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Authors: Ernest Becker

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It all centers on the fact that the mother monopolizes the child’s world; at first, she is his world. The child cannot survive without her, yet in order to get control of his own powers he has to get free of her. The mother thus represents two things to the child, and it helps us understand why the psychoanalysts have said that ambivalence characterizes the whole early growth period. On the one hand the mother is a pure source of pleasure and satisfaction, a secure power to lean on. She must appear as the goddess of beauty and goodness, victory and power; this is her “light” side, we
might say, and it is blindly attractive. But on the other hand the child has to strain against this very dependency, or he loses the feeling that he has aegis over his own powers. That is another way of saying that the mother, by representing secure biological dependence, is also a fundamental threat.

The child comes to perceive her as a threat, which is already the beginning of the castration complex in confrontation with her. The child observes that the mother’s body is different from the male’s—strikingly different. And this difference gradually comes to make him very uncomfortable. Freud never tried to ease the shock of the revelations of his theory, and he called this discomfort “horror at the mutilated creature,” the “castrated mother,” the sight of genitals “devoid of a penis.” Freud’s shock effect seemed to many people to partake of caricature. The horror in the child’
s perceptions seemed too contrived, too pat, too much designed to fit into Freud’s own addiction to sexual explanations and biological reductionism. Others, too, saw Freud’s way of thinking as a reflection of his own ingrained patriarchy, his strong sense of masculine superiority, which made the woman seem naturally inferior if she lacked male appendages.

The fact is that the “horror at the mutilated creature” is contrived, but it is the child who contrives it. Psychoanalysts reported faithfully what their neurotic patients told them, even if they had to pry just the right words into their expressions. What troubles neurotics—as it troubles most people—is their own powerlessness; they m
ust find something to set themselves against. If the mother represents biological dependence, then the dependence can be fought against by focussing it on the fact of
sexual differentiation
. If the child is to be truly
causa sui,
then he must aggressively defy the parents in some way, move beyond them and the threats and temptations they embody. The genitals are a small thing in the child’s perceptual world; hardly enough to be traumatic just because they lack protuberance. As Brown so well put it, the horror is the child’s “own invention; it is a tissue of fantasy inseparable from his o
wn fantastic project of becoming father of himself (and, as fantasy, only remotely connected with actual sight of the female genitalia).”
Or, put another way, we can say that the child “fetishizes” the mother’s body as an object of global danger to himself. It is one way of cutting her down to size, depriving her of her primary place in creation. Using Erwin Straus’ formula, we would say that the child splits the mother’s genitals off from her totality as a love-object; they then come to be experienced as a threat, as decay.


The real threat of the mother comes to be connected with her
sheer physicalness
. Her genitals are used as a convenient focus for the child’s obsession with the problem of physicalness. If the mother is a goddess of light, she is also a witch of the dark. He sees her tie to the earth, her secret bodily processes that bind her to nature: the breast with its mysterious sticky milk, the menstrual odors and blood, the almost continual immersion of the productive mother in her corporeality, and not least—something the child is very sensitive to—the often neurotic and helpless character of
this immersion. After the child gets hints about the mother’s having babies, sees them being nursed, gets a good look at the toiletful of menstrual blood that seems to leave the witch quite intact and unconcerned, there is no question about her immersion in stark body-meanings and body-fallibilities. The mother must exude determinism, and the child expresses his horror at his complete dependency on what is physically vulnerable. And so we understand not o
nly the boy’s preferance for masculinity but also the girl’s “penis-envy.” Both boys and girls succumb to the desire to flee the sex represented by the mother;
they need little coaxing to identify with the father and his world. He seems more neutral physically, more cleanly powerful, less immersed in body determinisms; he seems more “symbolically free,” represents the vast world outside of the home, the social world with its organized triumph over nature, the very escape from co
ntingency that the child seeks.

Both the boy and girl turn away from the mother as a sort of automatic reflex of their own needs for growth and independence. But the “horror, terror, contempt”
they feel is, as we said, part of their own fantastic perceptions of a situation they can’t stand. This situation is not only the biological dependency and physicalness represented by the mother, but also the terrible revelation of the problem of the child’s own body. The mother’
s body not only reveals a sex that threatens vulnerability and dependency—it reveals much more: it presents the problem of two sexes and so confronts the child with the fact that his body is itself arbitrary. It is not so much that the child sees that neither sex is “complete” in itself or that he understands that the particularity of each sex is a limitation of potential, a cheating of living fulness in some ways—he can’t know these things or fully feel them. It is again not a sexual problem; it is more global, experienced as the curse of arbitrariness that the body represents. The child comes
upon a world in which he could just as well have been born male or female, even dog, cat, or fish—for all that it seems to matter as regards power and control, capacity to withstand pain, annihilation, and death. The horror of sexual differentiation is a horror of “biological fact,” as Brown so well says.
It is a fall out of illusion into sobering reality. It is a horror of assuming an immense new burden, the burden of the meaning of life and the body, of the fatality of one’s incompleteness, his helplessness, his finitude.

And this, finally, is the hopeless terror of the castration complex that makes men tremble in their nightmares. It expresses the realization by the child that he is saddled with an impossible project; that the
pursuit on which he is launched
cannot be achieved by body-sexual means,
even by protesting a body different from the mother. The fortress of the body, the primary base for narcissistic operations against the world in order to insure one’s boundless powers, crumbles like sand. This is the tragic dethroning of the child, the ejection from paradise that the castra
tion complex represents. Once he used any bodily zone or appendage for his Oedipal project of self-generation; now, the very genitals themselves mock his self-sufficiency.

This brings up the whole matter of why sexuality is such a universal problem. No one has written about the problem of sexuality better than Rank in his stunning essay on “Sexual Enlightenment.”
As I am going to talk about it in some detail in Chapter Eight, there is no point in repeating that discussion here. But we can anticipate it by showing how sexuality is inseparable from our existential paradox, the dualism of human nature. The person is both a self and a body, and from the beginning there is the confusion about where “he” really “is”—in the symbolic inner self or in th
e physical body. Each phenomenological realm is different. The inner self represents
the freedom of thought, imagination, and the infinite reach of symbolism. The body represents determinism and boundness. The child gradually learns that his freedom as a unique being is dragged back by the body and its appendages which dicate “what” he is. For this reason sexuality is as much a problem for the adult as for the child: the physical solution to the problem of who we are and why we have emerged on this planet is no help—in fact, it is a terrible threat. It doesn’t tell the person what he is deep down inside, what kind of distinctive gift he is to work upon the world
. This is why it is so difficult to have sex without guilt: guilt is there because the body casts a shadow on the person’s inner freedom, his “real self” that—through the act of sex—is being forced into a standardized, mechanical, biological role. Even worse, the inner self is not even being called into consideration at all; the body takes over completely for the total person, and this kind of guilt makes the inner self shrink and threaten to disappear.

This is why a woman asks for assurance that the man wants “me” and not “only my body”; she is painfully conscious that her own distinctive inner personality can be dispensed with in the sexual act. If it is dispensed with, it doesn’t count. The fact is that the man usually does want only the body, and the woman’s total personality is reduced to a mere animal role. The existential paradox vanishes, and one has no distinctive humanity to protest. One creative way of coping with this is, of course, to allow it to happen and to go with it: what the psychoanalysts call “regressi
on in the service of the ego.” The person becomes, for a time, merely his physical self and so absolves the painfulness of the existential paradox and the guilt that goes with sex. Love is one great key to this kind of sexuality because it allows the collapse of the individual into the animal dimension without fear and guilt, but instead with trust and assurance that his distinctive inner freedom will not be negated by an animal surrender.

The Primal Scene

This is the right place to discuss another psychoanalytic idea that always seemed to many to bypass credulity, the so-called “trauma of the primal scene.” The orthodox psychoanalytic
notion was that when the child witnessed sexual intercourse between the parents (the primal scene) it left him with a deep-seated trauma because he could not take part in it. Freud talked about the actual “stimulation of sexual excitement upon observation of parental coitus.”
Put so bluntly the idea seems incredible enough, but we must remember that Freud prided himself above all on the discovery of
sexuality. In the minds of other psychoanalysts the idea is given a slightly different emphasis. Thus, as Roheim put it, the primal scene represents the child’s wish for reunion with
the mother fulfilled; but he sees his father in his place, and instead of a complete identification with the succoring mother he sees the “violent motion” of a struggle.
Finally, Ferenczi—who was a keen student of the effects of the parents on the child—gives the matter another slightly different twist from Freud’s stark formulation:

If intimate parental intercourse is observed by the child in the first or second year of life, when its capacity for excitement is already there but it lacks as yet adequate outlets for its emotion, an infantile neurosis may result.

Roheim and Ferenczi, then, are actually talking about quite different things from Freud’s subject. Roheim is talking about identification with the mother, who represents the total support of the child, and the child’s inability to understand the relation of his loved object with other objects like the father. Ferenczi is saying that the child is overwhelmed by emotions that he cannot yet organize. This is precisely where a more existential interpretation of the problem comes in. The child uses his body as his
project; he only definitely abandons this project when he lear
ns the impossibility of it. Each of these alternatives is a life-and-death matter for him; and so, if we are going to talk about trauma, it must be because of a confusion of life-and-death matters. Even when we are grown, most of us experience some distaste and disillusionment at the idea of our parents having intercourse; it doesn’t seem the “right” thing for them to do. I think the exact reason for our distaste is that their image is confounded in our eyes. The thing that the parents represent most of all is the discouragement of the body as a
project; they represent the castration co
mplex, disillusionment with the body, and the fear of it. Even
more, they themselves are the living embodiment of the cultural world view that the child has to internalize in order for him to get out of his impasse with his body. When
they themselves
do not transcend the body in their most intimate relations, the child must experience some anxious confusion. How is his struggling ego to handle these double messages and make sense out of them? Furthermore, one of these messages is given in concrete physical grunts, groans, and movement that must be overwhelming, especially as it is precisely the horror of the body that the child is trying to
overcome. If he tries to fall back on the body role and imitate his parents, they become anxious or furious. He can well feel betrayed by them: they reserve their bodies for the closest relationship but deny it to him. They discourage physicalness with all the powers at their command, and yet they themselves practice it with an all-absorbing vengeance. When we take all this together we can see that the primal scene can truly be a trauma, not because the child can’t get into the sexual act and express his own impulses but rather because the primal scene is itself a complex symbol combining the hor
ror of the body, the betrayal of the cultural superego, and the absolute blockage of any action that the child can take in the situation or any straightforward understanding that he can have of it. It is the symbol of an anxious multiple bind.

BOOK: The Denial of Death
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