Logo Centro veneto di psicoanalisi Giorgio Sacerdoti

Sezione Locale della Società Psicoanalitica Italiana


Sezione Locale della Società Psicoanalitica Italiana


Following Klein’s pathway to the deeper layers

di R.D. Hinshelwood

After her paper on schizoid mechanisms in 1946, Melanie Klein was very despondent about the influence of her writing.  After multiple disagreements, known as the Controversial Discussions, she had only a small group of colleagues.  Fortunately for her those colleagues were especially talented, and included Hanna Segal and Wilfred Bion.  So, now today there is a great interest in her work, and she has become very important around the world.  For instance, I know that her Collected Writings are being translated into Persian (Farsi) at present.


Why are so many psychoanalysts taking an interest in her work and that of her followers today?  There are two main reasons.  Firstly, the classical psychoanalysis that developed around Anna Freud based on instinct theory and drives has become of much less interest.  It became perhaps too mechanistic and conformist (for instance, Fromm’s Crisis of Psychoanalysis, 1971).  Since then, the search has been for a more personal and humanist set of theories.  The second is that Klein insisted that there is a deeper layer to the unconscious beyond the Oedipal neurotic level.  It is sometimes erroneously called the ‘psychotic level’.


Today two of the most popular authors on PEPWeb are Wilfred Bion and Donald Winnicott, both owing a huge debt to Klein.  In his paper on ‘Instincts and their vicissitudes’ (1915) Freud described an instinct as having a source, an intensity, an aim and an object.  The first three of these were the focus of his immediate followers in Vienna, but the fourth, the object of an instinct, was relatively under-investigated.  The personal and subjective quality of the object was somewhat over looked, perhaps because when Freud began to develop psychoanalysis in the 1890s he had previously been a neuroscientist and medical doctor. 


But, Klein began her interest around 1920 she had been a mother with three children.  These preceding occupations in part focused different interests on psychoanalytic process.  Freud more objective, and Klein more subjective and experiential. There are two important innovations that Klein made from her own background.  And from these have flowed a new paradigm in psychoanalysis developed in the subsequent 70 odd years by close followers and also by more independent thinkers.  The first of these innovations was a new method of clinical work.  In any scientific discipline, whenever a new instrument is invented, novel and unexpected observations emerge which often have a radical impact on current knowledge. Klein’s innovation was that deeper layer to the unconscious.


Similar to Galileo using the telescope and finding the moons of Jupiter, Klein developed the ‘play technique’ for analysing children and could then observe how the human mind was more or less composed of narrative stories.  These stories, often hidden from consciousness, involved an engagement with others, just as toys are played with so that their interactions with each other dominate. 


For instance, a young child that Klein called Rita played out a ritual she went through at night-time.  She had to place a toy elephant by the bed she was going to sleep in, so that it should not let her get up in the night and go into her parents’ bedroom and harm them.  This was a present phantasy in her waking state, before any actual night dreams, and yet it was a narrative played out just like a dream.  Moreover, the anxiety state associated with the game had started when Rita was 18 months old and a new baby was born to the family.  The narrative is obvious, involving the feeling of exclusion and abandonment that led to a wish to do harm that had then to be repudiated and prevented.


Briefly to describe her technique with children which Klein had developed around 1922, she could be said to have followed the general principles of adult psychoanalysis with appropriate revisions:

  1. A child is less capable with language so instead of free associations, Klein substituted the medium of free play as a more appropriate form of expression;
  2. Then she observed that at times the child was inhibited in their play and she decided this was equivalent to resistance in an adult analysis when free associations are interrupted by a silence, etc. Klein therefore noted this point and considered that the play had moved nearer to a point of anxiety, or urgency as she called it;
  3. Then she resorted to words, but simple words that a child would use. She tried to capture for the child the moment of anxiety that had stopped the play, and had led to a resistance to continuing the narrative of the play story;
  4. If the interpretation of the anxiety that had caused the trouble was correct then Klein claimed the inhibition would lessen, and the play would resume — perhaps slowly or half-heartedly at first. The release of inhibition came from the important fact that someone else understood the painful anxiety, and had listened carefully to the child who was then not alone with it.  It is the patient’s telling of the story and not the analyst’s theories that count and which release the inhibition.


The communication of the anxious moment with another who could comprehend the narrative was the therapeutic process.  Psychoanalysis for Klein was then the careful listening in to the patient’s narratives and to learn them from the patient himself.  That contrasts with the tendency to fit whatever the patient says into the metapsychological conceptions of the psychoanalyst (see her recently published Lectures on Technique – Steiner 2017).


Most importantly, the play technique gave an emphasis on the personified objects, the toys as people in the narratives.  This was therefore just the element that was relatively neglected in the classical psychoanalysis developed by the analysts in Vienna (and then in the USA when they emigrated there after 1938).  Without perhaps realising it, Klein had evolved a technique that rectified this relative gap in mainstream psychoanalysis at the time.


Because so much of this dramatic narrative story-telling is hidden she called the narratives ‘unconscious phantasies, a continuous sort of dream life that goes on all the time behind the conscious awareness.  Whilst Freud thought dreams happened at night-time in order to preserve sleep from being disturbed by the tensions of the preceding day, Klein could see with her new technique that children at least had these kinds of dreamt narratives all the time while awake as well.


The second important innovation her followers developed was connected with that.  These narratives occur very young.  In Rita’s case, she was conflicted over her love and need for her parents and her rage at being ousted from their attention – so the super-ego developed in the second year of life (and not as heir to the Oedipus complex as Freud had deduced).  However, from around 1930, and her reporting of an autistic child, Klein developed a new understanding.  This queried whether the disturbance and symptoms were always mental conflicts like Rita’s.  Her analysis of the autistic Dick occurred around the time when she was concentrating on moving from child analysis to adults.  What she began to realise with Dick and confirmed with the free associations with adults was that mental disturbance is not always with unsolvable conflicts in the mind, but is often the problems of a coherence and integrity of the mind itself; such a deficient ego is thereby hindered from resolving its conflict.  She often asserted that ‘deeper layer’ to the unconscious part of our minds. 


This new appreciation of unconscious problems emerged for Klein contemporary with ego-psychology in Vienna.  Both focused on the weakness of the ego, or personality in general, although in different ways.  Klein could see in Dick how his mind had been unable to develop the functions it should have.  He could not play or properly use words.  Whole functions of his personality were missing.  This important observation was a stimulus she reflected on for 15 years.  In particular, how did it connect with the mind as a mass of narratives connected with, or divorced from, reality?


Klein had observed the conflicts Rite and other children struggled with between their loving and their rages.  And as time went on she understood this roughly fitted with Freud’s division of the life instinct from a death instinct.  It was not an exact fit because she was interested in the children’s experience (their feelings of love and hate) rather than the biological conceptions of two instincts.  In 1934 she was pondering the narratives that could be seen explicitly in adults’ free associations, or behind them (Hinshelwood 2005).  But something personal intervened for her.  In April 1934, her son died in a climbing accident.  She was thrown into a deep mourning and took recourse in the psychoanalytic theories of loss and depression as Freud (and Klein’s own analyst, Karl Abraham) had developed them.  Those theories described in detail how a tragic loss could be dealt with by a process of internalising the lost person.  Freud called that, an identification, and Abraham called it an introjection.  She wrote her paper on what is now called the depressive position later that year (published 1935) as a part of her own mourning, it seems.  She was trying to get a more theoretical grasp of what was happening to her, and she evolved it in terms of a narrative.  The lost person in reality could be absorbed into an internal world and protected and resurrected there.  The narrative suggested by Freud was that the loss was the outcome of powerful aggressive feelings towards this loved person who had died, and therefore a painful sense of responsibility (and guilt) as if the narrative were true and the subject’s aggression had caused the death.


She wrote a subsequent paper on her morning three years later (published in 1940).  Later Klein continued with her previous thinking about the disintegrated ego that lost its functions.  However, during the latter part of the 1930s other analysts were writing about the problems of the ego’s coherence, including Freud’s posthumously published paper (in 1940) on splitting of the ego.  Her colleagues who were interested in this disintegration were Marjorie Brierley and Edward Glover who talked of disruption of the ego, and also Melitta Schmideberg, an analysand of Glover’s, and actually Klein’s own daughter, who talked of a ‘bursting’ of the ego.  Winnicott an enthusiastic supporter of Klein at the time talked of the ‘unintegration’ of the ego, a passive falling apart as opposed to a more active bursting. The question for Klein was whether the incoherence was the result of an active agent of destruction.  And if it was an active destruction then what was the agent?


Clearly, she began to connect several things, the anxiety children like Rita have over their aggression towards loved ones, Freud’s understanding that it is aggression which hinders the mourning process, Freud’s idea of an active splitting of the ego for defensive purposes, together with the possibility of an actively disintegrated ego.  It seemed in the end that perhaps the disintegration was a motivated kind of bursting or splitting off bits and pieces by the ego itself.  She added the original notion that it is not only objects that are introjected and projected, but also at times the split-off bits of the ego could also be dealt with in the same way. 


It suggested the radical narratives of personal identity; and how the ego is more fluid than we normally think. Bits of ourselves can inhabit others; and bits of them inhabit us.  This is not completely original, because Freud (1921) described the movement of identity around the interpersonal network of other people as a central component of his group psychology, although Klein never mentions this work of Freud’s.


Klein published these thoughts with detailed clinical illustrations in 1946 in a paper in which she identified the deeper layers of the unconscious as the domain where these schizoid mechanisms of splitting, projection, projective identification and introjection occur.  It did not appeal to many of her colleagues and in fact assisted some to move away from Klein.  Those doubters included Donald Winnicott and Paula Heiman.


From this point Klein spearheaded a programme of research by those who continued to work with her.  Klein’s understanding was that the narratives of self-destructive splitting and projective and introjective process were fundamental to the origins of the mind.  Although mitigated by the effectiveness of the reality principle, these narratives give the basic emotional meaning to the experiences we have from our perceptions and from our bodily sensations.  She thought these powerful narratives were ‘primitive’ but normal at an early stage of infancy. She thought that in development they are mitigated and moulded into use for a thoroughly reality-based relationship with others and the world.


Herbert Rosenfeld, Hanna Segal and later Wilfred Bion were the new generation who eagerly took up research on these schizoid mechanisms to see if they fitted with the narratives of very disturbed patients, many in psychotic states.  The results were only partially positive. In the most disturbed patients these narratives of self-destructive splitting with export and import of the bits did indeed fit, and could bring about a greater respect for reality after interpretations.  However, such improvement in psychotic functioning seemed impossible for patients to sustain for long after the moments of interpretation.  Nevertheless, with the categories of personality disorders (narcissistic and borderline) the narratives of the primitive processes, self-directed destructiveness and loss of ego functioning were therapeutically useful.


After Klein died in 1960, this understanding of the deeper layers has evolved with contributions of many followers and others, increasingly around the world, up to the present day.  Perhaps it is necessary to mention one area to which Klein did not contribute very much but which has benefitted from this idea of primitive narratives.  This is the area of transference and countertransference.  Klein did strongly support the importance of the transference relationship from very early on, however it was rather fixed in the times when Klein encountered psychoanalysis in the 1920s.  Then the transference was known to have positive and deeply negative forms.  However, it was rather assumed that it was the positive impact of a relationship with some understanding analyst that was the therapeutic effect.  It was only her followers who could develop it further.  The work of Rosenfeld (1969) established how the narratives of the primitive layers establish a much more intense, and reality resistant transference. He called it the ‘psychotic transference’ with the profound exchange of parts of the personalities between analyst and analysand. 


Klein did in fact recognise how strenuous the transference relationship is for the analyst, and did try to advise colleagues to avoid collusion to ease the difficulty. However, she did not fully recognise the importance of the countertransference.  Paula Heiman had described this in 1950 at the point at which she becoming independent from Klein. Heimann did not emphasise the severity of the entanglements brought about by the projective and introjective narratives at the primitive level, and so she did not emphasise its strenuous quality. Heiman called it simply a tool for understanding the transference. It could indeed be such a tool, except for that strenuous impact on the analyst and their more troubled parts.  As Klein said, she learned more about herself from the countertransference than about the patient.


Following Klein and directly derived from her descriptions others developed the ideas of container-contained (Bion 1959) pathological organisations (Rosenfeld 1971) and psychic retreats (Steiner 1993).  The importance of the underlying ‘deeper layers of the unconscious, and the consistency of the technique of practice over nearly 80 years has now established Klein’s work as of global historical importance.





Bion W. R. (1959). Attacks on linking, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 40, 308-315.  Reprinted in Bion, W.R. (1967) Second Thoughts. London: Heinemann: pp. 138-152.  In The Complete Works of W.R. Bion 4.  London: Karnac: pp. 247-265.

Freud S. (1915). Instincts and their Vicissitudes.  Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological works of Sigmund Freud, Volume 14, 111-140.  London: Hogarth.

Freud S. (1921). Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.   Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological works of Sigmund Freud, Volume 18, 67-143.  London: Hogarth.

Freud S. (1938). Splitting of the ego in the process of defence. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 23, 271-278.  London: Hogarth.

Fromm E. (1970). The Crisis of Psychoanalysis.  Chicago: Holt, Rinehart, Winston.

Hinshelwood R.D. (2005). Melanie Klein and repression: An examination of some unpublished notes of 1934.  Psychoanalysis and History 8: 5-42.

Klein M. (1930). The importance of symbol-formation in the development of the ego.  In The Writings of Melanie Klein, Volume 1.  London: Hogarth.

Klein M. (1935). A contribution to the psychogenesis of manic-depressive states.  International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 16: 145-174.  Republished in The Writings of Melanie Klein, Volume 1, p. 344-369.  London: Hogarth.

Klein M. (1940). Mourning and its relation to manic-depressive states.  International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 21: 125-153.  Republished (1975) in The Writings of Melanie Klein, Volume 1, p. 344-369.  London: Hogarth.

Klein M. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms.  International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 27: 99-110; republished (1952) in Melanie Klein, Paula Heimann, Susan Isaacs and Joan Riviere, Developments in Psycho-Analysis: 292-320London: Hogarth. Republished in The Writings of Melanie Klein Vol. 3: 1–24.  London: Hogarth.

Rosenfeld H. (1969). On the treatment of psychotic states by psychoanalysis: An historical approach. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 50: 615-631.

Steiner J. (1993). Psychic Retreats: Pathological Organizations in Psychotic, Neurotic and Borderline Patients.  London: Routledge.

Steiner J. (2017). Lectures on Technique by Melanie Klein with Critical Review.  London: Routledge.

Winnicott D.W. (1945). Primitive emotional development.  International Journal of Psychoanalysis 26: 137-143.

R.D. Hinshelwood

Condividi questa pagina: