Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Klein at the British Museum

Not really, no. But her work lives on, and nowhere it is more apparent than in the British Museum. You can see why Freud -- and Klein, and Jung... the lot, really -- kept finding inspiration, or rather, 'evidence', in the art of the ancients.

I've been especially haunted by a figure that I found in Asian section. ('Room 33' in your guidebooks.)

I think you'll see why.

Wild analysis on why this has been haunting me is, of course, as welcome as it is inevitable. (I know my audience.) But I've finally had a moment to do some basic research, and though anthropology isn't exactly my forte, I thought I'd share some of my findings.

(Hey, let's be honest: anthropology was never really Freud's forte either. But who would want to live in a world without Totem and Taboo?)

SO, back to my nightmare. The British Museum website on this figure tells us that this is a sandstone figure of Chamunda. Here's a snippet from their description:
The Great Hindu goddess Devi takes many forms: benign, sensuous and maternal at one level, horrifying and powerful at another. Chamunda, with her skeletal frame and staring socket eyes, is one of her fiercest manifestations, associated with corpses and even sacrificial rituals.
And here we've got all the classic imagery of death and destruction, of Klein's mother intent on revenge, in the infant's phantasy, for all of the attacks that she has suffered at the hands (and poos) of her baby. She's already obviously endured these anal attacks, her inner contents (father's penis, other children, shit -- all threatening objects to her children) having been ripped from her. And how she's coming back, armed with a thunderbolt, trident, snake and sword. With the skull-cap and severed head she's carrying her first trophies.

Notice in the British Museum description what her weapons are for: to fight ignorance, which we can see linked to the epistemophillic impulse, the force that initiates anal aggression in the first place (see 'Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict'), and to fight 'ego' -- though I don't think they mean 'ego' in the way Klein would intend it, obviously, there still there suggestions of an attack on the self, which is what the paranoid imagined retaliation of the mother actually is, after all.

In a longer, and much more detailed explanation (which is interesting beyond its description of Chamunda), Chandra Alexandre explains how Chamunda was linked to death and was demonised by patriarchal traditions in India, which is very interesting in the context of men's envy and fear of the 'bad' (read: all-powerful and frustrating) mother, manifested so often in patriarchal strictures, institutions and misogyny more generally.

Please post your comments if you can offer any further enlightenment!


  1. Thank you kindly for your reference of my article!

  2. She's like some 9th Century, Indian Female Arnie: 'I'll be back, putative motherfuckerrrrrrs!"

  3. Hi, As a woman & mother, a Hindu living in India & a practicing psychotherapist interested in Archetypes, I enjoyed reading your post! Sadly not so many local women can assess the Chandi-chamundi within themselves by which to withstand patriarchal pressures!

  4. Thanks for your post, gayitri! So, do you see Chamunda as a potential role model for women? That's very interesting...

    ... and makes my anxiety of her seem completely predictable. I disappoint myself sometimes...