I met Madonna once.
It was in New York in the autumn of 1979. I was walking down 6th Avenue late one evening, when a woman came up to me and asked if I knew the way to Spring Street subway station. She was on her way back ‘home’, to what sounded like a dilapidated building on 41st Street (or 43rd street). Since I was heading in that direction I said I would show her the way, and offered to carry her bag.
“Are you British?” she asked
“Yes. How do you know?”
“Because you offered to carry my bag”
Since I looked at the time like a Mexican drug dealer, I was deeply impressed by this deduction, and it seemed to me that she was an extraordinarily intelligent person.
As we talked I learnt that she was a singer. Her ambition was to be like Barbra Streisand. Her name was Madonna. “You’re joking!” I said. I was taken aback by this news because I was working in my spare time on an independent film about Freud’s case history of ‘Dora’ (what else?). A painting of the Madonna figures significantly in the story and was the subject of much discussion in the film group. When asked what she liked about the picture Dora just said ‘The Madonna’. Her mention of Barbra Streisand also made me assume that she was Jewish, which complicated even further the ironic resonance of her name.
Eventually we arrived at Spring Street. I stood before her for a few seconds, desperately wanting to continue the contact. Could I invite her back to my place? Unfortunately I was living in even more squalor than she was, on the first floor of a derelict warehouse that I was helping to renovate. It looked like a building site, as my mother might have said. In fact it was a building site. Curses!
For a while I stood transfixed, not by her beauty but (I have to be honest) by her sexual presence. Open mouthed and with a gormless expression on my face, I waited impotently for words that never came. Then I handed over her case, wished her luck, said goodbye, walked away and never saw her again. The next day I decided to stop living like a refugee and to find myself an apartment.
The reason I have recounted this story in some detail is because I have no certain idea that any of it is true. Or rather, I have a memory of these events but no definite sense of their reality. It is as if we have to assume that the sense of reality is not an indissoluble aspect of experience but rather, as Freud maintained, a distinctive function added to experience from somewhere else, as the provenance of an object might be guaranteed by the stamp which says ‘Made in England’ or ‘Made in China’.
It could be that I have wished these events into existence, that they are a kind of retrospective hallucination or vivid daydream that has become sedimented in my mind. Or I simply embellished and distorted another, mundane experience. I met SOMEONE, and no doubt she had a name. Perhaps only later did she become ‘Madonna’, or rather the Madonna. Was it really true that Madonna’s dearest wish was to be like Barbra Streisand? Yet I have the feeling that these events are ‘true’; that they actually happened. What is missing is the conviction of their reality, just as we might say ‘I don’t believe it!’ when something truly amazing confronts us. If that’s the case, then it must be that something has interfered with my processing of the experience. Something has undermined my relation to reality.
It will come as little surprise, given the context of this confession, when I say that Freud had a similar experience. He was on holiday with his brother Alexander in Trieste, when they were unexpectedly offered the opportunity to sail to Athens. It was a place Freud had often dreamed of but had never visited. However, instead of being delighted at this prospect Freud was thrown into lethargy and depression. He was going through the motions of the journey but inside it felt as if he had been denied the opportunity and was mourning the loss.
When he eventually arrived, and stood at last on the Acropolis, a strange thought entered his mind: “So it really does exist, just as we learnt at school”. Freud was puzzled by this expression of doubt. It was as if he had just come face to face with the Loch Ness monster, he says, and was obliged to revise his previous conviction of its non-existence. Wouldn’t some expression of admiration or delight have been the appropriate response?
Normal people ignore the fleeting thoughts and sensations that bubble up continually into their minds and float away. Freud cherished them as important data. Thirty five years after his experience he analysed it in a paper written for his friend Romain Rolland for his seventieth birthday. Freud himself was eighty.
Freud related his experience to the phenomenon of ‘de-realisation’ – a feeling that ‘What I see here is not real’ – and put it down to the common case of something being ‘too good to be true’. It was not true that he ever doubted the real existence of Athens, but he had often doubted whether he should ever see Athens. “It seemed to me beyond the realms of possibility that I should travel so far – that I should ‘go such a long way'”. So presented with the opportunity of achieving his heart’s desire, something inside interferes with his enjoyment. He does not allow himself that sense of possession of his experience, or even of the landscape in which he found himself.
Freud’s explanation for this perturbation of consciousness was that going to Athens was the equivalent of going ‘further than one’s father’, as though to excel one’s father were still something forbidden. Hence one part of his mind prevented him from being fully engaged in the experience, did not allow him to really ‘be there’.
Freud perhaps had no need to explain to his friend Roman Rolland that ‘going further than the father’ could have only one meaning within the terms of the Oedipus complex – taking possession of the mother and eliminating the father. Thus Freud quotes Napoleon to his brother during his coronation as Emperor in Notre Dame: ‘What would Monsieur notre Père have said to this, if he could have been here today?’ Notice the symbolically charged location in which these words were spoken – Notre Dame – and the easily overlooked fact that the evoked father is, unfortunately, dead. Freud, too, finds himself in a maternal space, overlooking the city of the goddess Athene, at the very home of her temple, The Parthenon.
Now perhaps we can see what disturbs my own sense of reality when I consider my experience in New York. In the inexorable rise of her fame and the iconic status she achieved, Madonna became for millions what she had perhaps always wanted to be – a mother figure. It is as if in the construction of her celebrity and the charismatic power it brings, she can no longer be ‘daughter’, ‘sister’, ‘wife’, ‘lover’, but can only function as the repository of phantasies of the mother (in both its ‘good’ satisfying aspects and ‘bad’ frustrating aspects). It is Madonna as a symbolic mother which I am not allowed to remember as ‘real’, I suggest, and it is the phantasy of possession of the mother that disturbs my memory of this event today, and makes me unsure, even now, whether it ever really happened at all.
Has there ever been a female icon who is not a mother figure (who is a ‘daughter’ for instance)? (Think of the symbolic meanings of the goddess Athene, the goddess Kali, the Virgin Mary, Elizabeth 1, Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, and so on)
Why do you think so many mother figures are presented as ‘like a virgin’?
How many male icons can you think of who are sons?
Do real mothers feel trapped by their role as a ‘mother’? Discuss.
A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis
So all this really does exist, just as we learnt at school!
“Now it would be easy to argue that this strange thought that occurred to me on the Acropolis only serves to emphasise the fact that seing something with one’s own eyes is after all quite a different thing from hearing or reading about it. But even so it would remain a most remarkable disguise for an uninteresting commonplace….
“The experience at Trieste was, it will be noticed, also no more than an expression of disbelief: ‘We’re going to see Athens? Out of the question! – it will be far too difficult!’ The accompanying depression corresponded to a regret that it was out of the question: it would have been so lovely. And now we know where we are. It is one of those cases of ‘too good to be true’ that we come across so often. It is an example of the scepticism that arises so often when we are surprised by a piece of good news, when we hear we have won a prize for instance, or drawn a winner, or when a girl learns that a man whom she has secretly loved has asked her parents for leave to pay his addresses to her.
“When we have established the existence of a phenomenon, the next question is of course as to its cause. Disbelief of this kind is obviously an attempt to repudiate a piece of reality; but there is something strange about it. We should not in the least be astonished if an attempt of this kind were aimed at a piece of reality that threatened unpleasant consequences: the mechanism of our mind is, so to speak, planned to work along just such lines. But why should such disbelief arise in something which, on the contrary, promises to bring a high degree of pleasure? Truly paradoxical behaviour! But I recollect that on a previous occasion I dealt with the similar case of people who, as I put it, are ‘wrecked by success’ …. In another set of cases, just as in those who are wrecked by success, we find a sense of guilt or inferiority, which can be translated: ‘I am not worthy of such happiness, I don’t deserve it.’ But these two motives are essentially the same, for one is only a projection of the other. For, as has long been known, the fate which we expect to treat us so badly is a materialisation of our conscience, of the severe super-ego within us, itself a residue of the punitive agency of our childhood… We could not believe that we were to be given the joy of seeing Athens.” ……
“It is not true that in my school days I ever doubted the real existence of Athens. I only doubted whether I should ever see Athens. It seemed to me beyond the realms of possibility that I should travel so far – that I should ‘go such a long way’. This was linked up with the limitations and poverty of our conditions of life. My longing to travel was also no doubt the expression of a wish to escape from that pressure, like the force which drives so many adolescent children to run away from home. I had long seen clearly that a great part of the pleasure of travel lies in the fulfilment of these early wishes, that it is rooted in dissatisfaction with home and family. When one first catches sight of the sea, crosses the ocean and experiences as realities cities and lands which which for so long had been distant, unattainable things of desire – one feels oneself like a hero who has performed deeds of improbable greatness. I might that day on the Acropolis have said to my brother; ‘Do you still remember how, when we were young, we used day after day to walk along the same streets on our way to school, and how every Sunday we used to go to the Prater or on some excursion we knew so well? And now, here we are in Athens, and standing on the Acropolis! We really have gone a long way!’ So too, if I may compare such a small event with a greater one, Napoleon, during his coronation as Emperor in Notre Dame, turned to one of his elder brothers – it must no doubt have been the eldest one, Joseph – and remarked: ‘What would Monsieur notre Père have said to this, if he could have been here today?’
“But here we come upon the solution of the little problem of why it was that already at Trieste we interfered with our enjoyment of the voyage to Athens. It must be that a sense of guilt was attached to the satisfaction in having got so far: there was someting about it that was wrong, that was from earliest times forbidden. It was something to do with a child’s criticism of his father, with the undervaluation which took the place of the overvaluation of earlier childhood. It seems as though the essence of sucess were to have got further than one’s father, and as though to excel one’s father were still something forbidden.
“As an addition to this generally valid motive there was a special factor present in our particular case. The very theme of Athens and the Acropolis in itself contained evidence of the son’s superiority. Our father had been in business, he had had no secondary education, and Athens could not have meant much to him. Thus what interfered with our enjoyment of the journey to Athens was a feeling of piety. And now you will no longer wonder that the recollection of this incident on the Acropolis should have troubled me so often since I myself have grown old and stand in need of forbearance and can travel no more.”