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Melanie KleinReview - Melanie Klein
by Julia Kristeva
Columbia University Press, 2002
Review by Aleksandar Dimitrijevic
Jun 15th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 24)

It seems that the depth of Julia Kristeva's thinking -- and in this case of her reading as well -- resists any reviewing. To do justice to a book of hers, one should write an essay at the very least. A portrait of her oeuvre deserves a volume of its own, for her influence spreads over several disciplines, and more and more languages. This Bulgarian-born Parisienne is at the same time a psychoanalyst, a linguist, a semiologist, an erudite scholar and critic, and a novelist.

This most prolific author decided to write a trilogy on Female Genius. The first volume -- entitled Life -- was devoted to the famous and equally prolific philosopher Hannah Arendt, the second -- Madness -- to Melanie Klein, and the final one -- Words -- to the French novelist Colette. Kristeva considers these authors emblematic of the XX century female genuis because "at the heart of the precarious solitude of their pioneering work, which was the price they paid for their unique creativity, Arendt, Klein, and Colette managed to create the conditions that give rise to a necessarily public opinion and, why not, a school and, at best, create an effect of seduction that solicits a communion of readings and a community of readers."

It is impossible for me to say what amount of the study I am reviewing is a product of self-reflection by a woman who unites these three allegedly distinct commitments: philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literature. However, many of the ideas in the volume on Melanie Klein come from Kristeva's rethinking of her own theories. It seems that in this volume she did not draw a sharp line between Klein's theory and her own, especially when it came to language acquisition and development of creativity. Still, this is not the only reason for the choice. Kristeva explicitly considers Klein "the most original innovator, male or female, in the psychoanalytic arena," who introduced a new approach without ever abandoning Freudian theory.

Controversial as this claim may turn out to be, Kristeva's book will, I am sure, help delineate Klein's position in a much better way. Melanie Klein has so far very often been "worshiped to the point of dogmatic fanaticism by her disciples, and held in utter contempt by her detractors, some of whom did not hesitate to deny her the analyst title." In her book, Kristeva sails safely between these extremes in her search for what is still alive in the Kleinian theory. Specifically, this book could prove to be one of the most important among almost two-dozen translations of Kristeva in English. The reason for that could be Melanie Klein's specific place within the realm of Anglo-American psychoanalysis, where she has too often been neglected.

The book can be considered a biography. It tells a lot about Klein's growing up, her private life, the great controversy in the British Psychoanalytic Society and her conflict with her daughter. Kristeva relies on the most popular Klein biography -- the volume by Phyllis Grosskurth -- but writes a different kind of book. Hers is more of a critical study and an elaboration of Klein's numerous implicit theses for which biographical data serve as important context. Not only is Kristeva superbly successful in this elaboration, but also I believe she is sometimes superior to Klein herself in the conceptual articulation of clinical insights.

The clinical aspects of Klein's work are, of course, indispensable in discussing her theory. They are given due credit here, too: Klein's contribution to our understanding of negative transference, projective identification, analysis of children, and so on. Unfortunately, Kristeva writes about Klein's famous cases with fewer details than they deserve. I assume that her decision to do so was a consequence of book's length and target -- it is mere 296 pages long and is intended for a professional audience that should already be familiar with these cases. Still, we are deprived of the clinical talent Kristeva revealed in her previous books and it would no doubt further improve this one.

However, the book contains all of the most important conclusions of Klein's work. One of them relates the importance of play -- so important in German Romanticism and never sufficiently elaborated and utilized by Freud. What dreams were to Freud, play was to Klein: the royal road to the unconscious. Its importance is not only in overcoming confinements of children's language proficiency, but in that it gives us a clear insight into one's central anxieties and phantasies, which Klein considered of utmost importance. Her developmental theory is organized around succession of schizoid, paranoid, depressive, and Oedipal anxieties (and defense mechanisms and relations), and her clinical work considers anxiety an important sign a therapist should always monitor. Kleinianism is also recognizable for its emphasis on innate (and inborn) fantasies as "metaphors incarnate" that provide connections between drives -- particularly, the death drive -- and consciousness.

But play is not just a tool that allows us to observe children's psychic life. It gave Klein the first block to build her theory of creativity. After her insights about the capacity to play, she postulates depression as the precursor of creativity (unfortunately, Kay Redfield Jamison has never, as far as I know, acknowledged Klein's primacy and discussed her position). The ego as a whole takes shape through depressive position, but it is even more characteristic of creativity and symbolization that they depend on "death that devours men" and one's capacity to make reparation to "the bits to which the loved object has been reduced." Kristeva adds here the concept of ab-ject, absent -- missing, lost, destroyed -- object, and its importance for knowledge, creativity, and identity.

Kristeva renders Kleinian theory "the psychoanalysis as a capacity to think." I do not know whether Bion ever made a similar statement, but I am sure he would have liked to. When I began reading this book, I wondered whether Melanie Klein would have gone that far. Or was that what Kristeva would like Klein had intended to say? Nevertheless, the book is very convincing on this, no matter how unusual the idea of matricide and Klein's interpretation of "Oresteia" might seem at first glance: in order to think, one must first lose the mother; and after separation -- which in baby's primitive unconscious equals murder -- the self never stops re-creating her.

Klein did not only posit mother -- and the maternal -- as being of central importance for personality development. She considered femininity as central to culture and history as a whole. She hypothesized "a primary feminine phase of development" for both girls and boys. And all these ideas are reflected in her views on psychoanalysis as a profession: it is a maternal vocation in that it restores psychic life, and an aid to a capacity to think, to create symbols where once anxiety was. Kristeva, on her part, adds quite a contemporary consideration: "I would like to think that each individual invents his or her sex in the domain of intimacy. Therein lies genius, which is quite simply creativity."

Kristeva also explains that the works of her three female geniuses are so deeply shaped by their femininity that they cannot be understood without studying their biographies: "You are a genius to the extent that you are able to challenge the sociohistorical conditions of your identity. This is the legacy of Arendt, Klein, and Colette."

Aren't we quite soon going to witness a book that will try to apply these notions to Julia Kristeva's work? I wholeheartedly admit I am looking forward to it.


© 2005 Aleksandar Dimitrijevic


Aleksandar Dimitrijevic, Faculty of Philosophy, Department of Psychology, Belgrade, Yugoslavia.


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