The Destructive Mother
In the years before World War I, the great increase in the membership and influence of feminist organizations provoked a backlash against feminism. Among anti-feminists, Bachofen’s imaginative picture of a matriarchal age and a war between men and women could arouse terror as well as fascination. The psychological theories of this era reconceptualized the battle between the sexes as a conflict within each individual psyche, and Bachofen’s story often provided a metaphorical framework for the exploration of the human subconscious. In the psyche, as in prehistory, Dionysus contended against Apollo, instinct against reason, id against superego, and indulgent maternal love against stern paternal authority.
Among this era’s best known texts was Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character, which was translated into at least ten languages and exercised an influence far beyond the author’s native Vienna. Weininger, a young philosopher who became famous not only for his misogynist and anti-Semitic classic but for his suicide (at the age of twenty-three) soon after its publication, was among the first theorists to take the battle of the sexes from the historical into the psychological realm. He warned gloomily that the moral fabric of Western civilization was menaced by the emancipation of women and Jews—groups which he associated with weakness, decadence, and sexual anarchy. These forces of disorder threatened the self-confidence of the Western male, and thus of Western civilization itself. Weininger implicated mothers in this sinister threat, for beneath their professions of selfless devotion lurked a voracious will to domination. Quite unlike Bachofen, who had extolled the altruism of the mother-child bond, Weininger insisted that mother-love was a selfish urge to preserve “an unbroken connection between the mother and everything that has ever been umbilically linked to her,” and thus to destroy her son’s individuality. The mother was the enemy of growth, maturity, and rationality, and the price of her love was eternal childhood.97
This strange polemic may well have been directed at the Cosmic Circle, a group of academics, authors, and artists, some quite well known, who met in Munich between 1897 and 1904 under the leadership of the poets Stefan George and Alfred Schuler, the philosopher Ludwig Klages, and the classical scholar Karl Wolfskehl. This group, who made Bachofen’s Das Mutterrecht into their cult classic, called for the destruction of patriarchy, and with it the repressive and life-denying civilization of the West. These readers of Bachofen did not endorse feminism, which they rejected along with all the other trappings of modern civilization. In fact, they recommended that women should return to their primordial roles as mothers, lovers, and priestesses. Rather than to the powerful matriarchy, the Cosmic Circle looked back to the primal period of promiscuity, which they imagined as a golden age of men’s liberation—a time when a healthy and polymorphous sexuality had flourished without the constraints of marriage, normative heterosexuality, or paternal responsibility.
In carnival balls that were chronicled by the novelist Franziska zu Reventlow, who was among its members, the group recreated the Dionysian revelries and other ancient fertility rites, and guests appeared in drag as Aphrodite and the Great Mother. As the symbol of a program that aimed to rejuvenate Western civilization through a new paganism that would liberate the bracing forces of sex, race, and blood, they chose an ancient sun sign, the swastika.98
The popularity of this group seemed to justify the fears expressed by Marianne Weber and others that matriarchal fantasies could serve antifeminist purposes. But in an era when women’s movements approached the height of their influence, even this reactionary discourse could be given a feminist “spin.” Otto Gross, a psychiatrist who was Freud’s most gifted pupil, was a prominent member of the Munich group and a reader of Bachofen and Engels. Gross turned his teacher’s doctrine on its head. Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex had shown that beneath its respectable surface the patriarchal family was the scene of forbidden sexual wishes, tension, and conflict, all of which could have catastrophic effects on the child’s psychological development. But, his pupil charged, Freud had failed to draw the logical conclusion—that patriarchy, the product of usurpation and violence, must be abolished and replaced by the mother-headed family that was “natural” to the human race.99
In 1908, Gross was treated for morphine addiction at a psychiatric institution in Zurich, the Burgholzli, by the psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, who at that time was still a disciple—though an increasingly skeptical one—of Freud. The treatment seems to have changed the physician more than the patient, who soon resumed his drug habit. Jung, the rebellious son of a Protestant pastor, was convinced by Gross that psychoanalysis, when rightly practiced, could lift the curse of sexual repression and create a healthier approach to sexual morality. Freud regarded the Oedipus complex—the (male) child’s incestuous attraction to his mother—as the basis of all personality development. The prohibition of this desire by the boy’s father was the origin of the sexual repression and guilt that tormented the mature man. But—as Jung asked Freud in a letter of 1912—was this really a universal, and thus inevitable, pattern? After all, it could not have existed in the matriarchal period of human civilization, when no tie had existed between father and son: “in fact, there was no such thing as a father’s son.”100
Freud, who had already rejected Gross, obviously feared that psychoanalysis might be co-opted by a sexual radicalism that he considered a threat to social order. He responded by asserting the universality of patriarchy. “Most authors regard a primordial state of promiscuity as unlikely. … It seems likely that there have been father’s sons at all times.”101 During the years from 1911 to 1913, which saw Jung’s decisive break with Freud, both men constructed theories that made the conflict between maternal indulgence and paternal order a central theme of psychology, as it was of prehistory and history.
Jung’s Wandlung und Symbole der Libido (published in English as Psychology of the Unconscious), published in segments from 1912 to 1913, provided an alternative to Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex by attributing the male patient’s fantasies about his mother not to an incest wish but rather to a more general longing to escape the problems of adult life and to return to the blissful security of infancy. This seductive fantasy-world was dominated by a powerful mother-figure, who appeared in mythology— which Jung regarded as the expression of a “collective subconscious”—as the mother-goddess or Great Mother. Like Weininger, Jung regarded maternal power with considerable fear and aversion. Too great an attachment to the “destructive mother” condemned whoever was too weak to resist it to permanent infantilism and neurosis: “and there is no doubt,” Jung concluded, “that there is nothing that so completely enfolds us as the mother.”102 Only by overcoming this fatal attraction could the individual attain adulthood.
Meanwhile Freud defended the universality of patriarchy in a volume entitled Totem and Taboo, published in 1913. Like Jung, Freud based his conclusions on mythology, but also on the speculations of anthropologists about human prehistory. He started from Darwin’s theory that human beings, like some other primate species, had originally lived in patriarchal groups where, in the absence of an incest taboo, a dominant male had monopolized all the females and driven away the adolescent males. At some point the latter, crazed by desire for the females, had combined to kill the father. Freud speculated that a short matriarchal interregnum might have followed the father’s death. But eventually, stricken by remorse, the males had renounced sexual access to the females and elevated the murdered father to a god, whom they periodically appeased through a ritual feast.
Freud thus traced the origin of civilization to “this memorable criminal act with which so many things began, social organization, moral restrictions, religion.” And civilization rested on patriarchy, for God had “always been, at bottom, just an exalted father.”103 In each individual, according to Freud, this “memorable crime” was replicated through the Oedipus complex and its resolution. In fact, the stages of child development that Freud identified corresponded to Bachofen’s stages of prehistory: a period of maternal nurture, permissiveness, and uninhibited sexuality (infancy) is ended through the imposition of the law of the father, in the form of the incest taboo, which Freud and others identified as the primal law. The Freudian “id,” or instinctual subconscious, was in some sense the repressed matriarchy, and the superego the ascendant patriarchy. Only submission to patriarchy could complete the transition from infancy to adulthood.
But these new arguments for patriarchy were not left unchallenged. In 1913, the year in which Totem and Taboo appeared, the British suffragist Catherine Gasquoine Hartley told the same story, but used it to demonstrate the evanescence rather than the necessity of patriarchy. Hartley, a former teacher and widely read journalist, was as well qualified for this intellectual task as was Freud, for both were amateur anthropologists and both had read the same body of literature.104 Though accepting the same Darwinian picture of the primal family as Freud, Hartley criticized the assumption, found in the books that both had read, that the women of the group would have played a wholly passive role in the development of culture. On the contrary, she proposed that women, who must have objected to the patriarch’s sexual molestation of their daughters, probably enforced the first incest taboo. Through their unity and superior numbers, they were able to oppose his “egoistical” authority and assume the leadership of the group. And thus, she continued, religion and morality must have developed in the context of matriarchal rather than patriarchal rule. However, the matriarchs undermined their own benign regime by encouraging their sons to marry women outside the group. This led to the emergence of the nuclear family, in which males had gained the authority that they still exercised.
But Hartley pointed out that patriarchy was not a God-given order, but a transitional arrangement. And contemporary developments, especially that of the women’s movement, paved the way for a new age of equality. “We stand in the first rush of a great movement,” she wrote in 1914. “It is the day of experiments. We are questioning where we have accepted, and are seeking out new ways in which mankind will go. . . will go because it must.”105