George Walford: The Power of the Helpless

Just below the surface of orthodox thinking there hovers the idea that opposites are not only opposed but also in some deep way united. Buddhism assures us that complete attachment brings total unity, anarchists propose restrictions to win freedom, Zen holds emptiness to be fullness, an old saw has it that everything in general is nothing in particular, a spontaneous association with ‘yes’ brings ‘no,’ hubris incurs nemesis, dialectical materialism explicitly affirms the unity of opposites, and so on and on. We should not be surprised at the suggestion that the strongest conviction of personal power is held by the most powerless of people, the newborn infants.

D. W. Winnicott, one of the more influential modern psychoanalysts, has written, among much else, two books in which he focuses on mental development from birth (or even before that) through the first months: The Child, the Family and the Outside World (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1964) and Playing and Reality (London: Tavistock Publications 1971) In these books his interest lies mainly in practical therapeutics; here we try to bring out some implications of his work, rather than report his results. I follow his practice in The Child, the Family and the Outside World (written in 1964) of referring to the baby as ‘he’; by 1971, with Playing and Reality, girl babies had become more fashionable.

This century discovered childhood. In earlier times children were taken to be (it shows in the costume) miniature adults but now, partly as a result of psychoanalytical studies, it is accepted that the young child’s thinking, as well as its body, differs in significant ways from that of later life. Winnicott goes so far as to say that adults who thought as infants do would rightly be considered mad, and his own account fully justifies the remark; he speaks repeatedly of the infant entertaining beliefs and intentions which imply omnipotence. The baby starts out feeling totally responsible for all that happens to him, and when in a rage really intends to destroy everyone and everything; this feeling of omnipotence is legitimate, and the loss of it in the course of development comes as an immense shock. Witnesses notoriously come up with conflicting accounts, and no amount of pressing the enquiry can ever bring exact agreement.

The baby creates the breast that feeds him, he invents his mother and her sweetness; for each infant the world has to be created anew, and only so does it become real for the infant. Winnicott calls the infant’s play a creative experience, he speaks of his capacity to create, think up, devise, originate, produce an object, of his creative living and primary creativity, of his creation of the world.

Along with these remarks, however, go others questioning the reality of this creativity; a distinction obtains between what the baby feels responsible for and what he is responsible for. He ‘creates’ (Winnicott’s quotation marks) what is already there to be found. The mother gives the child the illusion (emphasis added) of an external reality corresponding to his desire to create, her care relieves the baby of the need to decide whether objects are real or imagined, she allows the illusion that what the baby creates really exists (and later has to disillusion him, leading to true, social, creativeness). Although the baby’s experience of omnipotence is legitimate, yet it only feels (emphasis added) as if the object is a subjective one created by the baby; adults permitting themselves such illusions would rightly be thought mad.

Winnicott writes with love and respect for these newcomers to humanity. He also writes from acceptance of the orthodox adult viewpoint. When he speaks of a theoretical stage at the beginning of life in which the object is not yet separated out from the subject, he shows unquestioning confidence in his own ability to distinguish between these categories, and it is the adults retaining the baby’s ideas he reckons mad, not those who surrender them. Winnicott unhesitatingly accepts adult standards, and as a psychotherapist he can hardly do otherwise; we go to him for help in regaining our stability and returning to our normal place in social activity. Yet the question has to be asked: How does he know himself to be dealing with reality and the baby with illusions?

The distinction lies, in his words, between ‘inner psychic reality’ and ‘the external world as perceived by two persons in common.’ It is an orthodox distinction, and closer thinking has to call in question this assumption that two people can be relied upon to have perceptions in common. Witnesses notoriously come up with conflicting accounts, and no amount of pressing the enquiry can ever bring exact agreement since no two people can ever make their observations from exactly the same viewpoint; strictly speaking they cannot perceive the external world in common. And if we follow normal practice, thinking of the external world as that which not only two people but everybody perceives in common then the discrepancy, between the conception and what can be demonstrated, becomes even wider. This multiple-perceivers definition of objectivity has a nasty tendency to fail under test; how can a person in India be said to perceive a building in London? This true, objective, socially-confirmed reality which is to be set against against false, subjective and personal illusions turns out to be largely a mental construct.

This receives confirmation when we approach the issue from a different angle, for the reality which appears to be objective is constantly being brought under submission to subjective will; human beings alter their environment. We do it individually, by the exercise of our personal powers, and we do it socially, using science and technology.

While rejecting, with a tolerant smile, the baby’s assumption of omnipotent creativity, we yet retain it in a modified form; Winnicott speaks of ‘creative apperception.’ Perhaps there is a real and purely objective world out there, but if so it is one we can neither think about, nor speak of, nor act upon with purpose. Thought, speech and purposeful action, ours no less than the baby’s, all deal with the world as we assume it to be.

from Ideological Commentary 59, February 1993.