יום רביעי, 5 בספטמבר 2012

Notes on The Capacity to be Alone by DW Winnicott (1958)

Yesterday I read Winnicott's essay The Capacity to be Alone (1958, here in Hebrew), describing the ability of an individual to be quiet. I'll try to explain it here in my own vulgar terms.

So, as it is commonly known, the ego's function is to be the mediator of id drives and the environment's demands. For example, to want to go to the bathroom, but to understand that the bathroom is taken, and to keep typing for a bit longer until the need to pee can be met. I would describe the capacity to be alone as the ego's ability to rest from this mediation task. Winnicott gives the example of two lovers laying side by side after sexual climax. They are mutually fulfilled, not needing to satisfy themselves nor to satisfy the other, they can just wander in thoughts, resting in cool sweat, each to his (or her) own. They are together alone, their capacity to be alone comes from their fulfillment and exhaustion, of their need for each other, and for sexual gratification. This is how the ego rests.

Now forget about sex and think about a tiny little baby, laying, wrapped in a tight bundle. The internal drives of the id may be pre-verbal hunger. Try and imagine that hunger before you understand what hunger is (like in the film Wings of Desire, where an angel falls to the ground and feels hungry for the first time, and cannot describe it, though he knows how to speak). Imagine the helplessness when you are laying in your shit, and it stings and itches, and you don't know if it will ever stop. These sensations are exciting and overwhelming, drawing all the baby ego's attention to them. In adult terms, think that you are so anxious about eating or peeing that you have to do it all the time, just fearing that you will need it later and won't be able to, or that if you don't pee or eat, and you will have to sit in class or in a meeting, and be hungry or have to pee, it would be a stimulus too strong to ignore, because your ego is completely drawn, to your internal states and needs.

On the other hand, there's the environment, that keeps infringing on the ego with noise, demanding response to a smile, interrupting with untimely feeding. Winnicott does a great job in other essays (which I didn't REALLY read) in describing love and nurturing as something that should be balanced, somewhere between neglect and imposition. His popular term, the good-enough mother, refers to a caretaker that gives the right degree of space for the infant, to learn that he (or she!) will survive a minute of hunger, but not too much space, so the infant won't lose the association between his (or her) needs and their fulfillment (and then forever fall into dark loneliness, with needs that can never be satisfied, and love that can never be absorbed!! behhh!!!!). On the other side of that, relating to the infant should be balanced with the right degree of warmth and closeness, to comfort the infant, and give him (or her...) the basic feeling that the world is good and sweet, but not too much, not to interrupt him, with overbearing love, that impinges on his quiet, demanding him (or her...) to accept a nipple, or to be tossed around, when he (or she) is not ready for it (and then be coerced into compliance with the caregiver needs, losing touch with his (or her) own needs, creating a false persona that aims to please mom forever, getting good grades, eating everything off the plate, studying medicine and marrying a Jewish doctor, only to feel empty and void of personal meaning and vitality, as his (or her) needs were neglected a long way back, and can no longer be fulfilled by achievements that are meant to please the caregiver, and not the authentic self!!! ouch!).

So you have this baby, as I said, wrapped in a tight bundle, with his raging internal sensations, and his (or her) mom and dad fussing around him (or her), and in between his baby-ego is trying to make sense of things. What is going on? Is this gas? Is mom holding me too tight? What how why? And, probably more interesting to a tormented gassy babies, and later to accomplished adults: what can I do about it? Kicking, crying, smiling, blabbering, burping, maybe going to the library to sit quietly and getting some work done, or whatever is in the baby's power to do. I really wanted to get to the point of the bundle: it isolates the baby from the environment, and doesn't let it influence it by moving, forcing it to attend to its internal states and sensations. The bundled baby has a fresh diaper with some balm, and a full stomach after burping, and he (or she) is laying with no overwhelming internal sensations. No breeze, no fussing around him (or her). The emerging ego function learns what quiet is (This will take the anxious, over attentive ego years of meditation and/or good therapy to learn when he (or she) becomes an overworked desensitized self-estranged yuppie adult). 


So let's summarize:
1) The ego is the mediator of internal and external states.
2) The ego should be taught to rest.
3) The ego can rest when it is well nurtured and fulfilled - in relation to internal and external sensations and demands.
4) This rest is a form of self-calibration, which allows later interactions with the environment or later internal needs to be fulfilled and experienced as relating to the self (not as false self that is attuned to the environment, nor as a desperate attempt to quiet overbearing internal urges). I didn't say this before, so it's good I summarized.

Here's Hedwig's song about the origin of love as a desperate chase of a completing other. Remember that Socrates describes the higher form of love as non functional, like the satisfied lovers in bed:


My comments and personal highlights are:
0.5) Baby mental life is a metaphor for me, I don't care for the pathogenesis...
1) Love can be an interruption.
2) To be alone and quiet, a person's needs must be nurtured and his (or her) relationship with others must be fulfilled. To be together and always missing each other, or frustrating yourself, is a form of loneliness.
3) Fulfillment is not objective, nor absolute. It's a sort of magic that happens when a deeper level of your existence is recognized. We do not chase fulfillment, that would be desperate if we are far from it, and depressive after we get it. We are in search of self actualization. To find a fitting challenge, to be recognized for strengths and shortcomings.
3.5) Exhaustion is another form of fulfillment that has to do with changing our expectations and meeting our limits. What makes exhaustion meaningful and not depressive? That it follows an authentic-self's wish.  
3.75) It is only after we are quiet that we can feel ourselves as autonomous, not as vessels of desires, or as pleasing robots. If we are autonomous, then we are authentic, since we do what we want, we influence the world in our way, our relationships are deeper and more meaningful than functional relations, and what we have done, we have done ourselves. Not to know what quiet is, means that we are always driven by something else, from within or without. We may get everything we want, we may be loved by all, but we will not be satisfied, as our selves are missing in the middle.
4) The unbearable tension circumscribed here is between subject and object. The ego's ability to rest is our ability to be an object, subjectivity as the point of view to nothing, to be still and not to be depressed or desperate.


PS: if anything in my account of Winnicott is wrong, I'd appreciate a reference to what he really says, and a reference to someone who says what I said better, but no need for "oh this is inaccurate" coz I know this already...

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