The Infant Who Survives
by Margaret Walters
In 1934, Melanie Klein was at the height of her powers, settled contentedly
in England with a reputation as an original, controversial thinker: She was
already the fascinating and formidable figure who struck Virginia Woolf when
they met at a dinner party as: "a woman of character and force and some submerged
— how shall say? — not craft, but subtlety; something working underground. A
pull, a twist, like an undertow: menacing. A bluff woman with large bright imaginative
She had come a long way Born Melanie Reizes in Vienna in 1882, she was the
daughter of a not very successful doctor a Polish Jew much older than his wife.
An older sister died when Melanie was four and her beloved brother Emmanuel
when she was 20. As a girl she was ambitious, dreaming of studying medicine
and perhaps specializing in psychiatry; but while she was still in her teens,
she became engaged to Arthur Klein, a chemical engineer and friend of her brother
and they married when she was 21.
The next few years were unhappy: life in a series of dull provincial towns
with two small children, Melitta and Hans, was stifling and sad. But the family
moved to Budapest in 1911, and she became a patient of one of the most brilliant
early analysts, a close friend of Freud, Sandor Ferenczi. In 1914 her third
child, another son, was born; her mother died; and she read Freud ON DREAMS.
She never looked back. Encouraged by Ferenczi, she began to think of becoming
an analyst herself. Her ambitions began to come true when she moved to Berlin
in 1921. Her husband was working in Sweden, though they only divorced, arguing
bitterly about custody, in 1926.
Child analysis was regarded as secondary still, a suitable job for a woman;
and that's where Klein began. (Ironically, the major innovations and controversies
of the next few decades would spring from child analysis.) She began to build
up a practice, mainly with the children of colleagues (they believed in "prophylactic"
analyses) and slowly established a reputation. According to Alix Strachey (like
Klein, she was in analysis with Karl Abraham and was writing back to her husband
in Bloomsbury), many of the German analysts patronized her: She was a woman,
without academic or medical training, and often dismissed as "sound in practice
but feeble minded in theory." Alix Strachey sometimes found Klein tiresome and
faintly absurd: she never stopped talking, and-dressed up to the nines, "terrifically
decollete, and covered in bangles and rouge" — would insist on dragging her
friend off to cafes and dances in search of adventures. But Strachey responded
to her vitality and her restlessly creative mind; she became deeply interested
in Klein's techniques and ideas and was largely responsible for bringing her
to England, first for a series of lectures, then, in 1926, permanently.
Klein found England congenial; the British analysts were more open and pragmatic,
and certainly more interested in working with children. She had already developed
her techniques, using toys and play as an equivalent to dreams and free association
with adults. By this stage, she had adult patients as well, but her most original
work is about earliest childhood. Freud had said that "everything connected
with [the] first mother-attachment seemed to me so elusive, lost in a past so
dim and shadowy, so hard to resuscitate that it seemed as if it had undergone
some specially inexorable repression:' It's precisely that shadowy stage that
Klein tries to recover: She gives less weight than Freud to reconstruction of
the past; rather she seeks the earliest phantasies and object relationships
and defences as they're expressed, directly in a child's games, or she explores,
through analytic transference, the psychic reality of the infant who survives,
archaic, unmodified, in all of us.
Klein's work shocked those-and there were plenty of them even among analysts
-who, despite Freud's work, clung to a sentimental and idealized image of infancy
The baby she observes (with such passionate precision) is full of hate as well
as love; it's racked by anxiety about external frustrations and threats, but
also about its own angry and destructive impulses. It's envious, greedy, sadistic,
and caught in a vicious circle, always expecting retaliation for its phantasied
attacks. Klein maps the complicated and shifting mechanisms — projection, introjection,
splitting - evolved to deal with that rage and terror.
For Freud, the crucial point comes at three or four years old, with the Oedipus
conflict; Klein believed that Oedipal conflicts start much earlier: Less than
a year old, the baby moves into what she calls the "depressive position", and
becomes aware of its mother for the first time, not as a collection of good
and bad parts, but as a whole person for whom it has intensely ambivalent feelings.
The way it manages its remorse and guilt and urgent need to make reparation
for the phantasied damage done to the person it loves, is crucial for its future
"normality" or illness. And in Klein's work, psychosis and normal development
are not so far apart.
The lively debates around her ideas intensified in the late thirties as German
refugees, including Freud and his daughter Anna, also a child analyst, arrived
in England. Klein always insisted that she was simply extending Freud's work,
building, for example on his late ideas about the death instinct; Freud, for
his own complicated reasons, was less sure. But her theories, and her clinical
practice, had become much more clearly articulated, and in many ways independent;
a Kleinian school with its own nascent dogmatisms had emerged.
During the war a series of "Controversial Discussions" — angry dogmatic on
both sides, too often viciously personal — nearly split the British Society.
Klein's daughter throughout the debate, was an implacable opponent of her mother's
work. They were never reconciled. Paula Heimann emerged as one of Klein's most
articulate supporters, but by 1949 she, too, was protesting that she didn't
want to spend her whole life in Klein's shadow and the two were estranged. Klein's
creative energy continued into old age; ENVY AND GRATITUDE, as profound and
challenging as anything she ever wrote, was published in 1957. She was still
seeing patients, and still working on a paper ON THE SENSE OF LONELINESS, when
she died in 1960.
Margaret Waiters is a freelance writer a regular contributor to BBC radio,
and is film critic for The Listener