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The Phallic Woman
by Donald Kuspit
 
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The greatness of a work of art consists in the encompassing and embodying of conflicts, the tracing of which it is the task of criticism to evoke -- but not necessarily resolve.

-- Nicky Glover, Psychoanalytic Aesthetics(1)

Is Louise Bourgeois smiling because she no longer has to envy the penis, now that she has one in her clutches? You are looking at Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous photograph of Bourgeois in 1982, carrying Fillette, a sculpture she made in 1968. Speaking about the work in 1998, Bourgeois said, "When I wanted to represent something I loved, I obviously represented a little penis." But Fillette is not such a little penis -- a clitoris, as the title suggests. It is huge, almost as huge as the giant phallus a naked woman carries in a picture painted on an Attic vase by the so-called Painter of Pan. As Peter Webb tells us, such enormous phalluses were dedicated to Dionysus, and ritually carried in ceremonial processions by naked women, who often straddled them to ensure fertility, and as Webb adds, "for more immediate pleasure."(2) It was clearly an act of worship, in which the apotheosized penis -- the erect penis as a sacred totem and fertility symbol, and thus of the generative or creative power of nature -- was put to practical personal as well as religious social use.

The two converge in what amounts to the naked woman’s appropriation of the penis as a prosthetic device -- such as we see on the leg of the female in the copulating Couple IV (1997). The leg is in effect a substitute penis, as portable and gigantic as Fillette, displaced downward and enlarged, making it ironically more emphatic and important, indeed, the most prominent, differentiated, and vivid feature of her otherwise featureless, anonymous, headless black body. The usual penis is five and luckily seven inches when erect, but the prosthetic penis is enormous, suggesting that it symbolizes the greatness of woman’s desire, or else her exaggeration of its power under the spell of her desire -- perhaps unconsciously more for the penis than the man who normally has it. The prosthetic leg takes it away from her male partner, and adds a jarring note to the couple’s intercourse, undermining it by suggesting that the female only needs the man nominally -- for his penis, not himself.

In the ancient Greek representation the gigantic penis is a self-validating thing-in-itself imbued with God’s universal power to create. It is thus transcendentally ideal -- absolutely perfect in both form and substance. It is the unmoved mover that moves everything else. However ostensibly ugly, it has the perverse beauty that absolute power confers. It is reliably magical -- a dildo that never fails to fulfill the woman’s wishes, for it is permanently erect, and can be used whenever she wants to. She is in control of it, and with that of its power: it is completely in her hands, as both the Bourgeois photograph and the Greek vase painting show. The point of the ancient religious ceremony was to transform any old penis into the one and only phallus. All the profane penises in the world become the one sacred phallus. By way of psychic alchemy -- Coleridge’s "primary imagination. . . the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception. . . a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM,"(3) which for him and, I might add, myself is the basis of authentic or primary art -- an ordinary penis becomes an extraordinary phallus, that is, a work of sacred art that is a thing of joy forever, which is exactly what Bourgeois’s Fillette is. It confirms that Bourgeois is a primary artist, that is, an artist who makes authentically imaginative art, in contrast to what Coleridge calls fanciful art, that is, art which is "a mode of Memory"(4) and so more "empirical" than eternal, that is, art which is incapable of transforming the facts of life into eternal truths, and thus a creative failure however interesting it may be. Only through imagination can art achieve the credibility of being universal; fancy brings transient particulars into shortsighted focus. 

In both the photograph and the vase painting the penis is no longer a part of the male body -- an especially meaningful and valuable part-object, as the psychoanalysts would say -- but meaningful and valuable in itself. It comes into its own, as it were, in Bourgeois’ handling and holding and the naked Greek woman’s handling and holding.
Ritually masturbating with the all-powerful dildo -- one may recall that Freud calls masturbation "the executive agent of infantile sexuality,"(5) that is, sexuality whose exclusive object is one’s own immature body--the naked Greek woman "mystically" impregnates herself, as it were, thus symbolically fulfilling her wish for a baby without having to copulate with a man. She in effect copulates with herself, for the dildo has made her a man -- it’s in effect her own penis. The baby she magically conceives in unconscious phantasy will be a virgin birth. Possessing the dildo -- a sovereign phallus not a humble penis, all the more so because the dildo will never have to endure detumescence, as the poor penis does, but will always remain hard (and hardy) and ready for action (no problem with impotence or indifference) -- she avoids being possessed by a man, and becomes self-possessed, as it were, that is, her own independent man.

But she technically remains a woman, suggesting that when she turns herself into a man by performing with the dildo she in effect becomes a hermaphrodite. The hermaphrodite is an age-old embodiment of the unity of opposites. Let us recall that all human beings were originally hermaphrodites -- physically bisexual -- according to Aristophanes’ ironic myth of sexual desire. Their bisexuality made them a threat to the gods, for it gave them power to generate themselves and the universe, although it did not make them immortal, as the gods are. Universal because they were double-sexed, they were not immortal because they were divided against themselves -- as the difference between their male and female parts implied -- which the gods took advantage of by splitting them in two, thus undermining their generative power. They were not neatly split into opposites, as Aristophanes observed, for some were homosexuals others heterosexuals. That is, there were those whose desire to restore their original unity of being and with that human creative power -- the restoration of such perfect unity of being is what Aristophanes thought sexual desire aimed at, and sometimes succeeded in achieving in phantasy if never physically -- led them to those with bodies and genitals like their own, and there were those whose desire led them to those with different bodies and genitals. Whichever, they were always drawn towards each other in sexual intercourse, achieving a togetherness which they misread as the harmonious unity and universal purposiveness only possible through originality. They struggled to be original -- that’s the underlying purpose of sexual unity, Aristophanes suggests -- but they could only be original in and through imagination. I am suggesting that Bourgeois is a psychic hermaphrodite, which is why she is creative and original.

The woman with the all-powerful penis is the phallic mother, as Freud calls her in his lecture on "The Psychology of Woman,"(6) that is, the infant’s phantasy of the woman he or she is dependent on for his or her existence, and who has complete power over him or her -- power over his or her body, feelings, phantasies, thoughts -- indeed, the power of life and death, physical and psychic. The phallic mother is clearly the all-powerful goddess of creation symbolized by Diana of Ephesus, with whom Bourgeois clearly identifies, as her many-breasted costumes -- not as many as the 40 breasts the mythical Diana supposedly had, but more than enough to convey omnipotence -- show. It is worth noting that the breasts on one of the surviving statues of Diana of Ephesus are bull’s testicles, confirming that she is indeed a powerful phallic personage.

Kleinians call the phallic mother a "combined parent figure," or what might be called a hybrid parent (think of the many hybrid figures in Bourgeois’ oeuvre), associating this universal primal figure -- a universal symbol of the original unity of opposites, and as such a generative unity, that is, the necessary psychosomatic condition of creativity, whose primary goal is to generate a sense of being alive and whose secondary goal is to generate a sense of being oneself--with the primal scene: "The phantasy of the combined parent figure is that the parents, or rather their sexual organs, are locked together in permanent intercourse." Hinshelwood adds that "it is the earliest and most primitive phantasy of the oedipal situation," and quotes Klein’s observation that the primal scene is a "danger-situation," for the "united parents are extremely cruel and much dreaded assailants." It thus has "a special intensity," Klein writes, because, as Hinshelwood puts it, "the infant’s fury and rage lead him or her to imbue this intercourse with as much violence between the parents as he or she is feeling towards them."(7) That is, the infant projects his or her innermost conflict about existing, involving his or her conflicted feelings about their existing, onto their imagined beings, thus imagining their sexual intercourse -- which the infant has never seen (unless he or she was unlucky enough to be the Wolfman) -- and never participated in (except in primitive phantasy, as Klein shrewdly suggests) -- as a bizarre catastrophe. Instead of sexual intercourse being a way of assimilating the other, it becomes a display of their estrangement. Instead of being blissly erotic, it becomes death driven.

Of course sexual intercourse is in part a catastrophe, for the new double-backed human being created by it, as Aristophanes mockingly described the copulating heterosexual couple, is a rather short-lived reincarnation of the original hermaphrodite. Aristophanes implied that every orgasm was ironically apocalyptic, for the couple immediately separated after the climax, suggesting that the conflict implicit in their physical and psychic difference was not resolved by their sexual intercourse, and remains unresolvable. But my point is that the Kleinian infant’s projective identification with the copulating parents -- her imaginative intrusion into their relationship in an unconscious attempt to control and undermine it simultaneously -- confirms the infant’s catastrophically split state of being. It is this anguished state that is projected into their copulation, and used to deny their emotional intimacy. It’s unthinkable and impossible for the infant, however much she is ready to acknowledge their physical intimacy. Why shouldn’t they feel as anguished as she feels, all the more so because their copulation keeps them from devoting themselves completely to her, causing her even more anguish?

The infant can’t tell whether her parents are emotionally intimate -- whether physical intimacy can generate emotional intimacy, substitute for it, or defend against it. All the infant knows is that she doesn’t want them to experience the ideal moments of total intimacy, physical and emotional, she imagines she shares with her mother. The implication is that however intensely and often her parents copulate they can never be as intimately, tranquilly, and seamlessly united as she feels she is -- and expects to remain -- with her mother. Sexually possessed and soiled by the father, the mother seems ruined and lost forever to the disillusioned and disinherited infant. The infant loses her proprietary rights over her mother, her privileged place in her mother’s life, and, unexpectedly, her self-possession and self-privileging. Her parents’ intercourse, in whatever imaginative form, is a narcissistic shock threatening annihilation. Their copulation dethrones her; relegated to a secondary place, she not only loses her imperial position -- to recall Freud’s conception of the "imperial infant" -- but feels "tragically" devalued. The infant does not want to be physically involved in her parents’ intercourse -- turn it into a ménage a trios -- however much her attack on it makes her an emotional participant in it, but rather deny that it happened. But if it never happened she would not have happened -- been born. Thus her anxious attack on her parent’s sexuality is a suicidal attack on herself as well as a murderous attack on their creativity.

But the infant’s imaginative violation of her parent’s sexual intercourse through her vengeful projection of her own violence into it -- like the sword that separated Tristan and Iseult, it is meant to keep them sexually apart on the threat of death, and thus virginal forever, even as asexual as children are supposed to be, children in the paradise of innocence that Adam and Eve inhabited before they were banished from it by experiencing sexual desire for each other -- allows the infant to differentiate them without denying their relationship. It is exactly the simultaneity of separateness and togetherness that Bourgeois’ hybrid figures embody, whether constructed of the family house and her female body, or of animal and human parts. They are not always seamlessly integrated into an expressive whole, as the famous Nature Study (1984) is. Her totemic figures tend to be what Bion calls bizarre objects -- aggregates of incommensurate fragments, sometimes juxtaposed, as in the Femme Maison, more often awkwardly assembled, as in the Personnages. Both types are peculiarly rigid, despite their fragmentation, and the uncannily "playful" relationship of the fragments. Clearly togetherness does not mean unity of being and purpose. 

There is no reciprocity between the incongruous parts; they are often strung together like misshapen pieces of broken bone on a pole, upright as a spinal column yet about to topple over and fall apart rather than integrated into a stable whole. Their precedent is the Surrealist figure, also an ungainly construction of ill-fitting fragments suggesting a certain anxiety about the body -- certainly a far cry from the healthy, beautiful, well-proportioned body of classical art, whose perfectly integrated parts convey mental poise and emotional balance, and convey the idealizing power of art, with no sacrifice of the facts of life. For me the line dividing -- sharply separating, I would argue, implying an unresolvable split in the self -- the upper and lower sections of the Femme Maison is crucial to understanding it. The house -- a rational structure -- is placed upon the naked female body, which looks irrational in comparison, however also symmetrical, but they are not joined. It is a model of the house Bourgeois grew up in, but she’s not exactly a part of it, however much it is a part of her, suggesting that she felt out of place in her family, an oppressive burden she had to bear. It is worth noting that the Femme Maison stands at attention, like a dutiful good girl, just as her Personages -- also artistic alter egos, even as they loom like substitute parental figures -- do.   

In Bourgeois’ Janus sculptures the fragments are symmetrical. They mirror each other while facing in opposite directions, suggesting they are radically different however ostensibly alike. But the area that separates them, even as it links them, tends to be much more elaborated -- expressively dynamic -- than they are. They look simple, smooth, clean-cut in comparison. To me the area that links them is the most important part, formally and emotionally, of the sculptures. The Janus sculptures are perhaps the clearest statement of Bourgeois’ profoundly conflicted consciousness of herself and of her body -- and as she has made clear innumerable times her art is an extension of herself and body-based. The Janus monster is the exemplary instance of her infantile phantasy of the primal scene as the permanent linking of the parental genitals in one bizarre object. The dangling appendages are phallic breasts, that is, a synthesis of the genital opposites. This is perhaps most obvious in Janus Fleuri (1968), where the open female genital is given two phallic breasts. The elevation of the genital part object at the expense of the whole body object is decidedly infantile, for unlike the child the infant has not developed a sense of the whole body, indicating its immature consciousness. Bourgeois in effect fetishizes the infantile genital part object, as though reluctant to acknowledge the adult whole body object, indicating just how creatively regressive her art is.

I know of no other artist, traditional or avant-garde, who is able to reach so deeply into the unconscious and make its primitive contents artistically conscious. I know of no other artist who can give the unconscious phantasy of origination -- the most primitive or primary phantasy -- such dialectically distinctive original form. It is her ability to regress to psychic fundamentals without losing her artistic integrity that is the source of her unusual creativity and artistic originality. Bourgeois has famously said that "art is a guarantee of sanity" -- let’s hope so (I don’t know any better reason for making art) -- and the more insane her art looks the more we can be certain that she is sane. The more her art shows her phallic power the more it shows her ego strength.    

Returning to Bourgeois and her phallus and the Greek woman and her phallus, one notices that both are holding their phalluses under their arms, like "a stick or an umbrella," as Bernard Marcardé simple-mindedly states in his entry on "Sexuality" in the Tate catalogue accompanying the Bourgeois retrospective, so determined is he to erroneously argue that "Bourgeois divests sexuality of its psychoanalytic glad rags (guilt, fetishism, castration)."(8) Marcardé’s facile irony does nothing to undo his indifference to Bourgeois’ own statements and the perversity of her works. But there is an important difference between the Greek woman and Bourgeois. The Greek woman loosely holds the phallus in its center, comfortably balancing it, suggesting her emotional ease with it, while Bourgeois holds it tightly under her arm, pressing it to her body, and fingers its bulbous head, which is grotesquely molded, not to say marred and scarred, or at least rough and raw, compared to the smooth, even polished -- dare one say esthetically refined? -- huge tip of the phallus the Greek woman holds. Certainly Bourgeois’ blemished phallus is much less proper than the civic phallus the Greek woman carries. Bourgeois’ phallus is much more devilish than divine. It is an animal’s pizzle not a Godhead. 

The fact that Fillette looks unfinished, a sort of work in process, clearly has something to do with the plaster and latex of which it is made. And a good deal to do with Bourgeois’ gestural handling, for the sculpture is an expressionistic construction. It is a superb example of her at her original best, that is, of the originality that allows her to resolve conflicts creatively -- to let the opposites flow into each other so that there is no sense of formal contradiction (nor of self-contradiction) but only of inevitable unity. But the phallus’s unfinished appearance suggests that Bourgeois has not emotionally finished with it. It partakes in modern primitivism -- it’s even more uncannily primitive, indeed, less slick, than the penises on certain African sculptures of male figures -- and she has primitive feelings towards it. She seems to be aggressively fingering it. Is she sticking a fingernail into its tip in an unconscious sadistic gesture?

Bourgeois has said that "the phallus is a subject of my tenderness,"(9) but she doesn’t seem to be holding it tenderly. Or is her pincer-like grip her version of fondling? She notes the penis’s "vulnerability," but it doesn’t seem particularly vulnerable -- except to her finger, which pounces like a claw -- in the photograph. She also says she’s afraid of it, but she doesn’t look fearful in the photograph. She triumphs over the phallus, completely and unequivocally dominating it; it is her phallus, however ugly and unsavory its appearance. Bourgeois loves her power over it -- the power of handling it, of feeling its firmness and erectness, even making it erect and firm while conveying its softness -- and loves its rough and ready dildo power. It is her slave, and she its absolute master.

Referring to Fillette, Marcardé writes: "Bourgeois ‘carrying/wearing the phallus’ does not here imply any claim on her part to annex the power of virility,"(10) which is sheer blindness and stupidity. The phallus is all her own, down to every last detail, made by her hands and mind, and the photograph reveals how consciously and unconsciously it is totally her own -- how much it is a fixture of her imagination and an indispensable part of her body ego. She clearly adores her penis, however much she may mishandle -- or is the right word manhandle? -- it.

"The penis derives a great deal from the nipple of the mother’s breast," Freud wrote.(11) From this point of view Bourgeois is fingering the nipple of the mother’s breast, suggesting that the penis is her mother’s penis -- the phallic breast of the phallic mother. She in fact calls it a phallic breast. Klein follows up by suggesting that penis envy is breast envy. The boy may be "better equipped" than the girl, as Freud writes,(12) but the grown girl has her own equipment, which, as post-Freudian analysts have pointed out, the man envies, as the boy did, all the more so because her breast equipment suggests that she is ready to become a mother—that her breasts are ripe with the milk of life, and so physically as well as emotionally nourishing and life-giving.

I think the best way to understand Bourgeois’s breast-fixation -- the many breasts that appear in her works, often repeated in a seemingly infinite series -- is to think of them in Kleinian-Bionian terms. In 1963 Bion wrote, with astonishing insight into the infantile psyche and its most primitive phantasy:

The infant suffers pangs of hunger and feels it’s dying; racked by guilt and anxiety and impelled by greed, it messes itself and cries. The mother picks it up, feeds it and comforts it and eventually the infant sleeps. Reforming the model to represent the feelings of the infant, we have the following version: the infant, filled with painful lumps of faeces, guilt, fears of impending death, chunks of greed, meanness and urine, evacuates these bad objects into the breast that is not there. As it does so, the good object turns the no-breast (mouth) into a breast, the faeces and urine into milk, the fears of impending death and anxiety into validity and confidence, the greed and meanness into feelings of love and generosity, and the infant sucks its bad property, now translated into goodness, back again.(13)

Commenting on Bion, Hanna Segal notes that he names the "raw primitive elements" or "raw, concretely felt experiences," "beta elements." They "can only be dealt with by expulsion." But when they "are projected into the breast they are modified by the mother’s understanding and converted into what Bion calls ‘alpha elements’." These "lend themselves to storage in memory, understanding, symbolization, and further development" -- development into art, one might add. "If the interchange between the infant and the breast is good, then the infant not only reintrojects its own projections made the more bearable, but he also introjects the container-breast and its capacity to perform the alpha function; the mother’s capacity to bear anxiety that is projected into her by the infant is crucial in this interplay. . . . An identification with a good container capable of performing the alpha function is the basis of a healthy mental apparatus."(14)

I suggest that when Bourgeois is wearing her multi-breasted costume she is identifying with the phallic mother -- Magna Mater, the archaic Great Goddess of antiquity -- as a good breast-container. It then becomes a wonderfully Soft Landscape, to refer to the title of a number of her sculptures from 1963-67. Clutching it, to refer to a 1962 sculpture, she molds it freely, projecting her emotions into its materiality to expressionistic effect. The breast is raw malleable material, which her hands change into good art, however incompletely refined. Her hands perform the alpha function, so that the material no longer looks like faeces, however much it sometimes seems to pile up like them. Bourgeois’ works are rich with primitive evocative power. But when the material is ungiving and hard enough to resist her hands rather than reflect its transformative activity, as seems the case in her totemic wood Personages from the mid-‘40s and early ‘50s -- Persistent Antagonism (1946-48) is a famous example -- or in the much later Red Room (Parents) (1994) (the hanging phallic breast looks hard however softly pink), she has been unable to perform the alpha function on it, suggesting that it is a bad phallic breast.

The phallic breast, and she with it, for she identifies with it, then shatters into fragments, as in the various untitled standing sculptures of 1950 and Femme Volage (1951). It is as though the female body is a Humpty Dumpty that has had a bad fall and put back together artistically, which may not make it an organic whole but gives us a bizarre idea of it and its feelings -- its shattered state of psychic being. "Psychotics are fissured and splintered structures," Freud writes, "who know more of internal psychic reality" because "they have turned away from external reality."(15) But Bourgeois reconstructs her body ego, putting its fragments together if not smoothly linking them, suggesting that for her art is a guarantee of sanity because it can undo one’s insanity -- make artistically good what has gone emotionally bad. Something similar occurs when she takes the fragments of her life -- objects that symbolize its events and emotions -- and contains them in a room or cell, which doesn’t exactly unite them but conveys her self-containment. The room or cell is in effect a breast-container however much it looks like a cabinet of curiosities. The personages and rooms or cells are collections of beta elements given artistic validity. But the personages are sinister and intimidating, and the rooms and cells sinister hideouts, suggesting that there’s something bad about them. They come together in Bourgeois’s staircase installations, when the staircase suggests an Icarian flight into the void. The heights are as dangerous as the depths for Bourgeois. The staircases are her grandest personages -- parental giants, as those installed in the Tate Modern are, all the more so because when one climbs to their top one is in a cell-like room-womb of one’s own, flanked by all-seeing eye-nipples, at once apotropaic and intimidating.

Bourgeois’ spider -- it seems to rise like a full breast as it crouches ready to spin its web or pounce on a spectator -- is perhaps the key to her identification with her parents, who were weavers, as she also is. The problem of weaving is to neatly align the warp and woof -- the threads at cross-purposes -- so that they flawlessly integrate. It is in effect the problem of sexual intercourse. Bourgeois signals her difficulty with her parents’ relationship -- and thus with her self-relationship, for she identifies with them in the symbolic form of a spider -- by creating works that are at not always neat. Sometimes they look like jerry-built constructions, as her early totemic figures do -- like a child, she piles part object upon part object, material fragment upon material fragment, as though to see how high her structure can be built without falling over, suggesting that it is a tower of infantile Babel -- and at other times they are so expressively intense that they seem to tear themselves apart. Sometimes they look messy, as though she was an infant playing with the mess inside her, enjoying her messing while artistically managing it. It is worth recalling Freud’s "fantastic" idea, as he himself called it, that a woman invented "plaiting and weaving," by attaching her pubic hairs "permanently together," thus according her a measure of modesty by "veil[ing] the genitals."(16) But Bourgeois’ spider seems more menacing than modest.  

The messy expressionistic aspect of Fillette signals Bourgeois’ intense anxiety -- what she calls her tension -- with anxiety understood not only as a danger-signal, as Freud wrote, but as an effort to expel persecuting bad feelings, as Bion and Klein suggest: the feeling that one is being annihilated or destroyed from within, and that the primal scene is destructive rather than creative. For the Kleinians bad destructive feelings are more fundamental and thereby "sensational" than the good libidinous feelings that one is being re-created from within, which is one of the bonuses of loving sex, that is, sex that achieves emotional as well as physical intimacy, and thus is truly good. The structural or constructed aspect of Fillette suggests that Bourgeois’ bad destructive feelings about herself and her copulating parents, are under formal control however forceful, as the spear-like shaft of a phallus is.

Fillette is Bourgeois at her most dialectically perfect, for it combines beta and alpha elements in a singular yet universal form even as it shows their difference and opposition. Fillette is the all-powerful phallic breast, caught in the act of asserting its power. Contained by Bourgeois’ receptive mothering arms in Mapplethorpe’s photograph, it nonetheless remains aggressively raw -- not exactly a pet on a leash, as the Greek woman’s phallic breast seems to be -- suggesting that it remains young and fresh however often it is used. Bourgeois’ phallic breast -- phallus with a nipple, as it were -- has the power to perform the alpha function, which is the fundamental act of creative origination, but it seems to have been just created itself, which is why it remains mired in materiality.

To conclude, let’s note that The Destruction of the Father (1974) acknowledges Bourgeois’ hatred of him, apparently for belittling her, although she may have projected her own feeling of being little onto him and reintrojected it. It also shows her hatred of the strutting arrogance of the erect penis, as she once described it. But doesn’t she emulate it, certainly in the photograph? Nonetheless her father has breasts, which makes him lovable and nourishing, indeed, food for more than thought as her cannibalistic work makes clear. Men are not defective women, for they have penises with nipples, suggesting that they can also be phallic mothers, at least as long as Bourgeois doesn’t castrate them, as the vagina dentata in The Destruction of the Father suggests she wants to, and not so unconsciously. Clearly Bourgeois is trapped in what psychoanalysts call a "bisexual conflict," and just as clearly she has made the creative best of it, artistically mastering it without emotionally resolving it. 


DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.



 



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