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First published at www.beautyworlds.com February 2004

A Review of D. Meltzer's and M.H. Williams' book The Apprehension of Beauty:The Role of Aesthetic Conflict in Development, Violence and Art

by Linda Robbins

La Belle Dame Sans Merci
La Belle Dame Sans Merci
Waterhouse, John William
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This is a fascinating, interesting, but difficult book about the 'apprehension' of beauty. The title is a rather complicated pun as to 'apprehend' something can mean to grasp it but 'apprehensive' can also mean to be fearful of. Beauty attracts us, we want to grasp it, but it also makes us anxious. Our anxieties about beauty are epitomized in John Keats' (1795-1821) poem 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci': "They cried-"La Belle Dame sans Merci/Hath thee in thrall!"

This book explores why this might be the case from the perspective of Kleinian psychoanalysis. Donald Meltzer is an influential psychoanalyst living in the UK while Meg Harris Williams is a specialist in English literature. Using psychoanalytic theory from Freud, through Klein and Bion, the writers engage us in imaginatively thinking about the earliest experiences of the human infant. In particular, the authors write about the infant's earliest experience of beauty and the connection between the infant's experience of the beauty of her mother and the infant's experience of the beauty of the world.

Not only are clinical examples from psychoanalytic cases used to illustrate the argument but also examples from English Literature-in Shakespeare, Keats, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Blake. The writers also quote the painter and critic Adrian Stokes on aesthetics and philosophers such as Plato, Russell, Whitehead, Wittgenstein, Langer, and Cassirer.

The fundamental concept of this book is that of the 'aesthetic conflict'. The 'aesthetic conflict' is seen as being at the heart of the 'human condition.' The central idea is that there is a conflict for the infant between her experience of the 'ordinary beautiful devoted mother', who inevitably arouses an emotional experience of a passionate quality in her infant by the outward appearance of her face, hair and breasts, and the 'inside 'qualities of the mother. These 'inside qualities' are indicated by such phenomena as passing facial expressions and other behaviours such as the appearance and disappearance of the breast that are beyond the baby's comprehension. In other words, "what is going on in there that this beautiful object that I love so much is doing this things which cause me so much joy and distress?" Though, of course, babies don't think in those words. The mother-infant feeding couple is cited as full of ambiguity as the sensations involved, while being satisfying, also demand mental processing by the infant. The mother is seen as bringing both good and bad experiences. The outside of the 'beautiful' mother is available to the perceptual senses whereas the inside is 'enigmatic' and has to be made sense of through thinking and creative imagination.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci
La Belle Dame Sans Merci
Dicksee, Sir Frank
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Using clinical examples, Meltzer illustrates how the infant manages to deal with negative feelings such as envy much more easily if he feels that the mother experiences him as as her 'ordinary beautiful baby'. That is, and this is a central concept, if there is an 'aesthetic reciprocity.' The infant is more able to tolerate the conflict in her feelings towards the mother if she feels that mother experiences her as beautiful. Failure of this 'love at first sight' on the part of either the mother or infant may result in long term difficulties.

The father is also experienced ambiguously, both as a provider and protector, but also perhaps as a rival. This may be further complicated by father's competitiveness with mother, or insecurities about the parental relationship. The mother's approach to the infant is full of ideas about her potentiality, whereas the writers explain that, for the father, the relationship with the infant is contingent on that with the mother and her trustworthiness. Luckily infants often have an unmistakable likeness to their father which is helpful to the relationship.

What is clear is that it is necessary for the infant to learn to tolerate both the impact of the overwhelming 'beauty' of the mother, the intensity of her response and the conflicting feelings generated about the unknown inside of the mother.

The book moves through thoughts about development of personality to considering violence on an interpersonal level and as a social phenomenon. It is important that the individual develops in a way that emotional experiences of human relationships can be thought about. This 'meaning' is represented by symbols which lead to a capacity for growth and increasingly complex ways of thinking such as generalization and abstraction.


The notion of outside/inside is now developed in relation to public and private/secret areas which will vary according to the cultural setting in which individuals find themselves. For example, the proximity of another individual at a party would feel threatening if it was replicated at a train station where we expect a greater area of space around us. We need to feel that entry into our space is invited by ourselves, otherwise it is defended against. Adherence to these conventions helps society to run smoothly. However it is accepted that there are some categories of people who do not conform to this. They are linked to people from different cultures who have other customs, those on the fringes of society who may have mental or emotional disturbances, and others such as artists, scientists etc who are so caught up in their preoccupations that ordinary conventions are meaningless for them.

The ability to symbolise and therefore to think about experience has the effect of enabling the person to draw on the wealth of previous experience already gained and hence can alleviate the need to react to (unburden ) a stimuli through action or by psychosomatic or hallucinatory methods.

In guarding the boundaries of privacy the individual needs to be able to value herself by, for example, viewing herself as an 'aesthetic object'. Being able to experience oneself as an 'aesthetic object' has its origins in the infants' experience of her mother experiencing her as an 'aesthetic object.' Failure in this area leads to degradation of others and to lack of self esteem, which results in vulnerability of personal boundaries. This positive view of the self develops through the process of learning to think for oneself, to develop one's own opinions and to act on them. At first this may feel threatening as the fear experienced is of 'becoming maladjusted 'and maybe therefore unacceptable. This process of symbolization (creative intercourse ) can occur in the space in the individual's 'inside' world where experience is metabolized. One example of this is in dreams which occur in the privacy of our sleep.

These ideas are then further developed in chapter 7, where the writers examine Shakespeare's play Hamlet from varying standpoints. These are the world of the hero, the world of the play, and the play in relation to the accepted classical model of the tragedy. The audience as participants, albeit silent, are involved in the emotional conflict as it is played out.

The 'quality of mystery' is the theme running through all these aspects, with the juxtaposition of 'exploring the mystery' and 'solving the riddle' representing the aesthetic conflict in the play. These stand for two distinct ways of thinking, which are beautifully explored in this thesis, but perhaps can be summed up in terms of the way in which we respond to relationships. This may be either by seeking to intrude into their world and to control them from within, (solving the riddle) or by using our creative imagination to put ourselves in their shoes and to travel alongside, so developing a kind of resonance (exploring the mystery). This latter way of thinking allows for the other to be seen and appreciated as complete in herself and by implication allows room for uncertainties -not knowing. This juxtaposition which is part of everyday experience is illustrated by the conflict between e.g. truth and lies, knowledge and delusion in the play.

The tension between the opposites and the ongoing struggle towards truthful development is next explored through the experience in the consulting room of both the patient and the therapist. The main thrust of this chapter , and in fact the book, seems to be that without at first allowing ourselves to be exposed to the impact of the external qualities of beauty, and the wrestling with the feelings of doubt, suspicion, etc that are evoked we cannot have aesthetic experiences. Reciprocity of regard in relationships is essential if pride does not lead us to attack whatever is the aesthetic object,in order to reduce its impact on ourselves.

London Through Westminster Bridge
London Through Westminster Bridge
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These ideas are then related to the way that we can appreciate art, and hold on to the wonder of the experience. The distinction is again made between 'knowing about something' (related to 'solving the riddle') and the 'knowing' which emanates from experience and symbolization. The first tends to lead us to approach in a way where we need to fell in control, and this can lead to denigration, --- allowing ourselves to be open to only part of the experience and on our own terms. Approaching in a more open manner where it is not necessary to filter the experience helps us to allow space to receive the impact of it and to have the emotional experience which leads us to 'know' through the work of symbolization.

The exposition of Wordsworth's 'On Westminster Bridge' gives a sense of the numinous quality of the experience:

On Westminster Bridge

EARTH has not anything to show more fair:
     Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
     A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
     Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
     Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
     In his first splendor valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
     The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
     And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Packed full with so many illustrations and quotations, this book encourages the reader to consider from many avenues of investigation the role of aesthetic conflict in our lives.

Linda Robbins is a psychotherapist.

The Apprehension of Beauty is published by Clunie Press for the Roland Harris Library No 14. First
published 1988. It is available at www.karnacbooks.com

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