Australasian Journal Of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
NO.1&2 - 2022
Australasian Journal Of
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
NO.1&2 - 2022

The Kleinian Baby

Ann Cebon

Klein’s basic concern, her basic concept, is anxiety. Just as Freud is concerned clinically with defences as the parameters of a personality construct, so Klein is concerned with anxiety. This is logical in the light of her theory which is developed from her clinical experiences with children. From these clinical observations derives her profound belief in an internal world. By this she does not mean a theoretical construction nor a quasi-biological or abstract para-medical model, but a live, pulsating world of primitive phantasy, partly conscious phantasy, much of it deeply unconscious phantasy, of which the individual infant himself may be deeply unaware. The presence of such phantasy can be postulated, deduced or constructed from careful observation of all communications, verbal and non-verbal, symbolism, symbolic representation, activity or the absence of activity, body movement, and play, in its widest definition: that is, both the overt and the covert communication.

As Klein understands the mind she grants it much more activity than Freud does, and holds that activity begins much earlier, literally from the beginning of life. We see evidence of innate instinctual knowledge when a lamb, calf or foal struggles to its feet at birth and seeks the object on which its immediate survival totally depends. So, too, an infant bas an intuitive ‘grasp’, literally, which links the impulse with the object. It is one of the basic tenets of this inner world that every impulse has an object and that, further and essentially, this internal object is experienced by the infant (or the person), in the form of a phantasy. The phantasy represents the object as it is experienced, and, in turn, the phantasy affects the perception of the object. These phantasies, interwoven with sensory impressions, are at first fleeting, unintegrated and undifferentiated, but present and undeniable.

So, Klein conceives of the mind of the infant not only as more active and more primitive than Freud does (or than Freud makes explicit), but also as more fantastic, in the original sense of the word.

In the baby’s internal world physical and emotional experiences are undifferentiated. For instance, painful wind in the baby’s stomach may be experienced as an attack by the nipple. Similarly the baby can feel the expression of emotion as physical: for instance, a loud voice can be experienced as a physical blow to the body or the loss of the mother’s attention can be experienced as being dropped.

(To digress here momentarily: Patients may experience the therapist’s silence as a physical assault or, of course, words as literal blows.)

Distinct experiences can be fragmented and become their opposites as they interact with and are influenced by phantasy. For example, a happy feed at the breast can turn bad for no apparent reason.

When one observes an infant, one cannot help but be struck by how total each experience is. One moment the infant is distressed. The distress racks him, bis whole being quivers with distress. The very next moment, feeding, the distress appears gone and the baby is totally absorbed. His whole body, hands, fingers, legs, toes, participates in the feeding. Careful observation will show us these things. Klein postulates the underlying emotions: that the infant experiences anxiety, guilt, and depressive feelings, and that these are intrinsic elements of his emotional life, even in the first year. These emotions permeate the child’s early relations to actual people as well as to their representatives in bis inner world. It is from these introjected figures, the child’s identifications, that the early superego develops, and in turn influences the relation to both parents and (to) bis whole sexual development. At first these figures are fantastic and fragmented. As the child matures, they become more whole, realistic and sophisticated.

Thus, emotional and sexual development, object relations and superego development all interact from the beginning. Consistent with this viewpoint, Klein gives more detailed attention than Freud to constitutional factors, ‘temperament’ we might say. The internal process results from, and interacts with, constitutional as well as environmental factors.

Why is the same hug experienced by one baby as ‘smothering’ and by another as containing and comforting, or differently by the same baby, at different times? Why does one child experience a clearly fragile mother as smothering, as one young patient of mine does? Could it be that be feels he can destroy her with the strength of his aggression? Does this anxiety, linked to a fantasy, bring the threat of destruction as close to him as if she were smothering and not fragile?

The very nature of what the infant experiences – bis emotions, combined with his immense helplessness – triggers very primitive ways of surviving, of defending. These are invoked in order to preserve what is organised and prevent its disintegration, and to escape the worst experiences which manifested, perhaps, in adult psychotic states, that is, in primary levels of unintegration.

Klein postulates that, in the first few months of life, infants pass through states of persecution and anxiety, which are bound up with the phase of maximal sadism, a concept developed by Abraham. The young infant also experiences feelings of guilt about his destructive impulses and fantasies which are directed against his primary object, his mother, or even earlier, against her breast. These feelings of guilt give rise to the tendency to try to repair, to fix the injury the infant feels he has done to her, in his mind. Klein differentiates between the two main phases in the first year, the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position. She uses the word, ‘position’, because although the phenomena occur in the first place early in development, they are not confined to these stages, but represent specific groupings of anxieties and defences which can and do appear and reappear throughout life.

The paranoid-schizoid position refers to the stage where destructive impulses and persecutory anxieties predominate – up to perhaps three to five months of age. The depressive position, which follows, is bound up with important steps in ego development, and evolves at about the middle of the first year. At this stage, sadistic impulses and phantasies, as well as persecutory anxieties, diminish in power. The infant begins to experience his mother more as a whole, not only as discrete experiences of function, such as the experience of being held or the experience of being put down. He becomes able, to some extent, to see his mother as a single person in various aspects.

In parallel, at this stage, his emotional responses to the part-object experiences become integrated. Love and hate come closer together in his mind and this leads to anxiety in case the object of his intense feelings be hurt or destroyed. Central to this is the understanding that from the infant’s point of view, feeling is doing. ‘She’ is not only the external, real mother, but the mother who is in the mind, the mother who is with him when his actual mother puts him down; that is, bis internal mother. His destructive feelings and guilt made him want to preserve and revive her, in other words to make reparations for his destructive impulses and fantasies.

Klein’s view of the infant derives from Freud’s, but there are also important differences. Among the theoretical contributions, which Klein accepts from Freud is that of the dual instinctual forces which Freud postulated as being operative within human nature, which he called the life and death instincts. To that extent, Klein is an instinct theorist. Klein’s view gives primacy to object relations, which she believes operate in a rudimentary fashion from birth itself. She considers that the instincts express themselves in object relations and have no meaning or existence otherwise, or, one could say, she considers that instincts are, by definition, object-seeking: to every instinctual drive there is a corresponding fantasy, which depicts the instinct operating in relation to an object. So we can see the Kleinian view of the infant developing.

To every instinctual drive or aim there is an object. This emotional fact is experienced by the baby as a phantasy. Further, from the baby’s perspective, feeling is doing, so what we may have, from this point of view, is the baby feeling himself to be both very powerful and very vulnerable.

What Freud describes as ‘hallucinatory wish fulfillment’ is, in Melanie Klein’s view, an underlying phantasy accompanying and expressing an instinctual drive.

Since phantasy formation is a function of the ego, Klein assumes a higher degree of early ego organisation that is usually postulated by Freud. From the experience of birth, the infant has to deal with the impact of reality, and with experiences of frustration, as well as of gratification, of his desires. Freud’s view of the mind was criticised by some as anthropomorphic, for instance when he described such concepts as the superego in such terms as ‘the little man at the gate’. The same kind of criticism has been levelled at Klein, for Klein, like Freud, is describing unconscious phantasies which babies have about what their mental life (internal world) contains.

Klein, M. (1969), ‘The Effects of Early Anxiety – Situations on the Sexual Development of the Girl’ in The Psycho-Analysis of Children, The Hogarth Press, London.

(1969), ‘The Effects of Early Anxiety-Situations on the Sexual Development of the Boy’ in The Psycho-Analysis of Children, The Hogarth Press, London.

(1975), ‘Mourning and its Relation to Manic Depressive States’ in Love Guilt and Reparation and Other Works, Vol. 1, The Hogarth Press, London.

(1975), ‘Weaning’ in Love Guilt and Reparation and Other Works, Vol. I, The Hogarth Press, London.

Piontelli, A. (1987), ‘Infant Observation from Before Birth’, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 68:4, 453-463.

Segal, H. (1964), Introduction to the Work of Melanie Klein, Heinemann, London.

Symington, J. (1985), ‘The Survival Function of Primitive Omnipotence’, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 66:4, 481-487.

Symington, N. (1985), ‘Phantasy Effects that Which It Represents’, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 66:3, 349-357.

Ann Cebon
8 Coombs Ave.
Kew Victoria 3114

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