On Being Victorian
That question led me back to Carl Jung and to a surprising fact that was right under my nose: Jung was a Victorian. His ideas are so central to today’s cutting-edge psychology that I nearly overlooked the particular time and set of cultural assumptions that he was operating within. Jung was born in Switzerland near the midpoint of Queen Victoria’s reign, during Europe’s industrial revolution. This is profoundly important: The Victorian era, like no time before or since, asserted that one’s gender and sexuality were the core of who we are. Thus when he was developing his theory, Jung, like Freud and other pioneers of psychoanalysis, would not have had the awareness that what he understood about women and men was located in his particular cultural context. While human civilization has always been patriarchal to one degree or another, you could easily say that in the Victorian era, modern patriarchy reached its height, bolstered by newly developing sciences that aimed to prove extreme differences between women and men. Victorians perfected the idea that men and women are opposites. As Jung himself said, “What can a man say about woman, his own opposite?”
According to Thomas Laqueur in Making Sex, a brilliant exploration of how our understanding of the body, sex, and gender has changed over time, nineteenth-century philosophers and scientists were determined to prove that “not only are the sexes different, but that they are different in every conceivable aspect of body and soul, in every physical and moral aspect.” Before then, and up until the Western Enlightenment, male and female existed on a continuum in which the female was inferior and often derided but was not diametrically opposed and fundamentally different from the male. The difference between these two views may be subtle, but it has profound implications for what we see as possible for women and men. As Laqueur notes, it is very difficult for those of us who see with post-Enlightenment eyes to understand that there could be any other way to look.
Psychology in Jung’s time was a brave new world, a whole interior and previously unseen world that was just opening to inquiry. And gender was the catalyst. A strange problem with intelligent upper-class young women in the late nineteenth century triggered an explosion of interest in this interior world of human consciousness. The sharp dichotomy between women and men in Victorian culture became increasingly difficult for young women to negotiate. The world was divided into separate spheres of activity for women and men, and this social division was justified by the insistence that the two sexes were natural opposites. So if men were strong enough to attend to the messy, corrupt world of business and politics, then women were fragile, too morally chaste and pure to be anywhere but home. Victorian social mores and even medicine turned upon this dichotomy. Men were seen as active and full of sexual desire, so therefore women must be passive and have no desire. The degree to which a woman was morally virtuous was the degree to which she experienced no sexual feeling. Young women’s minds were as corseted as their bodies.
Out of this strange context, bright young women started to show bizarre psychosomatic symptoms—blindness, muteness, inability to walk—that were labeled “hysteria,” which comes from the Greek word for womb. The young Sigmund Freud decided that unlocking this mystery would be quite a feather in his cap, and he began the explorations that have earned him his much-deserved reputation as the father of psychology. As his early writings show, he was shooting in the dark much of the time. In 1895, Freud and Wilhelm Fliess, a surgeon, believed that the seat of sexual dysfunction was the nose, and that hysteria could be cured through surgery on it. (The two ended up disfiguring one poor young woman’s face in their zeal to prove this theory.) Little more than a decade later, in 1908, Freud’s explanations became more psychological than physical. Noting that we have a “double code of morality” for women and men, he recognized that women’s troubles, including the “undoubted intellectual inferiority of so many women,” had to do with the “inhibition of thought” that was “necessitated by sexual suppression.” In other words, women could not be really curious and think freely because if their thoughts roamed into any sexual topic, it meant that they were deviant, bad women. Only morally depraved women had sexual thoughts and feelings. This is the context in which Jung was theorizing—a world divided by gender opposition and just opening up to the depth of the human psyche.
We are the inheritors of this world. As Freud noted, we inherit not only our parents’ psychic landscape but that of our grandparents and great-grandparents. We boomers who grew up in the Victorian cultural echo of the 1950s and 1960s have internalized these oppositional distinctions in our psyches, and they haunt our notions of the Divine Feminine. For us, Victorian cultural stereotypes about women—the chaste virgin, the sexually pure maternal figure, the debased harlot, the mad and despised older woman—clunk around in our psyches as archetypes. But these archetypes represent how women and our relation to the basic life force—our sexuality—have been distorted within a gender-polarized culture. The insistence on an opposition between masculine and feminine, male and female, is an expression of patriarchy. Celebrating these feminine archetypes as divine only upholds the inner and outer separation and division that our so-called masculine culture is based on. These archetypes, and the division of masculine and feminine, are from the psychic landscape of the status quo, which any new culture must move beyond. The question still is, how?
Freeing the Feminine Divine
While the aim of bringing forth the feminine principle has been to create a new value system, one based on women’s experience, in order to overturn “masculine” values of dominance and separation, repeatedly we end up reinforcing the polarization of male and female that is at the root of patriarchy. When we boomer women speak of what the feminine can do for culture, we most often speak of those Victorian “good woman” qualities of nurturing and caretaking, which are qualities that are certainly needed in our world gone awry. But the persistent identification of women with these domestic attributes can put national female political leaders between a rock and a hard place: If they emphasize care and nurturance, they are seen as “too soft” for the rough world of politics, and if they express interest in other issues, they are seen as scarily unwomanly.
Another way we women approach culture change is through our feminine reflection in nature. We express concern for the fertile body of the planet and the need to tend our garden. We certainly do have to extend our caretaking to the entire human family and the tree of life. But in equating women, body, and nature, we reinforce the deep belief of patriarchal culture that divides women and men: Women are nature; men are culture. Women are body; men are mind. Women are caring; men are aggressive.
Similarly, in bringing the feminine forth in the personal domain, we find ourselves with an odd mix that attempts to resolve this division but does not. The new Divine Feminine ideal is typically some combination of caring and sexuality—the Victorian “angel in the house” married to the “Victoria’s Secret” vamp, sex goddess, or even “juicy crone,” with its sexual implications—as, for example, Jungian analyst and author Jean Shinoda Bolen urges us postmenopausal boomers to be. The current feminine ideal is to be good, beautiful, sexy, all-compassionate, giving, and loving. The pallid Victorian ideal casts a shadow across our psyches, so we often see our liberation in terms of reclaiming and celebrating our sexuality, our emotions, and our biologically based roles that keep us in sync with nature. It’s uncanny how this latest incarnation of the Divine Feminine brings together the aspects of woman that are most valued within patriarchy—sexuality and mothering—and upholds this image as our evolutionary goal. Again, woman is body—now the pure, “natural,” and sexual body, as if we can ever step outside culture to find an unmediated self.
Even more important, there is an assumption in all of this that we women have been untouched by patriarchy and are innocent of the culture that we are steeped in. This only shows how wedded we still are to an image of ourselves as “good women” who are morally superior to the mess and conflict of the world. That very division—between men in the public sphere and women innocently at home in the private sphere—is Victorian patriarchy. And it corresponds to a division within ourselves that few women speak about with much depth or seriousness. It is here that the Jungian archetypes are particularly instructive, because they represent the sedimented layers of instinctive roles and responses women have had in patriarchy. “Patriarchy is . . . the marriage of the dark feminine and the negative masculine,” says Carolyn Baker, Jungian analyst and author of Reclaiming the Dark Feminine. “If we’re going to understand and dismantle patriarchy, we need to be talking about the dark side of the feminine, as well as the negative masculine.”
From what I see, most of the popular approaches to the Divine Feminine engage only superficially with the dark side—the unconscious, repressed, or denied aspects of self—if at all. While there is a recognition that patriarchy (particularly the Victorian version of it, I would add) created a context in which women repressed their sexuality, the response seems to be simply to urge women, as Divine-feminine.com does, to “embody your ecstasy.” Sexy has become part of the image, and as such it doesn’t disrupt patriarchy at all. If anything, it only focuses our attention on being attractive, desirable, and obliging. But the dark feminine is anything but attractive, which is why, as the eminent Jungian analyst Irene Claremont de Castillejo suggests in her classic 1973 book Knowing Woman, few women want to get near these aspects of our psyches. Aphrodite, after all, is not just the goddess of love but is capable of ruthless vengeance and jealous destructiveness, particularly toward other women. But until we do recognize the whole of what we are made of, we will continue to project darkness onto men and thereby keep intact the polarizing divisions that hold patriarchy in place.
The Task of Modern Woman
We women can
move culture forward and create a future beyond patriarchy. But it will neither be easy nor necessarily feel “natural” if we see our nature primarily in terms of the roles we have played in culture over most of historical time. Jung himself saw the potential in women for evolving consciousness, and as Castillejo explains, Jung came to believe “that man can go no further in the pursuit of consciousness until woman catches up with him.” This may be a bone in the throat for us postmodern women. But Jung is speaking of the enormity of the task that we women face to step beyond our biologically driven and culturally sanctioned roles. In a talk that he gave between the two world wars entitled “Woman in Europe,” Jung said woman “is faced with a tremendous cultural task [that] perhaps . . . will be the dawn of a new era,” because women long “for greater consciousness . . . [to] escape the blind dynamism of nature” in which he saw her caught. In other words, Jung, too, saw how women’s existence within patriarchy was focused on our capacity to reproduce (or not)—virgin, wife, mother, crone—which has left us lagging far behind in our capacity for the kind of creative thought that the privileged males in our species have developed through trial and error over the past several millennia. “So long as a woman lives the life of the past she can never come in conflict with history,” he says. “But no sooner does she begin to deviate, however slightly, from a cultural trend that has dominated the past then she encounters the full weight of historical inertia.” Taking on this inertia in order to free our souls and spirits from that which we have been embedded in through the ages would be heroic. It’s a new kind of heroism that demands the creation of the new within us. The goal would be to develop a consciousness that both includes our biological and cultural inheritance and also transcends it, so that a new, free space of relationship is created in culture in which to catalyze a new partnership between women and men. This would be a new expression of the feminine, and given how essential it is for transforming our world, such an endeavor is nothing less than sacred.