MAGIC AND THE CASTRATION-COMPLEX
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PSYCHO-ANALYSIS
VOL. XXXIX 1958 PARTS II-IV
I. A DREAM, AND A PROBLEM
During the night between 22 and 23 November, 19 …. my patient R., who was suffering from psycho-sexual disturbances and had typical phallic-narcissistic character-traits, had the following dream which he related to me a few hours later:
I seemed to be in the courtyard of the M. Institute, where I was educated as a boy. I was walking around with an unknown man, possibly a servant. This man asked if he could borrow my fountain-pen, to which I agreed. But, to my great disappointment, he was not giving my pen back to me.
On the previous day, R. had been asked to contact a rather imposing politician. In order to be well received, he had prompted his father (a prominent businessman) to give him some support. R.’s father, however, had only given his son a visiting-card, and this had disappointed R. to a considerable extent.
The dream could, therefore, be interpreted as follows: The courtyard represents a feminine (maternal) genital area. R.’s wish to have the ‘power’ (= penis) of an adult man (= father, analyst) is being frustrated (as the dreamer had been frustrated in reality by the disobliging father)-to the point that he himself, R., is subject to the loss of all assertiveness, and his own penis. In fact, not only does R. fail to receive a phallic endowment (fountain-pen) from a male adult, but the latter might take away R.’s own masculine equipment and he, R., might comply . . . It seems obvious that in the unknown man of his dream, R. has condensed the castrating father and the frustrating analyst, who both, in his mind, do not give him their “power” (= penis); whom he still feels from time to time to be powerful as well as ‘dangerous’ figures, and to whom he might be inclined to “surrender”.
After relating the day-remnants which have already been quoted, R. was helped to understand the general meaning of his dream, and had no difficulty in accepting my interpretations (he was in his third year of analysis). No particular justification, however, was found for the use of the “fountain-pen” as a phallic symbol.
At this point I made a mental note. I remembered in a flash a comic strip in the previous day’s New York Herald Tribune, which had struck me for its symbolical significance (this, at least, had been the conscious reason of my interest). In the strip, a well-known comic character, “Ferdinand”, is at first driving his car at top speed. A policeman reaches him, stops him, mulcts him in a fine, and is about to write down the receipt for the amount. However, he has no fountain-pen, and Ferdinand obligingly lends him his own. In the last picture of the strip, the dismayed Ferdinand looks at the policeman who departs on his motor-cycle, having pocketed the money-and the fountain-pen!
I was telling myself that this resemblance between the manifest content of R.’s dream and my dayremnant was a curious coincidence, when R. suddenly said:
“I have a funny idea in my mind: I am thinking that you are not a magician”.
Now this struck me just a little more, and gave me a certain feeling of uneasiness. The fact was that in the morning I had received a letter from the editor of an important foreign review, informing me that a special issue on magic was being prepared. The editor asked me to contribute to this issue a paper on magic from a psychological viewpoint, and furthermore, he wanted me to write a general introduction to the whole number. My reactions had been very mixed. I had felt flattered-but had also told myself that I had no particular talent for this work. As a matter of fact, I had not made any deep study of the vast problem of magic. Should I have gone into it? Had I got the necessary ‘ drive’? In short, should I have taken out my fountain-pen and started writing-or not? These had been my reflections: and they all came back to me when R. uttered his strange questions. I asked him what else he was thinking. This was his reply:
“When I was a little boy-of 5 or 6-I had this fantasy: I used to imagine that I might glide magically on the surface of the earth. In order to do so, however, I thought that I would have to give up my genitals, which I felt as a hindrance. I went so far as to ask our family surgeon, Professor B., if he would be willing to remove my genitals, which in my mind were only an obstacle to the possible fulfilment of my wish”.
R.’s trend of thoughts-considering only his side of the picture-could be now described, therefore, much more completely. It is as if he had been trying to say: (i) that he would like to be endowed with a better penis (= sexually reinforced) by a powerful male figure (= father, analyst); (ii) that the father, and the analyst, are not complying, so that he may feel that his own penis is in danger; (iii) that he, R., nevertheless defends himself against the return of a childhood-fantasy-in fact, that he wants to fight against the not totally overcome infantile wish to relinquish his penis in order to obtain hypothetical magical powers (total possession and mastery of the earth, i.e., of the pre-oedipal mother); (iv) that the analyst, being ‘no magician’, has certainly not lost his own penis, is not prepared to do so, and is not going to give his penis to him, R.; (v) that the analyst cannot do ‘wonders’ for him or otherwise, and (vi) that if he, R., is to possess a ‘ real penis (full adult sexuality) some day, he must fight his own battle without expecting any magical help from any external authority.
Now about my side of the picture. The hypothesis that R. could have perceived telepathically some elements from my own personal life and problems-i.e. the “fountain-pen” story, and the editor’s request that I should write about magic-could not be brushed aside too easily, and out of a very long experience I am of the opinion that it should be taken into account. The fact remains anyway -I have to admit it – that in those days several occurrences might have been instrumental in inactivating in me some castration-fantasies of old. I was still convalescent from “flu, and working under some stress; a newspaper had not yet printed my review of an important book, and seemed reluctant to do so; owing to certain divergences of opinion, my name had been deleted from the cover of a scientific review; I was supposed to revise the Italian translation of a book by Freud, and I felt that I had little enthusiasm for such a trying work.
… It will be noticed that practically all these elements had something to do with writing, i.e. with “using my fountain-pen”.
When I became aware of this, I realized that my interest in the’ Ferdinand’ comic strip had not been a purely scientific one, and that I had identified myself with “Ferdinand” to a large extent. Moreover, I came to the conclusion that the request to “write about magic” might have given the final touch to preconscious or unconscious trends of ideas, such as: “Oh, if there really was a magic realm! If I could get away from a world in which I am supposed to be a practical, realistic, well-adjusted, sexually mature man, an analyst, and a writer! If I could stop writing papers and revising translations! If I could just relax and let my thoughts – not my actions-be the masters! . ..” In short: magical regressive thinking!
If the telepathy hypothesis is now introduced, the dream and the sudden utterance of my patient make much more sense. As is usual in such cases, R. could have telepathically perceived some of the things that were going on about me. He then could have called my attention to the fact that I was too busy with my problems (involving castrationanxieties), and that I was not giving enough attention to his own difficulties of the same order. ‘While I am trying to assert my rights and to become a full-fledged male’-the patient apparently could have said-“you feel shaky and are looking for help! While I need a good “fountainpen “, you are afraid to use your own, and perhaps wanting to take mine. While I am not prepared any longer to give up my genitals in order to become “omnipotent”, you are wishing to give up your assertiveness, and go after magical illusions, and the would-be omnipotence of your own thoughts. I wish you would please stop all this; and moreover, do not imagine that I am unaware of what is going on, because in one way or another, I happen to know it. Therefore, kindly let’s go back to my problems and my needs . ..”
II. EXPLOITING A POSSIBLY TELEPATHIC EPISODE
This analysis – which was a self-analysis of the analyst to a very great extent-was very profitable both to myself and to the patient. Having got fully conscious of the deep origins of my despondency, I immediately felt better and much more confident in my work, especially in my activity as a scientific writer. To the patient, I simply said that all along with expressing his castration-conflicts, and his feeling that the analyst (= father) would not help him to overcome them in spite of his endeavours, he had probably perceived in some subtle way that in those days I myself was in need of psychological help, and that through his dream and his fantasy he had wanted to stimulate my flinching attention vis-à-vis his own needs. This was very useful to R., because it allowed him to complain profusely about his self-centred father, who was always so busy with his own problems, had not given him sufficient attention all along, etc., etc.
III. POTENCY VERSUS OMNIPOTENCE
The central fantasy-motive of the aforesaid episode could be expressed by saying that supposedly there exists a possibility of giving up the penis (= sexual potency, normal object-relations, realistic assertiveness) in favour of “magical omnipotence”. This fantasy, and the regressive “temptation” it contains, were actively fought against by my patient, who nevertheless-owing to the temporary activation in my mind of similar fantasy-derivatives-found himself in a still more difficult situation, and “called me to order”, possibly also by the means of telepathic communication.
It is now of some interest to see (i) if and how this fantasy can be described in developmental terms, and (ii) if it corresponds to what we know or have been told of those individuals (historical as well as legendary) who have been described to us as “magicians”.
Regarding the first point, I wish to recall some well-known descriptions of the stages in the development of the sense of reality in children, such as were first studied by Ferenczi. It is generally admitted that the child reacts against the blows of reality-experiences on one side by repression, and on the other side by attributing to the parents (particularly to the father) the ‘omnipotence’ he thinks he has lost, and by trying to participate in the same either by magic words or gestures, or by reflection, or through partial identification. In this phase there is still an admixture of the archaic belief in one’s own omnipotence, and of the less primordial belief that other beings are omnipotent. In the oedipal phase, too, castration-fears and fantasies still contain, after all, elements of such prelogical thinking, and reveal a still not fully developed sense of reality (the male child actually believes to a certain extent that he could castrate the father, and fears that the father could castrate him). Only after the oedipal period the child accepts the superiority of the father on a realistic basis, acknowledging at the same time that his genitals are not threatened. From the viewpoint of object-relations, we may say that the final acceptance of an external world which one cannot influence by magic goes hand in hand with the feeling that no “superior” being or external agency is really going to castrate anyone.
Impossibility of giving up the primitive hopes of omnipotence, and of overcoming the castration fears, can lead to self-castration (usually symbolical, but quite real in some ancient or primitive religions), according to a process very aptly described by Fenichel. We find, first of all, “active anticipation of what otherwise might occur passively”; but the self-sacrifice is performed “for the purpose of regaining participation in omnipotence’. It is-quoting Fenichel again-as if the subject were saying:
I sacrifice myself for the great cause, and thus the greatness of the cause falls on me”. Self-castration thus symbolizes ‘the abandonment of all activity in order to obtain a passive-receptive merging with the omnipotent person’. In another work Fenichel points out that this attitude is ambivalent from the start, and that the person to whom one surrenders was originally hated. Several shades of the primitive hostility can be present in the fantasies of ‘getting powerful through surrendering to the great man’-namely, to the father.
However, the process just described seems to correspond to a developmental stage in which some important elements of reality are duly recognized: first of all, the existence and the power of another male being (the father), and the fact that it is only through him that one’s own wishes and thoughts might become true (the non-realistic factor being, of course, the fantasy that the father could perform wonders and miracles). This stage seems to be the unconscious platform of those religions which contain a strong admixture of magic: but one could hardly consider it as a truly magical stage. In my opinion, a magical attitude in its pure form is more primitive, and takes place at a stage in which ‘power’ does not belong as yet to a well-defined parental being or image which has to be prayed to, or stimulated by appropriate words or gestures. At this stage, the “universe” is the dimly-perceived, undifferentiated pre-oedipal mother; “power” is an impersonal, all-pervading mana, and the objects are its tangible manifestations. All this goes very well with the belief of being able to achieve any amount or quality of actions through thinking – i.e., without recognizing any strict and un-surmountable reality-barrier. The “magician”, in fact, knows no father and no god. He is alone among objects which he believes he can change, create, or destroy at will. He seems, therefore, to have regressively abandoned the dialectic confrontation with the father-figure and its possible outcomes. Totally abandoned also is the genital (phallic) level, and the appraisal of the penis, both as an instrument of pleasure and pride, and as a sign of the corresponding stage of development of the sense of reality. This relinquishing of any and every attempt to compete with the father on a phallic level, regressing to a quite primitive pre-oedipal stage and activating anew the delusion of magical omnipotence upon the objects, presupposes in my opinion the acceptance of a phantasied self-castration. The true magician’s type could be described therefore on the unconscious level as a self-castrated, narcissistically regressed and self-centred infant, who by accepting castration has exchanged the true possession of a penis (= potency) towards a delusional unlimited mastery over the pre-oedipal objects (== omnipotence).
The aforesaid assumptions find striking support from even a fleeting recall of what we know about people (in legend or history) to whom the qualification of “magicians” (in the traditional sense) has been given. First of all, it is well known that the ‘magician’ of the Middle-Age type is a lonely figure who lives in far-away abodes, with no family and no sex-life whatsoever (often he is represented as an ageless, or as an extremely old man, of whose “maleness” in the sexual sense one could not even think!). In legends, we quite often find that the man who has gained magical powers had to pay heavily for his conquest; and this ‘payment’ is in several cases the mutilation of an organ-or actual castration: Wotan sacrificed an eye to partake of the wisdom of the Great Mother; in the Parsifal legend, the magician Klingsor has paid for his power with castration . . . . It may also be remembered that the priests of Cybele, again a “great mother”, paid for her protection, and for the power they got through it, by submitting to castration. There is not a single text, among those (old or recent) pretending to show the ways to the conquest of “supernormal” (magical) powers, in which it is not stated that a condition sine qua non for such a supreme attainment is a complete and irreversible sexual abstinence (i.e. an equivalent of self-castration).
Naturally enough, all sorts of mishaps, failures, and “returns of the repressed” can occur after such premises. We have therefore many examples of “magicians” who lost their’ power’ because they succumbed to the “temptations of the flesh”; magic rituals and societies (often qualified as “black”) in which sex was admitted or exalted even at its most debased aspects, etc. Nevertheless, several historical men on whom the name of “magicians” has been bestowed (from the Tibetan Milarepa to some of the modern “masters of the Occult” in the West or in the East) have been well known for their complete abstinence from “worldly” pleasures-first of all, for their absolute refusal of sex.
A last remark may throw some further light on our main thesis: namely, a brief consideration of that well-known instrument, the “magic wand”, which seems to be the classical, almost unavoidable equipment of the magician-to the point that its absence, in many legends and fables, seems to put the magician himself in a very serious predicament and to entail a complete loss of his power. It is quite certain that the magic wand is a close relative of the many types of royal or priestly batons which have been used as emblems of power throughout the ages. However, the magic wand is not only an emblem: it is supposed to have a power of its own; it is-as says Professor Mario Chini in the Enciclopedia Italiana – the instrument which is apt first to concentrate, and then to send out,’ the power which is supposed to belong to magicians . . .. It seems quite evident, therefore, that the magic wand is not just a penissymbol like any stick or tree-branch, but is an actual, delusional substitute for the magician’s lost penis. The particular meaning of the ‘wand’, demonstrative as it appears, gives in my opinion the final touch to our attempted analytical reconstruction of the most meaningful unconscious premises of the magician’s personality.
Italics are mine.- EMILIO SERVADIO