October 25, 2020

1. The Sons of Jocasta

The above work was created by Michelangelo when he was 15 years old. It’s called Madonna of the Stairs (Madonna della Scala). Do you notice anything about the mother’s attitude toward her child?

The work below was created when Michelangelo was about 27. It’s called the Pitti Madonna (or Pitti Tondo). Does this Madonna’s attitude toward her child resemble that of the Madonna of the Stairs?

The work below was also created when Michelangelo was about 27. It’s called the Bruges Madonna.

In all three of these images, the mother seems cold and distant. As Wikipedia says of the Bruges Madonna,

Michelangelo’s depiction of the Madonna and Child differs significantly from earlier representations of the same subject, which tended to feature a pious Virgin smiling down on an infant held in her arms. Instead, Jesus stands upright, almost unsupported, only loosely restrained by Mary’s left hand, and appears to be about to step away from his mother. Meanwhile, Mary does not cling to her son or even look at him, but gazes down and away.

By way of contrast, let’s look at a Madonna and Child by Filippo Lippi:

Why are Michelangelo’s Madonnas cold and distant? A writer named Matthew Besdine attempted to answer this question in an essay called “The Jocasta Complex, Mothering and Genius” (1968).1 In Greek mythology, Jocasta is the mother of Oedipus, and later becomes the wife of Oedipus, and has children with him.

One might suppose that Michelangelo’s Madonnas are cold and distant because Michelangelo’s own mother was cold and distant. But Besdine says that Michelangelo is an example of “Jocasta mothering,” that is, a close, perhaps too close relationship between mother and child. Besdine says that Jocasta mothering is frequently found in the lives of geniuses. Besdine’s essay is one of the best essays I’ve read on the psychology of genius, though it isn’t very well-written.

Besdine says that, as a result of Jocasta mothering, the boy feels swallowed by the mother’s love, and has difficulty becoming independent. The boy’s feeling for his mother is ambivalent — a mix of love and hate — and the boy later feels ambivalent toward women in general. Besdine summarizes his argument by saying that geniuses have a

fear of love, an underlying sense of guilt, strong masochistic tendencies, a significant homosexual component, paranoid trends, extraordinary egocentricity, exorbitant striving for recognition, and overall narcissism. Jocasta mothering appears to play a significant part in the germination of genius.2

The Jocasta household, Besdine writes, has “a strong, dominating, overprotective, intense mother and an absent, weak, inept or gentle father with little authority in the home.” One of Thoreau’s biographers wrote, “John Thoreau, the father, was a quiet, gentle man.... John’s wife, Cynthia, was, on the other hand, a bustling, strong-minded woman.”3 Like Michelangelo, Thoreau was cool toward women, never married, and probably never had a sexual relationship with a woman.

Jocasta mothering means a merger between mother and child, a lack of boundary between mother and child. Perhaps this gives the genius an ability to abandon himself, abandon the ego, and immerse himself in the artistic work, even immerse himself in the world as a whole, perhaps even have a love for the world as a whole.4

Besdine says that, while Michelangelo’s Madonnas are generally cold and distant, Michelangelo created one work, Pietà, that has a warmer Madonna.

“With what infinite tenderness,” Besdine writes, “Mary holds her dead son in her lap! How lovingly and tenderly she looks upon the crucified Jesus!” Besdine says that people sometimes dream about their own death, their own funeral, and how they will be lamented. “‘If I were dead, then you would miss me and love me.’ So it is in the Pietà. In death, Michelangelo permits the mother to offer all the tenderness, love and affection that he apprehensively feared to receive in life.” In death, the artist is no longer struggling to become independent, struggling to break away from the mother. In death, the relationship between mother and son is purged of ambivalent feelings; a feeling of pure, unmixed love prevails.

Michelangelo was cool toward women, but he had passionate relationships with men, especially a younger man named Tommaso Cavalieri. Michelangelo wrote sonnets that express his love for Tommaso. His relationship with Tommaso repeats his earlier relationship with his mother:

The artist loses his identity and lives a symbiotic, satellite existence in a fused state, without any sense of self-differentiation, even as he first experienced a total state of dependence and fusion with the symbiotic mother in infancy and childhood.

In the work below, Michelangelo depicts himself crushed by Tommaso; the sculpture is called The Genius of Victory.

This sculpture, Besdine says,

repeats the theme of being conquered and crushed in love. The youthful victor is a cavalier, standing astride an old, bearded man. Close examination of his features reveals Michelangelo in self-portrait, the man with the broken nose [when Michelangelo was a young student, his nose was broken in a fight with a fellow student]. Here we have a psychic portrayal by Michelangelo at age fifty-nine, a prey to beautiful young men, especially Cavalieri, the armed knight. His guilt, masochistic punishment and inevitable destruction overwhelm the artist.

Besdine is uncertain “whether or not [Michelangelo’s] homosexuality took an overt form or somehow remained latent.”5 (Scholars have also wondered whether Whitman’s homosexuality was overt or latent. Besdine lists Whitman among the sons of Jocasta.6)

As Michelangelo was ambivalent toward the mother, so too he was ambivalent toward Tommaso. “The attraction and repulsion Michelangelo felt for Tommaso is again derived from the symbiotic mother. The embattlements and struggles for individuation and self-differentiation are also present with the consequent frustration.” I’m reminded of Proust, who felt that only the beloved’s death would set him free. Proust felt that he was imprisoned by his love, and he built a prison for his beloved; one of his novels is called La Prisonnière. Besdine speaks of the “agony and ecstasy” of Michelangelo’s love for Tommaso; a son of Jocasta fears love, and struggles to build ego boundaries.

In the first year of the child’s life, Jocasta mothering leads to deep love and total intimacy. But when the time comes for separation and independence, the “Jocasta Complex” is felt as “a poisonous state of bondage,” and leads to ambivalent feelings. Besdine writes, “A male patient, in a dream, was offered candy by his mother and could not take it as it was poisoned. In real life he could not accept the love of any woman.” Proust exemplifies many aspects of Jocasta mothering, especially the ambivalence it produces. When he depicts Mlle. Vinteuil spitting on a photo of her father, Proust is revealing his own ambivalent feelings toward his mother. Like Thoreau, Proust usually lived with his mother, and had difficulty setting up an independent home.

When the young Michelangelo could choose a subject to depict, he often chose Hercules. Besdine says that Michelangelo had a “Hercules Complex.” Hercules killed his wife and children, then undertook Twelve Labors to expiate his crime. Hercules reflected Michelangelo’s own feelings of guilt and masochism.

Besdine notes masochistic tendencies in the French novelist Balzac. Balzac put himself into debt with wild investments, then wrote furiously to pay off his debts. “Balzac constantly besieged himself with burdensome tasks. In his novels, his heroes similarly undertook interminable and insoluble obligations.”7

Balzac’s Louis Lambert reflects Balzac’s own fear of love and marriage. “His hero goes completely mad on the evening before his marriage, is seized with terror, falls into a state of deep depression, feels himself impotent and dies at age twenty-eight in the arms of his fiancé.” If a son of Jocasta does have a relationship with a woman, it’s often with an older woman (as in the case of Balzac), or with a woman from a lower class (as in the case of Heine).8

In Michelangelo’s works, the men are more beautiful, more attractive, than the women. Besdine writes,

The eroticism present in Michelangelo’s male nudes is basically absent in his asexual female figures. A bisexual patient, struggling to get married and “go straight,” disposed of his copy of the paintings on the Sistine ceiling. The ignudi were too erotic and seductive. They had been his “pin-up girls” in the past.

In Michelangelo’s Battle of the Centaurs, male bodies are the focus, and the woman who is the cause of the battle is nowhere to be seen:

When Rubens depicted the battle of the centaurs, he put the female figure (Hippodamia, also called Dianera) at the center of the painting:

Once you see the significance of Jocasta mothering for the development of genius, you find examples everywhere. For example, I happened to glance at Wikipedia’s article on H. P. Lovecraft, the writer of horror fiction. “According to the accounts of family friends, [Lovecraft’s mother] doted on the young Lovecraft to a fault, pampering him and never letting him out of her sight.” From the time Lovecraft was 3, his father was absent (he was committed to a mental hospital, then died).

And when I looked at Wikipedia’s article on Jack Kerouac, I found this: “He was a serious child who was devoted to his mother, who played an important role in his life.... Kerouac would later say that his mother was the only woman he ever loved.” Like Goethe, Kerouac had a brother who died in childhood, tightening the bond between Kerouac and his mother.

I also looked at the Wikipedia article on Byron. Again we find an absent father, again we find homosexual tendencies. We also find a close relationship with animals. Does the son of Jocasta merge with the animal, dropping his ego boundaries, as he once merged with the mother? One thinks of Thoreau’s close relationship with animals. Hitler, as a young man, befriended the mice in his room; as a soldier in World War I, Hitler befriended a dog he found in the trenches; at the end of his life, Hitler was close to a German Shepherd named Blondi, who slept with him in his bunker.

Even before I heard of Jocasta mothering, I discussed Hitler’s close relationship with his mother:

Hitler feared and disliked his father.... Hitler was profoundly, unusually devoted to his mother.... Doubtless Hitler’s devotion was matched by, and caused by, his mother’s devotion to him.... Such a bond is less likely if the mother has other children.... During Hitler’s first five years, he was his mother’s only child, and his sickliness brought him even closer to his mother.

Does the son of Jocasta show total intimacy with an animal? And does the animal who receives that total intimacy, that Jocasta parenting, become in turn a son of Jocasta? In other words, is an animal’s development boosted by Jocasta parenting, as a human’s is? “It would be of interest to note,” Besdine writes, “if this process can be duplicated in animals by designing an experiment with exclusive nurturing and comparing performance with a control group that does not have exclusive nurturing.”9

Besdine compares the Jocasta parent to a gardener growing a prize flower:

The exclusive, favored position of one child with an affect-hungry mother, pouring out her love and cultivating only the one offspring, resembles the debudding process of gardeners in growing prize flowers. All the lateral buds are snipped off and only the bud attached to the central stem receives the totality of nourishment and cultivation. The favored child and bud both develop most spectacularly.10

The best description of Jocasta mothering, according to Besdine, is Sartre’s autobiography, The Words. Sartre had little contact with his father, who died when Sartre was 2. Sartre and his mother shared a bedroom, and he promised to marry her when he grew up. “Sartre describes his sex as ‘indeterminate,’ like that of angels, but somewhat feminine.”11 Besdine says that Sartre’s autobiography is “not only a literary masterpiece, but a revealing psychological document.”

Besdine says that Jocasta mothering is a factor in female genius as well as male genius. He says that Violette Leduc, Simone de Beauvoir, Florence Nightingale, Madame de Staël, George Sand, and Sarah Bernhardt are all female geniuses who exemplify “Jocasta mothering, masochism, [and] narcissism.”12 Besdine mentions Violette Leduc’s autobiography, La Bâtarde, which describes how “an illegitimate female infant grows up with a lonely mother and grandmother.”

How does Jocasta mothering actually work? More than thirty years ago, I wrote that intelligence is conspicuous in the mother of the genius. Besdine speaks of “the mother’s sensitivity to her child’s cues and signals [and] her capacity to interact in original, creative responses.”13 Besdine says, “The creative brilliance of Goethe’s mother, the aliveness, deep interest and consistent drive of Heine’s mother and of Freud’s mother made them outstanding people in their own right.” The mother stimulates the infant’s mind and senses. The infant, knowing he’s being watched closely, tries to please the mother. “A heightened drive to create, to perform, and to be admired results.... The character structure is geared to achievement and scaling the heights.”14

2. Trump vs. Biden

Trump is still acting Trumpy — still re-tweeting wild theories, still showing a complete disregard for truth. His goal is not to learn the truth or impart the truth, but rather to shape public opinion. For example, he doesn’t seem to care whether Obama was born in the U.S. or not, but he wanted people to believe that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. In other words, Trump cares about what people believe, and he’s indifferent to what is actually true. This indifference to truth is obviously a bad trait in anyone, and for the President to have this trait is a sad state of affairs.15

On the other hand, liberals support Political Correctness, which warps truth as much as Trump’s attitude. As Bret Stephens wrote recently in the New York Times, American journalists are “trained in the art of never saying what they really think.” We have “a generation of writers weighing their every word for fear that a wrong one could wreck their professional lives.... It is as deadly an enemy of writing as has ever been devised.”

Biden doesn’t circulate the wild theories that Trump circulates. On the other hand, Trump doesn’t strengthen the forces of Political Correctness. So as bad as Trump is, his foes are just as bad, maybe worse. A liberal is one who focuses on Trump’s flaws, and ignores Biden’s. A conservative is one who focuses on Biden’s flaws, and ignores Trump’s. So if you talk to a liberal, you’ll hear a lot about Trump, and if you talk to a conservative, you’ll hear a lot about Biden & Co. Is the glass half full or half empty? It all depends on how you look at it.

In my view, Trump deserves to be criticized for his attitude toward the environment and climate change. He’s eager to gain a tiny fraction of GDP, and doesn’t care about the long-term consequences to the environment. He says “America First,” and doesn’t try to be a responsible member of the world community. His attitude is, “Let posterity deal with this problem, let other countries deal with this problem, I’m not going to work on it, I’ll just dismiss climate change as fake news, fake science.”

But are the Democrats any better? They’re proposing to erase the college loans of middle-income and lower-income people. This would send the message, “If you work hard, save your money, and pay your debts, you’re a fool.” Government should encourage people to be responsible, not to look to politicians for support.

Imagine how angry you’d be if you were a carpenter or plumber, and you saw your tax dollars going to people who attended college, but didn’t want to pay for it! Not surprisingly, most carpenters and plumbers vote Republican. They’re angry at Democrats for giving away their hard-earned tax dollars, for buying votes with their tax dollars.

If college loans are erased, who would want to make such loans in the future, and who would want to pay such loans in the future? Democratic policies are as short-sighted and irresponsible as Trump’s policies.

Trump is terrible, but the Democrats aren’t a bit better. This is my Carthago delenda est.

* * * * *

Is the U.S. a democracy? Some liberals, like Ezra Klein of Vox, complain that the U.S. isn’t democratic, that Republicans can control the White House, the Senate, and the Supreme Court without the support of the majority. Klein says that the current system is skewed toward Republicans, it favors rural states where Republicans are in a majority.

Klein and other liberals overlook the fact that the Founders didn’t want the U.S. to be a democracy, the Constitution tries to reduce the power of the majority, and protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. Klein also overlooks the fact that the Framers intended many government functions to be performed at the state and local level; for Klein and other liberals, government means the federal government. Do liberals respect the Founders and the Constitution, or would they prefer a new system? Liberals want SupremeCourt justices who give them the results they desire, regardless of the words of the Constitution, regardless of the intention of the Framers.

Klein and other liberals like the idea of packing the Supreme Court — if it’s packed by liberals. But what if conservatives regain power and re-pack the Court? To prevent this, liberals want to re-structure the system — by creating states, abolishing the filibuster, abolishing the Electoral College, etc. — so conservatives can’t regain power for at least a generation. Klein quotes Ganesh Sitaraman, who says that some liberals

fear that more hardball will simply unleash a never-ending tit-for-tat process.... This view assumes that neither side can win outright. But this assumption might be wrong. Shortly after Lincoln declared that a “house divided against itself cannot stand,” he added, “It will become all one thing or all the other.”

So liberals are tired of sharing power, they want all power, and they want it in perpetuity. They blithely assume that, while Lincoln paid a very high price to make the country “all one thing,” they can make it all one thing without paying any price, conservatives will meekly walk into the grave that liberals have dug for them.

And liberals criticize Trump for dividing the country!

© L. James Hammond 2020
visit Phlit home page
become a patron via Patreon
make a donation via PayPal

1. Psychoanalytic Review (this is a 2-part article, both parts are in volume 55, both were published in 1968; part one is pages 259-277, part two is pages 574-600). Besdine also wrote a book called The Unknown Michelangelo.

Oddly enough, Besdine says little about Michelangelo’s relationship with his mother. Michelangelo was raised, at least partly, by a foster-mother, as was Balzac. So the role of Jocasta may have been played by a woman who wasn’t the biological mother.

Balzac apparently complained about ill-treatment by both his mother and his foster-mother, so in his case, it’s unclear who played the Jocasta role. According to Wikipedia, “[Balzac’s] 1835 novel Le Lys dans la vallée features a cruel governess named Miss Caroline, modeled after his own caregiver.” Besdine says that Balzac “spent the first four years of his life with his nurse and the next three years was boarded out to strangers.”(p. 584) So it’s possible that he experienced both a devoted Jocasta mother-figure, and a cruel mother-figure, neither of whom was his biological mother.

As intensive mothering (Jocasta mothering) boosts development/intelligence, so a deficiency of mothering impedes development/intelligence. Besdine speaks of “Mental retardation, and dramatic depression of the I.Q. caused by affect hunger in children have been noted.... This depressing or elevating of intelligence by controlling the emotional surroundings is a significant piece of evidence related to child development.”(p. 590)

The importance of the mother is central to Besdine’s argument. He summarizes his argument thus: “In view of the mother’s early role as first teacher and inspiration in the learning, maturation and development of her child, is it surprising that the mothering process could play a significant role in the development of genius?”(p. 591) back

2. p. 597 back
3. Henry David Thoreau, by J. W. Krutch, Ch. 2 back
4. Besdine says, “Symbiotic fusion is essential in love. Mature love requires the capacity to establish symbiotic states and return to one’s ego boundaries.”(p. 593) Fusion is also important in psychotherapy; Besdine speaks of, “the necessity for the therapist to form a symbiotic interaction with the psychotic child.” In sum, it’s important for an adult to be able to drop ego boundaries, and fuse with another person, or with an ideal, or perhaps even with the world as a whole. Conversely, it’s important for an adolescent to establish ego boundaries, and become independent.

Some women may lack the capacity to fuse with their child, perhaps because they didn’t experience this fusion with their own mother.(see p. 593) back

5. p. 260 back
6. p. 589 back
7. Besdine, p. 585 back
8. “The first important love of Balzac’s life,” Besdine writes, “was with his mother’s friend, Madame de Berny, a woman twice his age.” Later, Balzac was in love with another older woman, the Duchesse d’Abrantes. As for Heine, Besdine says that “like Goethe, [Heine] married a young woman of an inferior class.” Heine’s ambivalent feelings about love are apparent in his poem about the Lorelei who attracts and destroys. Goethe’s ambivalent feelings are apparent in his recurrent nightmare in which love is represented as a suffocating sack.(Besdine, p. 271) Like Balzac, Goethe loved an older woman; “at twenty-six, Goethe became attached to the most important woman of his adult life, Charlotte von Stein, an older woman. She was married, had children, and was perfectly safe.”(Besdine, p. 581) For a son of Jocasta, the more suitable the woman, the more fear of love/marriage.

Besdine says that Goethe’s father was much older than his mother, so there was a psychic distance between husband and wife, prompting the wife to turn to Goethe, her oldest child, for emotional satisfaction.

Besdine says, “It was not till the very end of his life that [Balzac] could marry Madame Hanska. This troubled relationship with women approximates Goethe’s and Heine’s difficulties in getting married.”(p. 585) I’m reminded of Hitler, who married shortly before his death.

In an earlier issue, I wrote, “The Jewish poet Heine never had a Jewish girlfriend, perhaps because Jewish women were associated in his mind with his mother and sister; all his girlfriends were from a different ethnic group.”

In an earlier issue, I noted that “Many intellectuals have relationships with older women: Thomas Wolfe (his girlfriend Aline was 20 years older than he was), Hemingway (his first wife, Hadley, was 8 years older), D. H. Lawrence (his wife Frieda was 6 years older, and was married with three children when they met), Robert Louis Stevenson (his wife Fanny was 10 years older), Robert Musil (his wife Martha was 7 years older), Raymond Chandler (his wife Cissy was 18 years older), Pablo Neruda (his second wife, Delia, was 20 years older), Erwin Panofsky (his first wife, Dora, was 8 years older), Samuel Johnson (his wife Tetty was 20 years older), etc.”

I learned about Besdine’s essay while reading about Somerset Maugham (Besdine mentions Maugham briefly). My own writings on genius anticipate Besdine’s argument in various ways, so it was easy for me to understand and accept Besdine’s argument. Click here for Part 1 of Besdine’s essay, here for Part 2. back

9. p. 595, footnote back
10. pp. 594, 595 back
11. Besdine, p. 589. One wonders if Sartre, as an adolescent, looked for a father-figure, perhaps in the world around him, perhaps in the annals of history and literature. Besdine says that some of the sons of Jocasta “upon coming of age do not go out to look for a woman, but go through life searching for a father.”(p. 274)

Besdine says that Gide and Proust both had “an aloof father, busy with his career.”(p. 272) back

12. p. 589. Homosexuality, while common among famous male writers, seems even more common among famous female writers. back
13. p. 594. Besdine writes, “The emotional climate of the mother interacts with the affect of the infant in a creative, mutual experience which stimulates the infant to ever new and more involved experiences and responses.... ‘Her love and affection for her child make him an object of endless interest for her; and out of this unflagging interest she offers him an ever-renewed, rich, and varied gamut, a whole world of vital experiences.’ The extremely responsive infant and child similarly stimulate the mother to ever-renewed and more inspiring creative responses in the escalating lovers’ dialogue between them.... Action and interaction of this kind in an endless chain appears to be a necessary experience for the development of genius.”(p. 591) back
14. p. 596. Does telepathy occur more often with the sons of Jocasta, who were raised with total intimacy, an absence of ego boundaries? In a recent issue, I discussed telepathy in connection with James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Dostoyevsky. back
15. In an earlier issue, I discussed “fake news,” and I said that “The phrase ‘fake news’ implies that there’s ‘real news.’ But there isn’t a clear line between fake news and real news. Truth is often stranger than fiction, theories that seem wild are sometimes true, widely-accepted truths are sometimes false.” Even the most reputable institutions, like the New York Times and Harvard University and Encyclopedia Britannica, cling to theories that I would call “fake” and false. I discussed such theories in an earlier issue, and ended by asking, “Can man reach truth? Does he want to reach truth?” back