Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly


On her book Beauty or Beast? The Woman Warrior in the German Imagination from the Renaissance to the Present

Cover Interview of December 21, 2010


And lastly we come to Freud.  Freud was convinced that women are castrated beings who realize as young girls that they lack a penis and then spend the rest of their lives longing for this organ.  They can only achieve wholeness with the help of a being who has a penis, a man, and only when this being is kind enough to give them a child.

Freud reveals the source of his supposed knowledge about women in his famous lecture on ‘Femininity’. He ends it by telling his listeners how to learn more about women: ‘If you want to know more about femininity, then question your own experiences in life or else turn to the poets’.

Freud was interested in literature and, like any German-speaking intellectual of his day, was acquainted with a wide sweep of the German texts I write about.  Schiller, whose Joan of Arc is the model for many 19th century portrayals, was Freud’s favourite German author.  And Schiller, like Kleist and Hebbel, did indeed think that women were inferior beings, that they should tend the hearth and stay in the nursery and not enter into the public sphere, that they could never rise to genius and were not capable of running their own affairs.

In the early modern period, with its one-sex model of the human being, it was perfectly possible for women to execute exceptional deeds of physical bravery and emotional toughness.  The viragos were exceptions to the rule of female inferiority.  But from the 18th century on, it is impossible for women to rise up the sliding scale closer to the perfection of the man.

From the 18th century on, women are of their nature different, weaker, passive, receptive, not creative, irrational, emotional, etc.  In other words, just as Freud believed, women are beings who lack something.  Freud uses Hebbel’s play Judith as an example in his 1918 essay on ‘The Taboo of Virginity’.  Reading him in his place in the chronology of German literature, art, and thought, you cannot avoid the conclusion that Freud did indeed get many of his ideas about women from literature.

At the end of the long line of late 18th- and 19th-century literature and art, women are made whole and complete beings for a brief span by taking up the sword and becoming phallic women—but, becoming phallic, they have to die.

Women themselves only begin to have their say on the representations of them from the second half of the 18th century—which is when secular literature in German by women began to be produced in quantity.

They do not at this early date engage with male imaginings about Amazons, Joan of Arc or Judith.  Instead, they invent fictional women who take part in wars in the real world.  Late 18th century women imagine a space for themselves in which they can think the unthinkable, even if they sometimes feel impelled ultimately to reinforce patriarchal norms. They use the relatively new form of the novel to imagine women putting on trousers and taking part in war and revolution, acting in a way that society would never allow a virtuous woman to act in real life.

It is only when women have achieved some measure of emancipation at the end of the 19th century that they begin to examine such figures as Judith and the Amazons for themselves—moving beyond the beauty-or-beast dichotomy, and wringing some emancipatory potential out of the figures of the woman warrior.

© 2010 Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly