December 2009


Time is the measure of things moving.  It’s like history; one bloody thing after another, but if nothing happens there is no time, ho history, nothing.  We know by determining the rate of decay of radioactivity in rocks that the earth came into being 4,558 million years ago.  This sounds a bit like Archbishop Usher, who calculated that the world was created 4,404 years ago. 

 Time cannot be thought about with considering space as well.  Time is the fourth dimension.  We only need to go out and look at the night sky to see it happening.   The light that reaches us tonight set out from the nearest star 5 years ago and from the most distant galaxy, many thousand years ago.    

Isaac Newton thought time was always there; a God given fact, space was the constant stage upon which things happened, and light always travelled in straight lines. It was not until Albert Einstein that anyone dared to question these ‘facts’.  Einstein deduced that things that seemed to take place at the same time from an observer on earth, would occur at a different time if you were passing in a rocket. Events are perceived at the speed of light and if we were to pass through space near or at the speed of light, time would slow and stop.  Both time and space are relative to the observer.  Moreover light could ‘bend’.  The sun, 8 light minutes away probably did not exert an attraction on the earth but it warped space so that objects had to move in a fixed trajectory around the sun and light had a trajectory too. But it was Arthur Eddington that came up with the ‘proof’ by studying the light from stars behind a solar eclipse that light could appear to bend around massive objects  Eddington illustrated this by throwing a melon into the middle of a tautly held tablecloth and then rolling a walnut around the depression created.  Eureka!

If things are completely inert and nothing changes, then there is no time.  As soon as things change, there is time. So time and space are a continuum.  The approved wisdom states that time started with The Big Bang some 5000 billion years ago.  Since then matter, galaxies, stars, planets are speeding apart and getting colder and colder.  At one time, it was thought there would be a limit to the expansion and as mass  decelerated, gravitational forces would cause it to start to implode and then time would run backwards.  That’s what the equations would predict.  And how can we begin to understand what caused the big bang originally is it wasn’t some coalescence of mass and energy.  Nevertheless, physicists now seem convinced that there was a big bang and everything sped apart and is still accelerating and must eventually disappear.  Then nothing will change and time will cease again. Part of the evidence of the big bang came from the analysis of interference or white noise on television monitors.  I maybe an old cynic, but in astronomical physics as with everything else, what value evidence?              

So do we move through time or does time move through us?  We may be able to see time past, both in cosmological terms and what is fixed in memory, but we cannot see what is to come.  And there’s a problem, if time passes through us, then everything is preordained.  There is no free will.  To a certain extent that is true.  After the first few years of life, we create for ourselves a template for the way we will react, the choices we are likely to make, how our future is likely to be.  As the Jesuits said, give me the child at 7 years of age and I will show you the man.      

But doesn’t this all depend on the assumptions we make.  How do we know?  Physicists talk confidently about the distance of stars, how far galaxies are away, but how do they know?  Is there any independent measure of this that doesn’t depend on assumptions about time and space?   If space is curved like a doughnut,  could we not be looking at ourselves coming back?   Does Einsteinian geometry predict astronomical observations or does it just explain them?  Just as the design of a camera, the curvature of the lens, the shape of the aperture, determines our perception of the object, so image we have of our universe depends on the instruments by which we observe it, the assumptions of our  computers and the conceptual limits of our frontal cortices. The ancient Egyptians believed that the sun travelled across the sky every day and the moon did the same every night.  How much more satisfying life must have been then.

What kind of person are you?  Since when have you been so perfect?  When did you last fuck up?  What are you going to do about it?

Royal Tennenbaum has been evicted from his family by his wife, Etheline, for playing around. He is casual, careless even as he explains it to his three genius children,  Chas, the financial whizz, Richie, the tennis star and Margot, the playwrite.  17 years later he wants to be reconciled with his family; he wants to make amends; he is seeking redemption. Besides, he has lost his money and has nowhere to live. 

But by that time, his children are pretty messed up. Chas is neurotic; he has lost his wife in an air crash and is bringing up his two boys (all three of them dressed in identical red shell suits) in a rigorous health and safety regime. Richie is depressed; he broke down during a grand slam final and now travels the world alone on his private yacht. Margot is bored, married to a neurologist, but spends most of her days locked in the bathroom, secretly smoking and watching television.  They are all regressed. Gratification is either oral, as in Margot’s cigarettes, or anal, as in Chas’s schedules and lists. There is not a lot of sex and what there is, does not seem much fun. Their lives are fantasy; the real world is anaesthetized. They are bored and aggrieved. In their own ways, they all feel their father has betrayed and failed them. They are stuck.     

Etheline holds the balance between love and hate. She is the controller, the Jewish mother who single-mindedly created the three gifted prodigies. Narcissistically embroiled in her own sacrifice, she maintains the split between the good mother and the bad father. She wants retribution. Her children are her agents, but at the expense of their own freedom.  They have never been able to separate from her. They need a third point of view provided by a redeemed father in order to leave the family jungle and explore the savannah.  . 

To gain entry to the family home, Royal pretends he is dying of cancer. The children return too, bearing their grievances and sorrows.  Margot was always treated as the adopted child by Royal, who dismissed her first play as ‘a lot of kids running around in animal costumes’.  Richie is still in love with Margot since their teenage escape camping out in the Africa section of the Natural History Museum.  Chas retains the BB lodged between his fingers after being treacherously shot by his father during a game at the summer house. ‘But you’re meant to be on my team!’  Perpetual grievance is a failure to thrive. The world is not composed of perpetrators and victims; it is much more complex and messy than that.   

Royal’s deception is discovered.  He is sent away again, though not before he has made contact with his family by subverting his grandsons to the excitement of risk.  Slowly, the family come to enjoy the vital intention of his comic duplicity, but reconciliation is only complete after he has really died.  

As long as their parents are unable to behave as adults, the children cannot grow up either. It takes Royal’s return and his sincere expression of remorse for Etheline, Margot, Richie and Chas to risk forgiveness and feel pity.  Royal is an agent of remembering. The  acknowledgement of his failure as a father and his desire to make amends awakens the  children from their symbolic death. He has given them the greatest gift any father can give their children; his humanity. Their lives can now be realized through forgiveness. 

To err is human, to forgive divine. To grow in wisdom, we all need to forgive the bad and  bring out the good, but that can be so hard to do.  It is said that you can only forgive others if you forgive yourself, but some just accept all the blame; they forgive everybody else but never forgive themselves. The hardest thing of all is to acknowledge your own faults and sins, to be open about them and to forgive them. Yet that way is life.

So, express remorse  without qualifications. Hold up your hands.  Say, ‘Yes, I’ve behaved like a shit!’  Royal Tennenbaum has had to come to terms with his own selfishness and the abandonment of his children.  Gestation, even late gestation, is the parental act of becoming oneself.  That way is life, because it accepts the essential human failings without condoning the misdemeanors that have ensued.   

But what does it take to forgive or be forgiven?  Royal could only be forgiven if he threatened death. In a curious Christian re-enactment, the father had to die so that the children might live, if not in reality, in meaning.  The mythic father has to be killed off and redeemed by a different kind of dad, less yet so much more; a dad that can be forgiven and eventually forgotten. 

This article was inspired by and in part plagiarised from a talk, entitled Failing Better, which was presented by Dr Alan Lidmila to The Hallam Institute of Psychotherapy on Saturday 28th November at the Showroom, Sheffield,  following a showing of The Royal Tennenbaums, directed by Wes Andersen.   

Melanie Klein might be said to have founded the British School of Psychoanalysis, though it was never as formal as that. There was a never a ‘concrete school’ more a movement dominated by the ideas and interpretations of Mrs Klein. 

 Psychoanalysis was (and still is) very incestuous.  There were not many psychoanalysts and most of these lived and practiced in NW5, near Maresfield Gardens where Freud lived and worked.  They still do. They were all in supervision or analysis with each other.  They reinforced the ideas of their ideological leader, but at the same time were intensely jealous of each other.  Given the Jewish origins of psychoanalysis, it is surprising to encounter how much psychoanalysts cling defensively to ideological dogma, despite evidence that it may damage some people and how suspicious, dismissive and paranoid, they can be to those who do not share the same beliefs.

Although Mrs Klein was not as profilic, wide ranging or eloquent as Professeur Docteur Sigmund  Freud, her work has been very influential.  She was the first to appreciate that the child, even a child as young as two or three, inhabits a symbolic world of meanings, phantasies (her spelling)  and needs the agency of the ‘mother’ to understand and work through them.   In particular, Klein postulates, young children find it difficult to reconcile  contradictory elements in their mothers’ behaviour.  They split them apart.  There is the loving mother and the disapproving mother; the good breast and the bad breast.  She called this the paranoid – schizoid position.  We all know it well. The suspicious and defensive  remain locked into it all their lives.  The media encourage such splitting;  the government is either good or bad, wrong or right.  And all us can return to such polarized attitudes at times of stress.  Anger, envy, resentment, grievance, condemnation and lack of compromise are, if not everyday, at least frequent examples of this. 

 The project of Kleinian analysis might be said to be the reconciliation of the polarities of human behaviour to achieve what she called the depressive position.  This doesn’t sound much fun and it’s not, but the concept is crucially important.  It is only by healing the split in our thought and behaviour,  that we gain understanding, empathy, concern, forgiveness and reconciliation; we learn to accommodate and integrate our own behaviour and that of others; and we find ways of working with other people.  But we have to experience the depressive position time and time again.  Every time we experience a loss, we have a choice, either withdraw and cut off or engage and find a way through.  The depressive position is a state of mourning.  Klein would say that we mourn the loss of the idealized ‘mother’ and discover the reality of   ‘Is that all there is?’ (sic Peggy Lee).  Working through The Depressive Position,  leads to personal growth.  Loss is associated with change and often a burst of creativity. 

Klein drew on her own family extensively for her ideas; her archetypical Jewish mother, her unhappy marriage and her children.  The children were her first analysands. Melitta, her daughter, has 370 hours of analysis with her mother before the age of 9.  The idea seems repellant.  It is a wonder she survived it.      

Nicholas Wright’s powerful and disturbing play is about mothers and daughters.  It is 1933. Mrs Klein, powerfully depicted by Clare Higgins, has just learnt of her son’s death in a climbing accident.  Paula, a refugee analyst, fleeing from Germany, has offered to be her secretary.  Melitta (little Melanie) her daughter, also an analyst, arrives with a letter that she has written, informing her mother that Hans has committed suicide, but this is her latest and most powerful act of vengeance on the hated mother. 

Melanie found Melitta interesting as a child, but could not show her the love she needed.  It seems that she suffered post-natal depression after the birth of her daughter and went away for an extended period leaving Melitta to be brought up by her baba (her grandmother).  And when her mother returned, she didn’t so much love and care for her daughter; she analysed her. Klein inaugurated the British School of ‘object relations’   Melitta is an object, not a love object, more an object of interest and curiosity. There is interpretation but no human warmth.  

As she later complained, Melitta had no life of her own.  Her mother has appropriated it; her marriage, her career, everything.  Wright’s play shows her locked into an unresolved rebellion with herself, caught between the mother she idealises and the mother whom she hates.  She cannot reach the depressive position.  She has to attack the mother she hates while craving the affection of the one she loves.  The letter about Hans suicide is a murderous attempt to rid herself of the mother who dominates her life.  Melanie, for her part, is also split, she wants her daughters love, but hates her betrayal.  In the  transference, Melitta assumes the symbolic impact of Melanie’s own mother.  As the situation builds to a crisis,  provoked by the disclosure that Melitta has gone into analysis with a competitor, consorted with the enemy as it were, Mrs Klein throws a glass of wine at her and rubs the torn up letter in her hair. As Paula notes, she makes a symbolic attempt to drown her daughter in urine and rub faeces in her hair.  The awful irony is that we can only understand this because of the writings of the mother.  There was no father to rescue either of them, to find the third position, to make sense and space of the pernicious diad, to lead them out of the claustrophobic forest onto the savannah.     

And what of Paula?  She plays the role of the good daughter with Melitta locked out of the house as the bad daughter. She selects Melanie as the idealized mother she never had.  The play ends with Paula in her first session of analysis with Melanie, which cannot be interrupted while Melitta frantically rings the door bell.             

So should we think any less of Melanie Klein because of the way she damaged her daughter?. Theory is all very well but a child still needs to know she is loved. And doesn’t the analysand, the symbolic daughter, also need containment and support to gain the confidence to grow.  Surely to withhold that can lead a fragile person into a unhealthy state of dependence.

Or should we think more of Mrs Klein because she had worked through her own  depressive position and offered her insights so that the rest of us might understand. 

Or should we just accept and make a balanced appraisal? Understanding  doesn’t mean we have to follow the teacher.  That must be a reconciliation of our depressive position.    

Mrs Klein has been playing at the Almeida Theatre in Islington, with Clare Higgins, Nicola Walker and Zoe Waites and brilliantly directed by Thea Sharrock.  

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