This is the fifth in a series of posts.
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The Trauma of Gender
Freud was onto something when, in the page and one-half he wrote on “Medusa’s Head,” he identified the mythological sight of Medusa’s flowing locks of hair with the female genitals. So was he onto something when he read the petrifying fear that the figure of Medusa engenders in the myth with the fear of castration the young child experiences—or at least the young boy-child, though Freud’s own account ends up universalizing the experience, as it were—when he (the masculine pronoun proving appropriate here) first catches sight of the Mother’s vulva, void as it is of the penis and testicles the boy holds so dear, and that define for him his sense of his own identity, through an identification-in-rivalry with the apparently all-powerful Father.
Freud, however, may go wrong when he writes in “Medusa’s Head” that the “terror of castration that is linked to the sight of something [. . .] occurs when a boy, who has hitherto been unwilling to believe the threat of castration, catches sight of the female genitals, probably those of an adult, surrounded by hair, and essentially those of his mother.” Where that may go wrong is, first, in the idea that the boy child had already found himself threatened with castration (by the Father, if only by the mere existence of that Father, whose claim to the Mother invalidates, or at least overpowers, the child’s own desire to claim her).
Freud may go wrong in suggesting that the threat of “castration” is something the boy has already received, but “has hitherto been unwilling to believe”—until, to his horror, he catches sight of the gorgon-dreadful disfiguration of the “castrated” female genitals, “essentially those of his mother.” Well, if the Father can do that to the Mother, then maybe his threat to do it to the son is real after all. Better watch out!
However, perhaps the vision of female genitals does not just bring the boy to “believe” an antecedent threat of castration that has already been made. Perhaps it is that very vision that actually first delivers the threat, the real threat, in the first place.
Perhaps what really so threatens the boy-child is the threat delivered by the sight of a split, a cleft, a tear or rift, that separates him irrevocably from the Mother, and from all that the Mother means to him. That is, perhaps what really threatens the little “man” so is the vision of a yawning gap between himself and all who are like him, most definitely including the Father, on the one side, and the Mother and all who are like her, on the other.
Perhaps what really so threatens the boyish man-child, (what de-m/e/ans him, we might say, to intertwine how “demeaning” with how “de-manning” what he fears appears to him to be), even while leaving his own precious and so-prized genitals altogether untouched, is the mere suggestion that there is another whole world out there, beyond his boyish reach, or even the reach of his manly Father: the world of “the Mother.” Perhaps it is the threat that what he thought was, in effect, universal—that is, uni-versal, literally all turned into one—was in fact irremediably di-verse, which is to say dual, irredeemably split in two.
Thus, maybe what really threatens the boyish man-child is simply the sheer possibility of woman. Perhaps what threatens the dear Little Lord is catching sight of the very impossibility of his universal lordship.
That impossibility is, perhaps, en-gendered by gender itself. Perhaps the glimpse of that horror of horrors is really what stiffens the Little Fellow’s penis in fear, in a futile effort to reclaim his lost sense of potency. Or, rather, what he fears may be the threat of losing his childish sense of omni-potency, of the power to dominate and control all he surveys (to rip off a phrase from Descartes’ discourse)—most especially Mother, the Womb, the very Nature from which all things are born (nature deriving from Latin natus, “born”).
Maybe the very idea of a threat of supposed “castration” is already an apotropaic projection designed to ward off the real fear, which is the fear that some people may really just come without penises and testicles. And what if the very person on whom the boy most depends and the one he most desires, the Mother herself, is one of those unimaginable people? If so, then the mere possession of such strange appendages as the little boy cherishes does not authorize his man-child’s claim to lordship over all he surveys.
A chilling prospect indeed! Chilly enough to freeze the little boy stiff.
Better by far to blame Father.
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To be continued.