Carol Gilligan is a psychologist and writer who lives in New York City and in the Berkshires. Her ground-breaking book, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory' and Women's Development, has been translated into eighteen languages. With her students, she co-authored and co-edited four books on women's psychology and girls' development: Meeting at the Crossroads, Between Voice and Silence, Making Connections, and Women, Girls, and Psychotherapy: Reframing Resistance. At Harvard, where she was the first Graham Professor of Gender Studies, her award-winning research led to the founding of the university's Center on Gender and Education. She is now University Professor at New York University.
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A Radical Geography of Love
Let it be Like wild flowers, Suddenly, an imperative of the field...
For years, without knowing why, I have been drawn to maps of the desert, drawn by descriptions of the winds and the wadi--dry watercourses that suddenly fill with rain. I began following an ancient story about love told in North Africa in the second century, written in the coastal city of Carthage, carried into Europe as the winds carry the desert sand, falling like rain into a tradition whose origins lie in the birth of tragedy, coursing through the centuries like an underground stream. Set in the landscape of tragedy, the story leads to the birth of pleasure.
Psyche is the youngest and most beautiful of three daughters, the magical position in the folktale tradition, the young woman slated to marry the prince. She was so beautiful that everyone honored her and called her the new Venus, as if the goddess of love had returned to earth, now a young woman again. This fantasy of replacement, one woman seen as the replica of another, leads to envy among women and also to isolation. Venus, replaced, becomes old Venus. And Psyche, although worshiped by all, is loved by no one, because nobody sees her. Her beauty has become a blind, dazzling others who admire her as the ideal woman, an object of beauty, the goddess of love herself. Psyche is lonely, depressed, and confused by the fact that while everyone idolizes her, no one will marry her--nobody knows who she is. She hates in herself that beauty in which the world finds such pleasure.
Her father the king, distressed by his daughter's unhappiness and suspecting a god's intervention in her failure to marry, goes to consult the oracle of Apollo--a woman who speaks for the male god. She tells him that his daughter is destined for a funereal marriage to a wild and cruel and snaky monster. He is to take her to a lofty mountain crag and leave her to her fate.
Psyche's parents--active father, silent mother--are bereft by the news of their daughter's sad fate. With heavy hearts, they prepare to take her to the high hill. But Psyche, hearing them weep, tells them they are grieving at the wrong time: "When countries and people were giving me divine honours, when with a single voice they were all calling me a new Venus, that is when you should have grieved, that is when you should have wept, that is when you should have mourned me as if I were already dead." They had taken her honor as cause for celebration without seeing that, for Psyche, being renamed New Venus signified her erasure. That was her funeral, she says, showing the obduracy of adolescents but also revealing that like the Fool in the Renaissance play, she is the truth-teller in this story about love. Buoyed by the truth and clear in her determination that she would rather die than continue to live her death-in-life existence as New Venus, she leads the procession to the mountain with a firm step. "Take me," she says, "and put me on the cliff appointed by the oracle. I hasten to enter into this happy marriage. I hasten to see this high-born husband of mine." Yet, left alone on the high ledge, Psyche waits in terror for the serpent monster.
Meanwhile, Venus, shocked to discover that there is--that there could be--a new Venus, sends for her son, Cupid, the god of love, and kissing him long and intensely with parted lips, beseeches him in the name of the maternal bond to punish that "defiant beauty." He is to make Psyche fall in love with the most wretched of men. But when Cupid alights on the high mountain ledge and sees the beautiful young woman who looks like his mother, he falls in love with her.
The love story begins with the wind. Summoned by Cupid, it brings the sensations of love, the feeling of being lifted and carried, taking Psyche from the ledge of terror and bringing her into the pleasures of her own body. There came, the sensual story goes, a softly blowing zephyr, which lifted her garments up, causing them to billow. And with its tranquil breath it carried her, little by little, down the slopes of the high cliff and into a valley deep below, where she lay on a bed of moist and fragrant flowers. In the andante of this sensuous awakening, told as a story of nature ("Come slowly, Eden," Emily Dickinson will write), Psyche sleeps and then wakes feeling calm. She finds herself now in a grove of tall trees, next to a glistening stream. In the middle of the grove, she sees a magnificent palace, which she enters, and there her unknown husband visits her at night. And so, the sexual story continues, "that which was at first a novelty did by continual custom bring her great pleasure, and the sound of a mysterious voice gave comfort to her loneliness." But this is a love conducted in darkness and sealed by silence. Hidden from Venus, an illicit love.
Cupid tells Psyche that she must promise not to try to see him or speak about their love. If she breaks her promise, he will leave her. But while Psyche cannot see her lover, he is nonetheless sensible both to her hands and to her ears. She knows him through touch and by the sound of his voice, yet she cannot see or say what she knows.
Maybe love is like rain, sometimes gentle, sometimes torrential, flooding, eroding, quiet, steady, filling the earth, collecting in hidden springs. When it rains, when we love, life grows. So that to say, as Moses coming down from Sinai said, that there are two roads, one leading to life and one to death and therefore choose life, is to say, in effect, choose love. But what is the way?
I read the myth of Psyche and Cupid at a time when relationships between men and women were changing. The waves of liberation that swept through American society in the second half of the twentieth century set in motion a process of transformation, freeing love from many constraints. The civil rights movement galvanized a moral consensus against prejudice and domination, and in a historic convergence, it was followed by both the antiwar movement and the women's movement. A conversation about freedom was joined by questions about long-standing ideals of manhood and womanhood. For a man to be a man, did he have to be a soldier? For a woman to be a woman, did she have to sacrifice herself for others? Was this the meaning of becoming someone's wife or mother? Soldiers and mothers were the sacrificial couple, honored and idealized by statues in the park and paintings in the museum. The gay/lesbian liberation movement drew people's attention to men's love for men and women's for women, and also to men's love for women who were not the objects of their sexual desire and women's love for men who were not their economic protectors. In the 1990s, for the first time since suffrage, women's votes elected the president. The tension between democracy and patriarchy was out in the open.
Democracy rests on an ideal of equality in which everyone has a voice. Patriarchy, although frequently misinterpreted to mean the oppression of women by men, literally means a hierarchy--a rule of priests--in which the priest, the hieros, is a father. It describes an order of living that elevates fathers, separating fathers from sons (the men from the boys) and men from women, and placing both children and women under a father's authority. With the renaissance of women's voices in the late twentieth century, with sons questioning the authority of fathers, especially with respect to war, with the revolution in technology reducing the need for a priesthood by providing direct access to knowledge, the foundations of patriarchy were eroding.
I was searching at the time for what seemed a washed-out road connecting women's psychology with that of girls. It was a path that novelists had followed but psychologists for the most part had ignored (girls having been consistently left out of research on adolescence). Picking up the voice of pleasure in girls at the edge of adolescence, I came to the places where this voice drops off and a tragic story takes over. The tragic story where love leads to loss and pleasure is associated with death was repeated over and over again in operas, folk songs, the blues, and novels. We were in love with a tragic story of love. It was "our story."
If we have a map showing where pleasure is buried and where the seeds of tragedy are planted, then an order of living that over the millennia has seemed natural or inevitable becomes instead a road we have taken, and we can explore alternative routes. Piecing together an ancient love story with the findings of contemporary research, I found myself led into the heart of a mystery--why do we keep repeating tragic love stories?--and then to a new mapping of love. This book is a record of that journey.
I picked up the ancient road-map of love, seeing in the myth of Psyche and Cupid a map of resistance that converged with the findings of my research. The myth was written or recorded by Apuleius, a Roman born in North Africa at a time when the hegemony of male gods was becoming unsettled--a time in this respect very much like our own. Like America in the late twentieth century, North Africa in the second century was a place where cultures were mixing and women's voices were finding new resonance. Apuleius, educated in Carthage and Athens, worked as a lawyer in Rome before returning to Carthage where he married an older woman who was steeped in the traditions of women's culture. The story of Psyche and Cupid appears at the center of his novel, Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass. It is presented as "an old wife's tale."
The word "metamorphosis" means changing the shape or overcoming the form. Apuleius' novel follows the adventures of Lucius, a man whose curiosity leads him to be turned into a donkey. He is the supreme or golden ass. In this form, he travels through a familiar landscape of millers and priests, highways and robbers, taverns and wenches, until with the intervention of Isis and the coming of spring, he regains his human shape by eating roses. For a time he devotes himself to the worship of Isis before returning to his old life as a new man.
Midway through this journey, the story of Psyche and Cupid bubbles up, seemingly from nowhere like an ancient spring. It too is a story of transformation, overcoming the traditional form of love between a man and a woman. Its central place in the novel suggests that only when Lucius has assimilated this change in the love story can he regain his male human body without assuming the old forms of manhood. The revolutionary insight in this comic novel lies in this realization: a change in the love story is a psychic key to a cultural and historic transformation.
While Apuleius' novel ends with an ode to Isis, suggesting a change in shape from patriarchy to matriarchy (a change that retains the hierarchical form), the love story of Psyche and Cupid ends with a more radical suggestion: as the relationship between Psyche and Cupid is made "no longer uneven" and a democratic marriage replaces the patriarchal form, so the birth of a daughter named Pleasure carries the intimation of a new story. The tale of Psyche and Cupid traveled from North Africa into the heart of Europe at the time of the Renaissance, becoming an inspiration to poets and painters and a prime source for Shakespeare, shaping his writing about love and the voices of the women characters in the comedies, tragedies, and romance plays just as Holinshed's Chronicles shaped the writing of the history plays. J. J. M. Tobin, a classics scholar who has documented how extensively Shakespeare borrowed from Apuleius, especially from the story of Psyche and Cupid, has called The Golden Ass "Shakespeare's favorite novel." Thus a radical map of love, a story told by an old wife to a young woman, came into the center of high Western culture. Carried along on the cultural mainstream, the story itself undergoes transformation. We hear it repeated, over and over again, in a variety of forms. Lucius, the golden ass, and Charity, the young woman to whom the story is told, become the lovers in Edith Wharton's novel Summer. The old woman who tells the story becomes the street woman in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, the story itself--barely comprehensible--interrupting the stream of people's consciousness as they cross a busy street in London. And Psyche's voice becomes Katharine's voice in Michael Ondaatje's novel The English Patient, when she says to Almasy, "If you make love to me I won't lie about it. If I make love to you I won't lie about it."
In the mid-1980s, I embarked on a study with men and women whose intimate relationships with one another had reached a point of crisis. People were asking new questions about love--finding their way alone and together across a shifting societal and psychic terrain. More women were speaking openly about their experiences of love, saying what they knew about pleasure. The double standard, or what Freud had called "a double morality" had led, he observed, to a "concealment of the truth, false optimism, self-deception and deception of others" on the part of both men and women. The poet Jorie Graham's questions became everyone's questions:
How far is true enough? How far into the earth can vision go and still be love?
A search for truth was uncovering a buried history, revealing the extent to which neither men nor women felt authentic. How had this happened? Where had they split with their souls, their desires, their connection to themselves and each other?
Led by an awareness of disconnection, I began to explore the roots of what seemed a pervasive trauma. Trauma is the shock to the psyche that leads to dissociation: our ability to separate ourselves from parts of ourselves, to create a split within ourselves so that we can know and also not know what we know, feel and yet not feel our feelings. It is our ability, as Freud put it in Studies on Hysteria, to hold parts of our experience not as a secret from others but as a "foreign body" within ourselves.
The foundational stories we tell about Western civilization are stories of trauma. Oedipus is wounded and abandoned by his parents, who drive a stake through his feet (hence the name Oedipus, which means "swollen foot") and give him to a herdsman with instructions to leave the baby on a hillside to die. Saved by the herdsman, Oedipus is fated to kill his father, Laius, and to marry his mother, Jocasta--a fate decreed by Apollo as retribution for Laius having sexually violated a young boy.
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