Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Amor Matris": Mother and Self in the Telemachiad Episode of Ulysses

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Amor Matris": Mother and Self in the Telemachiad Episode of Ulysses

Article excerpt

In the Telemachiad episodes of James Joyce's Ulysses we first encounter in microcosm Stephen Dedalus's search for identity - a search which will color the entire narrative. At the heart of it is Stephen's relationship with his mother, both the real mother who nurtured him and is now dead, and an imagined symbolic mother who is a product of Stephen's fearful and anxious consciousness. Stephen desperately needs these two mothers to define him; his self hood derives simultaneously from the unconditional affirmation which his real mother gave him and from his active struggle against all that the imagined mother stands for - an all-encompassing fertility linked with nature which signals death to Stephen.

What these two mothers have in common is their lack of subjecthood in Stephen's perception - that is, the real mother is forbidden to be anything more than what Stephen wishes her to be, and the imagined mother is nothing more than an object of Stephen's fears. Only by silencing and objectifying the mother can Stephen satisfy his infantile craving for oneness and his adult need for autonomy. This allows Stephen to enter the established paternal order which demands the repression and domination of the mother. But Stephen remains haunted by the memory of his mother's self hood, represented by her death and the revelation its graphic and grotesque memory forces on him. He is torn between the need for the mother and the desire to imitate the father; however, the nagging reminders of the mother's subjecthood revealed in the Telemachiad continually undercut Stephen's attempts to participate wholly in the paternal order. Consequently, Ulysses as a whole illustrates the tension between the law of the father and the self hood of the mother, and this tension will by the end point toward the potential for a new sense of self.

Stephen's need for his mother is established throughout A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and continues into Ulysses. In A Portrait Stephen sees himself as weak and timid in childhood, longing for his mother to protect him from what Suzette Henke calls "the brutal male environment" of school life (84).(1) The affinity between weak child and nurturing mother is echoed in the appearance of Cyril Sargent in the "Nestor" episode of Ulysses, a boy in whom Stephen recognizes his childhood self: "Like him was I, these sloping shoulders, this gracelessness. My childhood bends beside me" (2.168-69). Even Stephen's rebellion at the end of A Portrait is not so much to break away from his mother as to test her nurturing powers and push her love to the limits. As Richard Ellmann points out, "when [Stephen] rebels he hastens to let [others] know of his rebellion so that he can measure their response to it" (292). This need for a response indicates that Stephen's conflict goes beyond what Jeanne McKnight refers to as "the infantile conflict between the desire to remain an undifferentiated part of the mother and the developmental wish to be separate and free" (422). His conflict stems from this need for differentiation; however, it centers not so much on his own struggle between nurturance and autonomy as on his perception of his mother, another basic element of differentiation.

In psychoanalytic terms, successful differentiation relies not only on a perception of subjective otherness (simply recognizing physical difference) but also on what Nancy Chodorow calls "the ability to experience and perceive the object/other (the mother) in aspects apart from its sole relation to the ability to gratify the infant's/subject's needs and wants; [it involves] seeing the object as separate from the self and from the self's needs." This process, according to Chodorow, means "according the mother her own selfhood" (7). But because perception of the mother is grounded in pre-Oedipal infantile sensations, this process is

often resisted and experienced only conflictually and partially. Throughout life, perceptions of the mother fluctuate between perceiving her particularity and self hood and perceiving her as a narcissistic extension, a not-separate other whose sole reason for existence is to gratify one's own wants and needs. …

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