The hero and the mother
The real task of the male hero is to separate from the mother and the powers of neediness and dependency that she represents. Mother’s provision and protection make the losses due to the call for matricide unimaginable. Boys lose a special kind of nurturing and loving interaction when qualities connected to the good mother are cast off. Her mirroring capacities, emotional attunement, sharing states of mind and reverie, empathy, and imaginative perceiving of the child’s needs and feelings are lost. “For all of society’s mandates to boys to act like invulnerable superheroes, among all the subtle messages given to boys to downplay their sadness and pain, premature separation is the deepest hurt of all” (Pollack, 1998: 26).
For two decades, William Pollack (1998) researched why boys are sad, lonely and confused despite appearances, what he calls “this generation’s silent crisis.” Contrary to cultural determinations, one of his groundbreaking discoveries is that boys benefit tremendously from the love of their mothers, especially the kind of non-shaming mothering that can bring out the best in them (1998: 81). Pollack recognizes the connection between maternal separation and shame:
the trauma of separation is one of the earliest and most acute developmental experiences boys endure. An experience which plays a large role in the hardening process through which society shames boys into suppressing their empathic and vulnerable sides.
Because of patriarchal expectations, masculine separation from the mother is a relational rupture, a devastating disruption in a boy’s emotional life, a “trauma [that] profoundly affects the psychology of most boys - and of most men - forever” (p. 27). The truth is that by empowering the mother you empower the son.
Far from making boys weaker, the love of a mother can and does actually make boys stronger, emotionally and psychologically. Far from making boys dependent, the base of safety a loving mother can create - a connection that her son can rely on all his life - provides a boy with the courage to explore the outside world.
Pollack’s research shows that it is in fact the absence of a close relationship with a loving mother that hinders a boy’s autonomy, undermines his self-confidence and independence, and his ability to form loving attachments with others in his adult life. When mother is internally absent, a male can only engage in heroic acts to regain and possess her in the outside world. With her inclusion, castration becomes a metaphor for the destruction that comes from being separated from mother as a source of goodness, a holding container that provides the means for mutual recognition, internal space, reverie, creativity, the symbolic function and transcendence. This mother is the real hero described in the following passage from Gates of Fire'.
There is a clue here. The seat of this highest valor, I suspect, lies in that which is female. The words themselves for courage, andreia and aphorbia, are female, whereas phobos and tromos, terror, are masculine. Perhaps the god we seek is not a god at all, but a goddess.
(Pressfield, 1998: 233)
The bottom line is that the kind of separation from the mother theorized by Freud and Jung is not really even possible. Scientific research supports what is imaged at creation’s core: nature depicts the male element going on a death-defying quest for ultimate dissolution in the Great Mother, just as a sperm flagellates its tail to cross the vast fallopian distance for a life-giving dissolution into the female’s egg. In other words, wishing to remain connected to the maternal realm is actually normal.
In the next section, I will be attempting to elucidate the male infant’s relationship to the mother in conjunction with masculine shame. At this early stage of psychic development lives the child-killing aspect of the succubus and the infantile shame behind Freud’s castration fears and Jung’s identification with the hero. This aspect of the mother is engaged when the boy has to renounce his identifica- tory maternal love; in this repudiation of the maternal feminine the original source of goodness is lost through its placement outside of his self.
I will argue that male separation from the mother requires not an annihilating act of matricide, but the restoration of the element of recognition, a movement which includes male shame and transforms its projection and distortions into sight. In this shift the focus moves from the independence and autonomy of Freud and Jung, to an intersubjective relatedness with others. The transition from power driven by the fear of castration, to phallic empowerment driven by the male self, lies in building a foundation that includes the mother who gives shape and form to all of life.
When Nietzsche said “supposing truth is a woman, what then?” he may have intuited the mother from whom males cannot really separate, the woman whose loss hurls one into a narcissistic wound that derives from the loss of fusion and omnipotence. It is only by coming face to face with psychotic shame at the earliest layers of being that a man can transform the narcissism contained in images such as King Oedipus or Siegfried into a realization of masculinity that restores sight to both the masculine and the feminine. This balance constitutes the mature resolution of the Oedipus Complex.