Oral-Sadistic Stage

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The oral-sadistic phase of infantile libidinal organization is the second part of the oral stage, as described by Karl Abraham; it is also known as the cannibalistic phase. During this period incorporation means the destruction of the object, so the relationship to the object is said to be ambivalent.

It was in a passage added in 1915 to his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality that Freud introduced the notion of an "oral" organization that he also described as "cannibalistic": "the sexual aim consists in the incorporation of the objectthe prototype of a process which, in the form of identification, is later to play such an important psychological part" (1905a, p. 198). The evocation of "cannibalism" served to underscore certain features of the oral object-relationship: the incorporation of the object and its characteristics, identification with it, and, at the same time, greed and destructiveness.

Abraham (1927 [1924]) subdivided the oral stage into two parts: first, an early oral phase dominated by the pleasure of sucking and described as "preambivalent," because the breast is not yet conceived as at once good and bad, both frustrating and gratifying; and secondly, an oral-sadistic or "cannibalistic" stage, occurring later, during the second six months of life, and contemporaneous with teething, which sees the emergence of the wish to bite and to incorporate the object, destroying it in the process. Instinctual ambivalence makes its appearance during this second phase, as incorporation becomes destructive. The oral-sadistic phase is thus characterized by the advent of aggressiveness, by ambivalence, and by the anxiety associated with the destruction of the loved object and the fear of being devoured in turn by that object. Elsewhere, in the context of a discussion of interaction, attention has been drawn to the way in which the child's cannibalistic instincts can revive those of the mother (Golse, 1992).

Freud used the model of cannibalistic devouring and the intrapsychic effects of ambivalence in his study of melancholia (1917e, pp. 249-50). In mourning, he argued, the lost object was assimilated into the ego, incorporated as in the totem meal. Once magically incorporated in this way, it was conflated with the ego, which could either draw strength and power from this (as in identification or the totem meal), or, alternatively, fall victim to attacks from within from this ambivalently cathected object (as in melancholic self-reproach).

Melanie Klein radicalized Abraham's account of a destructiveness linked to orality and to object-love, going so far as to say that libidinal development as a whole is completed only once the innate destructive instincts have been integrated into it. In her view the whole of the oral stage was oral-sadistic in nature, indeed it was the high point of infantile sadism. The libidinal wish to suck and incorporate was combined with the destructive aim of scooping out and emptying the object. In her Envy and Gratitude (1957/1975, pp. 180-81), Klein defined envy of the breast as bound up with oral greed, in which the destructive component instincts predominated: the desire to attack and destroy the object was not tempered by the gratitude generated by good experiences with the mother. This primal wish precipitated the split between the good breast to be retained and the bad breast to be expelled. Klein thus returns via this account of primal oral desire to the idea of a differentiation between ego and non-ego that is secondary to that between good and bad, as organized by the mechanisms of introjection and projection specific to the Freudian model.

Jean-FranÇois Rabain

See also: Orality; Stage (or phase).


Abraham, Karl. (1927). A short study of the development of the libido, viewed in the light of mental disorders. In Selected Papers on Psycho-Analysis. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1924)

Brusset, Bruno. (1992). Le Développement libidinal. Paris: P.U.F.

Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1916-17g [1915]). Mourning and Melancholia. SE, 14: 237-258.

Golse, Bernard. (1992). Le développement affectif et intellectuel de l'enfant. Paris: Masson.

Klein, Melanie. (1957). Envy and Gratitude. In Envy and Gratitude and Other Works, 1946-1963. Reprinted in The Writings of Melanie Klein, vol. 3. London: Hogarth Press; New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1975.

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