Sajid Javid’s promotion to the post of Home Secretary was cause for celebration in some quarters.
He was the first politician from an ethnic minority background to hold such an elevated position in Government.
An elevated position of a different kind was scrutinised soon after when, posing for the cameras outside the Home Office building, he adopted what has come to be known as the ‘Tory Power Stance’.
Analysing the derivation of the slightly comical and often ridiculed pose, Guardian journalist Martin Belam pointed to a list of antecedents in the Tory party and beyond. From George Osborne and David Cameron, through Tony Blair and Theresa May, to Blackadder’s Prince George, and, with a more appropriately energetic use of the arms perhaps, Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman.
Surprisingly, the author did not reference the most famous power stance of all, which predated Wonder Woman by some 400 years.
Henry VIII’s portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, of which only copies remain, not only emphasises the triangle formed by the monarch’s sturdy legs but the prominent codpiece that sits at their apex.
One is left in no doubt as to where power resides, and indeed, the portrait may have been commissioned to celebrate the birth of Henry’s long-awaited son and heir, born in October 1537.
Another perspective arises when we learn that the painting ‘shows Henry as young and full of health, when in truth he was in his mid-forties and had been badly injured earlier in the year in a jousting accident. He was also already suffering from the health problems that would affect the latter part of his life, dying only ten years later in 1547.’ (thanks, Wikipedia).
The propaganda value of visual images was hardly a new phenomenon in Henry’s time. It had been a practice of power elites even before the ancient Egyptians – but knowing these facts highlights the possibility that displays of power may cover other concerns and forebodings.
Mythological heroes may need no such symbolic physical display.
The Farnese Hercules is an ancient statue of Hercules, probably an enlarged copy made in the early third century AD. It is now in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, and a plaster cast of the copy stands in an alcove in the newly extended Royal Academy.
The heroically-scaled statue is one of the most famous sculptures of antiquity, and has fixed the image of the mythic hero in the European imagination. It depicts Hercules leaning on his club, which has the skin of the Nemean lion draped over it.
The most powerful man in the world, a demi-god indeed, has no need for the Tory Power Stance. In fact it is as if his immense strength is implied by the almost weary pose into which the sculptor has frozen him, suggesting deeds accomplished rather than the boastful swagger of imaginary feats to come.
But there is one depiction of Hercules in which he does adopt a pose resembling the Power Stance.
This is the figure often known as the ‘Drunken Hercules’ or sometimes the ‘Peeing Hercules’: He’s drunk and he’s taking a piss.
|Peeing Hercules, Herculaneum
|Peter Paul Rubens, Drunken Hercules (1612-1614)
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Or is he? In another interpretation to this scene of Bacchic excess, Hercules is attempting to revive his flaccid penis in order to have sex. Sometimes this sex-effort is presented as attempted rape, while in other depictions, as in the painting by Rubens, it seems that the women in the scene are ‘up for it’ and it is Hercules who can’t rise to the occasion, wilting under the pressure of female desire.
Whichever interpretation is adopted, it is a tale of humiliation for the hapless hero, as Hercules was indeed to be more than humiliated in another part of the legend when he is sold into slavery, beaten and made to wear women’s clothes by the dominating goddess-queen Omphale.
‘Taking a piss’ or preparing for sex?
The indeterminacy between the excretory function of the penis and its sexual one reminded me of an educational experiment I read about 15 years ago. Reported in the Museums Journal in 2003, it described a project at Tate Liverpool which brought men who had been convicted of domestic violence into the gallery for educational workshops.
Through thinking about and discussing paintings in the gallery, the aim was to challenge stereotypes and explore emotions about sex, power, gender and control. The simple act of recognising that there may be more than one interpretation to a situation (or work of art) was a transformative educational experience for some of the men.
“So many times we hear the men say that their violence to their partner was reactive” explained probation officer Paul Wynn. “They describe a situation as ‘obvious’, and that whatever they perceived the situation to be – ‘she was having an affair, she was taking the piss’ – was undoubtedly the truth. The aim of the Tate session is to illustrate that there are many different ways of appraising a situation”.
“You would think that urinating was a natural function. Yet somehow it gets caught up in the convoluted process of sexual development.”
Reading this article at the time I was struck by the phrase ‘taking the piss’, and its association with sexual infidelity. “She was having an affair, she was taking the piss”. As we have just seen, ‘taking a piss’ means urinating; the phrase ‘taking the piss’ means subjecting someone to humiliation and ridicule. The linguistic clue allows us to suppose that, suspecting their wife’s infidelity, it was the blow to manly pride which unleashed the subsequent aggression. The infidelity brings to the fore the Oedipal triangle; the reference to micturation highlights the penis.
You would think that urinating was a natural function. Yet somehow it gets caught up in the convoluted process of sexual development.
Three fortuitous encounters allowed me to map the process.
The first was in the middle of Camden High Street.
The child’s parents, parked twenty yards from a public toilet and full of good intentions, had been thwarted by their three year old son who had to go ‘now!‘ Having relieved himself at the side of the car, the little boy pulled up his underpants as far as they would go, thrust out his hips and paraded around the pavement in front of the car with his trousers around his ankles, singing a raucous ditty. It was actually a joyful sight – the unashamed phallic exhibitionism of a three year old, full of the swank and swagger of pre-Oedipal grandiosity.
The second encounter, at Tate Modern, was with two boys a few years older than the first.
They came into the toilet where I was urinating, ignored me completely and began to engage in a ribald but edgy discussion about pooh and penises. One of the boys chanted: “Put your willy on your bum and send it off to China!” – a surreal conjunction until one translates ‘China’ as ‘vagina’, and the common wish-anxiety of transforming into the other sex is revealed in all its graphic intensity.
If you think I have over-interpreted on this occasion I can only assure you that, like the castration complex itself, the translation came out of the mouth of a child, overheard by my eldest daughter while she babysat the children next door. ‘You’ve got a vagina’ said her mother to the little girl in the bath, explaining why she could not have a penis like her brother. ‘I’ve got a China’ she concurred. Meanwhile in the rest rooms of Tate Modern café, there was an unmistakeable manic quality about the competitive banter of the two boys, unmistakeable intimations of anxiety: “Put your willy on your bum and send it off to China!”
In the third encounter, positions were reversed.
I entered the restaurant toilet where a boy of eight or nine was urinating with his father. He turned round with a look of alarm and panic, wide-eyed and ashen-faced with the guilty expression of someone who had been ‘caught in the act’, marked with the furtive shame of the latency age child, in a never-ending struggle with his own sensual nature. The fear on this boy’s face showed that he had not escaped the ordinary human trauma of what Freud called ‘sexual intimidation’.
It’s the humiliation and threat of the Oedipus complex that links the wife’s infidelity to phallic insecurity.
But surely, you might argue, beneath the fearful humiliation that the wife’s infidelity evokes, there must be a more powerful fear of abandonment. Given that Freud’s insistence on the centrality of the castration complex increased as he got older, we can be confident that he would have demurred from this suggestion.
The two threats are connected, however. In days when psychoanalysts, following Freud, used their own lives as part of the data of analytic investigation, E. Pickworth Farrow described his reaction after uncovering the memory of castration threatened by his cousin and her companion:
“For some days the writer was utterly miserable, and felt himself back in the time when he was a small helpless child expecting his genitals to be clipped off the next moment, and he never felt so completely lonely and lost in the world before.”
This sense of being ‘alone’, bereft one might say, shows how the castration trauma can meld with and accentuate earlier separation anxiety. Now we see the reason for the strange association (‘she was having an affair; she was taking the piss’) and, through violent repudiation and projection of the castration threat, why it can have such dire consequences for family life.
If the Power Stance resembles a man taking a piss, perhaps we can acknowledge that there is more to taking a piss than first meets the eye. Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams is full of stories and associations in which urination is the central element; stories both from his own life and from works of literature, many of which you will know.
I don’t want to give the impression that I spend most of my time hanging around public toilets, but bear with me.
This time it’s an incident that occurred only a few weeks ago in Regent’s Park.
A young mum and her son are waiting for dad; they are with another young family, out for a play in the park. Dad comes out of the toilet building and walks towards them, and a burst of merriment breaks out. ‘Alfie wanted to leave you behind!’ mum shouts, and they all laugh.
Unusually, I resisted the temptation to ask them if they had heard of the Oedipus Complex, but in witnessing this scene, and being in a state of Sunday morning reverie, I was brought back to thoughts of the Tory Power Stance. Because when I first saw the picture of Sajid Javid my own point of reference was somewhat different from the gallery of politicians and super heroes that we have seen so far, and suggests that a sociological or historical explanation may not reveal the whole story.
Sajid Javid’s picture reminded me of my younger self.
The picture of me was taken in the West Indies when I was four years old, sixty years ago. My mother had had enough and had run back home, at least to the place she called home where she had been raised as a foster child. Travelling by ship across the Atlantic, then train and boat, with three small children in tow and another on the way.
She was escaping from the strains of marriage to a man still shattered by the vicissitudes of a traumatic childhood, whose effects were augmented by the recent experience of war, and it must have been a relief to get away, just as it might have been a triumph for me to have ‘left dad behind’ and become ‘the man of the family’.
But be careful what you wish for, Alfie! Dad came later to win her back, bringing his campaign medals from the war in order to win over her brothers as well, who had flown in from America to protect her. His efforts on both fronts were successful: my youngest sister was born on the island and my brother some months after we returned to England. You can guess my Spanish-speaking mother’s future intentions when I tell you that my brother has the unusual middle name of ‘Ultimo’.
It turns out that ‘leaving dad behind’ was not quite the liberation I might have imagined it would be.
When I think about this time – a mixture of obscure half-memories and family legends – as I have tried to remember for writing this paper, I remember the train station in New York as a place of chaos and danger, particularly the gap between the platform and train, which terrified me as we climbed on board.
There was the time my baby sister was attacked by a boa constrictor and saved just in time by my mother’s strict Seventh Day Adventist foster mother (‘you have to cut the snake’s head off to kill it’). Or the time my older sister nearly drowned. Or the black widow spider that lived in the outhouse.
Or the time I caused a scene in church, screaming hysterically to be let out. It’s a story I have always told in a light-hearted way as revealing my intellectually precocious declaration of atheism, but now, of course, I have to suppose that when a small child screams in fear it’s because they are frightened of something. There was another snake bite and my mother having to suck out the poison. And the mustard poultice administered for some other potentially deadly infection.
It seems that when you leave dad behind, no matter how relieved you may be to do so, the world is full of dangers.
When dad returned there was a different sort of danger, but it was as though he became a lightning rod for all the disparate threats that vitiated the world without him.
This picture was taken at that time, when we were ‘a family’ once more. I decided to send the picture to my elder sister. Telling her about the Tory Power Stance, I wrote:
“Look at these two pictures. One is a frightened boy trying to hide his insecurity and self-consciousness by adopting an ungainly pose to the camera, while the other is a picture of me on the beach.”
Well, not quite, but you can see what I mean. Ignoring the implication that this scene and this photograph might depict a moment of psychic trauma and disruption in both our lives, she wrote back:
“The Tory power stance!! it really is an unfortunate look isn’t it? but then again, I find such a lot of body language difficult to accept … why are so many people not aware of what their limbs are doing? … Your photo, on the other hand is of a very cute rather tubby little chap just trying to stand up straight in the thick sand.”
(The ‘tubby’ is a hint of a reproach.)
Strangely enough, I remember the feelings I had when this photo was taken 60 years ago. Embarrassment, shame, self-consciousness – about what? The penis of course! Far from being a ‘power stance’ the pose was a protective (perhaps ‘prophylactic’) one – it was a compromise formation, protecting the fragile organ while presenting a seemingly defiant attitude to the camera. This is not the phallic self-assurance of the pre-Oedipal child strutting around Camden High Street with his hips thrust out, displaying the bulge in his pants for all the world to admire – this is the pose of a child who has buckled under the weight of an existential burden.
In fact, the power stance might be said to prefigure the moment when the legs do begin to buckle. It’s the position you are put into when you are pulled over by the cops and they want to undermine your ability to fight back or run away, perhaps even to weaken your resolve. How you are meant to respond to the law.
But what was the specific context in which this picture was taken?
What were the particular constellation of forces that became expressed in this ungainly – and perhaps, for a four-year-old, innocently charming – pose? To understand what’s going on requires a process of creative reconstruction and contextualisation, as well as ‘remembering the feeling’.
I questioned my sister again and asked her what she remembered and whether she was there when the photo was taken. She said three things:
- “Of course I was there, we were inseparable.”
- “The old man must have taken it with his Box Brownie.”
- “Was that the day I lost my beach ball?”
I’ll not say much about the semiotics of the photograph itself, but the image of a small figure in a featureless landscape is a resonant one. Ignoring the bare torso and the swimming trunks, one of my colleagues said ‘I thought it was in the snow’, and the idea of a frozen and unresponsive landscape may be appropriate, even without the obvious associations of Frankenstein’s monster or Scott of the Antarctic. (The latter was a great hero of mine in latency years.)
Freud once described his cancer-wracked self to his friend Marie Bonaparte as ‘a small island of pain floating in an ocean of indifference’, but far from being ‘indifferent’ the environment I was living in at the time must have been highly emotionally charged.
‘Of course I was there, we were inseparable.’
My sister and I were indeed inseparable and I was devoted to her. One family story from the same period goes like this. We were climbing the mango tree in the garden and I fell. My sister ran into the house shouting ‘Mummy, mummy, Ivan’s dead’, while I ran behind her terrified: ‘Mummy, mummy, I’m dead!’ (Some people say that I’m still quite gullible, even today.)
“Even when you leave dad behind the paternal function asserts itself in all its ambivalence.”
However, something happened that threatened this bond. My sister got diphtheria, which in 1958 was a serious and life-threatening condition. The word itself became a magical one for me, one of those too-difficult words that are ‘beyond you’ but hold an uncanny and dreadful fascination. Of course, I felt responsible. So responsible, in fact, that like Freud’s Russian patient, Sergei Pankejeff (the Wolf Man), I made a pact with god: ‘If you let her live … I won’t love her so much’.
In the context of my panic-stricken outburst in church one might say that even when you leave dad behind the paternal function asserts itself in all its ambivalence; its prohibiting and protective aspects. Had I known then what I know now, and been convinced of the ineluctable ambivalence of all relationships, I would have suspected that my feeling of responsibility was a result not just of my love but also hatred and death wishes toward the adored and gormlessly obeyed older sibling.
‘The old man must have taken it with his Box Brownie.’
In Freud’s work, the word “box” is usually a euphemism for the female genital. It sounds rather old-fashioned but the same symbolic equation sometimes crops up today.
You may remember an episode of The Big Bang Theory in which Penny is surprised that Leonard will not play with the Star Trek Transporter toy she bought him, until he explains that “Once you open the box, it loses its value”. “Yeah, yeah”, she interrupts him. “My mom gave me the same lecture”.
If she must have had a ‘Box’, my mum was a ‘Brownie’ too. But it seems ridiculous and, frankly, distasteful, to think that such thoughts would have been in the mind of a four-year old, even unconsciously. Despite the expectations of the Lacanians, I find it difficult to imagine that my four-year-old self would have been influenced by these verbal associations, impossible to ‘follow the words’ in this case.
On the other hand, if I say, ‘can a camera be a female symbol to a 4 year old?’ the answer is obvious. A female symbol in control of the father, which is also a creatively ‘fertile’ one that can be manipulated by the father to create something tangible. To ‘body forth’ one might say – an image it is true, but also, it might seem, to create a mini-me.
So ‘man holding camera’ is a symbolic representation of the primal scene. It evokes the primal scene. If Pickworth Farrow felt ‘lonely and alone’ after recovering his memory of a castration threat in childhood, how much more alone can we be than in the fearful apprehension and inevitable exclusion of the primal scene?
Captured in the glare of the photographic process, as well as the glare of the Caribbean sun, the photo illustrates the isolation that a child may experience even in the bosom of their family, confronted with the existential dilemma of the primal scene. But it also offers a point of anchor. As children weighed down by disparate threats from inside and out, we seek points of equilibrium and stability, and perhaps the father’s paradoxical gaze is one such port in the storm.
‘Was that the day I lost my beach ball?’
There is little time to consider the third of my sister’s responses. Suffice it to say that when I looked at her email again I saw that she didn’t say ‘Was that the day I lost my beach ball?’, she said ‘Was that the day I nearly drowned?’ I had interpolated the lost beach ball into the place of near-death. Despite her reluctance to consider the traumatic aspects of our childhood adventure, something returns to hint at a different story. But it seems that both of us are denying something.
Let me return to the Tory Power Stance.
Freud would have argued that a ‘display of power’ is more than it seems.
The fact that the Power Stance has been ridiculed in many sections of the press shows how vulnerable such displays can be. Think of the great Charcot, whose image hangs above Freud’s couch, demonstrating his almost god-like power over his unfortunate patients. As my former colleague Gwion Jones would often observe, it took only one of them to say ‘no, I won’t be hypnotised today’ for his power to be revealed as the chimerical display it actually was. Such is the charade of masculinity in the public arena, and the dangers it skirts.
The separation of the legs reveals the element of multiplication that Freud interprets as an energetic denial of the threat of castration, while the statuesque pose masks the underlying self-consciousness and fearfulness that was experienced by me all those years ago on the beach.
In the 30+ years I have been working at the Freud Museum I have followed Freud in using aspects of my own life in my pedagogical practice. I wanted students to understand that psychoanalysis offers a different way of thinking in which the thinking person is implicated in the thinking process. Strangely enough I hardly ever used stories from my childhood in this endeavour, as Freud often did. I hope this paper has redressed the balance to some extent, as well as showing that the so-called Tory Power Stance, far from being a posture depicting authority and control, is actually a defensive masquerade, displaying a postural articulation of the ‘fragile phallus‘.