A dive into the phallocentric world: Analysis of Juliet Mitchell’s “Femininity, Narrative and Psychoanalysis”

Juliet Mitchell

‘Women: The Longest Revolution’ writer Juliet Mitchell heralded the emergence of a politically radical feminism in the 1960s. A member of the British Intellectual Left, she is one of the most powerful and controversial voices of the English speaking world. “Femininity, Narrative and Psychoanalysis”, a transcript of a lecture delivered to a conference on Narrative held in Australia in 1972, assimilates Mitchells’ four principal interests, that are, English Literature, politics, psychoanalysis and feminism.

Juliet Mitchel’s essay hinges on the issues of psychoanalysis and feminism. A historical background would serve as a tell-tale to the conglomerate layers of the essay. The see-saw of psychoanalysis and feminism has always been unbalanced. The misogynist trends of Sigmund Freud’s oratory and writings are clear as crystal. The concepts of ‘penis envy’, ‘ castration complex’, and the absence of libido in females with ‘its own original nature’, prove that Freud’s outlook was the epitome of chauvinism. The major feminist of the post-Freudean critical scene, Simone de Beauvoire considered Freud’s theory inadequate to account for women’s otherness. Psychoanalysis denied women’s existential freedom, by rendering her as ‘other to a subject rather than a subject herself’.

Mitchell’s essay also encompasses Jacques Lacan’s theory of ‘moment of symbolic’. Lacan re-read and innovated Freud’s view, as a ‘return to Freud’. Though innovative in nature, his views were not devoid of misogyny to the hilt, which can be seen by the incorporation of the extensive use of phallocentrism in his works. The predominant authors of French Feminism, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous, Catherine Clement and Sarah Kofman, critically derided Lacan’s phallocentrism.

Mitchell, at the peak of women’s movement, nonplussed the contemporary feminists by highlighting the usefulness of Freud’s works, which were repudiated for its anti-feminist idiosyncrasy. Mitchell and some of her fellow feminists like Dorothy Dinnerstein, Gayle Rubin, and Nancy Chodorow, moved beyond the initial rejection of psychoanalysis on the ground of being bourgeois and patriarchal and was considered fatal for feminism, and explored its feminist potential.

Rather than premising less on a denial of misogyny of Freud’s Psychoanalysis, the essay comes out as its re-interpretation and depicts how phallic culture domesticates women and the effects of this domestication on women, thus justifying that Freudian theory is a rationalization of women’s subordination.

After some initial remarks on narrative in psychoanalytic practice, Mitchell talks about women in the early history of novel and then about psychoanalytic theory, finally illustrating some of her concerns with reference to Wuthering heights.

Freud used the term ‘talking cure’ to describe the fundamental work of analysis. Mental health professionals use various talking therapies to deal with patients. So, according to Mitchell, if language is itself phallocentric, while the analyst and the patient can either be male or female, what is the woman analyst or the woman patient doing at all?

The psychoanalysts tell and retell stories by striving through the anarchic carnival, which is the Bakhtinian concept which states that at every strata of society, deception is at play. A constant contradiction of power and resistance avails. The forces of deception allow people to put on masks and play certain roles. Any form of action is always in a state of flux, restless and unceasingly changing, due to this deception, through multiple retellings of one’s history.

Mitchell says, “What can you do but disrupt a history and recreate it as another?”

I think Mitchell is connecting this disruption of history with the process where an analyst and a patient tell, hear, retell, disrupt and create history through a carnivalesque juncture.

Mitchell then proceeds to one ‘kind of history’- the novel, the preeminent form of literary narrative. The advent of novels in around the 17th century, were marked by autobiographies written by women. Myriad novels were authored by women though there were men novelists as well. These women writers were trying to create a history from a state of flux, process of becoming women within a new bourgeois society.

Women started to concoct themselves as social subjects under bourgeois capitalism, and this was implemented by the novel. Mitchell, being a leftist, has overpassed the proletariat novels. She agrees that there were working class novels as well but the dominant form is represented by the women in the bourgeoisie. What I think, maybe until the Proletarian Literature Era in the 1930s when socialism crept into the system abridging the intensive biased span between the aristocrat and the working class , there were not really any proletariat women novels, given the strenuous life and little provisions they had, which would not suffice to produce a literary aspect to their working class life. Even if there were any such novel written by working class women, it would have been stowed away into non-existence. The economic reality and the materialistic approach towards everything in life as proposed by Marx, might lead Mitchell, who has set herself up in a Marxist framework, to call the novel bourgeois in a bourgeois capitalistic world. Regardless of these obligations, I think, proletariat women novelists’ works should be widely acknowledged, as yet ghastly, proletariat novels written by women were not ever recognised let alone critically acclaimed as is done for the proletariat men novelists’ works. The intertwined web of class-bias and patriarchy is the pedestal for novels written by proletariat women.

Mitchell charges Julia Kristeva’s notion of novel as ‘the discourse of hysteric’ by concurring to her and redefines the meaning of hysteria which is “the woman’s simultaneous acceptance and refusal of the organization of sexuality under patriarchal capitalism.” The boomerang events of being feminine and refusing femininity within the patriarchal configuration of the novel, is what a hysteric does. The concoction of a woman’s world within the masculine world makes the woman novelist recognise the significance of bisexuality.

Mitchell takes reference from Lacan’s theory of moment of symbolic; the stage where a child psychologically creates the sexes. Before the moment of symbolic, there is the pre-Oedipal stage, which according to Lacan and Freud, is heterogeneous and not symbolised. The moment of symbolic is followed by the Oedipal stage where the child organizes the pre-oedipal heterogeneity into two poles: masculine and not masculine, that is feminine.

The pre-oedipal stage is characterised as semiotic, carnivalesque, and disruptive. Before advancing towards the political dimensions of the concept of moment of symbolic, we should be acquainted with the terms ‘carnivalesque’, ‘carnival’ and ‘church’. Literary theorist and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin originated the word ‘carnival’ which is a literary mode which liberates and subverts the assumptions of the dominant atmosphere through chaos and humour. The carnivals of medieval Europe were occasions in which the legal , political or ideological authority of both the state and church were transcended, albeit temporarily, during the liberating and anarchic period of the carnival. The carnival furnished the revellers with temporary liberation from the cusps of the rules and regulations of the church. In Mitchell’s essay, the church, I think, is the authority or the theory of moment of symbolic. The carnival refers to the refutation of the theory of moment of symbolic on certain grounds that Mitchell says.

From the pe-Oedipal, carnivalesque stage, as Lacan’s moment of symbolic suggests, two positions can be derived. The first is that the child has an inborn capacity to recognise itself different from the mother, which means the pre-divided, heterogeneous, pre-oedipal child has its own organization of polyvalence and polyphony. Secondly, the very notion of bisexuality, pre-oedipality or homogeneity arise because of the dyadic possibility of a child with a mother. What Mitchell means, I think, is the child and the mother are one and different at the same time. It is an image of oneness and heterogeneity as two sides of the same coin.

Mitchell discusses the political dimension of this issue. If we take into consideration the first position, the statement “ pre-divided, heterogeneous, pre-oedipal child has its own organization of polyvalence and polyphony” means that the pre-Oedipal world is a separate one. This points a finger to the factual authenticity of the Lacanian moment of symbolic and signifies the refutation of the concept that what was heterogeneous becomes organised and bi-polar. The pre-Oedipal stage is already organised as the child can recognise himself as separate from his mother. So, the “ the carnival can be held on the church steps”. Mitchell puts up another aspect which is if the carnival and church are not separate then the pre-Oedipal and the Oedipal stages are not discrete as well. If the pre-Oedipal stage is defined by the Oedipal stage then the only way to disregard it is from an alternative symbolic universe. When the alternative symbolic universe comes to play, the Lacanian moment of symbolic ceases to exist, which means without the moment of symbolic the Oedipal and pre-Oedipal stages will lose its meaning. The child who, when goes through the moment of symbolic, realises the existence of genders by identifying the male as the possessor of phallus and the female as someone who doesn’t have a phallus, which he observes from his mother, psychologically creates a notion that phallus is some power which the male possess and the female do not, which makes them feel as privileged, someone superior.

Well, the rules and disciplinary regulations of the church and the state are not immune to the transgression completely. The disrespect or rather the liberation is only for a short duration because the state fears the degeneration of the system into anarchy and violence.The carnival is an ephemeral and impermanent affair and it only functions within the terms of the law. There are always restraints and checks. So, a new law of symbolism should be concocted as a reconception to the dominant law. The carnival disrupts the law but within the parameters of the law. Mitchell exemplifies Julia Kristeva in support of her argument by referring to the apolitical stance of Julia who, while expounding their ideas, chose ‘exclusively masculine’ and ‘proto-fascist texts’.

Femininity has always been given designations and tags like intuitive, religious, mystical, playful, poetic. Mitchell does not concede to the impression that carnival is the area of feminine. She says, carnival is instead the definition of feminine as opined by the patriarchal universe. Disruption is contained within the patriarchal symbolic.

Mitchell continues to illustrate some allusions from Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ to succour her arguments in the essay. She says that Emily is working clearly within the framework of a language which is designated as phallocentric. She is not writing a ‘carnivalesque query’ to the patriarchal order, instead questioning it through a ‘kind of irony’.

I find it quite abhorring that Emily had to publish her novel in the disguise of a male pseudonym, Ellis bell, to gain ‘fame and notoriety’. Of course a woman’s writing published under her name wouldn’t get as much recognition, however arête it may be. Emily uses two narratives- a man, Lockwood, portrayed as a hopelessly romantic foppish gentleman and a woman nurse, Nelly Dean. The aspect of bisexuality of Wuthering Heights is elucidated by Mitchell. Catherine’s father brought a gypsy child, Heathcliff, named after Catherine’s dead brother. The only thing Catherine wanted all her life is Heathcliff which wasn’t feasible because it would be incestuous which was considered a taboo. She instead makes a conventionally feminine choice of marrying a man Edgar Linton. They had a child, delivering whom Catherine died.

Catherine wanted to break the incest taboo and be one with Heathcliff: “ I am Heathcliff, he’s more myself than I am”. This oneness can only be achieved through death. It takes death to transgress the norms of patriarchal society.

Women had to construct themselves as a woman within a new social structure; in a state of flux she is always in the process of becoming. Humans need a historical background to survive. As Aristotle said, we are not animals with instinctual or plants with nutritive lives. We are rational creations with the deliberative recollection of history and imagination of imagined reality. We have to create new histories if we deconstruct the pre-existing history. Mitchell concludes her speech asking one question, “ What are we in the process of becoming?”

As Virginia Woolf said, “ Women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned, are unsolved problems”.

An amateur writer who is in a constant dilemma between accepting reality and drowning in her surrealistic reveries.