Anima and Animus: Desire and Prohibition

Anima and Animus: Desire and Prohibition

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:


Feminine/anima               masculine/animus

desire                                        prohibition

id                                                superego

unconscious                            conscious

irrational                                  rational

body                                          spirit

instinct                                     archetype


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?”[1] 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.[2]

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.

[1] 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?”

[2] Plato, Cratylus 400d & 419e – 420b (trans. Lamb)

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Comments (17)

  • Brian T Stokes Reply

    This deeply resonates with as-yet-unformed understanding in me. Your insights here are most personally fruitful, and I am grateful.

    October 24, 2022 at 3:37 pm
    • Stephen Farah Reply

      Glad to hear it Brian. Thanks for the feedback.

      October 24, 2022 at 4:52 pm
  • mischa Reply

    The historicity, it seems to me, is in this very limited and generic concept of gender dualism. Internal Family Systems help us understand these internal conflicts through what I find a much more precise, yet open-minded, inquiry. Direct questions are posed rather than beginning with this historically patriarchal lens. What emerges is much more true to the client’s experience. Gender may emerge, but not always. Sometimes what emerges is not even human, or has no form at all, or seems genderless. Symbolism, somatic felt sense, inner dialogue are all important but not confined to an imposed dichotomous categorization that is then deemed mysterious or confusing. In fact, it would seem telling that after 30 years of applying a gender analysis that renders half the human race incomprehensible, Freud (and perhaps Jung after him) might have thought to consider that the issue was with the hypothesis and not with the lack of explicable evidence. What CAN be understood, though, is not imposed assumptions centred on patriarchally-derived gender analysis but the simple question, what is any particular ‘part’ trying to do for or within the system. It is through this open inquiry that it can be understood not what women “want” but what any aspect of any of us, irrespective of gender, intends. I would argue that such an approach would have avoided a great deal of hurt that was perpetrated by Freud and perhaps by psychoanalysis in general.

    October 24, 2022 at 5:23 pm
    • Stephen Farah Reply

      Thank you for your thoughts mischa.

      October 24, 2022 at 5:36 pm
  • Wade Reply

    I very much like the concept of the masculine serving a “containing” function for the formlessness of feminine desire because I normally think of the feminine as the chalice, vessel, or container for the masculine. To consider the masculine as maybe boundary-making in its containing of the feminine through its logos in this way is fascinating. This has given me new insight that is very helpful in a practical sense concerning an anima conflict (as a moral problem) I am currently facing. Thank you!

    October 24, 2022 at 8:42 pm
    • Stephen Farah Reply

      I am pleased you found it useful Wade, and thank you for your feedback.

      October 25, 2022 at 10:23 am
  • Mary Manning Whitaker Reply

    Mischa’s comments resonate with me in particular at this moment. In the past two years, I have blossomed from the feminine longings, desires, and dark dives into a rich caldron of emotions and practices, from painting to playing the Native American flute. After studying Freud, I abandoned him as Carl Jung explained some of the strange dreams (a series of mandalas), and synchronicity, as well as allowing more feelings to appear in life. Freud’s fixation on the patriarchal male has not helped me whatsoever. As we journey through theses symbols and imagery from both male and female within each of us, it feels comforting to express both of them in work, play and life. I feel more whole, and more able to marry both anima and animus within and without.

    October 24, 2022 at 9:23 pm
    • Stephen Farah Reply

      Mary this is wonderful to hear, more strength, love, and grace to you on your foward journey.

      October 25, 2022 at 10:24 am
  • Ewa Reply

    Hi Stephen,
    Thank you for a stimulating essay.
    As a result , I’ve had my own musings…

    The binary list of the anima/animus model makes sense as a comparisons of archetypes, but I wonder if spirit belongs in the animus column? For me, mind is a better fit. My readings lean toward spirit as an aspect of the ego/self axis and the process of individuation generally – belonging to all, rather than held in one.

    Lacan’s take on women’s desire as characterized by lack has always been hard to understand. I end up getting bogged down in patriarchy. I wonder if this absence he describes could be imagined as the animate space of potential?

    I agree that tango – particularly Argentine tango that is danced as an improvisation – feels like a potent example of anima/animus relations. It is a dance of lead and follow, of invitation: accepted, declined or reciprocated. However, I have also seen it get bogged down in gender. More than once I have witnessed a tango party like this: women, waiting against the wall, wanting to dance and lamenting the absence of leads while all the men are run off their feet on the floor…

    Thanks again for the prompt!

    October 25, 2022 at 3:21 am
    • Stephen Farah Reply

      Thanks Ewa, I appreciate your annotations. A rather unfortunate metaphor of the Tango dancers in waiting, unfortunately I think it is no less true for being unfortunate. One that characterises many of us, for much of our lives. Wating for the saviour, redeemer, knight-in-shining-armour to make His entrance.

      October 25, 2022 at 10:29 am
  • Beate Reply

    What if you are projecting? 🙂

    October 25, 2022 at 12:39 pm
    • Stephen Farah Reply

      In the narrow technical sense of the term employed in psychoanalysis, probably not. In the broader sense that we bring ourselves and our pre-conceived set of beliefs to our analysis and interpretation of the data, undoubtedly I am. One cannot in this sense escape and transcend oneself, no matter how seemingly objective one’s observations and analysis.
      As Pierre Duhem (1861–1916) and Willard Van Orman Quine (1908–2000) American philosopher and logician in the analytic tradition puts it in his famous paper, ‘Two dogmas of empiricism’, The Philosophical Review, (1951):
      (i) Since empirical statements are interconnected, they cannot be singly disconfirmed, and
      (ii) If we wish to hold a particular statement true we can through the adjustment of other statements in the network.
      To put this in other words:
      1) We cannot seek to singly confirm theoretical statements in isolation for each other; every theoretical statement is part of a larger network of theoretical statement from which it emerges and in which its extensions and intensions are contextualised and
      2) That these theoretical posits are not wholly determinable by their empirical verification conditions, they are underdetermined by the (empirical) data available.

      October 29, 2022 at 7:57 am
  • janemeliz Reply

    I felt rather uneasy reading your blog which as others have said, struck me as based on patriarchal assumptions! Sometimes I think that the equation of the feminine principle with unconsciousness, is more to do with male unconsciousness in relation to it. I agree with Mischa.

    January 7, 2023 at 6:50 pm
    • Stephen Farah Reply

      Noted Jane, thanks for sharing your impressions.

      January 8, 2023 at 3:15 pm
  • Shanariah Reply

    My latest obsession with Jungian philosophy and shadow work practicing has to do with my inability to completely deconstruct from Christian church teachings. As a bisexual black dark skin woman, the stereotypical tropes of masculinization have had valid negative impacts in the black diaspora entirely. Specifically with darker skin being seen as more aggressive or beastly; do to gender roles-I have been considered gay instead of a tomboy. Feeling as if the terms gamine, stem, or prissy tomboy inherently fit: perhaps the concept of the Animus in case at least explains why I am more masculine appearing and/or “feeling”. Same for males who are more flamboyant but heterosexual being labelled as gay; inserting the concept of Anima-or aligning with the queer theory: interjecting contra-sexuality for a proper theoretical case on as to why they’re non-binary individuals. Transpersonal psychic structures or the empirical hypothesis of such a construct is patriarchal … Women still being seen as illogical and men being seen as improper nurturers. Dream work/Shadow work integrated as well as engrained into both neurotypical and neurodivergent people (such as myself), distill hope and “usefulness”. The relevancy about the Animus and Anima alike have to do with gender/sex social constructs constantly getting debunked; no ample research or evidence to prove men nor women’s masculinity or feminity are concrete, moreso learned behavior; based off of differences in physical appearance as well as labour. Testosterone is actually known to be a psychological motivator not an aggressor; estrogen studied and commonly associated with rehabilitation not as a helpful marker for all things Feminine or fertility wise. To sum up my conclusion, I am thankful for your transparency or the matter; your intellectualism regarding the contradictions or inaccuracies of such philosophical principles-also well as simplification of Jungian ideologies are appreciated. If it can be answered unbiasedly by you, do you find teachings such as these sufficient if only used for meditation purposes or i.e. spirituality guidelines; healthiest? Are they best repurposed as psychiatric or psychological motivators? Both? … Once again thank you you.

    February 25, 2023 at 11:40 am
  • Oli Reply

    And once again the non-binary questions remain in silent.

    May 1, 2023 at 7:21 pm
    • Stephen Farah Reply

      Oliyour comment seems to suggest that non-binary genders do not participate in the archetypal masculine and feminine capacities, which I think is a misrepresentation of non-binary gender identity.

      May 3, 2023 at 9:26 am

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