Making a mess

Adam Phillips

  • Mother, Madonna, Whore: The Idealisation and Denigration of Motherhood by Estela Welldon
    Free Association, 179 pp, £11.95, November 1988, ISBN 1 85343 039 0

It is a paradox of some interest that though psychoanalysis was, from the beginning, about the relationship between justice and love, there is no explicit description in Freud’s work of what constitutes a good life. And this is one of the many things that distinguish him from his followers and critics. It was also, of course, part of Freud’s disingenuous rationalism to assert that psychoanalysis could never be any kind of weltanschauung, that it was exempt from traditional moral questions like whether virtue can be taught, or whether we need to know what we are doing in order to be good. Confronted, however, with patients who claimed to have been seduced as children by parents or other adults, Freud very quickly came up against his own personal preferences – which he would later call resistances – and the normative standards of his culture. There were clearly certain things which were deemed absolutely unacceptable for adults to do to children and these could only be adequately described in terms of sexuality. Freud’s first patients, though, were mostly women who claimed to have been seduced by their fathers. It is Estela Welldon’s point in this often sympathetic book that maternal incest may be more pervasive than Freud was able to recognise.

Psychoanalysis began, however, with the really very puzzling question of the difference between adults and children: that is, the significance of the link between desire and the capacity for reproduction (a link, of course, complicated by the manufacture of increasingly efficient methods of contraception). Children, Freud realised, desire – but without possibility. They are, as Winnicott once famously said, all dressed up with nowhere to go. With the advent of psychoanalysis the growing child has continued to model himself on the adults, while the adults are theoretically modelled on the child. After the disappointments of the Oedipal drama, adults are children manqués. Because Freud also realised that the lives of both adults and children were dominated by the work of wishing (and one advantage of this is that we can usefully ask of any psychoanalytic theory what wishes it tries to satisfy), Freud discovered not only the actuality of incestuous seduction, but also the child’s fantasised wish to seduce and be seduced by the parents. Psychoanalysis was, initially, a phenomenology of malign – that is, inappropriate – seduction. And since it began in relation to the parents it was not clear what the (relatively) non-incestuous varieties might be. ‘Seduction’ has always been a dirty word in psychoanalysis, and there is even now a paucity of psychoanalytic accounts of good seductions, despite the fact that psychoanalysis is able to address that most disabling of symptoms, the unwillingness to seduce or be seduced. The present horror and righteous indignation about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, which Welldon’s book forthrightly examines, should not be allowed to leave such things in the dark.

In the Three Essays on Sexuality Freud described, for both sexes, a perverse core to the personality as the essence of an infantile sexuality which was by inclination keenly seductive. But the notion of seduction with which Freud started, and the concept of perversion to which it led him, inevitably brought with them the more traditional idea of a True Path. To seduce is to lead away, and a perversion, by definition, deviates from a norm, though the crucial irony of Freud’s account in the Three Essays was that perversion in childhood was the norm. Was perversion, in fact, perverse? In Welldon’s account, perversions are the consequence of ‘faulty mothering’. They are expedient solutions to a traumatic personal history, distortions of what, in a better world, is a potentially more satisfying and straightforward developmental process. Psychoanalysis, as Freud conceived of it, however, was always a critique of the straightforward life, and indeed of any tyrannical intimations of perfection. It was exactly his sense of how equivocal a process a life was that drove him to some necessary complications which Welldon’s approach leaves to one side. For example, the case-histories she presents are used simply to illustrate her theoretical proposals. Her patients’ lives have a misleading inevitability, an absence, from the analyst’s point of view, of accident or genuine perplexity. It begins to seem that having a life could involve not making a mess. A familiar psychoanalytic knowingness sets in which is singularly unimpressed by loose ends.

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