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Narcissus and Oedipus: The Children of…

Narcissus and Oedipus: The Children of Psychoanalysis (Maresfield Library)

by Victoria Hamilton

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This book questions a long-standing bit of psychoanalytic theory. Hamilton sets about demonstrating that Freud's theory of primary narcissism as a normal developmental stage is largely wrong, so we must think about discarding it. From this it begins to become plain that Freud's notion of psychic energy with its hydraulic qualities is antiquated. Perhaps psychoanalysis needs to think about itself in the light of the systems and structuralist theories now extensively used in both the biological and social sciences. Primary narcissism has, of course, been questioned for decades but never so gracefully and cogently as by Hamilton.

Hamilton, like John Bowlby before her, uses the evidence of a host of infant researchers to see how a bit of psychoanalytic developmental theory stands up to findings from direct observation. Early on she gives due warning of where she is going by convincingly showing that the mythical Narcissus himself grew in an object-relational way. Unnoticed by Freud, Narcissus' mother fell madly in love with him at his birth and continued that way. But this is a side-show -- the main arena is the psychoanalytic model of development. Hamilton sees Freud's primary narcissism, of psychic egg-hatching, as at one extreme of a continuum of ideas about infantile interactiveness with the environment. She shows that Anna Freud actually made many observations of active interchanges between mothers and infants, but still followed her father theoretically. So did Spitz, Mahler and even Kohut in assuming primary narcissism as the origin of emotional development. Klein is rightly given pride of place for originating the idea of object relations; but she is seen as showing little interest in the infant's actual inter-relating with people. Balint made no bones about his view: narcissism, as in the myth, arises out of the mother's adoration for her baby; it thus rests upon a passive object-relatedness from the beginning. Then comes Bowlby with attachment theory. He systematically gathered a mass of direct evidence concerning the infant's early object-related attachment to his mother -- and was slated by many psychoanalysts for his labours. Further away still from Freud's narcissism model, Hamilton sees Winnicott's position, which emphasizes the importance of moment-to-moment mutuality between mother and infant from the beginning.

Dr Hamilton is a child and adult psychoanalytic practitioner and teacher of long experience. Her literary facility makes the Greek myths seem easy. However, she is also philosophically and logically trained, and this gives her the conceptual precision needed to set about reforming old psychoanalytic habits.
  antimuzak | Nov 29, 2006 |
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