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'TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING’:

CONTROL OR CONTAINMENT IN COPING WITH CHANGE

by

Ros Minsky

Summary:

            This paper explores the concept of womb-envy in relation to recent improvements in the position of women so that women are increasingly experienced by some or many men as as 'too much of a good thing' - as a good object which is getting out of hand. The paper views this in the context of an enduring contemporary confusion, at worst identity crisis, among many as to what 'masculinity' or male identity is supposed to be. The paper argues that although recently many women have been able to withdraw the active, assertive projections of themselves from men, largely because of the traditional low status of 'femininity', it has been much more difficult for men to re-gain emotional access to feeling of vulnerability and lack which have traditionally been split off onto women. This is seen as particularly relevant in the context of increased male unemployment, job insecurity, low pay and other forms of social damage. The paper suggests that, at it starkest, because of early experiences of unconscious womb-envy which remain unresolved, the subordination of women has historically been a crucial means of male psychical survival. The paper argues that because cultural 'masculnity' has excluded emotional ways of coming to terms with envy, lack and loss, men have lacked access to the very thing many men need to help them begin to find a more human way of being a man. The paper concludes that many women, in their close relationships with men, because they now have access to more of who they are, may represent the best way of helping men find a form of male identity which does not depend so much on defence but which is psychically not reducible simply to becoming more nurturing and like the mother. 

 

 

In this paper, I want to look at the idea of unconscious male-envy mainly in the context of contemporary culture and recent changes in the relations between men and women. Drawing on both modernist and post-modernist ideas I'd also like to try to relate this to the prevalence of one kind of knowledge and way of thinking which culture continues to priviledge over others. By this I mean an over-riding form of technological and economic rationality which leaves out the intuitive, empathic ways of knowing and thinking associated with mothering and normally associated with emotional growth. This is emphasised and elaborated particularly in Object-relations approaches.

In the context of both history and contemporary culture, the concept of unconscious male womb-envy or envy of women seems very suggestive. The idea seems to be widely recognised by psychotherapists and analysts but has not been taken up very much in universities in areas such as literary, film and women's studies where there has been a considerable interest in gender and psychoanalytic ideas. Of course, psychoanalysis is very aware that some women also envy men and I shall discuss this idea later in the paper but, to begin with, I want to focus particularly on male envy of women because it is this kind of envy which seems to have had such dramatic cultural repercussions on the way men and women live, both historically and in the present day.

In contemporary culture, the concept of unconscious womb-envy poses the question of whether recent improvements in the social position of many women, in western countries at least, may mean that women are being increasingly experienced by some, perhaps many, men as 'too much of a good thing' - as a 'good thing' which is getting out of hand. Might this be a significant factor in what has been described as at best, a confusion among some men about what men are supposed to be and at worst, as a male identity crisis? In the last twenty years women have increasingly moved into areas traditionally associated with cultural 'masculinity', generally experiencing an increase in status. However, when men have entered areas traditionally associated with 'femininity', such as shared child-care, house-keeping and become more emotionally nurturing and open, less patriarchal or less 'laddish', they risk a decline in status in their own and others eyes because of the continuing low cultural status of 'femininity'. If, as some have suggested, there is a perceptible crisis in male identity, a sense of confusion about what 'masculinity' is really about, sometimes mixed with considerable guilt, psychoanalytic theory as a whole suggests that it may be related to women's rapidly changing social and psychological situation. This, crucially, often includes women withdrawing from men the active, assertive, strong dimensions of themselves which they previously projected onto them. This means that as women re-own these previously split off aspects of themselves, they can no longer represent only the traditional 'feminine' attributes of passivity, vulnerability and lack. This kind of psychical development however, must be set alongside economic and social changes such as the availablity of reliable methods of contraception but also, more recently, increased male unemployment, job insecurity, low pay and other forms of social damage. Not only do women no longer need to be in men's care and protection as much as they used to be but many men have lost access to the work which allowed them to offer that economic protection.

In this paper I want to suggest what may be the emotional scale of the problem. At its starkest, I think an eclectic reading of psychoanalytic theory suggests that for many men, because of very early unconscious experiences of womb-envy which remain emotionally unresolved, the subordination of women and the denial of their particular forms of physical and emotional creativity has traditionally been a crucial means of maintaining psychical survival. In a culture where many women no longer collude with many men's view of them as predominantly passive, lacking and vulnerable, men suddenly without women onto whom they can project their own unconscious sense of loss and lack may feel overwhelmed with feelings they never knew they had. Unfortunately, culture, by undervaluing emotional ways of thinking and knowing cuts many men off from the very thing they need to help them - the emotional means of resolving and coming to terms with feelings of envy, loss and vulnerability creatively. Many women tend to turn to intimate conversations with friends, counselling and psychotherapy in search of emotional containment and intuitive ways of learning and change whereas men tend to try to obliterate emotional pain through work and social camaraderie which often involving heavy drinking. For increasing numbers of men the psychical protection of work, job security and the camaraderie associated with these has been lost.

To be able to use psychoanalytic theory creatively, I think we have to work eclectically like many practising analytical psychotherapists and analysts. We can't have one perfectly coherent theory because we know we ourselves can never be perfect and coherent. At some level, theories, as well as we ourselves, have to get used to the idea of living with some degree of precariousness, uncertainty, contradiction and ambiguity.

The existence of womb-envy, that is the baby's envy of the reproductive power of the mother, was specifically recognised, though in different ways, by both Freud and Klein. However, Freud regarded it as much less important than penis-envy in the unconscious construction of identity whereas Klein regarded it as of central importance. But it was Karen Horney, a follower of Freud who first took issue with his theory and proposed the idea of womb-envy. She produced the first full-blown critique of Freud's theories in the late 1920s and 30s.

Horney thought that the importance Freud attributed to penis-envy sprang from male narcissism and, most importantly, envy and fear of women's physical capacity to reproduce. She argues that the little girl's sense of injury to her 'womanliness' is a projection which result's from the little girl's inability to tolerate her own desire for the father. In her paper 'The Dread of Woman' (Horney 1932) Horney argues that men are deeply envious of women's capacity for motherhood and are subject to womb-envy. In this paper she argues that male envy of women is as powerful as their desire for them and that this is evident in the widespread existence of myths and legends, folk-tales, fairy stories, poems and religious stories which contain warnings and cautionary tales of what happens in relations between men and women.

Melanie Klein agreed with Horney's theory and argued that she was the first person to explore the female castration complex from within the Oedipal crisis rather than as something which  precipitated it. In the context of her theory in which the mother rather than the father's body is the major pre-occupation of the child (which initially, symbolically contains the idea of the penis as something of secondary importance) she argues in her early paper 'Early Stages in the Oedipal Conflict', that boys mask and over-compensate for their womb-envy by both an over-estimation of the penis and a displacement on to the intellectual plane (This reminds us of Lacan's theory which directly associates language and the phallic signifier) (Klein in Mitchell 1986:75). She writes that what she calls the 'femininity' complex in men goes with an attitude of contempt and 'knowing better' and is highly asocial and sadistic. (Here, 'knowing better' smacks of the over-valuation of knowledge and reason within culture and the devaluation of the intuitive and emotionally creative levels of existence which prevent reason being sterile and arid). Klein took the view that women's main unconscious preoccupation is the fear of damage to her internal organ's as a result of projection and a paranoid expectation of attack from the mother rather than with penis-envy. She emphasises envy of the mother rather than rivalry with the father as the major obstacle to psychical development and change.

Freud certainly recognised the existence of womb-envy but thought it was far less significant and widespread than penis-envy. He thought penis-envy was more important because it explained something he found difficult to explain without it - the little girl's dramatic transfer of desire from her mother to the father in the Oedipal stage of early childhood. The little girl, Freud suggests, crosses over to the father initially in the wild hope that he will give her a penis with which to captivate her mother. However, although evidence for womb-envy, a phenomenon which parallels penis-envy, is central to Freud's view that all identity is inherently bisexual, Freud still considers clinical manifestations of womb-envy to be structured in relation to the phallus, that is to indicate homosexual desire for the father rather than bisexuality.

If we keep in mind the powerful experience of physical and emotional creativity the child has of the mother from birth, it seems very probable that children of both sexes have another, perhaps earlier experience of sexual difference than the one described by Freud. Here, when the little boy discovers that he is not the same as his apparently powerful, creative mother, he feels he is lacking rather than the girl. The conversation might run like this:

Boy: 'Mummy, when I grow up I'm gonig to have a baby like you'

Mother: 'but you won't be able to because boys can't have babies'

After this momentous discovery, the small boy has to repress his envy and loss of the powerful physical and emotional meanings of the mother in favour of the cultural power associated with the father and the phallus. Psychoanalytic theory as a whole suggests that this denial of the mother's being as much as the loss of her as a potential lover may be a major factor in the construction of 'masculine' identity. Let imagine the experience of the small boy in the throes of Freud's Oedipal crisis.

The small boy, suddenly faced with the reality that he is not the same as his mother or likely to be, comes to see an identification with the father and the phallus, and the power it apparently confers, as the best option available to him suddenly faced with a terrifying sense of potential psychical disintegration. Having assumed in his so far short life that he would be like his mother in every way including her ability to have babies, he suddenly has the devastating realisation that he isn't and will never be. At this moment he is compelled to give up his original 'female' identification with his mother and urgently seek another identity. In the father he finds someone who he discovers has the same kind of body as himself and who also seems to have won the heart of his mother even if he hasn't. The little girl, as Klein suggests, may also, initially envy the creative power of the mother but eventually, and usually, she discovers that she can identify with it, in a way the boy never can, because she has the same kind of body as the mother. 

As I suggested in a paper in Free Asspociation (Minsky 1995) not only does culture largely deny the value of the mother and all she represents, especially to the small boy but also, building on the ideas of Klein, Horney, Bion and Lacan, that in early childhood, during what Freud calls the Oedipal phase, a form of emotional knowledge which is associated with the small child's in-sight or intuition into the powerful creative significance of its mother is unconsciously repressed or denied in favour of the sight of the visible, palpable phallus. One form of recognition of sexual difference based on the mother's body is over-shadowed by another based on the male body and the visible presence or absence of the phallus. Freud for cultural and perhaps unconscious reasons chose to focus his theory around the latter. This scenario suggests that the child discovers difference in two different ways: one in relation to wanting to be what the mother is and the second in relation to wanting to be what the mother desires. This unconscious denial of the in-sight into the creative and containing meanings associated with the mother, or a female sign (only visible when the mother is pregnant) then means that a vital form of emotional knowledge underlying perhaps what we commonly refer to as wisdom rather than reason, is not generally available to the child or culture as an alternative form of consciousness and knowing. The effect of this is that, in the small boy, in particular, painful feelings connected with early loss, envy and lack may not be able to be resolved and integrated within the self. Instead, they can only be dealt with in culturally approved ways. They can be mastered through work, and the status and substance provided by what Lacan sees as a patriarchal 'masculine' culture and knowledge, the apparent certainties and truths encapsulated in reason and science - or projected outwards onto others, most obviously women.

Freud's theory suggests that women are the first major focus of many men's unconscious projections because the small boy discovers difference at the same time that he feels potentially overwhelmed with a sense of lack and loss. Let us imagine his predicament. He's lost his mother as a love object, he finds he can't have babies like her as the girl can although he at first he assumed he could and he's been turned into a victim of symbolic defeat by his father who held on to the mother. However, it is still the father and culture with whom the boy now has to identify, even if highly ambivalently, if he wants the chance of having any kind of viable identity at all. So, the small boy's new identity which must substitute him for his earlier 'feminine' identity, contains both his phantasised father, now internalised as a powerful cultural authority but also himself, now phantasised as the powerless and unhappy victim of symbolic defeat and humiliation. But, he gradually discovers that there is a means to rid himself of this painful component of his new identity which he finds unbearable. The newly discovered other, woman, provides him with a psychical waste-bin into which he can throw the sense of loss which still threatens to overwhelm him. Henceforth, woman becomes a split off part of many men's sense of loss and lack, that is they become the carrier of their despised unconscious. By becoming the bearer of the male unconscious through the mechanism of splitting and projection, women allow many men to feel potent and in control. But the problem is that women may then seen as potentially very threatening if they are not kept tightly under control. They now represent split off parts of the boy's self which then have to be rigouresly policed. All this, of course, is unconscious. This predicament of psychical dependence on women then sets the scene for both women's denigration but at other times, also her idealisation as the lost part of the man's identity to which he secretly longs to regain access by becoming her lover. Male phantasies of women strongly suggest this swing from denigration to idealisation: evil witch, slag, bitch, bimbo, whore, slut, doll, bimbo, air head, chick, baby, but also angel, goddess, madonna, earth mother, fairy godmother, 'my other half'.

Although the small boy's loss has been based on unconscious phantasy, as most of us know, this doesn't make loss any easier to bear. As Juliette Mitchell has commented, at the time, unconscious phantasies feel as real as the grass under our feet. The tragedy may be that as a consequence of these early phantasies, perversly women, who are suddenly discovered as the other, seem to come to represent male loss and lack, partly, for the very reason that they are patently not lacking as mothers. As Kristeva points out, the problem is, that for both sexes, the opposite sex or 'other' may represent what she calls 'the stranger within' us all - our own 'otherness', the part of our identity we don't want to acknowledge which has been pushed out into the external world.

Although in this paper I am focusing particularly on men and male cultural institutions, we need to remember, as I said earlier, that women also project things they find painful about themselves onto the opposite sex. Freud came to the conclusion late in his career, that some women habitually project their anger with the mother for all their losses in childhood but particularly for not giving her the phallus she (the mother) admires so much in others, onto men. However, according to Klein, women project envy on to men as a result of initial envy of the mother's breast which is subsequently transferred to the penis. Still envious of the mother, they turn against men in order to spoil them as a love-objects for the mother. Marie Maguire argues that women often project their active, assertive, aggressive dimensions onto men which encourages them (women) to see themselves often as objects and victims rather than as active and powerful subjects. These women, then, may feel under attack from men for reasons which have nothing to do with the individual men. For such women, all rather than some men may be seen as potential child-abusers, wife-beaters, violent rapists and murderers. However, these projections have been significantly less culturally far-reaching and destructive in their effects than men's projections of loss, lack and vulnerability onto women. However, some men's rueful assertion that women don't want a 'new man' who likes sharing child-care if they can have a hunk who prefers to ride a Harley Davidson, has some truth in it. The contradictions between our conscious and unconscious wishes is one of the conflicts we all, men and women, have to deal with.

A further dimension of the visual aspect of the boy's response to the penis is the visual perception that the body of the little girl is so different from the mother's (it lacks breasts and never becomes pregnant) which distances the idea of the little girl's (female) lack from the powerful meaning of the mother's body. So the small girl's undeveloped body helps to shield the little boy from his awareness that he lacks what his mother has (and the little girl will have) and that in future he is barred from the emotional world she represents.

It's interesting to compare Freud's concept of penis-envy with Klein and Horney's concept of womb-envy. Let's take a moment to compare these two ideas.

Penis-envy, stripped of Freud's unconscious over-valuation of the penis, is, predominantly, about the small girl's unconscious envy of what the mother apparently desires more than the girl herself. In this sense, as Freud emphasises in his lecture on femininity, culture, mediated by the father, denies women access to the homosexual half of their sexuality. But girls can make an identification with the emotional and creative power of the mother to have babies so, unlike boys, they are not permanently cut off from this part of their identity inspite of culture's conscious devaluation of it. Although little girls can't possess the mother for ever as a lover,  they can be like her. On the other hand, culture doesn't require the little boy to deny his original form of sexuality. He can eventually  love someone like his mother sexually, although not his mother, but culture does require him to deny his first identification with her. However, although culture compells him to give up this initial 'feminine' identification, at the physical level, so does biology. Even if he manages to hold on to some of his 'femininity', for the boy, having babies is permanently and uncompromisingly ruled out. So in Freud's theory, at the end of the Oedipal Crisis, even if things go smoothly, parodoxically children of both sexes unconsciously yearn to be more than they are, to be everything its possible to be, for what Lacan calls Imaginary completion. Penis-envy and womb-envy linger respectively in both sexes, as a result not only of cultural prohibition but also biology. So, in the perception of the little boy, anxiously in search of an identity, women are biologically endowed with a powerful and seductively creative identity which he can never share. Although 'femininity' and 'masculinity' exist across the boundaries of the body, up to now at least, the capacity for motherhood remains exclusive to women whether or not they choose it and whether they achieve it through reproductive technology, surrogate mothering or naturally. 'Feminine' identified men cannot have babies but 'masculine' identified women can and do. In this particular sense, biology is, uncomfortably, destiny. (Insert diagrams 1 AND 2)

Women as 'Too much of a good thing'

So, psychoanalytic theory as a whole suggests that in a very real sense, boys lose both their primary sense of being and their first object of desire in early childhood, the rival father keeps the mother. This can be seen symbolically as a double castration in the unconscious. But girls have to come to cope with lack and the loss of a the active, assertive part of their sexuality and make an identification with the mother but they may also have to carry many men's unconscious sense of lack and loss which is projected onto them, as well as their own. But, despite the layers of conscious and unconscious undermining and denial of women's value most women recognise that the powerful creativity of motherhood belongs to their sex even if culture denies their unconscious in-sight into this power. One of the conflicts some women have to cope with is that if they successfully combine a satisfying job with the emotional satisfactions of having and bringing up children (all other things being equal), they may feel uneasy about threatening men with the phantasy of not just being equal but being more than men can be, of having an excess of potential identity compared with men. This guilt about being too 'much' may lead to women playing themselves down in relationships and in the work-place. Nowadays, unemployment among men while women often become the breadwinners, albeit in part-time, low paid jobs, only makes matters worse. At the same time we need to remember that women are almost twice as likely to suffer from depression than men. This may be for many cultural reasons but also because they have to carry men's unconscious sense of loss and vulnerability as well as their own frustrations.

In this kind of context the problem of difference and what seems like an unconscious 'masculine' need to deny the value of the 'feminine' in the social world and in the domain of knowledge may stem from the unconscious perception, in many men, that most women do not have to struggle as much for psychical survival as they do. Their perception may be that however much culture may deprive women of a cultural identity, the creative and powerful identity of the mother is usually always available to them, in addition to, at least potentially, the other identities available to men. (This perception is independent of whether women avail themselves of this identity or even value it themselves). The identity of the mother, is, of course, intimately involved with the crucial and delicate business of making an eventual identity possible for her children. For many men, in the context of their two unconscious childhood losses, their unconscious perception of women may be that in spite of women's difference and their persistent cultural denial and subordination in many quarters, most women still emerge in possession of what seems to them to really matter. This seems to take the form of at least one emotionally authentic and creative and usually guaranteed source of identity and pleasure (all other things being equal) which is not based on a phallic myth or phantasy - both the biological capacity literally to double themselves and, in most cases, the emotional capacity to be what Winnicott describes as 'good enough' mothers. Being 'good enough' consists, fundamentally, in allowing them to respond creatively to another human being's helplessness and need to organise and establish an identity, before their own; Bion describes this as the mother's capacity for emotional containment. Julia Kristeva describes the common maternal capacity to respond, not as masochism or sacrifice of their own needs but to the suspension of narcissism; 'the slow, difficult and delightful apprenticeship in attentiveness, gentleness, forgetting oneself' (Kristeva 1986:206). Winnicott, a pediatrician as well as a psychoanalyst, thought that this capacity for creative response-ability in handing her power over to the child and helping it make the crucial transition from phantasy to reality was characteristic of most mothers, even though a minority undoubtedly feel uncomfortable in this role. Some women may not find mothering appealing because of early difficulties with their own mothers which remain unconscious and unresolved.

The envy and hostility that Object-relations theory suggests might be provoked in some, perhaps many men, by their childhood insight into women's creative capacity for motherhood would help to explain patriarchal cultures antagonism towards motherhood and its unconscious need to make it as difficult as possible for women to achieve much success in any thing except motherhood. History testifies to the need to keep women out of both the cultural sphere and high status, well-paid professions and jobs. Even today, if a woman is allowed to have uninhibited access to both her potentially fulfilling, powerful and pleasurable identities - as a mother - and in a rewarding job or career or other activity perceived by many men as part of the male domain, she may begin to erode many men's sense of themselves. An active, speaking woman who refuses the position of the lack, effectively throws the lack back onto men which may then threaten some of them (through the mechanism of paranoia) with psychical death. Irigaray has emphasised how women symbolically represent castration and the death of male identity for many men. In male phantasy, it seems that women's power threatens to run out of control as soon as she seriously enters culture as if she too is a subject and demonstrates her intellectual as well as physical and emotional capacities. Crucially, then, in some men's phantasy women may be seen not just as men's equals but as substantially more than men. She threatens some men with being 'too much of a good thing' - sexually attractive, emotionally literate and capable of intimacy and containment, capable of having babies if she wants to and intellectually and creatively clever and effective in what was previously considered the male sphere. Increasingly such women are becoming more visible in culture. In many men's phantasy, compared with men, there seems to be something 'real' about women which does not rest on the need for control with which the culturally accepted version of 'masculinity' cannot compete. Because this kind of patriarchal 'masculinity' is such a distorted form of masculinity, motherhood smacks of an authentic source of creativity and power whereas, as Lacan has suggested, the status of patriarchal 'masculinity' seems bogus because it actually rests on unconscious symbolic defeat by the father. But does the existence of womb-envy suggest it also rests on the denial and concealment of envy of women. Of course, in 'reality' rather than phantasy, the capacity for emotionally fulfilling relationships, to be a good father, to get satisfaction from creative work, are realistic, authentic ways of being a man. However, the phantasy in many men may be that lack of the power to reproduce leaves men defficient. Culture may then offer the only way of making good this lack as long as it controls women's ability to participate in culture.

So envious feelings in relation to the notion of women having it all and being too much, together with the association of the mother with the unlimited control over them as helpless babies and small children, may reinforce sufficient unconscious envy in some men to make it a major feature of their relationships with women in the private, public and institutional spheres. The continual unconscious spoiling and exclusion of women's potential power, functions for some men perhaps crucially, as the means of preventing a sense of psychical annihilation. Klein suggests that the young baby attempts to spoil the mother or 'good object' by biting the breast so that it no longer provokes its envy. The continual unconscious spoiling and exclusion of women's potential power in the form of paying her 70% of the male wage in Britain, the 'glass ceiling' put in place by many men's dislike of working under a woman, still operates as the means of preventing 'masculine' psychical damage.

The womb as such has historically possessed predominantly negative cultural connotations of instability, hysteria, madness and disease. More recently it has specifically connoted various forms of women 'going wrong' including the need for male-management of birth and the need for hysterectomies. Given that we might expect the over-riding connotation of the womb to be creativity these meanings may well be symptoms of historically and culturally mediated womb-envy. (See Lomas 1965) Bruno Bettelheim, Karen Horney, Peter Lomas and many others have suggested that culture resonates with what look very much like cultural signs or symptoms of womb-envy. The Christian idea that Eve was created out of Adam's rib and the idea of Eve as the idealised virgin before the fall only to become afterwards, the whore whose seductive presence drags men into sin and misery, the ancient belief that Zeus gave birth to Athena out of his head (mind), Plato's view of the productions of philosophers as metaphorical 'births', the widespread practice of clitorectomy, the male fear in some primitive societies of contact with women during menstruation in case it leads to their death (perhaps this symbolically refers to psychical death or castration), the phantasy of the castrating woman in the notion of vagina dentata or the toothed vagina of North American Indian myth and in Medusa's withering phallic look which turns men to stone, the ancient oriental practice of binding women's feet, couvade rituals in some cultures in which men simulate labour pains, 'lie in' after their wives deliveries and go on special diets, ceremonial male initiation rights which produce the 'birth' of man in adolescence, the male control involved in the management of modern child-birth and reproductive technology, the attempt to control women's right to decide whether to have abortions, are just some of a vast and diverse collection of cultural ideas and practices which smack of the male need to control and limit women's power or try to appropriate it for themselves. Luce Irigaray, in her critical analysis of both philosophy and psychoanalysis, has emphasised the persistent historical absence, denial, denigration and appropriation of the meaning of woman and particularly the denial of the mother and the womb as the point of origin of men. As has been widely documented, historically and globally women have persistently been designated as irrational, ultra-precarious and particularly prone to madness. Psychoanalytic theory generally suggests that this has been a psychically necessary unconscious manoeuvre by many men to sustain their idea of themselves, and culture, as rational and objective - and to protect them from recognising their unconscious dependence on women.

Knowledge as a defence against womb-envy

Let us turn now to the ramifications womb-envy may have on what culture counts as knowledge; the issue of womb-envy and the victory of 'seeing is believing over 'intuition and insight is believing' in relation to the small boy's (and some girls) identification with the phallus. This occurs at a time in the child's early life when most children, although they may be smitten by the discovery of difference, are also very keen to know where babies come from. This question, according to both Freud and Klein, becomes of crucial importance for the child during the Oedipus crisis. Freud regarded this phase of almost frantic curiosity as the beginning of intellectual curiosity which he saw as an unconscious means to what he called 'mastery' - that is, control over overwhelming feelings of loss in relation to the mother.( Freud SE7: 197). This suggests that after the discovery of difference, the boy in particular, needs to substitute his emotional insight with theoretical insight or intellectual understanding which serves to shore up the pain of separation and loss. Lacan directly relates the phallus as a sign of power to the powerful cultural status of rationality. The girl doesn't have to separate from her mother so radically and can eventually re-identify with her in spite of gradually becoming aware that her insight into her and her mother's creative, emotional power isn't shared by culture. (However, perhaps we need to remember that although women are subordinated in culture, most women talk about much of their experience of motherhood with pleasure and describe it as a major source of fulfillment in their lives despite their low status, frustrations and disappointments. Klein also saw the child's initial forays into knowledge as an unconscious wish to discover more about the womb, that is the contents and nature of the mother's body (which for Klein includes the phallus as well as other babies) (Mitchell, ed., 1986: 75).

The visibility of the phallic sign in the child's early body-preoccupied world might help to explain why observation-based knowledge has been so privileged within culture compared with other forms of knowledge. But academic, theoretical knowledge of all kinds, historically dominated by men, may be used as a flight from emotion, as a narcissistic defence against feeling. The fact that culture demands that boys have to try to separate from the mother much earlier than girls in order to become culturally acceptable 'masculine' men means that many men are cut off from emotional forms of knowledge, insight and containment at a very early age. They may, therefore, remain more prone to making narcissistic, Imaginary identifications with exclusively rational forms of knowledge than women. (Insert diagram 3)

The visibility of the phallic sign in the child's early body-preoccupied world might help to explain why observation-based knowledge has been so privileged within culture compared with other forms of knowledge. But academic, theoretical knowledge of all kinds, historically dominated by men, may be used as a flight from emotion, as a narcissistic defence against feeling. The fact that culture demands that boys have to try to separate from the mother much earlier than girls in order to become culturally acceptable 'masculine' men means that many men are cut off from emotional forms of knowledge and insight at a very early age. They may, therefore, remain more prone to making narcissistic, imaginary identifications with exclusively rational forms of knowledge than women.

The concept of repressed womb-envy suggests that consciousness and culture stand in for the loss of everything the small boy valued and desired at the beginning of his life and protects him from knowing anything about it. As Klein observed, womb-envy is concealed in men by displacement onto the intellectual plane, that is onto reason and knowledge. Culture therefore represents not only repressed desire for the mother but also a repression of the desire to be what the mother is. Culture then represents the male substitute for pro-creation when child-birth is not an option for him. Significantly, there are few emotionally containing institutions in culture and those which exist such as counselling and psychotherapy agencies are largely used by women and frequently denigrated by culture at large, particularly by the media. Caring cultural institutions concerned with ordinary human need are frequently described in the language of dependency and the 'nanny state'. This might explain the maintenance of the stark equation between culture ('masculine') and nature and the unconscious ('feminine'). So consciousness, language and rationality become the defence against not just the loss of the mother as a love-object and symbolic castration as Lacan argues but also womb-envy and the loss of the mother's creative identity. For this reason the body must be kept isolated from the mind along with the intuitive, empathic forms of thinking and emotional containment associated with the mother in early child-hood when the child's womb-envy initially emerges. (Culturalists seem to relish talking about the cultural construction of the body as if there was no such thing as pregnancy and birth ) A marriage between body and mind might risk breaking down the defence that the mind and culture provide against conscious knowledge of the powerful meaning of the mothers body. If Lacan is right, the phallus and culture protects against unconscious symbolic castration but also envy of the womb. The relationship between the sexes is marred by a refusal by culture to recognise women's being. One of the problems with Lacan's celebration of the sexual relation in the free-play of meaning in the text is that for Lacan, what is repressed does not include envy of the power and significance of women's bodies for procreation and creativity. He sees the power of the phallus but not that of the womb.

It is tempting to speculate in this context that even the popularity of the post-modern idea of identifying with 'feminine desire' or the repressed unconscious in the text among many academics and the theoretical project of 'writing the feminine', although, perhaps, encouraging at one level  looks as if it may also be an expression of womb-envy. As Irigaray has suggested, it may be an unconscious attempt to share in or even appropriate women's power while ignoring the reality that however much some men may identify with the' feminine', bodies are a dimension of women's identities that they cannot share. There is a difference between identification and identity. In the matter of being heard, it still makes a difference whether one is speaking from a man or woman's body. Susanne Moore calls the academic fashion for men writing their 'femininity' in literary texts as a 'kind of gender tourism' because men can always return home to male bodies which, all other things being equal, do make a real difference to their lives.

The work of the French feminists such as Helene Cixous, Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaay who have used some of Lacan's ideas to develop their own approaches suggest that we stand in urgent need of a new way of thinking and writing. As Kristeva suggests, this would involve the conscious recognition of two powerful symbols of meaning, without denying the value for living of either: it would have to emphasise the creative, containing power of the mother or womb symbolising a non-rational way of knowing and creativity as well as the rationality of existing language. The status of the phallus as male power would need to be equalled by the status of the womb and female power and creativity. If reason represents a defence against the power of the womb and women's creativity this may seem like a lost cause. However, reason would be relieved of what many now see as its pre-occupation with control because of the modifications made possible by access to insight and empathy associated with the new symbolic meanings of the mother. This way of making sense of the world would incorporate our need for reason and intellectual understanding but also, our pressing need for more wisdom to go with it. More access to intuitive, empathic knowledge within the individuals and institutions that make up culture might begin to modify the seductive but often emotionally sterile rationality associated with technology-driven cultures, frequently devoid of intuitive insight or, for want of a better word, wisdom and the capacity for emotional containment and judgement. Perhaps the arms trade and global environmental pollution are two of the most striking examples. The incorporation and valuing of more intuitive, empathic, emotional knowledge within culture might lead to the construction of more creative, and at least partially integrated identities which are neither dependent on power and control or in the sway of unconscious phantasies based on denial and the destructive projection of painful, split off parts of the self into the external world.

In what some people see as a post-modern era in search of new forms of value untarnished by association with rational claims to universal, absolute 'truth', does the idea of womb-envy suggest that we might do well to look towards the idea of some element of emotional containment, integration and authenticity associated with the creativity of the mother as an enduring source of value. The incorporation of this form of intuitive knowledge into culture would not involve the return to a phantasy of a falsely centred, unified identity. It would still entail the need to live with the notion of precariousness, in varying degrees in different people, in the context of identities which are always subject to the eruption of the unconscious despite their access to emotional insight. This precariousness could be mitigated by access not to any absolute 'truth' or value but to a quality of emotional authenticity characteristic of artistic truth. Psychoanalytic theory as a whole suggests that we need to incorporate into culture a repressed capacity for empathy and intuitive insight and containment associated with the creativity of the mother which might allow us to humanise both reason and unconscious desire, both of which are inadequate without it.

Inevitably the question arises of how change could take place on any significant scale when, for many men and some women, psychical survival seems to require the denial of envy of the mother and the emotional meanings and forms of knowledge associated with her. As figure ? suggests, how can we address the widening gap between many men's increasing sense of uncertainty if not crisis and an increasing sense of integration, confidence and status in women as a result of withdrawing their projections of strength and assertiveness from men, often with the help of counselling and psychotherapy. This is particularly true of post-menopausal women who nowadays, instead of experiencing a sense of grief and loss of their reproductive power, as was traditionally predicted for women in the mid-life, experience feelings of re-newed confidence, fulfillement, value and freedom in the context of new challenges and interests in the form of jobs and education (Apter 1995) Psychoanalytic theory as a whole suggests that change in many men would require them to acknowledge terrifying feelings of loss, lack, emptiness and envy previously associatd with women which would risk psychical collapse or breakdown. Although there have been signs of new forms of 'masculinity' in the western world there have also been signs of both identity crises in men and a backlash against women.

Normally, the kind of changes which may need to occur in many men can only be achieved in the containing environment of psychotherapy. Here, hostile and idealising projections can be withdrawn from others and painful feelings of loss, lack and emptiness consciously experienced and mourned while at the same time the patient is supported and protected from too great a sense of annihilation. Through gaining access to painful emotions through insight, a more authentic sense of identity can emerge. Since large parts of the self are no longer projected outwards onto others in the external world, these others do not need to be controlled or systematically attacked and spoiled. Clearly mass analytical psychotherapy is is not a realistic means of achieving change although many women are increasingly involved in it but awareness within culture generally, of the painful unconscious predicaments many small boys as well as girls face in early childhood may in the long term help to bring about change.

But how might this awareness be realistically achieved? Bion has emphasised the mother's role as an emotional container, not only literally as the womb which contains the unborn baby during pregnancy but also for the baby's earliest anxieties, impulses, sensations and emotions. The mother, acting as an emotional mediator, emotionally contains, digests or metabolises what initially confuses or terrifies the baby so that these feelings and sensations are made bearable for the baby. She makes it possible for the infant to begin to 'think' the unbearable through phantasy and later language. In this sense, the womb is both a metaphor for containment but also literal, like the phallus. Although it may be women's changing position that is one of the main factors responsible for precipitating a crisis in some men's identity, perhaps, in the context of their association with the idea of emotional containment, many women could help to produce a cultural climate in which the issues surrounding this crisis could be talked about more openly. Clearly, in a situation where gender often crosses the boundaries of the body, some men who have not split off from the mother so radically, could be and already are , involved in this process. If many men need to gain access to their unconscious envy of women, then perhaps the role of women who culture permits to remain most in touch with emotional forms of knowledge and a capacity for emotional containment through their longer association with the emotional world of the mother is very important. Without idealising this emotional world or under-estimating the difficulties some women have in separating from a merged identity with the mother and becoming more independent, perhaps many women are in a position to provide the kind of protective emotional environment necessary for some men close to them to confront their unconscious womb-envy. This might make it more possible for more men to risk allowing themselves access to potentially overwhelming emotions which often remain unconscious and externalised. However, importantly, this would mean that women may also need to confront issues they may not have been very aware of before. They may need to consciously recognise their capacity to to provoke envy whatever they may actually feel about themselves (however unenviable they feel), and how this envy may relate to the vulnerability, dependence and the fragility of the dominant form of cultural 'masculinity'. And, since both sexes envy the other, the stranger within, women would also need to ackowledge the envy some women project onto men even if this is not culturally reinforced. In recent years, a welter of articles with titles such as 'What are fathers for?', 'Are father's really necessary?' 'Men who needs them' seem to be less than helpful and to smack of female envy. Psychoanalytic theory suggests strongly that fathers serve as a vital alternative space in the child's mind which is separate from the intensity of its fused relationship with the mother and which eventually allows it to separate. The capacity for emotional intimacy, creativity and the capacity to be a good enough father as one half of the sexual couple is surely where an important part of the 'real' rather than phantasised, phallic 'masculine' identity lies. Women may also need to consciously acknowledge how much, in the past, if less so today, they have unconsciously projected the active, assertive, aggressive parts of themselves onto men for a variety of complex cultural and psychical reasons. As women increasingly own their own strength and assertiveness and refute these projections from men it is not suprising that for many men the psychical effects may be devastating. Although it is likely to provoke even more hostile projection from some very vulnerable men perhaps more awareness among women of these kinds of unconscious issues could that mean some women (and men who feel able) could produce the kind of protected, containing cultural climate necessary for a more open, empathic, containing dialogue between men and women. 

 

Paper given as a public lecture for the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies at the University of Essex

 

Copyright: The Author

Address for  correspondence:  RosMinsky@dial.pipex.com


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© Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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