Excerpts from: Carveth, D. (1994).  "Dark Epiphany : The Encounter with Finitude or the Discovery of the Object in The Body." Psychoanalysis & Contemporary Thought 17, 2 (Spring 1994): 215-250.

According to Heidegger (1927), it is by means of a "marginal experience"--such as the shocking recognition of the reality of personal death--that an individual may be shaken out of inauthentic and awakened to authentic existence.  I think there is some justification for associating the narcissism of Winnicott's relations with subjective objects with the pathology of his "false self" and with Heidegger's inauthentic existence, and Winnicott's relations with objective objects with his "true self" and with Heidegger's authentic being-in-the-world.

Contrary to the psychoanalytic fundamentalism that insists upon taking theoretical concepts exclusively on the literal level (Carveth, 1984, 1993b), I think the following equations are--no doubt at the risk of some oversimplification--nevertheless both justifiable and useful.
Freud pleasure principle reality principle
Freud narcissism object love
Klein PS position D position
Lacan Imaginary Symbolic
Lacan specular ego subject (Symbolic)
Mahler sep-individuation phase self & object constancy
Winnicott subjective object      transitional object objective object
Winnicott false self true self
St. Paul Adam (flesh; letter) Christ (spirit)

One of the potential benefits to be derived from lining up disparate concepts in a chart of this type is the discovery of conceptual parallels that may lead us to reconsider the usual way in which a particular concept is generally understood.  For example, it may at first seem strange to associate Winnicott's (1960) "true self" with his (1969) "objective object" and his "false self" with the "subjective object."  Thinking in terms of the developmental timetable, it is tempting to associate the true self with simple somatopsychic being which, existing from the beginning, would overlap chronologically with relations with subjective rather than objective objects.  Similarly, it is usual to think of the false self as a later development reflecting a certain dissociation from simple somatopsychic being; it therefore seems strange to associate it with relations with subjective objects.

On further reflection, however--and especially in light of Winnicott's (1967) knowledge of and reference to Lacan's (1977, ch.1) notion of the birth of the "ego" in a state of alienation in "the mirror phase"--it seems preferable to distinguish the true self from original somatopsychic being and from the time of relations with subjective objects and to see it, instead, as an authentic sense of self acquired precisely, like Lacan's (Symbolic) "subject" as distinct from his specular (Imaginary) "ego", through the overcoming of the narcissism inherent in relations with subjective objects.  In this view, Winnicott's "false self" would correspond to Lacan's "ego" as a narcissistic structure reflecting an omnipotent denial of reality, including the reality of one's somatopsychic being as being-toward-death.

In "The Use of An Object and Relating Through Identifications," Winnicott (1969) is concerned with "the move away from self-containment and relating to subjective objects into the realm of object-usage" (p.88).  One of the confusing things about this paper is that Winnicott has an eccentric use of the terms "relating" and "usage"--he employs them in precisely an opposite sense from that in which they are normally understood.  What he is really concerned with is the shift from a narcissistic attitude towards objects as extensions or projections of the self, to what most would regard as a more advanced mode of object-relating in which the object is recognized as separate and distinct from the self.  Winnicott is concerned with the process whereby the subject comes to place the object "outside the area of the subject's omnipotent control; that is, the subject's perception of the object as an external phenomenon, not as a projective entity, in fact recognition of it as an entity in its own right" (p.89).

The originality of Winnicott's contribution lies in his recognition that "This change ... means that the subject destroys the object" (p.89), "...that after `subject [narcissistically--D.C.] relates to object' comes `subject destroys object' (as it becomes external); and then may come `object survives destruction by the subject'" (p.90; Winnicott's emphasis).  He continues:

A new feature thus arrives in the theory of object-relating.  The subject says to the object: "I destroyed you." "I love you." "You have value for me because of your survival of my destruction of you." "While I am loving you I am all the time destroying you in (unconscious) fantasy."  Here fantasy begins for the individual.  The subject can now use [i.e., relate to--D.C.] the object that has survived (p.90; Winnicott's emphasis).

Winnicott continues:

It is important to note that it is not only that the subject destroys the object because the object is placed outside the area of omnipotent control.  It is equally significant to state this the other way round and to say that it is the destruction of the object that places the object outside the area of the subject's omnipotent control.  In these ways the object develops its own autonomy and life, and (if it survives) contributes-in to the subject, according to its own properties.

In other words, because of the survival of the object, the subject may now have started to live a life in the world of objects, and so the subject stands to gain immeasurably; but the price has to be paid in acceptance of the ongoing destruction in unconscious fantasy relative to object-relating.

Let me repeat.  This is a position that can be arrived at by the individual in early stages of emotional growth only through the actual survival of cathected objects that are at the time in process of becoming destroyed because real, becoming real because destroyed (being destructible and expendable) (p.90).

In other words, for Winnicott, the subject is only able to achieve mature relations with objective objects through a process of separation from the subjective object--a process entailing both the "destruction" of the latter and, at the same time, a giving up of the illusion of omnipotence and the need for omnipotent control which underlies both enmeshment with the subjective object and resistance to recognizing the otherness of the objective object.

Winnicott writes:  "It is generally understood that the reality principle involves the individual in anger and reactive destruction, but my thesis is that the destruction plays its part in making the reality, placing the object outside the self" (p.91).  Or again:  "The assumption is always there, in orthodox theory, that aggression is reactive to the encounter with the reality principle, whereas here it is the destructive drive that creates the quality of externality.  This is central in the stucture of my argument" (p.93).  Finally, according to Winnicott:

There is no anger in the destruction of the object to which I am referring, though there could be said to be joy at the object's survival.  From this moment, or arising out of this phase, the object is in fantasy always being destroyed.  This quality of "always being destroyed" makes the reality of the surviving object felt as such, strengthens the feeling-tone, and contributes to object-constancy.  The object can now be used [i.e., related to--D.C.](p.93; Winnicott's emphasis).

This subtle complex of insights of Winnicott's seems not to have been completely assimilated by the psychoanalytic community.  Some critics reject his insight into the necessary role of destruction in establishing the reality principle on the grounds of what they take to be his acceptance of the Freudian/Kleinian assumption of an innate destructiveness.  Referring to this aspect of Winnicott's thought, Bacal (Bacal & Newman, 1990), for example, states that: "Winnicott's view that the object becomes usable because it survives the infant's destructiveness, and that the infant develops a capacity for concern for the object as he becomes aware of his destructive intent, would be untenable to self psychologists, as they reject the idea of a primary destructiveness" (p.191).

But a close reading of this essay, together with additional commentary on its central themes contained in Winnicott's (1989) posthumously published Psychoanalytic Explorations, reveals that Winnicott himself had a somewhat ambiguous attitude toward this assumption.  In the original paper he writes that:

It appears to me that the idea of a developmental phase essentially involving survival of object does affect the theory of the roots of aggression.  It is no good saying that a baby of a few days old envies the breast.  It is legitimate, however, to say that at whatever age a baby begins to allow the breast an external position (outside the area of projection), then this means that destruction of the breast has become a feature.  I mean the actual impulse to destroy (p.92).

While it is clear that Winnicott did not see destructiveness merely as a reaction to the perception of the otherness of the object--for he refers repeatedly to "the actual impulse to destroy" as playing a part in the establishment of the object qua other--it would be a mistake to conclude that by this "actual impulse to destroy" he is simply referring to the Freudian or Kleinian idea of innate destructiveness.  He writes (1969):

It will be seen that, although destruction is the word I am using, this actual destruction belongs to the object's failure to survive.  Without this failure, destruction remains potential.  The word "destruction" is needed, not because the baby's impulse is to destroy, but because of the object's liability not to survive, which also means to suffer change in quality, in attitude (p.93).

So not only is there "no anger in the destruction of the object to which I am referring" (p.93), but the destruction is only potential and only becomes actualized if the object fails to survive.  This idea is quite distinct from any simple notion of a primary destructiveness.

Regarding the death instinct, in his posthumously published "The Use of an Object in the Context of Moses and Monotheism" (1969), Winnicott (1989) writes:

To warn the reader I should say that I have never been in love with the death instinct and it would give me happiness if I could relieve Freud of the burden of carrying it forever on his Atlas shoulders.  To start with, the development of the theory from a statement of the fact that organic matter tends to return to the inorganic carries very small weight in terms of logic.  There is no clear relationship between the two sets of ideas.  Also, biology has never been happy about this part of metapsychology while on the whole there is room for mutuality between biology and psycho-analysis all along the line, up to the point of the death instinct (p.242).

Even more significantly, in his "Comments on My Paper `The Use of an Object'" (1968), Winnicott (1989) states that "In this vitally important early stage the `destructive' (fire-air or other) aliveness of the individual is simply a symptom of being alive ..." (p.239).  He continues: "I realise that it is this idea of a destructive first impulse that is difficult to grasp.  It is this that needs attention and discussion.  To help I wish to point out that I am referring to such things as eagerness" (p.240).  Hence, the infant's eagerness--perhaps its "ruthless" love (Winnicott, 1958a)--is felt by the infant to be destructive if and when the object fails to survive.  However, when the object does survive (and without retaliating or changing its attitude), then such eagerness and "ruthlessness" are either not felt to be destructive or, if so, such destructiveness can be integrated without disastrous consequences for self-esteem.

Given Gordie's parents' preference for Denny and relative neglect and devaluation of him, it would only be natural for him to have secretly envied and even hated his loved and idealized brother.  In the face of such unconscious aggression, the brother's failure to survive has left Gordie full of unconscious guilt preventing normal mourning and with a profound inner feeling of badness and destructiveness--a depressive condition having to do, not with what Klein (1986) misleadingly called the depressive position but, rather, with a paranoid-schizoid sense of the self as all-bad.

It is through his second encounter with death in the form of Ray Brower's corpse--this time in the context of essential selfobject support (in the film Chris literally holds him while he weeps)--that Gordie is able to move into the "depressive" position (i.e., that of self and object constancy and concern) and to exchange his (paranoid-schizoid) depression for the "sadder but wiser" outlook characteristic of maturity.   Although, like Denny, Ray Brower has failed to survive, the sheer randomness of his accidental death--a death for which Gordie can in no way hold himself responsible--somehow enables him to move beyond his narcissistic self-condemnation toward a mournful recognition of the tragic dimension of human existence for which no one is to blame.

While some critics have dismissed Winnicott's thinking in this area on the mistaken grounds of his adherence to the concept of the death instinct, others reject what he has to say regarding the move away from the subjective through the transitional toward the objective object on the grounds that contemporary infant research (Stern, 1985) has called into question the idea of an early phase of undifferentiation between self and object which Freud's, Winnicott's and Mahler's thinking assumes.  Since this is not the place to enter into this debate at any length, let me merely refer to Pine's (1990, ch.11) recent discussion of this issue and his argument that while the notion of a phase of absolute undifferentiation now has to be abandoned, in its one-sided focus upon the most alert and differentiated moments of the infant's day, a good deal of the current infant research may well have neglected those other moments of somnolence in which a sort of "merger" experience may well be taking place.

However, in a sense, all this is beside the point.  For whatever Freud may have meant by "primary narcissism" and Mahler by "symbiosis," by "secondary narcissism" and the "subjective object" Freud and Winnicott do not mean to refer to absolute undifferentiation at all; they are referring to a state in which the cognitively differentiated object is emotionally experienced primarily through projections of the subject's own phantasies and self and object representations and predominantly in terms of the subject's pressing needs.  And they mean to contrast this sort of narcissistic object-relation to one in which the subject is more able to get beyond such projections and egocentric demands for need-satisfaction and to recognize and make empathic contact with the real otherness of the object.

Copyright (c)  1999  D. Carveth

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