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  • From Animal Father to Animal Mother:A Freudian Account of Animal Maternal Ethics
  • Alison Suen

In This Paper, I investigate Freud’s study of infantile zoophobias. According to Freud, in nearly all cases of infantile animal phobias, the feared animal functions as a father figure. The feared animal takes on the prohibitive role as the father substitute. The substitutability of the animal and the father is crucial for Freud, as it anchors his theory regarding the familial, social, and religious structure of a patriarchal society. In light of this standard animal-father substitution, Freud’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci stands out as a provocative exception. In this psychoanalytic biography, Freud examines da Vinci’s relationship with a vulture—only here the vulture is an androgynous creature that serves as a mother substitute. More significantly, unlike other accounts of infantile zoophobia, the vulture has an empowering rather than crippling effect on the infant da Vinci. With the story of the androgynous vulture, I argue that Freud’s interpretation of da Vinci opens up a new way to understand our relationships with animals—a way that not even Freud himself anticipated. In short, I analyze the significance of this deviant case of animal obsession in Freud’s corpus and its ramifications for reconceiving the human-animal relationship.

Freud and Animal Fathers

Freud’s most extensive discussion of animals is found in his writings on infantile zoophobia. It seems uncontroversial—at least according to Freud—that the feared animals are always father substitutes. In Totem and Taboo, Freud makes [End Page 121] a rather wholesale claim regarding this substitution: “It was the same in every case: where the children concerned were boys, their fear related at bottom to their father and had merely been displaced on to the animal” (1913, 127–28). Indeed, it does seem to be the same in every case: Little Hans displaces his fear of his father onto horses and the Wolfman onto wolves, while Little Árpád, who is afraid of poultry, proclaims unambiguously, “‘My father’s the cock’” (1913, 130). But how exactly does the animal come to represent the father?

In “Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety,” Freud argues that the fear of animals comes down to the castration complex, as analysis reveals that the phobic little boys are specifically afraid of having their penises bitten off by the animal (or otherwise being devoured by the animal). The anxiety of having their genitals bitten off by the animal is, according to Freud, a “distortion [of] the idea of being castrated by their father” (1926, 108). As we know, for Freud the fear of castration is developmentally important for a boy’s life. It is by the threat of castration that the boy learns to relinquish his illicit desire to be with his mother. Now, given that the castration threat is actually part of a positive Oedipal experience, the fear alone does not count as neurotic. For Freud, the neurosis lies in the substitution of the father for the animal (1926, 103). This substitution has two advantages: first, the phobia can resolve the boy’s ambivalent feelings toward his father; that is, he no longer love-hates his father, for the hatred is transferred to the animal (1926, 125). Second, the phobia makes the threat of castration conditional. While the boy cannot avoid seeing his father (who presents the threat of castration initially), he can avoid seeing the horse by refusing to go on the street (in the case of little Hans) or by refusing to read a storybook (in the case of the Wolfman) (1926, 125–26).

Given Freud’s account of animal phobias, the animal takes the place of the father and turns into a punitive figure that threatens to castrate the little boy. Indeed, the prohibitive character of the animal is also evident in Freud’s account of the primal horde in Totem and Taboo. The totem animal replaces the primal father and becomes the prohibitive figure that institutes the two taboos in totemism: incest and murder. In her essay “Being Human: Bestiality, Anthropophagy, and Law,” Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks helpfully exposes the connection between the animal and the law by articulating their intertwined origins. She...


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pp. 121-137
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