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Terror the Human Form Divine - Ritual of Repression in the Magdalen Laundries

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. This paper will examine the role of the maternal metaphor. It is the mother’s responsibility to create an imaginary self for her child before he/she is born. Complications arise when the mother fails to create a stable imaginary self for her child.
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   1 Terror the Human Form Divine   Ritual of Repression in the Magdalen Laundries    The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan ’s  study of language greatly assists in understanding human behaviour. Desire, frustration and what some would classify as wayward behaviour can be explained in terms of the friction between the symbolic self i.e. the identity of an individual as narrated by language and the real self i.e. the self which cannot be satisfied by language or expressed in the symbolic order. The notion of the other in the symbolic order arises due to the deferral nature of the Oedipus complex.  The paternal metaphor comes into existence through the concept of the name of the father. This does not refer to the biological father of a child but instead refers to the phallus which is desired by the mother and envied by the child. Con sequently a child’s introduction to the symbolic order  is marked by the supremacy of the male figure. This other is desired initially in order to avoid feelings on isolation and narcissism in the child. However, the notion of the maternal metaphor becomes something of an enigma. The effect of the female presence in the developing consciousness of the individual is a notion that Lacan tends to neglect. This paper will examine the role of the maternal metaphor. It is the mother’s responsibility to cr eate an imaginary self for her child before he/she is born. The imaginary self is the identity which he/she aspires towards. It is an identity which is grounded in the symbolic order and is designed to alleviate the frustrations of the real self. Complications arise when the mother fails to create a stable imaginary self for her child. This largely occurs where a mother senses that the act of giving birth is marked by a feeling of loss. The psychological   2 boundaries between the mother and her child become fragmented. The maternal metaphor becomes associated with a sense of lack and absolute otherness as the child attempts to come to terms with his/her fragmented imaginary self. Therefore the notion of the other in language is both desired and scorned. The absolute otherness as expressed by the maternal metaphor is clearly demonstrated in Peter Mullen’s film “The Magdalen Sisters.” This film traces the actual experiences of a few women who were, through no fault of their own, imprisoned in a Magdalen Laundry. Vanity was their alleged crime and a non-identity was their punishment.  The deferral nature of the metaphor has wide reaching implications on the real self. Lacan analyses the effect of language on the structure of consciousness. An individual’s consciousness is structured in the same way as their language. Lacan states, “man speaks therefore, but it is because the symbol has made him man.” 1  By analysing the structure of consciousness Lacan raises many questions about the existential quest of every individual trapped by the symbolic order. Language is understood to be universal. It is comprised of signifiers and signifieds. A signifier is a word and what it signifies is a concept. According to Darian Leader, “a signifier is an acoustic image (like a word). A signified is a concept.” 2  Signifiers only recognise and refer to themselves. There is no way of expressing any reality outside of language once the individual enters the symbolic order. Anything that is desired outside of language is deemed irrational and destructive. The death drive, which seeks to break through the pleasure principle of the symbolic and the imaginary self of the individual, generates both  jouissance   and disapproval from the gaze of the other. In order to conform to the image of 1  Jacques Lacan, The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis , Trans. Antony Wilden, (London, 1981) p.39 2  Darian Leader,  Introducing Lacan , (London, 2005). P.38   3 the imaginary self within the framework of the symbolic order the individual desires the other to a greater extent in order to be validated and recognised.  The attraction of the other primarily lies in the understanding that he/she has the same frame of reference in the symbolic order i.e. his/her consciousness is structured by a language. In this way the individual desires to be recognised universally. Lacan state s, “in short, nowhere does it appear more clearly that man’s desire finds its meaning in the desire of the other, not so much because the other holds the key to the object desired, as because the first object of desire is to be recognised by the other.” 3  Therefore in order to be recognised as a universal the individual relies heavily on the signifying chain in order to be interpreted by the other. This can be seen in Mullen’s film where the Good Shepherd Sisters have offered up their natural lives in order to be recognised by a universal God i.e. a universal other. His universality will recognise theirs through the ritual of prayer and virtue. Universality in this context refers to the Hegelian notion of the phenomenology of Spirit where objectivity and subjectivity becomes in and for itself. The pursuit of universality is narrated by desire.  The exercise of Prayer always takes the form of a repeated mantra so as to avoid misinterpretation. In this way repetition maintains the universality of language and firmly establishes the metaphor of virtue in the imaginary selves of the Good Shepherd nuns. According to Frances Finnegan:  The ideal of womanhood became more firmly than ever fixed in the celibate nun  –   and of all religious vocations open to women, none more closely resembled the work of Christ himself, than that of the Good Shepherd Sisters. Significantly at this stage of the new State’s 3  Jacques Lacan,  Ecrits: A Selection , Trans. Alan Sheridan, (London, 2006) p.64   4 existence, these nuns’ work –    “never more needful” –   was seen as patriotic. And since even motherhood in its “purist” for m (without the taint of sex and childbirth) was attributed to them, these women were elevated to heights no normal female, however virtuous, could attain.” 4  When there is a misinterpretation along the signifying chain the fate of the individual’s identity becomes unstable. This is again evidenced by the sharp contrast between the Good Shepherd nuns and the so-called fallen women in the Magdalen Laundries. To have fallen refers to pre-marital sex (irrespective of consent), illegitimate children or flirtatious behaviour. Fallen women highlight the instability of the signifying chain by representing desire for their male counterpart. Again the deferral nature of the paternal metaphor generates insecurity in the nuns’ imaginary self. However, the ultimate paternal metaphor is God himself. In contrast the Virgin Mary is defined by her natural existence as Jesus’ mother. In the grand narrative of religion she is the ultimate maternal metaphor, representing both virtue and biology as is sharply referenced by her virginity. The sexuality of the paternal metaphor is never adhered to. It is simply deferred and desired. However, the maternal metaphor is understood in the binary oppositions of saint/ sinner, virgin/whore because woman is of the natural order. Therefore the maternal metaphor is categorised sharply as either virtuous or sinful. Consequently, for the Good Shepherd nuns the language of prayer and the promise of recognition by a universal God cannot be jeopardised. Misinterpretation causes a multitude of problems in communication because there is no guarantee that two people will interpret a signifier in the same way. Also the use of the signifier “I” perpetuates the sense of alienation 4  Frances Finnegan, Do Penance or Perish: A Study of Magdalen Asylums in Ireland, (Kilkenny, 2002)  p. 18-19.   5 as the utterance of “I”  by a subject feels the loss which is felt in language.  The subject projects the “I” for the benefit of recognition by the other . By doing so they are illustrating their separation and alienation from the other  yet at the same time their individuality is being merged into a universal language. According to Lacan, When the subject seeks to express his own singularity by saying “I”, he is only asserting what any man can assert. A modern linguist would say that the obligatory reference of the ‘shifter’ to the message rather than to the code alone makes it less concrete and more easily alienable than other words. 5   This instability has the potential to result in a Hegelian unhappy self-consciousness, narcissism and self-alienation. Lacan maintains that the subject is split by the very act of using language. When the individual speaks he/she separates him/herself from the first person singular in the sentence i.e. “I”. According to Dylan Evans, “the subject can never be anything other than divided, split, alienated from himself. The split is irreducible, can never b e healed; there is no possibility of synthesis.” 6  In this regard language itself becomes the other for the individual. In order to be recognised by another subject the individual must first be recognised by the very language he/she is using to communicate his/her subjectivity. Every individual reacts to the universality of language. Equally every individual expresses desire as a symptom of the frustration of the real self. These symptoms manifest themselves in what are sometimes deemed socially and morally deviant behaviour. Outrage and disgust ensues where certain individuals threaten the universality of recognition in the symbolic order by 5  Jacques Lacan, The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis,  Trans. Anthony Wilden, (London, 1981) p.195 6  Dylan Evans,  An Introductory Dictionary to Lacanian Psychoanalysis,  (London, 2003) p.192
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