On Ideas of `the Good' and of `the Ideal' in George Eliot's Novels and in Post-Kleinian Psychoanalytic Thought

by Margot Waddell

November 30, 2000


This paper draws a distinction between the role of an abstract notion of the Good-in-itself and the seeking after a good which is attainable, and in relation to which many people may usefully live their lives. Both George Eliot and psychoanalysts may be said to be engaging with the problem of truthfulness in human affairs and with the role of that truthfulness in the growth and development of the individual. In each case, where `ideal' sanctions are invoked, there is a price to be paid. In the novels it is paid aesthetically, thereby weakening the characterisations and undermining the philosophical conviction. In psychoanalytic theory it is paid at that point of abstraction where it become hard to link the concepts with the major practical and ethical problems, which lie at the heart of clinical practice.


    The conflation of "the Good" with "the Ideal" has long muddied the waters of enquiry where matters of morality and ethics are concerned. This paper sets out to draw a distinction between the role of an abstract notion of the Good-in-itself--in speculative terms dangerously close to "the Ideal"--and the seeking after a good which is attainable, and in relation to which people may usefully live their lives. The paper draws on two areas which are at the same time distinct and also interestingly similar: the novels of George Eliot and post-Kleinian psychoanalytic theory. Both George Eliot and psychoanalysts may be said to be engaging with the problem of truthfulness in human affairs and with the role of that truthfulness in the growth and development of the individual. In each case, where "ideal" sanctions are invoked, there is a price to be paid. In the novels it is paid aesthetically, since the intrusion of the ideal carries neither philosophical, nor personal, nor artistic conviction. In psychoanalytic terms it is paid at that point of abstraction where it becomes extremely hard to link the theory with the major ethical problems which psychoanalysis, of its very nature, poses at the heart of its practice.

What Generates the Good Life?

    In one of her early articles for the Westminster Review, written before she turned to fiction as a way of making her ideas "thoroughly incarnate" (Haight, IV, p. 300), George Eliot stated a belief that was to become a raison d'être for her novels: "Emotion links itself with particulars, and only in a faint and secondary manner with abstractions" (1857, p. 30). The ideas she sought to rescue from speculative detachment and to explore in the lived experience of her characters and their relationships were those which have been central to the philosophical and theological enquiries of Western culture from Plato to the present day: how does a person live, or achieve, a good life, and what generates and informs "the good life"?

    In theory and in daily practice--despite the strong skeptical undertow that acts against such an attempt--psychoanalysts and others have to have constant recourse to an idea of the good self and of the good life, to the living of which we are to help our patients break down the internal and external impediments. This primary concern for analysts is one which also lies at the heart of George Eliot's novels. How may a person be enabled to develop--to grow up on the inside as well as on the outside?

    George Eliot and psychoanalysts alike could be said to have in common a view of the nature of human development which is, in essence, ethical. The means by which an underlying sense of meliorism (with its strong moral implications) becomes established is, in each case, a fully psychodynamic one. It is the process whereby a personality may develop, or be "rescued," as a consequence of what in the past would have been described as "human fellowship" and what now would be thought of by some as the evolution of the "good object." Both in present day psychoanalytic thinking and in George Eliot's work, the idea of development and the idea of the good become identified (implicitly, development is good). There is also a reaching out after some kind of sanction for that good in "Humanity," despite how "unfit that ruinous and polluted temple is for the reception of such an inmate," as a late contemporary of George Eliot's, W. H. Mallock, described the problem (1884, p. 206).

    A critical question for the Kleinian account of the processes of mental and emotional growth is that of how an infantile feeling-state, for example, that something is pleasant because gratifying and full of love, or unpleasant because frustrating and full of hate, acquires moral status. A second question is one of the relationship between that moral status and a notion of the ideal. These questions are closely akin to George Eliot's preoccupations and will turn out to have much more to do with Platonist and Aristotelian notions than is usually acknowledged. Bion's view was explicit: the mind grows through being fed with truthful experiences and withers in the grip of falsehood. Bion, like Plato and Aristotle, crucially put thought, and different types of knowledge, at the heart of human development. But in his later work, the particularities of his search for truthfulness in the knowable psychoanalytic encounter became caught up in the abstractions of the unknowable.

    For Bion, honesty was food for the mind and lies its poison. Just such a view informs George Eliot's "experiments in life," as she called her novels (Haight, VI, pp. 216-7). She explores the complexities of one individual's capacity to mature through honesty and integrity, by taking responsibility for impulse and action, and another's tendency to eschew such responsibility. She examines and reveals the minutiae, as lived, of what would, in Kleinian terminology, be described as the oscillations between the paranoid schizoid and depressive states of mind. She reveals the processes through which the mental pain of facing the truth about oneself is either genuinely suffered or is disowned and evaded. To draw on her description of Lydgate's medical aspirations, she sought to "pierce the obscurity of those minute processes which prepare human misery and joy, those invisible thoroughfares which are the first lurking-places of anguish, mania and crime, that delicate poise and transition which determine the growth of happy or unhappy consciousness" (Middlemarch, Ch. 16).

    Such a purpose could also be said to characterize the psychoanalytic endeavor, and similar issues to those with which George Eliot was engaging become evident in Kleinian and post-Kleinian thinking. They will be discussed here in Klein's theorization of the "good object" and in Bion's notion of "becoming O." The ways in which the novels can be said to founder aesthetically (to be examined in relation to Daniel Deronda) also throw light on problematic areas in psychoanalytic thought. For in each field there is a similar set of imponderables, closely related to one another, however differently expressed.

The Mid-Nineteenth Century Distracted Mind

    George Eliot's thought epitomizes what A. N. Whitehead designated the mid-nineteenth-century "distracted mind" (1926, p. 96). In her closest personal and intellectual circles there were many artists, scientists and thinkers (for example Tennyson, Frederick Myers, Huxley, Tyndall, the members of the Metaphysical Society, even Charles Darwin) who were attempting to reconcile rational scientific explanation with moral and religious need at a time when a basis for belief in divine immanence, or benign Providence, was no longer available. George Eliot was struggling to maintain a belief in value, feeling and idealism within a realistic and rationalistic Weltanschauung. This struggle resulted in problems that became evident artistically in the texture and endings of the novels and also at times in the characterizations.

    Like many of her contemporaries, George Eliot felt a moral and philosophical contradiction between an explanation of events as she knew and understood them and a sense of the hidden and unknowable aspects of human life. A common metaphor for this hidden area, and one which is echoed in Bion's later thought, was that of "the veil" which divided the knowable facts of existence from the mysterious essence. In speaking of the soul, Lewes (1859) wrote: "It is a topic on which no man will, wisely, dogmatise. The veil of mystery will never be lifted. We who stand before that veil, and speculate as to what is behind it, can but build systems; we cannot see the truth" (II, 225). "The mystery which lies under all Existence," he proclaimed, "cannot be unveiled by us" (II, 423). George Eliot shared this usage of "the veil" as the "screen" which exists between the phenomenal and the noumenal worlds, and (in "The Lifted Veil," for example) drew on it to allude to areas of human nature which were as yet unexplained: the "unmapped country within" (Daniel Deronda, Ch. 24); the "world of phantoms and disjointed whispers" (Romola, Ch. 36); "that hidden life which lies, like a dark by-street" (Silas Marner, Ch. 13). Much of the impact of her novels derives from the brilliance of her depiction of the issues with which she was personally engaging: the commitment to scientific rationality; the positive value of each person's moral pilgrimage; the seeking for a basis of ethical principle which, in the absence of orthodox religion, might be expressible, or realizable through art; the private dread of the ghastliness of a sensed, and hitherto inexplicable, side of human nature, along with the unknowable noumenal world; the belief that there must be some form of transcendence, equally inexplicable and unknowable.

    The aesthetic pitfalls of so ambitious an undertaking were acerbically put by W. H. Mallock: "We have not what the artist discovers as existing, but what the theorist dreams of as that which ought to exist. We have the phantoms of the philosopher projected into the world of reality" (1884, p.171). There are, indeed, sometimes disjunctions in the novels between George Eliot's perception of what people are and her conception of what they ought to be. And the extent to which she draws on an ideal moral sense or on a suggestion of preternatural goodness in some of her characters has long troubled critics. This tendency linked her to Plato, as she and Lewes read him, and anticipated aspects of Freud's notion of the ego-ideal. More significantly, it introduced a way of thinking which still permeates psychoanalytic ideas. Before I come to that, however, I want to point to the ways in which some of the problems I have been discussing are "written out" in the tone and texture of Daniel Deronda.

Daniel Deronda

    In this novel the tension between what psychoanalysts would term "the workings of the good object" and a much darker vision of human nature became more stark and aesthetically problematic than hitherto. The tension is apparent in the structure of the novel as a whole and in the unevenness of the writing and characterization. The book is both more psychologically compelling, especially in the central characterization of Gwendolen Harleth, and structurally more flawed than any of the earlier works.

    One of the currents running through Daniel Deronda is an attempted blending of the real and the ideal in the counterpoint of the lives of the two central characters, Gwendolen and Daniel. In Deronda's internal monologue on the evening following his discovery of Mordecai's belief in his Jewish birth, George Eliot again explores her long-standing quandaries: the relations between "wish-begotten belief" and "actuality"; "overmastering impressions" and "outward fact"; the fires of "passionate belief" and "a wise estimate of consequences"; "forecasting ardour" and "strictly measuring science"; "demonstrations" and "illusory speculations" (Ch. 41). The weight falls on the fundamental role of an "emotional intellect" which can bear to go on thinking in areas which defy tidy conceptualization, and which resist any "irritable reaching after fact and reason" (to quote Keats's notion of "Negative Capability"--much valued by Bion, alike as a description of Shakespeare as a "Man of Achievement" and of a truly "analytic" state of mind).

    When Daniel is told by his mother that he was indeed born a Jew, Mordecai's belief in his new friend's Jewish origins is demonstrated to have been well-founded. Daniel speaks of a sense of "inherited yearnings--the effect of brooding, passionate thoughts in many ancestors--thoughts that seem to have been intensely present in my grandfather" (Ch. 63). This notion (of what Bion would describe as preconceptions finding realizations) is couched in metaphorical terms which make the earlier prefigurement in Mordecai's vision seem naturally part of the same continuum. For Daniel's coming to Mordecai along the river, darkened against the westering sky, realized Mordecai's repeated vision of the approach of one who would embody "the passionate current of an ideal life straining to embody itself" (Ch. 38).

    The intensity of Mordecai's yearning carries the full and last expression of George Eliot's quest, outside existing orthodox religion, for some kind of realizable and certain moral criteria. Mordecai's version of Judaism became the final vehicle, or symbol, for that ideal, and the uneasy integration of this aspect of the novel with Gwendolen's psychologically gripping story epitomizes the problem under discussion. For the artistic imbalances highlight the difficulty of finding any social or individual expression for a sense of spiritual transcendence, of goodness, or of teleological purpose in human affairs, which could be consonant with the most complex strata of human consciousness, that is, with some kind of realistic account of human relationships. The notion of organic development as a natural process, so central to the early novels, is now reintroduced in the form of a cultural ideal: "Revive the organic centre: let the unity of Israel which has made the growth and form of its religion be an outward reality . . . superstition will vanish . . . in the illumination of great facts which widen feeling, and make all knowledge alive as the young offspring of beloved memories" (Ch. 42).

    Such ardent rhetoric is in contrast to the immediacy of the tense and shifting states of mind in the characterization of Gwendolen. The processes of development and change in Gwendolen are traced with the same precision and care as in the central characters of the previous novels. George Eliot describes the myriad details which may contribute to any particular mood, decision, or state of mind. Throughout the novels such details enable her, with exquisite delicacy, to catch, in the play of internal disposition and external circumstance, something of the moment by moment, forever changing capacities for truthfulness, and the conditions for scarcely conscious shifts into falsehood.

    Gwendolen changes considerably in the course of the novel, developing from an insecure adolescent of intense and egoistic self-consciousness to a wiser young woman, aware of a larger world, of "wide-stretching purposes in which she felt herself reduced to a speck" (Ch. 69). One of the many ways in which the change is charted lies in Gwendolen's shifting perception of the beauty of the external world, suggesting, it could be inferred, a correspondingly changing unconscious relationship to a sense of goodness in the internal world. During her courtship, her life had been "at a stage when the blissful beauty of earth and sky entered only by narrow and oblique inlets into the consciousness, which was busy with a small social drama almost as little penetrated by a feeling of wider relations as if it had been a puppet-show" (Ch.14). But when, a year later, Daniel announced his intention of going East, she found herself "for the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement, for the first time being dislodged from her supremacy in her own world, and getting a sense that her horizon was but a dipping onward of an existence with which her own was revolving" (Ch. 69).

    Although George Eliot describes in Gwendolen an "inborn energy of egoistic desire," the young, beautiful, narcissistic sylph, who, from our first glimpse of her at the gaming table inspires unease and alarm in those around her, is herself subject to fits of spiritual dread, of sudden phobic terror, particularly in darkness, or when alone, or in wide open spaces. She gives way to sobbing and childlike regression, allowing only her mother to touch or be near her. At this stage, she projects her dread into her environment, most dramatically in the episode of the dead face and fleeing figure revealed behind the panel. It soon becomes clear, however, that some kind of unlocated but pathological guilt is central to Gwendolen's inner struggles. She becomes obsessed with the fear of doing wrong, of becoming wicked. When she does overstep the "border of wickedness" by accepting Grandcourt, she feels inwardly tormented as by a set of external forces. What had been feared from the darkness, or from the sense of aloneness, becomes concentrated first in the vague conception of an avenging power and later in the venomous poison felt to be creeping and crawling around Mrs Glasher's words and the dreaded diamonds. Gwendolen suffers acute persecutory dread. She is terrified of avenging furies. Her dread becomes focused in the fear of stored up retribution. In describing these disturbed and disturbing aspects of human nature, George Eliot's writing takes on an energy and force which is strikingly distinct from her descriptions of the characters who embody a sense of goodness or moral purpose.

    We witness in Gwendolen a fascinating pattern of mental associations which chart the relationship between her chanaging sense of herself and Deronda's shifting place in her heart and mind. She associates Daniel's presence at the gaming table with her loss of luck. She feels disapproved of and nourishes a superstitious sense of the evil eye (projected envy?). She is then startled by her mother's casual remarks about Deronda's parentage: "A dark-eyed beautiful woman, no longer young, had become 'stuff o' the conscience' to Gwendolen" (Ch. 29). The effect on her is vividly expressed: Deronda's "slight relations with her had, by some hidden affinity, bitten themselves into the most permanent layers of feeling" (Ch. 29). The uneasiness of her growing conscience, which she connects with Deronda, troubles her during the weeks of her engagement; and on the way to Ryelands immediately after her marriage, she wonders if it is "the closeness of this fulfillment" that makes "her heart flutter" or "some dim forecast, the insistent penetration of suppressed experience" (Ch. 31).

    Through a complicated process of mental association, Deronda becomes an aspect of Gwendolen's conscience. He becomes a superego figure who fully incorporates the ego-ideal. Quite apart from what he independently stands for, Gwendolen projects onto him an area of herself which is later reintegrated only when she is ready to assimilate, or to introject, those wiser and more tolerant elements which are largely represented in his nature. In the same way, perhaps, she can shed the particular aspects of her worst self, embodied in Grandcourt, only when he actually dies. As Gwendolen's sense of guilt (both conscious and unconscious) is detoxified through Deronda's understanding, she develops a more mature capacity to distinguish between different aspects of herself and between the actions for which she should legitimately be taking responsibility and those which stem from an exaggerated or pathological form of anxiety and dread.

    But before she can arrive at this stage, Gwendolen must experience what she dreads as something within, as part of herself. Deronda is instrumental in this transition, as "his influence" enters "into the current of that self-suspicion and self-blame which awakens a new consciousness" (Ch. 35). The culmination of "that self-disapproval which had been the awakening of a new life within her" is the sense of remorse which marks the vanishing point of Gwendolen's self-idealization. As George Eliot traces the mental anguish which leads up to Gwendolen's confession to Deronda, she reproduces, with tremendous effect, the haunting obsessionality of Gwendolen's mental state and the way in which conscious and unconscious fantasy become one. Elements of which the reader is already aware through image and association are now brought to consciousness in Gwendolen's own mind. For Deronda, it is the precious sign of a recoverable nature that, after the drowning, Gwendolen can pour out, in a fragmented and semi-delirious account, her mental confusion. "I saw my wish outside me . . . there was the dead face--dead, dead" (Ch. 56). As a consequence of having her mental states "held" by Deronda, whose role has become that of a kind of transference object, she can slowly begin to understand, and think about, aspects of her personality which had hitherto remained outside her awareness.

    The brilliance with which George Eliot had always been able to describe human frailty finds its most powerful expression in her portrait of Gwendolen. The novel deepens her exploration of the dynamics of mental growth, of the way in which the personality may be "rescued" by the emotional availability of another and be enabled to develop, despite early deprivation. In close relation to this, indeed perhaps inseparable from it, the story also poses, more insistently than before, the question of the relationship between the development of ethical principles within the individual (as in Gwendolen) and the putative source of such principles. The novel reflects George Eliot's continuing quest for such a source: one of spiritual sustenance towards which mankind generally can be understood to be striving.

    This quest anticipates with particular clarity problems inherent in some more recent psychoanalytic ideas. Despite their respectively psychoanalytic and naturalistic accounts of human development, Klein, Bion, and George Eliot all ultimately have recourse to theological and philosophical images and terminology to explore those aspects of human nature which are believed to be truth-seeking and for which there is no easy scientific or psychological explanation. In each case the knowable "good" tends to yield to the unknowable "ideal."

    In this last novel, George Eliot was exploring darker regions of the psyche than ever before, and she may have felt that an equivalently "ideal" set of values was necessary in order to counterbalance so pessimistic a picture. The figures who approximate to those ideals are among the least successful aspects of the book. Deronda is not unaffected by his relationship to Gwendolen ("those who trust us educate us"), nor is he immune to feelings of envy, jealousy, insecurity, and apathy. But overall his characterization amounts to a kind of agglomeration of admirable qualities. W. J. Harvey's comment on the relationship between Romola and Tito might be applied with equal relevance, and for similar reasons, to that between Deronda and Gwendolen: "In relation to Tito she remains a person who illuminates and realizes others without being realized or illuminated herself" (1961, p. 183).

    The presentation of Mordecai is still more diagrammatic. Hardly individualized at all, he is the bearer of a sense of moral force and the mouthpiece for a system of values which, unlike those of the earlier novels, are not locatable in present and lived social structures and his relations to them, but rather are aspired to in the future of another "nation" in a distant part of the world. As a theoretically conceived character, Mordecai directly points to the difficulty of fully incorporating a plausible and inspiring basis for ethical principles within a relatively realistic method and conceptual framework.

    Such aesthetic imbalances in the novel are inseparable from the enduring problem of integrating, whether philosophically or artistically, representations of the "good life" as actually lived with yearnings towards quite other "ideal" representations of the nature of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. Inevitably there is a disjunction between what can be felt and what can only be thought (or perhaps not even thought). The power of Gwendolen's characterization lies in her active struggle between diverse aspects of self which were firmly based in the realities of closely observed psychological development. The weakness of the parts of the story centering on Daniel, Mordecai, and Mirah is rooted in the more static presentation of ideal types, the origins for which remain mysterious and inexplicable. It is as if, in these characters, George Eliot is describing an "ego ideal" without reference to the myriad of other aspects of internal and external life. And yet it is precisely this tussle with the unaccountable "verities" which links George Eliot's artistic problems both with Lewes's thoughts on the "ideal" in Plato and with more recent psychoanalytic attempts to theorize such matters.

    There is evidence that George Eliot extensively discussed these issues with Lewes while he was revising the Biographical History of Philosophy (1867-71) and writing Problems of Life and Mind. In the latter he states: "The objection to ideals, on the ground of their surpassing human nature, is a misconception of their function. They are not always the laws by which we live, or can live, but the types by which we measure all deviations from a perfect life" (1874, I, p. 305). In Daniel Deronda, George Eliot seems to be holding all the more forcefully to an embodied "ideal" in the face of what she is expressing of "the unmapped country within."

    The most insistent and powerful aspects of this last novel lie in the awakening in Gwendolen of the impelling need to understand the truth about herself. Truthfulness could be said to lie in her personal odyssey towards self-knowledge under the guidance of the "good object," as embodied in Deronda. She is portrayed as an ordinary, struggling human being, by contrast with Deronda's superior soul. We can much more readily identify with what Deronda introjectively means to Gwendolen than with the actual figure of Deronda himself. The invocation of a higher spiritual order, here represented by Jewish culture, has little to do with the development in the novel of Gwendolen's inner understanding of the importance of truth-seeking. The weakness of the novel lies in the (inevitable) failure to make moral abstractions incarnate. It derives from the impossibility of seeking the noumenal in the phenomenal, of establishing a believable basis for an idea of goodness outside (or, indeed within) the framework of human nature as known.

The "Good" and the "Ideal" in Contemporary Psychoanalytic Thought

    We can now turn to the way in which the problems of value and quality that have been under discussion are being reworked in present day psychoanalytic thinking. The myth of development which Lewes quotes from Plato's Phaedrus provides a bridge between George Eliot's concerns and the problems of the relationship between "the good" and "the ideal" in post-Kleinian thinking:

And the warmth and genial influence derived from the atmosphere which beauty generates around itself entering through the eyes, softens and liquefies the inveterate induration, which coats and covers up the parts in the vicinity of the wings, and prevents them from growing. This being melted, the wings begin to germinate and increase, and this, like the growing of the teeth, produces an itching and irritation which disturbs the whole frame of the soul. When, therefore, by the contemplation of the beautiful object, the induration is softened and the wings begin to shoot, the soul is relieved from its pain and rejoices; but when that object is absent, the liquefied substance hardens again, and closes up the young shoots of the wings, which consequently boil up and throb, and throw the soul into a state of turbulence and rage, and will neither allow it to sleep nor remain at rest, until it can again see the beautiful object, and be relieved. For this reason it never willingly leaves that object, but for its sake deserts parents, and brothers, and friends, and neglects its patrimony, and despises all established usages on which it valued itself before. And this affection is Love. (Lewes, 1857, pp. 196-197)

Lewes's focus on this poetic myth for the developmental process is in itself interesting, but it is particularly so in relation to George Eliot's struggles to find extended metaphors, in the form of novels, for the growth of the personality in terms which are attainable in the experience of actual lives.

    The Platonic myth describes the earliest emotional and physical strivings of the baby, and of the fledgling mind, towards taking wing and developing; towards engaging with the turbulence and disturbance of this development (Bion's catastrophic change?); towards finding some accommodation between the contrary pulls of craving a passionate and symbiotic relationship with the original archaic object on the one hand and needing to let go and leave that focus of primary love on the other; towards being able to undergo risk, to endure loss, and to move on. To formulate the questions raised by this myth in contemporary terms, where can one locate a source of development and creativity? How does the "good breast" turn into a love of truth and a sense of value? How can "the good" be differentiated from "the ideal."

    It has often been noted that, while apparently offering a thoroughgoing psychodynamic account of the origin and character of the "good object" in Klein's sense, or of the meaning of "O" in Bion's, analytic thought not only draws on quasi-religious and quasi-platonic language, but also postulates such mysterious notions as an "epistemophilic instinct" or an inherent human longing for truthful experience as dispositional imperatives. We find parallels to these notions in Plato. In the Philebus, Socrates urges his listeners to consider whether there is in our souls some natural power of loving the truth and doing other things for the sake of that. He describes the depth of the human longing for self-transcendence--for something better than what we are. Plato's point is that this seeking after the distinction between true value and everything else is not simply need-related. It is not a defense against pain. It is independent of negative motivations. We seek through reason to transcend our merely human limits, and this is a longing which conflicts with many other things we are and do.

    The understanding of precisely this kind of conflict, whether conscious or unconscious, has an important place in Kleinian and post-Kleinian thinking, just as it does in George Eliot's novels. And Socrates's question remains: how can we account for a good which is not simply need-related, not merely a defense against pain, but is independent of both conscious and unconscious human motivation? A brief excursus is required on the relationship between the "good" and the "ideal" as they appear in the psychodynamic description of human development, and on the "good" and "ideal" as they become unquestioningly established as either some kind of moral or some kind of transcendental category.

    Originally the idea of "the good object" derived from the sense of a need satisfied--the internalized feeling of gratification. The external object (originally experienced as a part-object, an aspect of the feeding mother--that is, the feeding "part" of the mother) becomes an internal object. Similarly, that which causes hunger is experienced within as a "bad" object, one which "gnaws" in Klein's case; or as a "no-object" which "persecutes" in Bion's.

    In the infant's early days the stability of the good object may be threatened by excessive anxiety (whether stemming from a dispositional intolerance of frustration or, for example, from being subjected to delayed or inconsistent feeding). At this point (the paranoid-schizoid position), bad feelings are experienced as actively malevolent forces. They stir in the infant equivalently powerful feelings of hatred. Such feelings threaten all sense of well-being and integration and have to be got rid of. They are "split off" and projected, thus becoming invested in something, or someone, else (initially another aspect of the mother) which is then felt to be the "bad" object. Temporarily this splitting enables the good object to be felt to have both strength and consistency, to be felt to be totally and ideally loving and caring. As such it evokes equivalent feelings of love and gratitude in return. Without that sense of goodness, persecutory and paranoid feelings prevail. If the early experiences are of an erratic or an emotionally absent feeding/breast/mother, the splitting may be continued beyond its normal and developmentally necessary stage, so that the baby (or the adult in an infantile state of mind) mentally clings to an idealized object that embodies unrealistic qualities of perfection. Because the idealized object inevitably disappoints, the clinging creates a risk of disastrous disillusionment. If the good object has not been sufficiently securely established early on, or indeed in the course of subsequent development, a person will forever be subject to experiencing setbacks and losses as catastrophic. He or she will tend, as a consequence, to adhere to what is felt to be the only possible "ideal," instead of having the capacity to suffer the mixed results of ordinary relationships, in which the actual "other" will, at times, fail to match up to expectations.

    In this Kleinian picture of development, as time goes on the internal presence is felt not so much as an inner representation of an outer experience but as an active participant in the individual's own life. Fed by unconscious phantasies, it assumes a concrete existence as part of psychic reality, with its own motives and intentions towards the self and its objects. It is the nature of these internal objects, and how a person relates to them, that determine his or her sense of identity. Aspects of the personality may thus be enhanced or modified through a changing experience of the internal object.

    The foregoing offers a brief version of the classical Kleinian account. But the story of the good object was never as straightforward as it may have seemed. Meira Likierman (1993) has pointed out an important feature of Klein's original way of describing things which was not elaborated and hence is often missed. This feature adds a significant dimension to the present argument.

    As we have already seen, the first love object is the sensuously gratifying breast which, in becoming emotionally charged, takes on various meanings--at its simplest, it is either good or bad. In the early years of her thinking, Klein left the status and development of this love object rather unclear, in keeping with Freud and Abraham's notion that "it was a secondary, later phenomenon which belonged to genital sexuality" (Likierman, 1993, p. 248). It was not until 1935 that she offered a clear definition: "Feelings of love and gratitude arise directly and spontaneously in the baby in response to the love and care of his mother" (1937 p. 311); i.e., "infantile libidinal states encompass emotion as well as physical pleasure" (Likierman, 1993, p. 248).

    Klein thought of the good object as the focus for the whole of the infant's instinctual desires and as forming the "core" of his ego (1957, p. 180). As Likierman observes, "the terms 'love' and 'Good Object' when applied to the earliest experiences . . . . are descriptions of the most primitive relationship in which good experiences of the object evoke not only physical pleasure but also emotional states that are experienced as ideal and boundless" (1993, p. 249). This notion of "ideal" object love is importantly distinct from the more familiar Kleinian notion of love as idealization--that is, as a secondary, defensive phenomenon. Klein described the adult version of the infant's irreducible primary love in the following way: "we find in the analysis of our patients that the breast in its good aspect is the prototype of maternal goodness, inexhaustible patience and generosity, as well as of creativeness. It is these fantasies and instinctual needs that so enrich the primal object that it remains the foundation for hope, trust and belief in goodness" (Klein, 1957, p. 180). For Klein the "primary good object" is "a technical term that refers to experiences that are in practice those of an ideal, boundless nature" (Likierman, 1993, p. 251). In other words, the primary good object is close to being a Platonic ideal, but in so being it is quite distinct from idealization, which is closer to perverting the truth than realizing it.

    An important difference between Freudian and Kleinian pictures of the internal world lies in the fact that with the concepts of the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions Klein introduced into the existing system of mental economics the element of value. The Kleinian account of development assumes human beings to be moral in their very nature. It describes the evolution of essentially moral categories as the criterion for normal personality growth: from narcissism and self-interest to concern for the well-being of others, for example. Indeed, as Rustin (1991, pp. 19-23) has made clear, the major developmental "positions" are defined in terms of the moral capacities which typify them. The characteristics of "depressive" states of mind include a sense of guilt about pain and destructiveness felt to have been inflicted on the loved other, and also the urge to make reparation.

    The raw material of morality is innate. Klein's emphasis on the capacity to recognize and take responsibility for damage done underlines the strength of the ethical implications of her basic model. The moral categories in terms of which she described the depressive position are not only normative but, in an important sense, teleological, since they represent that towards which individuals may be directed and for the sake of which they will strive. Within this model the developmental needs of the moral individual define the relationship between mother and baby, and, more generally, the proper requirements of enlightened child care, the conditions which will best promote the "good self." Understood in these terms, Kleinian theory represents an ethical, ameliorative concept of human growth and, increasingly, the post-Kleinian picture of development has built on this ethical concept. Development has come to be thought of as a capacity, or lack of capacity, to apprehend the true meaning to be gleaned from a shared emotional experience.

    Bion based this potentiality in an individual's inherent commitment to some kind of understanding of the truth about him- or herself. His thinking involved a move from the basic clinical considerations of how to define the identity of the psychoanalyst and of the analytic process to a much more speculative stance. He finally arrived at the point at which Lewes might well have exclaimed of him, as he had of Plato, that "his ethics are . . . not of a large-souled man, familiar with and sympathizing with the complexities of life; they are suited only to an impossible state of humanity" (1857, p. 163). By this stage Bion was not so much evolving psychoanalytic theories as theorizing about psychoanalysis as a thing-in-itself. Whereas Klein "constructed a quasi-theological system in which internal objects have the significance of deity," Bion "has constructed a quasi-philosophical system where thought sits amazed in Plato's cave straining itself to apprehend the noumena of the world" (Meltzer, 1978, Part III, p. 72).

    By the time he was writing Transformations (1965) and Attention and Interpretation (1970), Bion had moved from attempts to formulate his thoughts in mathematical and algebraic terms to a tendency to use explicitly philosophical, and finally mystical, ones. By 1965 he was embracing a frankly Platonist view of things, with many echoes of mid-nineteenth-century formulations of the unknowable. He sought to understand the development of individuals in terms of their relation to ultimate realities. He used the sign "O" to denote the thing-in-itself and designated the process of growth to be one of "becoming O." The "significance of O derives from and inheres in the Platonic Form" (1965, p. 138).

    At the beginning of Transformations, Bion states that he draws on philosophical terms "because the meaning with which they are already invested comes near to the meaning I seek to convey" (1965, p. 6). His central model (that of a lake reflecting trees, disturbed by wind, and a viewer seeing only the water) is effectively the same as Plato's image of the cave, but with that image disturbed by emotion (Meltzer, 1978, Part III, p. 73). Like George Eliot, Bion dwells on the painfulness of the individual's struggle to change and grow, and on the preference for "knowing about" reality to the arduous process of "becoming real" (1965, p. 53). His distinction parallels the contrast in Middlemarch between the intellectual bankruptcy of Casaubon's seeking the "key to all mythologies" and Dorothea's slow disengagement from that ultimately defensive undertaking in favor of the anguishing reality of personal change.

    George Eliot would have agreed with Bion that "healthy mental growth seems to depend on truth, as the living organism depends on food. If it is lacking or deficient the personality deteriorates" (1965, p. 38). Interestingly Bion adds: "I cannot support this conviction by evidence regarded as scientific. It may be that the formulation belongs to the realm of Aesthetic." We are back to the raison d'etre of George Eliot's novels, the linking of emotion with particulars rather than with abstractions; the seeking after a good which is attainable in lived relationships rather than in philosophical speculations.

    I have drawn on some of George Eliot's ideas, and on aspects of one novel in particular, as a form of "reality testing," that is as a way of engaging with very complex ideas not by staring straight at them (Plato, equating the Good with the Sun, predicted blindness) but by indirection. It might be better to locate ourselves not at the North Face of formulation and abstraction but in the foothills of lived experience. Psychoanalysis is still in those foothills when it comes to understanding the human mind and is reworking the moral and philosophical difficulties that have preoccupied thinkers since ancient times. But it is better equipped to move forward by experience than by abstraction, by seeking the ways in which the good may be informed by the ideal without being confused with it.

    The speculations of philosophers and the theorizations of psychoanalysts are, as George Eliot would say, "poor cement between human souls" (Haight, III, p. 111). Her novels give feeling and form to abstraction as the lives of the characters unfold, and the difficulties of bringing that about are reflected in the texts. In her fiction she was seeking to resist a speculative idea of "the good," the one depicted in the texts of Plato, and to explore an idea of good which is immanent in the doings and lives of human beings. She was, in practice, siding with Lewes's--and indeed with Aristotle's (Nichomachean Ethics, Bk. I, Ch. 6)--evaluation of Plato's ethics. In the individual case histories of the lives of their patients, psychoanalysts can also give feeling and form to abstraction. But where latter-day psychoanalytic theory is concerned, there has been a tendency towards further speculation, with a consequent lack of clarity about the relationship between the search for ideals and idealization, between proper judgment and judgmentalism, between a theoretical position on "the good object" or "becoming O" and the detailed, moment by moment happenings of the consulting room.

    The theoretical picture, be it that of Plato or of later Bion, gives little indication of how individuals might actually live their lives. It is to the poets and writers that we must turn for enlightenment. There are, indeed, tensions and lapses in George Eliot's work which register the difficulty of sustaining her undertaking. But, overall, the novels offer a more humanly accessible exploration of the relationship between the "good" and the "ideal," of how to conceptualize the "good life" and to describe how it may be lived.


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----- (1970). Attention and Interpretations. London: Tavistock.

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Margot Waddell "On Ideas of `the Good' and of `the Ideal' in George Eliot's Novels and in Post-Kleinian Psychoanalytic Thought". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/waddell-on_ideas_of_the_good_and_of_the_ideal_in. July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: August 1, 2000, Published: November 30, 2000. Copyright © 2000 Margot Waddell