- Some Day My Mom Will Come
Back in 1979, Robert Hass wrote, “all the new thinking is about loss. In this it resembles all the old thinking.” He seemed to be referring to the lack of adequation between language and reality: “because there is in this world no one thing to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds, a word is elegy to the thing it signifies” (4). Things aren’t that different in 2005: the fading of the object world can still break your heart. But the most recent thinking about loss doesn’t tend to be about language or representation. Rather, loss is increasingly played in the register of the world-historical, as critics have drawn on psychoanalytic models to consider the intersection between individual and collective trauma. Witness, memorialization, haunting, and the melancholy of just about everything: such work has taken up the question of “the politics of mourning.” What might constitute an ethical relation to the past? How can we draw on the losses of the past in order to imagine new futures?
I like the new thinking about loss very much, but sometimes I get to thinking about the old thinking about loss, about stories older and darker than Hass’s blackberry. For instance: Uranus and Gaia have twelve children; Uranus hates them, so he buries them inside their mother’s body, deep in the earth; Gaia gives her son Cronus a big knife and he castrates his father, frees his siblings, and rules over them. Cronus then has several children with his sister, all of whom he eats at birth to keep them from betraying him in turn. This works pretty well until his son tricks him into vomiting up his brothers and sisters, and they send their devouring father down into the underworld. Now that’s loss!
Now that the foundations of the world have been laid, it is hard to match these antics. One place to look, however, is in the annals of psychoanalysis, where such cycles of revenge, retribution, and flesh-eating are played out on the much smaller stage of the individual psyche. Melanie Klein (1882–1960) was particularly attuned to such dynamics. In her pioneering work in child analysis and the field of object relations, she described the mix of paranoia and jealousy, rage and anxiety, brewing inside even the smallest of human minds. Several decades later her work continues to shock with its uncompromising view of the psychic life of babies.
Klein made a number of important theoretical innovations with which critics and analysts are still coming to terms. While analysts before her had “analyzed” children by talking to their parents, Klein developed a technique to work with very young children directly, in an approach that combined play and talk. Her work is at the origin of the field of object-relations psychoanalysis, which sees development as implicated from the very start in the relation to others and which has appealed to many as an alternative to the Freudian tradition. Originally a disciple of Freud, Klein moved to England and drifted away from orthodoxy, finally distancing herself publicly in a series of debates in the 1940s (the Controversial Discussions) with, among others, Anna Freud. She challenged many central tenets of Freud’s notion of development: she situated the Oedipal crisis much earlier in time, challenged the notion of penis envy, and cast childhood experience in terms of “positions” rather than in terms of a developmental sequence of phases. In an especially dissident move, Klein developed a model of infantile experience that focused almost exclusively on the figure of the mother. Feminists have been drawn to this version of psychic development that focuses on the relation between the baby and the mother instead of on castration, the phallus, and the father.
Some have tried to imagine Klein’s account of early childhood as a kindler, gentler alternative to Freud’s, but it is not easy to do. For Klein, the relation between the mother and the child offers no refuge from violence. The infant does receive some...