In Narcissus and Oedipus: The Children of Psychoanalysis footnote1, Victoria Hamilton challenges Freud’s theories of infantile and child development. Syncretizing Kleinian and object relations theories with ethnological observations, cybernetics and theories of attachment behaviour, she builds an alternative model which stresses the infant’s and child’s positive capacity for relationships, curiosity, play and creativity. Her theses are augmented with many examples from direct observation of infant behaviour and from her own clinical practice. The result is a book that is sensitive, thoughtful and erudite. For me it is also a highly problematic book, whose rich, creative insights are framed within a disputable epistemology.

In particular, I think Hamilton’s arguments reflect a prevalent trend which exists on the outer margins of psychoanalysis—or, rather, in the use to which psychoanalysis is put in various psychodynamic therapies. The ultimate thrust of this trend is to undermine the difficult and disturbing core of psychoanalysis, turning it into a sociology of the emotions. In doing so, ironically it returns to the empirical observations from which psychoanalysis took its departure and point of rupture at the end of the last century. It thus produces a phenomenology where Freud strove for a science exactly as a way out of the impasse of phenomenologies.

In brief, Hamilton proposes that where Freud has a concept of a neonate for whom the external world is experienced only as part of itself (primary narcissism), we should instead stress how from birth a baby engages in the mutuality of a two-person relationship. She considers that from the very beginning the baby is already enough of a person to relate curiously and happily to its mother as someone other than itself. In her schema, narcissism is a pathology set up by something going wrong in the actual mother-child interaction. Likewise, for Hamilton, the Freudian concept of an Oedipus complex—far from being a universal and primal requirement of humanization—is an unnecessary and avoidable pathology. Where Freud sees infantile sexual curiosity as being prohibited and then redirected, Hamilton believes in a natural ‘holy curiosity’ which is only repressed or misdirected in malign conditions: Oedipus was an adopted child kept (like the Victorian children surrounding Freud) excessively in the dark. Hamilton offers subtle and moving re-interpretations of the two Greek myths to illustrate her argument.

The problem, I believe, is that though there is much overlap, in essence Freud and Hamilton are talking about different things. In her introduction, Hamilton writes: ‘in this book, it is Freud’s view of relationship as a secondary development which is challenged. I do not attempt as Freud so valuably did, to characterize early relationships by reference to the infantsaccompanying unconscious phantasies’ (p. 4, my italics). But Freud’s work is only ever about the unconscious however much that may and must interact with other modes of mental life. It is nowhere about child development as such.

Despite all the major psychoanalytic developments during and since Freud’s time, psychoanalysis both as theory and therapy has always remained about the unconscious. It is not that there is nothing else to talk about; it is just that this is what psychoanalysis is about. Hamilton writes of Klein: ‘Klein ignored the child’s interactional context and his powers of cognition, perception and problem-solving outside the realm of “phantasy”.’ (p. 32) and that Freud’s ‘tragic vision of knowledge omits the other side of curiosity—the “mystery” of reality of which one may “comprehend a little . . . each day”’ (p. 245). But as Freud answered in another context: (the) ‘opposition accuses psychoanalysis of one-sidedness . . . Our one-sidedness is like that of the chemist, who traces all compounds back to the force of chemical attraction. He is not on that account denying the force of gravity; he leaves that to the physicist to deal with.’ I believe that any ultimately fruitful integration of the many theories of child development and of psychoanalysis must recognize their differences from the beginning.