by Jill Gentile, Ph.D.

I am becoming intensely interested in the need, responsibilities, and possibilities for psychoanalysis to contribute to public life. On a personal level, I think this is a matter of faith for me, born of many years of struggle to sustain hope in the face of despair, courage in the face of fear, creation in the face of destruction—in my own life, in my experience with patients, and in the context of the no less daunting climb in issues of public life.

I have recently been writing about the relationship between human and nonhuman realms. In this writing I focus mostly on the process by which, if we are to gain status as human subjects, we need to contend with giving meaning to matter (our bodies, the world of inanimate objects, and so forth). To do so we must contend with a reality beyond our omnipotence, and in that process we become further rooted in public discourse, and—well—matters that are literally rooted in the earth, even as they are also the stuff of spiritual life.

Al Gore may have discovered an essential psychoanalytic truth, when he made An Inconvenient Truth. He often discussed, when interviewed about his award-winning documentary, that he’d come to recognize that it was only by casting the earth as an animated character that we (his audience) could identity with (and therefore, love and root for), that he found a compelling way to communicate his passion.

The psychoanalytic theorist Winnicott is well known for his idea of the transitional object—capturing the infant’s capacity to give meaning to that otherwise inanimate blanket and teddy bear, to imbue the world with meaning.  In so doing, he takes a step beyond omnipotence, but also beyond a world of “thingness.”

Several online postings and articles that I’ve recently read touch on how many of the calamities we face—including the current oil spill, but extending to the financial world debacles, to health care reform and so on—all involve an uncurtailed omnipotence and a failure to draw an ethical line in the sand.

So Winnicott’s thinking about that line between omnipotence and reality may be very relevant to this conversation. But there is another way that Winnicott’s work may be particularly relevant: He also described the infant’s inescapable need to plunder and ruthlessly use “environmental mother” in order to discover mother as subject—and so to discover joy and love. This leaves me wondering how we might start to engage with the idea that human beings—in order to reach a place of love and generosity with a world beyond “us”—must first experience and surrender to a developmentally based agenda to plunder and destroy.

Winnicott’s “environmental mother” must bear infant’s aggression and ruthlessness, if she is to survive. But what about the earth mother?

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