The mare, the Nightmare, the word MR

by Yule Heibel on October 1, 2003

Last night I had another chance to spend 90 minutes in the UVic libraries. Two weeks ago my random find was pigeons. This time I found Ernest Jones‘s treatise, On the Nightmare. He wrote this book between 1909-10, but it wasn’t published in English until 1931. Jones’s main thesis, worked out in great and damning historical detail, is that “…the malady known as Nightmare is always an expression of intense mental conflict centreing about some form of ‘repressed’ sexual desire.” The Nightmare is furthermore the expression of an extreme mental conflict, hence also an extreme sexual repression, viz. “… the Nightmare is an expression of a mental conflict over an incestuous desire.” (p.44)

Jones weaves together two disparate approaches: historical analysis of sexual repression, carried out primarily by the Church, from the Middle Ages onward; and linguistic analysis of the word mar, which forms the ending of Nightmare, and through which he gleans the sexual nature of his subject. And it’s about horses, too; read on.

So, first off: nightmares are expressions of repressed sexual desire, and to deflect from that truth, religious authorities in Europe tried to get people to think of them as expressions of demonic possession or satanic visitations. As a psychiatrist, Jones is interested in states of mental and physical health, and his inquiry into nightmares is motivated not least by the fact that they can be extremely dangerous to your health. He derides the two common approaches hitherto used to explain nightmares. The first he calls spiritual (supernatural), the second, pseudo-materialistic. The latter is the school of thought that blames it all on what you ate for dinner. But both ignore the psychological aspects: “When clerical belief ascribed nightmares to evil spirits and medical to bodily disturbances they both absolved the subject’s personality from any share in bringing them about. In modern language one would say simply that they represent alternative defences against admission of the unconscious.”

From here he launches a critique of the spiritualist camp, which he identifies with religion (and were he still alive, with New Age mumbojumbo):

Investigation shows that the underlying meaning of nightmare experiences is cognate with that of the various elements of folk belief which the Catholic church fused for three centuries into the unity known as devil worship or, alternately, the witchcraft epidemic. This the Church evidently regarded as a form of heresy, and conversely did its best to prove that all heresies were in essence devil-worship. To the Church the independpent judgement of the individual conscience so characteristic of all heresy betokened not only disobedience to authority and the apparently unrestrained clamour to do whatever one likes, but even more danger of reverting to ungovernable primitive behaviour which it is the main function of the Church, and indeed of all religions, to curb. The phrase ‘primitive behaviour’ is well exemplified in the maleficium and satanic orgies of the witches and can be more precisely defined as the reproduction, in direct or distorted forms, of the hatreds and perversions that, as Freud has shown, accompany the beginning of life, derive from the conflicts centreing around the incestuous phantasies of the infant, and persist in the unconscious mind of adults.

Religious leaders naturally take the view that any such primitve aspect of man needs too be checked or suppressed and that he should be guided by a quite different set of motives, moral ones inspired by various religious beliefs. It never occurs to him that what they offer as a substitute may not be something foreign, but the same thing refined, civilised and disguised beyond recognition. Yet psycho-analysis has been able to produce much evidence indicating that the highest forms of religious belief are sublimated and spiritualised expressions of the very impulses they so condemn. (…) Devil-worship seemed to be a rebellious and hostile reaction against Christianity, but it would be truer to describe it as a regression to the primitive levels from which Christianity had itself emerged; it was an intolerable exposure of the buried origins of the most sacred beliefs. Not devil-worship, but Christianity, was the reaction. (pp.7-8)

Searching around for an online version of Jones’s text — not available, alas — I came across Medieaeval Sexual Behaviour, a chapter from a book called Sex in History, by Gordon Rattray Taylor. The entire book is available online, and judging from the chapter I read, there’s no mincing of words. We start reading thus:

Rape and incest characterise the sexual life of the English in the first millenium of our era; homosexuality and hysteria the years that followed. The Christian missionaries found a people who, especially in the Celtic parts of the country, maintained a free sexual morality. On them, it sought to impose a code of extreme severity, and it steadily increased the strictness of its demands.
The Church never succeeded in obtaining universal acceptance of its sexual regulations, but in time it became able to enforce sexual abstinence on a scale sufficient to produce a rich crop of mental disease. It is hardly too much to say that medieval Europe came to resemble a vast insane asylum.

Taylor at one point cites Jones’s On the Nightmare as backup. Jones is trying to shine a light on the etiology of the Nightmare, for “No malady that causes mortal distress to the sufferer, not even seasickness, is viewed by medical science with such complacent indifference as is the one which is the subject of this book.” (p.13) Neglecting this distress is harmful: Jones ventures a direct link between cerebral haemorrhages occuring during sleep as being precipitated by Nightmares, during which blood pressure becomes elevated as the dreamer experiences shortness of breath and constriction in the chest area. (See Fuseli’s classic painting of the Nightmare, at right.) Jones traces the physical manifestation to a mental experience of what he calls Angst — fear to the nth degree:

Suffice it to say that the type of emotion designated as Angst is in general closely connected with sexual emotion, and in particular with pathological “repression” of it or with unsatisfactory functioning of what may broadly be called the psycho-sexual system of activities. (p.40)
Conflict of this fierce intensity never arises except over matters of sexuality, for on the one hand the sexual instinct is the source of our most resistless desires and impulses, and on the other no feelings are repressed with such iron rigour as are certain of those that take their origin in this instinct. (p.43)

The painting by Fuseli, incidentally, pulls out all the stops, and shows that a bit of art can be as good as years on the couch. It illustrates the experience of Nightmare with vigour and candour, and if you don’t get it, you need glasses: the woman’s body is convulsively arched in a nearly hysterical pose known as the arc-en-cercle position. The Incubus sits on her chest, causing pain and distress and shortness of breath, and from out of parted curtains that very clearly resemble labia emerges the gigantic, terrifying head of a horse, its mane ablaze. How her tiny little vessel — symbolized perhaps by the still chaste, if erect and for all intents and purposes trembling, water pitcher on the far right — could ever hope to resist this accretion of animal energy is of course a moot point. She can’t or won’t, and will be victimised again and again by the Night Terrors.

“…obscure moans, forced with difficulty and pain from the stifled penetralia of his bosom.” (Jones, 23, quoting a description of a man in the throes of Nightmare)

By now I had finished skimming the first parts of On the Nightmare and it was nearly time to retrieve my daughter from her choir practice. I had 20 minutes left to assimilate the final part of Jones’s book. This bit concerned his linguistic inquiry into the Indo-Germanic root word mar, which derives from the word MR, which originated even further back. At some point, the vowel sound was added. Here, Jones pulls together the most fantastic information, some of it frankly bizarre or offensive (you read this and think, were people really this stupid? were? still are!). Ok, as best as I can recall — because by now I didn’t have time to take notes — we derive one of our main words for horse, mare, from the word MR. We also associate speed with both the word and the animal. We also associate blazing or shiningfame — with the word and the horse. There were intricate explanations for the words to hop and the hobby-horse, and their phallic or sexual connotations. There was extensive review of MR’s infiltration of many of our everyday English words. There were explanations for the very word’s association with violence, with grinding, smashing, gnashing, as well as its association with flowing. Jones traced the very existence of the gutteral “r” to an association with the masculine and violent. He cited numerous cultural examples where the female population — especially the well-off and “refined” — began to eschew the “r” whenever it appeared in a word, typically replacing it with softer, flowing consonants. The French word for chair was originally the same in French, but then dropped the “r” and acquired an “se” to become chaise. Numerous other examples, in many European and Slavic languages, abound. (Important chairs — endowed seats, eg. — are still called chair in French, incidentally. The feminine chaise is reserved for the quotidien object.) MR became ML, and Jones shows all sorts of linkages to this transformation. In England it became fashionable during Victoria’s reign to sound the “r” like a “w”: vewwy instead of very. This was supposed to connote feminine civility, chivalry, and all that stuff. The “r” was a violent, nasty brute, banished from civilized society, just as piano “limbs” were covered in skirts in the decent parlour.

He illuminated paths that show how these words shaped by MR, and the concepts they embody, are associated with and sublimated into sexuality. The mare is ridden, of course, and riding has obvious sexual connotations, something that medieval witchhunters loved to probe into: witches rode broomsticks to sabbaths, and witches rode men (poor defenseless things) into frenzy. Riding itself is a metaphor for coitus. The horse sweats and shudders when exerted, we sweat and shudder during lovemaking. The horse sweats and gleams, it shines. Its mane shines like the rays of the sun. And here Jones takes the wildest leap, pointing back to the idea of flowing: the horse urinates prodigiously, its stream of piss a golden ray. And somehow — I really have to get a hold of this book again — the idea of pissing is tied to that of ejaculation, and of fame — shining, glowing, being in the spotlight — is tied together in some weird way. Which almost implies that if you’re a crazy narcissist, you perhaps have some kind of sexual disorder, because something is out of whack with your excessive desire to shine, or your deluded belief that you are shining. But if you’re afraid of fame, of being on stage, of having attention showered on you, then perhaps you’ve also got a sexual neurosis going on. As someone who would rather have chewed off her own leg than to have to “mingle” or shine, I found this very interesting. (Never mind that I’m perhaps narcissistically keeping a blog for anyone to read.)

The book’s call number is BF1078 J6 1951.

But now it’s late, and time to ride to dreamland…


brian moffatt October 7, 2003 at 7:10 am

Well, I always thought my fear of fame had something to do with my contempt for people. But now I find out it’s a neuroses, and a sexual one at that. And as a former performer – who suffered massive anxiety before gong ‘on stage’ – I would sometimes find myself in a position where the attention of women, after a show, was offputting. I assumed, of course, this was some sort of sexual neurosis – you know, fear of disease, fear of impregnating a compete stranger, fear of reconfirming that I tend to attract compete whackos (this is a fact). Fear of having, friends said. Fear and sexual repression. And now I blog. A place where I express my deepest nightmares, publically, on a sort of stage, without the vomitting, and zero chance of sexual congress with any fan. If you don’t think about it, it makes sense.

Good stuff.

Yule Heibel October 9, 2003 at 12:35 am

Too funny, bmo — I have to check out your blog now and find its hidden phallic symbols, mwah-hah-ha-ha!!!

But the performance anxiety — isn’t that just such a drag?? I mean, why didn’t anyone tell me that if I get an advanced degree in the humanities, I’d only be fit for college teaching, which involves standing in front of a bunch of people (mostly teenaged) and performing???? Oh god oh god oh god, if I’d known that, I would have become a chartered accountant or something….

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