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by Kelly Noel-Smith


· Introduction
· Freud, Kant and Copernican Revolutions
· The Zero Dimension: life before the birth of the ego
· The First Dimension: the birth of the ego
· The Second Dimension: time and space in the paranoid-schizoid position
· The Third Dimension: time, space and the Oedipus Complex
· Temporal and spatial thought: from ‘O’ to nameless dread
· References


“O God! I could be bounded in a nut-shell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

Shakespeare, Hamlet, (1968) 263

My initial idea for this paper was to discuss some psychoanalytic metaphors for mental space - Freud’s vesicle, Bion’s container, Winnicott’s transitional space, Steiner’s psychic retreats and Meltzer’s claustrum - in terms of the philosophical concepts of being and nothingness. I intended to focus on Sartre’s idea that: “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being - like a worm” (Sartre, 1943, p21) to illustrate the connection between nothingness, as an unconscious mental state in which space and time have no domain, and being, which requires psychic space to be in.

I began the first draft of this paper with a quotation from Beyond the Pleasure Principle (the extract now follows this introduction), in which Freud makes explicit reference to Kant’s thesis that time and space are necessary forms of thought. Initially, I focussed exclusively on space and failed to consider the need to include the concept of time in the discussion. It was only on a re-reading of Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen, which I had drawn on to illuminate the necessary relationship between an inner sense of containment and the perceptual apparatus which links our inner and outer worlds, that I realised the extent of my omission. The Snow Queen’s ending, where ice particles join together to form the word “Eternity”, came to my mind as a symbolic representation of the restoration of a containing capacity, that is, of a spatial function, in Kay, the little boy frozen in the Snow Queen’s palace. It took me a while to acknowledge that eternity was to do with time, not space, whose unbounded form is infinity, not eternity. It was a pivotal moment: it made me realise that space and time do not exist independently of each other: they co-exist, as the way, not the ways, in which we structure our worlds. This realisation changed the emphasis of my paper from one on being in space to one on being in time.

The change in emphasis involved looking at how metaphor is used to describe psychic states: it seems that space is often used as a metaphor for other things, including time, whereas time is rarely used metaphorically but often represented metaphorically. Space, as a metaphor for an internal place in which to reflect and to be, is a theme which runs through religion, philosophy, literature and psychoanalysis: religions variously employ notions of prayer, souls, meditation and life after bodily death; philosophy’s perennial problem is how to explain satisfactorily the interaction between incorporeal mind and external reality; literature, both in its creation and its enjoyment, exploits the inner space in which phantasy and imagination can operate freely; psychoanalysis operates on the basis that free association allows indirect access to an inner psychic space in which dreams take place and in which the unconscious is located. We have a strong desire to distinguish mental from physical and to locate mind in a different place from the corporeal world. In short, we appear to have a fundamental need to give mind a metaphorical space of its own.

By the time that Freud came to write Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he had conceptualised many spatial metaphors to represent his hypotheses about the psychical apparatus and its components, to represent spatially the structural hypotheses of id, ego and superego and the topographical concepts of consciousness, preconscious and unconscious. In the Neuropsychoses of Defence (Freud, 1894), Freud uses the analogy of Plato's cave to illustrate the unconscious: we can never observe the unconscious directly but see shadows of it in dreams, slips of the tongue, jokes and in our culture. In the Interpretation of Dreams (Freud, 1900), he talks about the mental apparatus resembling a microscope and a photographic apparatus, spatial analogies which, in fact, like the retina, only provide two-dimensional representations of their subject matter, rather than three, the additional dimension of which I suggest is provided by the ability to think temporally, to take a perspective based on the temporal possibility of movement and change.

Whilst spatial metaphors abound in psychoanalytic literature, I have become increasingly aware that time does not feature to anything like the same extent. When the concept of time makes its appearance, it is usually inextricably linked to space. This may well represent a tendency to represent temporal relations spatially. Freud states that:

“where possible, dream-work changes temporal relations into spatial ones and represents them as such. In a dream, for instance, one may see a scene between two people who look very small and a long way off, as though one were seeing them through the wrong end of a pair of opera glasses. Here, both the smallness and the remoteness of space have the same significance: what is meant is remoteness in time and we are to understand that the scene is from the remote past” (Freud, 1933, p55).

Time, rather than providing a metaphor, as does space, is often represented metaphorically, and usually spatially. Literally and metaphorically, it is difficult to get hold of:

What, then, is time? If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.”

St Augustine’s Confessions Book XI, quoted in Russell (1993).

The world’s religions provide various accounts of the Creation but all of their stories tell of the beginnings of time and space in a spatial context. In Greek mythology, Chaos, the fathomless place from which everything came, is sometimes conceptualised as the void, sometimes as a chaotic place without meaning: it is a place in which time and space, as necessary organising principles of the mind, cannot operate. In Hindu mythology, the possibility of time and space are contained within the first golden embryo. Orthodox Christianity holds that God created the world from nothing, with St John's account of the Creation starting “In the beginning…”, suggesting that, before the beginning, there was nothing: no time and no space. "In" provides the first spatial location; "the beginning" the first temporal reference point.

Scientific thought has acknowledged the fundamental roles of time and space in our understanding of the material world; it has seen a development from the Newtonian concepts of time and space as absolutes to, and beyond, the position of Einstein who integrated space and time in his theory of relativity which necessarily includes space, time and the position of the observer in both.

Whilst time seems to be implicitly represented in psychoanalytic spatial metaphors, it is not often explicitly discussed. Even writers like Matte-Blanco (1988), Meltzer (1975, 1982) and Grotstein (1978), who use geometric analogies to discuss the dimensions of the mind, do not appear to view temporal thought as a prerequisite for, and an integral part of, spatial thought: Matte-Blanco and Meltzer talk of time as a separate dimension, usually the fourth (in accordance with its place in the theory of relativity); Grotstein talks of the inner dimensions of the mind, but makes little explicit reference to time. Britton, as another example, makes no reference to time in the two texts in which he discusses his concept of triangular space (Britton, 1989, 1999). I suggest that, without time, Britton’s triangular space would be only a three-sided two-dimensional plane, not a three-dimensional space. The awareness of the parental link certainly bounds the container, but the triangle’s elevation from two dimensions to three depends on the operation of temporal as well as, and in conjunction with, spatial thought.

I became aware in writing this paper that, in terms of the spatial metaphors we use to discuss psychic processes, time is a necessary form of thought which structures and underlies them all.

“Time is, therefore, given a priori. In it alone is actuality of appearances possible at all. Appearances may, one and all, vanish; but time (as the universal condition of their possibility) cannot itself be removed” (Kant, 1929, p75).

Freud, Kant and Copernican revolutions

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the paper in which Freud introduces the concept of the death instinct, Freud wrote:

At this point I shall venture to touch for a moment upon a subject which would merit the most exhaustive treatment. As a result of certain psychoanalytic discoveries, we are today in a position to embark on a discussion of the Kantian theorem that time and space are ‘necessary forms of thought’” (Freud, 1920, p299).

Kant’s theorem, that time and space are ‘necessary forms of thought’, is set out in his Critique of Pure Reason (Kant, 1787). Here, he argues convincingly that knowledge does not conform to objects but vice versa: it is Kant’s location of the organising principles of time and space in the mind of the observer to which Freud makes reference in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and again in his New Introductory Lectures .

Kant moved beyond the traditional philosophical dichotomy between rationalism (that is, that knowledge of the world is obtained a priori through the application of reason) and empiricism (that is, that knowledge of the world is derived a posteriori, from experience) to arrive at a synthesis of both positions. The external world is essentially unknowable. Its contents, the things-in-themselves, or noumena, which cause our sensations, are beyond knowledge because they are outside time and space. Our perceptions of things-in-themselves are, however, knowable phenomena, constituting both the sensation arising from the thing-in-itself and its ordering by our mental apparatus into spatial, temporal and causal relationships.

Temporal thought, for Kant, is the primary thought process on which all others depend:

“Time is the formal condition a priori of all appearances whatsoever. Space, as the pure form of all outer intuition, is so far limited: it serves as the a priori condition only of outer appearances. But since all representations, whether they have for their objects outer things or not, belong in themselves, as determinations of the mind, to our internal state; and since this inner state stands under the formal condition of the inner intuition, and so belongs to time, time is an a priori condition of all appearances whatsoever…… Just as I can say a priori that all outer appearances are in space, and are determined a priori in conformity with the relations of space, I can also say, from the principle of the inner sense, that all appearances whatsoever, that is, all objects of the senses, are in time and necessarily stand in time-relations” (Kant, 1929, p77).

Kant discusses the temporal basis of the possibility of change in terms of presence and absence to be used by Bion nearly two hundred years later:

The conception of alteration, and with it the conception of motion, as alteration of place, is possible only through and in the representation of time; and that if this representation were not an a priori (inner) intuition, no concept, no matter what it might be, could render comprehensible the possibility of an alteration, that is, of a combination of contradictorily opposed predicates in one and the same object, for instance, the being and the not-being of one and the same thing in one and the same place(Kant, 1929, p76 (my underline)).

Kant proposed that, whilst we cannot know things-in-themselves, the noumena of the external world, we can experience the sense-data emanating from things-in-themselves set in a temporal-spatial structure of our own making: in other words, it is the way in which we perceive things which structures our experience of them. Time and space are not ‘out there’ but internal thought processes by which we perceive the external world: without them, whatever it is that the phantasy of temporally-bounded mental space gives us - a place in which to think reflectively, creatively, playfully and from which to take a perspective - disappears.

I develop Kant’s proposal, that time and space are necessary forms of thought, throughout this paper and employ his notion of temporal thought as a condition upon which all other thought processes depend. I question, however, Kant’s assumption that time and space, as necessary forms of thought, exist a priori, that is, before experience of the external world. I suggest that temporal and spatial forms of thought arise as a result of experience, not independently from it or logically prior to it. From a psychoanalytic perspective, temporal and spatial ways of thinking are the prerogative of a healthy ego operating under the reality principle: the ego develops as a result of the experience of the outside world. Timeless and spaceless thinking, on the other hand, constitute predominantly id states under the sway of the pleasure principle.

Freud compared the id with Chaos and contrasts this timeless domain which contains no space to reflect on the passing of time with Kant’s notion that time and space are necessary forms of thought:

There is nothing in the id that could be compared with negation; and we perceive with surprise an exception to the philosophical theorem that space and time are necessary forms of our mental acts. There is nothing in the id that corresponds to the idea of time; there is no recognition of the passage of time, and - a thing that is most remarkable and awaits consideration in philosophical thought - no alteration in its mental processes is produced by the passage of time. Wishful impulses which have never passed beyond the id, but impressions, too, which have been sunk into the id by repression, are virtually immortal; after the passage of decades they behave as though they had just occurred (Freud, 1933, p106).

Freud recognised that the type of mental activity which takes place in the unconscious occurs without reference to time: the unconscious is a timeless place.

“The processes of the system Ucs are timeless; i.e. they are not ordered temporally, nor are altered by the passage of time; they have no reference to time at all. Reference to time is bound up, once again, with the work of the system Cs” (Freud, 1915b, p191).

Our phantasies or “wishful impulses” become temporally organised only when they are brought to consciousness:

“They (wishful impulses) can only be recognised as belonging to the past, can only lose their importance and be deprived of their cathexis of energy, when they have been made conscious by the work of analysis, and it is on this that the therapeutic effects of analytic treatment rests to no small extent” (Freud, 1933, p106).

In their raw, unfiltered form, both unconscious states and external things-in-themselves are beyond space and time; they are unknowable:

Just as Kant warned us not to overlook the fact that our perceptions are subjectively conditioned and must not be regarded as identical with what is perceived though unknowable, so psychoanalysis warns us not to equate perceptions by means of consciousness with the unconscious mental processes which are the object. Like the physical, the psychical is not necessarily in reality what it appears to us to be” (Freud, 1915a).

The objects of perception, whether the things-in-themselves of the external world or the psychical processes of the unconscious, are beyond time and space: perception organises their stimuli into a temporal-spatial structure beyond which we cannot go. Temporal and spatial conscious thought is as close as we can get and it is omnipotent and omniscient phantasy to hope otherwise. Time and space are necessary forms of thought in that the ego depends on them: it is for this reason that Freud acknowledged the importance of Kant’s philosophy and, like Kant, linked the revolutionary impact of his own discoveries with that of Copernicus.

Copernican revolutions

Kant declared that his thoughts on space and time triggered a Copernican revolution in philosophy; Freud, who made explicit reference to Kant's thoughts on time and space in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and elsewhere, thought that his introduction of the concept of the unconscious, was similarly revolutionary.

Freud suggested that scientific discoveries have struck three blows to our narcissism. He attributed the first, cosmological, blow to Copernicus, who demonstrated that the earth is not the centre of the universe; the second, biological, blow to Darwin, who showed that we are descended from apes rather than God; and the third, psychological, blow to himself, in his discovery of the unconscious:-

“Human megalomania will have suffered its third and most wounding blow from the psychological research of the present time which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house” (Freud, 1930, p326).

All three blows are to do with our perceptions of time and space and our position in it: all three push us out of a mistakenly assumed position of centrality or superiority; all three bring to mind for me the impact for the Oedipal child of the knowledge of the parental relationship which, if acknowledged, forcibly ejects the child from the central and exclusive relationship previously thought to have been enjoyed with one, other or both of his or her parents:

“The little girl likes to regard herself as what her father loves above all else; but the time comes when she has to endure a harsh punishment from him and is cast out of her fool’s paradise. The boy regards his mother as his own property; but he finds one day that she has transferred her love and solicitude to a new arrival” (Freud, 1924b, p315).

Freud’s language makes implicit reference to the changes caused by time: “the time comes” and “he finds one day”: spatial representations of where the child stands in relation to his or her parents have to be reorganised because of the inevitable changes wrought in the outside world by the passing of time, changes which can either be acknowledged or denied.

Time, space and the ego

It seems to me that there are three ways to approach the question of where and how time and space, as necessary forms of thought, arise: first, by looking at the difference between the temporal and spatial thoughts of the ego, and the timeless and spaceless thoughts of the id; second, by looking at how time and space is represented in and by the bodily ego; and third, using dimensionality as a means to analyse the different quality of temporal and spatial thought depending on our different stages of psychosexual development, that is, by looking at the dimensions through which the developing ego relates to the world.

I am not a mathematician or a physicist: my understanding of geometry and the theory of relativity is slight. I am aware that Euclidean geometry, used by Matte-Blanco and Grotstein, in particular, in their discussions of the dimensionality of the mind, conceptualises the point of symmetry as lacking a dimension, a line as having one dimension, a plane as having two dimensions and a shape-space as having three. The fourth dimension, introduced by the theory of relativity, is that of time: the fourth dimension is the space-time continuum.

I have come to wonder how useful the concept of time is as a separate dimension, in psychoanalytic theory, rather than as a necessary form of thought which underlies all dimensions. In other words, if we are to represent time in spatial metaphors, as we seem to do, sometimes unwittingly, would it not be more useful to remain with the three spatial dimensions, acknowledging that time underlies them all? Phantasies and dreams of frozen or arid landscapes, places of paralysis where all movement is feared, could be then understood as representations of the disruption of temporal thought, as damage to temporal ego function, represented in a spatial way.

Using only the three spatial dimensions, and being aware that, in psychical terms, time structures them all, the point of symmetry in the zero-dimension might be conceptualised as the timeless and spaceless state of undifferentiated, intra-uterine, union with the mother; the line as a one-dimensional state initiated when some difference in states is acknowledged (perhaps, and I would think quite likely, on or very shortly after birth); the plane as the two-dimensional state of relating to a world of part objects in the paranoid-schizoid position, through two-dimensional mucous membranes; and the third dimension as that of Britton's triangular space: a place in which to reflect, integrate observation and experience and begin whole object relating in the depressive position. Time runs through each of these psychic dimensions: movement takes place within them and between them and this movement, or change, is a property of time, not of space.

I suggested above some approaches that might be taken to address the question of how and where temporal and spatial thought begins. The ego is common to each approach and time and space, as necessary forms of thought, are the property of the ego. The following chapters therefore look at the development of the ego from birth, which I think is the moment when and where a temporal awareness of absence and presence is first initiated. The chapters are structured by reference to spatial dimensions, a form used by, amongst others, Meltzer, Matte-Blanco and Grotstein to describe psychic life. Like Klein’s paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions, however, I do not think that dimensions should be viewed as separate stages in development but as ways of being between which we can move backwards and forward.

The Zero Dimension: life before the birth of the ego

The zero dimension is a place of non-differentiation, a point of total symmetry with a foetus having its needs met and existing in a state of equilibrium (Grotstein, 1978). The psychological state associated with this point of symmetry, lacking both space, to which Grotstein refers, and time, to which he makes little reference, is a narcissistic one:

There is no differentiation. The container of psychic space and the contained are identical. It describes the domain of primary process and of the experience of autism. Here is no space for the manoeuvring of thought”(ibid p57).

In On Narcissism (Freud, 1914), Freud talks about this stage, where subject and object have not been separated: he describes a primordial state of non-differentiation, where baby is still mixed up with mother and the boundaries between me and not-me have not yet been established. Freud suggests that, in this state of primary narcissism, the infant phantasises that he or she is omnipotent; the source of total satisfaction of his or her needs. It is a state which becomes asymmetrical very quickly, as the equilibrium of the new-born baby is disturbed by reality.

William James’ description neatly captures the likely impact of reality on a new-born baby:

The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin and entrails all at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion” (James, 1890).

The blooming, buzzing confusion is, I suggest, the catalyst for the beginnings of temporal and spatial thought. The confused state is one of loss: absent is the space within the mother’s body, the umbilical cord which provided constant feeding, and the place where breathing does not take place; present is something different. However conceptualised, reality has intruded; the fact that the intra-uterine experience, whatever that might have been, is one which becomes an imagined place of bliss, after the intrusion of reality following birth (Segal, 1991), suggests the extent of the phantasised loss of that timeless and spaceless place we inhabit before reality begins. It may be that the form of the unconscious, which is timeless and spaceless, is based on uterine life in some way. It may be, too, that the bodily ego contains a representation of internal space, based on a phantasy of uterine life, and a representation of time, based on the phantasy of the external reality which initially severed the baby from the mother. It is not too tenuous a link, I think, to extend this idea of time being attributed to external reality to include a phantasy of the father as someone who imposes time on the baby: the father is, like external reality, likely to be perceived as an object which distances the baby further from the phantasised timeless and spaceless place it enjoyed with its mother. I discuss this idea further when looking at the Oedipus complex.

The zero dimension is, I suggest, a state of non-experience, in that temporal and spatial thinking does not exist to give structure to it. I believe that the philosophical concept of nothingness is linked to the zero dimension: it is the worm in Sartrean theory: “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being - like a worm” (Sartre, 1943, p21) and the black lightning in Golding’s novel:

“Sleep is where we touch what is better left unexamined. There the whole of life is bundled up, dwindled. There the carefully hoarded and enjoyed personality, our only treasure and at the same time our only defence must die into the ultimate truth of things, the black lightning that splits and destroys all, the positive unquestionable nothingness.”

William Golding, Pincher Martin, (1956, p91).

Life in the zero dimension is not, I think, the stuff of conscious memory: there is nothing, because there was no temporal or spatial structure in place to think about that time and place, to remember; rather, the idea of life in the zero dimension is the phantasy of what was lost when reality disturbed us into life, into the first dimension which brings the ego into existence.

The First Dimension: the birth of the ego

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Freud, 1920), Freud addresses the question of how we deal with the stimuli with which we are bombarded from birth, stimuli which destroy the state of symmetry of the zero dimension. He introduces the idea of a vesicle bounded by a protective shield, a spatial metaphor, to illustrate the earliest structure that we put into place to make meaning out of the otherwise intolerable stimuli from the external world. I find the vesicle and its protective shield one of Freud’s most interesting spatial metaphors. It is of note that it is a metaphor in which Freud explicitly tries to represent time spatially.

Freud asks us to imagine an organism in its most simple state: an “undifferentiated vesicle of a substance that is susceptible to stimulation”. The state of non-differentiation lasts only as long as there is no stimulation: it is the state of the zero dimension in which the necessary temporal and spatial ways of thought which allow us to make meaning of the world do not operate. The vesicle develops a shield to filter the otherwise overwhelming stimuli of the outside world, to allow necessary temporal and spatial ways of thinking to develop:

“The little fragment of living substance is suspended in the middle of an external world charged with the most powerful energies; and it would be killed by the stimulation emanating from these if it were not provided with a protective shield against stimuli.” (Freud, 1920, p298).

Freud suggests that the outermost layer of the vesicle, which is ceaselessly bombarded with stimuli from the external world, becomes “baked through” and inorganic; through its death, however, it provides a protective shield which filters external stimuli and allows only a manageable part of them through to the underlying layers. Freud writes that protection against external stimuli is almost more important than their reception. It seems to me that it is the ego which is represented by this ‘baked through’ part of the vesicle: Freud says, in a later paper, that: "It is easy to see that the ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world." (Freud, 1923, p363).

Freud makes three important points about the nature of the shield:

1.  it can not operate as a defence against internal stimuli;

2.  it defends the organism from reality through organisation of stimuli; and

3.  it can be breached.

Freud’s first point, that the shield can not operate as a defence against internal stimuli, involves looking at the death instinct, an innate, intolerable, internal stimulus. According to Klein, it is projected outwards in the first projection, the projection which brings the ego into existence. The second point, that the shield defends the organism by organising stimuli into manageable portions of time and space, means looking at the developing ego’s ability to deal with reality within a temporal and spatial structure, one which increases in dimensions as the ego grows more robust. The third point, that the shield can be breached, means looking at how temporal and spatial ways of thinking become disrupted when the fabric of the ego is torn.

The first projection is the move to the first dimension and the containment of the projection vitally affects subsequent dimensional growth.

The projection which brings the ego into being

Freud states that the shield cannot offer protection from stimulation arising from within: where there is too great a degree of displeasure from within, projection takes place, so that what is too unpleasant to retain is expelled into the external world against which the shield can then act as a defence:-

“……there is a tendency to treat them [‘internal excitations’] as though they were acting, not from the inside, but from the outside, so that it may be possible to bring the shield against stimuli into operation as a means of defence against them. This is the origin of projection, which is destined to play such a large part in the causation of pathological processes” (Freud, 1920, p301).

There are certain stimuli from within, then, which are so intolerable that they are treated as if they arise from the external world. The most intolerable stimulus is what Freud discovered to be the death instinct. I want to discuss this in more detail, given the reconceptualisation of the death instinct from a drive to die (Freud), to the threat of annihilation (Klein), to a fear of death (Bion, 1970).

The death instinct

The clinical phenomena of repetition compulsion; melancholia - depression - , which Freud was to describe as ‘a pure culture of the death instinct’; masochism; the negative therapeutic reaction; and the background carnage of the First World War: together, these prompted Freud to develop his notion of the death instinct. Although Beyond the Pleasure Principle is the paper in which the concept of the death instinct is specifically introduced, it is On Narcissism (Freud 1914) where Freud reconfigures his metapsychology in terms of life and death instincts. It is in this paper where the ego instincts, driving for self-preservation, and the sexual instincts, driven to find an object through which their psychic energy can be discharged, merge into a life instinct inviting Freud, in pursuit of the balance of duality, to discover its counterpart, the death instinct. From this point on, Freud accounts for mental phenomena in terms of the fusion and diffusion of binary instincts: Eros, the life instinct, which encompasses the sexual and self-preservation instincts; and the death instinct, which drives to return organic life back to its inanimate state:

“If we are to take it that everything dies for internal reasons - becomes inorganic once again - then we shall be compelled to say that ‘the aim of all life is death’ and, looking backwards, that ‘inanimate objects existed before living ones’” (Freud, 1911b, p311).

Freud drew attention to the constructive nature of the life instinct and the destructive nature of the death instinct:

"The aim of the first of these basic instincts is to establish greater unities and to preserve them thus- in short, to bind them together; the aim of the second is, on the contrary, to undo connections and so to destroy things" (Freud, 1940b, p379).

In its most virulent form, when turned inwards, the bloating presence of the death instinct destroys the ability to think temporally and spatially: I discuss this in the final chapter.

The idea of the innate death instinct being an intolerable stimulus, and projected out in the form of aggression, was an idea taken forward by Klein and Kleinian analysts. Klein linked the death instinct to envy as part of innate human destructiveness and elaborated its role in envious attacks. She suggests that, from birth, we are dominated by fears of annihilation by the death instinct and that the first and vital operation of the life instinct is to project outwards this innate fear. Klein extends Freud's ideas in an important way in her proposal that the ego is called into being on, or as a result of, that first projection:

The threat of annihilation by the death instinct within is, in my view - which differs from Freud’s on this point - the primordial anxiety, and it is the ego which, in the service of the life instinct - possibly even called into operation by the life instinct - deflects to some extent that threat outward” (Klein, 1957, p190).

The fear of annihilation seems to me to be an essential part of the process of moving from a state of nothingness to a state of being, from lacking mental space, to obtaining and maintaining it. The fear, and its evacuation, clears the first metaphorical space for the ego to exist in and from which psychical (emotional and intellectual) development can begin. The first ‘present’ state contains within it some primitive consciousness of existence that was not there before and which wishes to survive: I think that this is the life instinct. The fear of annihilation, conceptualised by Freud as the death instinct, I believe is a fear of experiencing a return to that stage of non-existence which was prior to the temporal awareness, that is, a fear of being temporally aware of no time, a fear of being in nothingness.

The beginnings of temporal thought

Freud tentatively suggests that part of the protection offered by the shield is to enable an abstract notion of time to develop, a faculty of ego-function:

“Our abstract idea of time seems to be wholly derived from the method of working of the system Pcpt-Cs and to correspond to a perception on its own part of that method of working. This mode of functioning may perhaps constitute another way of providing a shield against stimuli. I know that these remarks must sound very obscure, but I must limit myself to these hints” (Freud, 1920, p300).

Freud does not make any reference to an abstract notion of space developing. Whilst it would be in accordance with Freud’s thought to suggest that spatial organisation and processing of stimuli is another part of the protective shield’s function, Freud’s exclusive focus on time accords with Kant’s thesis that temporal structuring underlies all other thought processes.

Freud looks at the beginnings of temporal thought in two other papers: in A Note upon the Mystic Writing-Pad (1925a), Freud suggests that the unconscious sends out “feelers” to the external world, which it withdraws as soon as it receives stimulation; it is from these feelers that we begin to develop our abstract notion of time. This idea is re-stated in Freud’s paper Negation (Freud, 1925b), where Freud suggests that it is the ego which sends out feelers to the external world. Presumably, the contact/withdrawal pattern initiates an understanding by the ego that the sequence is temporally ordered: the feelers, in more human terns, can be seen to operate in Freud’s observation of a little boy playing “fort”, “da” with a cotton reel (Freud, 1920): throwing it out of sight imposes an absence in the real world, the cotton reel is “gone”. Reeling it back into sight again replaces absence with presence: “there”. The play is with concepts of time and space: the reel is alternately here, and gone; present now and then, absent then and now. It is play with temporal and spatial thought.

It may be that the change to the vesicle from a state of undifferentiation to one which is aware of a temporal difference between now - reality - and then - the nothingness state of the zero dimension - allows primitive, linear, thoughts, thoughts of one dimension focused very much on the object with whom the baby was so recently conjoined, thoughts of the mother whom Grotstein refers to as approaching up and down the line:

“As the infant begins to accept the awareness of separation, the experience of his universe becomes that of a line (series of points)……The universe of the line leaves no room for ambiguity. There is a polarisation of spatial experience. Mother is either approaching up the line or departing down the line……….It is a closed system which emphasises quantitative considerations rather than qualitative. Patients living in this domain are afraid to give feelings for fear of losing body contents” (Grotstein, 1978, p57).

The fear of loss of body contents may be linked to the fear of the loss of the ego. Bick, in her paper The experience of the skin in early object relations, seems to relocate Freud’s spatial metaphor of vesicle and shield in the body of the infant: the vesicle becomes the baby and the shield becomes the skin.

The skin acts as the first and temporary boundary between inner and outer for the infant who, in the early days, does not experience the parts of his or her personality as being bound together. This is in accordance with Freud’s view that the ego is ‘the mental projection of the surface of the body’: the ego is the link between inner and outer: it imposes a temporal and spatial structure on the stimuli and acts as a boundary. Bick suggests that the skin functions as a container for the unintegrated parts of the infant before a containing function is internalised:

"This internal function of containing parts of the self is dependent initially on the introjection of an external object experienced as capable of fulfilling this function. Later, identification with this function supersedes the unintegrated state and gives rise to the phantasy of internal and external spaces." (Bick, 1968, p484).

Bick concludes that the phantasy of internal and external space develops as a consequence of the introjection of a containing object. In this one-dimensional state, then, with the skin acting as a rudimentary container, it is not surprising that Grotstein found evidence of fear of loss of bodily contents; the dissolution of the one-dimensional ego would be represented psychically by the loss of the skin and a consequent spilling of inner into the outer timeless and spaceless void of the zero dimension.

Introduction of the reality principle and the first differentiation between inner and outer

According to Freud, our first reaction is to turn away in hatred from the external reality which disturbs us into life:

Hate, as a relation to objects, is older than love. It derives from the narcissistic ego’s primordial repudiation of the external world with its outpouring stimuli” (Freud, 1915a, p117).

The outpouring of stimuli from the external, real, world, interrupts the operation of the pleasure principle, the concept of which was introduced by Freud in his paper, Formulations on Two Principles of Mental Functioning (Freud, 1911b), as a primary process striving towards pleasure and away from displeasure. Sleep, according to Freud, provides an example of mental life as it was before reality intruded; a deliberate rejection of reality and the possibility of wish-fulfilment through dreaming allowing hallucinated satisfaction.

Dreaming is a process governed by the pleasure principle and is one which takes place without reference to time: it is where we give free rein to our unconscious omnipotent phantasies concerning time:

“The ancient belief that dreams reveal the future is not indeed entirely devoid of truth. By representing a wish as fulfilled the dream certainly leads us into the future; but this future, which the dreamer accepts as his present, has been shaped in the likeness of the past by the indestructible wish” (Freud, 1900, p783).

It is only when there is a failure of expected satisfaction, an experience of the absence of wish-fulfilment, that the hallucination has to be abandoned and the psychic apparatus has to reach out into the external world: as reality progressively encroaches on the baby’s phantasies of omnipotence, the baby has to confront the consequential frustration of the operation of the pleasure principle and decide whether to evade reality or act on the external world to modify it. The reality principle, the operation of which takes into account the real world and the possibility of one’s actions having an impact on it, governs this ego function:

"The psychical apparatus has to decide to form a conception of the real circumstances in the external world and to endeavour to make a real alteration in them. A new principle of mental functioning was thus introduced; what was presented to the mind was no longer what was agreeable but what was real, even if it happened to be disagreeable. The setting up of the reality principle proved to be a momentous step" (Freud, 1911b, p36).

In Instincts and Vicissitudes (Freud, 1915a), Freud considers the first distinction that the infant is able to make between his or her inner and outer worlds. We learn to distinguish between the stimuli which can be avoided by muscular action and those which can not. The former, Freud suggests, are understood as coming from the outside world; the latter, from within. Stimuli from within prompt the mind to act on its instincts: an instinct is described by Freud as "a psychical representative of the stimuli originating from within the organism and reaching for the mind, as a measure for the demand made upon the mind for work in connection with its body". Freud describes instincts as crossing and re-crossing the "frontier" between mind and body. He says that:

“The perceptual substance of the living organism will thus have found in the efficacy of its muscular activity a basis for distinguishing between an “outside” and an “inside” (Freud, 1915a, p115).

The ‘perceptual substance’ which links the external world and its perceiver might be one of two things: Freud is not clear, I think, whether the ‘perceptual substance’ is a sense organ, for example, the eye, perceiving the world - which would be consistent with his 1911 paper, where the adaptation of the psychic apparatus to external reality "heightens the importance of the sense organs directed towards their external world and of the consciousness attached to them" (Freud, 1911b, p37), - or whether it constitutes that part of the bodily ego through which relating takes place in one of the stages Freud discusses in The Three Essays on Sexuality (Freud, 1905), for example, in the oral stage, the mouth. It could, of course, be both: the eye, which is the means whereby we perceive three-dimensionally what is presented to us two-dimensionally, is used by the ego to seek out the object to satisfy the aim of the instinct. Initially, the object sought is the breast.

The Second Dimension: part objects, time and space in the paranoid-schizoid position

“As further development takes place, some object differentiation begins to occur. This incipient differentiation causes the line to expand to a plane. In this dimension objects and experiences are believed to be two-dimensional, flat without depth…..….Patients living in this domain seem to lack depth in their personalities and do not perceive in depth in terms of the world around them, and the relationships they encounter. Conventional, clichéd and sterile are the attributes of the personalities living on the planar surface. Catastrophe is encountered when one slips off the plane and goes over the edge” (Grotstein, 1978, p57).

The oral and anal stages, discovered by Freud, and characterised by Klein as constituting the paranoid-schizoid position, see two-dimensional relating to part objects. During the oral stage, the part-object which satisfies the drive to feed is the present or absent nipple stimulating the mucous membrane of the lips and tongue. In the anal stage, the part-object which satisfies the drive to expel or retain faeces is the present or absent stool stimulating the mucous membrane of the anus. The presence-absence sequence continues the temporal and spatial means of thinking, I believe, in its here and there (spatial) and now and then (time) pattern or rhythm. The very texture of the body parts, mucous membranes, which experience the pattern of absence and presence in this paranoid-schizoid position, import dimensionality: a mucous membrane seems to me to be a two-dimensional skin through which to relate to two-dimensional part objects, whereas whole-object relating contains within in it the idea of a third-dimension.

The infant’s relationship to the mother’s breast, the part-object to which the baby relates in this early paranoid-schizoid position, is vital to both emotional and intellectual growth (Bion’s L(ove), H(ate) and K(nowledge)). Klein realised that the introjection of a good object, typically the mother’s breast, is a “precondition for normal development” (Klein, 1928) and Bion, who extended Klein’s ideas of projection and projective identification in his concept of “container/contained” (Bion, 1962b) showed that emotional growth and the development of non-psychotic thought processes depend on the initial and continued containment of the infant’s projections.

In its containing function, the breast can allow the infant to internalise its own sense of self as a container, vital for emotional growth; in receiving the infant’s projections, the breast limits the extent of the infant’s projective identification, preventing the pathological stream of uncontained projections which Bion links to psychosis, that is, to thought processes which are not structured spatially or temporally. In its absence, the breast initiates the infant’s thinking process to deal with the concept of something which was present now being absent - the first thought, then, being to do with both time and space in the processing of the present absence.


The contents of the first projection, which brings the ego into existence, must be contained if what is reintrojected is not to be experienced as even more devastating than the contents of the projection, and if projection is not to become a pathological process. Klein's proposal that the first projection is of the death instinct needs to be considered in the context of Bion's extension of that idea to include the (phantasised) containing capacity of the recipient of the projection.

Bion transforms Freud’s concept of the death instinct into the baby’s fear of dying, and shows how vital it is for future development that this projection is contained:

Normal development follows if the relationship between the infant and the breast permits the infant to project a feeling, say, that it is dying into the mother, and to reintroject it after its sojourn in the breast has made it tolerable to the infant psyche. If the projection is not accepted by the mother, the infant feels that its feeling that it is dying is stripped of such meaning as it has. It therefore reintrojects, not a fear of dying made tolerable, but a nameless dread” (Bion, 1962a, p116).

Bion suggests that a containing mother, capable of maternal reverie, can receive her infant’s projections and process them for the infant who will then be able to reintroject the now detoxified projections in a more manageable way.

Maternal reverie is described by Bion as:

“that state of mind which is open to the reception of any “objects” from the loved object and is therefore capable of reception of the infant’s projective identifications whether these are felt by the infant to be good or bad. In short, reverie is a factor of the mother’s alpha function” (Bion, 1962b, p36).

Emotion is the link between the mother and baby:

“Container and contained are susceptible of conjunction and permeation by emotion. Thus conjoined or permeated or both they change in a manner usually described as growth. When disjoined or denuded of emotion they diminish in vitality, that is, approximate, to inanimate objects” (Bion, 1962b, p90).

The process of denudation referred to by Bion is one of excessive projective identification. Projective identification is not, in itself, pathological; it is only when it becomes inflexible and irreversible, through non-containment, that it impoverishes the psyche from which it has been split off and distorts the object into whom it has been projected, such object, depending on the nature of the projection, being either idealised or perceived as persecutory. It is to this which Bion draws our attention when looking at what it is which differentiates psychotic from non-psychotic personalities (Bion, 1957). Non-containment can lead to psychosis, in that the failure to halt the ever-increasing stream of projections causes the part of the psychic apparatus which is concerned with the awareness of internal and external reality, called into activity by the demands of the reality principle and, in particular, that part concerned with the consciousness attached to the sense organs, to split into minute particles. These are then expelled to penetrate or engulf their objects who (or which) are then experienced as ‘bizarre’. This fragmentation represents the loss of the structuring afforded by temporal and spatial organisation.

Containment provides the infant with its own rudimentary containing function. Using Bion’s spatial metaphor, the experience of containment provides the infant with a primitive and fragile container of its own which contains the space in which the inchoate ego, brought into being by the first projection, can develop. Non-containment sees the projection return in the form of ‘nameless dread’, something which hinders creative thought processes in that the structuring afforded by temporal and spatial forms of thought struggles, and sometimes fails, to develop.

Containment is the essence of the transitional stage from the first to the second dimension, that of the paranoid-schizoid position, and then to that of the third dimension, the depressive position.

In his paper, Attacks on Linking, Bion states that a failure of containment leads to thought disorder:

“Denial of the use of this mechanism, either by the refusal of the mother to serve as a repository for the infant’s feelings, or by the hatred and envy of the patient who cannot allow the mother to exercise this function, leads to a destruction of the link between infant and breast and consequently to a severe disorder of the impulse to be curious on which all learning depends” (Bion, 1959, p98).

This idea of failure of containment is developed by Meltzer et al, in Explorations in Autism, where they suggest that a failure to create a three-dimensional organisation of life-space arises where:

“The maternal object is experienced as patent, its orifices unprotected, devoid of sphincters, open to the weather and the marauder alike”(Meltzer et al, 1975, p19).

They suggest that the post-autistic personality is similar to that of a baby in the first month of life: both depend on an object to perform their ego-functions. Autistic children experience “an absolute possession of an unpossessable object, rich in surface qualities but devoid of substance, a paper-thin object without a delineated inside. This produces a primal failure of the containing function of the external object, and thus of the formation of the concept of the self as container (ibid).”

Failure of containment, then, precludes the possibility of a move from the second, planar (‘paper-thin’) dimension to the third, with a consequential failure in the development of temporal and spatial thought. Thoughts in the first dimension were primitive and linear (Grotstein’s reference to mother moving up and down the line was illustrative): in the second dimension, thinking proper begins, according to Bion, to deal with thoughts of absence and presence, that is, with the location of objects, including the self, in time and space. For Bion, thinking comes into existence to process thoughts already accumulating within the mind.

Temporal and spatial thought in the second dimension

Bion talks about thinking coming into existence to deal with thoughts, that is, that thoughts exist prior to thinking about them. The absent breast is the prototype of the first thought: “no breast - therefore a thought” (Bion, 1970). Thinking, whether psychotic or not, depends on the infant’s way of dealing with the absent breast, a concept which is to do with both time (the breast is not here now) and space (the absence of the good object is experienced concretely). Where a preconception is met with no realisation, for example, when the preconception of the present breast is met with the absent mother’s breast, the absence is experienced as a concrete presence and a ‘no-breast’ is experienced as a potentially bad object.

The next step is crucial: if the baby decides to evade the frustration caused by the absence, the ‘thought’ of the internal no-breast becomes something to be evacuated, something which Bion says is ‘a bad object, indistinguishable from a thing-in-itself, fit only for evacuation’. This evasion of reality suggests the dominance of the pleasure principle over the reality principle and initiates a process of excessive and pathological projective identification.

“The model I propose for this development is a psyche that operates on the principle that evacuation of a bad breast is synonymous with obtaining substenance from a good breast. The end result is that all thoughts are treated as if they were indistinguishable from bad internal objects; the appropriate machinery is felt to be, not an apparatus for thinking the thoughts, but an apparatus for ridding the psyche of accumulations of bad internal objects. The crux lies in the decision between modification or evasion of frustration” (Bion, 1962a, p112).

Excessive projective identification evacuates those parts of the psyche that structure reality temporally and spatially: refuge is sought from the collapsing dimensions thus effected.

Meltzer, in his description of mental life in the spatial terms of internal psychic compartments, looks at the refuge phantasised to be in the mother’s body:

The “worlds” in which human mental experience takes place are various, at least four in number, fundamentally: outside, inside and the interior of internal and external objects. To this must be added, in the case of schizophrenic phenomena, a fifth world which is essentially “nowhere” that is, having no dynamic or structural links with the other four” (Meltzer, 1992, p117).

Meltzer’s patients’ psychic retreats are refuges inside the mother’s body: her head; breast; vagina; and rectum, a place of “absolute loveliness in a world of bizarre objects” (Meltzer, 1992, p191). The geographical location of the fifth world of schizophrenia is one which can not be rendered meaningful by bounding it in time and space: being nowhere precludes the possibility of time and space: these necessary forms of thought have no place in the fifth world.

The bizarre objects are the phantasised recipients, whether animate or inanimate, penetrated by the evacuations referred to by Bion as missiles:

“If intolerance of frustration is dominant, steps are taken to evade perception of the realisation by destructive attacks. In so far as pre-conception and realisation are mated mathematical conceptions are formed but they are treated as if indistinguishable from things-in-themselves and are evacuated at high speed as missiles to annihilate space. In so far as space and time are perceived as identical with a bad object that is destroyed, that is to say, a no-breast, the realization that should be mated with the pre-conception is not available to complete the conditions necessary for the formation of a conception. The dominance of projective identification confuses the distinction between the self and the external object. This contributes to the absence of any perception of two-ness since such an awareness depends on the recognition of a distinction between subject and object.

The relationship with time was graphically brought home to me by a patient, who said over and over again that he was wasting time- and continued to waste it. The patient’s aim is to destroy time by wasting it. The consequences are illustrated in the description in Alice in Wonderland of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party - it is always four o’clock” (Bion, 1962a, p113)

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is one of chaotic activity. It seems to me that the consequences of the psychic attack on time are better illustrated in the dreams of patients discussed by Segal (1997) and others, where landscapes are frozen or arid and where movement is feared: in these spatial metaphors of psychic space, the destruction of temporal thought is represented by lack of movement and change, both of which require an idea of time to take place. I discuss this in more detail in the context of the death instinct’s attack on temporal and spatial thought.

Drawing on Freud’s ideas in Mourning and Melancholia (Freud, 1917) and Two Principles of Mental functioning (Freud, 1911b), it seems that there are two ways in which further thoughts about the absent breast can be dealt with: the first depends on an ever-increasing sense of inner containment to allow absence, that is, loss, to be acknowledged and mourned: the reality of the breast not being here, now, can be spatially and temporally thought about, its loss mourned and action taken to recover it. Alternatively, where there is a lack of containment, the absence of the breast will continue to be experienced concretely as something present, its presence precluding the space necessary to contemplate, accept and mourn its loss. Freud, in Mourning and Melancholia, talks of ‘the economics of mental pain’ (Freud, 1917): it seems to me that, in the absence of containment, the cost of mourning the absence of the breast is too high for the fragile ego, which lacks the necessary temporal and spatial thinking capacity, to undertake.

A failure to incorporate a containing function, whether through a lack of maternal reverie or an excess of envy in the infant, or a combination of both, leads to a failure to negotiate the Oedipus complex and thus of the development of three-dimensional psychic space, bounded by time. It is a principal tenet of Kleinian thought that the quality of the infant’s relationship to the breast, and the mother, influences the outcome of the Oedipus complex. Where the relationship is good, the containing space already established within the infant will allow the development of understanding that the father’s relationship to both the mother and to the infant is of benefit, not of detriment (Bion, 1970). One of the functions of-K is to attack links and, as I shall discuss in the next chapter, the attainment of three-dimensional psychic space depends on acknowledging the most difficult link of all: the one which exists between the parents and which excludes the child. Britton suggests that, if an individual has not introjected a secure maternal object by the time that the awareness of the nature of the parental relationship begins, the oedipal situation is denied because knowledge of it will be “felt to initiate a mental catastrophe”(Britton, 1989).

The third dimension: time, space and the Oedipus Complex

As symbiosis proceeds to separation-individuation and persecutory anxiety transforms into the depressive concern of the depressive position: the space container of the mind has achieved a view of its objects in depth and with depth (contents). This is the domain of the third dimension.” (Grotstein, 1978, p57).

The previous chapter highlighted the importance of containment for emotional and intellectual growth through the increasing dimensionality of temporal and spatial thought. The evacuation of the fear of death into a mother capable of reverie allows a baby with tolerable feelings of envy to reintroject not only the now manageable contents of the initial projection but also an idea of the maternal function of containment. This leads to a development of the internalisation of a secure sense of self as container, a necessary precursor to a successful negotiation of the Oedipus complex. Successful containment provides a phantasy of psychic space; a successful negotiation of the Oedipus complex integrates this with perspective, an integration which I suggest bounds the space temporally.

Britton suggests that the acknowledgement of the parental relationship allows ‘triangular space’ to develop, a concept which he introduced in his seminal paper, The Missing Link: Parental Sexuality in the Oedipus Complex:

“The acknowledgement by the child of the parents’ relationship with each other unites his psychic world, limiting it to one world shared with his two parents in which different object relationships can exist. The closure of the oedipal triangle by the recognition of the link joining the parents provides a limiting boundary for the internal world. It creates what I call a ‘triangular space’ - i.e., a space bounded by the three persons of the oedipal situation and all their potential relationships. It includes, therefore, the possibility of being a participant in a relationship and observed by a third person as well as being an observer of a relationship between two people” (Britton, 1989, p86).

Successful containment, followed by acknowledgement of the parents’ exclusive relationship, creates this triangular space, a spatial metaphor of, I suggest three-dimensional proportions. Acknowledgement of the creative function of the father, through awareness of the penis-as-link (Birksted-Breen, 1996), elevates, I suggest, the two-dimensional world of the paranoid-schizoid position, with its primitive defence mechanisms of splitting, idealisation and projective identification, into the three-dimensional world of the depressive position.

In the absence of containment, the Oedipal triangle cannot be internalised. The creative and productive nature of the parental couple will be denied and the reality of the spatial and temporal differences between the sexes and the generations avoided through ‘Oedipal Illusions’ (Britton 1989), ‘turning a blind eye’ (Steiner 1985) and other defensive manoeuvring within the second or first dimensions. Using the spatial metaphor of psychic retreats, Steiner discusses the development of pathological organisations which perpetuate these retreats, sometimes idealised, sometimes cruel places in which life is only just sustained. The structure of the psychic retreat represents spatially a lack of three-dimensional time and space: it is a “narcissistic world where differences between the sexes and the generations do not exist”, which suggests to me a phantasy of the unbounded zero dimension.

The phantasy, discussed by Freud in his paper, A Child is Being Beaten (Freud, 1919), provides another example of a narcissistic defence against the knowledge of the parental relationship which precludes the possibility of the three-dimensional triangular space which Britton suggests arises as a result of the negotiation of the Oedipus complex. There is no acknowledgement of the triangular mother/father/child three-dimensional relationship in the two-dimensional beater/beaten dyad; no acknowledgement in this phantasy of time or space. The difference in time and space of the generation between the beating father and the beaten child is denied, as is the possibility that the activity between the parent and child will come to an end: A Child is Being Beaten is continuous present tense. In this omnipotent phantasy, the beating father is always present, the possibility of his absence denied and thus never mourned.

Attainment of the three-dimensions of the depressive position provides the temporal and spatial structure within which to integrate good and bad part objects and allow the parental couple to unite. It provides the possibility of mourning the losses of two omnipotent and omniscient ideas: of an exclusive relationship with one parent, and of an exclusive relationship with the world.

Britton showed that the negotiation of the Oedipus complex depends on mourning the loss of the idea of an exclusive relationship with one parent:

“I have suggested that it is through mourning for this lost exclusive relationship that it can be realised that the oedipal triangle does not spell the death of a relationship but only the death of an idea of a relationship.” (Britton, 1989, p100).

I suggest that three-dimensional spatial and temporal forms of thought arise when the loss of the idea of an omniscient understanding of the real world, of knowing things-in-themselves through narcissistic symbolic equation with them (Segal, 1957), is acknowledged and mourned.

The arrogant assumption of omniscience is one which Bion believes to be displayed by Oedipus. Bion thought the sexual crime in Sophocles’ myth was “ a peripheral element of a story in which the central crime is the arrogance of Oedipus vowing to lay bare the truth at no matter what cost”(Bion, 1967, p86). The move to the third dimension, to the depressive position, is at the expense of omnipotent and omniscient phantasy. The arrogant assumption that one can actually know the outer world through being it, through incorporating it, must be relinquished and the loss of the possibility of an omniscient understanding of the real world, unbounded by our organising principles of time and space, must be mourned.

The additional temporal aspect, introduced by the internalisation of the Oedipal triangle, is the perspective attained through acknowledgement of the parental relationship from which one is excluded, a relationship which one can observe and from which one can be observed. This perspective elevates the infant’s (pre-Oedipal) psychic space from two to three dimensions.

I should now like to make explicit the link I perceive to exist between time and the internalisation of this perspective. St Augustine suggested that our abstract understanding of time is always to do with the present. It involves an understanding that past events have happened and future events have not. He says that there is:

a present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future. The present of things past is memory, the present of things present is sight, and the presence of things future is expectation” (St Augustine’s Confessions op cit.).

St Augustine uses sight to describe conscious awareness of the present. Sight, or insight, is thus linked to temporal thought and perspective. Temporal thought is linked, therefore, to the integration of insight with containment, of time with space, in the depressive position of three dimensions.

Bion’s views echo those of St Augustine. In Notes on Memory and Desire (Bion, 1967), Bion says that ‘memory is the past tense of desire, anticipation being the future tense”. For Bion, memory deals with the sense impressions of what is supposed to have happened in the past; for St Augustine, the ‘past present’ is memory: for Bion, desire deals with the sense impressions of what has not yet happened; for St Augustine, expectation is the ‘future present’. Bion believes that memory (the past present) misleads because it is influenced by the unconscious, and desire (the future present) distorts judgement: both should be ‘eschewed’ in psychoanalytic practice. Thus: “Every session attended by the psychoanalyst must have no history and no future” (Bion, 1967). In St Augustine’s terms, the analyst’s suspension of memory and desire allows him or her to attain the ‘sight’ - perception - of the present, that is, allows perspective to operate unhindered, in so far as that is possible, by the unconscious, to provide the temporal boundary of the containment also provided by the analyst.

The psychoanalytic encounter provides the patient with the disturbing experience of an individual who embodies the maternal and paternal capacities of containing and providing a perspective, someone who can ‘hold’ and ‘see’ him or her in time and in space. The internal capacities of the analyst and the external setting of the analytic session demonstrate the possibility of the integration of the parental qualities of containment and perspective to a patient who may not be comfortable with the idea of being held or being seen and perhaps unable to tolerate the possibility of those attributes being embodied in one person. This is graphically expressed by one of Britton’s patients, Miss A, who experienced his ability to commune with himself about her as a representation of the parental intercourse from which she was excluded (Britton, 1989). She shouts: ‘Stop that fucking thinking’, demonstrating her need to keep her parents apart, to prevent the mental catastrophe in which acknowledgement of their coming together would result. The catastrophe has already happened, of course, and it is an example of timeless and spaceless thinking that a refusal to acknowledge the parental union is phantasised as being a means to prevent it from taking place.

The analyst provides an uninterrupted space for the patient, and temporally bounded sessions, whether through strict observance to the fifty-minute session or through Lacanian ‘punctuated’ endings. The setting, combined with the personality of the analyst, is one which provides a temporally bounded space in which the transference can develop.

Winnicott compares the analytic process to playing. His concept of the ‘potential space’ which can exist between mother and child, analyst and patient, is three-dimensional in that change (a property of time, not space) can take place within it. If a child cannot play, it is because of a lack of this space, and it is the analyst’s job to help create the third dimension in the potential space which transcends the boundaries between inner and outer. Play, like analysis, is an activity which is creative and which takes place in a temporally and spatially structured place of three dimensions:

“The essential feature of my communication is this, that playing is an experience, always a creative experience, and it is an experience in the space-time continuum, a basic form of living” (Winnicott, 1971, p50).

In the analytic setting, the possibility of the internalisation of the experience of being contained in space and thought about in time by the analyst arises, allowing the possibility of a move to the third dimension:

The emotional upheaval of the very first encounter changes the two participants, who will never be the same people again. I also believe that a new entity is forged: a new reality emerges. The two people do not remain independent entities. A joint existence which was not there before, a corporate reality, appears.”(Symington, 1986, p30).

This corporate reality represents, I think, the emergence of the possibility of the third dimension, an awareness of the possibility of the integration of containment and perspective and thus the possibility of the attainment of three-dimensional psychic space. Anna O experienced the energy released during her ‘talking cure’ as ‘chimney sweeping’, a powerfully symbolic expression of the increase in psychic space afforded by the analytic process (Freud and Breuer, 1895, p83) and one which suggests her better toleration of the ‘fucking thinking’, which Miss A found so difficult to accept.

If internalisation of the oedipal triangle is achieved, the capacity for symbolic thought increases as the necessary forms of thought which structure symbolism, that is, time and space, become more secure. I suggest that it is temporal thought which allows the development of ideas of subjectivity and objectivity, discussed by Britton in terms of the third position from which one can observe and therefore be aware of being observed, in that it is time, not space, which contains within it the possibility of change, not only of things being different now from then, which has connotations of passivity, but of things being different in the future from now, which implies the idea of agency, of creativity, and of one’s actions in the external world having an impact. Temporal thought, therefore, includes the idea of having an impact on other people, which suggests that there are links between temporal awareness and an awareness of other people having the same awareness, that is, an awareness of other minds.

Temporal and spatial thought: its creations in the different dimensions: from ‘O’ to nameless dread

And yet, as angels in some bright dreams
Call to the soul when man doth sleep
So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes,
And into glory peep.

Henry Vaughan, ‘Silex Scintillans’ 1650

In this final chapter, I look at temporal and spatial ways of thinking and the death instinct’s role in their destruction. I suggest that the fear of death might be a fear of the loss of structuring that temporal and spatial types of thinking afford.

Earlier, I referred to Klein’s suggestion that the ego is brought into existence by the first projection. Bion understood that the content of the projection is the infant’s fear of death. Containment is essential: if it takes place, the infant can move from the first to the second, planar, means of relating, and, from there, through negotiation of the Oedipus complex, to three-dimensional psychic space, bounded by the temporal function of perspective. For those who develop a secure sense of containment, who move to the temporally bounded third dimension, the possibility arises of a more dizzying experience of reality: a more unfiltered version of it; a glimpse of Bion’s concept of ‘O’; a more metaphysical place than our linear and bounded conceptions of space and time can accommodate. ‘O’:

“stands for the absolute truth in and of any object; it is assumed that this cannot be known by any human being; it can be known about, its presence recognised and felt, but it cannot be known. It is possible to be at one with it. That it exists is an essential postulate of science but it cannot be scientifically discovered. No psycho-analytic discovery is possible without recognition of its existence” (Bion, 1970, p30).

Non-containment of the projected fear of death sees the infant reintroject something worse than death: ‘nameless dread’. Nameless dread is a symptom of lack of containment at this crucial stage and describes the sense of horror that the possibility of dropping into the timeless and spaceless void of the zero dimension engenders. It is a fear of the experience of nothingness.

Blake captures symbolically the devastation carried out by the return of the uncontained death instinct as nameless dread:

“O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy

Blake, (1956) Songs of Innocence and Experience.

‘O’ and ‘nameless dread’ are different sides of the same coin: it depends on the psychic capacity of the observer on how they are interpreted: Bion’s “mystic-genius”, like us all, can be either creative or nihilistic, depending on whether a timeless and spaceless place can be thought about from the security of a three-dimensional temporal-spatial structure or from the one-dimensional position of someone whose fragile foundations are riddled with nameless dread.

"The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.

Milton (1961): Paradise Lost

The distinction between ‘O’ and nameless dread is similar to that drawn between the beautiful and the sublime by Kant in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment (Kant, 1929). The sense of harmony that we sometimes perceive to exist between nature and our senses gives rise to an intuition of ‘our imagination in all its boundlessness’ and a sentiment of beauty, of Bion’s ‘O’. At other times, we are so overcome by the infinite greatness of the world that we have to give up any idea of understanding it: the impossibility of ‘infinity comprehended’ gives rise to the fear that is an intrinsic part of the sublime.

As well as the return of the uncontained death instinct, external trauma can breach what we earlier saw Freud conceptualise as a protective shield. The metaphorical tear in the fabric of the ego thus effected sees consequential damage to the operation of temporal and spatial thought. Freud saw the delusions of repetition compulsion behaviour as providing evidence of attempted repairs of such damage:

"A fair number of analyses have taught us that the delusion is found like a patch over the place where originally a rent had appeared in the ego's relation to the external world" (Freud, 1937).

The type of repair effected depends, I suggest, on the level of dimensionality attained by the time of the damage. When the psychic space afforded by the third dimension has not been established then, depending on the nature of external events, and the fragility of the temporal-spatial thought structure, reality and/or the unconscious can break through the fabric of the ego, flooding the individual with stimuli of which no sense can be made. One way to deal with this is to seek a return to a spaceless and timeless domain where the real world can have no impact. This represents the psychotic response of Schreber, who, having experienced the projection of his own internal catastrophe as the ‘end of the world’ proceeded to reconstruct his world without reference to his real time and space location. Freud uses another spatial metaphor to describe this place:

“A neat example of a psychical system cut off from the stimuli of the external world, and able to satisfy even its nutritional requirements autistically (to use Breuer’s term) is afforded by a bird’s egg with its food supply enclosed it its shell” (Freud, 1911b, footnote to p37).

A different response is one which, rather than seeking to evade the real world, looks to act on it to modify it. It is a response from an individual able to employ the temporal and spatial thinking of the third dimension to reflect on the damage and seek to prevent it happening again. Primo Levi, survivor of Auschwitz and other Lagers, who eventually committed suicide, provides a poignant example of this type of mature response. He had this to say of, and to, the German people, the Nazi representatives of whom visited trauma on Levi and others:

“But I cannot say I understand Germans: now, something one cannot understand constitutes a painful void, a puncture, a permanent stimulus that insists on being satisfied. I hope that this book (If this is a Man) will have some echo in Germany, not only out of ambition, but also because the nature of this echo will perhaps make it possible for me to better understand the Germans, placate this stimulus.” (Levi, 1989, p143).

Both Schreber and Levi did what they could to deal with trauma. Both repairs to their egos were creative and defensive. Schreber’s repair, however, was one which saw him retreat from the world which he perceived, in any event, as having ended; Levi’s response was to acknowledge the time and space in which the damage to him, and others, had occurred and creatively act within the time and space afforded to him by his psychic structure of three-dimensions to endeavour to prevent such damage happening again.

The death instinct’s attack on temporal and spatial thought

Rosenfeld identified the role of the death instinct in removing the capacity to think clearly and its link to the narcissistic structures of one and two-dimensional ways of thinking. He says:

“When reviewing clinical cases of spit-off aggression, a derivative of the death instinct, creating negative therapeutic reactions, the patient appears to be withdrawn from the world, is unable to think and often feels drugged…he is often aware that he has lost something important but he is not sure what it is…sometimes he realises that his anxiety and feeling of loss refers to having lost an important part of himself, namely the sane, dependent self which is related to the capacity for thinking……Clinically it is essential to help the patient the find and rescue the dependent sane part of the self from its trapped position inside the psychotic narcissistic structure as it is this part which is the essential link with the positive object relationship to the analyst and to the world”(Rosenfeld, 1971, p169).

The ‘inability to think’, referred to by Rosenfeld, I think reflects the loss or lack of the spatial and temporal structure afforded by the internalised Oedipal triangle. There is little insight and little containment. The death instinct operates to bloat what psychic space remains and distorts space and time as necessary forms of thought.

Klein suggested that, whereas the life instinct might demand satisfaction of a need, the death instinct will try to attack and obliterate it. Developments of her ideas by Joseph (1982) and Feldman (2000) suggest that, rather than seeking to kill or annihilate an object, which seems to be the purpose of the untrammelled death instinct as postulated by Freud and Klein, the death instinct obtains gratification through the spoiling and undermining of the object with which a link is then maintained. According to Feldman, the gratification is not a result of the fusion of the life with the death instinct: it is an integral part of the death instinct itself:

A precondition for the gratification of this drive is the survival of both the patient and his object, but severely reduced and undermined: the aim seems to be largely, but not entirely, to eliminate anything that gives rise to admiration, dependence, rivalry, and particularly envy”(Feldman, 2000, p54).

I suggest that the aim is to remove the type of temporal and spatial dimensionality which allows awareness of the parental relationship but to keep a one-dimensional psychic space operating to prevent the descent into the timeless and spaceless void of the zero dimension. This is illustrated by Segal’s patients (Segal, 1997), who provide accounts of dreams of devastated landscapes, containing people who are near to death. Any movement towards these people is feared: a deathly balance is preserved to prevent the ‘unbound destructiveness’ which it is feared would be unleashed if the balance were disturbed. The paralysed and forever dying world is one which has dropped through the dimensions to a one-dimensional line in which the possibility of movement appears impossibly dangerous, probably because the point of spacelessness and timelessness is so close. Riviere’s description of an inner landscape where ‘feeble’ struggles to save near-dead objects take place, where life ‘hangs by a hair’ (Riviere, 1936, p 314) also illustrates this fear of movement, movement which, as I suggested earlier, is a representation of time, not of space. Segal’s patients’ dreams and Riviere’s spatial metaphors represent time spatially and it is possible to see in these dreams and phantasies temporal thought being destroyed.

Fear of death

The fewer the dimensions in the temporal-spatial structure of the mind, the higher the level of omnipotent and omniscient phantasy in the personality. It would seem, therefore, that the fear of death is likely to accompany narcissism, in which phantasies of this type predominate.

I suggest that Feldman and other post-Kleinian developments of Freud’s and Klein’s line of thought on the death instinct and narcissism throw light on whether the fear of death is, in fact, fear of something else, and of something perhaps worse than death.

“When I was seven, I met true Death, Grim Death, everywhere but never there. What was it? A person and a threat. The person was mad; as for the threat, it was like this: dark mouths might open anywhere, in broad daylight or in the brightest sunshine and snap me up. There was a horrible reverse to things, and when you lost your reason, you saw it; dying was carrying madness to extremes and being swallowed up in it. I lived in terror - it was a genuine neurosis….. I felt superfluous so I had to disappear. I was a sickly bloom under constant threat of extinction. In other words I was condemned, and the sentence could be carried out at any time. Yet I rejected it with all my strength: not that my life was dear to me - quite the contrary, for I did not cling to it - the more absurd life is, the less tolerable death.”

Sartre, Words, (1977, p62).

Sartre’s description of a fear of death and a clinging to life appear to be an indication of the defensive structure discussed by Greenberg who looks at the fear of death as a defensive mechanism operated by the ego to ‘block the path of narcissistic regression’ that is, a regression to a place without boundaries. Sartre’s sense of absurdity arises from the loss of spatial and temporal structuring; the sense of intolerance of death is the ego’s attempt to prevent a complete narcissistic regression to a world without boundaries. Greenberg says:

“Why would the attempt to re-establish primary narcissism give rise to instinctual conflict? Because in primary narcissism the infant has learned to associate pleasure with a lack of boundaries, with a lack of objects (including the lack of a sense of ‘self’ as distinguished from that around it). Once these boundaries have been established, how might they be eliminated? Either by destroying those external objects which disrupt the sense of unity or by unifying with them. In either case the result would be the same: a psychological state of existence devoid of any objects, a state in which the unconscious equates with absolute pleasure, with primary narcissism…..the paths towards pure being (Eros/sexuality) and to nothingness (Thanatos/aggression) …both lead to a world without boundaries” (Greenberg, 1990, p51).

I suggest that a fear of death is a fear of losing insight and experiencing non-containment. It is a fear of the return to a narcissistic state which omnisciently denies the need to think spatially and temporally about the world, necessary if sense is to be made of it. Employing Meltzer’s terminology, a fear of death seems to be a fear of dropping through the three-dimensional containing framework of time and space, through the two-dimensional plane of the phantasised refuge within the mother’s body, and being expelled through her rectum into the nowhere of the fifth world: out into the timeless and spaceless void.


I have discussed in detail Kant’s proposition, to which Freud referred in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and elsewhere, that time and space are necessary forms of thought. I have suggested that psychoanalytic spatial metaphors for mental processes always include a spatial representation of time so that only the three dimensions of space are needed to construct these metaphors. Representing time as a separate, fourth, dimension, is not helpful: change and motion are properties of time so phantasies and dreams of things slowing up in spatial places can be interpreted as representing a disruption of both temporal and spatial forms of thought.

By using spatial dimensions as a metaphor, I have suggested that, by reference to the writings of Freud, Klein and post-Kleinian analysts, from birth, the process of healthy ego development depends on a more or less successful containment of the infant’s projected death instinct or fear of death for the infant to move into the first dimension. The continued experience of containment allows the internalisation of a containing function which allows the development of sufficient two-dimensional psychic space for the negotiation of the Oedipus complex to follow. This involves the internalisation of a position from which to take a perspective, the insight to which I have explicitly linked temporal ways of thinking. Three-dimensional psychic space is then attained in which time and space can begin to operate independently of the objects (parents) which previously carried out these functions for the infant. These critical mental functions underpin the way in which we interpret the world: with them, we can tolerate being held and being seen, allowing us to do our own holding and seeing. I suggested that the move to the third dimension, to the depressive position, is at the expense of omnipotent and omniscient phantasy: the arrogant assumption that one can actually know the outer world through being it, must be relinquished and the loss of the possibility of an omniscient understanding of the real world, unbounded by our organising principles of time and space, must be mourned.

If internalisation of the oedipal triangle is achieved, the capacity for symbolic thought increases as the necessary forms of thought which structure symbolism, that is, time and space, become more secure. I have suggested that it is temporal thought which allows the development of ideas of subjectivity and objectivity, discussed by Britton in terms of the third position from which one can observe and therefore be aware of being observed, in that it is time, not space, which contains within it the possibility of change, not only of things being different now from then, which has connotations of passivity, but of things being different in the future from now, which implies the idea of agency, of creativity, and of one’s actions in the external world having an impact.

Post-Kleinian thinking about the death instinct suggests that it acts to disrupt and destroy temporal and spatial thought and thus the structure which allows us to understand that now is not then (temporal organisation), that here is not there (spatial organisation) and that the absence of a good object is not the presence of a bad object (temporal and spatial integration and organisation). The fear of annihilation, conceptualised by Freud as the death instinct, is a fear, I think, of experiencing a return to that stage of non-existence which was prior to the first temporal awareness, that is, a fear of death is a fear of being temporally and spatially aware of no time and space: it is a fear of being in nothingness.

If we are lucky enough to internalise securely and integrate the functions of containment and insight, of inner space and inner time, we can contemplate the ideas of eternity and infinity without fear. In this integration, and the acknowledgement of the loss of the idea of omniscience, we can create our own temporal and spatial boundaries which take account of our time and our space in the real world. I suggest that it is temporal thought which creates the possibility of drawing those boundaries and it is with time that we circumscribe our world:

“He took the golden Compass, prepar'd
In God's eternal store, to circumscribe
This Universe and all created things:
One foot he centr'd, and the other turn'd
Round through the vast profunditie obscure,
And said, thus farr extend, thus farr thy bounds
This be thy just circumference, O World.”

Milton (1961), Paradise Lost.

In the end, time and space are things that we do, and have to do, to make sense of a world which really makes no sense at all.

“For, finally, what is man in nature? He is nothing in comparison with the infinite and absolute in comparison with nothingness, a central point between nothing and all……….all things emerge from nothing and are borne onwards towards infinity.”

Pascal, (1982) Pensées 72.

This essay appeared in Free Associations Vol. 9 Part 3 (no. 51): 394-442.


Abbreviations used:

SE: James Strachey, ed., The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, copyright Ltd., the Institute of Psychoanalysis and the Hogarth Press Ltd

PFL: The Penguin Freud Library, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth

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Bion, W. (1967) 'Notes on memory and desire', The Psychoanalytic Forum 2, 272-273.

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