- Winnicott’s “Fear of Breakdown” : On and Beyond Trauma
y no hallé cosa en que posar los ojos / que no fuese recuerdo de la muerte
[I could find no thing on which to rest my eyes / which was not a reminder of death]—Francisco de Quevedo, “Sonetos”
The ubiquitous occurrence of violent events and the growing realization that the inscription of this violence in the psyches of those exposed to these events remains to be known have helped to make trauma an emblematic issue at the end of a century saturated with unprecedented wounding events [see Caruth, Unclaimed Experience].1 Trauma’s enigmatic immediacy thrusts itself upon any attempt to encompass it within a theory. It is as though no one approximates (even the study of) trauma with impunity: complex affects are stirred. A precipitous interplay of cognitive and affective dispositions, a heightened tension between the intense identifications elicited and the need experienced for some protective distance from the pain evoked undermine the stability of the boundaries between witnessing and telling, event and historical narration, narrative and reading. Hence the ambivalent appeal of the notion of trauma for the historian as well as for the cultural and literary theorist.
The most cursory description of trauma reflects the complex temporal structure that punctuates the psyche’s relation to the traumatic event. The asymmetrical relation between experience and memory and the gross disparity between their affective and cognitive components are evident at once. Trauma has been characterized by virtue of the disjunctions it manifests. Its very formulation bears the mark of a construction emerging as the narrative of a belated experience.2 In recent publications on trauma, the references to the works of Freud, Janet, Kardiner, Lacan, and Laplanche take pride of place. Also noticeable is the emphasis placed on certain psychoanalytic notions: deferred action, death instinct, repetition compulsion, the real.
Along with the explorations of trauma by psychoanalysts, historians, and literary theorists and the ethical issues they bring to the fore, the research of neurobiologists and cognitive scientists has raised a number of epistemological issues. A new wave of radical questioning of psychoanalysis comparable to that of the beginnings of this century shows its force today. The notions of repression and the repressed are considered logical impossibilities; the operations of the unconscious are deemed entirely inexplicable; and [End Page 134] defense mechanisms are considered to be mere verbal paradoxes. In what appears to be a species of defensive tactics, a supposedly neurophysiological rephrasing of psychoanalysis is taking place in some quarters, seemingly oblivious to the possibility of profoundly altering the very cohesion of this theory through the process of revision.
Otto Fenichel in the thirties and Masud Khan in the sixties have provided us with succinct yet comprehensive overviews of the manner in which, since the very beginnings of psychoanalysis, every phase of theory making has influenced and reciprocally been influenced by the current concept of trauma and its clinical evaluation. It could be said that psychoanalytic theories are themselves organized around some sort of trauma. This is clearly the case in Freud’s theorizing. After his initial theory where the interrelated aspects of trauma, repression, and symptom formation became problematic, he arrived at the conclusion that castration constituted what might be termed a nuclear structuring trauma. An analogous theoretical point is implied in the Lacanian notion of the splitting of the subject. A normative trauma defines the limits of these theories and establishes a fixed relation between historical structural events. One has to shift perspectives in reading the works of those analysts concerned particularly with object relations. For example, Melanie Klein’s clinical researches on early childhood led her to postulate that the traumatic pathogenic situation par excellence is the overriding triumph of the death instinct. Winnicott understood this situation as entailing the annihilation of the core self by intrusion, while defining the traumatic impingement as the failure of the holding environment.
It is relevant to comment on these different perspectives, as they afford the psychoanalytic clinician the possibility of differentiating between structuring (sexual) trauma and narcissistic trauma. When the sexual seduction trauma theory was displaced by the theory that privileged psychic reality, the Oedipus complex became...