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Goldman, D. (2013). Vital Sparks and the Form of Things Unknown. Psychoanal. Inq., 33(1):3-20.

(2013). Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 33(1):3-20

Vital Sparks and the Form of Things Unknown

Dodi Goldman, Ph.D.

Towards the end of his life, Winnicott kept a notebook for jotting down fragments of personal memory. The first page opens with a prayer: “Oh God! May I be alive when I die.” The supplication is followed by a graphic description of what he looks like to himself after dying: how “the hearse was cold and unfriendly,” and “the lung heavy with water that the heart could not negotiate” (Winnicott, p. 4). But at least his prayer had been answered: He was alive when he died.

It is easy to hear in Winnicott's supplication the desire to be an omnipotent self-preserver. Like the baby who needs the illusion of creating the breast, Winnicott wishes to be protected from awareness of limit. Despite death, he can continue going-on-being. It would be a mistake, however, to confine the understanding of Winnicott's prayer solely to the realm of omnipotence. From a different point of view, what is striking about the prayer is how Winnicott yearns for a psychic space in which he can simultaneously hold both life and death. His desire, in other words, is not simply to omnipotently survive, but to find a way to bridge the ultimate dissociation between life and death. Winnicott is recognizing that aliveness and death have meaning only to the extent that a link can be retained between the two.

Yet what if one allows one's self the latitude of hearing Winnicott as asking a question rather than uttering a prayer? May a part of me live, Winnicott may be asking, while another part dies? Is there, perhaps, an uncanny psychic capacity to die a partial death so as to salvage another part of the self? Or, in another language: What need be done to preserve continuity of being in the face of traumatic disruption?

The opening passage of Winnicott's autobiographical fragments, in other words, offers a window into two central currents of his sensibility: the precariousness of aliveness and the bridging of dissociative gaps.

[This is a summary excerpt from the full text of the journal article. The full text of the document is available to journal subscribers on the publisher's website here.]

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