Holes, Gaps, Cracks and Lacks


Mollon, Phil (2001). Releasing the Self: The Healing Legacy of Heinz Kohut. London & Philadelphia: Whurr Publishers. ISBN: 1 86156 229 2

by Donald L. Carveth, Ph.D.



This is, without doubt, one of the finest books about Kohut and self psychology that has yet been, or is likely to be, produced. It could only have been written by someone with sufficient distance from the American center of self psychology to be able to place its concepts in a wider, comparative psychoanalytic context. Mollon, a British analyst and psychoanalytic scholar well-versed in object-relations theory and most other current psychoanalytic perspectives, is able to compare and contrast Kohutís ideas with the thought of such diverse contributors as Klein, Fairbairn, Winnicott, Bion, Sandler, Fonagy--even Lacan and recent writers on neurobiology. He does so in a style that manages to be lucid and accessible without sacrificing scholarly complexity and accuracy (with the one exception noted below).

Kohut himself and many of his followers can be faulted for their failure to pay their scholarly debts and to link their contributions to their lineage in the wider psychoanalytic "self". In contrast to some earlier attempts to correct this deficit, Mollon does so without in any way reducing the theories compared to self psychology to the status of mere precursors or anticipations of its insights. Here the dialogue runs both ways. For example, certain of Winnicottís and Bionís ideas are used to enhance self psychological understanding rather than being seen only as gropings toward it.

Commenting on my critique (Carveth 1995) of Stolorow and Atwoodís (1992) "intersubjective" reconceptualization of the unconscious and appearing to summarize my views, Mollon writes: "they [Stolorow and Atwood] take for granted the primary process language which Freud (1900) originally elucidated as a feature of the dynamic unconscious. In this and other ways too, self psychology and intersubjectivity draw upon the fundamental insights first presented by Freud" (p. 101). But rather than asserting the continuity of Stolorow and Atwoodís work with Freudian insights, in the essay concerned I criticize it for its complete neglect of Freudís discovery and exploration of primary process thought. Would that these authors had in fact taken for granted the primary process instead of entirely ignoring the distorting role of condensation, displacement, etc., and of the dynamic unconscious as such. Although in other respects Mollonís scholarship inspires confidence, his misrepresentation of my own work and misinterpretation of Stolorow and Atwoodís (at least on this point) is disquieting.

For Mollon, Kohutís focus was upon the psychoeconomic dimension of mental life and the individualís need to manage states of arousal, both overstimulation and understimulation (p.x). His central insight was that such affect regulation depends upon the empathic responsiveness (or lack thereof) of another person. "He recognized that at the level of function, minds are not separate, but his focus was consistently upon the individualís experience and mental activity as determined by the responsiveness of the other" (p.x; authorís italics). Although in these respects Kohut anticipated more recent contributions in the fields of attachment theory, affect regulation and intersubjectivity, Mollon feels Kohutís insights in these areas have been "eclipsed before they have been fully understood and integrated within psychoanalysis" (p.xi). In this book, Mollon seeks, successfully I think, to redress this by revisiting in depth Kohutís ideas and by comparing and contrasting them with other current psychoanalytic perspectives.

One respect in which Mollon is less successful in my view concerns his failure to retain sufficient critical skepticism vis-à-vis the self-psychological tendency to emphasize deficit over conflict in psychopathology. Writing of a patientís "disintegration anxiety" Mollon states: "This patient was not anxious (either consciously or unconsciously) about an impulse, an instinctual drive, a fantasy, or an object-relational need. The immediate cause of her anxiety was the disintegration of her experience of self (her self-structure). Ö The terror arises not from a presence (of an impulse or a feeling) but from an absenceóa crack, a fissure in the mind" (p.2). Mollon links this theme in self psychology to Balintís (1968) notion of a "basic fault" and Grotsteinís (1986) idea of a "black hole." In further linking it to Lacanís (1977) idea of the original fragmented body image and of "a primordial Discord" arising from the prematurity of birth of the human species and of our resulting fundamental "lack of being," Mollon sidesteps the issue of the commensurability of theories that see such fragmentation as resulting from environmental failure and those, like Lacanís, that view it as universal and existential.

Mollon writes that "when the rug is pulled out from under narcissistic illusions (of perfection, cohesion, completeness and control) the underlying fragmentation is exposed and rage is unleashed" (p.5). But here one feels he gives insufficient consideration to the possibility that the fragmentation may be the result of the rage rather than its cause and that the holes, gaps, faults and lacks in the psyche may be more like craters created by retroflected rage (albeit in the face of frustration and deprivation) than simple records or embodiments of such deprivation itself. It would be unfair to suggest that Mollon is oblivious to this question: he addresses it in passing when considering Kleinian conceptions of pathology as involving persecutory presences as distinct from simple absences in mental life. But his self-psychological bias towards conceiving pathology in terms of missing psychic structure prevents him from doing justice to this crucial issue. As Eagle (1984) and Carveth (1998), among many others, have pointed out, deficit leads to conflict and conflict produces deficits and, hence, it is a mistake to privilege either of these terms in our thinking about psychopathology.

The significance of Kohutís (1971) identification of the selfobject transferencesóan insight elaborated earlier by Kohutís first analyst Aichhorn (1925; 1936) and later by Spotnitz (1961;1968)ócannot be underestimated. It enabled us to see that where (object) transferences appeared absent (rendering such narcissistic patients unanalyzable) selfobject or narcissistic transferences nevertheless exist and can be analyzed and worked through.

Beyond this, Kohutís conception of the "disintegration product" represents a crucial contribution that is lucidly elaborated in Mollonís chapter on perversion (ch. 3). Instead of viewing perverse and other pathological enactments as direct expressions of inadequately tamed pregenital partial drives of sex and aggression, or even as compromise-formations involving the latter plus defenses against them, Kohut sees such "driven" behavior as itself a defense in the context of a fragmentation or depletion of the self due to selfobject failure or the unavailability of needed selfobject function.

My clinical experience has confirmed for me over and over again the fundamental correctness of this insight. Psychopathology does not arise from somatically-rooted, natural human drives of sex and aggression. The "drivenness" we see in psychopathology is a product of the disintegration of a self desperate for selfobject function. But what must be added to this account, and what Mollon fails to adequately consider, is that the selfís fragmentation is not due to the absent selfobject function alone, but also to the rage stimulated by this absence, a rage turned against the self (for a variety of reasons) producing the fragmentation.

Looked at this way we can see the possibility of integrating Kleinian and self-psychological insights. In the face of selfobject failure rage is generated which, turned against the self, results in states of fragmentation and depletion which generate pathological forms of drivenness as defensive and compensatory reactions (akin to manic defenses). One wishes that Mollon had moved beyond his perceptive and, for the most part, scholarly review of Kohutís ideas in relation to other contemporary psychoanalytic perspectives to engage in such integrative theorizing. We may hope that he will do so in a future work.


Aichhorn, A. (1925). Wayward Youth. Forward by Sigmund Freud. New York: Viking Press, 1965.

-----. (1936). The narcissistic transference of the "juvenile impostor." In O. Fleishmann, P. Kramer
    & H.  Ross (Eds.). Aichhorn, A. Delinquency and Child Guidance: Selected Papers. New York:
    International Universities Press.

Balint, M. (1968). The Basic Fault. London: Tavistock.

Carveth, D. (1995). "Self psychology and the intersubjective perspective: a dialectical critique." In
    Progress in Self Psychology, Vol. 11. Ed. A. Goldberg. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press, 1995, pp.

-----. (1998). "Is there a future in disillusion? Constructionist and deconstructionist approaches in
    psychoanalysis." JMKOR:Journal of Melanie Klein & Object Relations 16, 3 (September 1998):
    555-587. A somewhat revised and expanded version appears in the Journal of the American Academy
    of Psychoanalysis 27, 2 (1999): 325-358.

Eagle, M.N. (1984). Recent Developments in Psychoanalysis: A Critical Evaluation. New York:

Freud, S. (1900). The Interpretation of Dreams. S.E., 4 & 5.

Grotstein, J. (1986). Foreward to F. Tustin. Autistic Barriers in Neurotic Patients. New Haven &
    London: Yale Univ. Press.

Kohut, H. (1971). The Analysis of the Self. New York: International Universities Press.

Lacan, J. (1977). Ecrits: A Selection, trans. A. Sheridan. New York: Norton.

Spotnitz, H. (1961). The narcissistic defense in schizophrenia. Psychoanalysis and the Psychoanalytic
    Review 48, 4:24-42.

-----. (1969). Narcissistic Transference. Modern Psychoanalysis of the Schizophrenic Patient. New
    York: Human Sciences Press, 1985, chapter 8.

Stolorow, R. & Atwood, G. (1992). Contexts of Being: The Intersubjective Foundations of
    Psychological Life. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

Donald L. Carveth, Ph.D.
Training & Supervising Analyst
Canadian Institute of Psychoanalysis
Email: dcarveth@yorku.ca
Web: http://www.yorku.ca/dcarveth


 HomePublicationsReviewsPracticeCoursesPsychoanalysisExistentialism | Religion | Values  | Links