Anima and Animus: Desire and ProhibitionStephen Farah
Speaking frankly, I think it is accurate to say the Jungian discourse on the anima and animus is currently in a state of some disarray. By saying that, I am not claiming that no one has or is working on its remedy. Respected scholars in the field, and just to name a few I have some personal association with, such as Polly-Young Eisendrath, John Beebe, Susan Rowland, and Andrew Samuels, among many others, have written on it. Each in their own way attempting to rehabilitate it, or to speak even more frankly, let’s say simply, to save the idea, within the insanely challenging broader discourse on contemporary gender identity, queer theory, and the ascendance of a non-essentialist characterisation of gender. What I am saying is that these attempts at remedy have only been partially successful, and the current state of play on gender identity means this is a moving target.
The current discourse on gender is obviously challenging on many levels, not least psychoanalytic theory that has the classical gender binary as a keystone of its theoretical structure, and upsets all the classically established and normative views, stereotypes, and even, arguably, archetypes on gender identity. Although whether it actually upsets the archetypal model or not is a bigger question, and to claim that it does begs the question this post, along with others writing in this field, is attempting to address. To put this another way, the question is: does the archetype of gender transcend the cultural stereotype? Theoretically, if archetypal theory is correct, then it should. Gender both biological and symbolic should have a certain essential a priori character linked to it.
I will approach this question somewhat obliquely in this post, by focussing on the symbolic and psychic dimension, and uncoupling this this from its roots in biological gender. This, as far as I can tell, is the most successful strategy currently employed by scholars in the field on this question. I will also focus on only a single dimension of the symbolic character of the anima and animus, but one I think is an interesting, and, I hope, valuable way of reflecting on and possibly re-imagining the anima-animus binary structure. I wish to make the argument and provide as single instance where I claim the archetypal character of the ideas transcends the current discourse on gender identity.
What I want to explore is a way of thinking about the anima as carrying within its archetypal impulse, desire, and its archetypal partner, the animus, prohibition. The impulse of desire and its injunction or prohibition is a central theme of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis; and, here too, it is linked to gender. The classical Freudian Oedipal model being the desire for the mother and the prohibition of this desire, or its object: the mother, by the father. Desire and its identification are also central to the Lacanian psychodynamic approach.
Going forward, to reiterate what I have already said, when I speak of the “feminine” and “masculine” in the context of this essay, it is in reference to them symbolically and mythologically, I am not intending to erase or overlook non-essentialist models of gender identity in the empirical world. That qualification made, let me proceed.
The symbolic feminine, or the anima, carries within herself a different relationship to desire than her masculine counterpart or animus. So much does this seem to be the case, that I claim desire is the sole province of the feminine, and following that logic, that prohibition is the province of the masculine. This proposition seen in parallel with other psychoanalytic models of the psychic structure is worth considering. A comparative binary model looks like this:
It is worth emphasising again that the model above is not intended as a description of literal and actual women and men, but of the symbolic feminine and masculine, and this applies, or so psychoanalysis suggests, whether these are essentially properties of the anima and animus or products of culture. To put this another way, this applies whether we speak of “the archetype” or more modestly of that which is “archetypal”.
Furthermore, it is essential to point out that these two dimensions of being or soul exist in both women and men. Obviously, as we are all aware, there has been a historical and stereotypical linking of women to the feminine principle and men to the masculine. That said, as psychoanalysis demonstrates and as we experience, this stereotype is often inverted in practice, where women will demonstrate these classically masculine characteristics and men the feminine. What we most often encounter, which is consistent with the claim of these symbolic genders being biologically agnostic, is that most people demonstrate a mix of both, usually with an emphasis of one at the expense of the other.
What is the nature of this feminine desire?
As far as I can tell, it has no specific object. In a sense that is what defines it. It is not something that can ever be permanently fulfilled. At most, desire may be fulfilled for a brief time, and even then, its questionable whether it is being met. A better way of putting it may be to say, desire can lead to experiences of fulfilment and, even, on occasion, joy. Whatever the case though, desire soon reasserts itself in search of another object or objet petit a (the unobtainable object cause of desire). This may be the reason Freud said once to Marie Bonaparte: ‘The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is “What does a woman want?” Lacan characterised the issue of feminine desire by saying that absence itself, i.e., the absence of the desired object is itself the source of jouissance or “enjoyment” to somewhat crudely translate the term.
I think this is true, and with a little reflection we can all attest to it. It is far less the realisation of a desire that brings pleasure than its pursuit. My late teacher the Duke de Chatillon was fond of reciting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 that captures the elusive character of desire rather well.
Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
The pleasure or joy of desire is what it produces in the subject in the act of desiring, in contrast to the realisation of its object. That is not to say that obtaining or realising the object cause of desire is not without value, it may or may not be. Some desires are naturally more meritorious and intrinsically valuable than others. What is intrinsically valuable about desire besides its affect, the enjoyment or jouissance it produces, is that it is a spur to action. It motivates the subject to act. It is an impulse to interrupt and disrupt an otherwise passive state. Desire’s keen ambition is the keystone of achievement.
This idea that it aims beyond itself and draws the soul on is captured by Socrates,
The name himeros (longing) was given to the stream (rhous) which most draws the soul; for because it flows with a rush (hiemenos) and with a desire for things and thus draws the soul on through the impulse of its flowing, all this power gives it the name of himeros. And the word pothos (yearning) signifies that it pertains not to that which is present, but to that which is elsewhere (allothi pou) or absent, and therefore the same feeling which is called himeros when its object is present, is called pothos when it is absent.
The potential value of desire acknowledged; we must also recognise that desire is value neutral, at least viewed culturally, ethically, and spiritually. I make this distinction, because if we equate desire with libido (psychic energy) that is, psychically speaking, its equivalent, then we must recognise and acknowledge its intrinsic value biologically and psychologically. We simply couldn’t function in the world without it. However, as we all well know, it is as prone to lead us into temptation of the very worst kind. Desire for excess, for ugliness, for what is harmful or destructive, for what wastes our time and drains our life force, energy, and enterprise in the most ill-conceived pursuits, and down dead-end roads or endless warrens of meaninglessness, is as common, or maybe more common, than desire that leads to something constructive, valuable, beautiful, and ultimately, meaningful.
It is the anima, the female, that carries this desire and the endless longing for its fulfilment. And in the dyadic relationship to the masculine animus, the expectation of its fulfilment by Him. The man as the symbolic possessor of the phallus, rises to meet this female desire. Of course, I’m not claiming here this always (or even ever) literally occurs, i.e., that this female desire is met and satiated by the masculine. Rather it might be better understood as an erotic relational dynamic, a dance of sorts, possibly the Tango, which is after all the most intimate and relational of dances.
The animus, in contrast and in response to this anima desire, brings form, structure, and prohibition.
The animus contains – or in any case attempts to contain, the free form desire of the anima through symbolisation, through language, and ultimately through the law, i.e., through prohibition. The anima wants, the male offers something for her to want and toward which to direct her wanting. The success of this archetypal dynamic is a as variable as the success of erotic relationships, which is to say it varies wildly across an extended spectrum of measure. Whatever its success or failure may be, what remains as long as the anima and animus continue to co-exist and relate in their archetypal forms, is a tension between desire and limit/form/prohibition. If this tension is lost or if either dynamic becomes excessively dominant a loss of vitality, jouissance and the impulse for growth sufferers proportionately.
Learning how to navigate this dynamic intra-psychically and inter-personally is a significant part of what makes the investigation, articulation, and discourse of the Jungian anima and animus invaluable work. And this, I would argue, continues to apply irrespective of the admitted challenges of framing these ideas within the current discourse on gender identity. It is one of the many reasons why this conversation remains so valuable, relevant, and psychologically true, transcending, at least to some extent, the historicization of gender identity.
 Sigmund Freud: Life and Work (Hogarth Press, 1953) by Ernest Jones, Vol. 2, Pt. 3, Ch. 16, p. 421. In a footnote Jones gives the original German, “Was will das Weib?”
 Plato, Cratylus 400d & 419e – 420b (trans. Lamb)