Relation Dynamics Between Mothers And Daughters English Literature Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Can psychoanalytic practice with women patients really go very far if the analyst has no clear view of the logic underlying the mutual 'dazzling' between mothers and daughters?

In the constitution of the female subject, what is the role played by the passion that both divides and binds a woman and her mother? Why is this drama so frequently and heavily played out in women's stories? Is this a kind of logical imperative that must be reckoned with along the path to femininity?

These are indeed the questions that propel the analytical trajectory of this work.

Women and mothers personify the members of successive generations whose relationship can often be traversed by the raging of a constant suffering, which is marked by hatred, love and a sense of guilt. A state of affairs that is

re-proposed at every generational turn, every time the girl becomes a woman and her relationship with mother is changed.

Yet, women and their mothers must also be viewed as the two co-agents in the psychic processes involved in the structuring of the female subject -and, as such, the source of the devastating affects that can often be linked to an impossible dissolution of the one into the other. I propose to call these affects devastation. The term devastation carries a powerfully emotional significance, in that it nearly defines a concept. In its remote Latin roots, it contains the idea of something 'waste' [2] , an echo of a boundless vastity of annihilation, of tabula rasa. Devastation is proper of barbaric hordes and of warring forces whose holding structure has collapsed, leaving them orderless and aimless. Devastation is in the nature of hurricanes, of earthquakes: images of destructive phenomena that all evoke the effect of an unruly striking force operating outside a symbolic order.

My psychoanalytic lens will thus be trained on the passionate forces that are deployed in the fusive relation between mothers and daughters, on the love and hate implicated in the pathos that conjoins them.

Freud pushed his exploration of femininity as far as the locus where the secret of this symbiosis is held: that is, to the pre-Oedipal relation, the moment at which tender attachment is transformed into hatred. This study seeks to shed further light on such feminine pre-Oedipal bond through an exploration that is indebted to the teachings of Jacques Lacan, the psychoanalyst whose thinking - after Freud's - probably offers the most profound development in the conceptualisation of femininity.

The classical psychoanalytic formulation of femininity depends on the Oedipus complex, the source of fundamental concepts: i.e. penis envy and its resolution in motherhood; a conception of femininity essentially placed on the side of 'lack', the lack of the phallus. The innovative approach proposed by Lacan in the 1970's, beginning with his seminar Encore (Lacan, 1972-73), instead, releases the essence of femininity from reference to the phallus. It is a subversive advancement in psychoanalytic theory as it re-positions the feminine beyond the Oedipal conflict. Beyond Oedipus [3] draws on the Lacanian topology, whereas pre-Oedipal rests in the chronology of Freud.

The beyond-Oedipus proposition has the theoretical merit of not defining femininity as an alternative to the female identity that flows from the Oedipus complex: a position (the latter) that, if assumed, might well situate femininity alongside madness. Rather, that proposition brings to the fore an aspect of being feminine that allows it to transcend the Oedipal definition.

In this, Lacan exasperates the dissymmetrization between the sexes (foreshadowed by Freud); so that for him the two sexes are not defined by culture or by nature, but proceed from an option for one type of jouissance or another, masculine or feminine. Ultimately, this dissymmetry can be said to be about two modes of jouissance that are not mutually complementary.

The woman-mother relation is a bond inhabited by a jouissance that is not necessarily mediated by the assumption of this dissymmetry between the sexes. For, this is a relationship whose pull towards devastation intensifies the more that bond becomes direct, specular in its illusion that femininity can be assumed through eluding man and the 'lack' that he represents between the two jouissances.

The introduction of beyond, as a notion of escaping the stricture of the Oedipal definition, brings about a retroactive relativization of all that psychoanalysis has maintained about woman in this domain, and provides new ways of reading femininity and its vicissitudes.

By placing femininity in direct relation to the zone situated beyond Oedipus and into the Other jouissance that imbues it, the path to femininity is framed as a journey which does not terminate with the assumption of the sexual identity assigned by Oedipus. Rather, it implies the subjectification of this part of the being that is proximate to the Other jouissance. This is a jouissance that is not 'normalized' within the Oedipal paradigm, and, in the Lacanian elaboration, is named "supplementary jouissance" [4] - supplementary, that is, in respect of phallic jouissance. Women, however, are not excluded from phallic jouissance, as they also fall within the Oedipal functioning; or, better still, women are not excluded, but, at the same time, are not altogether 'in', because their feminine specificity inheres precisely in that which escapes phallic jouissance. This beyond-the-phallus jouissance represents the Real of femininity, which every woman is called upon to knot in the particular way that she, alone, can find for integrating it in her life.

The thematic concerns of the present study revolve around the argument that the devastation experienced in mother/daughter relations is the result of the unconscious 'circumventing' of this Real of femininity. For, in that situation, devastation becomes a reservoir of a supplementary jouissance, which -given its very specificity - cannot be, so to speak, 'relayed' by handing on a sort of (phallic) 'baton' from mother to daughter. Instead, what the subject is left with is a failed generational transmission which is then manifested in all its various pathological facets. From this devastation, in fact, profoundly deleterious effects are radiated on the imaginary register by way of destructive envy - and on the symbolic, by way of an impediment which breaks its functional link between the designation of womanhood and feminine jouissance. As a consequence, the subject experiences a destabilizing and disturbing inability to attain any psychic anchoring in a robust representation of a woman's being as feminine.

Significantly, on the other side of this relational coin there is what I previously referred to as mother/daughter's mutual 'dazzling'. A passion between them that can be of such intensity as to be more accurately described as ravishment - meant here as that ecstatic enrapturing in which one woman is dissolved into the mirage reflected by the image of the other woman. Indeed, the title of this study echoes a recurrent expression heard in my clinical work with female patients. It poignantly conveys the position of a female subject who is ecstatically lost in the mirage of another woman, her mother - a position that those words seem so insightfully to encapsulate.

Crucially, devastation and ecstatic ravishment can be seen as often alternating in feminine relationships, for they are none other than two declinations of an impasse in the confrontation of the Real of feminine specificity In this respect, the literary case of Lol V. Stein comes to mind: this enchanting character created by Marguerite Duras (who was admired by Jacques Lacan), I feel, aptly embodies this particular aspect in daughters/mothers relations, as Lol stands witness to the psychic creativity demanded of each woman for achieving her unique 'knotting' of the Real of jouissance and for 'delivering' herself into the feminine.

1. Devastation and ecstasy in the female Oedipal imaginary

When Freud came along,

some women trusted in his future,

thinking they too

needed a penis.

Envy, he told them,

the canary's


Gene Frumkin, The Women [5] 

A) Hating mother: the female Oedipus complex in S. Freud

The first level at which one encounters feminine devastation is that of the image, of the visual - that is, in the imaginary register. If one joins Freud on his exploration path of femininity, one can see how the imaginary register plays a fundamental role in the constitution of a female sexuated position

For Freud, the critical moment on the way to femininity is the instant of seeing - when, at a certain point in her life, the little girl, who upto then is "a little man" [6] , catches a glimpse of the male genital and discovers the absence of the penis on her own body. This is the instant in which something irreversible occurs.

Freud's observation about the little girl experiencing herself as a male transcends an assumed identification with the stereotyped image of the female sex; as the little girl who enjoys wearing dresses, ornaments, looking pretty and playing feminine games is no less of "a little man" than the little girl who only wears trousers. Her 'experiencing-herself-as-a-male' may, indeed, mean that she feels there is no difference between the sexes or that the different organs are equivalent. Nevertheless, in that fateful moment of seeing, a new dimension is brought into play: the primacy of one organ over the other.

The decisive element is that, in the infantile genital organisation, the masculine does not correspond to the feminine; in terms of imagery, there may be a masculine role that corresponds to a role recognised as feminine - but not in respect of the drive. In Freud's words, "[…] for both sexes, only one genital, namely the male one, comes into account" [7] , so that, the entire genital organization begins to be constructed from the primacy of the phallus. Thus, from the moment of discovering the absence of the penis on one's body, an antithesis arises not between male and female, but "[…] between having a male genital and being castrated." [8] One can then see how fundamental the image of this organ is; and that what matters is whether it can be seen or not on the body - for the image of the organ carries a symbolic significance that (in his own fashion) Freud acknowledges straightaway: a symbolic significance, that is, which is linked to the phallic function of the penis. Interestingly, the child does not believe all women to be castrated - but "[…] it is only unworthy female persons that have lost their genitals […] [9] ; an observation that brings into play another dimension of the organ, its symbolic dimension. The phallus functions as a metaphor that puts into circulation a sort of 'added value', as an attribution of extra power or worthiness to the person (male or female) deemed to possess it. Therefore, in the little girl the idea can endure that, even if she has not got it, 'worthy' women have it. Freud also points out how, for the little girl, mother is never included among the castrated women; for mother is perceived as possessing the phallus in both its imaginary and symbolic valences.

So, the instant of seeing occurs as one notices that one's body lacks the penis, a "[…] momentous discovery which little girls are destined to make." [10] The moment of comprehending the import of such discovery only lasts seconds - but, according to Freud, long enough for the little girl to experience envy, envy for the penis (Penisneid), that is. The little girl, Freud continues, "[…] makes her judgment and her decision in a flash. She has seen it and knows she is without it and wants to have it." [11] One is struck by the ineluctability, rapidity and decidedness attributed by Freud to this discovery, as though with this he wished to pinpoint the origin of a trait that, in the clinic, sometime one sees in women: their great decisiveness vis-à-vis desire. [12] Desire, that is,

Tellingly, Freud contrasts this with the little boy's hesitant and unconcerned reaction to the same discovery. When he sees the female body without a penis, the boy does not quite believe it, gets distracted, and directs his interest elsewhere, choosing not to take note of it. And he can ignore it for a long time, as castration does not (yet) concern his own body. Boys' reaction to the lack of penis in females, Freud writes, is universal: "They disavow the fact." [13] - a response stronger than repression, involving the psychic defence mechanism that operates in the setting up of perversion. This is said to pave the way to male fetishistic love - in that what determines man's choice of love object is believed to be always in a detail, a divine detail on the woman's body, whose function is to deny his castration.

It is not so in the choice of the love object for the woman. On the path to femininity, there is no single, universal way to proceed after that momentous discovery - the only feminine 'universal', for Freud, is penis-envy - namely, the instantaneous decision made on discovering its absence is to want to have it. In the female's case, the reaction formation brings about a temporary masculinity complex, so that the little girl behaves like a man. Further, resolutions of the masculinity complex can only be individual ones, as every female has to find the way that alone works in her case, which cannot be generalized. Freud states this repeatedly in his writings upto 1932: there is no single way of being a woman.

There seems, then, to be only one solution available to the male sex, but multiple ones for the female sex. The expectation of a parallel, symmetric sexual development between the two sexes, which had accompanied Freud for his first thirty years in psychoanalysis, is revealed to be unfounded. [14] The more Freud refines the sexual position of males, the more that of females appears to him as enigmatic, unresolved and lacking reference to an ideal type.

So, penis envy can even cause a process of disavowal to be set off in the little girl's psyche, as she refuses to acknowledge the fact that she is castrated. This could clearly be regarded as a 'mad' defence as it denies the evidence supplied by the reality of her own body - a situation similar to that which, in the adult, according to Freud, would lead to psychosis. Notwithstanding any reality testing, the little girl continues to view herself as possessing a penis and, Freud says, "[…] may subsequently be compelled to behave as though she were a man" [15] . Thus, penis envy, a masculinity complex and disavowal of castration are the expression of the little girl's rejection of her discovery - for this is a discovery so profoundly destabilizing as to reach to the core of her subjectivity, and as such, inevitably, cannot be accepted. In fact, the psychic impact from the moment of seeing is so deep that the subject's very constitutive sphere (her self-image, love object and pleasure organ) is unpinned. This means that discovering the absence of the penis inflicts such a narcissistic wound on the little girl's psyche that, at the image level, it leaves an indelible scar- so that, from now on, the mirror will reflect an image always falling short of the ideal expected of her sex. Manifestations of this narcissistic wound will show through a sense of inferiority towards others and as a basic dysmorphophobia - for the subject will always see herself as excessive or defective as against the actual image reflected by the mirror. She will feel unequal to any social demand or acknowledgment and never fully entitled to the place she holds in the world. As to her love-object, the tenderness the little girl experienced towards her mother in infancy begins to fade, for mother is now unconsciously held responsible for giving the child a deficient body. But, for Freud, the most important change occurs around the dominant erogenous zone involved in the girl's auto-erotism, as he observes how the girl's masturbatory activity ceases to be relevant. For the girl and, subsequently, for the woman, clitoral masturbation (which Freud assimilates to masculine masturbation) does no longer produce the same degree of satisfaction as penile stimulation does for the male: the discovery of possessing an inferior organ irremediably spoils it for her.

Freud's hypothesis is that this depreciation of clitoral masturbation frees the way towards libidinal cathexis of the vaginal zone, a transition that he posits to be necessary if the female is to attain adult sexuality. This implies that the path to femininity calls for a solution to the psychic catastrophe that shakes the little girl's subjectivity at its foundation, embracing, as it does, her self-image, organ of sexual pleasure and love-object. Freud identifies this solution in the operation of the symbolic equation penis=child, which allows the libido to slide from the penis onto another object. The desire for a child replaces penis-envy and thus becomes "[…] the aim of the most powerful feminine wish." [16] This 'sliding' of the libido is, then, the decisive factor that enables the little girl to enter the situation of the Oedipus complex. The novelty of Freud's reflection on femininity in his 1925 paper Anatomical Sex-Distinction is precisely this: the relation between the Oedipus complex and castration complex is reversed in the girl as compared to that in the boy. Whilst the boy exits the Oedipus complex and gives up his incestuous love for mother under the threat of castration, for the girl it is, actually, the opposite. As her castration is given from the beginning, it is the successful sliding of libido from the penis to the child that triggers off her entry into the Oedipus situation. It is, indeed, "[…] with that purpose in view […]" [17] - i.e., to have a child by her father - that the girl assumes father as her love-object in place of mother, and the feminine Oedipus complex is set up. It is also at this point that the girl's jealousy of mother is installed in the struggle over a common love-object and that the feminine position (as conceptualised by Freud) is reached. This passage to the Oedipal situation is essentially where the crucial question lies. In fact, while there could be some logic in narcissistic wound and penis-envy following the discovery of castration - change of desire and love objects, and shifting of the leading erogenic zone remain quite enigmatic. For, as Freud reminds us more than once, all these operations cannot be taken for granted and are never completely successful.

Thus, the little girl will never fully exit the Oedipus complex, as the threat of castration that compels the little boy to give up his love for mother cannot similarly function for the female; she is already castrated and it is the very discovery of her castration to drive her into the Oedipus situation and turn to the father. Consequently, the girl will not feel sufficiently threatened as to ever abandon her incestuous love for father, so that, one could say that a woman is never quite released from Oedipal love, from the love for a man inasmuch as father. Equally, one could say that she never enters the Oedipal situation entirely; which is what Freud, in his 1930's writings, acknowledges in the attention he draws to the significance of the little girl's pre-Oedipal relation with mother. He formulates the hypothesis that the nucleus of feminine neurosis, especially in hysteria, belongs to this attachment to mother, which has"[…] succumbed to an especially inexorable repression" [18] , and that in this "dependence on the mother we have the germ of later paranoia in women." [19] This is the first time that Freud proposes a formulation of the devastating character of the bond between woman and mother, a bond which, interestingly, is described in terms of paranoia, that is to say, of a fear of intrusion, devouring, malevolence. In these later writings, Freud no longer interprets hostility towards mother as Oedipal rivalry or jealousy, but rather as the trace of something rooted in the earlier phase.

If mother, at the time of the little girl's discovering castration on her own body, is considered as an exception to women's castrated condition, the moment arrives when the daughter discovers that this is not so. The profound sense of mortification the girl experienced at the time of her discovery now falls onto the mother, as she is now seen as no exception to castration either. As "Her love was directed to her phallic mother […]" [20] , from this moment the attachment to mother is replaced by hate and the hostility that accompanies the girl's turning to her father. Powerfully primitive and conflicting feelings now pervade the girl's affectional tie with mother; as contradictory emotional investments - which in adult individuals can normally be kept separate (such as love for one's enemy and hate for one's love-object) - in the girl remain unresolved and her bond with mother maintains all of its archaic ambivalence, of hatred imbued with love.

The anxiety at play is a fear of life and death. The girl's fears are of being devoured, poisoned by mother; the lesser charge is of having received insufficient milk from her, which points to the girl's death anxiety from a sense of starvation. Indeed, Freud goes as far as to see, in these anxieties, the girl's perception of mother's unconscious hostility towards her child. The ensuing psychic "catastrophe" [21] marks the girl's detachment from mother as her first love-object. It is. however, difficult to see how this catastrophe may be survived by the passive tendencies - which, defined by Freud as "the wave of passivity […] which opens the way to the turn towards femininity" [22] , are deemed necessary for the clitoris to be replaced by the vagina as the erogenous zone, and thus facilitate the libidinal cathexis of father as the new love-object. Moreover, these early libidinal investments are said to have an immoderate, limitless character, which renders them deeply distressing, threatening for the little girl; they are intractable and cannot be psychically drained off. Added to this, there is the difficulty of cathecting the new erotogenous zone and the difficulty in leaving the libido's first investment object, which endures as a cathectic catalyst in the form of ambivalence.

Freud recognises a "[…] particularly constant relation between femininity and instinctual life […]" [23] , to which he also ascribes the female's tendency to develop "[…] powerful masochistic impulses […]" [24] : due perhaps to an apparent proximity to a form of libido which is unsublimated, unchannelled, anarchic and capricious. So the problem might be in the alleged 'special nature' of female libido, but as Freud affirms "There is only one libido, which serves both the masculine and the feminine sexual functions" [25] an important point that he further warns us about:

"[…] it is our impression that more constraint has been applied to the libido when it is pressed into the service of the feminine function, and that-to speak teleologically-Nature takes less careful account of its [that function's] demands than in the case of masculinity." [26] 

The substitution of the libidinally cathected organ, the phallus, with a feminine erogenous zone is what problematizes it for the libido - as it would seem there is no actual correspondence between the two zones. The feminine erogenous zone does not 'drain' the libido in an equally effective way, and there is thus a difficulty for the libido to flow into the new erogenous zone - that is, a difficulty in turning the little girl's previous phallic-clitoral activity into passive receptivity.

Thus, the mother, the previously actively cathected object, becomes the cause of the catastrophe - as she has revealed, on the little girl's body and on her own, the absence of the penis, the very organ that alone can discharge the libidinal energy.

So, at the end of a life spent on research, Freud is led to conclude that the decisive phase for the future of woman is indeed that of her pre-Oedipus attachment. For, it will not be identification with the Oedipal-rival mother, but rather the identification with those qualities pertaining to the pre-Oedipal-attachment mother, that will eventually allow the woman fully to play her role in her sexual and social functions.

One could then feel inclined to conclude, with Freud, that what is crucial for the assumption of the female sexuated position is how much of a woman's pre-Oedipal relation to mother survives devastation.

B) Constituting woman: the Oedipus complex in J. Lacan

B.1. From imaginary frustration to symbolic castration

Are women born or made? Is woman a 'being' born as such or a 'being' constructed? It is a question that since the 1930's has absorbed more than a generation of psychoanalysts. Jacques Lacan's response is that women are made, by passing through the symbolic transformational 'machinery' that the Oedipus complex is. A woman, then, is constructed, manufactured by the Symbolic - she is the result of language. Actually, this is no great innovation; what is more innovative, however, is that in Lacan's conception man is no less a constructed being than woman is. Man too, in his sexual position, is defined by the Symbolic and his passage through the Oedipus situation, as witnessed by the psychotic confusion about sexual identity. [27] 

In the 1950's, Jacques Lacan introduces the distinction of the three registers, the Real, Symbolic and Imaginary - which prove to be a fundamental contribution to finding one's way through the Freudian and Kleinian theories of sexuation. To avoid losing oneself between the phallus, castration, frustration, mother and father, it is important to distinguish, every time, if the object in question is an imaginary, symbolic or real one and its corresponding type of 'lack' [28] This way, Lacan is able to distinguish the penis, the real organ, from the phallus, the imaginary organ that enters the symbolic dimension in its function of gift. New significations are thus extracted from the Freudian theory of the Oedipus complex. Lacan describes, in those years, the progressive movement through the real, imaginary and symbolic, which produces the sexuated subject.

Firstly [29] , he introduces two terms which newly define the problematic of feminine development. To the Kleinian relational couple, mother and baby, Lacan adds a third element, the imaginary phallus, which together with the former two makes up the triad of infantile phantasms - and a fourth symbolic element, the function of the father. It is the father, as a symbolic element, that allows advancing the imaginary impasse in which the little girl is mired at certain stage of her development.