In his classic interpretation of psychoanalysis, Norman O. Brown elaborates on Freud’s theories to develop a reading of history as a conflict between the two drives, eros (love/life) and thanatos (death/hate). Brown paints a large canvas that encompasses art, science, economics, and religion. The conflict is not merely within the individual, though its totality is at its most visceral there, but even more inescapably present in our relations with the others from whom we seek the satisfaction of our desires.
While Brown recognizes the role of the mother in this primal conflict, he fails to fully grasp her significance. Dorothy Dinnerstein brings this significance into focus, elaborating the conflict between life and death as a conflict arising from the loss of dependent infantile oneness, the demands of maturation towards independence, and the gendered differentials that permeate that process. Conventional female-exploiting mothering stamps every infant with a psychological “malaise” that yearns for a fantasized primal wholeness and binds each human to a violent trauma of lost love. This illusory fantasy of wholeness itself occludes a deeper persistent duality between life and non-life, yet in the ambivalence of maternal bonding, that imaginary wholeness becomes a bottomless source of both a passion for love and, for death.
The “working” male parent is subconsciously shaped within the child into a fantasy of escape from the rules and limitations of the mother. Father’s daily departures form a blank canvas filled by the child’s wishes both to be free of mother and to be able to control her for the child’s unsatisfied desires. As the child begins to connect their own identity with the parent of their gender, a crucial fulcrum is reached.
Girls begin to perceive that they cannot become the independent beings that their fathers symbolize. Boys begin to perceive that their primal ungendered connection to their mother is a threat to their successful achievement of male identity. Girls start down the tragic path of self-repression and hyper-femininity, while boys repress their core experience of dependence on mother and begin manifesting the all-too-familiar male ego.
Females in the conventional family become specialists in connection and empathy, or in Freudian terms, eros. Males specialize in aggression and competition, or the death drive. This is not some biological destiny, but the predictable outcome of a systemic privileging of fatherhood that bifurcates the child’s experience of gender into a pernicious duality.
As conventional mothering came under increasing criticism in the second wave of feminism, circa 1953-1982, economic forces gave some ambivalent propulsion to its erosion. Capitalism seized the new social moment to begin hiring women in massive numbers outside the home and classically female occupations. To a very limited extent some men began to take more interest in their children’s nurturing needs, but by and large, women were still the primary nurturers for children, only biological mothers were now supplemented by – usually female – babysitters and daycare providers.
The “Moral Majority” backlash against feminism targeted this very phenomenon as a precursor to the apocalypse. A new theological offensive predicted dire consequences if motherhood wasn’t restored to its Biblical mandate. Abortion came to symbolize the dangers of women’s emancipation.
This masculinist counter-offensive was a predictable response to the limited new social liberties available to women. The male ego built upon the denial and repression of feminine characteristics is reactive, aggressive, and resolutely stands against the realization of an emancipatory erotic future. The death drive seeks only power, not love.