Sabina Spielrein: Forgotten Pioneer of Psychoanalysis

By Coline Covington; Barbara Wharton | Go to book overview

Chapter 15

Part I Comment on Spielrein's paper 'The origin of the child's words Papa and Mama'

Barbara Wharton

This paper, published in 1922, is striking in that it expresses ideas and a quality of attitude and insight far in advance of its time. Not only does Spielrein perceive the importance of the infant's relationship to the breast for its psychic development, anticipating the work of Melanie Klein whose paper 'Weaning', on the theme of the 'good' and 'bad' breast, appeared in 1936, but Spielrein also records her observations on her daughter as an infant and young child (collating numerous similar observations from other writers) with a precision and sensitivity which seem to point forward to the work of Winnicott and Fordham, among others. Spielrein's focus here is intentionally restricted to the emergence of language, specifically of the two words, 'mama' and 'papa'. When however she writes of mothers who 'adapt themselves instinctively to the kinds of language that the child is ready to produce' one cannot help thinking in a wider context of Winnicott's description of the spatula game (in The Observation of Infants in a Set Situation', 1941) and of the profound significance of his perception of 'the infant's spontaneous gesture' for the development of the personality and the ability to relate to others (cf. 'Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self, 1960).

Spielrein describes how adults 'play' with babies verbally, 'feeling into' the baby's mind from the 'depths of their own mind' and their own earlier experience. She poses the question of whether the child makes his language, or whether he simply inherits it; putting this another way, is he 'by natural inclination a social being who has a need to communicate' which would lead him both to 'seek [language] and to invent it'? Here there is an uncanny foreshadowing of Winnicott's concept of transitional objects and the question 'Did you conceive of this or was it presented to you from without?' ('Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena', 1951). Spielrein is convinced, like Fairbairn later, of the essential sociability of the infant, of his need to communicate and to relate. She sees that the development of language lies in a transitional area, the area of play: the baby playing at the breast, playing with letting it go and latching on to it again, creating an emotionally charged fantasy of it through sensorimotor experience when

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