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In Freud's account of the Oedipus complex, the mother is the first love object of the child; it is only the intervention of the father, via the threat of castration, which forces the child to give up his desire for the mother.
In the work of Melanie Klein, the emphasis shifted from the role of the father to the pre-genital mother-child relation; the latter was described as a sadistic relation in which the child makes (in fantasy) vicious attacks on the mother's body and then fears retaliation from her.
In his pre-war writings, Lacan alludes several times to Melanie Klein's work, and describes the cannibalistic fantasies of devouring, and being devoured by, the mother. Lacan argues that the first of the family complexes is the weaning complex, in which the interrruption of the symbiotic relation with the mother leaves a permanent trace in the child's psyche.
He also describes the death drive as a nostalgic yearning to return to this relation of fusion with the mother's breast. This view of the mother as an engulfing force which threatens to devour the child is a constant theme in Lacan's work thereafter.
Lacan argues that the child must detach himself from the imaginary relation with the mother in order to enter the social world; failure to do so can result in any one of various peculiarities ranging from phobia to perversion.
Hence much of Lacan's work is aimed at shifting the emphasis in psychoanalytic theory from the mother-child relation (the preoedipal, the prototype of the imaginary) back onto the role of the father (the Oedipus complex, the prototype of the symbolic).
Desire of the Mother
According to Freud, a woman's desire to have a child is rooted in her envy of the man's penis. When the girl first realizes that she does not possess a penis, she feels deprived of something valuable, and seeks to compensate for this by obtaining a child as a symbolic substitute for the penis she has been denied.
Lacan follows Freud, arguing that the child always represents for the mother a substitute for the symbolic phallus which she lacks (see privation). However, Lacan emphasizes that the substitute never really satisfies the mother; her desire for the phallus persists even after she has had a child.
The child soon realizes that he does not completely satisfy the mother's desire, that her desire aims at something beyond him, and thus attempts to decipher this enigmatic desire; he must work out an answer to the question Che vuoi? ("What do you want from me?").
The answer the child] comes up with is that what the mother desires is the imaginary phallus. The child then seeks to satisfy the mother's desire by identifying with the imaginary phallus (or by identifying with the phallic mother, the mother imagined as possessing the phallus). In this game of "to be or not to be the phallus," the child is completely at the mercy of the capricious desire of the mother, helpless in the face of her omnipotence.
However, this sense of powerlessness may not give rise to much anxiety at first; for a time, the child experiences his attempts at being the phallus as a relatively satisfying game of seduction. It is only when the child's sexual drives begin to stire (e.g. in infantile masturbation), and an element of the real is thus introduced into the imaginary game, that the omnipotence of the mother begins to provoke greater anxiety in the child. This anxiety is manifested in images of being devoured by the mother, and is only resolved by the intervention of the real father who castrates the child in the third time of the Oedipus complex.
Imaginary, Symbolic and Real Mother
Lacan argues that it is important to distinguish between the real mother, the symbolic mother, and the imaginary mother. The mother manifests herself in the real as the primary caretaker of the infant. The infant is incapable of satisfying its own needs and so depends absolutely on an Other to care for him (see helplessness).
The mother is first of all symbolic; she only becomes real by frustrating the subject's demand (see frustration). When the mother ministers to the infant, bringing him the objects that will satisfy his needs, these objects soon take on a symbolic function that completely eclipses their real funciton; the objects are seen as gifts, symbolic tokens of the mother's love. Finally, it is the mother's presence which testifies to this love, even if she does not bring any real object with her. Consequently, the mother's absence is experienced as a traumatic rejection, as a loss of her love.
Freud showed how the child attempts to cope with this loss by symbolizing the mother's presence and absence in games and language. Lacan regards this primary symbolization as the child's first steps into the symbolic order." The mother which interests psychoanalytic theory is thus above all the symbolic mother, the mother in her role as the primordial Other. It is she who introduces the child into language by interpreting the child's screams and thereby retroactively determining their meaning (see punctuation).
The mother is manifested in the imaginary order in a number of images. One important image that has aleady been mentioned is that of the devouring mother which is at the root of anxiety. Another important maternal image is that of the phallic mother, the mother imagined as possessing the imaginary phallus.
Lacan’s remarks on the Real Mother are few and far between, but it is a safe bet to assume that the Real Mother is none other than the Thing itself, as the ultimate object of desire. The Real Mother is the one we are once united with, or indeed the One beyond all symbolization itself.
- Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 195; Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre XVII. L'envers de la psychanalyse, 19669-70. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 118
- Freud, Sigmund. "The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex," 1924d. SE XIX, 173.
- Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 69, 187
- Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 67-