Outside John Goto’s ‘New World Circus’ is a group of portraits of the circus performers, at the centre of which is the tough looking ringmaster, Pops McGovern, seen unsuccessfully attempting to silence a ventriloquist’s dummy. The dummy is dressed in a shalwar kameez costume and sports a long beard and Po Teletub space-alien mask. McGovern wears a traditional top hat and tailcoat onto which is pinned a patriotic American emblem. He also displays a Mickey Mouse watch and a Bald Eagle signet ring. McGovern’s red eyes and the bead of sweat running down his face indicate that despite his best efforts, the situation is getting out of control.
Around him are arrayed his family who form the circus troupe. His daughters Lula-May and Zoleen vie for attention whilst their grandmother, Ma McGovern and the handsome Chuck, amiably pose for the camera. McGovern’s long-suffering wife, Blanche, cuts a tragic figure dressed as a whiteface clown. The strongman, Buddy, seen against a background of flames and explosions, has tattooed on his upper arm a heart pierced by a dagger and the words ‘Mom” and ‘Freedom”. A portrait of the Neighbour family dressed in cowboy outfits completes the display.
The emphasis in this arrangement is clearly on the patriarchal relationships that dominate the McGovern family, and yet through the use of symbols and personification, it also hints at the wider arena of current international affairs. A parallel seems to be being drawn between relationships within the family and those between nation states. In this essay I will explore some of the psychoanalytic concepts underpinning Goto’s analogous strategy.
The story of how Oedipus unwittingly slayed his father and committed incest with his mother, where upon she hanged herself and he put out his own eyes, is the subject of some of the greatest Greek tragedies. Sigmund Freud used the myth to describe a conflict he discovered through his own self-analysis and the analysis of his patients, which has come to be recognised as the central conflict in the human psyche. In a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fliess dated 15 October 1897, Freud described the discovery of ‘falling in love with the mother and jealousy of the father… in spite of all the objections raised by reason against such destiny.’ He comments that ‘the Greek legend seizes on a compulsion which everyone recognises because he feels it’s existence within himself. Each member of the audience was once, in germ and in phantasy, just such an Oedipus, and each one recoils in horror from the dream-fulfilment here transplanted into reality, with the whole quota of repression which separates his infantile state from his present one.’ He linked this idea with Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘How can Hamlet the hysteric justify his words Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, how can he explain his hesitation in avenging his father by the murder of his uncle – he, the same man who sends his courtiers to their death without a scruple and who is positively precipitate in killing Laertes? How better could he justify himself than by the torment he suffers from the obscure memory that he himself had meditated the same deed against his father from the passion for his mother, and use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping? His conscience is his unconscious sense of guilt’ (Freud 1897).
This first description of the Oedipus complex was considered by Freud to be just a beginning ‘with no real stopping point’. His life’s work continued to ponder the murderous jealousy and possessiveness of primitive, infantile emotionality and inspired his understanding of child and adult sexuality, rooted in the Oedipal situation. It was not until Melanie Klein embarked on her pioneering work in child analysis from the 1920s through to the late 1950s, that the primitive elements of human experience, remote from common sense, could be identified further. She was the first person to really follow the developmental odyssey that the child has to negotiate in its Oedipal relationships. Her findings confirmed the existence of shockingly murderous aggression in the developing strata of the young child’s mind.
Klein’s young patients, through the medium of play, presented their sadistic phantsies of entering the mother’s body, robbing it of its contents by cutting, burning, devouring and committing other such atrocities. Similar attacks were also directed to the father’s genital, sometimes thought to reside in the mother. Through these vignettes, Klein was able to observe the fragmented infantile world of phantasy and its preoccupation with procreation through sexual research. Most remarkable was her realization that the infant experiences the intimate world of the parents in fragmented body parts rather than whole-person objects, and that the Oedipal situation originates in this primitive form much earlier than Freud had thought. The breast is not recognised by the infant as connected to the mother, nor the penis to the father. Nothing is fixed in place until the screen between conscious and unconscious experience begins to find its place. Consequently, the baby has a myriad of confusing experiences at the breast which are much interfered with by phantasy, some of which feel pleasurable whilst others feel persecuting. As a defence against anxiety aroused by ambivalence towards the breast, the infant mind depicts a theatre of ideally good and utterly bad objects. Phantasy attacks on the breast, penis, and on imagined babies inside the mother are accompanied by the dread of retaliation. At this part-person-object level, feelings of being loved and of being persecuted are quite well developed in advance of whole-object parents coming into view, along with any siblings that might actually exist. The impingement of reality upon the phatasies, urges the infant to get to know the mother’s body and its own, and most importantly to differentiate between the two. The epistomorphilic instinct, the desire to know and to learn, propels the infant towards comprehension of its ambivalent feelings towards its mother, the family it subsequently discovers, and the world beyond. The Oedipal conflicts are thus at the heart of the capacity to think and to learn, to love and to hate.
Primitive infantile phantasies persist and can wreak havoc in the developing young child who may not wish to relinquish their enticing sway. The child might prefer the world that they can create with their imagination to the one they find themselves in which requires the relinquishment of excessive omnipotence, greed, envy, violence, narcissism, triumphalism, and absolute possession of the mother or any other highly desired object. Above all, the Oedipal complex requires the child to recognise the difference between the parent’s relationship with each other as sexual and procreative, whereas the relationship between the child and parent is not (Britton 1989). This recognition arouses terrifically powerful unconscious feelings of loss, envy, hostility, suspicion, and eroticism. The processing of this unbearably turbulent emotionality relies heavily on the containing function of the parent’s minds, especially the mothers, as both her presence and absence, and the possibility of her giving birth to other children stirs up such painful turmoil. When flooded with unmanageable levels of frustration and anxiety, the infant can feel that catastrophic annihilation is nigh. A primitive and mysterious mechanism of projection allows such frightening feelings to be got rid, split off onto another object so that it is no longer necessary to even be aware of their presence. Since it was first described by Freud in 1895 it has been the subject of much complex theorizing and discourse amongst analysts. It suffices to say here, that to dispossess the mind of valuable information and experience, and to project hated parts of the self out into the world has its consequences.
Oedipal illusions composed of good loving parental figures and bad persecuting parental figures are modified through the experience of reality, and the small child coming to know and be known by its actual parents. It is, however, possible for a good parent to become a nasty sadist in the mind of a small child and for this early misapprehension to become unconsciously fixed in mind throughout life, like a demon inside (Money-Kyrle 1978). The acquisition or belief in predominantly good internal figures during infancy, particularly a good and creative internal couple, augers well for future personality development and the maturation of independent character with little need of external authority. Predominantly frightening and persecuting figures in the child’s mind hinder emotional development through excessive anxiety, encouraging over dependency on others, and their influence.
In his later work, Freud moved away from the good-bad, pleasure-unpleasure principles of the Oedipus conflict towards a concept of the death instinct (Freud 1920). His new hypothesis promulgated the thesis that the function of the death instinct was to return the organism to an inorganic state, in opposition to the potentially excessive life instinct under the sway of the libido. The conflict between Thanatos and Eros preserves life through sustaining a balance between the two, but the confusing ambivalence that it generates can be unbearable. In the grip of Thanatos, great destructiveness in the form of masochism and sadism can be released. Eros fights back with its powerful life giving force devoted to love, integration, growth, and development. Freud’s ideas on the death instinct were formulated through his earlier paper ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917) in which he explored the difference between ordinary mourning following the loss of a loved object, or the loss of an ideal, and severe depression with it’s potential for the development of suicidal ideation. When hatred for the loved object emerges during the ordinary process of mourning, the ambivalence can be so acute, that the aggression is turned on the self. This conflict between life and death, love and hate, underlies and mobilizes the Oedipus conflict, which employs illusion to blur the boundary between phantasy and reality.
It was Donald Meltzer who recognised that the conflict between good and bad objects, between love and hatred, is essentially an aesthetic conflict that the infant is plunged into at the caesura of birth. He described the primitive and enigmatic illusions of splitting-and-idealization as a defence against beauty, necessary because ‘the apprehension of beauty contains in its very nature the apprehension of its destruction’ (Meltzer 1988). To accept beauty is to accept life but also death, therefore the love and fear of beauty stirs up the violent destructiveness inherent in its nature. The presence of beauty discovered first in the mother, relieves the infant of confusing persecutory anxiety, and so begins the life-long disentanglement of illusion and discernment necessary in the apprehension of good and bad objects, in the self and other. Meltzer described the gradual acceptance of split-off parts of the self as a process of integration and maturation requiring the development of values and judgement. Infantile egocentricity is eventually given up out of concern for the loved objects of psychic and external reality: ‘Goodness, beauty, strength and generosity replace in esteem the initial enthralment to size, power, success, and sensuality’ (Meltzer 1988). The thrust of the individual towards such development happens within the context of civilizing pressures exerted by the family and society.
Roger Money-Kyrle, who was an anthropologist before becoming a psychoanalyst, was analysed by Ernest Jones (Freud’s primary biographer), Freud himself and Melanie Klein. He brought to psychoanalysis an understanding of how Oedipal conflicts underpin the family, social groups and nations. He described how individuals constantly re-enact their Oedipal illusions in their family and reproduce the theatre of it, in all subsequent group encounters in the external world. Individuals struggling with similar Oedipal structures often seek a group that will nurture and defend their neurosis, agree common values, protect them from perceived enemies, and abnegate their guilt: ‘The values a group defends may be it’s concrete possessions, its motherland or some abstract religious or political ideal. The enemy it defends them against may be another group, or some abstract but more or less personified principle of evil. The leader may be an ancestral god, a priest or king who incarnates the god, or a hereditary monarch. He may be elected; appointed or self-imposed… the group ideal standard of behaviour might take any of an infinite variety of different forms. A group might be either pathological or sane. If the individuals who compose it have severe internal conflicts they are apt to create enemies for themselves by suspecting enmity where none at fist existed or to become depressed if they fail to get the fanatical leadership they need, or become neurotic’ (Money-Kyrle 1978).
Human nature is naturally aggressive. Civilized society represses its destructiveness by splitting-off its violence into unconscious existence, using the same mechanisms as an individual. Just like the small child’s violence towards the illusion of an aggressive parent, society’s violence remains omnipresent and is always seeking to manifest itself. Money-Kyrle warned that to not be aware of this phenomenon was like going about with ‘pockets full of dynamite’, as indeed the suicide bomber of today chooses to do. Projection invariably allows unconscious aggression to be disowned and attributed by illusion to others. In the family it is constantly being renegotiated and redistributed, sometimes most unfairly, or got rid of by expulsion onto neighbours, strangers, aliens, foreigners, or some other remote object. The process can also be inverted, masochistically turned against the self, leading to feelings of inferiority, depression and if very intense, suicide.
Money-Kyrle described how a nation could feel threatened by the growth and development of a neighbour and begin to review security by treaty and an increase in arms. This of course excites the suspicion of the neighbour who also takes defensive measures. A mutual and very dangerous distrust emerges, which ignites excitement and suspicion, and ultimately war, the very catastrophe intended to be avoided. The damming up of aggression in peacetime means that it floods out when the defences are broken. Murder is commissioned and the desire to kill is let loose and cannot be controlled in the way that military and political leaders would like to believe. Propaganda facilitates and justifies mass illusion and mass murder. It succeeds because the disunited states of the mind resist integration. Internal propaganda in the form of pre-existing illusions and phantasies render the mind susceptible to external propaganda. Primitive infantile and essentially Oedipal grievances lend themselves to external conflicts for relief and raise ‘sleeping demons’ (Money-Kyle 1978).
The nature and function of groups has been cogently understood by Wilfred Bion (1961), originating with his first and most profound group experience as a First World War tank commander. Later he studied medicine and eventually psychoanalysis. He identified two distinct types of groups or group behaviours. The ‘work group’ is thoughtful, interested and able to define and complete its task. The ‘basic assumption group’ lacks focussed interest due to an overarching preoccupation with psychotic anxieties that undermine its capacity to work. Individuals in this group project uncontained psychotic parts of themselves into the group. Protecting one another’s interests becomes more important than the work task. Group defence mechanisms against psychotic anxieties expressed as idealization, grandiosity, paranoia and hostility, are not recognised as mad because they are sanctioned by the group (Segal 1997). In the ‘work group’, reality and illusion are recognised and psychotic elements are held in check. This is not the case in the ‘basic assumption’ group, which consequently has the potential to develop a corrupt Mafiosi gang mentality.
When psychotic anxieties are held at bay in the family (the prototype of all social groups) it functions well. Individual members feel understood by each other and are able to communicate meaningfully. Painful experiences can be borne in mind and modulated through thoughtful apprehension. But when psychotic anxieties get through the defences, all hell breaks loose if good parental objects are not available to deal with the destructiveness. Thinking tends to be replaced by action and communication disintegrates. A contaminating atmosphere of hatred, blame, jealousy, secrecy, lies and hostility erodes trust, respect and privacy, making fragmentation inevitable. Insane fear and hatred are highly contagious in a family or a nation, fuelled by the susceptibility of grievances to paranoia and other forms of psychotic thinking.
Political groups are particularly susceptible to the predominance of psychotic processes over work orientation. With no other real task than that of politicking, and therefore freed from collective work functions, politicians and political parties readily embody feelings of superiority and self-righteousness (Segal 1997). Despite sustained opposition from the anti-war movement, including huge public demonstrations, the collapse of the ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ justification, and the ensuing disastrous occupation of Iraq, the British prime minister, Tony Blair, still declares, "I am not ashamed of the fact that we went to war. I think we did the right thing” (Hansard 4 February 2004).
A nation can delegate its psychotic functions for safe keeping to sub-groups such as the military forces whose training is based on paranoid assumptions, or to certain religious groups with their dependence on omnipotent, messianic and grandiose delusions (Segal 1997). ‘If a psychotic basic assumption dominates a group (and maybe the combination of the military and the religious is the most deadly) then the whole group acts on that assumption, producing leaders who represent that madness and through escalating projective processes, drives those leaders madder and madder and further and further away from reality’ (Segal 2003). There was general unease in secular Europe when it was revealed in the British press (Guardian 7 October 2005) that George W Bush had launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, on a mission he believed to have been commanded by God, whom he thought had said to him: “George go fight these terrorists in Afghanistan” and “George, go end the tyranny in Iraq’ Two years earlier it was reported that Bush had declared “I feel God wants me to run for President. I can’t explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me. Something is going to happen… I know it won’t be easy on me or my family, but God wants me to do it” (Observer, 2 November 2003). Segal (2003) continues ‘the fundamentalist Christian longing for Armageddon is now matched by Islamic fundamentalism. Our sanity is threatened by a delusional inner world of omnipotence, absolute evil and sainthood’.
Freud considered the primitive illusions of religious doctrine to be inherited from our ancestors and their need to defend themselves against the superior forces of nature. The dissatisfaction and fears of humankind inspire religiosity, and the ultimate illusion of an after-life that overcomes the terrible fact of death (Freud 1927, 1929). The powerful unconscious forces that keep medieval religious beliefs in place are just as irrational as the forces that maintain environmental pollution, capitalist exploitation and war, which they so readily join up with (Segal 1997).
The final picture in Goto’s ‘New World Circus’, the ‘Grand Parade’, is described in this publication as ‘a victory conga’. On first appearance it is a scene of destruction and desolation. An inferno of smoke and flames bellows from the bomb crater where the circus ring was once situated. To the left an armoured D9 Caterpillar, of the kind developed by the Israeli army, flattens everything in its path. A shocked and foolish looking Pops McGovern, carrying a golden crosier, leads his deathly troupe around the perimeter of the ring, each blast-victim linked to the next by a dancing skeleton. The allegory of the ‘Danse Macabre’ or ‘Dance of Death’ in the late-medieval period represented the universality of death. But Goto’s depiction of the pandemonium of catastrophic annihilation is ambiguous. His conga is full of intense colour, humour and vigour, the fleshy figures play-acting their own demise in a dance that mocks death. Here is the triumph of Eros and aesthetic sensibilities over Thanatos and its culture of perversity, cynicism, puritanism, pretentiousness and philistinism (Meltzer 1992). It is a tableaux vivant of the artist’s nakedness, resilience, and capacity to tolerate aesthetic conflict, the coexistence of beauty and horror, life and death. First encountered at the breast, the Oedipal constellation arising from this conflict are reconfigured and renegotiated time and time again throughout life, within the family and in the world beyond.
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