Ron Britton’s work is characterised by his enduring preoccupation with truth; with what is real, and how we know this to be so. His answer follows Keats – ‘nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced’ – as do his theoretical contributions.
Britton is a training and supervising analyst with the British Psychoanalytical Society. He first trained as a doctor and, as a child psychiatrist, was Chair of the Department of Children and Parents at the Tavistock Clinic, where he was involved in the treatment of deprived children and their parents. This experience was a great influence on his psychoanalytic thinking, in which he maintains the importance of childhood as a formative stage in our lives.
His psychoanalytic teachers and colleagues have been very important to the development of his ideas. His theoretical background is that of Freud, Klein and the post-Kleinians. Additionally, Britton brings his own wide interests, including philosophy, theology, science and, particularly, his passion for poetry, which he considers a fruitful and stimulating source of psychological understanding. Arguably, it is poetry that inspired his most original contribution: his psychoanalytic understanding of the root of inspiration, the imagination.
The importance of belief
Britton’s major contributions have been drawn together in two books. In Belief and Imagination (1998), he develops his ideas about truth and psychic reality. He proposes that it is belief that confers the status of reality on phantasies and ideas, which are then treated as facts. He considers belief to be a component of the epistemophilic instinct essential for life in the face of uncertainty. Beliefs are phantasies which are engaged with as psychic objects and – being emotionally invested – they require mourning if they are to be relinquished. He distinguishes belief from knowledge (with which it is often equated) on the basis that the holder of a belief accepts the possibility of it being untrue. He proposes that knowing that one holds a belief, which is not in the presence of a fact, requires psychological development; namely, the capacity to bring subjective experience and objective self-awareness together so that one can “see oneself” believing. He suggests that this requires the presence of triangular psychic space, with a third position from which the subjective self can be observed having a relationship with the idea. This is required for reality testing and depends upon the toleration of an internal version of the Oedipus complex.
The Oedipus complex and psychic reality
Throughout his body of work, Britton emphasises the Oedipus complex as the basis of psychic reality, and the clinical relevance of defences against awareness of this, including Oedipal illusions. However it is the particular understanding he brings of the important role the internal triangle, representing links between the child and parents, in the growth of knowledge and mental life that stands out as highly original. These ideas, published in ‘The Missing Link’ (1989), were developed through his work with patients who feared catastrophe if they experienced a link between their parents. He suggests that, as a consequence, these patients cannot develop a prototype of an object relationship in which they are a witness and not a participant, i.e. a third position. Upholding Rosenfeld’s distinctions, Britton sees the clinical consequences of this as: patients who cannot tolerate objectivity (thin skinned syndrome), those who cannot tolerate subjectivity (thick skinned syndrome), or mixtures of the two. He explains this in terms of a primary failure of maternal containment, where the good maternal object is preserved by projecting the experience of misunderstanding into a third object who personifies malignant misunderstanding. Like Bion, he implicates an innate factor alongside maternal failure, called ‘psychic atopia’: a hypersensitivity to psychic differences, which Britton equates with – K.
The internal Oedipal triangle is also the stage on which Britton places the imagination. He views the imagination as a phantasised mental space which is truth-evading, or truth seeking, depending upon whether the underlying phantasy is wish fulfilling or reality seeking. This poetic space contains a primal couple that remains unavailable to observation and can only be imagined. His studies of poetry lend these ideas further verification through their depth of understanding.
In Sex, Death, and the Superego, he reappraises his theories in the light of clinical experience. Psychic reality, with the Oedipus complex at its core, remains his primary interest. He explores the function of Oedipal illusions through studies of hysteria and the female castration complex. In his re-examination of narcissism, he supports the distinction between libidinal and destructive motives. Most significantly, he re-examines the relationship between the ego and the superego, and locates the third position of self-observation within the ego, describing the struggle to maintain this in the face of superego figures that usurp authority through morality and terror. This underpins his important contribution to understanding publication anxiety.
David Simpson, 2012
1989 Britton, R. ‘The Missing Link: Parental Sexuality in the Oedipus Complex’, J. Steiner (ed.) The Oedipus Complex Today: Clinical Implications. Karnac.
1992 Britton, R. ‘The Oedipus Situation and the Depressive Position’, R. Anderson (ed.) Clinical Lectures on Klein and Bion. Routledge.
1998 Britton, R. Belief and Imagination. Routledge.
2003 Britton, R. Sex, Death, and the Superego. Karnac.
2015 Britton, R. Between Mind and Brain: Models of the Mind and Models in the Mind. Karnac.