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Psychoanalysis and La Femme: Special Issue Home

Antigone’s Dead Mother:
On a Clinical Interpretation of Enid Balint and
Its Implications for Feminist Thought
Catherine Peebles

January 2010

In Lacan’s seventh seminar, during his discussion of Antigone’s relation to the dead and to the living, to the limit called atè, he provides a definition for suffering as “the signifier of a limit,” and as “a stasis which affirms that that which is cannot return to the void from which it emerged” (261).  Suffering, then, is both a signifier and an affirmation. Antigone herself is a figure of such a suffering, proclaiming in her indefatigable resolve that what is human is, and that it cannot be obliterated or returned to a void. In Lacan’s interpretation, the character of Antigone lives in what he calls the typically tragic mode of the race is run. She is neither progressing nor regressing; there is no action for her to take except that of remaining firmly where she is, in the stasis that is her suffering, which, in turn, is her insistence that her brother’s life, void of all of its historical significance, is nevertheless not nothing. The image of Antigone aiming at her atè, the limit of her humanity, threatens because it betrays the encroachment of the very void she both defies and embodies. In this essay, I propose reading this void in relation to an interpretation of psychoanalyst Enid Balint’s notion of “being empty of oneself,” which she links to feminine psychical development and specifically to her understanding of maternity.

Sophocles’s image of Antigone as a mother bird moaning for her lost young1 expresses, among other things, Antigone’s desire for her atè; and, although Lacan does not mention it, this atè, apart from being a misfortune, a curse, a fate, an infatuation, and the limit of human life effected by language, this atè is also, for Homer, that daughter of Zeus who blinds man (aatai). Thus, Antigone’s atè holds not only her family’s curse and her own desire for crossing over her life’s limit, but also that blindness which was her father’s self-punishment and which is Antigone’s virtue; for she is blind to the world to which Creon keeps trying to return her. What is for Antigone a virtue is, for one of Balint’s patients, a symptom. Balint describes her as feeling empty of herself or in a void, and isolated from other people, who do not recognize the fact that she is in another world. Creon, of course, fails in precisely this way: he does not recognize that Antigone is in another world, and this failure ensures that his own world will come crashing down upon him.

Let me outline briefly some of Enid Balint’s ideas on emptiness and femininity. In her 1963 essay, “On Being Empty of Oneself,” Balint presents the case of a female patient, whom she calls Sarah, who had broken down at age twenty-four and who said she felt empty of herself and as if she inhabited a void. Sarah’s mother introduces her to the analyst by insisting that Sarah was a “perfect baby” and that “there had been no trouble at all until perhaps a year before the breakdown” (42). The mother herself “seemed a depressed woman with precarious self-esteem [...and] could not understand how her daughter could have changed so much” (41-42). It soon becomes clear, however, that Sarah has always had problems, and that these problems were intimately bound up with her parents’ failure to recognize her, especially with the failure to recognize when she was in some sort of trouble: “It gradually transpired that she felt in a void or empty of herself, or both, in the presence of people who were, so to speak, in another world but did not recognize this fact, or failed to recognize that she was in another world” (46). To begin with, Sarah can only offer her own death as a solution or outcome to this state of affairs; gradually, she comes to incorporate body feelings into herself, particularly the feeling of her uterus; as she progresses in the treatment, she feels “herself to be inside her body—and parallel with that the external void began to fill up” (54). Over time, Sarah ceases to feel empty and even develops an anxiety about the possibility of losing herself.

Balint prefaces her presentation of this case by suggesting that it might have a more general contribution to make: 

These observations might also contribute something to our knowledge of the special psychology of women. In my clinical experience the feeling of being empty or of ‘being empty of herself’ is more frequently found in women than in men [...]. Further, this disturbance is linked with another, which in my experience is also encountered more frequently by women than by men; namely that they are full of rubbish, which is valueless and lifeless [...]” (40)

In her lecture entitled “Looking at the Notion of ‘On Being Empty of Oneself,’” Juliet Mitchell speculates on the meaning of this case, suggesting the notion of a “dead mother,” which she argues plays an important role in the construction of femininity.  Rather than being empty, Mitchell wonders whether such women are instead “full of a dead mother.” This dead mother is the unconscious presence of the maternal body without the spirit, a kind of psychical corpse, and she is internalized by the daughter in preference to an absolute nothing-at-all. The actual mother, whose psychic maternity has been damaged in some way (Balint’s “depressed woman with precarious self-esteem”) has been unable to recognize and foster such a maternity in her daughter, who then lives with an incorporated dead maternal mark, a sterilized fecundity, a negative maternity, experienced as “like a void, like an emptiness (46),” in preference to the absolute nothingness which appears to be its only alternative.

This dead maternal mark (as opposed to a nurtured and fecund psychic maternity) speaks to Luce Irigaray’s treatment of the negative in a manner not usually forwarded: namely, it suggests that the encounter with this negative, let alone its acceptance or taking on, would entail also the exposure of and to an internalized, feminine death, a dead maternity which, if it is to be revitalized, resuscitated, needs first to be recognized in its dangerous force: from birth, for a mother wounded in her fecundity, emerges an intimate death which is not a simple mortality, but a death-in-life, or rather a death as life, the only life there is, for both mother and daughter. The location of the death drive in the vicissitudes of sexual difference is thus inextricably bound up with the foreclosure of the maternal—this buried negative which is relentlessly kept at bay lest it emerge as that dreaded nothingness at the core of being, a nothingness which is even less than a wounded or defunct creativity. The taking upon oneself of the negative, of which Irigaray speaks, is then also an engendering, a giving birth to eros, to the life drives. It may be then, that this self-disappropriation, which is tantamount to the actualization of the negative within, amounts also to a revitalization of the dead mother, a revitalization which allows a buried fecundity to reemerge, or emerge for the first time, as a fecundity which does not demand or pretend to know completely its creation, nor the other with whom it may create. A psychical femininity then, for men as well as for women, would emerge from its burial (we can recall here Irigaray’s reading of Antigone) when the insufficiency, the limit, or the incompleteness can be both acknowledged and survived—a condition which is constantly running up against the resistance of a more or less universal phallo-imaginary that, as Irigaray argues, demands the whole of it, the complete being, being complete2.

We can compare Antigone’s suffering to the suffering Balint discusses, a suffering that, as symptom, protects the subject from her fear, namely that there may be a kind of nothing-at-all beyond a self that is already “like a void.” Like Balint’s patient, Sarah, Antigone clings to her own suffering; but, on the other hand, she cannot be said to share precisely this fear of the void: there is, for example, her stubborn insistence on laws that are not human. While she acknowledges that no one knows the nature of the unwritten laws, she nevertheless acts in complete certainty of their existence, beyond her and beyond all of the living. It is the existence of death, the realm of the dead, that seems to bestow her iron certainty when it comes to following a course of action, namely, moving nowhere, going neither backward nor forward. Everything but death is less than certain, and therefore only death must be heeded absolutely, with no qualifications. Antigone’s “void,” then, is so in name only; for her, death is at once an unknown and the only certainty. In fact, Balint’s patients may hold similarly to their own void: the nothing they feel engulfing them provides a pathological certainty: they must not move from their symptom if only because abandoning their suffering would risk a destruction even more absolute than the void they inhabit.

If Balint’s patients aren’t so much empty as they are “full of a dead mother,” then their resolving the problem of the void hinges on the engendering of a psychic maternity in place of an internalized dead maternal mark. Antigone’s blindness to the world, her metaphorical metamorphosis into a wailing mother-bird, her missed chance at actual motherhood can allow us to rethink her status in relation to femininity as something other than the buried feminine within a hom(m)osexual order. In brief, the audience is fascinated and dazzled by the image of a woman who, in defending certain limits, reveals to us that when the law is equated with reason, when they are not delimited with respect to each other, the consequences are tragic. At the same time, she locates her motivation, indeed, her very status at the limit between human and inhuman, in her mother’s womb.

The parallels between the clinical picture and Sophocles’s image of Antigone need to be drawn carefully, especially insofar as the notion of maternity is concerned, for there can be no doubt that, of all the things Antigone is not, she is most emphatically not a mother, and not motherly. She is, as the text repeats, a child, and forever to remain one in death, marked at once by her female virginity and, especially, by her status as the fruit of a marriage, in her case, the tragic marriage that has, among other things, defined maternity as destructive and death-dealing. Her life, and that of her brother Polynices, she tells us, are defined by a particular limit: the fact that, their parents being dead, she can have no more siblings, no more of her kind, no one else related to her in just this way, through her mother’s body. They are defined as the end of a line, and Antigone therefore knows that her line must be protected and preserved in reverse, as it were. There will be no others in the future, no children of this kind for her to raise; there is only what has been, and given that she is irrevocably a part of this accursed past that no one can look upon, she is called to acknowledge it as no one else can, and as no one else could, with the exception of Ismene, who chooses not to.

Appropriately, then, if Antigone is the mother of anyone, it is of her own parents and siblings, whose deaths she incorporates and watches over with her suffering, her refusal to be moved. The void to which she is attached, she is convinced, is no void at all, but rather the very crowded world of death, her line, her family, and its inescapable law, the law that proclaimed Oedipus’s fate to his parents. If anyone should have learned the futility of attempting to escape this law, it is the daughter of Jocasta and Oedipus, both of whom spent most of their lives doing nothing else, only to be the more surely seized within its grasp. The dead maternity of Antigone, then, is a motherhood for the dead, as opposed to the dead maternity of which Balint and Mitchell speak: a sterile motherhood unconsciously inherited from a mother herself wounded in her psychic fecundity, a motherhood that can mother nothing. At the same time, though, both cases present us with a question concerning femininity and death. Is maternity always, in fact, a mothering over the dead, whether the dead be Antigone’s line or the internalized corpse-mother of Balint’s patient, Sarah? And, by extension, is maternity always deadly for she who assumes it?

Balint’s patients are inhabited by a dead maternal mark; they are cut off from the world around them and weighed down by an emptiness heavy with the weight of death. Antigone, for her part, becomes a mother when the dead call to her, in the form of her brother’s untended corpse. It is in performing the rituals over his body that she is like a mother-bird wailing for her young, an exact description of what Lacan emphasizes about Antigone’s stasis, for there is nothing more for a mother-bird who has lost her young to do but cry out. The babies are irrevocably lost; she cannot and will not search for them, or look to wreak vengeance on the murderer; she merely cries out for a time, standing over their empty place, announcing and mourning their disappearance. This is Antigone’s posture, of course, throughout the whole of the tragedy. As with the mother-bird, there can be no question of recovery or vengeance; there is merely the assertion of this loss. But, as is the case for Balint’s patient, there is something for Antigone to do. She must deliver her brother over to death, so that he is not left in a non-space of mere expiration, just as Sarah must, in her symptom, hold fast to the “void,” the dead mother, that inhabits her, for if she were to let it go, she fears, it would leave behind an emptiness more radical than death itself.

Her holding on to the dead maternal mark is in fact a protection of the dead mother from complete annihilation: as Mitchell says, the so-called “void” of the internalized dead maternal body is felt to be preferable to a “nothing at all.” As with Antigone, then, maternity is precisely an activity of bearing death: in at least three senses. First, both Antigone and Sarah must bear death, that is, undergo it and suffer it. Second, Antigone is maternal precisely insofar as she is compelled to deliver her brother to death, to bear a death, help give birth to a death, rather than to a carrion; and Sarah bears her own deathly maternity also in preference to an inhuman alternative. In this sense, to be the bearer of death is synonymous with bearing the human, bearing something that signifies as opposed to being overrun by a non-signifying void. Finally, and for both Antigone and Sarah, the end of this maternity is their own death. Antigone, of course, bears her own death, executes herself, and in so doing asserts the purpose of her motherhood, which has now, at the end of the drama, come full circle: for her, death as a choice is preferable to the non-being of the life Ismene has chosen, a being stripped of the significance of the fate that inhabits and defines humans as human. If she does not assume this fate, and with it her death, she is indeed exiled to a void and can no longer consider herself human.

Sarah, less tragically, and fortunately for her, presents herself at the beginning as being able to offer only her own death as a solution to the state of affairs she has come to, that of being inhabited by a void. Her initial pathological certainty is that it would be her death that would solve everything, end her suffering, and bring her to a humanity she has so far failed to incorporate. Her task in analysis will be, then, wholly different from Antigone’s in Sophocles’s tragedy: she must resuscitate her own mother, or more precisely, her own psychic maternity. But since this mother has, in fact, never been living, her work of resuscitation will have to be an engendering, a bearing of a completely new life, a new maternal force, within her. Antigone teaches us that in order to take on a life, one must first be “in love with death,” at least to the extent that one refuses to allow the mere fact of living to overshadow the significance of life, human life as a signifying. For its part, Balint’s case asserts that in order to go past a love affair with death (a death that, as with Antigone, would signify), one must begin by acknowledging, corporeally, something like the “mere fact of living” that Antigone has to renounce. For Sarah, we recall, only begins to be otherwise than empty when she starts to “incorporate body feelings into herself.” Significantly, the so-called body feelings she ultimately assumes start with “the feeling of her uterus,” precisely that bodily signifier of which she is in need.

Antigone, we could say, is well beyond the need for such a cure, since she is so convinced of her own status that, even in the face of death, she defines her being at once in the most symbolic terms (her atè) and in the most bodily (the significance of her and Polynices’s beings lies in her mother’s womb). She is, we could say, fully incorporated. Sarah’s being, on the other hand, is literally missing a body: her being is only significance, albeit a minimal one (the emptiness that inhabits her and is her); there is no body in question, except the one she may or may not succeed in creating for herself. In the light of Antigone, we can say that Sarah will be incapable of dying until and unless she becomes corporeal, which is likely why dying seems like such an attractive solution to her at the outset: it would mean that she were alive if she were able to die. But such a dying would be mere expiring. Her becoming-body will, paradoxically, save her from such a death by introducing her into her own mortality, a lived mortality that includes the possibility of her body’s bearing life. This is why her incorporation begins with the convenient sign the uterus provides. If Antigone locates her being in her mother’s womb, that womb may be understood to be deathly, but it is not deadly: it is what defines Antigone as a living human. Sarah’s internalized dead mother is deadly, because it is what prevents the patient from being. Only when she begins to incorporate her own maternal body can she begin to exit the void, where death is impossible only because a living death has obtained.

What is left to ask is perhaps now a moot question, but it is one I have implicitly suggested here: must we, with Irigaray, still understand Antigone as the ultimate patriarchal woman? Is her erotic attachment to death merely the principal sign of her fidelity to a death-dealing phallo-imaginary, which must inter that which disrupts it? On the contrary, I would suggest that Antigone, taken along the maternal lines I have sketched, instead allows us to re-value death altogether and to see it as tied to sexual difference, as engendered of sexual difference, in a way that defines the human. One does not need to be a mother to take on a human death, and thus a humanity that announces its own fecundity, but one must, Antigone and Sarah both suggest, acknowledge that what signifies in the human is also always corporeal. (Indeed, what could be a more basic expression of Freud’s teaching? Or a more appropriate acknowledgment of the importance of that teaching for the development of feminist thought?) Further, this very corporeality that signifies the human is something that must be psychically fostered and created; there has to be, as it were, a mothering of the corporeal in order for there to be a human body to lose. And this is not to say that maternity is merely in the service of death; rather, it is to assert that there can be no conception of what is human that does not begin with sexual difference and an understanding of a bodily and psychical maternity. At any rate, death cannot, and especially not for feminist thought, be relegated to a suspect and privileged place within patriarchal systems; to do so would be to renounce any feminist claim to the very meaning of mortality.


Endnotes

1. This phrase refers to Lacan’s description of the passage in “Antigone” when the guard describes seeing her over the body: “we saw the girl; she cried out bitterly, with a sound like the piercing note of a bird when she sees her empty nest robbed of her young” (Sophocles 41). See Lacan, Ethics 264-5.

2. I have in mind Irigaray’s essay “Ethique de la différence sexuelle” in L’Ethique de la différence sexuelle 113-124. “An Ethics of Sexual Difference” in An Ethics of Sexual Difference 116-129.


 

Works Cited

Balint, Enid. Before I Was I: Psychoanalysis and the Imagination. Ed. Juliet Mitchell and Michael Parsons. New York: Routledge, 1990.

The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960. Trans. Dennis Porter. New York: Norton, 1992.

Mitchell, Juliet. “Looking at the Notion of ‘On Being Empty of Oneself.’”  Unpublished Lecture. Cornell University, March, 1998.

Sophocles, Antigone, The Women of Trachis, Philoctetes, Oedipus at Colonus. Loeb Classical Library. Ed. and Trans. Hugh Lloyd-Jones. Cambridge: Harvard UP,  1994.



 


Catherine Peebles is the author of The Psyche of Feminism: Sand, Colette, Sarraute and several articles dealing with psychoanalysis and feminist thought. She teaches interdisciplinary humanities courses at the University of New Hampshire, where she also coordinates the Humanities Program.

 

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