Leaving the Psychic Womb
“In Vertigo, [Scotty] has totally to erase the woman as desiring entity, that is for him the condition to desire: let’s annihilate the woman, let’s mortify her so that my fantasy alone rules. The other solution is of course the masochistic solution, which is, let me maintain the appearance of the woman domina, as the boss; I accept my inferior role, but secretly I am the master because I write the very scenario of my inferiority.”
—Slavoj Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema
Leaving the psychic womb of the mother is necessary for the healthy functioning of the child and its development into an adult. Ideally, it’s a gradual process that takes place over time, roughly from the age of two or three to adolescence, when the child is ready to leave home and discover its own sexuality, drives, and purpose within the community. It is even traditional, in older cultures, to and maximize the tension of that transition by dramatically enacting it, and so mark it as a turning point, a rite of passage. For example, the father and other male tribe members take the child by force from the mother and the female members, who fight to keep the child. This ensures the child does not feel unwanted or rejected by the mother, but rather is pulled out by the attention and interest of the father.
As the child grows big enough to bond with the father, this is the beginnings of individuation proper. There is an inevitable tension now between the mother and the father, a tension which the child is caught in the middle of. To some extent, this is a natural tension, serving the purpose described above; but the added element, in modern times, of the parents’ emotional investment in each other, and in their child, turns a natural energetic dynamic into a toxic morass of incestuous drives and fears. This is known as “enmeshment.”
In the classical Oedipal arrangement, the son is jealous of the father, because the father’s presence threatens to take the mother away. This is natural enough. But when you add to it the possibility of the father also being threatened by the presence of the son, and for the same reason, then the child begins to receive mixed signals. The father, himself not having individuated, is still enmeshed with his own mother (alive or dead). He is therefore dependent on his wife and divided within himself: he wants the woman to himself, while also wishing to bond with the child. He cannot have both.
He may wish to take the woman away from the child for his own emotional comfort, or the child from the mother for the same reason (or as part of the power struggle between the two of them). The infant, since it is entangled with the mother’s psyche, experiences this power struggle in a very direct, visceral way. It is imprinted by it, much as soft clay is imprinted. This imprint creates patterns in the infant’s psyche that become the nexus or blueprint from which the constructed identity is formed.
Father Vs. Son
Deeper still, both the father and the child can give to the woman something the other cannot. The father can give her sexual attention, while the child has a deeper, spiritual or energetic connection to the mother, a bond that is as unfathomable to the father/husband as it is natural and enriching to the mother/wife. The father may experience tension witnessing the child with its mother, together in the oneness of unfocused awareness, especially if he feels that he is unable to access it. He may feel he is not welcome in that space. He may not even be able to comprehend the nature of it. In older times, the father would be off hunting and gathering so this would not be an issue. Even in current times, the father tends to physically absent himself during the day in order to “bring home the bacon”; but he may also be emotionally absent, losing himself in his work, seeking the kind of satisfaction and sense of “uprightness” that he is increasingly unable to experience at home.
If, on the other hand, the father desires to break the connection between the mother and child, he will often use his (and her) sexual desire to do so. He may become sexually demanding, even violent. The force of his sexual desire and demands is sufficient to break into the morphogenetic field of the mother and child and pull the mother out of it. The man then reclaims her for himself, but the child experiences this forced separation as traumatic, and correctly identifies the father as the agent of wounding.
The father, on the other hand, may find that, when he wants his wife’s attention, he cannot get it. He may feel he has no choice but to resort to sexual demands, and even violence, just to get her to notice him. There is here a very basic correlation between the need for comfort, connection, sexual desire, and anger and violence—one I am sure is familiar to male readers, to one degree or another. The male feels disconnected from, or undesired/unappreciated by, the woman. He seeks to reassure and comfort himself by being sexual with her; she senses the lack of “straightness” in his sexual interest (he is seeking not a wife but a mother), and so she rejects him. He then re-experiences the primal rage of the infant being denied the attention of its mother and powerless to do anything about it. Since, as an adult, the man is no longer powerless, he wields his adult masculinity and sexuality with all the disowned, unprocessed rage and trauma of the infant, acting out in violence of one sort or another.
This violence is sourced in the husband/father’s own unmet needs, wounds created when he was a child by more or less the same situation which his own child is now a helpless witness to. This perpetuates the tension, not only between husband and wife, parent and child, but, at a much deeper level, between focused and unfocused awareness.
The former, focused awareness, is constantly trying to penetrate and disrupt unfocused awareness (the father seeking connection, identity). The latter meanwhile is presenting a constant, never-ending threat to the sovereignty of focused awareness (the mother’s indifference to her husband). That is the male-female tension in a nutshell, and it exists in just about every marriage whether or not there is a child. When the child is born into that it becomes a dynamic agent that intensifies that tension. It then experiences the split in its own psyche between masculine and feminine, focused and unfocused awareness. Where once the potential was for free movement between the two, there is now an increasing split which renders each inaccessible to the other.
The son fantasizes the father away. He is happiest when the father is not present. The father eventually becomes a different, more palpable threat to that oneness when the child grows large enough for interaction. There is a bonding that occurs, but along with that there is the child’s resistance to individuation, to leaving the psychic womb of the mother. This is supported by the mother. She resists the man, and also the will of the child to leave the psychic womb. To some degree her instinct to hold onto the child is healthy, since it prevents the child from feeling abandoned or unwanted by its mother. But it is also the beginning of mother-bondage, and it can go on for a man’s whole life. All the way until his mother’s death, or beyond, he will be caught in the pull of psychic maternal enmeshment.