Nicknames

Adam Phillips

  • Femininities, Masculinities, Sexualities: Freud and Beyond by Nancy Chodorow
    Free Association, 132 pp, £8.95, July 1994, ISBN 1 85343 380 2

Most psychoanalytic literature is a contemporary version of the etiquette book; improving our internal manners, advising us on our best sexual behaviour (usually called maturity, or mental health or a decentred self). It is indeed, dismaying how quickly psychoanalysis has become the science of the sensible passions; as though its aim was to make people more intelligible to themselves rather than to realise how strange they are. When psychoanalysis makes too much sense, or makes sense of too much, it turns into exactly the symptom it is trying to cure: defensive knowingness. But there is nothing like sexuality for making a mockery of our self-knowledge. In our erotic lives, at least, our preferences do not always accord with our standards. We are excited by the oddest things, and sometimes people.

At its best psychoanalysis usefully acknowledges the complexity of sexuality: that it is intrinsically conflictual, that we don’t know what we are talking about when we talk about sex. But it is surprisingly difficult to find in the psychoanalytic literature anything like a celebration of sexuality; or a sense that there really are states of sexual satisfaction, that sex can be ecstatic. From the abstraction of contemporary theory it can seem that people are more interested in having a sexual identity than in having a good time.

Nancy Chodorow’s concise and informative book is timely because it knows the sense in which psychoanalytic stories about the sexual revolution usually end up with a restoration of the monarchy. If she errs on the side of sobriety it is because she seems too mindful of how modish the available moves have become; as though sexuality is both more and less flexible than we might wish. Freud’s discovery of infantile sexuality, and the radical changes in sexual mores since the Sixties, produced only a brief flourish of sexual utopianism in the inspired writings of Norman O. Brown and the rather more academic treatises of Herbert Marcuse (the concept of surplus repression could only have come out of a surplus of university teaching). Very quickly the masters of scarcity returned with their bracingly joyless language of lack and absence: of the ‘truth’ of the Depressive Position (Klein), and the necessity of the Law of the Father (Lacan); of the need for ‘firm boundaries’, ‘autonomous egos’ and recognisable gender identities. From the psychoanalytic literature it was clear that thinking was better than stroking, and that people were in search of emotional maturity, self-knowledge or authenticity rather than passionate sex or affection. Sex, in fact, became a form of unhappiness; and so, as in all oppressive regimes, misery began to seem truthful. This is one of the sadder ironies of psychoanalysis since Freud had shown us, perhaps better than anyone apart from Nietzsche, why self-punishing theories – ideologies of deprivation – are always morally prestigious. For some people unhappiness is a moral obligation; and habit, Freud implied, was the modern word for duty. In our routines we are all ascetics.

The psychoanalytic relationship itself was the perfect picture for this new enlightened masochism: the patient pays the doctor not to touch them. Anyone who, like Ferenczi or Reich, questioned this was very quickly deemed, or actually became, mad (morally frightening and/or unintelligible). In a sense this ascetic imperative merely makes psychoanalysis similar to the great religions – a kind of Jewish Buddhism, say. Sustaining the Oedipal prohibition is, rightly, integral to the treatment. But there is an issue here that cannot be resolved either by huffy authoritarians or relaxed hedonists; because, from a psychoanalytic point of view, nobody can know about sexuality, neither group is in a privileged position. Laying down the law about sexuality in either direction is, so to speak, the line of least resistance. After all, what do we imagine sexuality is if it requires so much management? It is as though we have made the rules without knowing what the game is; as though the rules are there to stop us finding out.

If psychoanalysis gives us guide-lines about how to grow up sexually – developmental theory is a relief from our wayward unconsciousness – it has also given us a language in which to question our sexual assumptions, and in particular our unconscious beliefs about the nature of – and possibilities for – satisfaction. (The question of who decides what we can, or are able to, enjoy joins psychoanalysis ineluctably to politics.) As the voice of glum realism psychoanalysis has been perhaps a little too keen – suspiciously over-eager – to tell us persuasive stories about the necessities of frustration. Indeed Freud’s notion of ‘the wish to frustrate oneself’ is nowhere more evident than in psychoanalytic writing about sexuality and identity, which is usually determinedly counter-erotic. As the plurals of Chodorow’s title suggest, today when it comes to identity more is better. When it comes to sexuality, though, ‘more’ is a difficult word.

Sexuality and identity have relatively recently become twinned; that we cannot imagine one without the other is rather a mixed blessing. Each after all is a defence against the other. If the demonic has been repressed in psychoanalytic theory – and pathologised as the repetition compulsion, intense excitement becoming mania and perversion – it has also returned as the Will to Diagnosis. Psychoanalytic writing is full of nicknames for people – Borderline, Narcissistic, Obsessional etc – that in some contexts can sound immensely authoritative. Diagnosis has always been the way psychoanalysts tell themselves who they are – to generalise is to be a professional. But diagnosis is only part of a wider modern technology for identity acquisition.

The risk – and this is nowhere more obvious than in the supposed need for a sexual identity – is that the wish to be defined is complicit with the wish to be controlled (or, more benignly, the wish to be looked after). Wanting to be defined by our sexuality may only be symptomatic of our wanting to be defined. But the unconscious, as Freud described it, always has a blurring effect (you thought you knew what you were saying and then, by making a slip or a pun, you say something else). In other words, psychoanalysis keeps in circulation what has become a useful cliché: that sexuality is the thing that makes identity both necessary and impossible. Because we get lost in it we want to know where we are.

If there are, as Chodorow persuasively argues in the three lectures that make up this book, ‘a great complexity and multiplicity of identities ... found within gender relations’, there is also great pressure – especially among those analysts who think of themselves as scientists rather than short-story writers – to find those workable generalisations called theories (and diagnostic categories) without which the whole enterprise might begin to seem merely whimsical. What makes this book unusually interesting is the quandary Chodorow gets into when she tries to put together the sheer diversity of individual sexual lives and the paucity of our psychoanalytic categories. Urging us ‘to be wary of generalisations about gender difference’, she also does ‘not claim that generalisation is never useful clinically’. Instead she ‘wishes to advocate caution about how to use generalisations, and to specify what a generalisation can claim’. Her sensible ‘claim is that gender makes a difference but does so in particular ways.’

Perhaps hesitation like this is what generalisations need to stop them becoming too coercive, too real. But we may end up thinking that everyone is different but some are more different than others. Do we want better generalisations (more theory) about gender, or should we drop the whole project of trying to make them (and instead read and write more novels and poems)? As every patient knows, and every analyst should know, free association is the death of theory. To talk about sex is always to talk about what we may or may not have in common; and this doubt about what we may or may not have in common is one of the things we have in common. It is conceivable that one of the things we use sexuality to do now, as Chodorow never quite makes explicit despite the sociology of her psychoanalysis, is to talk about whether it is possible, or useful, or interesting, to make generalisations at all. Sexuality may be the modern cure for classification, rather than the other way round.

Chodorow writes that Freud ‘despite his theoretical predilections, also used his clinical experience to portray gendered and sexual variability and to challenge cultural and psychoanalytic normalising.’ We hold our breath these days, wondering how Freud is going to come out in each new psychoanalytic book: more of a tyrannical charlatan or more of a great intellectual presence? At last having sex with his sister-in-law, or even more heroically bent on science? As Freud’s work is something of a trauma – people either repeating his words or trying to disprove them – it is reassuring that there are now more and more people just using him: making something of their own out of what he did (people sometimes kill fathers when they can’t do anything else with them). Because Chodorow does not idolise Freud, she doesn’t need to cut him down to size. (Since Freud both gave us categories and gave us a language that ironised our belief in them, this should not be quite as rare as it sometimes seems.) Zeal, masquerading as passion, has come to dominate writing about Freud and psychoanalysis. What Chodorow’s book lacks in ferocity, it makes up for with a kind of pragmatic fairness. It is aptly subtitled ‘Freud and Beyond’ because she doesn’t use Freud to hold her back.

In her first chapter, ‘Rethinking Freud on Women’, Chodorow shows us what Freud didn’t quite realise he was writing about – not women from their own point of view, or women as mothers, but what women represent to men – and what Freud lets us see inadvertently in his case-histories. There, she suggests, when Freud is not too intent on formulating women, ‘we catch some glimpses of this sexual subjectivity which ... is not present in Freud’s account of theoretical woman as subject.’ In Freud’s work women are either ‘feminine-passive – without lust’, or masculine in their desire; and when he describes women we never get the mother’s point of view, only the daughter’s. The women he writes about have very little maternal or sexual agency. Spelled out like this, without any compromising rancour, it seems very clear that when Freud was writing about female sexuality, he was also writing covertly about male sexuality: male fantasies about women, whose desire he prefers to see as inhibited or undeveloped. And you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud, as it were, to understand both why he needed to believe this, and why stories like this might catch on. Trapped women are the stuff of pornography and theory alike.

But these unpromising beginnings to the ‘new science’ of psychoanalysis are complicated by something that for Chodorow is equally important: what she calls Freud’s ‘strong defence of the morality and upstanding qualities and capabilities of the hysterical woman’. For Freud these women were not disfigured by their difference: they just needed to find different ways of speaking. In her interviews with women analysts of the second and third generation, trained in the Twenties and Thirties, Chodorow found that ‘several claimed that one attraction to the field was that Freud saw women as sexual subjects rather than objects.’ Psychoanalysis began because Freud thought women were worth listening to; this, of course, throws a dismal light on 19th-century attitudes to women’s unhappiness and to women’s words; but it is nevertheless true, as Chodorow implies, that psychoanalysis spoke to women because it listened to them.

The women Freud listened to, and who gave him the idea for psychoanalysis, were his now infamous hysterical patients, women who refused to be cured of their desire, women who spoke with their bodies when their words were proscribed. And all the women analysts whom Freud quotes in his own writings, as Chodorow remarks, were analysed by him. The contribution of women to the birth and development of psychoanalysis must have seemed overwhelming to Freud; so keeping psychoanalysis on the scientific straight and narrow might also have been a way of marking it out as male territory. Chodorow’s often sympathetic picture of Freud as ‘preoccupied, indeed obsessed with the meaning in the male psyche of the female’ makes psychoanalysis, at least at its inception, no more and no less than a man – an unusual man – trying to work out the effect women had on him. To call this a theory of female sexuality is a bit ambitious.

‘Rethinking Freud on women,’ Chodorow writes, apparently unfazed by her own conclusions, ‘leaves us with a normative theory of female psychology and sexuality, a rich account of masculinity as it defines itself in relation to women, and several potential openings toward more plural conceptions of gender and sexuality.’ In that sentence ‘normative’ is more pejorative than it sounds, and ‘rich’ is not as ironic as it should be. But the openings she finds in Freud – both the directions in which he sets her thinking, and the language of possibilities which his writing contains – make this book more than a state of the art survey of a contemporary minefield. Because she is determined not to shock, she reminds us how startling psychoanalysis can be. What she aptly calls the ‘Freudian paradox of traumatic normality’ refers to the fact that, from a psychoanalytic point of view, normality is a symptom. Now that Truth has replaced Sexual Pleasure as the psychoanalytic ambition, normality is returning through the back door. Without a passion for pleasure – without the unconscious – psychoanalysis becomes merely another glamorous or noble killjoy.

In her judicious account of heterosexuality as itself a kind of underinvestigated symptom, which is at the same time suspicious of the pathologising of sexualities, and in her measured commitment to the pleasures of diversity, Chodorow manages to keep things complicated and interesting, which is not easy when it comes to sexuality (as pornography knows better than psychoanalysis). ‘To understand how men and women love,’ she writes, ‘requires that we understand how any particular woman or man loves.’ This must be right; and taken seriously, it makes psychoanalysis less coercive, less of a straitjacket. But understanding is just the beginning, if that: the difficult question is how we decide which kinds of loving are acceptable. Understanding does not inform our morality: our morality informs the ways we have of understanding. The language of pleasure and the language of justice are inextricable. And psychoanalysis was a new way of saying this.

Chodorow suggests in this book that ‘we treat all sexuality as problematic and to be accounted for.’ That there can be no normal loving is potentially a liberating, psychoanalytic idea; but ‘accounted’ is the word that begs all the questions. It is still worth wondering what we think understanding love will do for us, and what we think love is if it can be understood. Everyone knows, after all, that there is something unaccountable about all this. Perhaps we should just ban the word ‘love’ and see what we find ourselves saying (and doing) to each other.