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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity

Splitting Humanity into Saints and Sinners

It is a characteristic temptation of the mind to declare things to be either very very good or very very bad. Nuance is not our species’ strong point or natural resting place.

It was the singular achievement of the mid-twentieth century child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein to trace this problem back to early childhood. For Klein, infants and small children are inveterate dividers of the world into opposing camps of the brilliant and the awful and they act in this way from the moment they emerge and have their first feed at the breast. Klein proposed that a newborn has no clear idea, at the very start, that its mother is even a whole person. She is just, at the outset, a pair of breasts from which stem the source of all life and goodness. Sometimes, when a feed is going well, when the milk is flowing strongly and nourishingly, the breast is a source of delight and perfection, it is impeccable and superb, it is scrupulously good. But at other points, when it’s hard to latch on to the nipple, when the milk is resistant, the frustration is intolerable. The baby deems the breast defective, vengeful, useless and definitively bad. And so, in a mental process that Klein famously termed ‘splitting’, the infant ends up dividing the mother into nothing less than a good and a bad breast.

Eventually the child develops a capacity for more integrated and complex thoughts. It makes an astonishing realisation: that the breasts actually belong to a full person. And more importantly, that this person happens to be (strangely) both good and bad, both helpful and frustrating, both gratifying and maddening. Furthermore, a lot of people seem to have this dual nature; they can be fun and interesting one moment, then really very irritating at another. Far from reflecting some rare deficiency, this duality is part of every human being, not least itself. The child begins to accept that it too is a mixture of the good and the bad – but that this is no reason to hate or give up on itself. Life can be lived in shades of grey.

Klein was under no illusion about how easy these realisations might be to reach. She suggested that surrendering a black and white view is so hard for children that doing so will throw them into a period of melancholy thoughtfulness and contemplation that she called ‘depressive realism’. In this mournful state, they will shed some of their uninhibited early liveliness and process grave and difficult thoughts as to the ambivalent nature of everything. They begin to recognise that the world has nothing entirely pure to offer them – but then again, to compensate, that there are far fewer utterly horrible things as well. Mummy is very nice but also deeply annoying; daddy is funny but properly idiotic. Nursery isn’t constantly great, but it isn’t hell either.

In the course of her therapeutic work, Klein realised that not every adult has managed to go through the stage of ‘depressive realism’. A huge number of us are still stuck somewhere deep in the ‘splitting’ phase. That is, we continuously imagine that people and situations are completely pure and wonderful or appalling and detestable. Someone who doesn’t agree with us politically is, for example, immediately a thorough villain: corrupt, hateful and deserving of total infamy. An ex partner who has frustrated us must be a monster guilty of heinous behaviour and the worst motives. Someone who holds us back at the office is evidently entirely nefarious. The person we met on a dating site two and a half days ago is wholly beautiful and sensational to the core. The world contains one or two true goodies, and a lot more complete baddies waiting for justice to be served.

Klein’s insight was to associate maturity with a rejection of all divisive ‘split’ positions. To be a proper grown up is to realise that there are no paragons and monsters, no deities and total reprobates. There are only people somewhere in the middle, trying to act well, making mistakes, striving to say sorry, hoping to do better – and always full of regrets, embarrassment and a longing for forgiveness. Little babies are very sweet, but splitting is anything but. It lies at the heart of the most noxious forms of totalitarianism, vengefulness, intolerance and political oppression; there is an angry splitting toddler inside the general who orders the extermination of prisoners and inside the revolutionary who coldly has their victims eliminated. One of our greatest of all achievements is a melancholy and essential realisation: that everyone, not least ourselves, is a mixture of devil and angel and that therefore tolerance and forbearance are truly non-negotiable features of a bearable world.

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