there…

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