The Spectre of Penislessness


The Poetry Society have kindly allowed me to reproduce the above poem, which was published in The Poetry Review, 106:4, Winter 2016. Below is some of the thinking behind it.


In a short book called Leonardo Da Vinci And A Memory Of His Childhood, Sigmund Freud writes: “Before the child comes under the dominance of the castration-complex – at a time when he still holds women at full value – he begins to display an intense desire to look, as an erotic instinctual activity. He wants to see other people’s genitals, at first in all probability to compare them with his own.” This is surely right, our early unfettered “desire to look” – to compare genitals – only being compounded by the admonition that some parts of the body remain private or taboo. But Freud goes on: “The erotic attraction that comes from his mother soon culminates in a longing for her genital organ, which he takes to be a penis. With the discovery, which is not made till later, that women do not have a penis, this longing often turns into its opposite and gives place to a feeling of disgust which in the years of puberty can become the cause of psychical impotence, misogyny and permanent homosexuality.” 

The desire to look becomes a longing for the mother’s genital organ which – upon finding out this isn’t a penis – gives rise to feelings of disgust toward oneself and others. This, half brilliant insight, half total bullshit, gets at a large problem with Freud’s thinking. If you assume, as the castration-complex does, that the male body is the default setting for humanity (and the male mind) then the discovery that there are human-beings-without-penises will only register as a threatening lack. (Cf. Viola in Twelfth Night “A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man.”) 

Freud’s analysis, rather than piercing conventional prejudice, reinforces it. Women are tellingly absent, treated as blank objects on which to project male pathologies – in this case, impotence and “permanent homosexuality”. The spectre of penislessness haunts Freud, filling him with a confusing mixture of disgust and longing. He can’t see beyond his own dick and in the very process of trying to do so is overtaken by a hate-filled form of vertigo.

As a child I sometimes had lucid dreams. One night I dreamed I kissed a classmate behind the entrance to assembly hall – a surprise to me, as we’d barely talked. Another night I found myself in our school’s cold, grey-stone toilets and looked across the row of urinals to see Justine – shy, bespectacled Justine – take out the shrivelled trunk of her penis and wee.

It seemed perfectly natural that Justine would have a penis. We can’t help but universalise our experience until such a point as experience proves us wrong. I was shameless, in the sense of being without shame. I didn’t respond to Justine’s penis with any particular longing, disgust or disappointment, but with curiosity – that early, proto-sexual desire to compare.

A certain kind of thinking purports to draw away the veil, to show the world as it really is. More often than not, the old assumptions end up being reasserted in a new guise. With Freud, the unconscious – which should have been revelatory, revolting, revolutionary – often became a tool for restating a too-familiar set of binary assumptions: what’s masculine is defined by presence, wholeness, virility; what’s feminine by absence, mutilation, threat.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Freud, writing at the end of a century in which scientific racism reached its apogee, would order the unconscious mind around his own (unconscious) prejudices. Of course, I’m as much the product of a still-hateful, patriarchal society. Much as I’d like to believe otherwise, my own longings can slip easily into disgust, my efforts at compassion shade into resentment. But the effort is what matters, of trying to see through – to trace out the shadow of – longing.

The castration-complex implies a longing for the stability represented by the white, heterosexual male. Inasmuch as it’s at all conscious, I think about writing as a way of addressing race, gender, history which might embrace mixedness and confusion, which might unsettle. Put more concretely, it means thinking beyond one’s dick, rather than with it; rejecting claims to have unveiled anything; exploring – with candidness and curiosity – the texture of the flawed, shameful unreality that structures our experience of the world.

In John Berger’s essay ‘Lost off Cape Wrath’, he says: “Authenticity comes from a single faithfulness: that to the ambiguity of experience.” Maybe the world would be a better place if we were less committed to authenticity than to (honest) ambiguity.

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