Thinking in the Space between Winnicott and Lacan

By Luepnitz, Deborah Anna | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, October 2009 | Go to article overview

Thinking in the Space between Winnicott and Lacan


Luepnitz, Deborah Anna, International Journal of Psychoanalysis


The author, following André Green, maintains that the two most original psychoanalytic thinkers since Freud were Donald Winnicott and Jacques Lacan. Winnicott, it has been said, introduced the comic tradition into psychoanalysis, while Lacan sustained Freud's tragic/ironic vision. Years of mutual avoidance by their followers (especially of Lacan by Anglophone clinicians) has arguably diminished understanding of the full spectrum of psychoanalytic thought. The author outlines some basic constructs of Winnicott and of Lacan, including: their organizing tropes of selfhood versus subjectivity, their views of the "mirror stage", and their definitions of the aims of treatment. While the ideas of Winnicott and Lacan appear at some points complementary, the goal is not to integrate them into one master discourse, but rather to bring their radically different paradigms into provocative contact. A clinical vignette is offered to demonstrate concepts from Lacan and Winnicott, illustrating what it might mean to think and teach in the potential space between them.

Keywords: intergenerational transmission of trauma, Lacan, Middle Group, mirror stage, Winnicott, "Wo Es war, soll Ich werden"

In the same river, we both step and do not step, we are and we are not.

(Heraclitus, Fragment 49a)

... What we saw and grasped, that we leave behind; but what we did not see and did not grasp, that we bring.

(Heraclitus, Fragment 56)

Following an interview in 1990, British Middle Group analyst Marion Milner showed me her paintings from the 1930s and 1940s. Pointing to a canvas with two hens tearing each other apart - blood and feathers flying - Mrs. Milner said: "I like to say it's Anna Freud and Melanie Klein fighting over psychoanalysis."1

She was referring, of course, to the 1940s battle that derailed careers, ended friendships and nearly destroyed the British Psychoanalytic Society. It culminated with the group's bifurcation into the A and B groups, each member bound to choose allegiance. The person whom both Klein and Anna Freud trusted, and who refused to choose sides, was Donald Woods Winnicott. While he did not set out to create a third, nonaligned faction, Winnicott became identified with the Independents or Middle Group which was to have a lasting impact on psychoanalytic thinking the world over. Few contemporary analysts, whether their primary identification be Freudian, Kleinian, Jungian, Kohutian or relational have not been influenced by constructs such as: the good-enough mother, the transitional object, potential space, borderline states, the squiggle game - and perhaps most importantly - the clinical use of countertransference as a source of information about the analytic process.2

Another schism in the psychoanalytic world occurred some 20 years later - this one ending with no comparable entente. I am referring to the events that began with the IPA's investigation of Lacan's experimentation with analytic time, and ended with what he called his "excommunication" from that body (Lacan, l981, p. 3). Lacan established his own school, the École Française de Psychanalyse which was renamed the École Freudienne de Paris.3

Despite this schism, Jacques Lacan maintained a cordial relationship with Donald Winnicott. Lacan arranged for the French translation of Winnicott's paper on the transitional object - certainly a sign of respect - but he also gently mocked his British colleague for years as a "nurse analyst" susceptible to reducing Freud's radical project to a practice of "Samaritan aid" (Lacan, 1977, p. 36).

Winnicott (1971) wrote: "Jacques Lacan's paper Le Stade du Miroir (1949) [The mirror stage] has certainly influenced me ..." (p. 111). However, he neither described that influence nor appeared to comprehend Lacan's widely cited piece. Winnicott, who acknowledged in a letter to Ernest Jones "a neurotic inhibition to reading Freud" (Rodman, 1987, p. 33), not surprisingly found Lacan's re-reading of Freud incomprehensible. …

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