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Mortimer, G.L. (1976-77). “Fear Death by Water”: The Boundaries of the Self in Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird. Psychoanal. Rev., 63(4):511-528.

(1976-77). Psychoanalytic Review, 63(4):511-528

“Fear Death by Water”: The Boundaries of the Self in Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird

Gail L. Mortimer, Ph.D.

The individual whose basic orientation toward the world is interfered with at every juncture by a confusion about the limits and characteristics of his own identity endures anxieties that may lead to schizoid or schizophrenic patterns of response. R. D. Laing, in The Divided Self, has discussed the ways such a person experiences the fact of his own existence and has called his situation one of “primary ontological insecurity.”4a In this essay I will show that the dilemmas of the ontologically insecure person—his characteristic splitting into an inner self and an outer false self, the specific dangers which threaten his existential “identity,” and his attempts to create a viable self-definition—are specifically reflected in the experiences of the protagonist in Jerzy Kosinski's novel, The Painted Bird.3 Formal features of the work, symbols within it, and the patterns of danger-and-response-to-danger which make up the experiential context of much of the story will confirm the validity of this approach, but I feel that a brief discussion of a schizoid individual's experience of his own existence must provide the matrix for our consideration of Kosinski's work in its frightening subjectivity.

The feeling that one does not know the boundaries of one's self, the point at which he stops and the rest of the world begins, may be just a temporary ambiguity in one's perception of himself. Or it may be more. It can become a constant factor in his sense of his own being-in-the-world, leading to increasingly ineffectual interactions with the world and to schizoid or schizophrenic patterns of defense against mounting anxiety.

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