Doing it to Mama

Angela Carter

  • On Birth and Madness by Eric Rhode
    Duckworth, 222 pp, £14.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 7156 2170 X

This book begins like a novel: ‘A woman attends a funeral. The coffin is lowered into the grave. A man approaches her and says: “He was not your father.” ’ But the reader’s expectation of continuous narrative is excited only to be disrupted; Eric Rhode prefers to work in discrete sections of speculation, each independently, often curiously titled – ‘Father into Foetus’, ‘Eyes Pregnant with a Mother’s Babies’. This method of organisation is reminiscent of the collections of brief, aphoristic essays by Theodor Adorno, although Eric Rhode’s intellectual method is rather less rigorous than Adorno’s. Rhode’s speculation centres on work as a psychiatrist in a puerperal breakdown unit – that is, a place where women are sent who have gone mad in connection with the process of childbirth. However, his scope extends far beyond the specificity of his book’s title.

It is a favourite saying among women of my type that if men could have babies, then abortion would be as readily available as light ale. Nevertheless, it is in just this physical difference that the whole opposition of the sexes lies. If men could have babies, they would cease to be men as such. They would become the ‘other’. They would become magical objects of strangeness, veneration, obloquy, awe, disregard and oppression, recipients of all the effects of the syndrome of holy terror. I wonder if it has occurred to Eric Rhode that, but for a chance division of cells while he was an undirected foetus, he, too, might have had babies. Certainly he seems to imply that parturition is not a function of the psychiatric profession itself: ‘Psychiatrists talk about a mental unhingeing round about the seventh month: is this true? We need more evidence, especially from the pregnant delegates themselves.’ So there aren’t any women psychiatrists around who can supply the necessary?

Don’t think I don’t realise that Rhode doesn’t mean this. It is only the sloppy way he has phrased it. Yet the question need not have remained rhetorical. Even if he does not know any psychiatrists who have been pregnant, if that is possible, then his list of acknowledgments includes known mothers who could have told him. Semantic sloppiness usually goes hand in hand with mental sloppiness. For example, is it just some psychiatrists or all psychiatrists who claim that women become ‘unhinged’ – whatever that means – in late pregnancy? If it is the opinion of the entire profession, as he implies, how was it arrived at – by a postal ballot or by a show of hands? Rhodes is not fond of footnotes, on the whole. Nor, I suspect, of empiricism. On the other hand, he has far more female intuition than I do.

It occurs to me, thinking about this wayward, infuriating book with its shining flashes of metaphysics, its linguistic imprecision, its mass of references (Blake, Kierkegaard, Shakespeare, Giorgione, Walter Benjamin, and more, and more) how deeply psychoanalysis is concerned with culture. Not only broadly, with culture as opposed to nature, but with culture in its narrowest sense – that is, high bourgeois culture. Easel painting, symphonic music, literature. As if Freud had condemned the entire profession to the taste of a cultivated Viennese at the turn of the century.

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