Affects in Melanie Klein

By Rusbridger, Richard | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Affects in Melanie Klein


Rusbridger, Richard, International Journal of Psychoanalysis


In his essay on Jean Delay's biography of Andre Gide, Lacan (1958) memorably refers to Klein as "a diviner with a child's eyes, an inspired tripe butcher" [tripiore inspiree].1 He writes:

It was this emptiness [Gide as a child lying awake at night listening to the sobs of servants coming from the garret] that the child filled with monsters - the fauna of which we know, since an haruspex [a diviner in Etruscan and Roman religious practice who foretold the future from animals' entrails] with a child's [or, childlike] eyes, an inspired tripe butcher, catalogued them for us - seeing them in the entrails [les entrailles - the entrails, or the womb, or the innards] of the nourishing mother.

(Lacan, 1958[2006, p. 632])2

Although clearly an ambiguous compliment, this says several things that ring true about Melanie Klein and affects. It picks up something of her unafraid and passionate involvement with her patients' feelings - her readiness to get involved with the patient's guts. It conveys how she starts from the body - the mother's body, and the child's own body - as the origin of feelings and phantasies. The image of the butcher says something too about the violence of the world of feared and phantasied attacks between child and mother that she discovered. This was the world she described of biting attacks on breasts, which are in turn feared to be attacking, and of the alarming penis of the father inside the mother. At the beginning of her work she over-stressed this world of what she called sadism, in comparison with loving feelings that she wrote more about later. And the description of Klein seeing with the eyes of a child reminds us of her ability to identify with children and the monsters in their minds, and the monsters with whom they populated the interior of their mother's body. Perhaps Lacan's words express too a mixture of admiration of this inspired butcher / soothsayer and some revulsion at her passionate physicality.

The very titles of some of Klein's most important papers indicate how central affects or feelings were for her. They include Love, guilt and reparation (Klein, 1937), Mourning and its relation to manic-depressive states (Klein, 1940) and Envy and gratitude (Klein, 1957). I am going to try to set out some of Klein's assumptions about the place of feelings in mental life, and to show how the central place of feelings in her thinking influences the technique of Kleinian analysts. Psychoanalysis took some time to break free from Freud's emphasis on the biological aspect of affects, and to include a fuller account of the subjective experience of feelings. Klein's work has been fundamental in this development.

I want to start by bringing one of Klein's earliest child cases (Klein, 1930), that of a little 4 year-old boy called Dick. Although she saw him long before her mature conceptualizations of, for example, the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions, her work with him anticipates many of her later findings.

Dick might be thought of nowadays as being on the autistic spectrum. The French diagnosis might be early childhood psychosis (see Bailly, 2009, p. 83): the psychiatrist who saw him diagnosed dementia praecox (the term that Kraepelin had adopted to describe early onset psychosis). Although he was 4, Dick was functioning on the level of a child of 15 to 18 months. His vocabulary was impoverished, and his emotional relation to his environment was almost entirely lacking. Klein writes that:

[He] was largely devoid of affects, and was indifferent to the presence or absence of his mother and nurse. From the very beginning he had only rarely displayed anxiety, and that in an abnormally small degree ... he had almost no interests, did not play and had no contact with his environment. For the most part he simply strung sounds together in a meaningless way, and certain noises he constantly repeated ... But it was not only that he was unable to make himself intelligible: he had no wish to do so. …

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