Midway along the journey of life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood
For I had wandered off from the straight path.
(Dante, Inferno, Canto 1)
“If one understands shame, one understands humanity.” As I was incubating my ideas for a book that analyzed masculine shame through the image of the eye, this seemingly simple sentence obsessively pressed itself into my mind. I didn’t understand the thought, and so it opened up several questions. What can be understood about humanity through an understanding of shame? Does humanity mean humankind, male and female, or does humanity mean the qualities of being good which can inform human action? Does the affect of shame encompass this kind of breadth and depth in the human psyche? This edition on shame is my reflection on these questions.
Differentiating masculine shame from feminine shame was a distinction that had been completely overlooked in my first book (Ayers, 2003), and the source from which my current writing extends, mainly because by examining shame through its quintessential developmental and archetypal image - the human eye - I was scrutinizing shame like a tree in the forest. So of course I missed the forest through the trees. This oversight was brought to my attention by one of the anonymous reviewers (to whom I am truly indebted), who commented that one of its obvious omissions was gender differences. Eager to get the book done, I added a few cursory paragraphs (2003: 76-77).
But I did not escape the matter; left with an insistent, gnawing feeling, the importance of the distinction continued to grow daily in my mind. Little did I know then that my further attempts to address this omission would result in another book on shame, or that I would discover a ubiquitous dynamic that undermines yet dominates relationships among men and women. My research led me into the “forest” of shame, a place of patriarchal dominance deep in the collective unconscious where men as well as women live in absolute shame. This book, then, forms an attempt to translate the unknown darkness in this forest, an articulation of shame’s archetypal pattern in order to create a new way of communicating about it in the field of depth psychology.
Thus far, I have learned that masculine shame is not male specifically (just as feminine shame is not limited to females), but is, rather, a type of shame that belongs to the masculine engendered collective psychic reality called patriarchy and its consequent gender images of male and female. The core disturbance in this type of shame entails elimination through annihilation because the good maternal aspects of the feminine principle become absent in an early and deep psychic place. This developmental derailment naturally resonates with the repression of the maternal feminine on the collective, archetypal level. The dynamics resulting from this lie at the heart of why humankind is presently threatened with losing its humanity and true empathy, as well as the ability to love and relate. What maternal feminine absence combines to create for all of us is an untenable and dangerous psychic and social situation. On a personal level, we lose our ability to be and become, to give real value, meaning and direction to our existence. On a collective level, we compromise our convictions and act without conscience. Patriarchy may provide the structure for civilization, but the very soul of our humanity is eroding while we stay petrified; staring into the eyes of Medusa, we fall headlong towards forces that have the potential to destroy both natural and civilized life on our planet today. The reverberations of shame - that endanger sanity and soul, the self, the world, and human life on our planet earth - are indeed profound.
A woman must encounter her nothingness - survive her non-existence - in order to transcend her shame and experience the power of being that gives her the confidence to take responsibility and truly love (Ayers, 2003); in this book, the focus is on a man’s need to actualize the shame hidden in his patriarchal concepts of masculinity in order to acquire authentic power within the depth of his own being through a relationship to the maternal feminine - not external power over, or the kind of bullying, militaristic power to take away, destroy, terrorize or victimize that dominates our world today. Perhaps with a power balance and equality restored, the seeds can be sown for compassion, peace, partnership, creative and active hope, and a love that can generate a greater humanity that extends all the way to our care and protection of the earth itself. This is the essence of the idea which will be explained in the pages to come.
Maternal femininity is the carrier for shame, and so the oppression of women provides the archetypal fuel, so to speak, for shame’s annihilating capacity to create non-existence. The story of shame deep in the forest commences during a time when, in the then civilized world, the Goddess was steadily being displaced by warlike male gods, and culture was beginning to be dominated by the idea of a warrior monarch triumphing in the humiliation and slaughter of the enemy. This great but devastating change first arose around the fifth millennium B.C., when “high” civilization came to be characterized by the concerns for an institutionalized patriarchy, which in turn created a division of labor, a socially stratified organization, large-scale warfare, economic exploitation, and political relations. Psychologically speaking, this collective situation contributes towards the formation of consciousness and of an ego that we designate “patriarchal,” meaning the emphasis on the development of masculinity and its characteristic traits and values.
Symbols grow out of changing communal situations and experience, and are reflected in myth. The emerging image during this phase of patriarchal development - and one of the means by which collective cultural forces ultimately deposed the Goddess and subjugated women - is the archetypal image of the succubus. It is one of the most crudely dehumanizing images of woman; the succubus is the despoiler of all human decency, a blood-sucking, evil demon who seduces a man in order to possess his phallic power, and murders infants and mothers. This archetypal, cultural symbol of the maternal feminine is essentially a program for the unfolding of being; in essence, then, this image facilitates the creation of a succubus world. Spawned in the human imagination deep in the collective unconscious and sustained as plausible by the patriarchy, the succubus legitimized male control of society and justified the oppression of women. She is the means by which the patriarchy has maintained power for the last seven thousand years. And it is precisely for this reason that the succubus is so embedded in our world as a repository for shame. This image, and the idea that the burden of shame should be heaped upon the maternal feminine, has had a compelling hold on the psyches of so many people for thousands of years.
When I set out writing, the density in this forest of shame was intense, pulling me in a profusion of directions. My thoughts threatened to expand beyond the workable as the manifold implications of the succubus suggested themselves. I discovered that while the focus of this book is primarily masculine shame, this image of woman pulled me into some very powerful subjects; mainly feminist thought, and then the more esoteric and slippery subject of evil. And this is all in the context of shame’s relationship to psychic development, separation from the mother, the self and the social order. So as not to lose my original point of departure, I grounded myself in where I had left off:
What stalemate on a global scale are we hoping to understand [through psychology’s pursuit of an understanding of shame]. I believe that we seek a solution to the widespread experiences of maternal deprivation, rejection, hatred, and destruction in the world today - universal issues in countless human circumstances that attack life itself. Historically, the emergence of the Terrible Mother coincided with the dominance of masculine values over feminine ones. Perhaps deep within the collective unconscious humankind has remained petrified in this shameful moment. We now wish to acknowledge our shame and yearn for the light of consciousness which only it can engender. On a collective level, this means the restoration of the Great Mother’s fertile and creative qualities that can inspire us towards humanness, in addition to progress.
(Ayers, 2003: 222)
As before, I am exploring the most primitive aspects of shame in the core of the self (not ordinary shame, but what I call absolute shame) through an investigation of the eye as its consummate organ of development. Here shame originates in a failure of maternal containment through impingement and absence - the mother’s unreflecting eyes (Ayers, 2003). As an archetypal image, shame is constellated by the Evil Eyes in the face of the Terrible Mother. Archetypes are a priori conditioning factors that form the substructure for all forms of mental functioning, and there seems little doubt that facial features became the vehicle for depicting the destructive, incinerating, and annihilating aspects of the Great Mother that is tied to an actual human experience of shame. This book, however, is specifically about the eyes in masculine shame. This emphasis punctuates the succubus as a particularly important dimension of a mother’s psyche (hence, the different relationship she will have with her male infant), as well as a facet of the Evil Eye, which has a castrating effect upon the patriarchy which incited its creation. This lens reveals that the image of the succubus is a container for masculine shame. In other words, the succubus symbolizes mankind’s most fundamental source of powerlessness, fear, disrespect, and loss of self - all the places he feels the deepest kind of shame.
The emphasis on masculine shame requires some change in vocabulary from my previous work. The feminine shame that creates a sense of non-existence is best described as a psychotic anxiety in the core of the self during the holding phase of human development. The female infant becomes a mirror for her mother of the same sex, and annihilation is triggered by the lack of reflection in mother’s eyes. If this type of distortion in mirroring occurs, merger with mother’s psychic content continues long past the symbiotic phase, or first six months of life. Mother’s own absence and need for reflection is connected to the collective fact that women have been shaped, defined, and understood their own selves according to distorting patriarchal dictates. This makes it hard for them to even know their own reality - to exist as human beings in their own right - and so they seek reflection through the eyes of others. If she has been brought up to devalue her femininity, the mother will socialize her daughter to become subordinate to men. Underdevelopment and negation of self are mirrored to a mother’s daughter, and the cycle of non-existence continues.
Shame generated in the earliest days of life for a male infant is best described as a central affect in the psychotic core of a narcissistic condition. This is based on the writings of the founders of psychoanalysis, and the fact that the boy is expected to separate and disidentify with his mother. Here, absolute shame constellates more as a violent narcissistic rupture from mother in the area of omnipotence due to a denial of dependency needs. This is the second stage of development, and a time when the baby begins to separate both physically and emotionally from his mother. Even at this early point of differentiation, the male infant is learning that he must completely relinquish his original identification with his mother of the opposite sex, accomplished through a repression of his feminine traits as much as possible. This naturally causes their accumulation in the unconscious, and every man has his own internal succubus within him for this very reason. Moreover, he must eventually prove himself to be a man through tests of endurance, strength, or accomplishments. The temptations for a man must be seductive and overpowering to his manhood, which is why shame at this level of experience will become apparent around a man’s Oedipal issues - but more on this later.
Absolute shame generated in the core of the female self results in a world of staring, petrifying eyes always watching, making movement impossible. For a male (and the succubus aspect of woman), the result is blindness and shamelessness. He keeps moving, evading, by blinding his eyes in one form or another and, like Oedipus or Narcissus, alienating himself from his self in a process necessary to the projection of shame onto woman. Man holds onto his psychic traits of intellectuality, transcendent spirit, and autonomous will at the expense of the contrary, female traits of feeling, sensuality and submission to the very humanity that we all must suffer.
In order to face feminine shame, an individual must come to terms with her nonexistence. In order to face masculine shame, one must examine his presence. These distinctions lead to the difference in the way shame is described. A woman in shame expresses feelings of a bad self to the point of not being real, or of not existing. She is acculturated into her submissive sex role through images like Eve or Pandora. In the case where the succubus dominates psychologically, the woman can become shameless and attempts to possess power by dominating a man (this is supported by the time-honored conviction that a woman possesses power only by influencing her husband’s). Whichever way feminine shame manifests, nonexistence lays at the core. If a man feels shame, he feels disrespected, powerless, or is secretly threatened with being a wimp. In the core of the self, absolute masculine shame is the underside of narcissistic power and a feeling worse than death. Men are acculturated into a macho sex role through images such as God the Father (infinitely superior to subservient humanity), King, Lord, Master, and Judge who exercises authority over the inferior female who exists to serve the Father.
And the cure? To recreate and reacquire the instinct that recognizes the mother on whom our very existence relies. We need to transcend sexuality in order to discover the spirituality in merely tending our Mother Earth. In other words, we need to humanize our shame. At a deep personal and collective psychic level, shame is psychotic. Intrapsychically, shame is the main affect in the psychotic core of narcissistic power; culturally we are petrified in a collective psychosis - terrorism (the petrifaction in shame), the quintessence of mankind’s fears of weakness which have become the ultimate spectacle for a tired jaded populace, and global warming - just to name two forms it takes. Therefore, in the same way that absolute shame can be psychoanalytically processed on a personal level, with the goal of internalizing a more legitimate self image through the restoration of the good internal mother, misogyny and its central affect of shame can be more consciously integrated and transcended through an analogous process - the changing of stereotypical images of male and female, or the generation of different role models to internalize a different self-concept through the restoration of the qualities of the Mother Goddess. A life-giving, compassionate and merciful Great Mother is psychologically more reassuring, may produce less social tension and anxiety, and therefore be a calming influence in our world of terror. We may realize that peaceful resolutions are not only possible, but better than violent ones. Then we can work together to focus on the real threat, and what should unite us in concern, for it is a form of destruction which equalizes us all - the very extinction of civilization on earth (the planet will survive).
There are, of course, infinite ways of looking at, and reflecting upon, our current catastrophic world situation. I am not proposing any final, all wrapped up, inclusive and perfect view of reality; all we humans can ever have are interpretations. Nor do I believe that we can really remedy mankind’s tragic flaws. I only hope that my attempt to restore vision through the eyes of shame can move us towards freedom from the limits of our current culture and, more importantly, from ourselves, in order to recover the goodness in past times through the symbolic form of the maternal feminine. As long as shame remains an unrecognized outcast of our individual and social lives, driven away by patriarchal power and feminine submission, we’ll continue to live in a distortion of male and female images that are contributing to our ultimate plunge towards destruction.
What happens when we begin to crack the prevailing reality system to discover new layers of shame? Can we rectify our errors and revitalize our past? Can we know our shame in order to unlock our humanity?