May 19, 2023
The subject of this week’s newsletter is transitional objects. But I immediately admit that such polysyllabic clatter is a ruse, an attempt to lend respectability to our real subject, which is the mythological significance of teddy bears. Teddy bears are not our only subject today, it’s true, but, still, they and their stuffed-animal relatives are the starting point of an exploration that will expand to a cosmic circumference. I am well aware that this sounds perfectly silly.
In 1951, the year in which I myself arrived as an infant, the wonderful, unconventional psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott formulated his theory of what he called transitional objects, which include not only stuffed animals but all objects to which a child clings for security and comfort. And not just children: Wikipedia cites a survey that claims that 35% of British adults sleep with a stuffed animal. The very large category of “research questions I have no time to investigate” includes the question, “Given that teddy bears have been around for only a century and a quarter, more or less, what preceded them as security objects? Other stuffed animals? Dolls?” And why teddy bears, Teddy Roosevelt’s koalas notwithstanding? Yes, very cuddly, but so are other animals. Literary influence, via Winnie-the-Pooh and Paddington Bear? I do not know.
I did not myself have a teddy bear, so far as I remember. But I did have a stuffed blue dog that, over time, became progressively more ragged, as stuffed toys will do. I did not have it as a small child: I slept with it during the period in which I lost my mother temporarily to a mental institution, in which she was treated for paranoid schizophrenia. I was about 8 or 9 then, so I was regressing. But we do that. A couple of years ago, I had a freshman student who brought her stuffed dinosaur to class every day. I was in complete sympathy. Freshman year of college, especially in this era of mental health issues, is a pandemic of collective separation anxiety. Currently, I live with about 53 stuffed monkeys, belonging to my former wife (who is welcome to visit them at any time), and originally inspired (I think) by Curious George, who continue to reside in their traditional home after an amicable divorce without a custody battle. I do not keep them for security, but they are admittedly old friends, and I cannot imagine the house without them. The whole house, for they are everywhere, in every single room. If you visit me, I hope you like monkeys, for I live with them as Jane Goodall did with chimpanzees.
We do not know what goes on in the mind of a baby or a small child. But Winnicott dared to imagine it based on what he observed while interacting with small children. And his interaction was itself daring, breaking down the barrier between the clinician and his subject. Winnicott is included as a subsidiary character in Alison Bechdel’s extraordinary graphic novel Are You My Mother?, which devotes two pages to dramatizing Winnicott’s interactions with a 26-month-old girl, out of which emerged one of his most famous case studies, The Piggle (1977). Of the little girl, Gabrielle, Bechdel writes, “She played out the mysteries of sex, birth, love, hate, death, the self, the other, and whether God exists.” Then she adds, “Winnicott played too,” with a panel of him down on the floor with her, on his back with his legs over his head, observed by an astonished and delighted Gabrielle (155). He not only played, he listened, and listened with the assumption that the talk of children was meaningful and not just babbling. At one point, showing him a toy car, Gabrielle asks him if he knows about the “babacar.” In Bechdel’s description, “’I then interpreted,’ Winnicott writes. ‘I took a risk’” (155). The risk was venturing that the “babacar” is the mother’s inside where the baby is born from, because the girl’s disturbance began with the birth of a sibling. Gabrielle confirms the guess. Yes, it is all interpretation. We take a risk.
So Winnicott took the risk of asking himself what a teddy bear, or other stuffed animal, is to a small child. His answer is that it is a transitional object, in transition between subject and object, self and other. It exists in a kind of liminal reality, an in-between state. Far from being just a thing, it is not only alive, animated, but a companion. What animates it is the child’s imagination, yet it is not “made up,” not the same as an idea in the child’s head. It is not self, yet it is not other. Winnicott did not have available as a perfect example Hobbes, the stuffed tiger in Bill Watterson’s classic comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. Every so often Watterson will draw Hobbes as Calvin’s parents see him, as an inanimate object, a stuffed tiger. But to six-year-old Calvin he is radically the opposite, lithe and dynamic: Watterson loved to draw action sequences in which Calvin and Hobbes fight in a whirlwind of motion, wild energy, a madcap ballet. However, the relationship does not stop there. Hobbes is not only a companion but a guide into a world of imagined adventures in which Calvin can become a Tyrannosaurus Rex, gleefully wrecking the world, or Spaceman Spiff fighting aliens. Hobbes is thus an initiatory figure into the enchanted realm of play, the first form of what in The Productions of Time I call the Otherworld.
By the time that Winnicott collected his original paper on transitional objects into a book called Playing and Reality (1971), he was able to cite in his introduction one of Watterson’s inspirations, Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip. There are actually two kinds of transitional object in Peanuts. The kind closest to Hobbes is not a stuffed animal but a “real” dog—who as the strip developed over decades became much more than a pet. Snoopy is as much a transitional object to the reader as to his owner, Charlie Brown. It is the reader who is privy to Snoopy’s own inner life, his Otherworld. One form of that Otherworld is his doghouse—which we are given to understand contains a pool table and a Van Gogh. Like many forms of the Otherworld, it is bigger on the inside than the outside, a concept inspiring John Crowley’s great fantasy Little, Big, about the Otherworld of the fairies. We also think of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, written by another eccentric with an unusual rapport with children.
Thus in one direction the transitional object can be expanded into a whole world of play incorporating an array of toys. In an essay called “Living Creatively,” Winnicott says that “Creativity, then, is the retention throughout life of something that belongs properly to infant experience: the ability to create the world” (Home, 40). As a boy, with the help of my dad, who built a large table to be its platform in our basement, I created a world. I had inherited an electric train from my cousin, an American Flyer (I still have it, on exhibit in the entryway, on a table made by my dad’s dad, my Italian carpenter grandfather). My dad constructed a table for the train’s figure-8 track, and I furnished it with the usual houses and tunnels (the tunnels are now being used by our guinea pigs!). But I also peopled it with plastic toy soldiers, which to me were not soldiers but superheroes, because I was enraptured with the Otherworld of superhero comics. (This was an era before action figures). I spent hours in the basement living in that world. I assume that the same imaginative expansion takes place with girls, who begin with a doll that is a transitional object, a security figure, but who initiates the girl into a world of doll clothes, doll houses, and so on. Stacey still has her Barbies, and the impulse to create a world led her to become for years and a devotee of The Sims, a world-designing video game.
Adults do not always lose their longing for transitional objects, and folk tales and mythology are full of created beings that come alive. Pygmalion sculpts Galatea, who is brought to life by Venus. Gepetto carves Pinocchio. Less problematically, Alberto Manguel, as recounted in the newsletter for November 18, 2022, has turned the characters in Dante’s Divine Comedy into transitional objects by carving 90 of them as puppets.
Winnicott, however, took the risk of interpreting backwards, so to speak, to a period of the child’s development before the transitional object, and by doing so formulated a psychoanalytic Creation myth, a myth of the Origin. Peanuts features a form of transitional object less externalized than a stuffed animal: the security blanket of Linus, usually accompanied by thumb sucking. Why does a security blanket comfort? Presumably because it embodies the condition of the bed, the warm place of security. But the original place of warmth and security is the mother’s body, so, at a remove, the security blanket is a link to the mother. Object relations theory, as exemplified by Winnicott and Melanie Klein, postulates an original condition in which self is not distinguished from other. The infant does not recognize the mother as an “other,” a condition that psychoanalytic feminism sometimes captures in the term M(other). The mother will become the first other, but the infant begins in a state of complete fusion with her, and only gradually comes to realize that she is a separate being. Awareness that the mother is a separate being dawns when the mother is absent, either literally not there or merely not there as a fulfiller of the baby’s needs—when the baby is hungry but there is no breast, for instance. When the baby is a bit older, this becomes “separation anxiety.” One of the few times that Freud himself dealt with children is in the opening of his late book Beyond the Pleasure Principle, whose opening describes a game in which the mother hides a spindle and then produces it again, to the delight of the baby—in other words, peekaboo. The spindle is absent, then present; not there, but then there again. It is not an exaggeration to say that this is a death-and-rebirth ritual: it is in this book that Freud announces his late theory of the “death drive.” The ritual allays the anxiety that, if the mother is a separate being who sometimes goes away, she might someday go away altogether. No: she will always appear again, to great rejoicing. Religion is an adult version of peekaboo. Dante’s Beatrice has been gone for ten years when his epic opens, but he learns that there will be an eternal reunion.
The most daring aspect of Winnicott’s theory, and the one that distinguishes it from the ironic pessimism of Freud himself, is the insistence that it is the first (though not the final) task of the “good-enough mother”—an inspired phrase—to provide for the child exactly the experience of union, fusion, lack of otherness and alienation that would seem to be denied by the “reality principle.” Out of that feeling of unity comes, as the above quotation makes clear, that ability to create the world that is synonymous to Winnicott with living itself. If you do not create the world, but merely have an external world forced on you, you are not living but merely existing. Nonetheless, what may seem problematic is that the union, the fusion, and the feeling of omnipotence that it engenders is an illusion—it flies directly in the face of the reality principle: “The Reality Principle is the fact of the existence of the world whether the baby creates it or not” (40). In Freud himself, the task of living as a mature and responsible adult is a discipline of progressive disillusionment, a renunciation of the narcissistic megalomania of infantile fantasy. That is the ultimate purpose of science itself, the revelation of an objective reality independent of our wishes. The purpose of life for Freud was the noble pursuit of the disillusioning truth. Its opposite is what we see all around us these days in the form of an epidemic of narcissistic personality disorder, people making up their own reality based on their selfish wishes and attempting to impose it on everyone else.
Winnicott does not, however, advocate trying to remain in the mental condition of infancy and early childhood. That condition is what William Blake called Innocence, the feeling that the world is benevolent and made for our benefit. The opposite state, in which reality doesn’t give a damn what we desire, he called Experience. Blake has a poem called The Book of Thel in which a little girl, Thel, dwells in the Vales of Har, an Edenic yet ultimately unreal land. Thel looks through the “Northern Gates” at the suffering and misery of the world of Experience—and flees in terror back into the Vales of Har. Blake is aware that this is regressive, a refusal to be born, a retreat into what, if persisted in, will become a senile illusion. But is the human choice one between narcissism and pessimism?
In a passage that is typical of his quirky, puckish style, Winnicott says, “The Reality Principle is just too bad, but by the time the little child is called upon to say ‘ta,’ big developments have taken place and the child has acquired genetically determined mental mechanisms for coping with this insult. For the Reality Principle is an insult” (Home, 40). What are these coping mechanisms? Well, strangely enough, the first thing that the good-enough mother must provide for the child is precisely the experience of a paradisal state of union with its environment, a state in which its wishes are gratified. But life isn’t like that! some people will protest. This is Winnicott’s reply:
But I would hate to do the opposite and to sell disillusionment to young people, to make it a business to see that young people know everything and have no illusions. If one has been happy, one can bear distress. It is the same when we say that a baby cannot be weaned unless he or she has had the breast, or breast equivalent. There is no disillusionment (acceptance of the Reality Principle) except on a basis of illusion. (Home, 47)
That last sentence seems to me profound, and reverberates far beyond the context of child development. Winnicott freely admits that what he advocates is paradoxical: “My contribution is to ask for a paradox to be accepted and tolerated and respected, and for it not to be resolved” (Playing, xii). Reality is to be accepted, but only on the basis of illusion—what can that mean? What is implied is a lifelong struggle, a dialectical contest of opposites akin to those that Wallace Stevens called reality and imagination: “It is assumed here that the task of reality-acceptance is never completed, that no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality, and that relief from this strain is provided by an intermediate area of experience” (Playing, 13). What happens in that intermediate area of experience, that Otherworld? What happens is what we call “play,” in which the child works out the relationship between the object as imagined and the object according to the reality principle:
From the beginning the baby has maximally intense experiences in the potential space between the subjective object and the object objectively perceived, between me-extensions and the not-me….The potential space happens only in relation to a feeling of confidence on the part of the baby, that is confidence on the dependability of the mother-figure or environmental elements, confidence being the evidence of dependability that is becoming introjected. (Playing, 100; italics in original)
Two pages later, he quotes a Jungian analyst, Fred Plaut, who says, “The capacity to form images and to use these constructively by recombination into new patterns is—unlike dreams or fantasies—dependent on the individual’s ability to trust” (102).
What I take all this to mean is that the mother—or caregiver who is in the position of the mother in the traditional 1950’s families Winnicott knew—has to try in a good-enough way to create for the child a world as the world should be, a world of gratified desire in which all the child’s basic needs are fulfilled—physical, emotional, and also imaginative. For the imagination has its basic needs as well, starting with what the fantasy tradition calls a sense of wonder. The imagination needs a world of possibility, in which magic is real, as we see in fairy tales and their modern equivalents such as The Hobbit and Harry Potter. And as Tolkien said in his famous essay on fairy tales, the imagination also needs a happy ending, what he called the “eucatastrophe.” There can be any amount of darkness and suffering and fear along the way, even death itself, but there is always hope, and hope is finally realized. When Northrop Frye talked about literary education in the elementary grades, he said that the happy-ending forms of comedy and romance are primary. Tragedy and irony, in which the reality principle triumphs, are secondary developments appropriate for later grades.
The child will inevitably experience frustration of its desires, even of its needs. The mother’s secondary task then becomes helping the child cope with the need for delayed gratification, even renounced gratification. At that point the reality principle gets its due. But learning the instinctual renunciation necessary to live in an imperfect world is only possible when starting from a prior state of fulfilment, which provides the trust, confidence, and feeling of dependability necessary to make the child resilient, able to re-create both the world and the self when obstacles close off certain avenues. The challenge Winnicott’s theory poses to the attitude of the intellectual elite of the last three quarters of a century bears thinking about. Most of the literary and philosophical theories influential during my lifetime have been characterized by what has been called a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” an attitude that is, to put it mildly, the opposite of trust, confidence, and a feeling of dependability. Descartes inaugurated modern philosophy by saying he was going to doubt whatever could be doubted until he finally reached a bedrock of certainty. Modern thought adopted his method, but has never reached bedrock. The abyss of uncertainty seems bottomless.
In his later career, Winnicott developed his idea of the transitional object and play in a way that provides an alternative to the reductiveness of some modern and postmodern theorizing. To an extent he may not have fully realized, his vision may be further developed in a way that goes beyond even the limitations of the psychoanalytic model with which he started. In an essay titled “The Concept of a Healthy Individual,” he speaks of “the three lives that healthy people live” (Home, 35). The first is external, objective, what he calls “life in the world,” which includes both “the non-human environment” and interpersonal relationships.” The second is internal, subjective, “The life of the personal (sometimes called inner) psychical reality,” which includes dreams. But the third, between the objective and the subjective, between the outer and the inner, is “The area of cultural experience” (35):
Cultural experience starts as play, and leads on to the whole area of man’s inheritance, including the arts, the myths of history, the slow march of philosophical thought and the mysteries of mathematics, and of group management and of religion. | Where do we place this third life of cultural experience? I think it cannot be placed in the inner or personal psychical reality, because it is not a dream—it is part of shared reality. But it cannot be said to be part of external relationships, because it is dominated by dream….For into this area come not only play and a sense of humour, but also all the accumulated culture of the past five to ten thousand years. In this area the good intellect can operate. It is all a by-product of health…it starts in the potential space between a child and the mother when experience has produced in the child a high degree of confidence in the mother, that she will not fail to be there when suddenly needed.” (36)
This provides a depth dimension to a famous book, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1938, 1955), by the historian Johan Huizinga, which demonstrates the play element encyclopedically through all the areas of human culture. Huizinga’s study is complemented, however, by two graphic novels, using the term loosely, that bring it all back home, showing autobiographically how the play element emerges in childhood, and, in both cases, how it is bound up with coming to terms with the mother. The “it” in the title of Lynda Barry’s What It Is (2008) refers to the imagination as a creative process that emerges from playing with words and images on a page. Barry’s own creative process is inhabited by monkeys, including one in particular, the Near-Sighted Monkey, who is an alter ego and totem animal. Barry gives hope to those who may not have been so fortunate as to have a good-enough mother. Her extensive body of work has in fact emerged out of mortal combat with the destructive influence of her neglectful and emotionally abusive mother, who was, to put it bluntly, a real piece of work. There may, however, be substitute mothers, and one of Barry’s was the teacher who, when she was only six and came early to school to escape the toxic environment of home, set her up in the back of the classroom and gave her drawing implements and paper. Barry herself has gone on to become a gifted teacher, the whole lesson of whose classes is learning to trust the creative process, beginning with the trust that everyone has a creative process, that we may all learn to create the world, whether we go on to become artists or not.
The other graphic novel is Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? (2012), already mentioned, whose dedication reads “For my mother, who knows who she is.” It has an epigraph from Virginia Woolf: “For nothing was simply one thing.” Bechdel makes extensive use of Winnicott’s theories and includes an engaging portrait of him. At one point, she tells her therapist, “I wish he were my mother.” In the end, Bechdel’s mother is good-enough. But that does not mean she was perfect, and one of her imperfections was her choice of marital partner, for Bechdel’s father was as toxic as Lynda Barry’s mother. His story is told in Bechdel’s earlier and better-known book, Fun Home, eventually made into an award-winning musical. In Are You My Mother? he remains mostly offstage, but his influence falls like a shadow over the mother-daughter relationship. In an extraordinary sequence, Bechdel discovers a sequence of family photographs taken when she was a baby, in which her mother is holding her and interacting with her:
Mom is making faces and presumably sounds at me. In each shot, I reflect her expression and the shape of her mouth with uncanny precision. But “There is nothing mystical about this,” says Donald Winnicott, in the ordinary devoted mother…For a long time I resisted including my present-day interactions with mom in this book precisely because they’re so “ordinary”….Then I started seeing how the transcendent would almost always creep into the everyday….In my arrangement of these photos, the rapport between mom and me builds until I shriek with joy. Then the moment is shattered as I notice the man with the camera….At three months, I had seen enough of my father’s rages to be wary of him. (32-33)
Transcendent? Despite Winnicott’s insistence that there is nothing mystical about it, Bechdel’s drawings capture an ecstasy, a rapture on the face of a tiny baby that is worth a thousand words. The faces of mother and child reflect each other like what Northrop Frye called a “double mirror,” except that he was speaking of the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible. Dante uses the double mirror to describe how God the Father and Son reflect each other’s faces with love. Mirror and reflection imagery run all the way through the graphic novel.
What is disturbing is the role of the father. He plays the intervening reality principle, but only in a destructive way. We can ascribe this to the particular dysfunctionality of the Bechdel household, but it raises the issue of the puzzling absence of the father altogether in Winnicott’s theory. It is as if the mother raises the child entirely on her own. That was exactly the case in the 50’s families of Winnicott’s era, which was also mine. Psychoanalytic feminists such as Dorothy Dinnerstein argued in the 1970’s and 80’s that childrearing equally shared by both parents would eliminate, or at least mitigate, the Oedipal neuroses of traditional families. Since then, new models of parenting have supplemented the traditional model: single-parent families, gay families, lesbian families, and so on. Some of my students tell me that their fathers are not at all the absent and negative fathers of the 1950’s and 1960’s. I am a bit skeptical about the degree to which American society has liberated family members from the old traditional roles, but the fact that successful families exist that operate on different models tells us something.
What it tells us is the same thing we have learned about sexual identities: family roles are not essential but socially constructed. What I think Winnicott got profoundly right was the dynamics beneath the roles. That is, the child does begin in a state of non-differentiated consciousness, fused with its environment, unaware that anything is not-self. I also think Winnicott was right that this unity of subject and object is a good thing, not some sort of deplorable narcissism at the heart of the human condition, despite the ideology of ironic detachment that dominates contemporary discourse. We should be careful: the original unity is not an end point, which would be merely regressive. But it is a necessary beginning. If it is prevented from occurring or prematurely disrupted, healthy human development is unlikely. Gradually, the individual must learn to integrate the reality principle, the principle of difference, of not-self, of objectivity, yet without abandoning the original feeling of connection with the environment and with other people. This integration happens through the play of the imagination.
What can be updated are the gender identifications. Human beings are role players, and it is possible for a male, whether heterosexual, homosexual, trans, or nonbinary, to play the nurturing role, to be the ground of being with which the infant feels at one. Boobs are optional: yes, to be fed with the mother’s own body is a powerful bonding ritual, but for heaven’s sake there have been breast substitutes throughout history, from wet nurses to bottles. The breast can be mystically cathected, but that is only one script, and there are others. Granted, there is still a stigma attached to the role of house husband. We have liberated women from the prison of the home, but we have not liberated the father to choose domesticity. Yet surely some men are suited for it. Bechdel ends by finding a good-enough mother. What she needed was a good-enough father. I am surprised that she did not wish that Winnicott were her father instead. I rather wish that myself: he would have been a good one, although he in fact remained childless.
Who knew there was so much to say about teddy bears? Next week we will look more deeply into the mysterious middle realm between the subject and the object, which Winnicott says begins in play and develops into “cultural experience.” Lynda Barry and Alison Bechdel deal with it in realistic, indeed in autobiographical terms. By looking at a few works that are more directly symbolic, we may arrive at some greater understanding of how the imagination mediates between the subject and the object, the self and the not-self, identity and difference. Like Winnicott’s Gabrielle, we may come to play out the mysteries of sex, birth, love, hate, death, the self, the other, and whether God exists—at least if we can become as little children again and summon the confidence that, if we ask, it shall be given; if we seek, we shall find; if we knock, the door will be opened. If we find ourselves within the valley of the shadow, we shall continue to trust that there is no disillusionment except on a basis of illusion.
Barry, Lynda. What It Is. Drawn & Quarterly, 2008.
Bechdel, Alison. Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Winnicott, D.W. Home Is Where We Start From: Essays by a Psychoanalyst. Compiled and edited by Clare Winnicott, Ray Shepherd, Madeleine Davis. Norton, 1986.
Winnicott, D.W. Playing and Reality. Tavistock, 1971.