Meg Harris Williams
The Vale of Soulmaking: The Postkleinian Model of the Mind
Karnac Books, 2005
... the Muse is not respecter of good intentions, pieties, She is the keeper of the labyrinth Who promises only one thing: If you are true to her, she will be true to you.
From the poem “Muse” by Diane Fahey in the collection Listening to a far sea, 1998
By the title of her 2005 work, The Vale of Soulmaking: The Post-Kleinian Model of the Mind Meg Harris Williams suggests the width and depth of thinking contained between its covers. In terms of width, she explores very intricately, in a passionate and erudite alternation of the literary and psychoanalytic influences upon her, a very wide range of great poetic voices, both literary and psychoanalytic.
To provide an idea of the breadth of her mental reach, the literary works she critically explores over eight chapters of her book, range from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, through Blake’s Tyger and Keats’ Belle Dame to Milton, Sophocles, Homer and Shakespeare. Specifically she explicates in terms of the Post-Kleinian influences upon her; Hyperion, Lycidas, Paradise Lost, Antigone, Oedipus Tyrranos, Oedipus at Colonus, the Oddysey, and Anthony and Cleopatra.
It is no mere sampling. As Meltzer writes in his foreword to the book, Meg Harris Williams is a classics scholar, (p.xii). Working through any of her chapters is highly educative from a literary point of view. She explains her terminology in a variety of chapter notes and certainly helped me with an appreciation of the Greek terminology of Homer. Her very close reading of works I knew a bit of – such as Gawain and the Green Knight, as well as those I knew a bit more of – Anthony and Cleopatra, provided a re-appreciation of the literature from her inspired viewpoint.
To give but a sampling here: Chapter Six which examines “The thought-wanderings of Oedipus” (p.125) is entitled “The Weavings of Athene”. Focussing on the lines,
Launch out on his story, Muse daughter of Zeus, Start from where you will - sing for our time too.
Meg Harris Williams writes as follows: “Athene-as-Muse then enters in to the oral-formulaic woof of the epic fabric and uses her freedom to interdigitate the stories of Odysseus and Telemachos, with their traditional patterning. She weaves them together into an internal story of mental evolution: a song “for our time”, whenever that may be. This can only happen when the Muse constructs the poem.”
I have chosen this particular exerpt because it seemed to me that Harris Williams herself is a weaver par excellence. She is able to move very fluidly between literary and psycho-analytic sources. So for example at the beginning of Chapter Six she describes the situation Odysseus is in:
Stranded beyond the reach of civilisation “Held prisoner on an island at the edge of the Western world by the possessive and immortal nymph Kalypso, whose name means “engulfing, concealing”. Her cave-care had initially saved him from the sea but has now become emasculating”. … “Odysseus feels engulfed by the Kalypso-claustrum”. … Later, “Athene showers sleep over him in his bed of leaves to keep his smouldering spark of vitality alive for the next day’s work (VI.486-93). The smotherings of the claustrum are about to be thrown off, revealing the fiery spark of the developmental potential.”
Whereas, within each chapter the weave is tight and connections between literary analysis and psycho-analysis seamless, the book as a whole is less tightly woven. This leaves the reader space to formulate a personal reading response and this space and time seems essential to get the most from The Vale of Soulmaking. I found myself having to slow down very frequently in order to keep up.
Which brings me to a leitmotiv of the book, - reaching for authenticity and depth, whether literary and poetic, or psycho-analytic. This central theme continues to be expressed through the voice and mind of Keats whose poetic was the cornerstone of The Chamber of Maiden Thought. His emotional and poetic journey continues on as a touchstone in the Vale of Soulmaking. His pre-emptive wrestling to possess, process, and express this voice, is explored as a guiding concern through this book. Who is and how do we relate to our own Muse. Muse as both a source of inspiration and as an act of reflection. Looking at this issue from the literary end, Harris Williams writes:
“The core of the problem is a wrong type of identification: it is the poet in projective identification who speaks, not the Muse. The Miltonic Muse of Hyperion becomes like the rocky landscape of the poem – a type of exoskleleton composed of linguistic constructions and themes, consciously and cleverly imitated. It is hard but at the same time brittle. Without inner strength. Keats described it, with somewhat harsh self-criticism as “the false beauty proceeding from art” rather than the “voice of true feeling”. What Keats needed was not imitation of, but inspiration by Milton- not to copy the technique, but to follow the inner pathway.” (p.70)
In this book literature and psychoanalysis interleave. Meltzer is tributed as the first psychoanalytic writer in this book. In his Foreword his modesty “still struggling with classical Greek. I have learned to bear the humiliation of being the dummy of my postgraduate class” – stands out. As does his caveat The Vale of Soulmaking, promises to become the text for post-Kleinian thought. It is a hard read and an exacting picture of the “poetics” of this new aesthetic dimension ….”
The penultimate chapter of the book is also contributed by Meltzer. The reflective aspect of the work is contained in his description of the “technique of counter-dreaming.” He describes the state of observation “as essentially a resting state. It is also a state of heightened vigilance. (P. 182). Here he is not referring to poetic inspiration but to how we listen to ourselves as we listen to the patient in order to listen better. He refers to his own muses, Bion and Klein. “Anyone who has listened to Bion knows that he has been chained to negative capability- to the suspension of judgement and action, to waiting and to tolerating his irritation”.
How things come together in time or even out of time is expressed by Meltzer within Harris William’s book, in a way that is personal, humorous and accessible “When Melanie Klein settled down with her secretary to dictate her notes on Richard, she had a clear summer holiday in prospect, with a schedule free of other work and the delight of the Scottish landscape before her. However, she did not realize what a task she was setting herself.” And so Meltzer’s writing here just begins to whet our appetite for hearing more about how the patient potentially functions to invoke the analyst’s muse.
Infusing depth akin to the poetic element into the analyst’s work is explored by Meg Harris Williams in Chapter Nine of the book entitled “Post-Kleinian poetics” Reminiscent of Keats’ struggle to give dimensionality and personal infusion to his own poetry, there exists a parallel struggle in the analytic dimension “In order for psychoanalysis to be psychoanalysis and not just a veneer or lookalike, it must somehow become a three-dimensional space, containing not enclosing, governed not by ideas in the “regulative” sense but by “the relations of things” – ideas in the “constitutive” sense. (p.189)
Although this is the final chapter of the book, its riches do not end here. I discovered further treasure to be mined by way of the two generous appendices, - comprising almost twenty pages each. They were for me an education and an eye-opener. A denoument to my reading of this work. The first appendix is an invaluable guide to Bion. The second offers a taste of Bion’s own literary work, which was made accessible to me in a way that enabled me to enjoy and appreciate writing that may have seemed beyond my reach. In this way I did not only find The Vale of Soulmaking to be at the highest level of the lit-crit psychoanalytic interface, but it inspired in me a feeling of wanting to reach for some of the source material used. I would also look forward to reading more of the works of Meltzer and Bion. Having gained this much, I ended by thinking of The Vale of Soulmaking as an extensive and generous work that requires re-reading.