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Winnicott’s Maternal Aesthetic: Absorption and Beholding in Potential Space

  • Ellen Brinks

Abstract

During World War II, D. W. Winnicott, a founding figure of British object relations thought, worked in numerous capacities with evacuated children, including as a psychiatrist.1 It was not that war signified an utterly new emotional experience for children. Referring to conscious and unconscious fantasies, with all their aggressiveness, Winnicott writes, “It is sometimes imagined that children would not think of war if it were not put into their heads … The child already knows about greed, hate, and cruelty, as about love and remorse, and the urge to make good, and about sadness.”2 For these children, evacuated to foster homes and boarding schools in the countryside, given heavy aerial bombings of cities across England, what differentiated wartime from peacetime was their anxiety about their parents’ safety back at home. From Winnicott’s perspective, there was also the heightened risk of psychic deadening, since children have a limited capacity to keep alive the idea of loved ones, without being near them. Further, many of the failures of evacuation and billeting—children’s perceptions of not being truly seen or heard—brought into stark relief how the already-existing contours of the child’s earliest environment overlaid those of wartime and contributed to the delicate interface with foster mothers, parents, and families during the evacuation.3 The child’s internalized “idiom” or “aesthetic” of maternal care (whether from the mother, father, or someone else) had a profound impact on how the evacuated child coped with the anxieties of separation and negotiated his or her relationships with wartime caretakers.4

Keywords

Aesthetic Experience Potential Space External Reality Mother Figure Maternal Caregiver 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Donald Woods Winnicott represented evacuated childrens’ concerns in various capacities: as a consultant psychiatrist for the government evacuation scheme in Oxfordshire; as part of the Oxfordshire Evacuation hostel scheme; as member of an advisory group to the Cambridge evacuation survey; as assistant in the evacuation work in Nottingham; as evaluator of a nationwide survey of civilian mental health for the Ministry of Health, 1939–1943; and as participant in a discussion group on children led by Theodora Alcock, who worked with 1,140 evacuated children in London between 1939 and 1945. See Brett Kahr, D. W Winnicott: A Biographical Portrait (London: Karnac, 1996), 83–85. Surprisingly, there are not many published first-hand accounts of the evacuation. Two exceptions are: The Evacuees, ed. B. S. Johnson (London: Victor Gollancz, 1968) andGoogle Scholar
  2. Ben Wicks, No Time to Wave Goodbye (New York: St. Martins Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Winnicott, “Children in the War,” The Child and the Outside World. Studies in Developing Relationships, ed. Janet Hardenberg (London: Tavistock Publications, 1957), 73.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    My use of the words “idiom” and “aesthetic” to describe object-relating stems from Christopher Bollas, The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 32. Bollas calls the relation between mother and child an “aesthetic” experience, defining aesthetic as a deep rapport between subject and object that is transformative, altering the ego. The “mother” as transformative object is the first aesthetic experience, “ [predisposing] all future aesthetic experiences that place the person in subjective rapport with an object” (p. 33).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Although Winnicott blurs distinctions between the mother and motherhood as an identity/role and mothering as a kind of relating/practice, in this chapter I will attempt to keep them separate. When Winnicott refers to the mother, as here, “mother” can refer to the biological mother or simply to the primary caregiver of the child, who may or may not be the child’s biological mother or father; I also use it in this inclusive sense. The mother’s or maternal caregiver’s “psychological ability or inability to tend to [her] children”—not absolutely, but in terms of specific or temporary failures—is called by Winnicott the “environmental provision” or the “environment mother” (Judith Hughes, Reshaping the Psychoanalytic Domain: The Work of Melanie Klein, W R. D. Fairbairn, and D. W. Winnicott (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 131, 134).Google Scholar
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    Marion Milner, “The Role of Illusion in Symbol Formation,” in The Suppressed Madness of Sane Men (London: Tavistock, 1987), 99.Google Scholar
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    The best study by far of the aesthetics of absorption is Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).Google Scholar
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    Doreen Massey, “A Global Sense of Place” and “Politics and Space/Time,” in Space, Place, and Gender (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 152, 155, and 264.Google Scholar
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    As such, it builds on the work of David Sibley in “Creating Geographies of Difference,” Human Geography Today, ed. Doreen Massey, John Allen, and Philip Sarre (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1999), 117.Google Scholar
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    John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: BBC, 1972), 9.Google Scholar
  12. 21.
    André Green, “Potential Space in Psychoanalysis,” in On Private Madness (Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1986), 286;Google Scholar
  13. Michael Eigen, Psychic Deadness (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1996), p. xxiii. See also André Greens chapter, “Object(s) and Subject,” where the Winnicottian analytic setting is represented as having a “catalytic” or “inductive” function, not directly intervening in the analytic relationship, but a free-floating attention or neutrality, without which analysis cannot take place (André Green at the Squiggle Foundation, 32).Google Scholar
  14. 24.
    Winnicott, “Living Creatively,” in Home is Where We Start From, ed. C. Winnicott, R. Shepherd, and M. Davis (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986), 42 and 39. See also “The Location of Cultural Experience,” in Playing and Reality, 98.Google Scholar
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    Masud Khan, “Introduction,” in Through Pediatrics to Psychoanalysis (New York: Bruner/Mazel, 1992), p. xxxiv.Google Scholar
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    Madeleine Davis and David Wallbridge, Boundary and Space: An Introduction to the Work of D. W Winnicott (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983), 81–82.Google Scholar
  17. 31.
    Winnicott, “Hate in the Countertransference,” in Through Pediatrics to Psychoanalysis, 201. See also Elsa First, “Mothering, Hate, and Winnicott,” in Representations of Motherhood, ed. Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey, and Meryle Mahrer Kaplan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), esp. 152–156.Google Scholar
  18. 35.
    Adam Phillips, Winnicott (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 152.Google Scholar
  19. 37.
    Christopher Bollas, The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known (New York: Columbia, 1987), 264.Google Scholar
  20. 41.
    Michael Eigen, “Aspects of Omniscience,” in The Facilitating Environment: Clinical Applications of Winnicotts Theory, ed. M. Gerard Fromm and Bruce L. Smith (Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1989), 625.Google Scholar
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    Theodor Adorno, “The Essay as Form,” in Notes to Literature, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 3–23.Google Scholar
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    Debra Morris, “Privacy, Privation, Perversity: Toward New Representations of the Personal,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 25, no. 2: (2000), 330.Google Scholar
  23. 55.
    For Winnicott’s radio addresses to England during the forties on the family and childrearing and their reinforcement of traditional gender roles, see Denise Riley, War in the Nursery: Theories of the Child and the Mother (London: Virago, 1983), 80–90.Google Scholar
  24. 57.
    Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Rodin Book: Second Part,” in Rodin and Other Prose Pieces, trans. G. Craig Houston (New York: Quartet Books, 1986), 46–47.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Sarah Hardy and Caroline Wiedmer 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ellen Brinks

There are no affiliations available

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