Posts Tagged ‘Freud’

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What is it with Neil Gaiman and mothers?

I am in the midst of listening to the wonderful The Ocean at the End of the Lane – personally, I think that this book is going to be a clear favourite from Gaiman who is already one of my favourite authors! – read by Gaiman himself.

Thus far, our narrator (does he have a name? I can’t recall it) has returned to his childhood home for a funeral (whose? His mother’s or father’s?) and has started to recall (and recount) his experiences when he was seven with Lettie Hempstock of Hempstock farm.

In very brief summary, therefore, the narrator’s parents have had to let out his room to, amongst other people, an Opal Miner who ran over a cat and also stole the narrator’s father’s car to commit suicide in.

It appears that something vast, ancient and primal was awakened by the opal miner’s death and decided to make everyone happy by giving them money. So coins are flung at people, forced down their throats in their dreams and money appears mysteriously in wives’ purses when their husbands dream of them prostituting themselves leading to somewhat “difficult” breakfast conversations.

Already echoes of other Gaiman tales reverberate around just that summary: Coraline‘s Other Mother, whose motives for wanting to keep Coraline are as ambiguous as this creature’s; the blurring of the boundaries between dreams, fantasy and reality which parallel Sandman; and the existence of another primal, dangerous and mysterious world beneath or alongside our own is typical Gaiman recalling American Gods, Neverwhere, Stardust and Coraline.

The alternate, old world is – to my taste at least – more successful here than in other books. Whilst I recognise and respond to Gaiman’s own sensitivity to great and iconic liminal imagery of the wall or the door or of Door, in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the path seems to be his image of choice. Not the rigid paths that adults follow but the paths which children explore and are signposted with the colours of nature. There is a fantastic paragraph as the narrator is seeking to slip out of the house which starts

“Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.”

But back to the mother.

Our narrator is present when Lettie Hemstock (a timeless eleven year old maiden living with a mother and a crone in what one might call a coven) binds the creature. He is distracted momentarily and becomes infected with a worm. In his foot. And, inadvertently, he brings this worm back home.

After a beautifully visceral description of him trying to extract the worm and how it felt as the worm fought back clinging to the inside of his flesh, he flushes it down the drain. Schoolboy error! The next day, his mother receives a job offer and Ursula Monkton arrives to housekeep. Ursula Monkton whose clothes are the same colours as the flesh of the worm. Ursula Monkton who is idolised by his sister and who seduces his father. Ursula Monkton, his other mother, his surrogate mother, his (potentially) evil step mother.

The parallels thus far with Coraline are fairly clear.

I’ve always felt that Coraline epitomised the negotiations between children and their mothers: the real mother being distracted and distant; the other mother cloyingly possessive. There was a sense of growing up, of maturing, of a child recognising that her mother was a person as well as a mother. The other mother identified herself as nothing other than a mother and becomes horrific as a result.

Freudian interpretation of Coraline could run amok: the needles required to sew buttons into her eyes echo Oedipus’ violation of the mother-child relationship, perhaps Freud’s most iconic condition; the diminution and submission of the other father as symbolic of Coraline’s prime rival for her mother’s attention; the passage between the house and other house becoming increasingly moist and organic as the other mother’s desperation for Coraline grows until it becomes almost a birth canal.

The way I read it – and I am at heart a simple soul – is this: the mother, like all of us real-world parents, is juggling life, a career, a relationship and a child and Coraline misses the primal bond between mother and daughter. When I adopted my children, I was encouraged to read a book entitled The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier. It is an exploration of the effect of the separation of mother and child in the adoption process, even in babies removed from the mother immediately on birth. There are echoes of that in Coraline: the daughter has realised that she is not the only thing in her mother’s life and that hurts.

When offered a form of that bond from the other mother she is, naturally, tempted but wise enough to see that to give in would be to surrender her identity as an individual and to become nothing more than an object, a part of another rather than her own person. She learns through the book to accept her mother as the distracted and divided person she is because that allows Coraline herself the space to grow.

Having just become a father, I can remember that at some point our mind set shifted from my wife being pregnant to my wife carrying our baby. At some point our baby came to be viewed as separate from, albeit contained within, my wife.

For a detailed exploration of the Freudian in Coraline, An Eye For an I is a good read!

And, yes, I do read things like this online! For fun!

I’m not sure yet how the surrogate mother will develop in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Nor how significant the different gender of the narrator will become. She’s certainly predatory. And the scene where she manipulates the father into nearly drowning his son in the bath was horrifying at a very different level to Coraline‘s gothic horror.

There is one very powerful word that I just came across in The Ocean at the End of the Lane: inviolable.

“My parents were a unit, inviolable. The future had suddenly become unknowable: anything could happen: the train of my life had jumped the rails and headed off across the fields”

Ursula Monkton violated the inviolable, his parents’ relationship. Actually, that’s wrong. Through Ursula Monkton, the father had violated the inviolable:

“I thought of my father, his arms around the housekeeper-who-wasn’t, kissing her neck…. I was scared by what it meant that my father was kissing the neck of Ursula Monkton, that his hands had lifted her midi skirt above her waist.” (my emphasis)

Is the sexual infidelity – the violation of the inviolable – a similarly cathartic experience to that which Coraline went through? Is the breaking of the family unit echoed in the breaking up of the family land and home?

Will the mother charge back to rescue her family?

And, whilst we’re on fathers, what is it with Gaiman and fathers who can’t cook? Coraline’s father concocts things from recipes rather than tins; the father here buys thick wholemeal bread and burns it when making toast.

Listening to this as an audiobook on the way to school, my stepson looked at me and smirked when that was read out!

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Angela Carter is just bloody brilliant!

I mean bloody brilliant!

Being just a man, lacking in x-chromosomes, I’m sure I’m missing much of her political feminist subtlety but as a writer she blows me away! The balance she holds between the real, the fantastical and the macabre is fantastic.

Take this first eponymous tale in the collection: a re-imagined and post-feminist retelling of Bluebeard. The original tale is broadly retained: an innocent wife marries a sinister bestial man; she is left alone in his castle with a bunch of keys with the invitation to use any of them as she wished save for one; the forbidden key is – inevitably – used and the husband returns unexpectedly.

The journey from Paris to the husband’s castle is a maelstrom of Freudian phalluses in the

“great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night”

and the movement from “girlhood” to womanhood as the narrator

“ceased to be her child in becoming his wife.”

. And the husband – the marquis – is gloriously bestially described too! His beard is no longer blue but still as full and luxurious a beard as the most yokel of Devonian farmers: a “mane” which tickles and bristles on the “leonine shape of his head”. In many ways, Carter elides the image if Bluebeard with that of Beauty and the Beast.

This is clearly a tale of a coming-of-age: the discovery of the wife’s capacity for sensuality corresponds with her discovery of the bloody chamber in which the Marquis’ past wives are disposed of which itself is emblematic of the start of menstruation.

What appeals to me most in Carter’s writing is the sensuousness of her prose: the Marquis is masked by

a whiff of the opulent male scent of leather and spices” which “made me think of my father”

and the wife’s nightdress

“slipped over my young girl’s pointed breasts and shoulders, supple as a garment of heavy water and now teasingly caressed me, egregious, insinuating, nudging between my thighs”

and the Marquis’ “fairy castle” with the

“faery solitude of the place; with its turrets of misty blue, its courtyard, its spiked gate, his castle that lay on the very bosom of the sea with seabirds mewing in its attics, the casements opening on to the ocean, cut off by tide from land for half a day … that castle, at home neither on the land nor on the water, a mysterious, amphibious place”

.

This is some of the most sensuous and sensual language that I have ever come across!

The biggest alteration made to the original story is the replacement of the wife’s brothers coming to rescue her from the Marquis with a wonderful depiction of her mother performing the same role. The “eagle-featured” mother is practically the personification of the word redoubtable: she had

“gladly, scandalously, defiantly beggared herself for love” in loving a soldier who died; and had “outfaced a junkful of Chibese pirates; nursed a village through a visitation of the plague; and shot a man-eating tiger.”

It is utterly reasonable that she should be the one to come charging across the causeway to her daughter’s rescue, a “wild thing” with

“her hat seized by the winds and blown out to sea so that her hair was her white name, her black lisle legs exposed to the thigh, her skirts tucked round her waist”

as the family of women bond against the predatory male “beast”.

As a man, my gender’s representation is a tad skewed: I can chose between a somewhat romanticised and definitely absent soldier-father; a monstrous and bestial husband; or a good-natured and blind piano tuner.

Not the most inspiring choice!

But with Carter, you kind of know what you’re getting as a man!

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Ah, Doctor Jekyll I presume!

This is one of my favourite concepts for a book and, like Dracula and Frankenstein, such a hugely evocative character and concept. It is intuitively resonant that lurking within all of us, behind the mask and veneer of social mores and decency, is a rampaging, amoral, bestial, primitive, reptilian beast. It is The Incredible Hulk, the werewolf; in Freudian terms, the conflict between the Id and the Superego; in Jungian terms – which is my favoured approach here – it is the Persona and the true identity.

What’s the critical difference between Freudian and Jungian approaches to Jekyll and Hyde? I’m no psychologist and my understanding is self-confessedly limited. For me, Freud would view Hyde as regressive, a retreat into the Id, a return to a childlike, animalistic slavery to impulse without the higher functions of the Superego. Jekyll would therefore be Freud’s tortured hero. For Jung, in my opinion, the roles would be reversed. Jekyll would be seen as the Persona, the shallow and brittle mask that has been selected to be presented to the world; it is an arbitrary selection, possibly imposed by external forces such as a father’s ambition. Hyde, therefore, would be viewed as the true and natural state of the man released through a – here pharmacologically induced – enantiodromia. Jung, therefore, may view Hyde as the tragic hero.

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Moving to the book. Let’s be honest, the writing style is not one that sits naturally with me. The somewhat clinical nature of the narration prevents Stevenson from developing his descriptions – with one or two notable exceptions – and the whole novella comes in at only 50 or so pages and no more than a couple of hours reading time.

Perhaps it says more about me than anything else but I would love to have seen more of the horrors of Hyde’s excursions. Films dwell on it – usually going to excess in the other direction – but Stevenson is almost silent. When we do see Hyde, his interactions still strike me as rather urbane. The epitome of evil – a word which I balk against by nature – seems incongruous when negotiating an out of court settlement for compensation!

Somewhere in my mind I recall hearing that Stevenson excised descriptions of Hyde’s excesses for fear of upsetting his wife – was he even married? – but I so wish he’d left them in!

So these are the ideas which I have been discussing with my class.

Tsotsi is set in 1956, give or take, in Sophiatown, a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. It was written by Fugard in the early months of 1960 after Sophiatown had been destroyed by the white community in Johannesburg and, therefore, there is an inevitability to its destruction. This inevitability is expressed in the gangs of slum clearance workers and in the language where, for example, the remnants of broken houses are described as Being like”skulls”.

Our main character is Tsotsi, the eponymous (anti) hero. He is “the one they called Tsotsi” which makes it clear that it is a title or label rather than a name; and a label that means simply “thug” when translated. It is not a name given to him with love by his mother, it does not connect him to his father’s family, tribe or ancestors – a fact which may have more import to an African audience than a western one. Clearly, there is distance and a disconnection between Tsotsi and his family simply from the fact of his name. This in itself starts to suggest a Freudian interpretation.

The character is also seen to be damaged. He has no recollection of his past and “didn’t know the answers” to any questions regarding his past. He seems, therefore, to be adrift in a constant moment with no history or family to ground him or put his actions into perspective.

Even more profound, he is a man without a sense of identity. Fugard tells us that, when Tsotsi looks into a mirror, he had “not been able to put together the eyes and the nose, and the mouth and the chin and make a man with meaning”. Fugard says that Tsotsi’s own features were “as meaningless as a handful of stones”.

Rather than creating a sense of identity from his own history, Tsotsi seems to create identity in others’ reaction to him. We are shown “the big men, the brave ones stood down because of him, the fear was of him, the hate was for him” and “He knew he was“. In the language of Transactional Analysis, what we see is perhaps a character craving strokes to prove his actual existence – because of the disconnection with his family – but only able to generate extreme negative strokes through violence, murder and rape.

The reader, along with the character Boston, are encouraged to see Tsotsi as lacking empathy or, in Boston’s words “decency”. He is accused of not feeling for anyone and when he attempts to rape the woman who thrusts the baby into his hands, he see her only as mouth, legs, eyes, her “neck with the pulse of an artery”, breasts and chest. A collection of body parts, a collage and therefore capable of being violated without guilt.

So, summing up, we are firstly given a character with extreme anti-social and perhaps sociopathic tendencies; a desperate and possibly manic need for attention, recognition and ‘strokes’; suffering from a dislocation from family.

At the heart of the book, there is a section where Tsotsi remembers his past. An apparently loving mother is ripped from her bed by police in a Pass raid – abusing the system of Passes which limit and control the blacks’ rights to be in any certain area. His father’s long awaited return becomes a tragedy as he discovers the empty house and wails his horror and disappointment and in his rage kicks the pregnant dog. In perhaps the central image of the book the bitch with its broken back then crawls outside to where Tsotsi (who has now recalled his name, David Madoni) has hidden and miscarries, “giving birth to death” as Fugard describes the image in his notes.

I wonder about the extent to which the memory is reliable or wish fulfilment. The mother is very warmly described: “warm” and “safe” are the words which characterise her. And it must be more comforting for someone motherless to imagine her taken from him than having abandoned him.

Anyway, the memory appears to be traumatic.

A Freudian analysis – based on the division of the mind into the conscious and the unconscious – could explain, or more properly provide a vocabulary with which to explain this. The traumatic event was too difficult for David’s young mind to deal with. The event is too visceral, too painful, effectively orphaning him. Incapable of integrating it into his conscious, the memory is repressed into his unconscious.

It is interesting – to me at least – to note that Tsotsi appears to repress the memory through conscious effort. He is shown deliberately fighting his memory, daily honing his knife as a fetish to keep the memory and his trauma at bay.

Because the repressed trauma is not integrated into the conscious, just as an untreated physical injury will fester and become infected, the repressed psychological injury could be seen as giving rise to the sociopathic lack of empathy with which he starts the novel.

Once the trauma is recalled, Tsotsi changes his behaviour: he disbands his gang; he sees Die Aap as a person rather than as a useful tool because of his immense strength; he attempts to reconcile with Boston who he had previously assaulted and kicked so hard he had nearly killed him; he visits a church; he finally sacrifices himself to attempt to save the baby (which had triggered the memories) from the slum clearance crews. It is left ambiguous at the end as to whether his gesture was futile or not: Tsotsi is killed when the wall falls upon him, dying with a very enigmatic “smile”, but the baby itself is not even mentioned. It, too may have died; or may have been rescued earlier by another character, possibly Miriam who Tsotsi forces to feed the baby.

I am personally always a tad hesitant about applying Freudian language to fictional characters but the arc of this book seems to be so apt for it.