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Meltzer, D. (1987). On Aesthetic Reciprocity. J. Child Psychother., 13(2):3-14.

(1987). Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 13(2):3-14

On Aesthetic Reciprocity

Donald Meltzer

We know from ethology the powerful effect of imprinting in establishing a bond at a primitive level, the level of adhesive types of identification, of conditioned reflexes and of automatic obedience (or disobedience?). We want to trace and explore the comparable phenomena at the level of mentality — of emotion, symbol formation, thought and judgment. There is indisputable evidence from the analytic therapy of psychotic children that the bonding at the imprinting level can be overridden by a failure of emotional bonding. Where this occurs we have been overly ready, as psychiatrists, to ascribe this deficit to extrinsic factors: foetal distress, immaturity, prolonged labour, etc. Almost always one can find some such extrinsic factor on which to hang a causal explanation. But the therapeutic process with such children suggests a far more intrinsic problem that requires our understanding. It has no explanatory power and must remain somewhat conjectural, but it is powerfully evocative. We want to suggest that these children, in one way or another, have been overwhelmed by the aesthetic impact of the outside world and the prime object that represents it both concretely and symbolically: the mother, her breasts and nipples, and her eyes and mind.

If we are to pursue this idea seriously, it is necessary likewise to confront the even more difficult question: why are not all babies so overwhelmed? Or are they bowled over but saved, in the nick of time, as it were, by something? I am going to describe a child who emerged crushed physically as well as mentally: Claudia, now eight years old.

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