“Mayhem while we’re freezing and starving: my talk at Western” (Dr. Jordan Peterson)

Sex role evolution, love, and neuroticism — an excerpt from Otto Rank’s “Beyond Psychology”

Today I’ll be transcribing a portion of Otto Rank’s book Beyond Psychology (1941), beginning on page 181:

Herein is anchored the true democratic ideology of Christianity, promising every man equality before God, that is, in his own self, whereas our political democracy, praiseworthy as it may be, always remains an unattainable ideal of the heavenly kingdom on earth. Interestingly enough, early Christianity proves to be more realistic in that respect than later periods of social planning. By proclaiming that man is not fundamentally bad, Christian doctrine simultaneously claimed that things were bad and had to be changed. While the Jew was constantly blaming himself for not meeting the ideal requirements of his God, the early Christians with Paul as their leader were keenly aware of the need for a change of order.

This change of order, which finally precipitated the collapse of the ancient world, was, however, brought about first by the change of the type of man through the new idea of love. This new ideology, purely conceived of as being loved by God with the meaning of accepting one’s own self as fundamentally good, was bound to be misunderstood, misinterpreted and misused in the course of time until we find it in our day thwarted and twisted in the neurotic type who is either fighting it willfully or giving in to it too “masochistically.” But, in one way or another, this genuine need of the human being to be loved became the strongest motive for the molding and building of personality-types. Yet, while the curse of the evil was overcome by being loved, meaning, being good, the trouble with this humanized love-ideology was that not being loved made the individual bad. In a word, the moral integrity of the personality became so utterly dependent upon the other person’s love that the individual either had to deny it willfully or submit to the insecurity of a personal God.

This humanization of the spiritual love-principle reached its climax in an era known as the Romantic period, which left its imprint on modern relationship in an ideology called Romanticism. This eighteenth century philosophy of love was prepared for in the Renaissance, which, as a cultural movement, evolved a new conception of love entirely original and quite different from that of the Middle Ages. While the ancients considered love a pleasure whereby human beauty was accepted as a mere aspect of nature’s beauty, for the Middle Ages it had been sin, and feminine beauty was looked upon as a temptation by man who no longer saw woman as a means of pleasure but as a cause of perdition. During the Renaissance, however, feminine beauty as its all-powerful stimulus became, together with a new conception of love, the object of philosophic speculation and the admitted source of poetic inspiration. In the synthesis, not entirely heathen and not fully Christian, which Renaissance culture represents, love was considered sensuous as well as spiritual, and woman was looked upon as fully equal to man, that is, endowed with gifts of mind as well as body. Contrary to the thought of the Middle Ages, love was no longer considered subordinate to virtue, or beauty denounced as a source of peril. In a word, the conception of original sin changed to the conception of original love. Love, that is to say, was appreciated not because it was a means of becoming good, but because it was good, which means not only pleasurable but beautiful, that is, part of nature.

In the Romantic period which flourished in Germany, this free philosophy of love could not be accepted. There it was not the beautiful woman who was appreciated and thus loved; it was woman as a group or class who became idealized. The leading intellects of that period, shaken in their fundamental selves by the repercussions of the French Revolution, saw in fully developed womanhood the perfect, that is, emotional expression of the true self. In a period of collectivistic ideologies glorifying folk-traditions, folk-lore and folk-art, woman became, so to speak, collectivized as the carrier of racial continuity. The challenge to love no longer appears epitomized in sheer beauty but in an abstract notion called the “beautiful soul.” Although this idea was taken over from Plato’s “Banquet,” the actual love-life of the poets in the Romantic period was anything but “platonic.” In fact, Wieland, to whom is credited the romantic conception of the “beautiful soul,” indulges in erotic phantasies bordering on the pornographic; whereas his English predecessors, the philosopher Shaftsbury and the novelist Richardson, had given the “beautiful soul” a moral connotation.1

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[Corresponding footnote:] 1Schiller, in his famous poem, “Anmut und Wuerde” (1793), defined the beautiful soul as the perfect balance between moral feeling and physical emotion.

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In his idealization of woman we recognize a reaction against her moralization brought about in the Middle Ages by the Church, which, in the obsession of witchcraft, had identified her with the evil symbol of mortality—sex. Through this about-face of romanticism man suddenly lifted woman into the role of representing the immortal soul-principle hitherto usurped by him. This role of the soul-bearer, in primitive conception, had been ascribed to her religiously in the soul-belief of totemism and socially in the institution of matriarchy. There, the man could still preserve his personal immortality in his belief of self-perpetuation, whereas in the romantic conception of the woman-soul he actually renounced his better self to her. She became the beautiful soul of the man, his eternal, immutable, immortal side as against the mutability and transitoriness of his individual self. This we saw struggling during that same period with the bad, condemned ego epitomized in the persecuting double.

Thus, in romantic love, the Christian love-ideology, as applying alike to both sexes, became divided up between the two sexes and thereby created a confusion under which we still labor in our sexual psychology. While during the Middle Ages man had made woman the symbol of evil, now by virtue of representing the beautiful soul she was supposed to make him good by allowing him to love her. This reversal of the moral evaluation had two far-reaching results. Through the collective ideology of the beautiful soul applied to her, the woman became, so to speak, “collective,” that is, promiscuous, as borne out by the not so “romantic” but highly sensual relationships among the leaders of the romantic movement, who may be said to have introduced the modern divorce vogue into our sex life. Secondly, this promiscuity, together with the freedom of emotional expression permitted her, gave women a decidedly masculine appearance, which basically was determined by her having been made the bearer of man’s soul-ideology.

As the woman was allowed so much freedom and encouraged to play the role of soul-saver for the man, he soon felt too dependent upon her; she threatened to dominate his whole life and even the hereafter. Thus in his eyes she became bad again. This change of attitude found expression in literary fashions and types, such as “The Fatal Woman,” or “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” which can be traced right to our own times in the writings of Oscar Wilde, André Gide and Gabriele D’Annunzio. In those man-made literary fashions which were instrumental in creating corresponding types in life, the woman not only appears unwomanly but hard and cruel in a masculine manner. Here we first meet the types of sadistic-masculine woman and masochistic-feminine man, who, although in their time they were accepted, indeed, highly estimated types, in our day have been diagnosed as “neurotic.” Their strange behavior started the first psychological speculations about the basic difference of the two sexes.1 Just as this difference, in view of nature’s bisexuality, does not imply any clear-cut distinction, so is there no sharp line to be drawn between sensual pleasure and pain as we find those sensations coupled in romantic sado-masochism. While this sexual terminology has actually been derived from two outspoken perverts, the psychological relation between pleasure and pain expresses a deep-rooted bond based on the duality of the life-principle itself. As sex naturally implies death in the surrender of the individual to the collective life-principle, we meet in romantic love a moralization of this very life-principle whereby man became submissive and created the picture of the fatal, cruel, in a word, sadistic woman. Side by side with this type, we encounter as a reaction to it, the satanic and diabolical man in the literature of the same period. This type is epitomized in the notorious Marquis de Sade and his “sadistic” writings, which influenced all modern writers up to the rank of such authors as Flaubert, Baudelaire and Swinburne.

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[Corresponding footnote:] 1On this subject, one of the most famous scientists of that period, Wilhelm von Humboldt, wrote an essay, “Ueber den Geschlechtsunterschied,” 1795.

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For the “beyond” of psychology it is particularly important to realize the order in which those types surviving in our sexual psychology appear in romantic literature: first, the masochistic man in bondage to the merciless woman, and only afterwards the sadistic man in an attempt to liberate himself from this self-imposed submission. The sadistic type, the creation of a decadent male, has produced another artifice of our psychological wax-cabinet—the masochistic woman. This invention followed when the man had again to divest the woman of the masculine characteristics he had bestowed on her. By making her “masochistic,” that is, completely submissive to him, he had to picture and thus make her womanly in an extreme fashion. True, this submissiveness is her basic self, but submitting to nature, not to the man. Such natural “sacrifice,” in fully accepting her biological role, is different from the woman’s artificially “sacrificing herself” for the man, which she can do only in true “masochistic” fashion. This sacrificial tendency, which might be conceived of as an exaggerated form of Agape, is deeply rooted in woman’s nature and not just a masochistic perversion in the sense of our psychology. As long as it satisfies the individual’s desire for happiness, we have no right to stigmatize it as “neurotic” or “perverse” just because we are not capable of understanding its vital significance. The Christian martyr can be as little explained by being labeled “masochistic” as, for example, can the Japanese soldier for whom sacrifice and self-sacrifice represents one of the highest virtues. The Freudian concept of “self-punishment,” derived from his masochistic interpretation of sacrificial tendencies, has been erroneously explained as the neurotic’s perversion to gain pleasure from pain. The pleasure derived from suffering has to be ascribed to the triumph of the individual will over pain, which thus ceases to be inflicted and becomes self-willed.

The masochistic submissiveness of modern woman reveals itself in the light of those moralistic ideologies as less neurotic than the narrowing psychoanalytic viewpoint makes it appear. Basically, such submissive attitude is an essential part of woman’s biological nature; its exaggeration and subsequent exploitation, however, is man-made and betrays the influence of man’s ideologies on woman “psychology.” Not a few women act masochistically, i.e. as if they derived pleasure from pain, for two admitted reasons: first, from a desire to give the man they love pleasure, if he is insecure enough to need their masochism to boost his ego; secondly, in order to be changed, that is, to be made submissive to their own nature, which has been distorted by masculine ideologies. Those classical cases of masochism which have been described not only in fiction but even in textbooks, belong to the same kind of romantic literature which produced the original type. In reality, those women were “masochistic” only once in their lives, i.e., in relation to one person; at other times they can be quite will-ful and resistive. Their “masochism” represents a period in their lives when they permit themselves to submit to one particular person so completely that only their volition to do so makes it possible. In this sense, their “masochism” becomes a will-ful, instead of a natural, acceptance of their feminine submissiveness. It is here, in this area of non-acceptance of the self, where the neuroticism of this type lies, and not in masochism, which merely represents an attempt to counteract its original selfish nature. The only justification I can see in labeling the masochistic woman “neurotic,” is in the unreality of the type itself.

All our neurotic terminology and ideology, in fact, originated from the unreality of personality behaviour and patterns, the reality of which has been lost. For example, the outstanding women of the Romantic epoch, which produced this type, were not considered neurotic but just strong personalities, at least, stronger than woman had formerly been allowed to be; sufficiently strong, at any rate, to scare the man into his sadistic psychology. This sado-masochistic ideology of the male, which still confuses psychoanalysts, sprang from an attempt on the part of the romantic type to extricate himself from his own conflict between dominance and surrender. The solution he found by dividing the two kinds of love—represented in Eros and Agape—between the two sexes led to our sexual psychology created from man’s need to justify himself and uphold his age-old prejudices.

The first prejudice, namely, that the sexual act is necessarily pleasurable, is obviously contradicted by nature herself. We have only to look at the animal kingdom to be convinced that as a rule it is a painful struggle, to be avoided, if possible; one which the human being had to idealize in order to accept it at all. Closely related to this widespread illusion is another assumption taken too much for granted, that every human being wants to live as long as possible, or for that matter wants to live at all. To risk death, or even to seek it, is not necessarily an unbiological gesture. There are people who want to die, without justifiably being diagnosed as “suicidal.” Especially when death comes suddenly and painlessly, it need not represent an escape but can be real deliverance, particularly when one’s life has been fulfilled or is to be fulfilled by dying. Last, but not least, is the prejudice which includes all others, namely, that everyone’s happiness is the same. For this assumption causes us to designate as “neurotic” any other whose ideas of happiness do not coincide with ours. Herein lies the greatest sin of psychology: that it sets up absolute standards derived from a rational interpretation of one prevailing type by which to judge not only our fellow men but also to interpret personalities and behaviour of the past.

In the realm of our own discussion we have only to take one of the greatest saints, Catherine of Siena, in order to illustrate the difference between psychological reality and unreality. In spite of her amazing asceticism, we could not call her “masochistic,” nor, despite her single-handed fight against the mighty Pope, could she be classified as a megalomaniac. In his recent study of Catherine, Joh. Jorgensen points out that her vast assumption of authority is the very reverse of egotism, springing as it does from complete self-surrender. The core of Catherine’s teaching is the need for absolute renunciation of self: it is St. Francis’ doctrine of poverty under a transcendental aspect. Here again is shown how man’s and woman’s nature and behaviour differ—even where saintliness is concerned. Being a woman, Catherine was able to completely identify her will with the will of the Church, which, representing the Bride of Christ, made Catherine the same through the mystical marriage. Thus she could become the conscience of Christendom, not because she was so presumptuous as to aspire to it but because she had emptied herself so completely of self-will that she felt the divine conscience working through her.

Experiences like this, and others in the past, could manifest themselves as powerful realities just because they were spiritually real. Not that these personalities were “neurotic,” but that they had, besides their neurosis, something else which enabled them to be creative in spite of it; in truth, they experienced really in themselves what we may only allow to remain a shadow or sham experience, that is, a neurotic one. In other words, it is not what the individual experiences, but how he does it, which makes our true conception of neurosis independent of any content, i.e., a matter of attitude. In this sense, the woman is not neurotic because she is “masochistic,” but is neurotic, one might almost say, because she is not really submissive and wants to make believe that she is.

The same holds good for the masculine counterpart, sadism, which we characterized as a self-assertive reaction against the presumable dominance of the woman. From a human study of the Marquis de Sade, the father of sadism, it clearly follows that it is not an original perversion exaggerated to pathological proportions by a neurotic personality. It is no sexual problem at all, in fact, but a problem of the man’s ego, thwarted by his hatred of women and mankind in general. He was as full of hate for the whole world as Catherine was full of love for God, but with both of them it was a real experience. The “psychology” of de Sade can only be understood from his fundamental hatred, which means it is at bottom a moral problem of good and evil, not merely a sexual aberration. As a matter of fact, the problem of love itself cannot be fully comprehended without the phenomenon of hatred. The simple observation that love so frequently changes into hatred when the individual feels disappointed or hurt indicates a deep-seated relation between the two emotions. Of course, love does not simply “change” into hatred, but both are manifestations of two opposite life-forces: the tendencies toward unification and separation respectively, that is, toward likeness and difference. This explains why hatred appears not infrequently as the result of a heightened love-emotion which carries the individual too far away from his own self to an over-identification with the other.

[All emphasis his. Footnotes omitted except the two cited.]

Stopping on page 190.

This whole book has provided a great deal of food for thought stretching back through human history. I hope to transcribe further portions of it going forward.

Otto Rank was an Austrian psychoanalyst who, for a couple decades, had been a close friend of Sigmund Freud before branching off to go his own unique way in trying to make sense out of human life.