Freud and Femininity
Sergio Benvenuto: You are both a philosopher and a psychoanalyst, as your work often include both fields. What led you to your study on femininity?
Paul Laurent Assoun: The question of femininity represents a challenge to psychoanalysis; it establishes both a limit to psychoanalytical knowledge, and at the same time this concern was contemporary to the creation of psychoanalysis. In the early days of psychoanalysis, there was Freud’s encounter, as a therapist, with a particular subject, the hysteric. Two thousand years of medical and philosophical discourse on hysteria preceded that encounter; however, Freud was the first–through the use of the technique of hypnosis—to give space to the hysteric’s speech.
In Studies on Hysteria by Breuer and Freud, it is for the first time that you listen to an hysteric’s speech. Freud put an end to the discourse on hysteria–as a syndrome and an illness–in order to give attention to the speech of the hysterics. Freud’s and Breuer’s diagnosis was that the hysteric suffers essentially from reminiscence. However, Freud was the first to approach hysteria not as a medical syndrome and to understand that the hysterical subject wants to say something. Whether it was a question of a bodily symptom or of a disassociation of consciousness, she expressed something impossible to tell or experience. In short, the hysteric is the co-founder of psychoanalysis. It was by being spurred on by the desire of the hysteric as a subject that Freud created psychoanalysis. One day, an hysteric said to him: “Don’t always interrupt me, if you didn’t, perhaps I could tell you what is wrong!” At that point, Freud created psychoanalysis as a method of listening. In fact, Freud considered psychoanalysis a psychological method to make it possible to analyze otherwise inaccessible psychic processes. Psychoanalysis is not the theory of the unconscious—Freud did not speak of the unconscious for a long time. Psychoanalysis speaks rather of unconscious psychic processes, which deserved recognition within psychology.
It was the hysteric who inspired Freud as to the role of sexuality in psychic conflicts. There is no longer unconscious after Freud: there are only unconscious psychic processes which are analyzed on the basis of the experience of listening to the symptom, which leads to a theory of sexuality.
Benvenuto: How did Freud succeed in his treatment of hysterical women (and, why not, hysterical men?) in finally passing from this listening experience to a general theory on the role of sexuality in men and women?
Assoun: For Freud there are hysterical men. From Hippocrates on up to Freud the hysterical symptom has been feminine–one need only consider the etymology, usteron, uterus. It is true, though, that hysteria for the most part concerns femininity. What is essential is to analyze the hysterical subject as such.
The discourse on hysteria had been based on social stereotypes on what is a woman, and what is a mad woman. Freud was perhaps the first to approach the hysterical woman as a subject prey to an unconscious conflict. There is also the hysterical male, and this amazed Freud’s colleagues, given the force of the social stereotype. Their reaction was to consider it “a contradiction in terms to speak of male hysteria”. Freud instead questions the psychic conflict which with its interlacing produced the destiny of the hysteric (male or female). The “symptom” in psychoanalysis is not akin to the medical symptom–a lesion or malfunctioning of an organ or a function–it is rather an unconscious formation, a true conflict underlying the symptom. A symptom always says something true. Freud often said that neurosis never expressed anything stupid. When the subject says something mad, or incoherent, we have the means to understand the desire that it expresses. If desire could be expressed freely, there would be no need of the symptom. The neurotic, perverse or psychotic symptom is created by conflicts, given that desire is blocked. Freud, therefore, succeeded in deciphering rigorously the language of the symptom.
Thus, the symptom can be expressed through the body–and we have the hysterical conversion–or by means of more directly psychic means such as obsession. Every symptom has its significance; however, “What is this neurotic subject who cannot say, and at the same time in any case, is saying? What is this subject which we call a divided subject?” Lacan will take up the category of a divided subject: a subject which desires to say something at any cost, but which can only say it in a disguised, displaced expression. In this way we express every night, through dreams, that which we cannot express when we are awake, or we express it thanks to a “daily symptom”. The neurotic is one suffering from a desire for something which cannot be expressed, and which gives us some information about ourselves.
Benvenuto: By “divided subject”, do you mean a subject divided between his consciousness and his unconscious? Or something deeper than that?
Assoun: The most essential concept in Freud, even more than cleavage, is the concept of repression. Freud himself, in an attempt to explain repression, suggests the example of an unpleasant smell, we would prefer not to smell it but as we do in any case, we tend to take our distance from it. Repression is a psychic action which concerns a drive which we do not want to perceive or recognize. A drive is a tendency to satisfy itself through an object, but which finds an impediment at a certain point. The sexual drive is to be prevented in a particular way. This surprises individuals outside the psychoanalytical sphere: “Why must you always talk about sexuality?” Thus was Freud accused of pan-sexualism, when other factors would have been as important as sexuality. And yet, the action of repression is preferentially exercised on the sexual drive.
Benvenuto: Freud became interested in sexuality and women through female hysterics. How is it then, that from that experience–of a fairly particular femininity–did Freud later on succeed in formulating a theory of “feminization”, that is, the becoming a woman from a psychic point of view?
Assoun: The symptom is not only a malfunction, it is also a moment of truth, since I say something about my “impossibility to live” through the symptom, which is revealing as to the real weight of human desire. The hysteric says that there is something impossible to live through, precisely while expressing a difficult relationship–pathological–with the law. For this reason analysis exists, through transference love, which, according to Freud, is unleashed, “in the manner of a conflagration”. He uses the image of fire during a theatre performance, when suddenly love inflamed by analysis bursts forward onto the stage. Here Freud takes on somewhat the theatrical style of hysteria.
The hysteric was a woman who, above all at the beginning of the century, was presented as a troublemaker. The hysteric makes a great fuss, upsetting the social and family orders. Freud said that women were the representatives and the repository of the sexual interests of humanity. Therefore, social and symbolic orders required a woman to stay in her place. At times this could produce a symptom, or else a symptom disturbed the social and family order. What happens today when a girl becomes hysteric or a mental anorexic (this latter is a pathology which, unlike hysteria, is today more than ever topical)? The hysteric or anorexic perturbs the image the family has of itself.
Hysteria is not the only figure of femininity. However it presents a sort of tragic vignette on what feminine desire is when it cannot be expressed. If the hysteric shouts her own symptom, it is not because something in the order of the fathers, in the family and social order, prevents her from doing so–the neurotic male is also in a position difficult to express–however, she feels that the prohibition to expression is in particular exercised on woman.
Psychoanalysis is often presented as something which bumps up against the enigma of femininity, to cite Freud. Freud wrote in a 1930 note–thirty years after his first encounter with hysterics–to Marie Bonaparte that despite thirty years of studies on the feminine soul, “the only question which remains unanswered, and to which I have failed to respond, is what does the woman want?” So, the immediate conclusion is that psychoanalysis has not provided an answer to that question. However, the strength of the Freudian position on women consists in not assuming a priori what she wants–something which all ideological discourse do, be they misogynist or feminist.
Benvenuto: Some people today are convinced that psychoanalysis is by no means a science but, like feminism, an ethic. Feminism has given a voice to those who were denied access to political discourse: women. And psychoanalysis has given a voice to the infantile part of each of us who up until then did not have the right to speak.
Assoun: It would be advisable to define what type of feminism we are dealing with. Since we wish to give a voice to the desire of what should be woman, inevitably we reconstruct it. The strength of psychoanalysis–and at the same time its recognized limit–is its considering woman a subject. Psychoanalysis does not flee before the enigma of woman. Freud’s question “what does woman want?” should not be understood in the sense of what would woman want as eternal femininity. It is perhaps possible to understand what woman desires, however there is an obscure point. This becomes clear enough in analysis: in the subject woman there is a sort of lack, an obscure point, which demands recognition. For this reason, I would stress the aporetic side, the powerful contradiction, which organizes a peculiar perplexity as regards women. Unpleasantly, we might put it: “But what does this woman want anyway?” But it might also be put in a more positive way, in order to recognize the right to a specific desire in the woman.
Freud made a decisive step when he considered the process of becoming a woman, that is, on the conditions to be fulfilled in order for her to become herself, beyond the particular instance of hysteria.
Benvenuto: Is it particularly difficult for a woman to become one, as compared to becoming a man for a man? Why is becoming a woman as such a more complicated process, and as you say, more contradictory than the male counterpart? In fact, there are endless studies–and not exclusively psychoanalytical–on female sexuality, and very few on male sexuality. Why does feminine sexual desire seem more enigmatic to scientific knowledge?
Assoun: It is true, Freud never speaks of the process of “becoming men”, although man, obviously, passes through the Oedipus process along with its conflicts. Freud does however introduce a cardinal notion–later on, in 1931, when he confides his perplexities to Marie Bonaparte on the desire of woman, in “Feminine Sexuality”–just a few years before his death. Freud insists on this category of “becoming woman”, realizing that there is no intercrossing Oedipus. On the basis of an insufficient knowledge of psychoanalysis, it is believed that the male child experiences a fantasy love for the mother, which he renounces before approaching other women, and that the female child falls in love with her father, and thus successively approaches other men. But Freud discovered also the basic importance of a primal fixation of the female child on the mother. I would call it a true “maternal passion”: the female child is particularly attached to the mother as love object. It is a fusional or a passionate relationship.
Benvenuto: Is the female child more strongly bound to the mother than the male child?
Assoun: The male child is extremely attached to the mother, and yet he slides very quickly from this oral fusional relationship–in which the nourishing mother gives love–toward an Oedipal relationship. Very soon the male child achieves a stage of elaboration of this relationship of desire which he employs in his Oedipus, involving the father. He passes from the oral to the anal phase, and therefore elaborates his Oedipus. Freud makes a self criticism of sorts at the end of his theoretical trajectory, to the effect: “I underestimated the duration and intensity of the primal attachment of the female child to her mother”, and this means a structural attachment to her, in such a way that the female child will return to the father, where she will recognize her own Oedipus. However, the female child must make a considerable psychic effort to provide herself reasons for renouncing the mother. She must, at a certain point, renounce the mother, but why? According to Freud, the reasons are many. The end of a state of grace of the relationship with the mother becomes evident at a particular point in mother-daughter rivalry. Such a relationship can become extremely difficult, especially in the pre-puberty stage and during adolescence. The girl will reproach the mother in every possible way, but they will inevitably be passionate reproaches. A situation similar to the enormous resentment felt successive to a passionate love. The female child will put into action a kind of trial as regards her mother, in which all that which was positive becomes negative. She will reproach her–she who wanted so to be with her–for having seduced her through bodily care. She will bring up the fact that she is not a boy and that might have damaged her. She will reproach the mother for having divided her love between brothers and sisters. In brief, she will provide herself with the justifications for abandoning her mother. And at this point she will turn to the father, and begin to love and idealize him. Actually, Freud was quite right in saying “there are many reasons, but in the end there is only one: that love, without its goal, cannot be realized, it is too strong to exist”. And thus, the father will intervene in an important way as an alternative to the mother for the female child. The gaze of the father is extremely important in that it allows her to feel a woman, and it is here that we will obviously find her Oedipal desire and fantasy.
Benvenuto: Why the gaze? Do you mean a sensual look on the part of the father, or something else?
Assoun: If the gaze is sensual, incestuous, it produces pathogenic results, which become evident in hysteria. However, when the look does not exist, when the girl feels like an invisible woman, the result is equally pathogenic. What, then, you might ask, is a good paternal gaze? All I can say is that a girl’s father is not a boy’s father. The male child is in need of a paternal identification, the female child is in need of a loving gaze, which takes her into consideration, which informs her as to what loving means. It is not enough for her to become a woman anatomically; her femininity remains abstract and nonexistent if it is not in some way validated by her father’s reassurance. In clinical practice it is evident when a girl has been considered insufficiently or badly—either too seductively, or too contemptuously and too absently—because in both cases narcissistic wounds are produced; that is, she does not feel comfortable in her own body, in her image. Therefore, the passage through the gaze of the father constitutes a girl as such. But not only his gaze. Beginning with his gaze, she will play with the incestuous fantasy of having a child from her father. But this has nothing to do whatsoever with a real incest, which produces catastrophes in the female child. Rather, she needs, in order to break away from her passion for the mother, to be able to play with the idea of a desire which the father could make possible, before, in her turn, abandoning the paternal investment, to find finally the road towards relationships with other men. Psychoanalysis provides us with this ironic image: there is no emblem as regards a woman. In order for a girl to find her way towards love for a man, which is in any case the terminal and the good term, it is necessary for her to undertake a prodigious effort of psychic elaboration.
Do not say, then, that women are passive! Psychoanalysis does not believe in female passivity. The woman must be particularly active, must make a series of decisions. The boy, from the beginning, is in his Oedipal tragedy, the object is denied him and he reacts against the father. The girl instead must want—thus Freud asks “what does woman want?”—to pass her time wanting an object, to be disappointed, to take a decision to separate from her object, and to choose another.
Benvenuto: In any case, Freud, in his Introduction to Narcissism, says also that woman is generally more narcissistic than man. What did he mean exactly by this? And in any case, isn’t this in contradiction to what you have just stated as to the woman being particularly active?
Assoun: Here, the social stereotype is tempting: she is narcissistic because woman is made to be thus! In his Introduction to Narcissism, Freud stresses the fact that the sexual libido was not as he had described it up until then. Freud realizes that the libido is not defined simply in terms of its external object, but thanks to what he called the “Ego libido”, that is, on the original possibility, for the child, to invest his desire on himself. Only successively this libido, which ensures that I at the origin love myself, is lent to objects. Therefore, narcissism is this self-erotic investment, and, at the same time, that which is unified around the Ego. Then, in what sense can we say that the woman is more narcissistic than man? In fact, the narcissistic aspect in the process of becoming woman is particularly important. In the narcissistic man, in particular in the perverse man–and also in the homosexual man–there is an over-investment of narcissism. Freud tells us that that spectacular bodily transformation at the moment of puberty makes possible for the image of the woman to become modified in a truly spectacular way, and thus it very often occurs that this image is powerfully invested. Of course, there are particularly narcissistic women–such as “stars”–who love themselves exclusively, who prefer being loved to loving. However, narcissism plays an important role in women, because they are forced to love themselves, to invest in themselves in order to successively cede a part of their libido to objects. Consequently one might say: “but if she is not loved–the gaze of the father, the bond with the mother–she cannot love herself”, and this is true. But she must always carry out a particular narcissistic elaboration; while man is more inclined to that effort of symbolic identification, of relationship with the object and with the law, which permits him to move away more easily from narcissism. This perhaps constitutes the intensity of love in a woman: it is love for the other, and at the same time a narcissistic love.
Benvenuto: At the time when Freud reintroduced hysteria in his contemporary culture, historical feminism also emerged, above all in Anglo-American cultures. Does this something “impossible to live through” you referred to, have also a social side? Is the fact that Freud gets an awareness of the drama of becoming woman, in some way, bound to the specific conditions of the culture of that period?
Assoun: First of all, the fact that feminism and psychoanalysis were contemporary was by no means fortuitous. Secondly, Freud always said that psychoanalysis did not lend itself to polemics, to what he referred to as a “competitive use”, an instrument of combat. In other words, psychoanalysis is not ruled by how things should be. From this point of view, psychoanalysis cannot take sides with just any aspect, simply because it is in favor of the emancipation of women, while, obviously, feminism militates for the emancipation of women. Inversely, psychoanalysis is miles away from any misogyny, as it approaches woman as subject. For this reason, psychoanalysis is not a Weltanschauung (a world view) or an ideology, which would place things in order to form a nice synthesis. Feminism is a necessary Weltanschauung; psychoanalysis can simply say what it learns from the reality of “female desire”. In particular, there is the question of castration, which feminists have taken badly—partially due to misinterpretations. They attacked his idea of penis envy, which according to Freud would be essential to femininity. On the one hand, it is obvious that penis envy is an element bound to the social and relationship context of the female child. It is something which is created and maintained by the social. On the other, it is also indisputable that in female desire a phallic fascination can be traced. It might be useful to distinguish, as Lacan does, the penis as organ and the phallus as a value. The phallus is for Lacan a signifier, bearer of desire. From this point of view, the woman is fascinated by what constitutes an emblem for desire. This does not mean that she is envious of the phallus, although traces of this can be found in hysteria. Psychoanalysis does not accredit the real castration of the woman–which is pure fantasy. However, there is a principle of lack in human desire. Lacan often said that the sexual relation does not exist: if man were man and woman were woman from the outset, if love were possible, there would be no unconscious. Because of the two sexes rotating around a lack, which each one–on his or her side of the sexual barrier–shares, we then have a phallic complex. Thus, the woman participates in this complex, albeit in her way.
Benvenuto: Why were analysts struck by phallic fascination, and not by the fact that men are fascinated by the vagina? Is it perhaps because that fascination in man is nonexistent, or because it has less value? In short, why are these two fascinations—the woman’s for the penis and the man’s for the vagina—not symmetrical? And yet, Bruno Bettelheim in Symbolic Wounds tried to demonstrate the contrary, that there is a vagina envy also in man. Why does psychoanalysis always pose the problem for women and never for men?
Assoun: Here we have a misunderstanding. Let’s have in mind the male child and the female child when they first discover their anatomical differences. Both boys and girls perceive reciprocally the fact that there is a problem. The female notices that there is something “more” visible on the body of the male, something of the order of the imaginary and thus she wonders about something which she possibly lacks. And the male sees that there is a difference, without being able to interpret it immediately. Freud notices that it is the female to make an immediate judgement. She has the spirit of decision. But both address the phallus on the body of the mother. Both male and female child harbor the prejudice of the phallic mother. Even though it seems absurd to expect that the mother were equipped with a penis, in the imaginary things begin thus. Perhaps it is a bad start, but one which organizes the human sexual imaginary. Therefore, at the beginning, it is not the man to have the phallus in the imaginary, but the mother. The male child like the female child attributes a phallus to the mother. Beginning with this, Freud poses the question: “Obviously, the man is always anxious, from the beginning, about this absence”. Why do some become homosexual: that is, are so anxious about this absence that they renounce women as objects of desire? Why do others, heterosexual men, go beyond the anxiety of castration and succeed in desiring women? There is no answer. Psychoanalysis tells us that it is enough to explain why something occurs–and that is why there is anxiety–and we can leave out explaining why something does not occur. Psychoanalysis cannot explain heterosexual desire, it can simply take note that it is a question of a very deep dimension. Man will desire woman: heterosexual desire is a very powerful desire, it is desire by definition, passing through castration. However, psychoanalysis sees that castration structures human desire both as anxiety and as actual desire.
Benvenuto: Freud supposed that the female child, in the Oedipal phase, desires having a child by the father. How does the desire to have a child proceed up to the point of constituting a maternal desire in the adult woman?
Assoun: This question has become particularly important at a time at which there is much talk about techniques of medically assisted procreation. The question of a woman’s desire to have a child has assumed a prime position in feminist debate.
First of all, a woman would never spontaneously, instinctively, desire a child had she not passed this phase of desiring to have a child by her father. But, at the same time, she must renounce this fantasy, which paradoxically blocks her access to real maternity. If there is no fantasy of having a child by the father, it is possible that as an adult she will be incapable of becoming a mother because of psychic obstacles. If on the contrary, she remains too attached to her incestuous desire to have her father’s child, she will be unable to desire a child by another man. Why then does she renounce her desire to have her father’s child? Freud answers that it is because the child does not arrive. And progressively, she gives up the idea. She feels disappointed, at times humiliated, and thus turns to other men. The desire for children implies the renunciation of the Oedipal desire, but it is also old phallic hopes. Because having a child–in particular a male child, for a woman–is one way to pass from phallic desire to the desire for children. However, this phallic desire is satisfied through her “being a mother”. And finally, the love for a man is essential. But the love of a man is a catalyzer of the desire to have children, it is not the cause. Very often a woman desires having a child because she loves a man, but she addresses to this man all the requirements of love that she addressed to her parental images. Thus, the man will render possible that desire of having a child.
However, beware of constructing an artificial desire for children! Society has considerable interest in that desire for children. The woman-mother, as a mechanism of biological reproduction, is of great interest to that sphere. Could there be a means for controlling this desire for children? Perhaps certain medical-social powers intend in some way to create a desire for children. Obviously, when a woman previously sterile subsequently acquires the means to have a child, it is a great joy for her. However, psychoanalysis tells us that this desire for children can be blocked for psychic reasons. Therefore, it is not sufficient for the child to descend from heaven, or from a test tube, in order for it to be truly accepted by a woman.
There are many sterile women mentioned in the Bible. However, the Bible specifies that it is enough that a woman truly understand why she is sterile for God to remember her and render her fertile. Perhaps the Bible takes into account the desire of the woman to have a child, in that this desire can be blocked or can be liberated. Apart from its being simply a question of some physiological impediment, the desire to have a child is something which must be internalized. To take the most tragic example: a woman can begin demonstrating delusions of giving birth to a child. This means that she wanted a child, but that desire remained for her as not existing [lettre morte]. It is an extreme case, but it demonstrates very well how the desire to have a child exists previous to the arrival of the real child. And Freud tells us that if the desire for a child is not an instinct, it is in any case for the woman a very powerful practical and affective solution.
Benvenuto: Does the fact that modern technology is progressively more capable of making a separation between procreation and the coitus have an unconscious resonance? Intercourse and having a child are no longer strictly related as cause and effect, but perhaps they are still so in the human imaginary. There are increasingly more women who dream of having a child without the participation of a man, or else at an advanced age; however, all know that it is possible. Does this have some influence on the feminine unconscious?
Assoun: I would like to answer: “Let us examine the women, one by one, who have made a similar choice”. The social-ideological discourse needs generalization, and this need is badly adapted to the specific nature of psychoanalysis. Anyway, the social style of deciphering the desire of woman has changed. This disconnection of which you speak cannot at present but reinforce the decisional aspect of the woman at a given moment in a process of choice. Even patriarchal societies, which permanently controlled women, were extremely wary of the feminine will, “will that girl agree to get married?”—and from this sprung the recourse to witchcraft. Now, this real separation between the sexual intercourse and maternity reinforces the decisional aspect. I wonder if often it does not also reinforce anxiety in the woman . At a given moment, and in a manifest way, she asks to be questioned on a real desire. A woman has such need of being active in her becoming—even activist—that she aspires to a certain passivity. And by passivity I intend the fact of being able to trust a man, at a certain moment—certainly not in a servile way—finding reasons, idealizing sufficiently if you will, loving sufficiently a man in order to entrust herself to him. This desire, which might seem naive, on the part of certain women, of finally being able to rest their head on the shoulder of some man—whether actually or symbolically—is not simply ideology: it is a way of encountering a substantial man, and that is being truly recognized in her desire. Now, what Freud called ‘the Discontent of Civilization’, which creates perplexity in the human subject, regards sexuality, and places the man-woman relationship dans tous ses états (in all its states). However, let us not be rash, as the media often are, creating a general theory of the total change of what is man, of what is woman; none of all this changes desire. This does not mean either that that desire is eternal, as a matter of fact, it is historical. However, there are always enigmas which come back with each generation. And the man-woman relationship must be reconstructed by taking into account this “impossibility to experience it”.
Benvenuto: Apropos of this false passivity of the woman, what is your opinion of the theory of Helen Deutsch according to which masochism is an essential trait of feminine sexuality? Deutsch believes that feminine desire for man is strictly bound to fantasies of rape or prostitution: in short, to masochistic fantasies. In the 1930s, there was a prolonged, animated discussion among psychoanalysts on this theme. There are in any case analysts who tend to describe feminine sexuality as perverse, masochistic, as such, taking male desire as the model of “normality”. What are your thoughts on this old debate?
Assoun: When Freud speaks of masochism, he uses the expression “feminine masochism”. Obviously, there are also male masochists. In fact, one thinks essentially of man in connection with erotic masochism. And also what Freud calls moral masochism concerns men in particular. The male masochist places himself in the hands of a woman, imagining her as the absolute woman, who loving him can only make him suffer. The perverse male masochist is unable to separate suffering from love.
I am not one of those who tend to conceive of feminine masochism as a separate determination, because this would become immediately “woman is masochist”. The real point is the matter of passive determination. A drive is never passive, in the sense that its aim is always active, according to Freud. However, certain drives can make an active aim of passivity, which can become the aim of drives. Then, the female enjoyment is inseparable from this aspect of passivity, sort of letting that relationship to the Other exist, a relationship which in a certain way demands a surrender or dismissal (déstitution); and certainly the female genitality is this surrender or dismissal. If the woman is too separated from the man, from the Other, by means of all those narcissistic, phallic barriers, it is evident that that passivity is impossible. However, masochism is much more an aim and a component of the dimension of feminine pleasure or enjoyment than a somehow complete determination.
Benvenuto: Some feminists state that if women had played a different social role in our civilization, even philosophy would not be the same. Do you also believe that in this century female emancipation, also perhaps thanks to Freud, could change even our thoughts—and in particular philosophical ones?
Assoun: In fact, a final essential dimension of the Freudian discourse on femininity is woman not as having symptoms, but as constituting a symptom, particularly in culture. Freud calls it Kultur, which in German designates more incisively culture as a civilizing process. Freud places at the very origin of civilization a mythological event, the murder of the father, committed by his sons. At a certain moment, in this primitive flock where a single male dominated all, the young males as well as the women, in a game of combat, create culture. The murder of that primal beast instituted law, society, prohibition, and so on. However, the sons, at the same time, precisely through that bloody act, internalized the law, and subsequently created their family. Later, little Oedipuses must carry out the fantasy work of murdering the father of their families. Where, then, are the women here? The fact that Freud did not believe that women had participated in the primal murder is very important. In any case, paradoxically–and this is totally unfair–in the myths and in certain religions, as well as a bit even in psychoanalysis, women are often associated with guilt. Freud tells that it is precisely because women were innocent at the beginning that they ended up being blamed in the myths. Men fought because of women, leading them to say, “but it is woman who incited us to murder, woman is therefore the cause of everything”. And thus, she became the instigator of crime. In the Bible, woman is created as an afterthought to the Creation. Obviously, the Bible poses questions as to what she is. And it is from this point of view that woman constitutes a symptom [elle fait symptôme] in the social and symbolic order. This explains the slightly chronic perplexity of woman as to what she is. And then, more fundamentally, woman constitutes symptoms for thought. Is it certain that the social and the cultural are not male—because women fortunately more and more succeed in the social—but more importantly and more seriously, in some way homosexed? Women often have the impression of living in a social world and in institutions of men, and feel constrained to become socially men in order to succeed.
Perhaps it was not only the father and the sons at the origin of the murder: perhaps there is something that Freud himself tracked down–the mother goddess. There was endless discussion, during the 19th century, on the (perhaps mythological) matriarchy, when it was woman–the mother goddess–who reigned. Freud also speaks of the Ephesian Diana, of Ephesus in Asia Minor. But men succeeded in driving out the mother goddess. From this point of view, the human unconscious could be approached as a conflict between, on the one hand, the law of the fathers, and on the other that reference to femininity. In this sense, femininity would be associated to a wavering of the symbolic order. In my book Freud and Woman, I actually present the feminine as the inverse of the symbolic. I attempt to demonstrate this on the clinical plane, the plane of becoming-woman, and the cultural plane. From this point of view, femininity would in some way be the proof of truth of the symbolic itself. And perhaps rightly so, as Freud, since he cannot nor wishes to provide a response to the question, “what is woman?”, lets himself be questioned by woman.
Translated from the French by Joan Tambureno