The Birth of Pleasure: A New Map of Love (Book Review)

Author:  Gilligan, Carol
Publisher: New York: Knopf, 2002
Reviewed By: Marilyn N. Metzl, Winter 2004, pp. 63-64

Carol Gilligan’s book, The Birth of Pleasure, is a "garden of earthly delights." Gilligan published In A Different Voice two decades ago -- a book that initiated a revolution in our thinking about human psychology and about the psychological and moral development of men and women. In her previous book, Gilligan summarized research that supported a supposed moral superiority of men, and demonstrated that this was a distorted interpretation of human experience. In her current book, The Birth of Pleasure, Gilligan utilizes mythology, philosophy, literature and experiences from her life and from clinical practice to illuminate an original and pioneering vision of pleasure to again challenge traditional thinking. Gilligan writes movingly about love and shows us how our previous traditions have imprisoned us and have stood in the way of both sexes experiencing pleasure.

Gilligan’s book traces love’s path as she studies children’s communication and couples in crisis, and argues persuasively that a child’s inborn ability to love freely and live authentically becomes inhibited by patriarchal structure. Gilligan demonstrates how parents and patriarchal culture reinforces the loss of voice in girls while simultaneously forcing and shaming sons into masculine behavior characterized by assertion and aggression. Girls or boys who challenge this system and assume the role of the opposite sex are severely punished by the culture.

Gilligan takes us on a journey through dreams, novels, legends and narrative research. She calls forth the plays of Shakespeare, the works of Hawthorne, Michael Ondaatje, Arundhati Roy, Proust, Toni Morrison, and Freud’s clinical cases to illuminate crucial issues that she wishes to investigate. At the center of her work lies the ancient and timeless myth of Psyche and Cupid, an allegory of deception, envy, malice, love and retribution. To briefly summarize the myth, Psyche is so beautiful that she is condemned to death by Venus who envies her beauty and fears being replaced as the most beautiful woman. Venus sends her son Cupid to punish Psyche, but Cupid falls in love with Psyche and takes her to a secret place where they live in bliss. The only condition Cupid demands from Psyche is that she never see him. Psyche’s sisters become envious of her sensual life and subsequent pregnancy and shame Psyche into breaking her vow to Cupid, who flies home to Venus in a rage of betrayal. Psyche decides that the only means of regaining Cupid’s love is to directly confront Venus, who subsequently repents and assists Psyche in helping all of them “come out of darkness into light.”

Gilligan reinterprets this myth in contemporary terms. She sees Psyche as a libertine and a seeker of truth rather than a woman unable to “follow directions.” Ultimately, Psyche is able to save herself and her unborn child by establishing a relationship with Venus, the mother of Cupid. In the tale, Psyche frees herself from a tragic ending by breaking the cultural taboos on seeing and speaking about love. In order to illustrate the relationship between myth and life, Gilligan analyzes interviews with young girls and couples whose marriages are floundering. She finds that the central problem for both girls and couples in trouble is an inauthentic sense of self. She demonstrates the need for honesty and self-knowledge in relationships between the sexes. The myth of Cupid and Psyche also suggests that envy and anger between women can only be resolved by reformulating the Oedipal triangle, replacing the world of Freud that revolves around fathers, with one in which both men and women awaken to true and authentic emotional maturity.

In spite of liberation movements that have attempted to empower women to find their own voices, the basic underlying patriarchal structure of society remains unchanged. In childhood, children are forced into stringent gendered identities: boys encouraged to be “masculine” and girls forced to choose between developing an authentic self or becoming skilled at dissociation in order to preserve relationships by covering their vulnerability, resulting in a split at the very core of an authentic self.

This book is a refreshing revisualization of many truths that we hold sacred, particularly the controversy between nature and nurture. In her previous book, Gilligan pointed out that the Oedipal resolution did not lead to an imperfect morality but merely to a different moral voice for girls growing up in the world of Freud and the Oedipus complex. In this book, she interviews girls and finds that their practice of dissociation is not a part of human nature but an adaptation to the cultural landscape of patriarchy. Gilligan travels between the growing pains of Anne Frank, her conflict with her mother and idealization of her father, contrasting this story with the Greek tragedies, and interweaving it with the voices of young girls and marriages in trouble (p.161).

Gilligan finds that patriarchal cultural norms drain pleasure because hierarchy leads us to cover vulnerability. The symptoms of dissociation such as loss of voice, dizziness, a sense of dislocation, feelings of alienation, of not really living one’s life, are often revealed through the body. Through the experience of sensual pleasure, Gilligan demonstrates how we can come back into associative relationship with ourselves by rejoining our minds and our hearts. Discovering the sensation of pleasure will allow females to develop an associative relationship with themselves, a reunion of emotion and cognition.

Gilligan investigates the painful choices women feel forced to make. These include the choice between having a relationship versus being in a relationship; choosing oneself or giving oneself up to the other; living in synchrony with another or becoming a mirror of the other. Throughout her book, Gilligan stresses the paradox that in order to move forward, one must be able to sustain loss. Sacrifice and loss are components of all of the stories that Gilligan tells, and throughout she stresses that a person can only change if they are willing to take one firm position and not another.

From her investigation of the male persona, Gilligan explores the unconscious problem that men face in relationships--starting to think about leaving when they truly fall in love. She posits strategies for dealing with this dilemma, illuminating the importance of developing insight into this tension and assisting males in learning to value relationships with others as much as success in sports and business.

In this wonderful book, the reader has to be prepared to feel and to travel with Gilligan through her own childhood and her own initiation into womanhood, sharing her entry into the world of sensuality. Writing about one’s own life and experience is a brave endeavor requiring tact, sensitivity and maturity, all of which are present in this book. The reader attempting to understand Gilligan’s formulations of a life before dissociation might be tempted to reflect upon and write about his or her own life. In her worldly scope, Gilligan helps us realize that all of humankind goes through similar stages, and that our families, our lovers, our children, and our ancestors will all experience similar losses and are all failed heroes. The solution, according to Gilligan, is to accept the loss of innocence that propels us into adulthood and forces us to make deals with the devil in order to traverse this treacherous terrain.

Finally, the author views the present moment as providing a significant opportunity in human history. She argues for combining contemporary psychological wisdom with cultural history to allow for the repair of long-standing ruptures between peoples and between nations. The myth of Psyche and Cupid is to be read as a way out of the Oedipus tragedy, striving, as Gilligan views it, to end the contradiction between democracy and patriarchy. The solution offered for couples in crisis is similar to the solution for individuals: create the grounds for trust by opening oneself freely to another and to learn to tolerate and repair the inevitable breaks in connection, a process that requires comfort in living with the risk of uncertainty and the inevitability of change.

Reviewer Note

Marilyn N. Metzl is a psychoanalyst in private practice and is Director of the Kansas City Institute for Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Kansas City, Missouri. Email: marilynmetzl@sbcglobal.net

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