The subject of the mother-son relationship had never been broached with such psychological insight as in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1921). Indeed, we had to wait until 1969 before Philip Roth revisited the subject in Portnoy’s Complaint.
Yet Proust writes about the mother in such an innocuous and idealizing manner that to the unsuspecting reader it appears an unambiguously loving relationship. However, in earlier works, such as Jean Santeuil (c.1897) and short stories dating from his youth, Proust expressed himself in a less veiled style. Moreover, a letter to his mother written when he was more than forty years old is even more revealing. In it he complains that she still treats him as a four year-old child. Her aim seems to have been to control him mentally as well as physically.
Proust developed a sexual perversion. He became a sadomasochist and shows in his novel how this preference can develop. Generations of analysts after Sigmund Freud have maintained the explanation of masochism put forward in Freud’s paper, ‘A Child is Being Beaten’: the boy wants to be beaten by father as a replacement for being loved by him. The Oedipal father is the central figure in this account, rather than the mother. Indeed, Freud idealized the mother-son relationship, calling it ‘the least ambivalent and the most loving’ of all human bonds. He used only female cases for his theory of masochism. No male cases at all were explored, with only a mention of how passive feminine strivings are the source of masochism in males.
Like Proust, Freud derived his psychological knowledge in great part from subjective experience. But his experience with his mother was very different from that of Proust, who never overcame her domination. Consequently, Proust felt that in order to enjoy his (homo)sexuality he had to escape her control. Because his pleasure insulted his mother, then profaning and even murderous phantasies concerning mother figures became a condition for his pleasure and sexual excitement. This is the perversion that drives all his male protagonists throughout his novel.
The Oedipal concept of ‘the boy in love with mother and wanting to kill father’ is turned upside down. The boy has not overcome his dependent position towards his mother. He has not reached a triadic Oedipal relationship. Consequently, he has to escape her control momentarily, to function as a sexual being at all. To channel his anxiety and aggression in a perverse sexual scenario enables him to become excited and potent. But this is compulsive, repetitive and not at all a free choice.
In my opinion, matricide (rather than patricide) has not received the attention within and outside of psychoanalysis that it deserves. Besides mother-son pathology, the concept clarifies much mother-daughter pathology as well. Such murderous phantasies and dreams are not uncommon in either men or women, but there is a crucial difference that must be observed: femininity is not threatened by unresolved dependency on the mother, unlike masculinity in males.
Hendrika C. Freud
Author of Men and Mothers: The Lifelong Struggle of Sons and Their Mothers, and Elektra vs Oedipus: The Drama of the Mother-Dauighter Relationship