The Ishmael Complex
Helen M. Hacker Originally published 1952
Although Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex has proved an enormously fruitful hypothesis to social scientists in approaching problems ranging from the socialization of the child to the genesis of attitudes toward the state, its applicability has been shown to be limited by cultural factors. In asserting the universality of the Oedipus Complex, Freud assumed the constancy of certain family patterns which are in fact widely variable. In the United States, particularly, little evidence of the Oedipal situation in the narrow sense postulated by Freud has been found. Recent investigations in this country reveal no reliable difference between boys and girls as to preference for either parent (31). But even though parent-child relationships in America are not generalized in the Oedipus design, no alternative explanation of object choice in childhood has been suggested.
The purpose of this article is to propose another developmental pattern which will approximate more closely the typical elements of the American child’s early home environment. Distinguishing characteristics of American culture which influence childhood experiences include the equalitarian nature of the American family, social and geographic mobility, democratic attitudes, importance attached to formal education, etc. The significance of these factors in inhibiting the Oedipus syndrome is apparent. Since the father is not the sole wielder of authority, he is not exclusively to be feared. Since the emphasis is on surpassing the father rather than on replacing him—often through the medium of education—he is not so much respected (23). Since the American father bestows affection upon the child, he may be an object of love. And since class lines are less firmly drawn than in Europe, the child is not so restricted in his choice of playmates to families of the same social standing as the parents. Nor, indeed, is the child kept as much in the protected confines of the home; he has a greater range of contacts outside the home, and less of his life is centered in the family.
In accordance with these variations from the family pattern which gave rise to the Oedipus Complex, this paper postulates not a sexual attachment to the cross-sex parent, but a libidinal tie to both parents fused into a combined maternal-paternal image in which the desired qualities of both parents are preserved, and their deficiencies eliminated.
For suggesting certain features of the complex to be examined the writer is indebted to a recent article in a literary magazine (13). This article calls attention to a significant myth which reappears in a number of juvenile classics: Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Two Years Before the Mast, and The Leatherstocking Tales. In each of these works an outcaste American lad is found in some isolated primitive expanse, such as the broad Mississippi, the virgin forest, a deserted shore, the vast sea—in the company of an older, colored, not wholly civilized male associate from whom the young man receives lavish affection that is reciprocated in large measure. This common relationship, the author suggests, carries with it no overt homosexual display, but is at all times chaste and pure.
From the continued popularity of these works, we may provisionally construe the common theme of an isolated, aim-inhibited, homosexual relationship between a declassed American lad and a colored outcaste as an unconscious myth prevalent in our society.1 In the following study the attempt is made: (1) to examine in somewhat greater detail the elements of this unconscious myth; (2) to indicate its locus in our society; (3) to suggest certain insights into the child’s attitude toward his parents as revealed by this myth; (4) to analyze the significance of color differences in the mythic lovers; (5) to indicate some techniques of further research that might be used for verification of the myth; and (6) to discuss in general the significance of unconscious myths for the social sciences.
In each case these juvenile classics concern themselves with an American young man who is estranged from conventional society. In The Leatherstocking Tales the scenes occur at campsites that are minute in the vast forest. In Melville’s Moby Dick the mythical adventure takes place aboard a small whaling ship tossed over the immense seas. And again, in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, we find the Platonic pair adrift on a tiny raft in the broad reaches of the Mississippi River. Each of these locales is distinguished by its isolation, a remoteness that is accentuated by the juxtaposition of the minute campsite, small boat, tiny raft in the midst of some immeasurable natural expanse.
In furtherance of this consistently portrayed atmosphere that is entirely removed from the conventional, the outcaste American young man in each case is to be found in the company of a colored man whose appearance and behavior in every respect are appropriate to the non-civilized locale. Indeed, here too there is deliberate heightening of the primitive or savage or barbaric in the colored companion in order to underline the remoteness from conventional society. Thus, for example, Chingachgook in The Leatherstocking Tales is a redskin resplendent with paint. Queequeg in Moby Dick is purplish-yellow and moreover, tattooed with horrendous black squares. Similar traits appear for the colored outcastes in the other tales. Finally, these primitives frequently possess an ample array of resources for coping with the primitive environment into which the quasi-civilized white youth has been plunged: they are familiar with woodland lore, with tricks of the sea, or with the endless mysteries of the river and its secluded banks.
His white companion also is adept in these skills and at home, as his fellows never would be, in the remote locale and with his savage buddy. The American in fact is a voluntary exile from the restrains of conventional society.
Through these devices an overpowering impression is created of complete and utter separation from a normal social milieu. “Call me Ishmael,” cries Melville’s hero—the reference is of course to the Biblical exile. It seems appropriate, therefore, to designate our unconscious myth as the Ishmael Complex.
Now the extreme affection given to the white lad by his dark beloved in many of these tales is readily reciprocated, it is clear, if merely because the youth has thrust himself into a barbaric environment, and often is obliged to place himself under the protection of the resourceful primitive. Hence, also, the love between the couple exhibits all the qualities of a dependent relationship: their feelings for each other are tender, gentle, and particularly from the side of the colored man there is an attitude that even approaches maternal cherishing. Ishmael, for example, lies cozily in the arms of Queequeg, and Nigger Jim calls Huck “honey” in dulcet tones. These white youths are able to accept love from a colored man by virtue of their estrangement from the conventions of their culture. This classic juvenile homoeroticism is not in the accepted sense sexual or passionate; appropriate to the juvenile reader these tales are innocent.
So much for the major elements of the Ishmael Complex. The very fancifulness of this unconscious myth, of course, quite forbids its realization; much as the Oedipus Complex, in our society, the Ishmael Complex, too, must be sublimated, and the libidinal energy which it expresses must be transferred to other objects.
The argument thus far has suggested the universality of the Ishmael Complex in America. This original hypothesis must now be refined, since sociological clues point to the greatest incidence of the Ishmael Complex in one sector of society—the middle class. It is characteristically the middle class juvenile reader, hedged about with rigid restraints on his freedom, who would savor vicariously these adventurous escapades occurring in an arena not of his time or place. Characteristically, it is the middle class child who must experience frustration and deferred reward.2 The differential compulsion of the mores upon the growing child in our society, according to class, has been well revealed in the current revision of Freud’s conception of the latency period. Freud had postulated that sexual interests are in abeyance in the child between the ages of approximately five and twelve years. During the period of latency the child engages in gang activities with members of his own sex and is apparently indifferent to members of the opposite sex. The French sociologist Frederic Le Play, in his studies of working class families, observed no period of latent sexuality in these children. Similarly, modern psychiatrists have found a steady development of sexual interest and expression in the children of lower income groups both in Europe and this country. They suggest that the period of latency, consequently, is more a product of parental prohibition and childish repression than a universal stage in psychic development (17, 32).
With this background, what insight can we achieve as regards the process of sublimation of the Ishmael Complex in the American middle class male adult? He frequently engages in boisterous camaraderie with his fellows in the locker room, in the smoking car, on fishing trips, in poker games, and the like. This exaggerated brusqueness and forced jocularity indeed testify to the presence of an inner sentimentality of great strength which is denied direct expression. Typically, the adult middle-class male feels conscious repugnance for any overt homosexual contact, and in fact is ridden with strong fears of homosexuality (15). On the other hand, the Kinsey report clearly reveals greater sexual freedom among the working classes: that is to say, such extreme sublimation is not to be found in the lower classes.
This behavior of the middle-class adult represents sublimations of the Ishmael Complex which develop in some fashion as the following: First, it is to be observed that the period of latency in the middle classes includes those years in which the Ishmael Complex is most vigorous. That is to say, at this time the middle-class child represses not only heterosexual desires, but also harbors in his unconscious a wish for intimate relations with members of the same sex. Both wishes may be manifested in future behavior. Thus, the Ishmael Complex finds partial fruition in the adult middle class male’s gruff sporting on fishing trips and during poker games. Moreover, it follows that the conscious repugnance for any gross homosexuality displayed by the middle-class male adult flows from the Ishmael Complex, in that the dearly held dream, culturally repressed into the unconscious, is threatened with desecration by any admission of the existence of physical homosexual passion. This sublime myth is instead translated into the rude forms of masculine fellowship. Again, the Ishmael Complex may allow us to account for the obsessive fears which beset the middle-class male regarding the extent of his own homosexuality: the wondersome Ishmael fantasy of his early years now calls for more intimate relations with his fellows than our culture approves, and he is obliged constantly to ward off and to dispel any conscious admission of homosexual feeling, no matter how chaste.
For the type of relationship with another man which the middle-class male in fact desires, in accordance with the Ishmael impulsion, is affectionate and not specifically sexual. When our society interprets such feelings as calling for more gross contact, thereby severely condemning these motivations, this cultural proscription acts to erect a formidable barrier to any conscious revival of the idyllic myth no matter in how attenuated a form. Indeed, present evidence suggests that the psychic development of the middle class male proceeds along bisexual lines. Withal, the homosexual urge differs from the heterosexual in that, as we have seen, the Ishmael Complex would express itself in a more sublimated and less direct form.3
Continuing with the exposition of what bearing the Ishmael Complex has on adult middle class male behavior, there remains for analysis the well-known phenomenon of protract, overt homosexuality. In terms of the Ishmael hypothesis homosexuality represents a fixation on the prepuberal Ishmael level. Adult homosexuals are those who have not been able to solve the conflicts raised in the Ishmael stage of psychic development, as discussed in Section III below. Such an arrested development is likely to occur in cases where the boy’s wish for tender solicitude from his father is severely frustrated, and/or where the mother is markedly deficient in companionable qualities (18). In such cases the adult is driven by a more than ordinary compulsion to find expression for his idyllic dream. Overcoming all cultural obstacles these persons may seek more direct and intimate relationships with members of the same sex. And yet it would appear that the Ishmael Complex is herewith abjured; for surely full physical expression spoils the myth’s fantasy. Nonetheless, although these rebels are fleeing from cultural demands, they are still obliged to fit in with standardized expectations of the sexual role, whether heterosexual or homosexual. So that, indeed, even by forming a close overt alliance with another male, the Ishmael Complex still fails of realization, for this alliance is not of the pure, innocent, idyllic strain found in the myth. Perhaps this interpretation may aid in clarifying the strikingly complex neuroticism of the male homosexual in our society.4
Greatly in contrast with this elaborate panoply of attitudes and behavior in homoerotic relations among middle-class males the behavior of the adult working class is far more simple and clear. As suggested above, the working-class child is not torturously bound by parental taboos, so that a latency period does not appear in his case; instead, during the childhood period, he enters spontaneously into relations of a sexual character. Hence, merely an attenuated Ishmael fantasy, if at all, puts itself forward, and in later life the working-class adult male exhibits less of the complicated sublimations of the complex presented above for the middle-class adult. Moreover, members of the working class, in their homosexual contacts, display far greater freedom, both in childhood and in adult life. In those instances where the working class adult male rebels against heterosexual relations, he engages in overt homosexuality with far less disturbance to his psychic life than the middle class homosexual—without having his homosexual satisfaction marred by the fact that it conflicts with the Ishmael fantasy’s innocent male friendship.
This section is concerned with trying to gain insight into the child’s attitude toward his parents, as revealed by the Ishmael myth. It matters little whether this concern be taken instead to represent a search for the origins of the Ishmael Complex as shown by the child’s place in the nexus of family relationships. Operationally, the two objectives amount to the same thing. That is to say, by seeking for an explanation of the origin of the Ishmael Complex in the family constellation, we are led to re-examine and to reinterpret parent-child interaction in the light of the Ishmael myth.
First it must be noted that the prolongation of childhood in the American middle class family is of extreme relevance. For how else might so persistent and quasi-universal a fantasy as the Ishmael Complex succeed in developing during the “latency period,” if the child did not have ample time for autistic revery? The daydreams of the child often center about adventurous escapades in environments that are far removed from everyday life, and such preoccupation is consistent with the separation from conventional society found in the Ishmael Complex. This is equally true of the American middle class child’s participation in games in which he may assume the active roles of pirate, soldier, etc.
Now if we examine more closely the figure of the colored comforter, be he Queequeg or Nigger Jim, the question arises as to who his real-life prototype may be. This more important member of the dyad in the Ishmael myth has a strange duality. On the one hand, he is the embodiment of tenderness, affection, cherishing warmth, which are, most significantly, ever-present. In this aspect, the colored man partakes of the maternal presence in the American home. On the other hand, there are features of the colored man’s behavior which bespeak the paternal role. In the first place, he acts as potential guardian in a strange and perilous world beyond mere woman’s ken. He knows the ways of the bewildering forest and the illimitable sea, knows how to deal with the elements, dangerous animals, shipwreck, and all catastrophe. He may be looked to for fatherly guidance and succor. His masculine strength bolsters the boyish weakness of his companion. Furthermore, when the occasion demands it, he is mentor to his otherwise capable friend, initiating him into skills and techniques required for survival in a challenging world. His role as father-substitute is further implemented by the obvious fact of his actual masculinity. This is not merely a matter of sex alone, but is accentuated by a sturdy and well-built figure. He thus provides a suitable object of identification for the white youth who aspires at least to his father’s place, an identification which would be impossible if the colored man were only a mother figure.
Thus, the dual character of the colored outcaste stands forth; he is both father and mother. Or more accurately, he represents selections from the mother and father images. Strength and knowledge are borrowed from the father; tenderness and loving care from the mother. This combination in one personality of the most desired traits of the two parents may plausibly correspond to deep yearnings of the child. Either parent alone is inadequate in some respect; presents certain deficiencies. Mother is good and kind, but she is an alien to the boy’s world. Father has the potentialities of understanding companionship, but he is often gruff, impatient, and forbidding. But in the Ishmael Complex the boy projects his wish for one ideal, bisexual parent who will cherish him as a mother and adventure with him as a father. This coalescence of mother image and father image suggests that we have far underestimated the imaginative capacity of the child in manipulating the parent figures of his environment. The literature has made reference to either a father image or to a mother image or to both, but the possibility of a merging of these images in the child’s unconscious has not, to my knowledge, been adequately considered.
A comparative view of family patterns in the middle class and in the lower class will help explain the typical formation of the Ishmael Complex in middle-class boys and its absence, at least in the classical form we have been describing, in the lower-class boy. In the middle class both father and mother take their parental responsibilities seriously. While the greater burden may devolve upon the mother, the father is far from loath to participate in the problems of child-rearing. The middle-class American family is primarily equalitarian. In the lower class, however, the family is more matriarchal in form. The children are thought to belong to the mother (5) and the father plays little part in their upbringing. He may be viewed by the growing boy chiefly as an authoritarian or punitive figure; he is not the source of initiation into desired activities, and of helpmate in crisis situations, as found in the Ishmael Complex. Only the mother emerges as an image of bounteous love and interest. No constellation of the father as a ministering agent, consequently, is formed in the childhood of the working-class boy, and therefore, no basis is present in the prepubescent years for a substitute father image on the Ishmael order. Reinforcing this class difference in paternal role is the fact that maturity is earlier thrust upon the working-class boy, thereby shortening the period of his free fantasy life. Since he is permitted or even called upon to assume many of the rights and duties of the father’s role, he has less need of a substitute father ideal. (Such a broad generalization, of course, permits many exceptions; for example, the socially mobile working-class type of parents may manifest middle-class type parental attributes (20).)
Cross-cultural comparisons of the varying intensity and forms of the Ishmael Complex may provide a helpful supplement to the class comparisons already indicated within one society. Malinowski’s (22) testing of the Oedipus Complex in a variant social structure serves as the theoretical precedent for this task. Proceeding on the assumption that the Oedipus Complex involves certain interpersonal relations which are socially structured, Malinowski sought the variables in family organization and cultural patterns which were relevant to changes in behavior patterns. His procedure challenged Freud’s implicit assumption of constants in family relationships. Malinowski hypothecated the following essential variables—omitted by Freud—as relevant: the distribution of power within the family; the patterns of descent, inheritance, and succession; the residence of parents and children; and the transmission of skills. Since each one of these factors differed in the Trobriand Islands from its form in middle class Germany, Malinowski found corresponding differences in the nuclear complex. In the Trobriands the wish was not to kill the father and to sleep with the mother, but to kill the maternal uncle and to sleep with the sister.
Similarly, those factors of family organization and cultural patterns which are essential to the formation of the Ishmael Complex have already been indicated. When there are variations in these factors, we may expect to find corresponding variations in the form of the nuclear complex which we have designated as the Ishmael Complex. From our knowledge of the European, particularly the German, middle-class family, as described by Fromm (14) and others (28, 30, 12), we would not expect to find in Europe the Ishmael Complex in its American form. The patria potestas is still sufficiently strong in Europe to remove the father as a familiar protector and guide. He is more the coercive person whose commands are mediated through the mother. In contrast, the mother is all the more valued as loving and kind. In response to the more intense character of the relations of the child with the parents—fear, hate, and respect for the father; intense love for the mother—the more violent Oedipus Complex is formed.
In the American middle class, however, with less strong feelings between parent and child—less lavish, concentrated attention from the mother, and less awe vis a vis the father—a softer counterpart of Oedipus is manifested in the Ishmael Complex. Here, since the parental figures are less sharply distinguished in actual life, they may be more easily blended in unconscious fantasy. There is no need to eliminate the father either to gain exclusive possession of the mother or to remove an unduly burdensome yoke. The American middle class father is sufficiently permissive to be included in the libidinous wishes of his offspring. Instead the more gentle and tender constellation of the Ishmael Complex is formed wherein the boy lies wrapped in the sweet embrace of a combined mother-father image.
Up to this point no attempt has been made to account for the fact that the hero in the Ishmael legend is colored. Why should the masculine-feminine love myth be expressed through the medium of a colored person? Possibly this question may be answered by showing the striking parallel between the role of the colored outcaste in the myth and the dual role of the Negro in our society.5
To consider first the feminine aspect of this role, we may remark the many similarities in the personality traits with which our society invests both women and Negroes (25). Both are thought to be childlike, emotional, unsuited for intellectual work, morally undeveloped, all right in their proper places, easily understood but always unpredictable, primitive (that is, closer to nature and the lower forms of life), and, occasionally, blessed with homely wisdom (woman’s intuition) which transcends knowledge.
But coexisting with the linkage of women and Negroes in our ideology is the fact that strong masculine traits are ascribed to the Negro, deriving chiefly from skin color. The identification of darkness with masculinity is familiar to Americans. In paintings, advertisements, magazine illustrations, and commercial art, men’s skins are represented as several shades darker than women’s. A memorable example is found in the film “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” in which the sex difference between two dancers, archetypically masculine and feminine, is shown chiefly by color difference. In the stereotype gentlemen prefer blondes, and girls like their men tall, dark, and handsome. There is also the widespread belief in the superior virility of Negro men, evidenced chiefly in the notion that their genitalia are larger than those of whites (10).
Thus we may glimpse the social roots of the mythopeic bisexual creature who plays the role of “buddy and a little bit more” in the Ishmael Complex. For only in the Negro in our society are masculine and feminine attributes so strangely conjoined. It is appropriate, therefore, that the dream image of the Ishmael Complex be colored. But, moreover, his darkness also blends into the dual maternal-paternal role.
Attention has already been called to the maternal images suggested by the Ishmael Complex—Ishmael waking in the arms of Queequeg, Nigger Jim folding Huck Honey to his breast. Why is it that the gentle, cherishing maternal aspect of the dream lover seems peculiarly suited to a colored person? Here the analogous position of women and Negroes in our society again provides the clue. Psychoanalysis stresses feminine masochism as an important component in the character of the normal motherly woman (9). Women are said to be masochistic in love relationships, and, relevant to our argument, particularly so with their children. Initially, they derive enjoyment from mastering fear and pain in delivery, and throughout the child’s life they find pleasure in altruistic service to the child. While admitting the prevalence of masochistic attitudes even in modern women, sociologists may assert that such feelings are not biologically given, but arise from the social inferiority of women. If such be the case, we have the basis for understanding maternal, masochistic attitudes in Negroes. To the extent that the Negro accepts his social inferiority, he acquires the psychology of subservience and self-abnegating service. True, Negroes are less accommodated to their status today, and we may plausibly measure the incidence of the Ishmael Complex inversely with the extent of the Negro protest. Certainly at the time the childhood classics we are discussing were written, the figure of the “old-timey” Negro was not far from the truth, and lent support to the Ishmael myth of maternal solicitude from a colored man.
It may be objected that we have wandered too far afield in likening Negroes to women in explaining the maternal aspect of the Ishmael lover. Could it not derive directly from the experience of the white boy reader? He may himself have had a Negro nurse or an affectionate Negro servant. This more obvious explanation supplements, but does not contravene our earlier analogy with women.
Nor is the dark hue of the father-substitute inappropriate, for in our society the Negro also possesses many qualities which evoke a paternal image. Fatherly guidance and succor in the isolated barbaric scenes in which the Ishmael Complex is staged are indeed properly provided by a colored personage—for it is conventional to attribute to the Negro in our culture, even though he be born in Harlem, the most extraordinary capacities for coping with primitive challenges, whether in the forest depths, or along wild river banks, or even in far distant seas. Moreover, paternal strength is adequately portrayed in accordance with popular impressions of the Negro as muscular and long-limbed. Psychoanalysis also offers confirmation of the Negro as the symbolic equivalent of the father. Sterba (33) in his analysis of psychological factors in the Detroit race riot of 1946 cites several dreams of his white patients in which Negroes were identified as the dreamer’s father. To complete the parallel of Negro with father-substitute we should note instances of Negroes acting as teachers of whites in accordance with the mentor role of the colored companion, who occasionally initiates the lad of the Ishmael complex into adult skills and techniques.6
The final element of the Ishmael myth which we must relate to a colored protagonist is the homoeroticism of the Ishmaelic pair. The shyness and reserve of the middle class white boy is overcome by the more effusive and outgoing colored man. In our society the stereotype of the Negro shows him as less inhibited, more emotional and exuberant, more sensual, and even more given to sexuality than the white man. Consequently the white youth has less grounds for fearing a rebuff from a Negro than from a fellow white. The tender emotions of the Negro, being nearer to the surface—at least in popular thought—are more easily accessible. Thus we may understand the freely given warmth of a Queequeg or of a Nigger Jim to his white consort.
In support of the suitability of a colored person as the love object of a white person, paradoxically enough, is the conscious hatred and fear of Negroes felt by whites. Much has been made of the sexual envy of the Negro as a factor in discrimination. The psychoanalytical insight that the fear of sexual attraction often leads to overemphasis in rejection may be more significant in accounting for discrimination against the Negro than sexual envy. Prejudice is often felt most strongly toward those whom we feel may be worthy of love. McLean (21) has given an account of the unconscious physical bond between white and Negro in the South. The guild which results from debarring creatures who may be human from the area of affectionate regard may serve to erect more formidable barriers; the greater physical intimacy between whites and Negroes in the South which provides the social setting for erotic attachments may contribute significantly to southern conflicts.
We are not attempting to decide whether the Ishmael Complex accounts for actual discrimination against the Negro in our society, or whether such discrimination gives rise to the Ishmael Complex; although undoubtedly much of the foregoing is suggestive in either direction. Rather we leave in abeyance the question of the extent of the mutual influence upon each other of the attitudes toward the Negro in our society, on the one hand, and, on the other, the peculiar white boy-colored consort constellation of the Ishmael Complex.
The reader who has observed the elaborate structure built upon the foundation of this alleged Ishmael Complex must not suppose that the writer is unaware of its tentative character. For the purpose of explicating all the refinements and implications of the Ishmael Complex it has been accepted as given. This myth postulates the desire of the white middle class boy for tender companionship with a colored friend in a primeval setting where they meet adventure together. The only evidence so far offered, however, has been the popularity of certain juvenile classics which have found a permanent place in our literature. But in view of the possible fruitful nature of this hypothesis in affording insight into social relationships and personality development, I have felt it important to indicate relevant subhypotheses in fullest detail. Were the Ishmael Complex to be empirically verified, our knowledge of American character and social structure would be immeasurably advanced.
The discussion of the Ishmael Complex has been predicated on the notion that it is only an hypothesis. Its validation must be left to future investigation.
The responsibility remains of suggesting the general lines along which testing techniques leading to the confirmation or rejection of the Ishmael hypothesis might proceed. An obstacle to the direct verification of the myth is its unconscious character. Depth psychology provides the only tool today for the direct discovery of unconscious materials. Here, then, the writer can only direct the attention of psychoanalysts to this problem. Other social scientists must rely on indirect methods of verifying unconscious wishes. Two possible objective techniques for the verification of the Ishmael concept are content analysis and attitude testing.
Content analysis represents a method of ascertaining the exact nature and relative strength of the stimuli contained in written materials as a basis for inferring the reader’s response to such stimuli. The method of content analysis would be employed to test the assumption that we can find in the books read in childhood symbols sufficiently precise to evoke in the reader the feelings and attitudes appropriate to the Ishmael situation, or, more concretely, a sufficient number of occurrences of ideal homoerotic relationships. It is apparent that content analysis has not been applied to the juvenile classics cited in this fashion, but only an impressionistic view has been taken. The first task might then be to subject such works as Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Leatherstocking Tales, etc. to content analysis in order to discover whether the components of the Ishmael Complex are indeed present in full force. Then the procedure of content analysis may be broadened to include other popular books for children, current as well as old. Finally, in order to test the assumption that a large number of boy readers have in fact been exposed to stimuli expressing the Ishmael myth, a rating of books according to the extent of the dominance of Ishmael factors should be correlated with their rating according to popularity.
There is, of course, the further problem of distinguishing between the reader’s manifest and latent responses to what he reads. His surface reaction to a given scene or a bit of dialogue may be negative, but can we take this response at face value? Perhaps his outward rejection conceals a secret craving. This problem is as old as psychoanalysis where the same behavior can be as plausibly interpreted in diametrically opposed ways. Therefore, the method of content analysis might not succeed in tapping unconscious evidence for the existence or non-existence of the Ishmael Complex. Lack of response to certain stimuli which the content analyst believes to be indicative of the Ishmael Complex may be genuine or it may represent a defense mechanism. This dilemma, which is present in the Ishmael Complex [and] is common with all allegedly unconscious wishes and fears, presents a problem for further study.
So far the suggested confirmation of the Ishmael Complex has been in a rather limited area: that is, by reference to the books read by young people—the line of evidence which originally suggested the prevalence and meaningfulness of the juvenile mythos. It remains to be discovered, by means of the technique of attitude testing, whether there is evidence in the general attitudinal systems of people which corresponds to the sentiments of the Ishmael situation. Although Freud cites as evidence of the Oedipus Complex the almost universal reactions of pity and fear to Sophocles’ drama Oedipus Rex, the case for Oedipal influence does not rest on literature. Contemporary psychologists, seeking confirmation of the Oedipus Complex, have turned to direct observation and to attitude questionnaires.
These two suggested techniques of content analysis and attitude testing suffer from the apparent limitation of being at second remove from the dynamic person. In the end the case for or against the Ishmael Complex will rest with the psychoanalyst who will find out whether analytic materials fit into the Ishmael pattern.
Throughout this article reference has frequently been made to the Ishmael Complex as an unconscious myth. In this concluding section the use of this term will be clarified, and the importance of the interpretation of myths to social science will be indicated. Myths represent the clearest mirror of people’s deepest wishes and anxieties. It was Freud who first saw in the myth a fantasy expressing, or perhaps concealing, unconscious motivations. He perceived that the powerful appeal of Oedipus Rex lay in its dramatization of the desires of childhood. In the same way it is possible to find in the juvenile classics we have mentioned the literary expression of a myth which corresponds to the hidden longings of the American boy.
By a myth may be understood the anagogic expression of some element in the value system of a social group, which ranges from wholly symbolic to wholly literal acceptance. Sociologists and anthropologists, of course, have dealt fully with problems of explicitly and concretely formulated value systems of groups, that is, those not in myth form.
More subtle analyses have pushed somewhat farther afield, and have considered those less articulate expressions of value systems, which also function as myths. Thus, for example, a keen observer like Georges Sorel, the political scientist, examined the phenomenon of the general strike in terms of its representing not so much a practical weapon for revolutionary overthrow of the established order by the organized proletariat, but rather as a myth—i.e., a symbolic representation of the most intense and ardent objective of the militant working class—which served the purpose of maintaining the organizational strength and fighting drive of the syndicalists in their daily struggles against capitalism. Other examples of powerful, motivating myths of this kind are the Holy Grail, redemption through Christ, the Soviet Union as a socialist society, and the like. The significance of such strong and persistent myths for the social scientist consists in their serving as a major force in social action which is generated by the rich, emotional attachment of the human mind to the imagery and symbolism of the myth.
But greater attention should be paid by social scientists to the completely submerged, metaphorical representations of social value systems—the unconscious myth—as exemplified in the Oedipus and Ishmael Complexes. The study and interpretation of such unconscious myths would serve to deepen our understanding of culture. The unconscious nature of these myths, however, requires sociologists and anthropologists to enlist the aid of psychiatry. There is little reason to suppose that the human mentality does not abound in other hidden unconscious myths besides the Oedipus and Ishmael Complexes, that exert as powerful an influence on human behavior as the conscious myths that exist in such profusion. This is an area of social exploration in which the psychiatrist and his techniques of analysis can play an important part.
1. This theme is fully stated in Moby Dick (24) and Huckleberry Finn (36). Certain important features of the myth are found not merely in Two Years Before the Mast (4) and the five volumes of The Leatherstocking Tales (3): The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneer, and The Prairie, but also in Penrod (34) and Penrod and Sam (35), and in Robinson Crusoe, which were not cited by Fiedler. Books also containing elements of them, which, although lesser known, are held in high regard by children are to be found among those listed in such sources as Marie Rankin’s study (27) of the most popular children’s books in representative libraries in 1941; and in a similar study by W. W. Charters (2) of the recurrence in popularity of the same children’s books at ten-year intervals between 1907 and 1937. Among the works in Marie Rankin’s listing which contain significant elements of the theme being described appears The Pearl Lagoon (26). The theme emerges again in many of the works in Charters’ listing, including Jack Among the Indians (16) and The Last of the Chiefs (1).
2. Testimony on this point is supplied by W. Allison Davis and Robert J. Havighurst (7), John Dollard (6), and Martha C. Ericson (11), among others. The case history of Chester in Davis and Dollard’s Children of Bondage (6) shows him as sacrificing lunches in order to buy a tailored suit. Cleanliness, good clothes, parentally-sanctioned associates, non-aggressive behavior, sexual inhibition, and, of course, education are important elements in the “middle class syndrome.”
3. In addition to masculine “buddiness,” other sublimated forms of the Ishmael Complex may be noted. In some cases the wife is endowed with the masculine attributes which otherwise would be sought in male friends; the so-called partner role in marriage (19). In other cases a man may renounce entirely his claims for tenderness from the father and remain tied to his mother. Another variant is where the libidinal energy mobilized in the Ishmael Complex is redirected entirely to intellectual, artistic, political, or other pursuits.
4. Karen Horney has frequently referred to the neurotic need for affection engendered by our competitive society. A significant factor in this neurotic craving may be the presence in large numbers of men of an unresolved Ishmael Complex.
5. The question may be raised whether the terms “Negro” and “colored” are synonymous. Although the category “Negro” does not exhaust the category “colored,” the Negro both psychologically and statistically is taken as the symbol of the colored person in the United States.
6. Some possibilities of evidence on this score are offered by Professor Arnold M. Rose of the University of Minnesota (29) who has suggested that the Negro may have taken a teacher role “…just after the civil War in the South when the greater body of skills were known to Negroes and the poor whites were learning them in order to take over the skilled workman jobs.”
- Altsheler, Joseph A. 1912. The Last of the Chiefs. New York: D. Appleton & Co.
- Charters, W. W. 1938. “Sixty-Four Popular Boys’ Books.” Library Journal 63: 399-400.
- Cooper, James Fenimore. 1898-99. The Leatherstocking Tales (The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers, The Prairie). Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co.
- Dana, Richard Henry. 1936. Two Years Before the Mast. New York: Random House.
- Davis, Allison, Burleigh B. Gardner and Mary R. Gardner. 1941. Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press.
- Davis, Allison and John Dollard. 1940. Children of Bondage. Washington, D. C.: American Council on Education..
- Davis, Allison and Robert J. Havigburst. 1947. The Father of the Man. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
- De Foe, Daniel. 1926. Robinson Crusoe. London: G. G. Harrap & Co.
- Deutsch, Helene. 1945. The Psychology of Women; A Psychoanalytic Interpretation. New York: Grune and Stratton, Vol. 1, Chap. VII, “Feminine Masochism,” and Vol. 2, Chap. VII: “Delivery.”
- Dollard, John. 1937. Caste and Class in a Southern Town. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, pp. 160-162.
- Ericson, Martha C. 1963. “Child Rearing and Social Status.” American Journal of Sociology 52(3): 190-192.
- Erikson, Erik Homburger. 1942. “Hitler’s Imagery in German Youth.” Psychiatry 5: 475-493.
- Fiedler, Leslie. 1948. “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in Huck Honey.” Partisan Review 15: 664-671.
- Fromm, Erich. 1941. Escape from Freedom. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc.
- Gorer, Geoffrey. 1948. The American People. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, pp. 125-132.
- Grinnell, George B. 1900. Jack Among the Indians. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co.
- Hellersherg, Elizabeth F. 1947. “Social and Cultural Aspects in Guidance Work and Psychotherapy.” The Am. J. Orthopsychiatry 17: 4.
- Henry, George W. 1941. Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns, Vol. 1. New York: Paul B. Hober, Inc.
- Kirkpatrick, Clifford. 1936. “The Measurement of Ethical Inconsistency in Marriage.” Intern. J. Ethics July: 444-460.
- Lynd, Robert S. and Helen M. 1929. Middletown. New York: Harcourt, Brace Company.
- McLean, Helen V. 1946. “Psychodynamic Factors in Racial Relations.” Ann. Am. Acad. Pol. Soc. Science 244: 165.
- Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1927. Sex and Repression in Savage Society. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., Inc.
- Mead, Margaret. 1943. And Keep Your Powder Dry. New York: Morrow, pp. 41-49 and 80-98.
- Melville, Herman. 1949. Moby Dick, or the Whale. New York: The Modern Library.
- Myrdal, Gunnar. 1944. An American Dilemma. New York: Harper & Bros., Appendix 5 (pp. 1073-10), “A Parallel to the Negro Problem.”
- Nordhoff, Charles. 1924. The Pearl Lagoon. Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press.
- Rankin, Marie. 1944. Children’s Interests in Library Books of Fiction. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, p. 28.
- Reich, Wilhelm. 1946. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Translated by Theodore P. Wolfe. New York: Orgone Institute Press, p. 40-52.
- Rose, Arnold M. Personal Communication.
- Schaffner, Bertram. 1948. Father Land: A Study of Authoritarianism in the German Family. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Sear, Robert R. 1947. Survey of Objective Studies of Psychoanalytic Concepts. New York: Social Science Research Council.
- Seward, Georgene H. 1946. Sex and the Social Order. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., p. 158-161.
- Sterba, Richard. 1947. “Some Psychological Factors in Negro Race Hatred and in Anti-Negro Riots,” Pp. 416-41 in Psychoanalysis and the Social Sciences, Vol. 1. International Universities Press.
- Tarkington, Booth. 1920. Penrod. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Co.
- Tarkington, Booth. 1919. Penrod and Sam. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Co.
- Clemens, Samuel Langhorne (Twain, Mark). 1912. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York and London: Harper & Bros.