Monday, December 7, 2009

Nicely Situated Houses

We may see the meeting of working-through with the registration of perception in general in Melanie Klein’s major essay “Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States” (1940; in Love, Guilt, and Reparation and Other Works, 1921-1945 [New York: Free Press, 1975], 344). Here Klein sets forth her idea that “the child goes through states of mind comparable to the mourning of the adult” and resolves its mourning through “the testing of reality.” Klein, like Freud in “Formulations on Two Principles of Mental Functioning" (1911; Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey, 24 vols., 12:219), believes that the registration of any perception of a piece of reality implies resistance and therefore a foregoing process of overcoming resistance. Klein’s child, having attained during weaning a sense of the mother’s fragility and separateness as a person, mourns the loss of the breast and the future loss of parents. The child negotiates mourning by discovering through reality testing how to compare fantasy objects to external ones and so to some extent “disprove anxieties and sorrow relating to the internal reality” alone (Klein, "Mourning" 346). The “internal reality” is a reality; but it requires a different relation, a different handling, than external reality, and it cannot be treated as a dominant reality. Klein’s view is pessimistic epistemologically in that the goal of the continually self-splitting self falls short of lucidity. It is to establish a set of pragmatically helpful, reasonably stabilized fantasy objects and, using these objects as ballast, to carry out its self-splitting “on planes which gradually become nearer and nearer to reality” (350). Working through, then, is synchronized by Klein to relative emotional stability and the slow achievement of proximity to reality.

In discussing how adult experience revives infantile experience Klein offers an example that draws on her experience of the death of her adult son Hans. In April, 1934, when he was twenty-seven, Hans Klein lost his footing while walking in the mountains and fell to his death. By the following summer, Klein was organizing her ideas on mourning in “The Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States” (1934)—a remarkable paper that confronts some of the most violent fantasies in psychoanalytic literature. Six years later in “Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States,” Klein looks back on the ordeal:

If, for instance, a woman loses her child through death, along with sorrow and pain her early dread of being robbed by a “bad” retaliating mother is reactivated and confirmed . . . . The reinforcement of feelings of persecution in the state of mourning is all the more painful because, as a result of an increase in ambivalence and distrust, friendly relations with people, which might at that time be so helpful, become impeded. The pain experienced in the slow process of testing reality in the work of mourning thus seems to be partly due to the necessity, not only to renew the links to the external world and thus continuously to re-experience the loss, but at the same time and by means of this to rebuild with anguish the inner world, which is felt to be in danger of deteriorating and collapsing. (353-354)

Like Freud writing about the unnamed death of his daughter Sophie in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in these pages Klein gives an intense rendition of the mourner’s inner states—the flashes of “manic” elation “due to the feeling of possessing the perfect loved object (idealized) inside”; the secret wish for revenge against the loved one who is already dead; the “great relief” from reminiscences of his kindness, also partly reflecting the suspect “reassurance” of his idealization (355). She explains that mourning means ultimately “regaining trust in external objects and values” and thus regaining confidence in the “lost loved person” to a realistic, rather than idealized, extent (355).

At this point, Klein “give[s] an instance” to “illustrate the ways in which a normal mourner re-established connections with the external world”:

Mrs. A., in the first few days after the shattering loss of her young son, who had died suddenly while at school, took to sorting out letters, keeping his and throwing others away. She was thus unconsciously attempting to restore him and keep him safe inside herself, and throwing out what she felt to be indifferent, or rather hostile—that is to say, the “bad” objects, dangerous excreta and bad feelings. (355)

This passage begins a narrative of about four pages in which “Mrs. A.” sorts the letters (Klein notes here that some people move furniture around, and points out the obsessional dimension of such actions); appreciates time spent with a very few close friends; has two dreams about her son’s death, one remembering a humiliation suffered by her brother in childhood in which her hostility predominates, and another in which a boy’s disappearance is at least upsetting, although she’s glad to have survived herself. Klein remarks that during this time Mrs. A. “did not cry much, and tears did not bring her the relief which they did later on” (356). After the dreams, in the second week after her son’s death,

Mrs. A. found some comfort in looking at nicely situated houses in the country, and in wishing to have such a house of her own. But this comfort was soon interrupted by bouts of despair and sorrow. She now cried abundantly, and found relief in tears. The solace she found in looking at houses came from her rebuilding her inner world in her phantasy by means of this interest and also getting satisfaction from the knowledge that other people’s houses and good objects existed. Ultimately this stood for re-creating her good parents, internally and externally . . . . Thus her fear that the death of her son was a punishment inflicted on her by retaliating parents lost in strength, and also the feeling that her son frustrated and punished her by his death was lessened. The diminuition of hatred and fear in this way allowed the sorrow itself to come out in full strength. (358-359)

Klein believes that feelings of sorrow are “held up in certain stages of grief by an extensive manic control.” To work through resistance to sorrow therefore involves releasing the controlling feelings of “hatred and fear” (359). Mrs. A. stops needing to feel that her brother/son deserves what he gets and triumphant that she herself is still alive, by a route that is more or less cognitive: she realizes that those feelings are irrelevant because no one is persecuting her through her son’s death. She realizes this, in turn, by comparing several ideas and things with one another: things that seem “indifferent” and things she likes; dreams of hostility and memories of affection mingled with jealousy. The idea is that by noticing the differences between her various representations of experiences and objects, Mrs. A. realizes that certain of her feelings are not to the point; that their function is rather mostly to control her grief. If one wants to know how her realization occurs, the principle that connects realization to diminuition of resistance, or makes them two sides of the same thing, is difficult to discern. We are reduced to saying over again that Mrs. A. notices the friction between the world of her dreams (of her fantasized internal objects) and that of her memories and present. Klein registers friction, difference, and thereby an opening for a rearranged reality, the possibility for it to be this way or that way, through the banal observation of her perceptions. She feels this friction to be compelling; not so much that it requires a response on her part, but that it already comprises one—comes with its inbuilt effect of psychic reorganization, which is the very flexibility of her reality. Klein’s registration assists a realization, so smoothly that it’s hard to say whether registration and realization are the same.

Let’s move backward from Klein’s registration of difference to a single registration, that of the nicely situated houses. The former emerges from comparison between Mrs. A.’s various actions and experiences: going through the letters, spending time with friends, crying little and ineffectively, dreaming and thinking about the dreams, looking at “nicely situated” houses, and crying “abundantly.” Cumulatively, Klein exemplifies her own theory: Mrs. A. indeed places her internal and external objects in relation to one another “on planes which gradually become nearer and nearer to reality” (350), relying in this on her crucial registration of the fact that they are different from one another, of their various individual properties. In the instance of her taking pleasure in looking at the houses, the fact that she is better than she was appears in her very ability to perceive the houses as well-sited (the favorite phrase of the Blue Guide). The breakthrough of the houses’ seeming nice, followed by her greater grief, is also a consolidation, prepared by recent reflections and experiences in which the working through must already have been done in order for the houses to appear nice. In Klein’s symbolic interpretation, the houses are associated metonymically with family relations (“good” internal objects), contribute to her “rebuilding” of her inner world, and perhaps also figure containers of her complicated feelings. But these symbolic aspects find their ground in the basic “knowledge that other people’s houses and good objects existed” (358; my italics). The near irrefutability of this knowledge that the houses are able to provide differentiates the episode of the nice houses from the other experiential elements of Mrs. A’s working through, and exemplifies the prosaic quality of registration: the main thing that the houses do is “exist.” Klein finds she can still get “satisfaction from the knowledge” that they exist, and her satisfaction brings what she calls “gratitude”—that is, her satisfaction constitutes a “reparation to her parents” for her persecutorial fantasies (358). Under these circumstances, to perceive that a nicely sited house exists is to wish to make others happy. And the wish to make others happy, although it would seem economically to be just another emotion competing for space with her grief, does not stand in the way of grief as “increase of distrust” does (359).

If Klein’s ability to work through to abundant tears depends on her openness to pleasure, and her openness to pleasure depends on her openness to perception, her ability to register the difference between internal and external objects, the problem is that this ability can fail, has failed in the first place, as Mrs. A. founders in persecutorial fantasies that deflect her sorrow from what Klein figures as its natural course. Why she is able to tell the differences between these things again after having lost the ability, Klein cannot explain to the last degree. Thus in the story Mrs. A. seems to find a lucky break, a contingent contribution from outside, something that catches her attention in the right way. This outside is not a radical outside, opposed by definition to what she is or can know, but a happenstance outside, like a country house glimpsed through a train window whose handsomeness can still attract the eye. Censorship has a hard time defending against such a thing. For a psychic system that once has failed may also fail to fail. Feeling a little pleasure may enable us to feel grief if we make the most of it, and any approach to reality holds the hope of something satisfying to look at. That any such moment is potential fulcrum for action, can legitimately give hope.

photo: toys used by Melanie Klein in her analysis of children; from the Melanie Klein Trust

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