The Fiction of Feminine Desires: The Mother Goddess

The Fiction of Feminine Desires: The Mother Goddess
© Photograph by James Nader

In ‘The Monk’ we observed how Rosario/Matilda’s disconcerting ability to change her identity is associated with Ambrosio’s downfall. Lewis’s plot expresses the horrifying instability of the female “other” seen in the male gaze. But in the myth of Psyche, duality and transformation have different connotations. The female gaze recognizes that appearances may deceive and that the identity of the other is complex: the world is not a case of either “pure and simple” or else corrupt and duplicitous.

The heroine’s perception of this ambiguity, or of an initial deception, does lead to difficulty, danger, and trials that must be endured. But it does not-as for her male counterpart-inevitably lead to betrayal and death. On the contrary, in Psyche and in the Female Gothic plot, duality or multiplicity replaces “unity” or “oneness” as the assumed (and privileged) condition of the other and of the heroine herself.

At no time during her quest is Psyche merely “one,” nor could she be, for she is pregnant during all her “labours.” Her four tasks (two times two) are all accomplished through cooperation with others, culminating in the intervention of Eros himself. She achieves her final triumph, indeed, only by herself becoming even more emphatically double, “Psyche-with-Eros.” So the real protagonist of the myth is a duality-“Psyche-and-Eros.” (Like “Romeo and Juliet” or “Tristan and Iseult,” the story concerns a couple, not a single hero.)

Furthermore, in the end, Psyche finds her reward as the member of an immortal community, the gods who dwell on Olympus. The “crowning” event of her journey is the birth of her daughter, “Pleasure.” Thus the dyad becomes a triad, the couple a family: “Psyche/Eros/Pleasure.”

As Tolstoy observed, “Happy families are all alike.” They do not often generate (give birth to) stories. The silence following the birth of Psyche’s daughter means that there is simply nothing further to be said of her; thus it is an index of peace and happiness, as it is for Jane Eyre, for Emily St. Aubert, for any of those heroines whose marriages conclude the Female Gothic plot. But it need not signify a sinister patriarchal erasure of her identity.

In the logic implied throughout the preceding narrative, marriage means fulfilment, the goal of the quest, the establishment of the self that can exist only in relation to others. True, the silence of the male plot’s conclusion connotes death (the end of the questing heroic consciousness) or the mute melancholy of the surviving secondary characters.

But as I have noted, this silence promises to be interrupted by the necessity of fighting the monster all over again. The understanding that silence is death is, furthermore, an Oedipal premise. If the subject must imagine the relation between mind and nature as conflict, nature will always win. That heroic consciousness won with such struggle and violent effort is fated to extinction.

In ‘Reading for the Plot’, Peter Brooks argues that Freud’s ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ offers both a pattern of narrative desire and the pattern of desire in the narrative, “a model of the function of psychic apparatus on the functioning of the text.” His chapter entitled ‘Freud’s Masterplot’ is a provocative demonstration of how Freud’s own quest for knowledge, a quest that culminates in his hypothesis of the death instinct, may also be read as a narrative about “the narratable.”

Like the Male Gothic plot, Brooks’s theory of narrative poises the implicitly male consciousness before an inexorable natural law which decrees inevitable death. The “pleasure of the text,” narrative desire, may accomplish only what Freud posited as that temporary accommodation of Eros and the death instinct in which we live: “Between these two moments of quiescence [the end and the beginning], plot itself stands as a kind of divergence or deviance, a postponement of the discharge which leads back to the inanimate [..]. This detour gives the right death” (p. 103). Plot (like survival) is “mastery.”

Any doubt that Brooks’s theory is as unconsciously phallocentric as Freud’s evaporates in light of his statement that “narrative desire [is] the arousal that creates the narratable as a condition of tumescence) appetency, ambition, quest, and gives the narrative a forward-looking intention” (p. 103; my emphasis). And though this description may suit the male plot, it does not describe the desire that keeps the “female” subject moving forward. This subject is driven by a need to fill in the lack perceived almost as soon as perception is possible.

Exterior circumstances demand that the heroine act even as she recognises the conditions (usually her own inadequacies) that make action difficult. For Psyche it is the impossibility of sorting the seeds, of gathering the wool, collecting the water, journeying to Hades; for the Female Gothic heroine it is her lack of family, money, (sometimes) beauty, and a home-“support” in all senses. The “female” self is one that begins by knowing loss as a regular and always intensifying rhythm of life, but who after a long search finds recompense for that loss in a new mode of experience. Psyche’s marriage to Eros on Olympus is not the same as their earlier relation in the magic castle; it is, in fact, better, for now, Psyche and Eros are equal as immortals, and there Psyche gives birth.

Her final happiness is represented by the birth of Pleasure. But she bore this growing child within her during the four labours demanded by Aphrodite. Thus I want to suggest a further point: not only does this myth suggest an alternative to the Oedipal path; it is also a “discourse of motherhood.”

To privilege the Oedipal, argues Madelon Sprengnether, makes the mother a ghost haunting the house of Freud, and by implication, menacing the Law of the Father. Psyche is no such ghost, however. Instead, this myth might be read as a narrative of the maternal subject that Kristeva speculates about in “Stabat Mater.” Such a discourse, therefore, is apparently not so much “unspeakable” as “unreadable.” “Psyche” represents the reproduction of feminine jouissance in and through the desire of the mother and the daughter’s labours to reconcile herself to that power, to wrest the mother’s son “Eros” from her so that Psyche may become a mother herself.

Evidence of the unreadability of this narrative appears in the way the version of Psyche fundamental to Female Gothic has been misread. Traditional (patriarchal) readers have characteristically dismissed this plot as both “unreal” and “unworthy.” Jane Eyre, as one of Joanna Russ’s male colleagues once informed her, is “a lousy book, just a lot of female erotic fantasies.” Precisely! In a patriarchal culture, the female and “the erotic” are by definition marginal and fantastic; and so stories that contradict the dominant myth about reality, specifically the nature of the self’s way of being in the world, are bound to seem “unrealistic.”

Let us return to Psyche’s story and consider what it implies about the issues of concern to psychoanalytic interpreters of Oedipus: separation from the mother; the power and nature of desire; the formation of the speaking subject through access to the Law of the Father. “Psyche and Eros” takes place in a world where power is centred in Aphrodite, the Mother Goddess, and the goddess mother of Eros. It is her jealousy that must be appeased, her demands that must be met.

It is she who requires that Psyche be exposed on the rock to await her fate, her “marriage to death.” It is she who sets Psyche the seemingly impossible tasks that take her through a world of increasing danger and scope. Moreover, being the mother of “Eros,” whom Psyche labours to recover, Aphrodite can reconcile herself to Psyche as daughter-in-law only when she becomes her equal, a goddess in her own right.

Interpreted as the human mind or soul, Psyche does not represent the female gender, but rather the potential subject in a situation where mind occupies the “female” position: a fragile entity perilously nurtured by the vast and terrifying Mother Nature. Read in this way, the tale represents the infant’s experience of separation from the mother as provoking a search to find in other relationships the pleasures lost with the dawning of consciousness and its inescapable knowledge of isolation and loneliness.

Aphrodite’s order that Psyche be exposed on the rock, wed to death, paradoxically suggests birth itself, since Mother Aphrodite decrees it. (As in Dracula, the monster who threatens to swallow the maiden is a figure for mortality.) Much has been said of birth as coeval with death for the self just born; Aphrodite’s “jealousy” of this “new Aphrodite” hints at the opposite-the infant as a paradoxical reminder of the mother)s impermanence. But Psyche is rescued by Eros, desire, who is the mother’s love-her “son”-that intervenes and cares for this incipient “other.”

Already at this stage — and this is one of the crucial differences between Psyche and Oedipus as patterns of individuation — the desire of the mother is felt as “other”; “he” is intimately related to her, her son, but male, “other” to her, as he is to Psyche. If the first separation is birth (which is, finally, being offered up to death), then the helpless Psyche wafted by Zephyrs to Eros’s magic castle represents the stage of infancy. Here she experiences perfect gratification of the senses of touch, taste, hearing, and smell. (The number of times Psyche is “wafted” by breezes itself evokes the sensation of the infant in arms.)

This palace of pleasure, this place of waftings, of sensuous bliss, of disembodied voices that sense and satisfY Psyche’s needs, is ruled by a “Law of the Mother”: one may not see. Or rather, one may not see objects, other selves. Psyche is not blind, but her sense of sight remains secondary. One might interpret this la\v as the principle that consciousness, the realm of the eye and the “I,” is inimical to this dark paradise of sensation, and will later erase it. Seeing another truly as “other,” and as an object, initiates the difficult journey toward becoming a subject.

Psyche’s eventual violation of the taboo, however, springs from motives more complex, and more centred in the incipient subject, than in the analogous Freudian Oedipal crisis, where an external and ominously greater power — the father — unders the bonds of mother and infant.

Ironically, the curiosity that drives Psyche to light her lamp, to violate the taboo, concerns a kind of “seeing” that has nothing to do with objects per see Encouraged by her sisters, she has imagined the horror that may lie beside her. In wondering whether this being who has given her so much pleasure is after all a hideous monster, she knows ambivalence. She lights her lamp out of fear and desire-a very satisfactory definition of “curiosity.”

Psyche moves into a new stage, therefore, when one kind of apprehension leads to another-fear drives her to gaze upon her beloved, to learn to see as well as to feel and hear and taste. Most significant; however, the “other” revealed by her lamp is beautiful, desirable. Symbolically, her first experience of subjectivity is a revelation of unanticipated pleasure; the eye confirms what the other senses have already taught her. And though both Psyche and Eros are wounded as a result of her action, the damage each suffers is eventually repaired (when they are “repaired”). Psyche’s antagonist, Aphrodite, represents “the female” in various aspects of human experience: the infant’s own mother, “Mother Nature,” the material circumstances of life within, against, and through which the “psychological” element is slowly forming itself.

Four, the number of Psyche’s labours, is the archetypal number of nature-four seasons, four elements, four points of the compass. And yet, though these tasks involve a confrontation with nature, they are not impossible; they may be accomplished. Although Psyche feels terribly alone and isolated after she lights the lamp, and Eros flies away, through the tasks she learns to use the resources that are also available from “lower” forms of life (the ants, the reeds, the eagle) that “educate” (“lead out”) certain capacities within Psyche herself.

The series of tasks imply a not-yet-self’s experiences of a world increasingly complex and multidimensional. The tasks also show Psyche acting more and more decisively and boldly with each labour. The first task involves a restricted range of vision, a room full of seeds and tiny earthbound creatures, and here the ants do all the work. The next moves her into a pastoral landscape of river, reeds, and grazing sheep, and although the reed tells her what to do, she gathers the wool herself.

The third emphasises the vertical dimension, the high waterfall and the eagle, a creature of the air which extends Psyche’s awareness upward. This task is quite literally “beyond her reach”; she must trust the eagle to help her. The last, the journey to Hades, as a downward vertical, shows recognition of a world increasingly complex (it has a surface and an “inside,”) and a metaphysics as well. Mythical journeys to the underworld connote, for many psychological critics, an exploration of the unconscious; thus it is appropriate that Psyche emerges from this journey with specific, personal “apprehensions,” with self-consciousness, in fact. (In the earlier stages, her desire to be reunited with Eros had been punctuated only by such relatively simple emotional responses as fear of failure and the temptation to give up, to commit suicide.)

In a parallel development, the “others” who come to her aid become increasingly large and anthropomorphic. They progress up the chain of being, less and less tied to the earth, increasingly capable of consciousness-just as her tasks demand greater ingenuity, greater daring, greater leaps of “imagination” because the spaces she must cross become wider.

If one reads Eros’s rescue as I have suggested, as a concrete “realising” of relatedness as a definitive principle of identity, he is also the first other self to whom Psyche relates both as an object and as equal.

Furthermore, these “others” also have increasingly apparent desires of their own. The ants and the reeds merely pity her, but the eagle wishes to redress an old injury done to “mankind” in general, not to Psyche in particular. The tower belongs not to nature but to culture, and may serve as a figure for culture, being constructed from preexisting “natural” materials according to the pattern of human intention.

It (he?) gives her the subtlest and most complex instructions yet (called “prophecy” by Apuleius, in fact). And perhaps most important, Psyche successfully accomplishes her journey because she recognises the desires in others: Charon’s expectation of proper payment; Cerberus’s hunger.

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