Monday, September 29, 2008

Was will das Weib?

Those immortal words by Sigmund Freud come from this quote from a letter he wrote:

The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is "What does a woman want?"

I'm sure you have seen that question many times and read several answers to it, ranging from whole books such as Patricia Ireland's What Do Women Want to loads and loads of sexist little columns about the impossibility of knowing what such featherbrained and deficient (though cuddly) creatures might want to serious treatises pointing out that no large group of people ever wants just one thing or just the same things and how sexist it is to even assume that this would be the case.

That's one monster sentence! I'm rather proud of it, because I really want to stop writing in such a short and manly style...

In any case, whenever I now see that little question what I want most of all is to open my mouth really large to extend my fangs and to cut off the neck of the person who used that phrase. Annoying, that's what it is. To see why that would be the case, just ask yourself a similar question about, say, all Jews or about all Somalians or about all men. Then ask the question about all monkeys. You might notice that somehow the question makes better sense when applied to monkeys, because we have trouble with communication across species and because we see ourselves as the researchers and the monkeys as the objects of the research.

And those are the emotions this phrase evokes in me: Freud in his white coat, on one side of the cage walls, me (as "das Weib") shrieking and climbing the cage walls while being "observed." That's part of what annoys me about the quote: It sets the roles of the observer and the observed. Then it adds to that the assertion that Freud's thirty years of observing should be enough for him to know the answer, not to mention the implicit assumption that his "research" has been all objective and thorough and that an answer should have been forthcoming.

This from a man who wrote to his betrothed:

Woe to you, my Princess, when I come... you shall see who is the stronger, a gentle girl who doesn't eat enough or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body.

See how annoying all that is? Especially as Freud's statement is not only treated as objectively true but also as leading to the unavoidable conclusion that it's pointless to try to understand "woman" so we might as well just not try to understand "her." It's nice for all the lazy people, people who don't want to make an effort in understanding other people. After all, if Sigmund Freud, a great and calm thinker, agrees it must be AOK not to understand women.

But then of course Freud thought the idea of gender equality was frightening and ridiculous and totally out of question, and he never seems to have put these feelings of his under the cool microscope of his brain even though he advocated complete honesty in self-interrogations.

I rather think that my zoo cage parable isn't a bad one if you allow for the fact that not only is "das Weib" a monkey in a cage but so is Professor Freud a little upset monkey in a cage and that one mostly of his own making.

Pictures from my files.