Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Freud's Baby: Beyond Autoerotism and Narcissism

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Freud's Baby: Beyond Autoerotism and Narcissism

Article excerpt

The prevailing notion in the psychoanalytic literature is that Freud's thinking on neonatal object relations is completely captured in terms of his concepts of autoerotism and primary narcissism. Indeed, for Freud, autoerotism and primary narcissism conceptualize the earliest libido distributions, but these concepts do not exhaust Freud's model of early mental life. In this paper, the author endeavors to show that Freud's hypothetical infant arrives at autoerotism and narcissism at the expense of, and secondary to, primitive object-relatedness. More specifically, an appreciation of Freud's views on primitive object relations in light of the self-preservative instinct demonstrates his view that the infant is born into a state of mutual adaptation with the mother. The author makes detailed use of Freud's writings to show his conception of an infant who, from the inception of neonatal life, has the mental sophistication to maintain complex relations with instinctual objects, the sources of gratification or frustration, part-objects confusedly perceived because of cognitive immaturity and/or fantasy distortion. Such complexity includes the infant's capacity for primitive forms of perception, boundary formation, reality testing, and defensive, splitting-based projections and introjections.

Keywords: autoerotism, narcissism, reality-ego, pleasure-ego, self-preservative instinct

Introduction

Some may be surprised to learn that Freud wrote the following words in 1895:

Let us suppose, for instance, that the mnemic image wished for [by a child] is the image of the mother's breast and a front view of its nipple, and that the first perception is a side view of the same object, without the nipple. In the child's memory there is an experience, made by chance in the course of sucking, that with a particular head-movement the front image turns into the side image. The side image which is now seen leads to the [image of the] headmovement; an experiment shows that its counterpart must be carried out, and the perception of the front view is achieved. (p. 328)

This passage from the Project for a scientific psychology demonstrates that, from early on, Freud envisioned an infant capable of boundary formation, linking reality perception to memories of prior satisfactions, and using such memories of satisfaction to determine goal-directed actions that achieve wish-fulfillments in reality. The quoted passage presents a model of infancy more complex and competent than the model generally attributed to Freud, even while it does nothing to discount the observation that Freud focused mainly on the infant as seeker of instinctual satisfaction.

In this paper, I argue that Freud conceived of such an infant who, from the inception of neonatal life, has the mental sophistication to maintain complex relations with instinctual objects, the sources of gratification or frustration, part-objects confusedly perceived because of cognitive immaturity and/or fantasy distortion. To this end I will track certain of Freud's often overlooked statements on infancy to show that his thoughts on primitive object relations have been incompletely understood.

The prevailing view

The following examples reflect what has been the prevailing view of Freud's model of neonatal object relations, which asserts that the infant has only the most rudimentary access to the external world. Abraham, in describing Freud's theory of object relations, referred to

...an auto-erotic phase belonging to earliest infancy in which the individual has no object, a narcissistic phase in which the individual is his own love-object, and a phase in which there is object-love in the true sense of the words. (1924, p. 482)

Brierley referred to 'striking differences between the object-concerned picture of infancy drawn by Melanie Klein and the auto-erotic and narcissistic objectless picture drawn by Freud' (1951, p. 58). Greenberg and Mitchell noted Freud's view 'that the object is not initially attached to the drive' and took this as evidence that, for Freud, 'objectlessness is the original developmental state of affairs' (1983, p. …

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