JEP - Number 5 - Spring-Fall 1997
Silvia Vegetti Finzi, Mothering (New York, London: Guilford, 1996)

Review by Anna Salvo

It is never easy to provide name and visibility to the figures which dwell in the unconscious: their fleetingness and impregnability resist any attempt to fix them within precise limits or in a one-way orientation. The imagos, to which Melanie Klein has often returned, refer effectively to the allusive, and never wholly comprehensible, unconscious material. The interpretative enterprise becomes even more exhaustive when one goes down to explore “the black continent” of stratifications of the female unconscious, a place which Freud himself found particularly difficult to pass through, and whose consistence he defined as shady, remote, “hard to bring back to life”. To women, the founder of psychoanalysis has left many questions open, requiring them to proceed personally to the construction and reconstruction of what more properly concerns femininity. The history of psychoanalysis has been marked by different phases: periods of fierce debate and sharp contrasts, about the incandescent question of the psychosexual development of the little girl, have contraposed phases of repression or disavowal of the same.
The work of Silvia Vegetti Finzi has always been marked by a resounding intellectual passion for the events of female subjectivity and of the different imaginary permeating her. Clinical experience brought to fruition in a practice that has taken into account little girls, allowed the author to formulate some hypothesis and to seek, in collaboration with her little patients, the opportunity to cut some knots and define some inner conflicts that had originally chosen the language of the symptom. And the text actually begins with the presentation of the stories of two little girls, the events of which suggest something which serve, perhaps, to understand the ways and unconscious orders that concern every woman.
Who is the bambino della notte, “child of the night”, of the Italian title of the book? In this imago Vegetti Finzi encapsulates the fantasy and the childish desire to be able to give birth to a baby of one’s own, expression of the generative power of the female body and sign of a narcissistic grandeur that does not contemplate sexual intercourse as the action of the primal scene. Obviously, the figure of the lunar child has to withdraw in the psychosexual development of the little girl, giving place to the “son of the exchange”, the son conceived through the desire for and of the other: “to get a son from the father” will be, as Freud has often stated, the sign of the achieved passivity that guarantees a mature female position. Yet, with regard to the process, Vegetti Finzi is talking about a dramatic “denial”: the removal of the natural birth child to the glacial zones of the unconscious corresponds, in the female imaginary, to quasi striking off the possibility of representing the generative power of her own body.
Mothering, that in the social context seems to be the dimension which dominates and immobilizes the female subjectivity, reveals itself to be, in the psychic economy of the female subject, an unexpected and unimaginable place. It is as if the cancelling of the nocturnal child set in motion in the little girl and later in the woman, a poverty of images, a depauperation of presentations about one’s own ability to generate. The void left by the child of the night is filled by the male principle: the son-the social child-is, in the imaginary, mainly his father’s son.
Vegetti Finzi’s proposal-to cross again this sort of desolate land which actually represents the female relation to her own ability to conceive and create-invests not merely the psychic places of the generative power in the strict sense, but even every act of bringing into the world, of creation which concerns women. I do not share Teresa De Lauretis’ view, for example, where she sees in Vegetti Finzi’s work the risk of trapping again the female subjectivity in the mark of maternity [mothering ?], thus undertaking a work which is synchronous with the leading social order. I, on the other hand, think that the indications given in this and in other of Vegetti Finzi’s texts are extremely precious in that work of excavation oriented toward the deep roots of the female imaginary, the lack of which will make any attempt to define the sexual difference remain incomplete or dangerously idealistic.
The imago of the nocturnal child, removed in rarely accessible zones of the unconscious, does not testify to the current poverty of images that go with the making of the female creative processes. Its original grandeur makes it the starting point for the clinical interpretation of psychic afflictions and symptomatic constellations. Psychoanalytic knowledge, as we know, does not disclose an antiseptic and polished reflection upon the subject’s constitution of the relationship between the Ego and the world. It sets up as its own irremovable starting point the contamination with the psychic suffering, the therapeutic tie, the patient’s quest. In this sense, the figure of the lunar child belongs to psychoanalysis in two ways: it reverberates both on the possibility of defining thematically in a different way some aspects of the imaginary register, as well as on the clinical work, from which it springs and to which it returns, providing new paths to translate the language of the symptom.
Freud often turned his attention to the question of affects, which he pointed out as “instinctual representatives”. More recently, André Green, reflecting on the same theoretical knot, has again stressed that “the affects are representations”. In Living Speech, he defined them as “significatives of the flesh”; but then he preferred to state that they are “representative of passions”. Even the figures which dwell in the imaginary can be considered as representations of drives and desires that gather together in more definite shapes. The rebuilding of these figures, even if fugitively, allows us to give the symptoms, in this case those of the female constellation, new meanings and unexpected senses. The body-word of women has given Freud, through the hysterical symptom, a very precious opportunity: the birth of a new discipline. Yet, as I said before, the voice of women has found it difficult to be heard in that work of construction and reconstruction that pointed, and still points, towards the psychosexual development of the little girl. What passes from mother to daughter? Which witness does the mother give to the child, besides that of the orthodox grudge of both lacking the narcissistic and libidinal object? The child of the night-which gives shape to the “obscene” desire for a procreation that excludes the man-could be one of the figures crossing the generational passage from the mother to the girl. Such an inheritance does not know, obviously, the splendors and celebrations that connote the placement from which the father moves: it remains pervaded and marked by secret, dull stretches, difficult to bring again to light. The lunar child, from the “glacial zones” of the unconscious to which he has been banished, gives signs, albeit indirect, of his own existence. It shows itself not only through the symptoms, the fantasies and drawings of the little girls; it is traceable even in some feelings that belong to the adult woman, to the mother. Which actually has no consciousness of the existence of an alter son, a sort of inner twin, perfect and wonderful, who dimly stands out against the background of the relationship with the real son. But yet she feels the presence of the child of the night in the very feelings of discontent and disappointment that the child of the sexual exchange, the real child, sometimes arouses. The image of the repressed child, silent but not unarmed, hands on from generation to generation: every woman felt perhaps inadequate in respect to the imago of the wonderful child which her mother carried within her. At the same time, the secret related to the figure of a [natural birth] child and to the narcissistic triumph that it arouses is handed down from mother to daughter. Through generations, the denied trace of an original omnipotence given by the generative ability of the female body remains opposed to and opposed by social interdiction. Yet the child of the night is not necessarily a painful figure that imbues the relationship between mother and daughter with mutual afflictions. Vegetti Finzi stresses that it can show itself in soft, almost playful behavior, like the wish to adorn the child, to make him look like that shining child that dwells in the mother’s unconscious. Or, in heavier corrective practices whose orthopaedic purpose springing from the inexhaustible quest of cancelling the more or less real defects of the child, does not pursue the idea of wealth, but rather that of denying the imperfection.
To the interpretation of clinical cases and the stressing of common behavior, Vegetti Finzi adds the reading of some myths about the origins of the world that express the female desire of a spontaneous procreation. The authoress stresses how even the myth does not tolerate the visibility of such a conception: the mother is reduced again to the function of a mere container of a generative principle which belongs to the man. Such a process of denial is found even in those myths expressing the archaic female fantasy to “give the mother a son”, and such a desire cannot escape the sentence of having committed the “crime” of outraging the male power, in having denied his function of giving life.
The destiny of the child of the night does not punish him to exemplify a mere irrepressible narcissism that will have to bend to the dimension of limits and bonds; his figure, integrated and re-elaborated, brings forward the possibility of looking at maternity as a place where the woman is able to transform the idea of dominion into that of responsibility towards the son. Thus, it is no longer only “black mothers”, dreadful in their avidity and unnegotiable pretension of possessing their son, but mothers capable of encouraging the distance, autonomy and subjectivity of the creature to whom they gave life. Vegetti Finzi rightly stresses how going beyond the threshold of the denial of their own creative principle brings women to give shape and substance to a new ethical dimension. Whereas culture has always banished the relationship between mother and son in the natural sphere, leaving to the father and his Law the task of setting in order, of creating rules and symbolic forms. Psychoanalysis itself did not escape this orientation, thus losing the opportunity to face the events of ethics which express themselves in the maternal sphere. In the knowledge and ability of women to give their desires, their hidden thoughts, the experiences maturing in their inner world, a name and a shape, the task is given of providing a voice to what has so far been left tacit and denied.

Translated by Katherine Jason