In psychoanalysis symbolism is associated with ego formation. Sigmund Freud described ego formation in his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1916-1917). Freud wrote: There can be no doubt that the source [of the fantasies] lie in the instincts; but it still has to be explained why the same fantasies with the same content are created on every occasion. I am prepared with an answer that I know will seem daring to you. I believe that…primal fantasies, and no doubt a few others as well, are a phylogenetic endowment. Freud’s suggestion that primal fantasies are a residue of specific memories of prehistoric experiences follows his interest in archetypes, which he withdrew from after his split with Carl Jung. It was Jung who developed the notion of archetypes as an influential component in human behaviour. Laplanehe and Pontalis point out that all the so-called primal fantasies relate to the origins and that like collective myths they claim to provide a representation of and a ‘solution’ to whatever constitutes an enigma for the (developing) child.[i]
According to Melanie Klein not only does symbolism come to be the foundation of all fantasy and sublimation, but more than that, it is the basis of the subject’s relation to the outside world and to reality in general.[ii] For Klein trauma is associated with an internal rage that serves as an antidote for the preservation of the good object. Klein argued that the introjection and identification with a stable good object is crucial to the ego’s construction.
The concept of introjected objects‘, or the term ‘internal object’ means a mental and emotional image of an external object that has been taken inside the self. A complex interaction continues in the mind between the internalized world and its figures and objects and their replicates in the real world. According to Klein, this happens in repeated cycles of projection and introjection. The primary internal objects are those derived from the parents, in particular from the mother. The main component is the bodily contact, which allows the infant to feel and project a loving instinct or a disparaging (death) instinct. These objects, when taken into the self, are thought to be experienced by the infant concretely as physically present within the body, causing pleasure (good internal part-object…) or pain (bad internal part-object…). The processes involved in these early experiences are believed to colour the ongoing outlook the infant has of the world as well as the fluctuations between pain and pleasure.
Kleinian theory suggests the introjection of and identification with a stable good object is crucial to the ego’s capacity to cohere and integrate experience. Damaged or dead internal objects (sometimes referred to as the dead mother) causes enormous anxiety and can lead to personality disintegration, whereas objects felt to be in a good state promote confidence and well-being. Internal objects can exist on several levels. They are generally unconscious and primitive. Infantile internal objects are experienced initially concretely within the body and mind and constitute a primitive level of the adult psyche, adding emotional influence and force to later perceptions, feelings and thoughts. Internal objects may be represented to the self in dreams, fantasies and in language. [iii]
The term ‘symbol formation’ is used in psychoanalysis to denote a mode of indirect or figurative representation of a significant idea, conflict or wish. The ability to move on from relating concretely to archaic objects to relating symbolically to substitute objects (symbols) is both a developmental achievement and a move made because of the anxieties involved in relating to primal objects. Klein extended the ideas of both Freud and Jones on symbols, showing in particular the symbolic significance of play and how sublimation depends on the capacity to symbolize. Others further developed Klein’s theory of symbols, distinguishing between the symbol proper formed in the depressive position and a more primitive version, the symbolic equation, belonging to paranoid-schizoid functioning. In the symbolic equation, the symbol is equated with the thing symbolized.[iv]
Melanie Klein believed in the idea of unconscious phantasy, which is closely related to Carl Jung’s archetype as Both involve the notion of an a priori mental construction composed of images and patterns based on real and mythological experience. For Jung these experiences form a universal collective unconsciousness that extends over time and many lifetimes. The manifestation of these archetypes are counterpart to instincts. They are autonomous inherited potentials rather than inherited types, which can be transformed and/or expressed in the ideas, behaviours and cultures of individuals. History, culture and personal context shape these manifest representations thereby giving them their specific content. These images and motifs are more precisely called archetypal images. However, it is common for the term archetype to be used interchangeably to refer to both archetypes-as-such and archetypal images.[v]
Following the Jungian view it would appear that the internal objects, good and bad, can be inherited, whereby they present a subtle underlying current in the care-giver’s emotions to which the primitive, instinctual infant displays an acute sensitivity.
[ii] M Klein 1930 The importance of symbol formation in the development of the ego. In Contributions to Psycho-Analysis 1921-1945 London Hogarth, p238. Also in Gerard Fromm 2012 Lost in Transmission UK. Karnac, p52.
[iii] Internal Objects Melany Klein Trust. http://www.melanie-klein-trust.org.uk/internal-objects and The New Dictionary of Kleinian Thought Elizabeth Bott Spillius, Jane Milton, Penelope Garvey, Cyril Couve and Deborah Steiner.
[iv] Internal Objects Melany Klein Trust. http://www.melanie-klein-trust.org.uk/internal-objects and The New Dictionary of Kleinian Thought Elizabeth Bott Spillius, Jane Milton, Penelope Garvey, Cyril Couve and Deborah Steiner.http://www.melanie-klein-trust.org.uk/symbol-formation
[v] Stevens, Anthony in “The archetypes” (Chapter 3.) Ed. Papadopoulos, Renos. The Handbook of Jungian Psychology (2006)