The Phallic Burden


Lila J. Kalinich, M.D.

Panel Moderator Presentation for the Symposium on 

The Psychology of Men: New Psychoanalytic Perspectives

Sponsored by the Association for Psychoanalytic Medicine
and the
Columbia Psychoanalytic Center for Training and Research

January 27, 1985


After years of being inundated by feminist, and what is now called “gynocritical literature,” it is refreshing to have an opportunity to ponder the psychology of men.  This is, perhaps, timely in more than one respect.  It may well be that our understanding of men has been in fact limited by what has been our impoverished grasp of the psychology of women.  Recent advances on that front, combined with the pioneering work of Stoller on gender, and certainly Mahler’s elaboration of the landmark’s of separation and individuation, help us to reconsider the psychology of men with greater intelligence and depth.

That women begin to ponder male psychology early in life is clear from a conversation I recently had with a little girl just seven years old.  She broke the silence of a long country drive with the following comments:

You know, I have come to realize that boys have many more fears than girls do. And because of that, they exaggerate.  (Referring to two of her school friends, she continued.)  Chris says he has his own giant robot.  Toma even says that he has rattlesnakes in his backyard.  Then, when they grow up, they have to learn to accept themselves for what they really are – which is what girls have had to do all along.


What this child in effect said was that because of their fears, these boys were destined to remain stuck at a phallic narcissistic stage of development until some sort of Ericksonian maturational transformation occurred at some time during adult life.

Many people have said that psychoanalytic theory has suffered a similar destiny, that with its almost exclusive focus on Oedipal issues, its own development has been arrested in a similar way.  This point will be re-stated in each of the papers this morning.  Donald Meyers will ponder, for example, why the data of the child analysts was for so long ignored.  Freud himself made tentative incursions into the pre-Oedipal period, but did not develop these thoughts.  Perhaps Freud, like Chris and Toma, needed to idealize the phallus as well.

Freud clearly recognized the fears of little boys.  Borrowing the term “complex” from Jung, he introduced the phrase “castration complex” into the literature in him in his 1905 paper on Little Hans.  In view of the fact that you will hear material about fathers this morning, it is worth noting that Freud worked with Hans through the lad’s father.  Since Freud’s original formulation of the castration complex and then “penis envy,” the literatures have been replete with efforts to repudiate or minimize his claims.  Freud’s theories have, however, been strengthened by the work of Galenson and Roiphe, who believe that they have documented the organizing and traumatic potential of the discovery of the anatomical difference between the sexes during an early genital phase, occurring in toddlers between 15 and 29 months of age.

In a way Freud was never clearer about what he thought about men than when he wrote about women.  In his elaboration of the impact on both sexes of the perceived castration of women, his description of the so-called castrated state sounds strangely concrete, as though Freud himself, we might speculate, never fully worked through his own infantile notions of the genesis of the gender difference.  For instance, in a footnote to the introduction of Little Hans, Freud wrote:  “Little girls do posses a small widdler, which we call a clitoris, though it does not grow any larger, but remains permanently stunted.”

And so the theory remained stunted.  Given the mystery, however, with which Freud ultimately regard the woman, the dark continent of desire, it seems that his primitive attitudes thinly disguise his reaction formation to his deep sense of the power that women have, and ultimately know they have, over men.  And Freud’s lack of clarity about women necessarily clouded his vision of men.

Now ideas about the power of women are very old ones.  In the Christian tradition, even God had a Mother.  Mary is called the “Theotokos,” literally “birth-giver” but meaning Mother, of God.  Indirectly the same ideas are nascent in Rank’s theory of the Birth Trauma.  Today we will hear these notions expressed in phrases such as men’s fear of passive identification with the woman, wishes for merger with the woman, and so forth.

Although these issues cannot be fully elaborated during a panel on men, it nonetheless seems crucial to acknowledge that women have comprehended their power and, historically, have kept it a well-guarded secret.  Anthropologist and historian Mircea Eliade, describing initiation rites in men’s secret societies, indicates that in matriarchal groups, where the power of women is revealed rather than hidden, the men attempt to terrify and terrorize the female population.  Some see this as an effort to undermine the woman’s power.

Women have, through the years, tolerated and even nourished cultural forms that protect men and their potency.  They have done so in recognition of what I have come to call the “phallic burden.”  Lacan called this the “phallic affliction.”  To digress a bit, we know from medieval scholarship that the word  “burden,” which meant load, and, a child in the womb, was often confused with, and used interchangeably with the old French word “bourdon,” which meant:

1)    A pilgrim’s staff

2)    A stout staff or cudgel

3)    A spear staff      and

4)    The bass line that supports the melody of a song

Chaucer scholar Norman Davis (The Chaucer Glossary – Oxford Publ.) observes

that when the unseemly VD-ridden Summoner sings loud to the castrated Pardoner, and the Somnour “bar to him a stif burdoun,” that the poet is making an indecent pun on the homonym.  The vulgar reference is clear.  Burden is the Middle English vernacular for penis.

The seven-year-old girl already had a sense of that burden.  She knew that those little boys needed their invincible snakes and sturdy mechanical men.  She somehow comprehended that learning to live with a penis and its hormonal bath, is no easy task.  One New York pediatrician, describing the boisterous behavior of boys to the mothers in his practice, says that males suffer from testosterone poisoning.  Although little boys certainly delight in their erections, their first organized awareness of this is often accompanied by fear.  “Mommy, what’s happening to my penis?” is not an unusual question.  The little boy discovers that in many circumstances he has no control over this phenomenon.  Visual perceptions, tactile and vestibular stimulation, can make it stand up without mediation through consciousness.  It seems to have a life of its own.  The arousal of the penis is visible.  Unlike the girl, the boy cannot so easily keep his erotic life a secret.  Mae West made this clear with her famous line “Is that a banana in your pocket or are you happy to see me?”  The little boy comes to take pride in the feats his organ is capable of and soon sees it as an instrument of prowess and strength.  He, the possessor, identifies with its capacity and feels equally proud and strong.

But underneath all of this remains the little boy, whose compelling, uncontrolled, visible sexuality only enhances his vulnerability and widens the gap between his views of masculinity and his fragile hope that he is up to the task.  He needs rattlesnakes and robots, which in fantasy both protect him and verify his capacity to meet the challenges both of the world and of his internal and externalized fears.

And the challenges have been awesome.  Men, like St. George, have had to battle dragons.  Like Ulysses, they’ve met the Cyclops, and the Lotus Eaters and the Sirens.  Some of these monsters have existed in the Oedipal and the pre-Oedipal psyche.  But, in addition, the men have been required to impregnate, to hunt, and to go to war – and to do so bravely.  And they have been like Achilles, whose mother, whose women, could protect him only to a point.