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How truly human it makes us

· ​The symbolic power of women’s bodies ·

We live in a world dominated by the anguish of the present and the fear of the future, a world where competitive individualism has abolished the maternal figure, the relationship on which our lives are founded.

As Donald Winicott, the great English psychoanalyst, writes: “It seems to me that there is something missing in human society. Children grow up and become in their turn fathers and mothers, but, on the whole, they do not grow up to know and acknowledge just what their mothers did for them at the start […]. Is not this contribution of the devoted mother unrecognized precisely because it is immense? If there is no true recognition of the mother’s part, then there must remain a vague fear of dependence. This fear will sometimes take the form of a fear of WOMAN, or fear of a woman, and at other times will take less easily recognized forms, always including the fear of domination”.

It is not of course enough to be a mother in order to be maternal, but the paradigm remains valid despite many exceptions and the term mater, with its root materia, preserves the symbolic value which our history has attributed to it, even today when so many things have changed.

The mother, whom Freud defines as “that prehistoric unforgettable Other, who will later never be equalled by anybody”, is invested at the same time by impulses of love and of hate but, thanks to her devotion, love usually prevails and is subsequently projected, not without ambivalence, on to the woman whom the man chooses as his life companion.

In the light of this observation, the gesture of women who oppose male violence with the sole resource of their female and maternal bodies acquires a new significance which questions, in addition to our identity, the complex relationship between the sexes.

When we look at the sequence of the published images, we see on one side a sombre, threatening armoured tank or more frequently an anti-guerilla platoon consisting of soldiers in battledress, an expression of a violent, anonymous and impersonal male power. On the opposite side a woman stands alone who, enfolded in light clothes, maybe even with a veil but with her face uncovered, confronts them revealing to the world – the photographers are lying in wait – her identity and her emotions. The asymmetry is obvious and in factual terms the outcome of the conflict is already decided.

Yet the awareness of our weakness can be translated into subversive power, as the value of martyrdom shows in the history of the Church. As designated victims of male violence, women willingly offer themselves to the assault of their aggressors but their self-exposure does not express resignation so much as resistance and a willingness for mediation. But what can female silence say in the face of the threat of weapons? Women’s bodies speak for them, evoking the sweetness of love – do you remember the slogan “put flowers in your guns”, with which a generation opposed the war in Vietnam? – and the power of giving birth. As Adrienne Rich wrote in the years in which young people were opposing the Vietnam War: “All human life on our planet is born from a woman. The one unifying, incontrovertible experience shared by all, men and women, is the period spent being formed in a woman’s womb… [Of Woman Born]. For the whole of life and even in death we keep the imprint of this experience. It is not by chance that our first and our last word is precisely “Mummy”.

In the centuries-old iconography of Our Lady, which has moulded the female unconscious, the image of the Child Jesus and of Christ deposed from the Cross, the one in his Mother’s arms, the other in her lap, consistently recall Life and Death.

This does not mean that all women must be mothers but rather that they are potentially such, bearers of a generative message which can be denied or expressed in various ways.

One of these ways is the promotion of justice and peace, as the Women in Black and the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo testify. There, mothers of sons to be snatched from death and oblivion, here, women who defend life and the rights of all, women who, in the face of the arrogance of the strongest, ask for the recognition of another right, the right to life. By what right do they assign this power to themselves?

By virtue of the maternal body, of its conformation, of its function. It is a cavernous body predisposed to receive, contain and nourish the child and lastly, as Cacciari notes in Generating God,to participate symbolically in the child’s own making his way, outside, afar, in his departure from her.

Mothers are the only tyrants who spontaneously emancipate their subject, the only masters who willingly set their slave free, the only prison wardens who open the doors to their prisoner.

It is a “letting go” which never relinquishes responsibility and availability.

However this is not all. For centuries, before the mechanism of modernity supplanted the ancient vitalism, the maternal body represented the power of Mother Earth. This is a metaphor which connects the generation of children with the gathering in of harvests, the cycle of human fecundity with the astral rhythm of the universe. The woman who offers and asks for Peace is presented as a symbol of the nature that contains us and the nature that passes through us. Her body, a crucible of matter and form, speaks two languages: the impersonal language of Life without adjectives and the symbolic language of the life of relationship, history, family genealogy, and bio-graphy which makes each individual an incomparable and irreplaceable being.

The men in the image who face her, silent, their faces obscured by the visors of their helmets, fear the power of one who is not afraid for the sole reason that she finds herself on the right side and, not knowing how to react, they are tempted to overpower her with the violence that appertains to their kind, sexual violence. Basically women have always been silenced by the arrogance of the strongest. And nothing seems to have changed, going by the tragedy of the femicide that, after the tragedies of the past, stains with blood a century which would have liked to have been different. And yet something is happening.

Facing the courageous display of a female body which is sacrificed in the name of the values in which the woman believes, for a moment, at least for a moment, space is contracted, time stands still and the stark silence of the sacred falls on the disturbed, noisy scene of the conflict. Suddenly a vertical vector descends to interrupt the horizontal, mechanical, rhythmic progression of chronological time. Another intentionality seeks a truce in the acceleration of events, in the imponderable drift of forced obedience, incurred, never thought about, such as that imposed on armies.

It is nothing more than a symbolic limit, an unexpected suspension, similar to the spasmodic tension of the tightrope walker on the swaying wire, but it is precisely in that interval of time and space that expectation gives way to the unexpected, leaving free access to hope. What can the individual do, placed before events that he or she does not control, other than testify?

A woman can speak, suggest, convince, wave a flag or propose a slogan. Instead, most of the time she prefers to rely on the gaze and the action, as is fitting for the perinatal stage, for the two in one which comes before the insertion of the father in the original dyad. And it is in this prehistoric epoch that she calls upon her antagonists with authority.

She wants to remind them that they all were born as sons and that, even before coming into the world, before being babies, they too remained for nine months in a maternal womb. Just as, moreover their children will do.

The encounter promoted by a woman who has no right to do so other than a stubborn will calls to mind historically a primeval, maternal society which has never existed, a matriarchy never realized. And yet that epoch persists in our unconscious as a world of peace, of equality and of justice, the very same world that every utopia implies. In the troubled relationship between the sexes, in their asymmetrical confrontation, we can glimpse a desire to begin afresh, to stipulate a new covenant, to say, “let’s start again”.

However, the solution to the many conflicts which upset our civilization, caused by the human being’s aggressive and self-destructive impulses, is a problem that risks remaining unsolved.

As Freud writes in the conclusion to his Civilization and its Discontents, “And now it may be expected that the other of the two heavenly forces, eternal Eros, will put forth his strength so as to maintain himself alongside of his equally immortal adversary” (Thanatos). “But who can foresee which will succeed and what the outcome will be?”.

As always, set in front of the most radical questions, all that remains to us is to appeal to education, to the possibility of forestalling clashes by building a new humanity capable of chanelling natural aggression towards shared ideals. To this end it is once again the mother whose fundamental task is to substitute the virile male, the violent hero, the competitive individual with a subject who can affirm herself, accepting the passive components of her identity, such as dependance, vulnerability, and transience – all of which make us truly human.

Silvia Vegetti Finzi




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 14, 2019