02 August 2016

Returning to George Eliot Through D.W. Winnicott, and Vice-Versa

For any number of reasons I am intrigued by the narrator of Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. The Narrator’s perspective is retrospective: indeed, as he recalls the scene at Dorlcote Mill our narrator is actually sitting considerably aged in a comfortable chair in his/her own home about to tell the story that concerns the mill on the floss. “Ah, my arms are really benumbed. I have been pressing my elbows on the arms of my chair and dreaming that I was standing on the bridge in front of Dorlcote Mill as it looked one February afternoon many years ago.” I am conscious that the story told is filtered through the consciousness of our narrator who is thoroughly aware of that filter. “Sagacity persuaded that men usually act and speak from distinct motives, with a consciously proposed end in view, is certain to waste its energies on imaginary game.” Our lives are lived in the engagement of simple events in the complex motives that have been set from the environments of our childhoods.
     Winnciott tells us that at the outset we require the perfect facilitating environment where our every wish is met. Eventually, the good enough parent can (hopefully) provide a “graduated failure of adaptation” as the child attains an ability to manage such failure by his/her mental activity and understanding. The perfectly good enough environment becomes necessarily less than perfect. Over time the infant’s actions become for the infant real and the child’s capacity to “use a symbol” when the objective reality delays results. That is, when the good enough parent successfully meets the omnipotence of the child and then slowly withdraws immediate support, the child in the absence of the parent develops the strength to find a substitute for that parent. Symbolization occurs when the child can say to the good enough parent that you have been good enough and dependable enough that I can create parts of you in my mind to comfort me for a period of time—You are a symbol—and if a symbol of you can work, then other symbols will work equally until the cognitive process takes on a life of its own. We create! As our subjective objects meet the objects in the world we exercise our creativity.
     As the individual develops, she thus becomes able to care for herself: to use the environment mentally to facilitate growth and make use of the relative failure of the good enough parent to maintain for herself the perfect environment where every felt need has its fulfillment. In this process the child’s ego builds defenses against the inevitable and even necessary failures of the good enough parent, and these defenses become our public selves and might be exercised in our creativity. This development does not cease in childhood but continues to the state of adult maturity, whatever that maturity might be. Our continuity of being need not ever cease in development nor need our engagement in creativity. Our childhood facilitating environments I learn (from so many sources, not least my therapy) are central to our existence. And so, later in the novel our narrator will inform us that his (or her) walk through the woods takes on meaning only because of his experience as a child—suggesting, of course, that our narrator somehow has been one of the characters in the novel. The narrator says that “what we see in delight might be no more than the faint perception of wearied souls if it were not for the sunshine and the grass in the far-off years, which still live in us and transform our perception.” The suggestion is that our childhood experiences set the patterns for our uses and understandings of the world. In the century before Winnicott, George Eliot was Winnicottian. Ah, but I despair of those childhood experiences that were devoid of “the young yellow-brown foliage of the oaks” that exist “between me and the blue sky, the white star-flowers and the blue-eyed speedwell and the ground ivy at my feet . . .”
     I meet too many of those other environments every day in the classroom.


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