How circumcision and other forms of symbolic wounding are experienced thus depends to a great degree not on the act itself but on the society’s attitude. If it is defined as a demonstration of manliness and sexual maturity, it will be experienced one way; bit if it is defined as a symbol of submission to an overpowering father god, it will be experienced entirely differently. ~ Symbolic Wounds
A case study involving the rhinoplasty of a young girls. One young girl’s deeper and largely unconscious motives were guilt, masochism and doubts about her femininity. But the conscious reason for surgery was her desire for success ins sexual life, as it is the conscious reason for penile sub-incision in preliterate society. The final result of the operation supports the idea that the conscious reasons won out, though this may have been because the operation also satisfied unconscious needs simultaneously. Before rhinoplasty the girl had seen herself as an ugly duckling (not without some reason, though with the exception of her too prominent nose she was not much below average attractiveness and had many good friends of both sexes), and, at the age of about twenty, was still very dependent on her parents. Immediately after the operation and before marriage, she broke away from her parents and achieved a degree of independence she had never thought possible. She had not expected this as a result o surgery and was astonished that it so happened. The belief that she had become a desirable sex object – and possibly also the satisfaction of unconscious masochistic desires and need of punishment, of which she remained unaware – seemed to lead to psychological independence from the parents even before full sex enjoyment. Thus a traumatic physical experience (the act of surgery) made possible psychological independence, if not maturity. It might be said that this girl had deep feelings of inferiority which she had rationalized by focusing responsibility on her big nose. She believed that removal of this external source of inferiority feelings would and did bring emotional well-being. Though much more complex psychological mechanisms were undoubtedly at work, her final experience, nevertheless, was that the results more than compensated for the surgical trauma. Soon after her operation, she was married, made good sexual and marital adjustments and since has lived a rather happy life. Moreover, with heightened self-esteem and greater satisfaction of her narcissism, she became less masochistic and guilty. Her supposed ugliness had made her fear other associations and had forced her into unsatisfactory, ambivalent and guilty dependence on her mother. Able to strike out for herself after her operation, she was less dependent on, hence less disappointed by, her mother, and less hostile and guilty. All this, and most of all her sexual success, she experienced as the result of surgery, which she felt had finally changed her into a woman.
It may be suggested that this proves that plastic surgery is experienced as castration, that through it the girl got rid of (or was deprived of) and imagined penis and so was forced into femininity. If the operation permitted her to resolve her ambivalence about femininity – and thus helped her to accept and to succeed in the feminine role – the parallel to initiation, which I believe helps youths in preliterate society to accept the mature sex role, would be striking.
Whatever else it may show, this example indicates that physical traumata that in our society would be experienced most commonly as castration threat can, within another psychological constellation, acquire a very different meaning and have other consequences than to increase sex anxiety.
Durkheim has pointed out how ritual cruelties are commonly executed on a particular organ or tissue in the belief that this will stimulate its vitality. A possible explanation is that before the operation this girl had withdrawn libido from the external world which had disappointed her. Feeling ugly, she may have turned back toward herself a great deal of emotional energy in order to maintain self-acceptance and inner integration. After surgery libido at first may have been drawn toward the nose. But while in the hospital the girl had a new experience: what she had invested with libido was so invested also by others. The organ which up to then had stood, subjectively at least, in the way of gratification. The surgeon, the nurses, her friends showed great interest in and concern with it. The nose suddenly received attention and praise. Later this investment of libido in one part of her body came to be distributed over the rest – perhaps under the influence of the flattering attention that was now paid to at least a part of her body. She now felt more attractive, hence was more attractive. This new feeling may have been at first the consequence of narcissistic libido, but the final effect of the interest and approval of other person was to free libido for investment in object relations.
Powerful manipulations and mutilations of organs and tissue undoubtedly are, and probably also painful, but nothing the people say or do permits us to conclude that they experience these rituals as cruel. Once more we see an example of the Western observer imposing his own value judgments. If Durkheim does it, probably all students of primitive life make similar errors. So profound is our narcissistic tendency to consider our own evaluations correct that it is probably impossible to avoid this mistake altogether.
The contention that these physical traumata may be felt as painful but not as cruel, and hence not as trauma in the psychological sense, seems supported by the experience of persons undergoing cosmetic plastic surgery. Nobody I know has regarded such surgery as “cruel”; even the pain seems reduced by the desire with which the operations are approached. The person who complains volubly about everyday suffering may minimize great pain when the emotions connected with it are strongly positive.
If the girl in our example was more than willing to pay the price of surgical trauma for beauty, if many other modern women eagerly undergo painful plastic surgery for the same reason, how can we doubt that the preliterate Australian aboringine boy is ready to endure as much in order to demonstrate that he is a man among the other men of the tribe, to increase his sexual prowess and enjoyment and his magic power? . . . Because of the great social prestige that it confers, many boys in these societies seem not only not to avoid but to look forward to their penile sub-incision ritual despite the painful consequences to the procedure. Why? Because the pay out is sex! (If you have never heard of penile sub-incision, click on the following link. Be warned it contains mature content.)
These operations are then in no sense designed as an ordeal to try their manly fortitude, or to accustom them to the bearing of pain. The modification of the sexual organ is it primary aim, and these other aspects are definitely minimized as far as possible.” No instruction is connected with initiation, but the songs assert that the operation is the precedent for sexual intercourse.
Men are not the only sex who undergo genital manipulations for religious initiation rituals. The young girls in preliterate tribes like the Baganda and the Suaheli in Africa undergo manipulation of their external genital organs in an attempt to acquire a penis like appendage. These procedures may give women a greater degree of clitoridean or “phallic” sexuality than nature originally intended for them to have. This procedure allows them to actually possess a penis. And the point that needs to be emphasized here is that women practice this without any encouragement from or interference by men. The procedure that I speak of is stretching of the labia.
This procedure is a pubertal activities the girls are encouraged to do, which, through the frequent pulling and stroking and by use of some special herbs or leaves the genital organ is encouraged to enlarge. (If you have never seen the results of labia stretching, click on the link below. Be warned it contains mature content.) This pubertal activity increases the desire and opportunity for masturbation among the small groups of women that are gathered together to help one another perform it, and according to the teaching connected with them, enhances sex enjoyment for both men and women. It is an age-grading experience which prepares girls for their future sex role and seems well in line with the desires of girls of this age. It is not imposed by elders against the wishes of the young and serves hardly any other purpose than to provide sexual stimulation and to help the girls toward sexual maturity by helping them experience positive sexual experiences. This ritual can actually be considered a form of positive sex parenting in that encourages sexual reproduction, increasing fertility and promoting the species. In like manner, the modern Western culture’s interest in penile subincision is performed under the direction of the man’s own desire to acquire a vagina like penis. A procedure that has been reported to impart heightened sexual pleasure.
It could be very painful to realize that, despite his other advances, modern man inspires more fear in his children than parents in preliterate society do (and did) and that his God is more punitive than the deities of primitives.
The castration complex with its unreasonable anxiety could have originated only in the dim, irrational past and come down to us mainly in inherited memory traces; that in its present form it could not possibly have appeared in man at a late and high stage of development and been absent in more primitive times. . . . But in Western society infintile castration it is imposed on a helpless infant, to whom it does not offer any clear advantage and to whom it is thus undesirable and threatening . . . Among most of the tribes that practice circumcision, on the other hand, it is only one of many scarifications that accompany pubertal initiation rites, all of which bring higher status and other advantages, including the conviction that they make the initiate more attractive to the opposite sex.
It is reasonable to assume that early monotheism, which had to fight for its existence, was particularly stringent in it superego demands just because it was surrounded by societies granting greater instinctual gratification. The superego is more punitive and threatens more terrible punishments in the young child than, in the normal course of development, ever in later life. Perhaps the strictest, most castrating father god belongs precisely to the earliest monotheistic development; perhaps castration anxiety was evoked as new weapon to keep man under his control. Assuming this to be the case, we are on the wrong track in examining Jewish circumcision with the expectation of thereby gaining understanding of circumcision in preliterate society.
Circumcision, which was the tool of man’s greatest pride, might then have become the means of degrading him to the status of a helpless subject of the supernatural god. Psychoanalytically, what had been energy used by the id for gaining magic power through manipulation of the genital was wrested from the id and arrogated as a source of energy by an externalized superego, which used it to restrain the id and weaken the ego by making them subservient to a superego representation.