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REFLECTIONS ON PERVERSE STATES OF MIND

by Margot Waddell and Gianna Williams

 

‘I want to eat pooh food and grow up and live dying.' This was the chilling response of four-year-old Nigel to his therapist’s attempts to make sense of the child’s hopeless confusion. One can hardly find a more dramatic and scaring expression of the perverse state of mind. In so entitling this paper, we tried to establish our central interest, riot so much in sexual perversion as such, but with perversions of character - the distortion and misuse of psychic and external reality: the slaughter of truth.

Rather than defining what we mean by perversion at this stage, we would like to begin by giving some clinical illustrations of perverse states of mind and then proceed from the observable material to formulate a hypothesis about its meaning. Nigel, totally trapped in what we would call a 'perverse state of mind', was not, at this point, reachable through interpretations about his alliance with a destructive part of himself - what became known between him and his therapist as 'the muddling Nigel'. He seemed, rather, to relish the alliance. He would state firmly, 'I am not listening to you, because I like listening to the ‘muddling Nigel’.

From this part of himself came repeated slogans such as 'poohs are delicious, good to eat'; 'making a mess is wonderful’. Blinking his eyes as he looked through a narrow opening, he would say that he was busy – taking ‘poohtographs’. Nigel’s slogans seemed not dissimilar to those broadcast by the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:  'War is Peace'; 'Freedom is Slavery'; 'Ignorance is Strength'; or to the contents of Hitler's document of dedicated social and political perversity, Mein Kampf.

Nigel's very idiosyncratic way of perpetuating ignorance, attacking truth and nourishing himself with pooh-lies is graphically put across in his 'poohtograph' pun. His perception of both internal and external reality is mediated by a filter, or, better, a smoke-screen - an anti-thought 'muddler' to which he has sworn alliance. As Bion puts it, 'instead of an understanding object the infant has a willfully misunderstanding object - with which it is identified' (1967, p. 117). This little boy's state of mind recalls that of Winston in the last lines of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right… He loved Big Brother (Orwell 1949, p. 311).

Likewise, Nigel loved his 'best enemy', 'the muddler' He seemed to have taken refuge in his ‘loving breast, i.e., the muddler's, at a very early age. His mother's severe puerperal depression might have contributed to his turning away from a dependent relationship and towards a very dubious source of protection. We are not, however, seeking to trace the origins of perverse states of mind through causal links . Let us say that Nigel was enslaved to an anti-developmental alliance with a destructive part of the self that he idealized. He loved 'the muddler' who told him that poohs are infinitely better than milk. He stated that he was as 'never, never, never going to use the toilet, (aged four he was still wearing nappies). Some areas of his development were, on the other hand, extraordinarily precocious.  Big Brother - 'the muddler' – had allowed him to use his considerable intelligence as long as he did so in the service of the Ministry of Truth. Nigel had taught himself to read at the age of three and his vocabulary was vast, but he seldom used words for communication or for making symbolic links. He hated creative symbols and he hated positive links. When his therapist asked him what the red colour in one of his pictures stood for, he answered with all imperious tone 'red is for red'. His continuous punning and coining, often assembled from fragments of words with a similar sound, confronted his therapist with a sort of impenetrable 'Newspeak'. His parents  were baffled by this kind of incomprehensible outpouring. So, initially, was his therapist. Like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, Nigel seemed to be saying, 'When 1 use a word… it means just what 1 choose it to mean, neither more nor less' (Carroll, 1871, p. l00). 'There is only one ruler,' he shouted, brandishing a ruler.

The violence Nigel perpetrated on words and their meaning seemed to be associated in his mind (in spite of his hatred for symbolic language) with violence done to babies. 'Baby dead, baby dead, killing babies,' he intoned as he ripped up a book. On another occasion he tore a printed page 'in a deliberate way, with slow, jerking movements’. His therapist described the sadistic feel of this process, 'as if he were pulling the wings off flies… he again slowly tore the paper into little bits, scattering them about the room and saying, as if speaking into a microphone, “testing, testing".'

This last example helps us to observe a central characteristic of Nigel's identifications. So often in his behaviour he caricatured an adult, frequently in the shape of a scientist involved in an experiment, the aim of which was, in essence, that of baby-killing: 'Kill them, burn them, bury them underground.' His father is, in fact, a scientist, and Nigel seemed at times to be wholly identified, in what he took to be daddy's shoes, with a feeling of negativistic caricature coming from the 'muddler', who would always be ready to assert that daddies don't make babies, they, kill them. He was obsessed with counting: with deliberately miscounting; with drawing pylons that tended to be associated with the most cryptic 'Krypton Factors'. In one session he walked to the room repeating ‘minus, minus, minus'. One wonders which victims he was totting up. Perhaps those who, in his internal world, were  minus, minus, minus, 'killed, burned, buried underground’? The caricature may be more graphic  if we remind ourselves that this sadistic little scientist was, as we said, still wearing nappies.

These elements of negativism, sado-masochism and caricature function under the aegis of a destructive part of the self and are devoted to distortion and attacks on truth. We think of them as essential features of the states of mind we refer to as 'perverse', a negativistic caricature of object relations. There is a core phantasy of the secret killing of babies instead of parenting babies - an oblique form of attack on the inside of the mother's body. Our use of the word 'perverse', then, is confined to the relationships  which bear these characteristics. In this frame of reference, perversity has no connection with descriptive aspects of sexual choices - it can be equally present or absent in heterosexual and homosexual relationships alike.

The addictive quality of perverse states of mind can be more easily observed when patients make their first attempts to disengage themselves from the domination of an internal 'Big Brother'. We shall illustrate this point with dream material from the analysis of adolescent and adult patients. An early dream in the treatment of Charles, an eighteen-year-old boy seen some years ago, offered a rather disturbing example of the kind of perverse state of mind we are exploring. It occurred at a time when his infantile, needy parts were being strongly pulled away from the therapy. He was with a group of men involved in extracting a bomb from a long, metal shaft. Charles became very frightened.  He felt like running away but was firmly held back by the leader of the group who said, 'Now you are involved in it and you are going to stay.' Charles found himself unable to disobey or question this injunction. He carried on with the extraction of the bomb.  He then found himself with the same group [or, rather, terrorist gang] in an airport where they were supposed to plant the bomb. They put it under a counter; explosion was imminent. As they were making their getaway, Charles looked at the people in the airport, anticipating the sight of them as corpses when the bomb had exploded.

One of the aspects of this dream  which should be emphasized is the virulence of the gang formation. There is a fleeting moment of fear and anxiety, perhaps an indication that, at that time, Charles was in touch with the danger to which he was exposing himself by 'belonging' to the gang. But when the entrenchment is so deep, it is not enough to say 'I am frightened, I want to get away' (you can't play on the gang's heart strings). It is not possible to give up membership of so powerful an internal Mafia overnight. The ringleader (Godfather) is keeping Charles to task. Indeed, at the early stage of treatment, Charles felt totally hopeless about change - engendering a similar feeling in his therapist. He despaired of the gang, the destructive part on the side of death, ever releasing him. He was on a death-bound mission - a baby-killing venture, if we take it that the airport represents the inside of the mother's body, filled with the babies that had to be massacred. There is just the beginning of concern about life being put at risk - the only hopeful aspect of this disturbing dream.

Herbert Rosenfeld clearly had this kind of patient in mind when he wrote:

The destructive narcissism of these patients appears often highly organized, as if one were dealing with a powerful gang dominated by a leader, who controls all the members of the gang to see that they support one another in making the criminal destructive work more effective and powerful. However, the  narcissistic organization not only increases the strength of the destructive narcissism, but it has a defensive purpose to keep itself in power and so maintain the status quo The main aim seems to be to prevent the weakening of the organization and to control the members of the gang so that they will not desert the destructive organization and join the positive parts of the self or betray the secrets of the gang to the police, the protecting superego, standing for the helpful analyst, who might be able to save the patient. Frequently when a patient of this kind makes progress in the analysis and wants to change he dreams of being attacked by members of the Mafia or adolescent delinquents and a negative therapeutic reaction sets in. This narcissistic organization is in my experience not primarily directed against guilt and anxiety, but seems to have the purpose of maintaining the idealization and superior power of the destructive narcissism. (1971, p. 174).

To this must be added the more explicitly sado-masochistic aspect of the pathology, which lends such personality organizations their distinctively perverse qualities. It is well put by Betty Joseph: 'such patients feel in thrall to a part of the self that dominates and imprisons them and will not let them escape, even though they see life beckoning outside'. The point is that not only is the patient dominated by an aggressive part of himself 'but that this part is actively sadistic towards another part of the self which is masochistically caught up in this process, and that this has become an addiction' (1982, p. 451). The same constellation was described by Donald Meltzer in 'Terror, persecution arid dread - a dissection of paranoid anxieties' (1968).

Such processes are clearly illustrated in the following patients' dreams. Mr A's characteristic mode of defence against the pain of separation, of intimacy, of the experience of littleness and especially of the struggle for change, lay in homosexual fantasies and dreams (not practices) usually of a part-object, or of an anal kind. The nature of the internal conflict was expressed with great clarity in a number of early dreams, typified by the following: He was imprisoned in a dark house. Every time he attempted to escape over the horizon to life, light and freedom, he was pulled back by a gang whose leader bore the name 'Cave'. This  leader was linked, by association, to a character in the entertainment business who was said, as a child, to have enjoyed pulling the wings and legs off insects.

A similar constellation is evident in the dream of another patient, Mrs B, the setting for which was, as she put it, a 'Nineteen Eighty-Four-type building'. The building - a huge barn-like structure, cavernous in its interior was the headquarters of a Big Brother organization, under whose watchful eye uniformed people laboured in the fields and orchards nearby. The patient found herself unexpectedly at a distance from the main group, somewhere down a grassy track, enjoying the beauty of the evening. She suddenly became aware that, inadvertently, she had nearly escaped. Terrified that the alarm would be raised, she ran, slipping and sliding, back to the muddy track to the headquarters. There she was met by her own big brother - a man who had, in fact, exercised a tyrannical hold over her and, as an internal figure, continued to do so.

Apart from the obvious links in these dreams to the ganging up of destructive aspects of the personality against the part that was making a bid for freedom and beauty, there are three other areas to be emphasized. First, there arc the unmistakable anal associations in each dream: Charles's dark shaft, suggestive of the rectum; Mr A's dark house and the pull back into the cave/claustrum; Mrs B's return up the muddy, slippery track. Second, Mr A's associations  to the gang leader not only echoed Charles's destructive gang but revealed a clear link for him between pop culture as he experienced it (in terms of slavish adulation) arid mindless group behaviour controlled by a propaganda machine of mass media, not so dissimilar from the Nineteen Eighty-Four  setting of Mrs B's dream, albeit slightly more disguised. What characterized these second two cases was the perception of the unthinking nature of large group phenomena. Third, the sado-masochism - explicit in the bombing mission of the first dream and the torturing-of-insects associations in the second, implicit in the dominance/submission axis of the Nineteen Eighty-Four world - relates these dreams to what we have been describing as the core perverse phantasy. Each clearly intensifies the painful struggle in the individual between forces of philstinism, cynicism and perversion and those that could be described as being on the side of life.

These adult patients, each distinctively intelligent and creative, occupied outwardly respectable positions in society, but the vitality of their objects was drained by their predominantly narcissistic internal structures which, at the time, precluded satisfactory love relationships. Their emotional equilibrium was constantly threatened by persecuting anxieties and internal charges of fraudulence and deception. In each case the dreams and fantasies belied the conventional exterior - although they were at times intimately related to the conformist crust. For the virulence of the perverse characteristics, which would make their appearance, particularly at times of anxiety, seemed to be related to that very thrust for conformity. (One is reminded that in William Golding's Lord of the Flies - so eloquent a document of the pathology of groups and gangs in the absence of parental authority - it is the choir who become the most murderous and perverse gang of hunters.)

In the past, both Mr A and Mrs B had tended to carry out their learning by way of rather primitive identificatory processes - either through conformity with professional status (scientist/position-in- lab-pecking-order - patient A) or with individuals in propria persona (a father, an elder brother - patient B). This relationship, between surface accommodation and covert sado-masochism, is clearly borne out in the clinical material of a seven-year-old girl, Sally - enacted, this time, in the context of an actual external gang which was found to have a corresponding internal one. Sally had puzzled her therapist for some time. She was intelligent, charming, pseudo-mature, co-operative, apparently able to take everything in her stride - even at times of marital crisis and gross sexual delinquency on her parents' part. The presenting symptoms, of withholding faeces and soiling, disappeared fairly early in therapy. But there remained an air of unreality in the sessions, a slight evasiveness and lack of connection. There was something complacent, even smug, in her attitude to her parents, which her therapist experienced quite powerfully in the transference. These early sessions were characterized by a great deal of play which often represented omnipotent, almost manic, possession of the therapist, of other children's  drawers and boxes and their contents, and a simultaneous covert exploration of the underside of things, with fantasies of creeping in by back passages, of spying, of secretly watching, bugging, etc.

The meaning of this material began to become apparent after a session in which she wrote the letters of her name in capitals vertically down the side of a piece of paper, and then divided a second piece in two, horizontally, drawing below the line a series of figures, each corresponding to one of the letters of her name. As she drew, she described these figures as a 'gang of children'. She identified herself with the gang explicitly, describing them as playing in the playground, 'spying out things, looking through keyholes and locked doors'; and, 'when we see children fighting, we let the teachers know'. Her air was that of a member of some kind of army of righteousness - or, rather, self-righteousness The job of the gang was to stop the fights by informing, thereby getting the more unruly, but perhaps less conformist, children to toe the line. The spying, intrusive omnipotent, sycophantic, self-righteous self was clearly engaged - as a member of 'The SSG' (The Secret Spying Gang) - in a struggle with the aspects of her personality which did not derive masochistic pleasure from, among other things, her parents' delinquent behaviour. Despite the struggle, however, she was unable to discern the truth of her painful experience, but rather masked it by distortion, amounting to lies, perversely mistaking the hypocrisy of her informer role for honourable, peace-keeping pursuits.

Different aspects of all these patients' material demonstrate how the links of relatedness (theorized by Bion as links in Love, Hate and Knowledge) were constantly opposed by a pulling away from freedom, individuality, intimacy and aesthetic sensibility, into the mindlessness of group conformity (whether internal or external), in the guise of respectability, social rank and status; or into the gang mentality of 'Newspeak' and two-dimensional cultural forces. All these processes function, ultimately, in negative modes which are more characteristic of the anti-linkage, anti-thought, anti-knowledge - in short, minus L, minus H, minus K - of Bion's negative grid.

The negative grid is meant to represent a mental system for generating lies - in the service of misunderstanding and anti-thought. These lies constitute, in Bion's view, the poison of the mind. It is a notion which remained largely unelaborated in his work - a kind of terra incognita - yet to be laboriously mapped out by clinical exploration. But it is scintillating with possibilities for better understanding the nature of perversity as an aspect of character, as distinct from sexual behaviour or choice. It wholly subverts the current propensity to attach labels of 'perverse' or 'non-perverse' to categories of relationships - e.g., homosexual or heterosexual - and places the distinctions, rather, in the area of psychic reality and meanings as represented by different states of mind.

In conclusion, however, it is the connection between these  intrapsychic processes and the social sphere that must be emphasized: the connection, that is, between the basic assumption mentality in the individual, mindless group mentality and the dynamics of the gang. A basic assumption group is particularly rich soil for the implanting of gang propaganda, since its members have renounced individuality and the capacity for exercising judgement and criticism.

The senseless chanting 'B-B'… B-B!',  described by Orwell as an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise' (pp. 18-19), and indeed Newspeak itself constitute anti-thought par excellence. The basic assumption state of mind paves the way for the unquestioning acceptance of the Ministry of Truth's slogans. Similarly the mass mindless euphoria of the Nuremberg Rallies created a state of mind receptive to Hitler's hideous propaganda and the slaughter of truth epitomized by Mein Kampf. Recent events are confronting us with a comparable phenomenon: Saddam Hussein undoubtedly relies oil this same basic assumption mentality to spread lies about his crusade for the Arab cause.

It may seem that the destructive phantasies of an omnipotent four-year-old, the slaughter of millions of people in the Holocaust or the present threat of world war represent areas of such different magnitude that they are incommensurable. The main point, then, is the necessity of understanding that an individual's perverse states of mind can get exported into the public sphere with dire consequences when social and political circumstances offer fertile ground. It is alarming, but important, to connect, for example, Charles's difficulties in extracting himself from the internal gang with the fascination of the Nuremberg Rallies to the thousands who mindlessly cheered Hitler's propagandist rhetoric.

In bridging the two - the individual mind and the public sphere - we have been investigating the negative forces in the personality and the ways in which the internal basic assumption groupings rooted in hatred of the emotions and ultimately of life itself, may find expression in external ways. The 'Fair is foul and foul is fair' mode of inversion and distortion, so brilliantly, elaborated in Macbeth, then crystallizes into the hardcore perversity of the little child's aspiration to 'grow up and live dying' and of the forces of oppression and hatred which spread death and despair across the world.

 

This is a slightly revised version of a paper presented to the 1990 ‘Psychoanalysis and the Public Sphere’ conference in London  

 

NOTE

1 The authors would like to express their gratitude to Michael Somes for permission to quote material from the case Gianna Williams supervised during his training in child psychotherapy.

 

REFERENCES

Bion, W. R. (1967) 'A theory of thinking', in Second Thoughts. Heinemann.

Carroll L. (1872) Through the Looking Glass., Harmondsworth: Puffin Classics. Reprinted 1984.

Joseph, B. (1982) 'Addiction to near-death', Int. J. Psycho-Anal. 63: 449-56. Reprinted in Elisabeth Bott Spillius, ed. Melanie Klein Today, Volume I. Routledge 1988.

Meltzer, D. (1968) 'Terror, persecution and dread - a dissection of paranoid anxieties', Int. J. Psycho-Anal. 49: 396-401.

Orwell G. (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Reprinted, 1990.

Rosenfeld, H. (1971) 'A clinical approach  to the psychoanalytic theory of the life and death instincts: an investigation into the aggressive aspects of narcissism'. Int. J.  Psycho-Anal. 52: 169-78. Reprinted in Elisabeth Bott Spillius, ed., Melanie Klein Today Volume I. Routledge 1988.

 

Address for correspondence: Tavistock Clinic, 120 Belsize Lane, London NW3 5BA, UK  

This article first appeared in Free Associations 2: 203-13, 1991.  

Copyright Process Press Ltd.


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