Unconscious Fantasy

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Kleinian psychoanalysts regard the unconscious as made up of fantasies of relations with objects. These fantasies are the mental representation of instincts, and hence are thought of as primary (Isaacs, 1948).

When Freud (1900a) stressed the psychological meaning of childhood trauma, rather than its reality, he moved from a physiological way of thinking to a psychological one, thereby giving priority to the internal world. His paradigm of the psychological world was the unconscious fantasy of the three-person constellation that he named the Oedipus complex. Freud contrasted such internal libidinal fantasizing (the Oedipus complex) with the desexualized fantasy that serves as the basis for launching new sorts of sublimated activity in a wide domain. The role of fantasy in sublimating libido in such activities as daydreaming and aesthetic creation is quite different from the primary unconscious fantasies that provoke the conflicts of the early Oedipus complex.

Suzan Isaacs (1948) defined unconscious fantasy as the mental representation of instinct. In other words, the libido, from the outset, is an activity of mind, despite its physiological origins and functions. It takes the form of a fantasy of performing an (oral, anal, or genital) activity with an object. On the basis of such fantasies as the raw expression of instinct, the primitive mind of the infant can start to reorder itself through further primitive fantasies of projection, introjection, splitting, and denial, and in this way it may relieve itself of the experiences and terrors of primitive conflicts.

One developmental sequence starts with the unconscious fantasies of the Oedipus complex in its early stages and evolves, through fear (for example, castration anxiety), into a desexualized form: daydreaming (Freud, 1919e). Daydreaming, expressed by children in their relentless playing (Freud, 1908c), is an important activity. Classical psychoanalysis emphasizes daydreaming and its sublimatory opportunities, while Kleinian psychoanalysis emphasizes the roots of fantasy life in the unconscious.

Child analysis as developed by Melanie Klein (1955) demonstrated the workings of the unconscious in the fantasies of play. Klein developed her technique on the basis of how figures are repositioned in play. This led to a theory of how objects are positioned in relation to each other and to the child's self. Klein recognized in the details of play the child's defensiveness as well as the child's primary and conflicting impulses. The unconscious roots of impulses and defenses are expressed in relations with objects.

The nature of the very early primary fantasies was hotly debated. Anna Freud disputed Melanie Klein's claim that the infant has coherent fantasies from such an early age. She regarded the unconscious fantasies that Klein and her colleagues reported as secondary elaboration at later stages of development. For Anna Freud, the infant develops cognitively by establishing representations of reality and the objects in it, but these representations do not cohere into meaningful, motivating fantasies until after phases of autoeroticism and primary narcissism. Jean Piaget (1954) and Margaret Mahler et al. (1975) have plotted the emergence of representations of reality from these early objectless phases. Other infant psychologists, such as Daniel Stern (1985), tend to see the infant as possessing a sophisticated mind early on, as Klein described.

Robert D. Hinshelwood

See also: Archetype (analytical psychology); Controversial discussions; Isaacs-Sutherland, Susan; Imago; Logic(s); Primal, the.


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Isaacs, Suzan. (1948). On the nature and function of phantasy. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 29, 73-97.

Klein, Melanie. (1955). The psycho-analytic play technique: Its history and significance. In Klein, Melanie, Heimann, Paula, and Money-Kyrle, Roger E. (Eds.), New directions in psycho-analysis. London: Tavistock Publications.

Mahler, Margaret S., Pine, Fred, and Bergman, Anni. (1975). The psychological birth of the human infant. New York: Basic Books.

Piaget, Jean. (1954). The construction of reality in the child (Margaret Cook, Trans.). New York: Basic Books. (Original work published 1937)

Segal, Hanna. (1991). Dreams, Phantasy, and Art. London: Institute of Psycho-Analysis/Routledge.

Stern, Daniel N. (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant: A view from psychoanalysis and developmental psychology. New York: Basic Books.