There is often a passage in even the most thoroughly interpreted dream which has to be left obscure; this is because we became aware during the work of interpretation that at that point there is a tangle of dream-thoughts which cannot be unravelled and which moreover adds nothing to our knowledge of the content of the dream. This is the dream's navel, the spot where it reaches down into the unknown. The dream-thoughts to which we are led by interpretation cannot, from the nature of things, have any definite endings; they are bound to branch out in each direction into the intricate network of our world of thought It is at some point where this meshwork is particularly close that the dream-wish grows up, like a mushroom out of its mycelium. (SE 5: 525)
Of all the obstacles to the integration of psychoanalytic and gender theories, Freud's concept of penis envy has been, perhaps, the greatest, a mountain in the path of their confluence, around which a city has grown up. Of this city, Freud's 1925 essay, “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes,” marks its founding, simultaneously the point at which his prior writings on penis envy come retrospectively to have new meaning within the framework of his theory as a whole, and the birth of the controversy, evidenced by the essays of Homey and Klein that followed it, that has defined the landscape of psychoanalytic feminism from that time forward. Whether the reader has anticipated the journey with some dread, or has “booked [her] passage as a matter of course” (SE 22: 240), she cannot but sense that she has arrived at a point in the net of theory in which the meshwork is particularly close, a city dense with conflict and context, in which the issue of penis envy stands as “the very omphalos, cynosure and soul around which the town…has organized itself” (Kingsley, 1855).
FREUD'S 1925 PAPER: A BRIEF ARCHAEOLOGY
“Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes” was not Freud's first exploration of the topic of penis envy; in fact, his attention to the concept was nearly as old as his interest in gender itself, surfacing first in undeveloped form in his 1908 paper “On the Sexual Theories of Children”. The growth of Freud's intertwined interests in penis envy and the
psychology of women in general can be traced chronologically from that point on in a linear trajectory that stretches from this early reference through to the 1925 paper and beyond. In an effort to provide a context for the “Psychical Consequences” essay, a sketch of that trajectory will be offered here, in the belief that locating it within this linear chronology will provide a useful, perhaps necessary, and ultimately inadequate ground for an appreciation of it. For though the concept of penis envy directly anchors Freud's account of sexual difference, its own conceptual grounding is, as Freud's ideas develop, increasingly nested elsewhere, within the context of his general theory of mind; in that context, penis envy can be seen as one manifestation of a set of broader psychological–that is, philosophical–allegiances, under whose canopy it serves to draw in the issue of sexual difference through the creation of an epistemology of gender. Only by recognizing this broader role, I suggest, can the reader develop an appreciation of the stakes of the battles to follow between Freud's theories and those of his adversarial disciples Horney and Klein. Thus, the short synopsis offered here of the development of Freud's ideas specifically about penis envy will be supplemented by a reworking of this conceptual lineage within the context of concurrent developments in his general psychological theory.
Although “On the Sexual Theories of Children” contained Freud's first mention of penis envy, the ground for his interest in the topic had been laid a decade earlier, in the context of his earliest inquiries into the development of mature sexuality from its infantile roots. By the mid-1890s, in his letters to Fliess, Freud was already grappling with many of the ideas that formed the bedrock of his later theory of sexuality, including sexual monism, bisexuality, infantile sexuality, and the role of repression in shaping libidinal life. When, in 1897, he suggested that although the timing of prior events of sexual history was perhaps different for girls and boys, “the main distinction between the sexes emerges at the time of puberty” (Masson, 1985, p. 280), he already fully realized the importance of illuminating the mechanism through which this divergence occurred. In his earliest account, the search for this mechanism took place within the context of a general view of development as determined by the natural but specifically human tendency to lose interest in some libidinal zones–the nose, mouth, anus, and, in women, he already believed, clitoris–in the process of consolidating sexual organization. Yet if, according to this early theory, the capacity of women to give up an allegiance to the latter zone, and to feel shame in regard to it, could be explained simply on the basis of the repugnance of memory (“memory actually stinks” [Masson, 1985, p. 280]), such an account was soon to be questioned from the vantage point of concepts put forward in the 1908 paper, for reasons that were only hinted at there.
In that paper (which built upon the claims put forward in the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality
(1905), as further clarified in light of his analysis-by-proxy of Little Hans (1909)), Freud emphasized that the child's perception of sexual difference is created within the context of its psychosexual situation,
an assertion that in hindsight can be seen as paving the way for his more general insights into the constructed, inherently psychical, nature of sexual identity. For now, however, Freud put forward the two concepts that would later function as the building blocks of his understanding of psychosexuality, penis envy and castration anxiety, side by side, without elaborating on their relationship to each other or on the role of penis envy in the process of gender construction. It is significant for a reading of Freud's ideas about gender and envy to note that the frame for his 1908 meditations was his observation that Little Hans's interest in sexual difference arose only in the context of his sibling rivalry, which appeared to trigger further envy, both of his mother's capacity to have babies, and of his father's (= horse's) large penis. It is against this background of the boy's envy of his parents and sibling, and of his theorizing into where babies come from, that the girl's envy of the penis was inserted in Freud's text, at this point seemingly as an aside. Indeed, only in retrospect is Freud's investment in the idea made clear, when he imports his observations regarding penis envy and castration anxiety wholesale into his 1915 revision of the Three Essays
, moving the two concepts even closer together there in light of his insight, recorded in a comment in his paper “On Narcissism” of the year before, that these are but two versions, the male and the female, of the same phenomenon: a universal castration complex that determines the relative balance of self- and object-love in both sexes in later life.
When Freud next took up the issue of penis envy, in his paper “On Transformations of Instinct as Exemplified in Anal Eroticism” of 1917, we might suggest that his observation in regard to “anal traits” that at first “my main object was to make known the fact…; I was little concerned about its theoretical significance” (SE
17: 127), might apply to his previous discussions of the former concept as well. Indeed, this essay, written while he was in the midst of composing his so-called metapsychological papers, appears to mark the point at which Freud's interest in the theoretical significance of penis envy came to the fore. In it, he reached back to his first curiosity about the mechanism by which earlier libidinal investments in bodily zones receded at the emergence of new ones, in order to trace the reverberations of these earlier investments within the context of genital sexuality. Here, Freud spoke briefly of the boy's reworking of his earlier investment in his feces into a narcissistic investment in his penis under the sway of the castration complex; but he spoke at greater length about the seemingly more complex process through which the girl's anal eroticism converges with her penis envy and her independent early desires for a baby and for a man, allowing her to transform the two former libidinal sources into a further impetus toward aligning her desires with the roles of wife and mother. Through his postulation of an “unconscious equivalence” between penis and baby, Freud set the stage for the appreciation of penis envy not only as an observed phenomenon, but as a factor in the transformation of the girl's relational desires. Meanwhile, Freud traced the more pernicious effects of the girl's penis envy
upon her marital relationships in “The Taboo of Virginity” (1917/18), which was written on the heels of the “Transformation of Instincts” paper, and discussed cultural variations in how these effects are accommodated at the social level. He was able to illustrate the role played by latent penis envy in determining later libidinal life and object relationships in his study of “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman” (1920), in which he came further to appreciate not only the intricacy and ontogenetically ancient origins of a woman's libidinal world, but his own limitations, as a man, in gaining access to the pre-oedipal substrate of her desires. This study was built upon insights Freud had developed in his essay “‘A Child is Being Beaten:’ A Contribution to the Study of the Origin of Sexual Perversions” (1919), which he later recognized as documenting the effects of penis envy on the fantasies of girls.
If the essay on anal eroticism put the concept of penis envy into play as a phenomenon of theoretical, as well as clinical, significance, its importance was hardly granted a full investigation in that context. It seems, fittingly enough, that Freud needed to develop a clearer appreciation of the lacunae in his earlier accounts of psychosexual development–specifically, a theory of female sexuality–before he was inspired to redress this lack through a reworking of observations of which he had previously had only limited appreciation. He posed his concern about these theoretical deficits quite clearly in his 1924 essay, “The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex,” following his observations on that topic with the comment that “the process which has been described refers, as has been expressly said, to male children only. How does the corresponding development take place in little girls? At this point our material-for some incomprehensible reason-becomes far more obscure and full of gaps” [SE 19: 177). Although he follows this statement of his concern with his most elaborate account to date of the role of penis envy as a component of the female castration complex and as a precipitant of the resolution of her Oedipus complex, he maintains that his speculations on the topic are “unsatisfactory, incomplete and vague” [SE 19: 179), setting the stage for further consideration of female development as a topic in its own right.
The 1925 essay included in this volume, titled “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes,” directly followed Freud's 1924 call to arms, and indeed was the first theoretical paper devoted explicitly to the general topic of women's psychosexual development. I will leave it to the reader to follow the thread of Freud's ideas about penis envy, as we have traced them to this point, through the text of the paper, highlighting only that in this essay penis envy has become the crux not only of female psychology but of the sudden opening up of theory to the “dark regions” of the pre-oedipal psychic landscape in both men and women, bestowing upon these regions a significance that was lacking in Freud's earlier considerations of the child's pre-oedipal attachments. In his reworking of these ideas in “Female Sexuality” (1931), Freud locates his inquiry at the outset within this dark (though by this time, not quite as dark) province, emphasizing
the uncanny completeness of the girl's relationship with the mother, which not only instigates, but foreshadows isometrically the heterosexual relationship that may (or may not) follow.
Though often viewed as a recapitulation of the 1925 paper, the “Female Sexuality” essay contains subtle but potentially far-reaching variations in the significance granted to penis envy. This phenomenon is now presented as only one among many of the catalysts for the girl's turn from mother to father, and the functional equivalence between penis and baby no longer necessitates that the girl's angry disaffection with the mother be caused specifically by her failure to grant the child that organ. Instead, the fantasy of bearing the mother a child predates a similar wish in regard to the father, and the disappointment of this earlier wish might in itself explain the turn to the father in search of its fulfillment. Although not included in this volume, the reader is strongly encouraged to read the 1931 essay and to decide for herself whether it marks the further establishment of penis envy as the crux of sexual difference in Freud's account of female psychology or, rather, whether penis envy appears there as a residue of an idea that, though decisive in leading Freud to a new land, has been overshadowed by the discoveries he made on his arrival. Suffice it to say here that Freud's own appreciation of the role of penis envy in female psychology only continued to grow over time; in his “New Introductory Lecture” on “Femininity” of 1933, he highlighted the girl's castration complex once again as the single factor distinguishing her relationship with her mother from the boy's, noting that “one cannot very well doubt the importance of envy for the penis” (SE 22:125), a sentiment that is enthusiastically restated yet again in An Outline of Psycho-Analysis (1938), which Freud composed at the end of his life as a synthesis of his most important ideas.
To say that the summary offered above represents a sketch of the linear chronology of Freud's thoughts about penis envy may be superficially correct, inasmuch as his major writings on the topic have been discussed here roughly in the order of their composition. Yet Freud himself was devoted to a form of historiography which called into question the belief that such a chronology constituted a sufficient ground for an appreciation of the evolution of meaning, preferring instead to chart, in the anamneses of his patients (viz., SE 18...