Hags and Heroes: A Feminist Approach to Jungian Psychotherapy with Couples, 1984, by Polly Young-Eisendrath (Source Quotes)

These source quotes are part of Polly Young-Eisendrath’s set up for the telling of the Arthurian legend Sir Gawain and the Lady Ragnell: “What is it that women desire most, above all else?” She orients us to the relationship problems associated with the loss of basic trust, and a cluster of associated archetypal energies: the archetypal feminine, the archetypal masculine, the Great Mother, the Terrible Mother, and the Jungian idea of the negative mother complex.

”The story of Sir Gawain and the Lady Ragnell provides a unique map or template through which to view a woman’s response to loss of basic trust. Basic trust is defined as both a sense of “continuity of being” (to use D. W. Winnicott’s term) in relationship and as the experience of secure reliance on another person to provide for one’s primary emotional needs within the interpersonal field of that relationship. Basic trust is synonymous here with attachment and specifically related to John Bowlby’s concepts of attachment and loss in human relationship.

The attachment of infant to parent is the initial interpersonal field in which the archetypes of Great Mother and Terrible Mother, as typical human experiences, are activated… we need only the images of the Great and Terrible Mother, of the provident goddess and the dreaded hag, to help us grasp the characteristics of attachment that we will explore. More specifically, when a woman feels continuous and “held,” or adequately embraced, in a relationship of basic trust… she experiences herself as an agentive “person.” As members of our species, we are “personal” when we feel ourselves to be agents of our own lives (or “useful” to others) and to be worthwhile or esteemed. We feel ourselves to be contributing members of our species, reflected by our partners as adequate, agentive and valued.

The image of Great Mother, as authority and nurturer, is the positive emotional experience of knowing one’s love is “good.” Interpersonally, it is the experience of being loved, held and nurtured by the other, of feeling oneself as good. We all need Great Mother experiences to feel that our nurturance is bountiful and powerfully good. The image of Terrible Mother, as savage goddess or hag, is the negative and overwhelming emotional experience of knowing one’s love is “bad” and feeling oneself as ugly, mean, overwhelming and destructive. Both negative and positive attachment experiences involve strength and power; both are necessary in relationship, but neither should become the dominant mode for personal identity on a continuing basis. As with other archetypal states, Great Mother and Terrible Mother are transitory identity experiences which are “bigger” then the person.

The story of Sir Gawain and the Lady Ragnell sketches out in a clear and practical way the problem of identifying with the hag or Terrible Mother. The hag, nag or bitch of contemporary couple relationships is quite prominent in psychotherapy literature as the domineering, suffocating, and overwhelming mother who must control family life at everyone’s expense. Through the help of the story, we come to respect the hag and to see her dilemma empathically. We learn that when relationships reach a breakdown in basic trust, when all rational solutions have failed and both partners are alienated, we should listen to the hag. Only she knows the answers that we’ll restore trust to the relationship.” (pp. 10-11)

The Importance of the Archetypal Feminine

For our purposes here, the archetypal feminine is the province of relating and caregiving. This is the domain of sustaining human and natural life within the human group. In other words, it concerns joining, attachment and involvement with people, things, and ideas. Its opposite, the archetypal masculine is the domain of distancing and separating. The masculine is characterized here as binding off, separating from, and aggression toward nature and human beings for survival purposes. The masculine involves dividing and separating, waging war and making boundaries, as well as analyzing people, things and ideas as opposed to the experience of joining with them. The following statement from Peggy Sanday, an anthropologist who has studied gender-related power differences in over 150 tribal and modern societies, further clarifies these distinctions as they pertain to human relating and culture:

‘One is struck with the degree to which the sexes conform to a rather basic conceptual symmetry, which is grounded in primary sex differences. Women give birth and growth children; men kill and make weapons. Men display their kills (be it an animal, a human head, or a scalp) with the same pride that women hold up the newly born. If birth and death are among the necessities of existence, then men and women contribute equally but in quite different ways to the continuance of life, and hence of culture.’ (Peggy Sanday Female Power and Male Dominance; On the Origins of Sexual Inequality, p. 5.

Because there are serious anthropological questions about whether these archetypal themes of “primary sex differences” are actually universally sorted out along the same gender lines i.e. feminine for women and masculine for men, I do not assume that women and men represent these archetypal domains through their gender identities. Rather, I’ve come to see both domains as potentially available to each gender for both identity and action purposes.

Our story helps us to understand what happens in intimate relations when the ordinary tasks of caregiving – managing a household, rearing children, sustaining emotional contact and soothing and healing wounds are devalued. When women and men devalue these activities, whether consciously or unconsciously, they fall into those habitual patterns and modes of relating which are connoted by the Jungian idea of the negative mother complex. This complex comprises behaviors, ideas, images and feelings that are concerned with escaping the intimacy of giving and receiving care. The negative mother complex is thus related to the idea of devaluing or excising the feminine from one’s identity and activity.

In our present society, men have a tendency to devalue the feminine in themselves and in women. Many feminine attributes are considered ”weakness” in traditional male gender identity. Consequently, men struggle to exclude and differ with women and with the concerns of care-giving in order to maintain separate identities as males…

Since women are the primary caretakers during almost everyone’s childhood years, the voice of female authority rings powerful tones. Men do not simply differ from women rationally or objectively; they often feel what Karen Horney has called “dread of women” and feel compelled to fight the feminine (both inside and outside) in order to experience any personal power in their male identity.

Women, on the other hand, must identify both with the devalued, “inferior” aspects of the feminine and with the powerful projections of female authority. Women feel at once too weak and too powerful in their mothering and authority. When basic trust is low and devaluing the feminine is high, then a woman tends to feel quite wholly identified with the negative and inferior powers of the hag, the witch or the Terrible Mother.” (pp. 12-13.)

“…We are ready, now, to turn to the story of Sir Gawain and the Lady Ragnell, which poses the question: “What do women really want?” This question, more than any other, provides a guide for us in doing therapy with couples who have lost basic attachment and trust in their relationships. Furthermore, it is a question which can lead us to the liberation and revaluing of the feminine both inside and out, in ourselves and in the lives of all men and women, for it directs us to the very heart of our humanity, to a concern for intimate relationship. Our failures in family making (not to be understood as the nuclear family ideal), our waste of human, animal and other natural resources, our despair about cooperating with human beings in other societies, and our oppression of our own partners and friends all reflect our devaluing of ordinary caregiving.” (p.15)

These source quotes are from: Young-Eisendrath, Polly, Hags and Heroes: A Feminist Approach to Jungian Psychotherapy with Couples, 1984.

For a Wikipedia orientation and brief overview of the story see:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wedding_of_Sir_Gawain_and_Dame_Ragnelle

See also my post on Embracing the Hag.

Explore posts in the same categories: Complexes and More, Learning to Think and Work Symbolically, Transference and Countertransference

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