D o n a l d  M e l t z e r  1922 -2004


with his parents


`Yankee’s story’


Main Publications:


The Psychoanalytical Process 1967, 1970

Sexual States of Mind 1973

Explorations in Autism 1975

The Kleinian Development 1978, 1985

Dream Life 1984

Studies in Extended Metapsychology 1986

The Apprehension of Beauty (with Meg Harris

         Williams) 1988                              

The Claustrum 1992

Sincerity and other papers 1994

                    More bibliography


Talks and fragments

Introduction to Meltzer

Meltzer Studies e-journal

About Donald Meltzer  



Watching `Singing in the Rain’ – pen and ink drawing by Meg Harris Williams 1999





with grandchildren of

 Martha Harris







In California: photo Abbot Bronstein




Genesis of the `aesthetic conflict’

For further discussions of the aesthetic conflict in Italian, Spanish and English click here




The new idea is clearly something like `in the beginning was the aesthetic object and the aesthetic object was the breast and the breast was the world.  Donald Meltzer, Studies in Extended Metapsychology



`Aesthetic conflict’ is the concept that underpins The Apprehension of Beauty, which Meltzer regarded as his most original work and the clearest statement of his philosophy of mind.  It expressed for him the `new idea’ which had been gradually taking shape in his mind.  He agreed with Bion (and Shakespeare) in thinking that there was actually no such thing as a new idea.  ``Tis new to thee’, as Prospero says to Miranda.  What he meant by originality was the fruition of a dormant seed as a result of taking root in a new field of existence, namely clinical psychoanalysis.  The universality of the new idea derived in fact from its ancientness.  It had lain Platonically pre-existent, waiting for psychological readiness and the coalescence of circumstances to make it visible.  The idea of the aesthetic conflict swum into Meltzer’s consciousness owing to a convergence of three disciplines - psychoanalysis, literary criticism and infant observation.



This volume has grown over the years almost as a family project of Martha Harris, her two daughters Meg and Morag and her husband, Donald Meltzer.  It therefore has its roots in English literature and its branches waving wildly about in psychoanalysis.  Its roots in English literature – Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge and Blake – are as strong as the psycho-analytical branching from Freud, Klein and Bion. Its philosophical soil is certainly Plato, Russell, Whitehead, Wittgenstein, Langer, Cassirer and, in aesthetics, Adrian Stokes.’ (Meltzer,  jacket cover to The Apprehension of Beauty)



Indeed as soon as the new idea was `recognized’ it became apparent how it already existed, silently but formatively, in Melanie Klein’s model of the mind, which Meltzer described as `theological’.  The maternal `reverie’ as Bion called it is the basis for the infant’s capacity to form symbols of its emotional experience, hence to mentally develop. Mental growth is an aesthetic function founded on reciprocity between the infant-mind and its internal objects.  This brought psychoanalysis into line with the practice of the various arts, whilst highlighting the scientific rigour that sustains all art-forms in so far as they are dependent on observation and description in their exploration of the world of the mind.


The Apprehension of Beauty was written in a rush in chaotic circumstances after Martha Harris’ serious road accident.  It was an endeavour to garner the cumulative family wisdom into less perishable form.   In order to illustrate the literary roots of the `aesthetic conflict’ Don asked me to write a long essay on Hamlet, and another chapter describing the nature of aesthetic criticism.  I had recently written a similar article on `Knowing the Mystery’ for the journal Encounter, concerning the differing psychoanalytic attitudes to poetry as aesthetic object.  The search for an aesthetic literary criticism used Adrian Stokes’s principles of art appreciation as a model for defining an approach which is neither behaviourist nor softhumanist, but rather, which emphasizes how the formal qualities of the aesthetic object can re-make the mental structure of both artist and observer.  This can happen only as a result of personal immersion and the struggle for symbolic congruence.



The invitation to put together the two disciplines [psychoanalysis and literary criticism] encounters obstacles both from psychoanalysis, which is in many respects anchored in a pseudo-scientific medical, biological, and positivist matrix, and from literary criticism, which from the 1970’s onwards privileged formalizations based on a logico-mathematical model.  Sandra Gosso, Psychoanalysis and Art



Meltzer took seriously not just the findings but also the process of literary criticism, as an art-science analogous to that of psychoanalysis itself.  Although in later life Don came to love reading, he never claimed to be able to analyse poetry, partly because he knew that he was not a writer, and he always described his books as simply the documentation of work-in-progress.  His own talent, he said, was that of reading dreams.  Only when the two sciences of psychoanalysis and literary criticism are respected for their separateness can they come together in any creative conjunction.  Without separateness there can be no `aesthetic reciprocity’.  This contrasted with the prevalent academic approaches which, in literature, were either mechanistic and formulaic, or else preferred to see poetry as `consolation’ for earthly woes, not as mental exploration.  (Indeed my doctoral thesis was rejected by Oxford university on grounds of the latter heresy.)  Whilst the psychoanalytic attitude to literature was generally colonial – that is, literature was regarded as passive material for interpretation, without regard to the meaning that resides in literary form and that requires the reader to allow his mind to be changed by the process of reading. 



Literary criticism has often been taxed with a lack of psychological insight while psychologists, and perhaps psychoanalysts in particular, when writing about literature, have been accused of being beside the point, aesthetically.  This book explores the nature of creative thought, through its focal concern with the phenomenon of inspiration.  It approaches the works and lives of Milton and Keats from two directions, and with a dual purpose.  Equipped with both formal and informal training in literature, art and psychology, the author has mounted a most complex and fascinating attack on this long-avoided problem: is the Muse a formal figure of speech or a psychological reality? Donald Meltzer, jacket cover to Inspiration in Milton and Keats click here



For Meltzer, psychoanalysis was an art-form owing to having `mysterious compositional qualities’ which convey meaning mysteriously, as distinct from the overt `iconographic aspects’ which are equivalent to the content of an interpretation.  In later years he increasingly came to define his experience of the psychoanalytic countertransference in terms of its `music’.   The type of literary criticism which interested him had analogous qualities.  The `close reading’ of the `deep grammar’ of poetic structure in terms of its musical diction and spacing was established by I.A. Richards at Cambridge in the mid-twentieth century and later taken up by the American `New Criticism’.  It was taught me at school by an inspired teacher, Joie Macaulay, and at home by Roland Harris.  The key principle was that the meaning lies between the lines of didactic sequence, in the symbolic form itself. 


 Richards was himself building on Coleridge’s principle of `Such is the life, such the form’.   Coleridge distinguished between mechanical and organic forms, and said that `an idea cannot be expressed except by a symbol’.  The term `symbol’ had been coined by Goethe from the Greek and brought by Coleridge into mainstream philosophy.By a symbol he meant more than a word - he meant an entire context, an aesthetic web that traps the meaning.   He distinguished between symbols and allegories, which are inventions based on sign-language - they have a fixed (if hidden) meaning; the significance is secret rather than mysterious.  The mystery of a poetic symbol lies in its power to engender meanings infinitely.



Now an allegory is but a translation of an abstract notion into a picture-language which is itself nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses… On the other hand a Symbol…is characterized by the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal.  It always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity, of which it is the representative.  The others are but empty echoes…. Coleridge, The Statesman’s  Manual click here



Mechanical types of literary criticism treat the aesthetic object as a secret or riddle requiring to be decoded, after the manner savagely satirized by Hamlet with `words, words, words’.  Indeed there has always been a confusion between wordplay and symbol-formation (something Marion Milner also addressed in her paper on `Aspects of Symbolism’).  Freud used it in a standard but reductive sense.  Although in recent decades the more reductive usage of the term `symbol’ has been in fashion, Meltzer’s usage follows in the Coleridgean tradition, like that of Susanne Langer, as shown by his various papers on `Signs and Symbols’ click here.  `A symbol cannot be known until it is described, yet cannot be described till it is known’, as he writes in his 1981 paper on Money-Kyrle’s concept of `misconception’.   It is a feature of aesthetic reciprocity between the ego and internal objects. In psychoanalysis, according to Meltzer, the aesthetic web lies in the almost imperceptible communications of the transference-countertransference setting.  While the aesthetic web of literary criticism lies in the fitness of words, mirroring the writer’s personal `learning from experience’ (in Bion’s sense), with the poets as Muse and echoing their expression.  These internal objects provide not only thoughts but an `apparatus for thinking’ as Bion stresses.  What evolves is a symbolic mode.  Without a sincere attempt at aesthetic reciprocity, both psychoanalysis and literary criticism remain merely academic games.  The kind of symbol that is not a game is receptive to the creativity of the internal parental couple that always resides in the artistic container.  Thus, symbols engender further symbols in the minds which ingest them.   Adrian Stokes described the rhythmic interchange of projection and introjection that takes place during this process of establishing reciprocity with the art-symbol:



The great work of art is surrounded by silence.  It remains palpably `out there’, yet none the less enwraps us; we do not so much absorb as become ourselves absorbed. Adrian Stokes, The Invitation in Art



The quality of mystery, as distinct from secrecy, invites this dissolution of the boundaries of the personality’s status quo in a way which, as Coleridge puts it, `dissolves in order to recreate’.  In Bion’s terms, it encourages identification with `the evolution of O’. 



Conceptualisation `depends on a capacity to internalize the base, at first in a very concrete way… to which the body-ego orients itself as its `home’’ Roger Money-Kyrle



Meltzer was well read in the fields of aesthetics and of language development;  he had been engaged on a paper on language development together with Roland Harris (then lecturing in  psycholinguistics) at the time of the latter’s death.  The qualities of  philosophers such as Langer, Stokes, Kierkegaard etc., could be said to be incorporated into Meltzer’s internal objects, alongside those of Klein and Bion, Esther Bick and Roger Money-Kyrle, and on another level his own parents, all of whom he regarded as in different ways his true teachers.  Money-Kyrle’s is itself an aesthetic mindview.  And the way he describes the ego’s search for orientation towards its `home’ is exemplified by the poets in their quest for what Emily Dickinson calls `the chiefest words’. 


 From the early 1970’s, the qualities of the great English poets also began to filter into Meltzer’s personal pantheon, beginning with the linguistic discoveries made during my research into Inspiration in Milton and Keats.  Both these poets are exceptionally direct, explicit and sensuous in their depiction of the Muse, who is even named at times (Urania or Native Language in Milton; Mnemosyne, Moneta or Psyche in Keats), though Milton warns `The meaning, not the name I call’.  The meaning lies not in words-as-signs but in words used artistically, musically, to weave a symbolic container – an organic not a mechanical process.  Words as signs are liable to be `lies’ in Bion’s definition - an invention of the poet’s ego.  They are political impositions, not self-exploration: intended to convince, solve enigmas and manipulate attitudes. Addiction to manipulation results in the world of the Claustrum – the negative world needed to complete the picture of the aesthetic development.  Exploration and discovery, in antithesis to this,  take place under the aegis of the Muse or object.



The integrated internal combined object learns from experience in advance of the self and is almost certainly the fountainhead of creative thought and imagination. Meltzer, The Claustrum



There are many differences of style and character in Milton and Keats.  But there proved to be an essential similarity in the way the entire fabric of their work was founded on navigating the stormy seas of a love-hate relationship between infant-poet and mother-Muse, on the lines of the ebb-and-flow of inspiration that Stokes had described in the field of the visual arts.   The emotional turbulence has since classical times been characterized as the conjunction of Eros and Thanatos - Love and Hate – those contraries or `warring twins’ without which there can be no transcendence.  The linguistic analysis of Milton and Keats demonstrated something additional - namely how these passionate reverberations are the necessary groundwork for the gaining of knowledge (Melanie Klein’s `epistemophilic instinct’).  This knowledge was contained by the Muse and presented to the poet not in a skeletal plan or summary, but in sensuous verbal form: the precise words of the poem.  These are unknown, enigmatic, until they come into being.  A `terrible beauty is born’, writes Yeats, when the Muse puts words into the poet’s passive, listening mind.  (Milton also, and Wordsworth following him, spoke of `the terror that lies in beauty’.)  The terrible beauty is the poet’s experience of his Muse’s mystery. 



The most dreadful meaning is not so dreadful as meaninglessness, and this is the more terrible the more meaninglessly it smiles. Kierkegaard, Quiddam’s Diary




There is a sense in which all meaning is terrible.  To write inspired poetry, all the poet’s active powers are required to `serve the Muse’; his active relinquishment of invention and intentionality is reflected in his struggle with language – to hear the `music’, the Muse’s voice.   It is an active-passive condition of strenuous dreaminess, dependent on both technical facility and mental orientation.  Entry into this condition reinforces both love and hatred of the object, but is ultimately rewarded by the fruits of self-knowledge.


Moreover the qualities of the Muse change in different poems, in response to the poet’s own attitude, fluctuating between Ps and D in Bion’s formula.  Inspiration (aesthetic reciprocity) has to be re-established each time, each poem, each new phase in development.  It cannot be taken for granted.  The poets demonstrated not just inspiration but also the pitfalls and difficulties of the non-depressive, paranoid-schizoid orientation towards the Muse, when the words of the Muse are replaced by words of the writer’s own omnipotent invention, resulting in stiffness or sentimentality.  The vicissitudes of their struggle for sincere expression contributed towards Meltzer’s growing emphasis on the difference between intrusive and communicative modes of projective identification – something fundamental to Bion’s worldview and also very clear in the writings of Stokes.


The story of Milton and Keats and their Muse, therefore, constituted the literary origin of Meltzer’s `post-Kleinian’ view of the evolution of the internal object – `the evolution of god the mother’ as Bion puts it.  The poets, Bion says in his Memoir, wrote poetry because it was `the most serious way of writing’.  Poetry demonstrated what he meant by the tensions of L,H.K, at the same time filling out Klein’s perception of the epistemophilic instinct of the child.   Shakespeare of course, and every poet who is genuinely exploring their art as a medium of development, exemplifies the same thing, again and again: the same emotional turbulence in the quest to learn from experience by means of internal objects.   This history of the poetic inheritance behind psychoanalytic thinking was sketched briefly in The Chamber of Maiden Thought click here.



Perhaps it has been the experience of listening to mother-baby observation seminars in the last few years that has so impressed on me the inadequacy of the psychoanalytic model…to describe the nuances and complexities of that primary relationship’  Meltzer, paper on Money-Kyrle



In psychoanalytic terms, the Muse is the internal mother, or rather, the combined object, containing the essentially enigmatic qualities that call forth and focus the epistemophilic instinct of the infant.  During the period of his making the acquaintance of the poets (the 1970’s), Meltzer was also becoming immersed in infant observation.  This was the other, complementary art-science that contributed to his radical revision of the Kleinian mindview.  He accompanied Martha Harris to Italy at weekends to listen and then participate in her seminars and observation supervisions and said this was a revelation to him.  The analogy between the two disciplines became apparent, each depending on accurate and detailed observation - one of the processes of poetic diction, the other of mother-baby communication. 


The `new idea’ came when these linked up with clinical psychoanalysis and the mentality that governs creative work in the consulting room.  Meltzer realized that in both these adjacent fields what was being demonstrated through `reading poetry’ or `watching babies’ was the foundation of all mental and emotional development, which is also what is being tapped in the therapeutic process. Without the ability to draw on the patient’s innate potential for normal development, the therapist is helpless.  Poets and infants reinforced Meltzer’s clinical experience and linked up with his conviction (since the age of 8, he said) of the meaningfulness of art-forms, their structure and ambience, as expounded in the aesthetic philosophical tradition of writers such as Langer.  These paths to knowledge fused together (`dovetailed’ as Keats would say) to produce the concept `aesthetic conflict’.  So it is not the word – the term `aesthetic conflict’ – that is the new idea; it is its new life in the context of clinical psychoanalysis.  It could be replaced by some other term, though it is concise and descriptive; it conveys the struggle and the tension, with their potential for transformation or harmony.  There are terms of Melanie Klein’s which could be considered infelicitous, especially to those working outside the jargon – the most crucial perhaps being `object’.   Certainly each discipline, and each individual within that discipline, needs to evolve their own symbolic containing form.  Symbol-formation may manifest itself in a formal art-form, or more ubiquitously, it may simply take place in psychic reality with no evident result other than the formation of character – the `being’ of the individual.  As the basic means of mental development it applies equally to personal development and to those fields which are specifically concerned with the world of the mind, such as poetry, art, the medical sciences, and psychoanalysis.  The idea takes root and changes the perspective of the entire operation.  Meltzer called it `the new psychoanalysis’.


© Meg Harris Williams