What does Lacan's approach to Margareth Little teach us about the mother-daughter relationship?
or "Working with Winicott"
Auteur : Gérard Amiel 01/01/2010
She might be born a girl, but she is not born a woman; not yet. Ideally, that second birth comes later. So the first question is – how does this girl become a woman? And logically the second question that springs to mind is – in what way can the mother-daughter relationship play a specific role along this development pathway? We know this path to be riddled with pitfalls, and the vocation may be fulfilled with varying degrees of success - a vocation that is more or less accepted, more or less consummated and satisfied - yet, once fulfilled, it means the girl will be able to live with a man! No easy task… indeed a very difficult one, and one which will require the girl to truly reinvent herself.
So having established this framework, and acknowledged what a minefield this journey is for the girl, we can approach it by referring back to what Freud and Lacan left as bearings, and those that constitute one of the most extraordinary advances in psychoanalysis in the 20th-century.
In effect, how can the girl, whoever she is and a fortiori because she is a girl, how can she enter into the human world and become a part of humanity? It is a question of finding oneself primordially affected by the phallic function. For a woman it would be a gross misfortune if she never were to have this opportunity, as she would be rendered irreparably mad. Yet at which point does the young girl come across this vital structural foundation stone?
Psychoanalysis shows us that the little girl first comes into contact with the phallus through her mother. Not that her mother is phallic, but in so far as she is the object of the man’s desire, she represents the phallus on his behalf. Why? Because the aim of all desire, as much as the object of all desire, is always the phallus, whereas the cause of desire is merely a metonymy of the phallus, in other words, the ‘object little a’. It is simply by means of the signifier, since the phallus is spread through speech, that the young girl comes to understand perfectly well both how and where the principle that governs desire is forged. The speaking being’s intelligence is located at this level – at three years of age, the child already knows where to find the driving forces behind life and the world.
The so-called pre-oedipal phase constitutes the honeymoon period of the primitive relationship towards the mother, being the stage where the eroticization of the sphincter takes place; the launchpad for all the drive mechanisms, which are steered by the hand of the mother, who is in an unrivalled position in so far as she is the one caring for the child, feeding and caressing it etc…. But these actions cannot be summed up as being mere physical contact. They remain fundamentally governed by a parallel discourse, namely that the action is driven by the demands of the ‘Other’, the Other with a capital O. In this way, the mother gives material substance to this ‘Other’, bringing the first enjoyment. In concrete terms she is the motor which triggers off the child’s love life. And herein lies the scandal of all scandals: the mother has got involved, and in the end this episode goes by without notice, and society makes a saint out of the mother, as if she were the Virgin from the Catholic religion for example.
As for the girl, these initially incestuous desires will be partly suppressed. However this repression doesn’t eradicate those desires altogether, but rather it leaves traces. According to Freud, these traces of repressed incestuous desire become from that point onwards an indelible mark, made permanent by the very act of repression. Those desires will then continue to be an active agent pulling the strings, and via the unconscious, masterminding the substance of adult desires. Freud leads us to believe that this drive is the part of sexuality that lies in the unconscious. The drive represents sexuality within the unconscious in such a way that the sexuated body becomes the parchment on which these inscriptions are copied. In other words, it is subjected to them without knowing where they come from. Given that drive is one of the roots of desire, its real starting point, then therefore that very moment when the mother first intervenes and activates the drive is the starting point for the fundamental fantasy, which itself puts into place the phallic significance: a fixed point within the overall structure which will never change from that moment onwards so as to act as ‘enabler’ for the desire, and whose dynamic also rushes in the same shared direction, namely that of the idealizing network. In effect, the idealization takes shape in this transmission which occurs in the close trade-off between the mother and child, even if the mother isn’t even aware that she is the ‘ideal’ whose very image she personifies.
What is certain, is that this ideal depends on the nature of the forces that engineer the mother’s own desire: is it merely a question of beautiful images or rather a question of what she is led to experience with a man in sexual terms? Which of the two has greater salience for her at this point? In the end, it doesn’t necessarily point to the same destiny for the girl. In any case, in so far as being a future mother is concerned, the girl will never be able to desire in any other way than by bringing phallic enjoyment into play herself. Libido is phallic for both sexes, even if the woman is not wholly caught in this system.
The fact remains that if the mother is to successfully fulfil her role, that being identified as the operator behind the drive mechanism, this turns her into an eminently dangerous and powerful figure for the child, certainly in structural terms. Both the organization of the drive mechanism and this function of the `Other` (with a capital O), are crucial in bringing about this initial process of alienation. The mother, in her primary state of fundamental vital distress, represents the `Other` (with a capital O) for the child, which is precisely what gives her this excessive, exorbitant, quasi-godlike power, since the place for the `Other` with a capital O appears to be capable of satisfying such a pronounced and awakened drive. Moreover, what with the mother being phallically endowed with her partner’s sexual desire, the child perceives this ‘place’ of the `Other` (with a capital O), as bearing the traces of the phallus. Thus, the mother is suspected of being the one holding back the missing letter from the demand, wherein lies her power. And this is the reason why even if the mother persecutes her daughter once she has grown into an adult, in other words, if she continues to tend to her needs and drives, the girl will uncontrollably want to keep running back to her mother, finding it hard to distance herself from her. So in no particular order, the key elements to remember with regards to this primordial process of establishing the mother’s role include putting in place a system of gift economy, of unconditional love, of the cult of the ideal (beauty, wellbeing and goodness), of drives (the prevalence, imperiousness and immediacy of the demand) and of enjoyment, etc…
Yet in the final instance, the girl’s guiding element is not her mother as a person – and the idea of the mother as a person always holds an air of suspicion - but rather what her mother’s words refer back to, namely that factor which structures the argument of the `Other` (with a capital O). In other words, that third element which is placed in the position of being an outsider, is what makes the discourse neither a maternal monologue, nor a mother-child dialogue, but rather a speech whose very success lies in the fact that it refers itself back to castration. It would be totally absurd to pretend that the transmission takes place in an exclusively closed dynamic, namely from mother to daughter. If in relation to this castration, the mother features in a male mode, then there is no hope that the girl will ever be able to develop and grow into her femininity without difficulty, however well-meaning the maternal figure may be.
But given that love alone is clearly not enough in order for someone to exist or to desire - even if that person has received all the love in the world, it still doesn’t bring the structural support one needs in order to live - if the boy and girl both start off on the same basis, as I have tried to explain to you up until now, how does the girl’s gradual development come to reveal itself? If confronted for too long with this mother figure as a representation of the phallus, how can the girl free herself from inevitable fascination with it. How can she disentangle herself from its influence, an influence that is both essential and extremely harmful?
And then there comes that cursed period of disappointment; a disappointment that comes in two waves. Firstly, there is that initial moment of the girl’s realization that there is a difference between the two sexes. The crucial part here is not rooted in any anatomical issue, namely that there is a little bit more or a little less bit less skin, but rather in the very logic itself of the signifier immediately finding itself at stake at this moment of realization, a realization to which the speaking being is also subjected. The Real order of the two sexes lies in the fact that both the male and female are different from an anatomical point of view, but from the outset this concept of ‘Real’ is placed within a theoretical construct in which the difference is seen as being rooted in something missing for the girl. So from the start the difference between the two sexes for the child is defined as arising from a notion of lack. The girl continues to maintain that there is something missing in her genital area, and becomes attached to the idea that the missing element is something that should be found there, in its rightful place, but which fails her. The importance of what should be found there goes far beyond anatomical reality, and the penis as an organ. It is a question of the prima phallus. The phallus indeed belongs to the realm of the signifier: it is the signifier of lack. But once the girl has come to terms with the difference between the two sexes, and gone through the disappointment phase that naturally ensues, and once herself she has taken on board the issue of this prima phallus, this does not mean the end of the problem.
The second wave of disappointment comes when the girl accepts a narcissistic wound. Why does she remain attached to this wound? And moreover, why such a wound? The mother was her first object of love, the mother being first and foremost an object, and she had also embodied the `Other` (with a capital O), when suddenly, here she changes roles: she is also a woman! She is no longer just her mother, but also a woman, and as such, she is loved. The girl becomes disappointed as she is unable to compete with her own mother over the fact of being fawned over, whether it be by the father or within her social milieu. In fact, the mother is feted for being a woman on all sides, whereas the girl only gets derogatory remarks; you can only speak once the grown-ups have finished talking, sit down and wait! She is undervalued and cut down to size. The girl suffers these ordeals firstly on a narcissistic level. When she reaches adolescence she can take revenge as a woman and, as is often heard in therapy, she despises her mother to the point of wanting to be sick. She is resentful towards her mother, and the wound is the element that will swing her round to join the side of her father.
But here again, if the father over-plays his role as father, and doesn’t sufficiently play his role as a man, he won’t establish a healthy relationship with his daughter. And once more, the father has a relationship with his daughter as a man, that is to say, as someone who desires. And this is why it is such a catastrophe for a child when the parents have no desire for each other. In subjective terms, it is enough to kill someone.
That said, a girl can easily escape having to go down this winding path towards femininity and disappointment simply by refusing to accept her position as a little girl, in other words by short-circuiting the system by burying herself in the role of tomboy. All it takes is for her to rush to the side of her father in his role as father, and not as a man, to introject a signifier within him, and thus open up to symbolic paternal identifications. Given that she won’t be able to find even the slightest trace of femininity in her father, this is the start of what could be seen as a masquerade and a certain sort of illusion, which, moreover, is capable of turning the father into the captive of his own daughter. She may start off as a boy with a male libido, yet if she refuses to put this libido to one side, to let go of it to a degree, though not necessarily repress it, then herein lies the key to the issue of hysteria: the letting go of the male libido hasn’t been carried out. And on failing to find her place as a female, she therefore turns to her virile position as a source of fulfilment, namely she embraces a life as a father, or rather as a mother who satisfies herself with having children. These are the two linchpins of the paternal wish. However, if the girl manages to make this shift, this turning towards the father, namely loving him without necessarily identifying herself with him, then this turning point is what constitutes the Oedipal dialectic. In other words, how will the phallus which is discovered, or indeed the phallus that is invented through the relationship towards the mother, finally be returned to its rightful owner? If the phallus never receives this paternal consecration, this ‘timestamp’ from the father, the girl’s sole point of reference to the phallus is that of the maternal phallus, namely uncertain, temperamental, vitriolic, vague, and in short, yet to be regulated into order. She is finally overpowered by what is quite similar to a crown of thorns, which throws her into a state of distinct savagery.
As for the boy, he starts out from a fundamentally masochistic position: as the mother’s object of desire. The girl never has to position herself in this explicitly sexual perspective vis à vis her mother, but rather within the scope of her as a little thing with her attributes, so as to bring the phallus to the fore. She is familiar with her mother’s discourse, and based on that she works out how to establish her own position. So the turning that she makes is derived from consent, it is born of a true and willing act, unlike the boy who is inscribed with an Oedipal prohibition that is wholly uncompromising.
Yet Oedipus remains a clear point of turmoil for the little girl: this notion of leaving the position of being the `exception` of the privilege of being, in order to approach the father from another angle, is a difficult step to make. She would settle for him loving her as a glorified phallus, flattering her more for her finery than her performance. Yet if she makes that transition all the same, it is still laden with demands and regret. Oedipus tears her away from the realm of being, and leads her unwittingly into the realm of having – this is the effect of the paternal metaphor. It is thanks to Oedipus that she spared being left trapped in the phallic being. And at this point, the father’s desire is crucial. Who wouldn’t want to stand above the fray of men clamouring for her attention? Or is he interested in his daughter as a woman? And if the father has no interest in his daughter on this level, how could she ever position herself as a woman? And what if in this dialectic envisaged here, the mother featured as an object, then that would indicate that the role of the father was only that of signifier? The Name-of-the-Father does not depend on a long sustained love between the father and daughter in order to function. The father’s position in the structure is as a signifier, and this signifier is most certainly compatible with the concrete absence of the pater!
So what path should the girl take? Her entire journey is anchored in the purist form of balancing act. In order to become a woman she must firstly leave to one side the male libido that she started out with, yet if she eradicates it altogether, she is left without any desire, and if she doesn’t put some aside, she becomes the entirety, that is entirely phallic, and therefore hysterical. However on the other hand, if she tries to identify herself with her mother – which remains an eminently complex task since the mother is enigmatically reserved, a blank surface offering little to grab on to understand her - she inhabits the being of the phallus. The love she is hoping for pivots on this being, and if she manages to find reason to believe it, she can survive on this guarantee of being. It is an eminently feminine position, but also a huge imposition, as the slightest word, the slightest sign of a relationship breakup could cause her being to haemorrhage, and thus send her rushing to her end, since her being is directly dependant upon it. Freud explains that she must learn to be loved, because if she fails to, she will end up unhappy even if she is loved! For a girl to start and develop her sex life, given that a man is looking for an object to desire, she must firstly hear the man express his desire in words. This gives the signal for her to let herself be loved, to withstand this basic asymmetry, this total disparity between a man and woman in terms of the mutual object of their fantasies: the man desiring an object, the woman having to yield herself to being loved. A woman’s desire doesn’t require the search for a desirable object, which lies at the root of this common misunderstanding.
If the girl goes down the path towards `having` as opposed to `being`, she is venturing into male territory, or may get stuck in the vagaries of motherhood, which is no easy task for her, nor necessarily an area where she should be. Penis envy `penis-neid` and all the dissatisfactions that come with it, indicate that the girl wishes to maintain her desire on a male level, which is moreover the only standard that is socially recognised, yet which also creates an impasse in her psychoanalysis. Obviously, there is no question of the therapy attempting to shut the girl off from this social recognition, as this would only serve to marginalize her. Yet how can she avoid being wholly consumed by this male dimension? How can she cope when caught in a logic of `having` by day and `being` by night, for example?
And then if you add on top of these difficulties regarding the ‘being’ or ‘having’, the notion that if there is a failure to build an initial relationship with the mother, then this failure will most certainly be transferred on to the father, identically, in one whole piece, and then on to subsequent partners. Every woman undergoing therapy addresses a mixture of all these problems in varying degrees. How can a woman possibly manage to exist within this labyrinth, tangled between ‘having’ and ‘being’ without being held entirely by either one or the other? Women in therapy are often looking to solve this dissonance. And obviously every case is different; every woman has her own unique model of this impasse, and one which is purely individual, which must be examined in detail each time. However, unfortunately not all of these impasses can be resolved. For example, how can one ‘free’ a woman who is inscribed wholly in ‘having’, when at the same time you know what a calming effect this system has on her, and the relative guarantee that comes with it, rendering the logic almost impossible to dismantle. Nevertheless, the paradox remains, namely that a woman can only become a woman once she is faced with the discourse of the mother and with her castration, but also on the basis that she manages to leave this confrontation so as to ‘unlearn’ herself, in other words, to also be able to partly reinvent herself. A woman is the place, the point from which she is heard in terms of her words being recognized, and if she seeks to be the `Other` (with a capital O), it is also because she is seeking for the meaning of what she says to be heard in a different way. One of the main operations that could be carried out in therapy would be managing to extricate herself from her mother, which in itself could give her back a little more freedom of movement
To illustrate this concept, I will recount a short vignette from the field of psychoanalysis to depict a radically unusual journey. This journey is so unusual that it could never be called a generalization. It is based on a book written by our fellow analyst, Margareth Little, who unfortunately decided upon an abhorrent and wholly misjudged title ("Transference Neurosis and Transference Psychosis : Toward Basic Unity", in the English version and "Borderline" in the French version), which tells of her own experience as a patient undergoing psychoanalysis. The reasons why I chose to focus on this text are because it is unnervingly relevant to modern times and describes something which has been going on for several generations, namely what we call the decline of the Name-of-the-Father in the plural. I speak not of fathers per se, who have never thrived as much as they do today, but of those particular signifiers that are synonymous with hammering away at the structure of the phallic principle. Put differently, we are no longer exactly in the position as described in classic psychoanalytical texts, because these very same works were written at a time when the phallic function was still associated with supreme and universal virtues.
Margaret Little became a doctor, as was her mother’s wish. She had lived for a long period of time with a female companion in a highly passionate relationship that was based on the eroticization of that person’s image, in other words, based on the fundamental lack of awareness of the fact that attraction is determined by one’s own image as seen by the other person. On this point she hadn’t yet found herself on a level that could be called sexual desire, which would have marked her true entry into adulthood, in other words, in so far as she would have been grappling with a desire that was accepted as being part of a sexuality organised around an object. Strictly speaking, for Little it was no more a case of female homosexuality, a term which is obviously malplaced here, since for some women, meeting another woman does not take place on a homosexual plane, in the relationship itself, but rather the other woman represents the straight person, which is a foreign concept, this notion of becoming aware of the notion of otherness.
At the age of 35 Little began therapy with a male therapist, and at the end of the treatment she began analysis with Ella Freeman Sharpe. From the outset, this switchover took on the dynamic of a war waged not against knowing, but against the knowledge of the analyst who bombarded Little with Oedipal theory, that being interpretations rooted in pure Freudian theory, but which in Margareth Little’s case were wholly irrelevant given that she was not inscribed in a defined sexuality. In fact this fearful realization of the mother’s omnipotent reign dawned on her in a hallucinatory vision during her very first therapy session, whereby a terrifying spider appeared on the analyst’s head and engulfed her in its web. The fact that following this episode Margareth wrote so much on the subject of roving, was linked to the fact that she knew a certain amount on the subject, since she hadn’t managed to inscribe herself in the timestamp of the phallic principle. Indeed, she had quite an unusual difficulty in this area, a particular problem that was neither organised, nor recognized within this structure. Due to being excluded from the prima phallus, even though she had come across the phallus, and she knew how and where it operated, she was unable to enter into a sexual relationship with a man. One could say that she was inscribed to the right of the sexual spectrum, on the female side, yet incapable of having a relationship with the opposite sex. It might be going too far to say so, but it is worth pointing out that what she had inherited from the mother’s discourse was a shrivelled phallus, an unbearable calamity, and moreover as a girl she never managed to `be`. Therein lies the root of a life that was doomed to endless misfortune, like a permanent mourning that ended up destroying everything. Ella Sharpe nevertheless persisted in trying to force her onto the phallic plane, hence the frenzied change of direction that took place in the course of the therapy down the Oedipal track, an approach that was doomed to failure, since the notion of using force simultaneously served to keep her locked in an insistent demand vis à vis her mother, in other words, asking her mother to hand over the principle of life and desire that would finally allow her a more well-adjusted and balanced existence.
So at this juncture, how could Little possibly ‘unlearn’ to make this demand of her mother, a demand that would inevitably kill her? At this time, Little became a member of the British Psychoanalytical Society, and on Ella`s death the implication was that her real issues still hadn’t yet been addressed. After further failed attempts in the hands of Dr Layne, and later Marion Milner, her dogged determination led her to make yet another fresh attempt at therapy at the age of 48 with Winnicott. Like every woman, what she needed was to gain some kind of minimum guarantee that she wouldn`t end up feeling completely lost. It is important to note that in the eyes of Margareth Little the drive remained disconnected from the narcissistic function, which from that point onwards was pitted with holes and which brought with it a very specific reactivity : whenever faced with the slightest word, gesture or mistake on the part of the analyst, it triggered off a catastrophe, a cataclysm, a subjective breakdown, which repeated a certain radicalism in terms of the relationship with the signifier, as well as bringing up all that she had previously experienced in her failed attempts to find a place to exist.
From this particularly complex and highly tempestuous course of therapy, which I strongly advise you study in its entirety so as to see its rocky progression, I will simply allude to one particularly explosive episode when Margareth Little lashed out at the therapist. This moment proved to be of key importance not only because of how it could be interpreted, but also in the structure of the symbolic rewriting that it opened up within the therapy. Aside from the instant repetition of terror at every session, the obsessive question kept coming back, namely the question of how to escape from the mother’s grasp, whose only predictable guarantee was that she would be unpredictable, and whose words would come back to haunt her, like an oracle, those very words so often uttered when she was a child every time she was faced with a difficulty: "Take heart, my darling, you’ll soon be dead. ." And on that point I’d like to highlight here an episode that took place during a therapy session where she broke a vase and trampled all over it, representing a metaphor for her femininity being furiously destroyed. On the basis of this the unconscious object, the object of the desire of the `Other` (with a capital `O`), which to date hadn’t yet been recognized by her previous therapists, the object with which she had identified herself from the very start, namely femininity seen as a form of evil, hateful and destroyed, eventually came to form the linchpin of the approach of her new therapist.
Indeed on this point, it is worth noting what Margareth Little observes in her book regarding a particular psychoanalytical case. She recounts how a female patient made a Freudian slip based on a similar type of metaphor to the one I have just alluded to. In Little’s view, the fact of saying that she wanted to break something of great personal value to the therapist, for example smashing his Ming vase, brings to mind the idea of ruining mink, fur or an object of finery instead, objects which are all highly symbolic of the female phallic being. The important thing for Margareth Little was that the analyst Winnicott accepted to take on a so-called maternal role in the transference, which at the end of the day was what led to a reconciliation, a humanisation, in other words an adopting as of right of the symbolic function, though not without firstly accepting to cut ties with this mortifying maternal phallic reference – a form of excision that would moreover lead to a state of confusion for at least a year and require hospitalization.
If even only fleetingly, we can detect in Little’s discourse a Real Order / Symbolic Order overlap, structured on a repetition that she is unable to identify, the most remarkable thing to note is that up until then, everything she revealed to us was inscribed as a very unique tangle between the Real Order and Imaginary Order. The Symbolic Order is detached because the Real within the impossible found itself being permanently unwound, and immediately translated into the Imaginary, and even being led towards expressing delirious thoughts, mainly concerning persecution, without necessarily needing to inscribe itself in a psychotic structure.
Now, the broken vase episode does not strictly fall into this dynamic, but rather corresponds with acting out an entirely different inscribed system of notation, whereby one’s unconscious desire manages to reveal itself and be recognized as such, namely as the desire for the `Other` (with a capital O). Thus, from that starting point, through psychoanalysis Little managed to enter into a sexualized world without having to go through the usual modality of the phallus as a third separate entity, which at the end of the day amounts to a highly rare disposition, and thanks to which she was finally able to unblock the impasses born of her neurosis.
It was clear that in Little’s case, the only viable option for her was therapy, not simply to provide her with some sort of solution to her infernal conflict, namely to break away from the fatal maternal wish, but moreover in giving her the opportunity to invent herself, an opportunity which had hitherto been forbidden by the impasse of her primordial relationship. In other words, the possibility of finding a means by which she could establish a relationship with the opposite sex, and that which was ultimately free of the ideological tyranny that usually dominates male-female relationships.
The reason why I have been insisting on this idea of invention for so long is to highlight the importance of what must clearly escape the breeding ground of current-day prejudice, because inventing one’s position as a woman is also to some degree a way of inventing a life with a man ! Margareth Little and her own treatment in psychoanalysis is a wonderful illustration of this.