Monday, October 8, 2012

"Fear of the Feminine"

Does the ongoing “war” against birth control, abortion, and equal pay for women simply reflect men’s reluctance to share with women the social and political power that they’ve monopolized in most of the world for several thousand years? Or is it also due to men’s fear of learning something about themselves, which might undermine their hard-won sense of who and what they are?
Erich Neumann, a student of C.G. Jung, took the latter view. He wrote in 1959 of “the crisis of fear in which the patriarchal world now finds itself” (The Fear of the Feminine [1994], p. 265).

Fear of the Feminine? 

What did men have to fear from women in 1959? To all appearances, very little. But Neumann suggested that men had always had reason to “fear the feminine.” To create a sense of himself as an independent agent, the male had to overcome the power in his mind of the woman who gave birth to him and on whom he was totally dependent in his earliest years. Female goddesses like the Gorgons turned men to stone. The female Furies threatened to pursue to his death anyone who honored his father as much as his mother (Aeschylus, Oresteia). The “Great Mother” could be just as much a terrifying monster as a source of nourishment and safety.
The patriarchal cultures that men created in the Mediterranean and elsewhere tried to replace these all-encompassing Mothers with male sky-gods who would represent and support the males’ efforts to stand on their own feet. But this was much less easy than it may look in retrospect. The Hebrews frequently threatened to backslide into the worship of female “idols.” The Greek patriarchy had to deal with raving maenads who tore men limb from limb (Euripides, Bacchae). European communities felt so threatened by women that they carried out a war against (mostly female) “witches,” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Patriarchy Fears Equality because it Fears Self-Knowledge

What does this have to do with us, today? Neumann writes that in patriarchal cultures, "the man wants to remain exclusively masculine and out of fear rejects ... transformative contact with a woman of equal status." Men avoid contact with a woman of equal status by picturing “woman and the feminine ... either as a negative, downward-pulling force, as swamp woman or water sprite [or maenad, witch, or "slut"—RW], or as a positive, uplifting force, as angel or goddess. … ” (264). Whether she's lower than men or higher than them, woman doesn't have equal status, and men don't have to face the question of what they might have in common with women. 
Neumann follows Jung in maintaining that men who do experience transformative contact with a woman of equal status discover and find value in a feminine element within themselves (the “anima”). This puts them in a complex relationship to femininity, valuing and incorporating it as well as being different from it. As Hegel would say, Jung’s and Neumann’s not-exclusively-masculine man is “with himself in the other,” rather than merely contrasting himself with the other. He experiences a "coincidence of opposites," or what Jung calls a "sacred marriage," within himself. 
We might reasonably wonder how many of the men who currently defend “traditional marriage” and campaign against birth control and abortion have marriages with women whose accomplishments and independence are comparable to their own. And how many are in touch with a feminine element within themselves, which they value. Such questions apply as much to US preachers and politicians as to male authorities in Saudi Arabia. It seems likely that the answers to these questions would support Neumann’s description of the “exclusively masculine” man as taking pains to avoid experiences like these. 
And Neumann’s suggestion seems plausible, that the exclusively masculine man avoids these experiences because he fears, simplistically but understandably, that they would undermine his hard-won masculine “independence” from his mother. For he takes it that this independence requires him to exclude feminine qualities from the realm of what he himself could have, by characterizing them as either crazy/sluttish (beneath him) or angelic (above him).

Patriarchy Is not Primarily Due to Desire for Power

            The striking thing about Neumann’s account of gender relationships is that he does not describe patriarchy as resulting from a natural desire for power, which leads the sex that generally has greater physical strength to impose its will on the other sex. Neumann suggests that most men act "power-hungry" not because we want power for its own sake but because we fear what we might learn about ourselves if we dealt with women as our equals. We fear that we would discover feminine qualities in ourselves, and that this would undermine our sense of ourselves as independent and self-sufficient. 
Many observers have noted how anxious we males often are to make it clear that we aren't homosexual, where homosexuality is depicted as "sissy" and "woman-like." What Neumann and Jung are pointing out is that even if there were no such thing as homosexual inclinations or behavior, men would still face the issue of how to deal with the "feminine" qualities that every man has within him. And that the initial tendency to deny such qualities absolutely is a very natural and understandable one, as a way of carrying out the difficult task, with which every boy is faced, of achieving an identity that distinguishes him from his mother and from the world of women in general. 
If patriarchal attitudes reflect, in large part, this difficult task of defining a "male" identity, then they aren't simply the natural result of combining a natural desire for power with greater physical strength. That is, patriarchal attitudes are much less "natural" than they appear at first glance. 
If Jung and Neumann are right, the only “natural” thing about patriarchy is that men did need to learn to stand on their own feet, over against their mothers. This was necessary, but that doesn’t mean that the simplistic way in which men have done this—by making women subordinate in society—is necessary or natural. It may be a necessary and natural phase, but it’s neither a necessary nor a natural final result.

But Going Beyond Patriarchy s Naturally Difficult

But if Neumann’s account of the male achievement of independence from the mother is correct, we have to acknowledge that accepting the feminine as equal and as part of oneself is bound, initially, to seem extremely dangerous. For from the point of view of the newly-“independent” male, this acceptance will seem to threaten precisely what he has barely and with great effort achieved. It will imply that the male is not, in fact, fully independent.
Is this why we hear such a compulsive repetition, these days, of the idea that a “man” must either be “self-made” or be a mere parasite (where the latter is beneath contempt)? It’s the mantra of male liberation from the mother.

So We Must Have More Intelligent Sympathy for those who Face this Difficulty

So if Neumann’s analysis is correct, we need to have compassion for the “strong, authoritative” men who “dare to discipline,” to “defend the traditional family,” and so forth. For they are in a very difficult position, challenged by their wives and daughters and their own feelings to explore a territory that must cause them great fear. Their “strength” is—and they must know this on some level—a fragile and inherently temporary construct, threatened by nature as well as by true, inter-dependent freedom. 
So rather than merely raging against the patriarch’s rigidity and his apparently terminal self-centeredness (as many of us male and female feminists do, much of the time), we must have more intelligent sympathy for his plight, and thereby give him some real help in finding the courage to go beyond it.

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