Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Passage from Bruno Bettelheim's The Empty Fortress

A typical example of Bettelheim’s approach to evidence and argumentation can be found in the passage below, where firstly a particular autistic behaviour receives a Freudian explanation, then the apparent failure of the behaviour to conform entirely to it (‘it would be nice if such speculation…’) – rather than suggesting that the explanation may be, say, total bollocks – triggers a second, alternative explanation which both complements and validates the first one thanks to the always handy concept of overdetermination.

In dental work, of course, the central issue is that something is done to the teeth, the organ of biting, and the child's attitudes are powerfully colored by his fear of what that something may be. From what we know of autistic children their main anxiety is probably that the dentist will destroy their teeth in retaliation for their wish to bite and devour. So it becomes understandable that these children will permit dental work only when they no longer fear the retaliation. And this again may be seen from the response of such children to dentistry.


It would be nice if such speculation were supported by the mute autistic child's keeping his mouth shut for safety. But many of them habitually keep their lips slightly apart. This is perhaps because the lips are external, peripheral, compared to the interior—the gums that grasp and hold on to the nipple, the teeth that bite—and it is these above all that they seek to protect. In any case the protection seems to consist loss in keeping the lips and teeth shut (except for the unexpected threat of the dentist) than in avoiding any doing with the mouth. And speaking too, is distinctly doing with the mouth. Of course the divestment of libidinal energy from the oral apparatus in other respects also works to keep the lips and teeth partly open. Like all central symptoms of emotional disturbance, this one too is overdetermined and has many sources and meanings, some of which will unfold in the case histories to come.
(pp. 60-61)

Back to the original post

No comments: