Archaic Mother

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In the Kleinian constellation over which she presides, the archaic mother is the fantasy mother of the first few months of the infant's lifethe paranoid-schizoid phase. Omnipotent and phallic, she fulfills and frustrates in equally radical measure. She is the key figure in the early stages of the Oedipus complex, and her breast, an object split into a good, nourishing breast and a bad persecutory one, is her generic attribute. It is the target of the ambivalent libidinal and sadistic oral drives of the infant in search of unlimited satisfaction, a satisfaction that, inevitably, will never be achieved.

Beyond such epistemological considerations, the idea of the archaic mother points up a persistent psychoanalytical paradox: the fact that we mourn for origins that are inaccessible yet somehow open to retroactive attempts to reveal them. This figure embodies an archaism with the extraordinary ability to "conjure up the beginning while simultaneously revealing its absence" (Assoun, 1982). The primal mother escapes our grasp yet holds us in thrall.

The notion of the archaic is a semantic point of convergence for several Freudian concepts. It is closely related, for one thing, to the "primal"to all those terms in Freud's writings that begin with the prefix "ur -": Urszene (the primal scene), Urphantasien (primal fantasy), Urverdrängung (primal repression), Urvater (primal father). And it is akin to the stratigraphical and archaeological metaphors of which Freud was so fond.

Melanie Klein used the adjective "archaic" only once, but made frequent use of "früh " or "early" (Petot, 1982). The idea of the archaic mother was introduced in connection with Klein's theses on the early stages of the Oedipus complex in boys and girls (1928). Apropos of the early oral stage of the oedipal conflict, Klein described a "paranoid-schizoid position" characterized by the relationship to part-objects, by the splitting of the ego (an ego lacking in maturity) and of the object, by persecutory anxiety, and by schizoid mechanisms. The breast of the archaic mother was a structuring factor here. Frustrated in their attempts to attain that breast, both girls and boys were prompted to abandon the quest and embrace the wish for oral satisfaction by means of the father's penis. Introjection of the good and bad breast of the good and bad mother was thus replaced by introjection of the good and bad penis of the good and bad father. The parents became the first models not only for internal protective and helpful figures but also for internal vengeful and persecutory ones; these first identifications by the ego constituted the foundations of the superego. Some of the superego's most important traits, both its loving/protective and its destructive/devouring sides, were derived from the earliest identifications with the mother.

Klein's followers developed these ideas, notably that of projective identification in infants (Bion, 1962; Meltzer, 1992); their exploration of childhood psychoses went in the same direction (Tustin, 1972; Meltzer, 1975).

The archaic mother is part of a long mythological tradition stemming from the fecund and savage Earth Mother of ancient Greek cosmogony. In psychoanalysis the theme is discernible, for example, in the sea "abandoned in primeval times" of Ferenczi's Thalassa (1924, p. 52), in Freud's phylogenetic explanation of primal fantasies (1915f, p. 269 and n.), or in the "biological bedrock" of the "repudiation of femininity" (Freud, 1937c, pp. 250-52).

If the "archaic" is forever generating meaning in the unconscious without ever manifesting itself as a perceptible cause, it is the task of metapsychological speculation to offer an account of this phenomenon. The aforementioned psychoanalytical "mythologies" may indeed be said to respond to an "epistemic imperative" (Assoun, 1982). At the same time, however, any psychoanalytical view of the archaic, which is inseparable from the discussion of "deferred action" (q.v.), can achieve legitimacy only by eschewing the naïvety of the Freudian archaeological metaphor: the "archaic mother" of an excavated past does not amount to a restoration of the original.

Recently the analysis of borderline conditions has highlighted the notion of an analyst who does not represent the mother but instead is the omnipotent mother. This figure is the object of a transference that is "both archaic and a defense against the archaic" (Green, 1982).

At present, clinical work on the psychoanalysis of origins has an important part to play in the study of parenthood. In the contexts of infertility, perinatal psychopathology, or transgenerational mental transmission, the consideration of the structural outcome of parental conflict with the archaic (grand-) mother has given this concept a new lease on life (Bydlowski, 1997).

Sylvain Missonnier

See also: Breast, good/bad object; Oedipus complex, early; Paranoid-schizoid position; Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic father; "Vagina dentata," fantasy of.


Assoun, Paul Laurent. (1982). L'archaïque chez Freud: entre Logos et Anankè. Nouvell revue de psychanalyse, 26, 11-44.

Bydlowski, Monique. (1997). La dette de vie : itinéraire psychanalytique de la maternité. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

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Ferenczi, Sándor. (1968). Thalassa: A theory of genitality. (Henry Alden Bunker, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1924)

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