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On Melanie Klein’s Loneliness

Often, when I mention Melanie Klein’s name, people roll their eyes and recite the only thing they’ve heard about her – “good breast, bad breast, it’s all the mother’s fault” – without giving this towering intellectual figure the slightest benefit of the doubt. In the most distilled terms, complaints against her work rest on the centrality of death and aggression in her approach to the human psyche. Most people would simply rather not give negative emotions so much attention.

But there’s something in Klein’s thought that has come to light in clinical research too: that an ability to differentiate between the negative emotions, and especially to verbalize them, correlates positively with well-being. So the ability to talk about death and aggression might actually improve our mental health. And Klein insisted on this principle despite considerable professional opposition in her lifetime.

Yet Klein was more than a psychoanalytic theorist. She was a creative individual whose wisdom and insights were hard-earned. And there is, throughout her work, a highly personal element. This is seen especially in her last paper, “On the Sense of Loneliness,” and the notes she left for a book on the topic at the time of her death in 1960.

Hanna Segal, one of Klein’s closest students and colleagues, writes about Klein’s growing alienation from her professional and social milieus. “The last Congress she attended,” Segal recounts, “was the 21st Congress in Copenhagen in 1959 . . . She presented a paper, ‘On the Sense of Loneliness,’ but was not satisfied with it, and was still working on it at the time of her death. The paper,” Segal adds, “was obviously related to her own growing sense of loneliness.” Segal locates this “sense of loneliness” in her later years, but Klein’s archives suggest that it had been “growing” for a long time. And this is found in texts rarely discussed in relation to Klein: her attempts at fiction in her early thirties.  These included both stories and poems, and while written in the 1910s in German, parts were, apparently after her death, summarized and translated into English.

One story, “Finale” (c. 1913), features a female narrator who believes she is going to die and describes the mourning process she imagines will take place after she passes away. “My husband and my son,” says the narrator, “they will suffer, perhaps they will despair, until one day their senses will have woken up again to a fresher life – one person’s earlier, the other’s later – and tell them how lush is the green before their eyes which the rain has refreshed.” Her longest story, “Life Calls” (undated), appears to fictionalize the fulfillment of an affair outside of marriage. An archival summary makes note that “the depiction of the extramarital affair has such an authentic ring that it is difficult to believe that the story represents just a wish-fulfillment.” The texts reflect not just loneliness in the sense of being alone, but a sense of feeling lonely from misaligned unions and constricting social and familial responsibilities, in which a woman is unable to pursue her own self-realization.

Klein’s stories were written long before she turned to psychoanalysis as a profession, but they already give expression to her personal perspective on the inner life of the psyche – and its influence on our actions and choices – evidenced in her best-known works, “Love, Guilt, and Reparation” (1937) or “Envy and Gratitude” (1957). Yet this is also true of her work on loneliness – a topic that has gained special focus over the past year as so many of us, throughout the world, have found ourselves isolated from those we love – both family and friends.

In her posthumously published paper, Klein’s perspective on loneliness is focused not merely on the physical experience of being alone but, in her words, on “the inner sense of loneliness – the sense of being alone regardless of external circumstances, of feeling lonely even when among friends or receiving love.” This sense of loneliness, she adds, stems from a feeling of not being sufficiently understood, and since, in her words, “complete understanding of one’s own emotions, phantasies and anxieties is not possible [. . .] this continues as an important factor in loneliness.” So we feel alone not only when we are not understood by others, but also when we do not understand ourselves. Our mental health depends in part on our ability to identify displacements in our understanding of ourselves and to redirect our emotions back to their actual roots. This, in itself, can engender relief – without necessarily resolving the circumstance that had triggered the sensation itself.

Another sensation that contributes to feeling alone, she writes, is “the conviction that there is no person or group to which one belongs.” She explains that “not belonging” can lead to feeling that “components of the self are not available” – showing a mirroring between one’s experience of the outside world and one’s internal state. “The lost parts too, are felt to be lonely,” she writes, so our outside world amplifies what we already feel inside. Confusion also contributes to loneliness in that it aggravates the lack of understanding that alienates us from ourselves and others. And, just as importantly, “the fear of death plays a part in loneliness,” both because we feel left alone when those we love die, and because in our own death we are separated from our loved ones.

It is when we feel helpless or powerless that we feel most lonely – a sensation that, in Klein’s view, is connected to early infancy, involving “discomfort of various kinds which accompanies birth,” as well as our dependence on others for survival. The infant psyche, she adds, is not developed enough “to deflect sufficiently the destructive impulses directed against itself.” As adults, life’s challenges and traumas can trigger a resurgence of this deep-seated sensation, which lies at the core of our experiences as infants and has shaped the development of our psyches.

All of these factors contribute to a sense of loneliness even when we are surrounded by people we love – and so we can only imagine the impact of the pandemic period that has been unleashed on the world in terms of the experience of separation from others and the mental health crisis that it has engendered. And we might consider that the solution or resolution to these feelings can be found outside forces – as in the passing of the pandemic itself – but Klein’s ideas suggest that the sense of loneliness persists even when isolation and lockdown restrictions are lifted. There is no substitute, her work implies, for looking deeply into the roots of loneliness, and into the counteractive sources that exist in the psyche.

While Klein’s theories on the roots of loneliness appear her posthumously published paper, her ideas about these counteractive forces appear mostly in her unpublished notes for a book on the topic. In the notes, we see a discussion of the creative rather than destructive side of loneliness, as when she marks out “the loneliness of the creative person and the painful pleasure in that loneliness” for development. And she notes elsewhere: “Sometimes you have to cut out the outer world in order to do creative work, but the normal person can regain it.” She warns us not to “underrate . . . the pain and suffering of not being in possession of oneself,” yet she also points to “the loneliness of the creator, and the satisfaction of that loneliness.” She opens up the possibility of a creative element within a sensation that is usually associated with negativity – and this way arrives at the core of her thinking on loneliness.

 “In these times of solitude which we need,” Klein reflects, “there is that attempt to regain parts of oneself.” The implication is that the sense of loneliness comes not only from feeling disconnected from others – but from feeling disconnected from ourselves. When the pressures of life are such that we have no time to recollect ourselves, or when our societies go through major political upheavals that take up most of our attention, or when the world is suffering through a pandemic that is putting our lives and the lives of those we love in danger – during such periods, when we are distracted from self-awareness and processing our own experiences, the sense of loneliness increases, aggravating the expression of destructive impulses.

The seemingly paradoxical or counterintuitive way to counteract such sensations of feeling alone is to actually be alone – to gather oneself in solitude and to reflect on the experiences that are happening to us. This separation from the pressures on our lives allows the lost parts of ourselves to be reintegrated – contributing to a sense of confidence in our own abilities to cope with our realities. Yet it’s important to note, in Kleinian fashion, that the creative potential of solitude does not – and never will – fully resolve the pain of loneliness. Rather, it is through the pain of loneliness that we can, ultimately, gain access to the creative potential in solitude. The sense of loneliness is a trigger, and, in a sense, an asset. The idea isn’t to eradicate the sensation of loneliness, but rather to know what to do when that sensation arises.

In the end, mitigating our feelings of loneliness is connected with regaining confidence in our abilities to provide for ourselves what we sometimes seek in others – in realizing that we, too, have the capacity to engender the nourishments, emotional and physical, that we need in order to survive, and even to thrive.


David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar. His fiction has appeared in The Woven Tale PressThe Account, and Call me Brackets, his nonfiction in The American ScholarEntropy, and Speculative Nonfiction, and his translations in The New YorkerConjunctions, and Asymptote. His most recent book is A Short Inquiry into the End of the World, a speculative essay published in The Massachusetts Review‘s Working Titles series.

Lead Image: Edvard Munch – Two Human Beings (The Lonely Ones) (1905)

Melanie Klein Images wia Wikicommons

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