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.

Rhode is prepared to advance pure cultural product as the sacred book of the Freudian calling. By page three, he is already talking about ‘a Greek play often read as psychoanalytic holy writ, Sophocles’s Oedipus the King’. But he does not think of Oedipus the King as a cultural product, with the specific conditions of the time and place of its composition mediating its universality. Nor does he treat the play as if Sophocles had dreamed it. Rather, he seems to think of the Oedipus family as though they were real people with real problems, an approach similar to that of the literary criticism of A.C. Bradley. He talks about the Hamlets the same way; they might even be patients, although he does not pause to entertain the Bradleian-style gloss I’ve always put on the play myself: that it only makes sense if Hamlet is really the son of Claudius and not of ‘Hamlet’s Father’ at all.

One could argue that Oedipus the King is really, deep down, about the overthrow of Mother Right, that the play contains, transforms, subverts, patricises the ideology of those antique, matrilinear communities around the Mediterranean celebrated somewhat circumspectly in The Golden Bough, and increasingly cherished by women of my type as we reach a certain age, in which kingship was attained by marriage with the queen and terminated in ritual combat with the inevitable defeat by a more nubile successor when the hapless consort’s hairline started to recede or his ardour flag. This is the version Robert Graves gives in his Greek Myths, and though Graves’s anthropology is just as shaky as J.G. Frazer’s, I love the poetic truth at the kernel of it. Certainly the question ‘Who is your father?’ only becomes pressing when property is inherited through the male line.

Children, since they are polymorphously perverse by nature and, furthermore, do not usually possess property, can be much nicer, wiser and kinder than culture. In an early essay, Melanie Klein tells about a small boy who, informed how babies are made, is told that he can do it himself when he grows up. ‘ “But then I would like to do it to Mama.” “That can’t be, Mama can’t be your wife [sic] for she is the wife of your papa, and then papa would have no wife.” “But we could both do it to her!” ’ The heart, or hearts, of many-breasted Cybele would warm to that. (I wonder if Melanie Klein believed women became unhinged in the seventh month of pregnancy.)

I understand perfectly well that Sophocles’s play is about aspects of human relations that transcend the immediate circumstances of its composition. Oedipal conflict pre-dates Sophocles. On the other hand, the play isn’t the pure product of Sophocles’s unconscious either – art is not the dream of culture. But Sophocles and Rhode are both very much concerned with crude biologism vis-à-vis the Oedipal situation. Indeed, Rhode is so interested in paternity that he introduces a woman concerned about her own paternity in the first paragraph of a book that is supposed to be about maternity.

‘He was not your father.’ In the terms of the real world in which we live and where we try to cherish our dear one, Oedipus does escape his fate. He does not murder the man who saved him from death, nurtured him, gave him a bicycle, had his teeth straightened, paid for driving lessons, etc. Nor does he impregnate the woman who wiped his bum, taught him to sneeze and catered to all the indignities of childhood that effectively de-eroticise the relationship between mothers and sprogs. Oedipus’s genuine filial feelings are not outraged. His biological parents are perfect strangers. To emphasise the biological aspect of parenthood is to deny culture in a way that makes us less human. That dreadful question – how do we know whose child we are? – has dogged patriarchy since its inception, yet it is a profoundly absurd question. Put it another way: an American friend discovered her son had financed his grand tour of Europe by selling shots of his sperm to an AID agency. ‘My grandchildren!’ she cried and then fell silent, suddenly aware of the absurdity, to even think of them like that.

There never has been a way to know. Not truly know. Until just now, in the late 20th century, when genetics can help us. And that is somewhat late in the day for the human race, which has been forced to rely for so long on its mother’s word when women are so notoriously duplicitous. But the question has been so pressing it has even resolved itself in metaphysics, in the invention of an omnipotent but happily non-material father to whom everyone can lay claim as a last resort.

‘Father’ is always metaphysics: a social artifact, a learned mode. Rhode is prepared to concede this, using his favourite device of the rhetorical question. ‘Who is my father, my mother, my brother, my sister? In a sense, the answer is simple – in regard to our mother, at least.’ (In regard to all the others, it may be unbearably complex.) ‘There is documentation; and the documentation is unlikely to have been faked.’

Unlikely, but not improbable. Raising the unwanted child of a sister, or a daughter, as one’s own is not uncommon among working-class families, often causing a good deal of existential anxiety. On the other hand, although a mother can fake the documentation of her condition, she cannot fake the physical event of birth.

The fact of maternity has become a good deal more problematic in the late 20th century than it had been hitherto, however. For example: am I the mother of the fertilised egg I carry when it does not originate in my own ovary? I’d say: yes, of course. But where does the child who eventually comes out of this egg stand in relation to such a mother in terms of incest taboo? What degree of kinship would the Sphinx ascribe? If Jocasta had donated a fertilised egg to Merope, what then?

These are academic, even scholastic points. But they underpin a good deal of the discussion about mechanical intervention in the processes of maternity, where the culture of high-tech surgery manifests itself at its most ‘unnatural’ by taking on, and succeeding at, a job that Mother Nature shirked. And if this train of thought is followed to the end, we must conclude that ‘mother’ is also primarily a conceptual category. Just like ‘father’.

Yes, but. If these basic, physically-determined relationships are not ‘natural’, then what is? And why do women, having given birth – the most natural thing in the world, as they constantly tell you at the ante-natal clinic – so frequently go mad, as if the violent collision of culture and nature which is the event of childbirth shatters us?

Rhode does not really attempt to deal with this question. Instead, he manages to invest biological motherhood with an almost occult quality. Discussing Oedipus: ‘That he fails to see the old man he meets at the crossroads (and murders) as his father is not improbable; that he fails to sense that the bereft queen (whom he marries) might be his mother strains credulity.’

Why? Some young men find older women quite attractive, and though Jocasta might be a touch long in the tooth, she is still capable of giving Oedipus four healthy children, so she can’t be that old. Freud says the feeling déjà vu is always inspired by the memory of the body of the mother – déjà vue. Perhaps Rhode feels that Oedipus, whilst having intercourse with Jocasta, was bound to have recognised his intra-uterine address. Or is he trying to warn young men off older women because if you screw them you will go blind? Because there is always the chance she might be his mother?

Surely it should be the other way around, anyway. Augustus John used to pat the heads of all the children whom he met when he walked down the King’s Road because he wasn’t sure who was or wasn’t his and didn’t like to leave anybody out. Similarly, we should all treat all old men with respect, just in case. Seed is a random thing. There isn’t the same margin for error with mothers, for whom it is a case of one egg, one birth, as a rule.

Meanwhile, Rhode is constructing an edifice of radiant surmise around that extraordinary clash of culture and nature, childbirth. He is in love with the gnomic. He is so pleased with that sentence about our eyes being pregnant with our mother’s babies that he repeats it twice, subtly varying it. He is rich in ideas that are marvellous, in the sense of the word that the Surrealists used – magical, breathtaking, spurting from a sumptuous vein of his own unconscious. ‘Adam’s semen, the semina aeternitatis, contains all mankind,’ he says. He has been discussing 17th-century philosophers; it has induced a 17th century turn of phrase – or indeed, of mind. And the entire book is self-consciously in the form of a series of meditations of a doctor-philosopher, a sort of Religio Medici for our times. He condenses images into a dense, suggestive mass; he adores infinity.

And then one stumbles over a piece of nonsense. ‘What does a father see when he looks at the beauty of his wife?’ he demands rhetorically. But fathers do not necessarily have wives, nor, if they do, are these wives necessarily beautiful. I think I can see how this sentence has come about; Rhode is so concerned with the rhetoric of it he has not engaged in a little practical criticism. I suspect it ought to read: ‘What does a father see when he looks at the beauty of his child’s mother?’

The sentence remains a grid of pratriarchal definitions: the mother is presented solely in terms of the gaze and vanity of the father, to whose credit it redounds to boast a ‘beautiful’ mate, and of her biological relation to both subjects. But at least it is no longer nonsense and the little bit of gratuitous romanticism about beauty suggests Rhode is really a nice man, even if carried away by his own rhetoric when he contemplates the fact of our arrival on this earth in its blood, its banality, its glory.

In fact, its romanticism is one of the most gripping things about the book, which could, perhaps, be subtitled ‘A Psychiatrist in search of the Soul’. Rhode is fairly sure he can locate that slippery concept even in the womb. ‘Reluctantly I have come to the view that our heritage at infancy is some articulated yet unconscious Platonic idea, a necessary substrate to our capacity for having experiences.’ H’m.

But then we come to the mad women themselves, in their bereft abandonment. He quotes from Etienne-Dominique Esquirol, who wrote down stark descriptions of women in breakdown in the 1830s. ‘A woman feeding her child was startled by a clap of thunder. Her milk dried up. She lost her reason.’ This makes Rhode think of a painting by Giorgione, The Tempest. It makes me think of Munch, The Scream. When he arrives at the voices of the women in the puerperal breakdown unit themselves, it is scarcely tolerable. This is suffering beyond metaphor.

‘She just screamed and screamed when I tried to feed her. I thought, it’s my own child and she doesn’t want me. In the end, I didn’t want to get up in the morning. I felt so guilty. I didn’t feel capable of looking after her. My neighbour fed her and I sat there and cried.’ ‘When I’m washing her clothes and squeezing them out, I think I’m wringing her neck.’ A woman describes a recurring dream: ‘I remember closing my eyes – and I could see a knife sticking into a baby. I could see someone swinging the baby in our hall at home, swinging the baby round and round in the hall.’

Language crumbles under the weight of this pain. Mystification of this pain is a lie. This documentary evidence sits uneasily alongside Rhode’s visionary neo-Platonism.