The Mermaid and the Minotaur Buy from other retailers

Publication Date: Feb 16, 2021

336 pp


List Price US: $18.99

ISBN: 978-1-63542-094-4

Trim Size: 5.21 x 7.89 x 0.95 in.

The Mermaid and the Minotaur

The Classic Work of Feminist Thought

Terms and Aims

Myth-images of half-human beasts like the mermaid and the minotaur express an old, fundamental, very slowly clarifying communal insight: that our species’ nature is internally inconsis­tent; that our continuities with, and our differences from, the earth’s other animals are mysterious and profound; and that in these continuities, and these differences, lie both our sense of strangeness on earth and the possible key to a way of feeling at home here.
As this cryptically stated dream-insight gradually translates it­self into active waking language, a body of central human proj­ects emerges. One of these (and I shall be pointing throughout this book to its place among the others) is the project of loosen­ing and restructuring the rigid forms of symbiosis, of fixed psy­chological complementarity, which have so far dominated rela­tions between women and men.
It is not my intent here to urge this project upon the reader. To arrive at for oneself and communicate to others a sense of press­ing necessity, a feeling of “must,” is of course an essential part of the mental work that moves such a project forward. But another essential part of that work is to examine the nature of communal resistance to this feeling of “must”: to analyze the conservatism—in oneself as well as in others—that blocks the project’s achieve­ment. This is the task with which the present inquiry is concerned. It is an inquiry intended not to exhort but to subvert. Its aim is not to condemn male-female conservatism, but rather, by uncovering certain of its emotional sources, to undermine it.
The most potent sources of sexual conservatism are buried in the dark, silent layers of our mental life: it is this burial that keeps them potent. To articulate them openly, to see them in the light of full awareness, is a necessary condition for growth toward liberty—away, in other words, from tightly, coercively prede­fined modes of feeling and action—between women and men.
It is not a sufficient condition—clearly, social change depends on many processes at once—but it is a necessary one. Without it we cannot know how to unravel with life-respecting hands, and reweave into life-respecting new patterns, the network of over­lapping intimacies among persons upon which the massive, un­easy societal stasis that is organized around gender has so far rested.
This network has constructed itself over long time. It is deep and dense—wearing out now, but still awesomely tough and supple. In its present form, it embodies our collective neurosis, which we both want and want not to outgrow. Yet it is a network from which we draw essential sustenance. Indeed, its continued existence in some form—the existence of some web of durable, generation-spanning primary-group bonds—is a matter on which our humanness itself depends.


By “sexual arrangements,” I mean the division of responsibility, opportunity, and privilege that prevails between male and female humans, and the patterns of psychological interdependence that are implicit in this division. The specific nature of such arrange­ments varies, often dramatically, under varying societal condi­tions. Their general nature, however, stems from a core fact that has so far been universal: the fact of primary female responsibil­ity for the care of infants and young children.
By “human malaise,” I mean our species’ normal psychopathol­ogy, which has pervaded our cultural—and perhaps even the more recent stages of our physical—evolution: the maladaptive stance, chronically uncomfortable and at this point critically life­ threatening, that humanity maintains toward itself and toward nature.
What I shall try to show here is that our sexual arrangements provide a way of handling some aspects of this basic human malaise, a way that maintains and deepens the underlying sick­ness while superficially allaying its pain. They are part of a larger disease. Changing them and outgrowing the disease are insep­arable processes.
What I shall not try to show here is (a) that the prevailing mode of psychological interdependence between the sexes does in fact need to be changed, or (b) that there is in fact some basic pathology shaping our species’ stance toward itself and nature, a pathology whose chances of killing us off quite soon, if we cannot manage to outgrow it first, are very good indeed. This book starts with the assumption that the reader is already wholly convinced on both these points. My argument takes them as axiomatic, and is addressed only to people who are prepared to do the same. The reader who is not thus prepared will have trouble following the argument, and I cannot undertake here to be helpful with that kind of trouble.
The images of the mermaid and the minotaur have bearing not only on human malaise in general (this they have in common with all the creatures of their ilk—harpies and centaurs, werewolves and sphinxes, winged nymphs, goat-eared fauns, and so on—who have haunted our species’ imagination) but also on our sexual arrangements in particular. The treacherous mermaid, seductive and impenetrable female representative of the dark and magic underwater world from which our life comes and in which we cannot live, lures voyagers to their doom. The fearsome mino­ taur, gigantic and eternally infantile offspring of a mother’s un­natural lust, male representative of mindless, greedy power, in­satiably devours live human flesh.
What this book’s title as a whole is meant to connote, then, is both (a) our longstanding general awareness of our uneasy, am­biguous position in the animal kingdom, and (b) a more specific awareness: that until we grow strong enough to renounce the pernicious prevailing forms of collaboration between the sexes, both man and woman will remain semi-human, monstrous.


Our male-female arrangements have developed out of central pressures—bodily, technological, emotional—inherent in our species’ past. They are ramifications of a core fact—predominantly female responsibility for the early care and education of neonatally immature, slow-growing, intelligent young—which seems to have been built into our history since forms of life now identifiable as incipiently human first emerged. While much of our pleasure in living has been woven into these arrangements, they have apparently never felt wholly comfortable or beneficial to either of the sexes. Indeed, they have always been a major source of human pain, fear, and hate: a sense of deep strain between women and men has been permeating our species’ life as far back into time as the study of myth and ritual permits us to trace human feeling. Still, we have had no reason, before now, to think of them as part of a massive immediate threat to the future of life on earth; nor have we ever until now been in a position—bodily, technologically, or emotionally—to consider tampering with them.
Now, quite suddenly, such tampering is not only feasible but urgent. What we have always experienced as a static, built-in dilemma (“You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them” is the way I heard wisecracking adults put it, long before I could begin to feel what they meant) has lost its aura of in­evitability. Explosively accelerating technological changes have made our ancient sexual symbiosis—in fact for those sectors of the world population whose life has been revolutionized by these changes and in principle for all of us—more and more clearly obsolete. The concomitant growth of our collective sensibility has made it more and more sharply intolerable. An ancient, inchoate, chronic sense of strain has abruptly turned acute.
The old symbiosis is breaking down—openly where its tech­nological obsoleteness is clearest, and, more subtly, in people’s minds, wherever the news that it can in principle become obso­lete is grasped. It is breaking down, however, against strong resis­tance. We have been living with it under proverbial duress; and yet, confronted with the practical possibility of living without it, we tend to lose our nerve. A time-honored bluff has been called—what we have always seen as a set of necessary evils, to be complained about and endured, must now be ended or defended—and we respond with a kind of terror. This terror could be overcome more rapidly if it were more thoroughly understood. In the present study, I address myself to this task of understanding.
To reiterate, then: it is not my aim here to help spell out what is intolerable in our gender arrangements. Other writers have for some time been handling that task very well indeed. I shall as­sume that the reader has assimilated the gist of what they have been saying; I have nothing to add to it. My aim is to help clarify the reasons why people go on consenting to such arrangements.
The most central of these reasons, I think, are on the whole unrecognized, both by contemporary opponents and by contem­porary advocates of change in our sexual status quo. The former are understandably attracted by the notion that these reasons are too tightly built into the human condition to be budged at all, the latter by the notion that all that is needed to dislodge them is sufficiently vigorous and determined action. Sexual conservatives are accordingly apt to think of people’s consent as inborn, as somehow “natural.” Their tendency (now that describing it as “God-ordained” has become intellectually unfashionable) is to overestimate the rigidity of its roots in our species’ biology: they see it as less genuinely reversible than it actually is. Champions of change, on the other hand, are apt to think of people’s consent as enforced and/or “learned.” Their tendency is to underestimate the intricacy of its roots in our species’ psychopathology: they see it as more directly, externally, mechanically reversible than it actually is.
What at this point most basically enforces our consent, I shall be saying, is something much more deeply mutable than the de­fenders of the present arrangements, lay and scholarly, would have us think: It is not, most basically, our anatomy, or our hormones. It is not some mysterious genetically determined rem­nant of the mechanisms that guide the ecologically adaptive rela­tions of male and female gorillas, chimps, and baboons. Neither does it bear any magic and sacred relation to the needs of infants and young children: indeed, it violates some of the most vital of these needs.
At the same time, our consent is far less simple to withdraw than many feminists would like to believe: The law, custom, economic pressure, educational practice, and so on that stand in the way of change—essential as it is to identify and fight each of these on its own level—are the symptoms, not the causes, of the disorder that we must cure. The prevailing symbiosis between men and women is something more than a product of societal coercion. It is part of the neurotic overall posture by means of which humans, male and female, try to cope with massive psycho­logical problems that lie at the heart of our species’ situation. At the present stage of technological development, it is primarily because they help us to maintain this doomed posture that the specific societal mechanisms supporting the sexual status quo continue to feel necessary.
To understand the most basic reasons for our consent we must examine the roots of a peculiarly human pleasure—the pleasure of enterprise, of mastery—through which (as Freud points out) each member of our species tries, while at the same time harbor­ing deep misgivings about the value of the effort, to console itself for a peculiarly human loss—the loss of infant oneness with the world—and to assert itself against a peculiarly human discovery—that the most important features of existence elude control.
We must also grasp the importance of the fact that conscious human concern extends peculiarly far into the past and the fu­ture, an extension that is made possible (as Solomon Asch points out in his Social Psychology) not only by our species’ special neural capacities for memory and foresight, but also by its special abilities to pool knowledge and to build social structures based on the interpenetration of subjectivities. It is these cognitive abilities that make possible our singular feelings of vulnerability and loneliness, our singular awareness of mortality, and the singular emotional techniques that we have worked out to make these feelings and this awareness bearable.
Thinking about these matters means surveying certain distinc­tive properties of human infancy and early childhood; it means taking a real look at the ominous significance of these properties for the development of “normal” human personality; and it means beginning to see the full implications of a so far taken-for­-granted condition of our existence: that the auspices under which human infancy and early childhood are lived out are pre­dominantly female auspices.
It is senseless, I shall argue, to describe our prevailing male-female arrangements as “natural.” They are of course a part of nature, but if they should contribute to the extinction of our species, that fact would be part of nature too. Our impulse to change these arrangements is as natural as they are, and more compatible with our survival on earth. To change them, how­ever, we need to understand not only the societal mechanisms by which they are supported, but also the central psychological adjustment of which they are an expression. What makes it essential for us to understand this adjustment is that its exis­tence rests on our failure to understand it: It is a massive com­munal self-deception, designed to allay immediate discomfort and in the long run—a run whose end we are now approaching—suicidal.

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