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Oedipus Schmoedipus

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On a visit to the ladies’ lavatories in Ealing Art School in the 1960s, I overheard two girls from the Fashion department describing their ideal chap.

‘I like him’, said one, ‘because he’s manly without being brutal.’ They both agreed that this was as near perfection as one might reasonably expect to find. Fashion girls were much sneered at by us proper artists in Fine Arts, but in this case we thought them spot on. Boys were different from girls and not often up to scratch. We had a brutal one in the Art School. He lurched about the corridors searching for our friend Ingrid, and then he bashed her up. So ‘manly’ was comparatively acceptable and our expectations were limited.

Nothing much changed when we grew up. We thought New Man rather a washout. He hoovered, looked after babies, often wore a bobble-hat in winter, grew a beard and was sensitive, but was he sexy? No. He was a capon. We still preferred manly-without-being-brutal. And manly meant tough – the only alternative available.

So what heaven it was to find a book that explained tough men and why they are still problematic. Eighty years ago Ian Suttie, a Scottish psychiatrist, wrote The Origins of Love and Hate, in which he fiercely criticized Freud’s theories. Freud saw human beings as ‘isolates wrestling with their instincts’, Suttie saw them as dreading isolation, ‘striving from the first to relate to [the] mother, and [their] future mental health turning on the success or failure of this first relationship’. Love was social rather than sexual in its biological function, thought Suttie, and was derived from a ‘self-preservation instinct rather than the genital appetite’.

This was a brave position to take at the time. People were thrilled by Freud’s ideas on the subconscious, involving aggression, death, fathers, sex, sex, sex, and the penis as star of the show. Then along comes Suttie suggesting that mothers are supremely important and the infa

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On a visit to the ladies’ lavatories in Ealing Art School in the 1960s, I overheard two girls from the Fashion department describing their ideal chap.

‘I like him’, said one, ‘because he’s manly without being brutal.’ They both agreed that this was as near perfection as one might reasonably expect to find. Fashion girls were much sneered at by us proper artists in Fine Arts, but in this case we thought them spot on. Boys were different from girls and not often up to scratch. We had a brutal one in the Art School. He lurched about the corridors searching for our friend Ingrid, and then he bashed her up. So ‘manly’ was comparatively acceptable and our expectations were limited. Nothing much changed when we grew up. We thought New Man rather a washout. He hoovered, looked after babies, often wore a bobble-hat in winter, grew a beard and was sensitive, but was he sexy? No. He was a capon. We still preferred manly-without-being-brutal. And manly meant tough – the only alternative available. So what heaven it was to find a book that explained tough men and why they are still problematic. Eighty years ago Ian Suttie, a Scottish psychiatrist, wrote The Origins of Love and Hate, in which he fiercely criticized Freud’s theories. Freud saw human beings as ‘isolates wrestling with their instincts’, Suttie saw them as dreading isolation, ‘striving from the first to relate to [the] mother, and [their] future mental health turning on the success or failure of this first relationship’. Love was social rather than sexual in its biological function, thought Suttie, and was derived from a ‘self-preservation instinct rather than the genital appetite’. This was a brave position to take at the time. People were thrilled by Freud’s ideas on the subconscious, involving aggression, death, fathers, sex, sex, sex, and the penis as star of the show. Then along comes Suttie suggesting that mothers are supremely important and the infant’s goal in life is to retain its mother. It seeks attachment and self-preservation and without them it is in trouble. Our big problem, Suttie concluded, was not sexual repression but tenderness repression. Women, girls, babies and fluffy pets were allowed to express tenderness, men were not. Boys had to stop being soppy cry-babies pretty sharpish, grow up and be tough men. Suttie found it ‘incredible that so harmless and amiable an emotion as tenderness, the very stuff of sociability, should itself come under a taboo’, especially between men. But the evidence is still there if one cares to look. What are those gangs of boys, men’s clubs, bands of brothers, Masons and footer teams but ‘juvenile outcasts from the nursery’? The gang is their replacement Mummy, from whom they have been wrenched too soon. Of course we are meant to know better now, but the tenderness taboo seems to linger on. Gangs still flourish. Suttie suggested that the tough, aggressive, hard fellows that we still see about in abundance are just ‘taking revenge upon’ and repudiating their weaning mother, in a defensive ‘sour-grapes’ sort of way. They cannot bear even the slightest reminder of that first infant comfort and security that they have lost, so anything infantile, gentle, sentimental, naïve or emotional becomes taboo. This all sounds pretty convincing to me. Imagine those poor men, longing for that baby time back that they never had enough of, and having to pretend they don’t care. This produces a ‘hardness and cynicism’ in some fellows, with ‘a core of anxious, angry infantility’. I have met several. I suspect there are dozens in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Notice how they like to keep girls out of there, except in the form of strict Nanny. If only they had read their Suttie. He was right all along, but we were too busy pandering to Freud. Hardly anyone seems to have heard of Suttie now. I mention his name and most people look blank, perhaps because he died young, at 43, two years before this book was first published. Luckily not everyone forgot about him. Bowlby agreed with Suttie’s ideas. So did the Hungarian analysts Sandor Ferenczi, Imre Hermann and Alice and Michael Balint in the 1930s, Melanie Klein (to a degree) and Donald Winnicott. Suttie’s ideas have ‘smouldered on’, according to Bowlby. It looks as if they may be about to burst into flame. I’m reading my newspaper in March 2004 and find that people are at last catching on. Studies in the US of pigs’ behaviour show that ‘they crave affection and are depressed if isolated or denied play’. Better still, in 2000 Dr Sebastian Kraemer, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Tavistock Clinic, ‘claimed that parents need to show more affection to baby boys. Lack of affection could result in depression or suicide.’ And now I read that Alain de Botton, favourite young philosopher person de nos jours, has been writing about something called Status Anxiety. His theories sound suspiciously Suttie-like to me, watered down and not half as good. Status appears to be a bizarre twenty-first-century name for affection. De Botton twiddle-diddles around via status, respect, concern and attention until he arrives at more or less the same conclusion – that we desperately need people to care about us. De Botton relates ghastly tales of experiments by some fellow called Spitz, who discovered that children kept in solitary confinement in an orphanage didn’t do nearly so well as children with a loving mother. Heavens, who would have thought it? And still in the Department of the Bleeding Obvious, US experiments have discovered that baby Rhesus monkeys left alone with a dummy aren’t as cheery as those with a real mummy. What a pity these persons didn’t just read Suttie and give their ghastly experiments a miss. Not that Suttie was perfect. He suggests that humans are the only species to experience anxiety. Wrong, I’m afraid. My dog gets very anxious. Its fur stands on end and it hides under the table, but let’s not be picky. Here is a man who was ahead of his times, whose writing was clear, comprehensible and, more often than not, spot on. So here is our chance to catch up, forget Freud, buy this book and give Suttie the audience he deserves. Because we still need his insight. My friend Dorothy dreams of the perfect man for her: a heavy metal guitarist who will suddenly play a romantic ballad, or a truck-driver who drives eighteen-wheel monster vehicles but suddenly puts up your shelves and gives you a teddy. She wants tough and tender in the one person, but she hasn’t found it yet. She must read this book and find out why.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 2 © Michele Hanson 2004


About the contributor

Michele Hanson was never keen on Freud and never quite understood men, but she was very fond of dogs.

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