by Rob Weatherill
Oedipus is sometimes regarded as a joke inside (and outside) psychological/psychiatric circles today. By Oedipus we mean the ‘Oedipus Complex’ to be precise, as defined by Freud during the middle of his career. For Freud, the Oedipus Complex was central to his theory of the mind. Towards the end of Totem and Taboo, Freud summarises his thinking thus: “The beginning of religion, morals, society and art all converge in the Oedipus Complex” (Freud, 1913: 165). Thus, everything important in mental life is centered around the Oedipus Complex. These days people reject Freud’s insight quite glibly. Even psychotherapists are inclined to join in the joke about ‘killing your father and sleeping with your mother!’ Ha! Someone who works in the psi field (i.e., in the area of psychology/psychiatry/psychotherapy, etc.) told me she mentioned psychoanalysis to a colleague who was unaware psychoanalysis was available in Ireland! In fact, psychoanalysis was started in Ireland in 1942 by Jonathan Hanaghan. She had assumed that therapy or counseling these days was all about so-called evidenced-based CBT, DBT or mindfulness. Even some psychoanalytic psychotherapists regard Oedipus as just a cliché or a mere banality.
In an attempt to analyse this possible loss of a great theory, I wrote The anti-Oedipus Complex (Weatherill, 2017), following an earlier work, Forgetting Freud: Is Psychoanalysis in Retreat? (Weatherill, 2011). I was concerned that psychoanalysis would disappear altogether. What we should regard as a unique and beautifully complex theory of subjectivity – the only one we have – might finally be lost to a world of quick fixes, scientific reductionism, neurology and rapidly changing social conditions.
It is fair to say that psychoanalysts have never got their message out clearly to a wider public in Ireland, for a number of reasons. Most importantly, the difficulty of understanding the depth, and some would say the depravity, of this (Oedipal) narrative of human nature in an essentially post-religious world. The sins of Oedipus are just too much to take seriously in a postmodern world in which nothing is taken too seriously; where blame is turned outwards, leaving the subject a victim without responsibility.
Then, more trivially, the numbers of analysts were too small, we lacked confidence in the complex theories and our ability to communicate them; the theories were too academic to disseminate; we were/are too divided amongst ourselves to put out a coherent message; the ideas were too ‘foreign’ and Jewish in a Catholic culture. As therapy culture finally got going in Ireland during the 1980s, Freudian psychoanalysis was rejected by many as out-of-date, patriarchal, even though it inspired and continues to inspire many of the developments in that same therapy culture.
The Oedipus Complex stands for endemic psychical conflict, the (partial) resolution of which Freud regarded as critical for maintaining mental health – the best that can be achieved given constraints of civilisation and the compromises needed, between drive and morality.
We recall that Oedipus, in the Sophoclian myth, unconsciously – thus without knowing it at the time – killed his father and married his mother. Later he discovers the shocking truth of what he has done. For most of his working life as a psychoanalyst, Freud maintained that the Oedipal myth is the key to our mental life. Freud discovered the Complex through his own self-analysis. He tells Fliess, “I have found in my own case too, falling in love with the mother and jealousy of the father, and I now regard it as a universal event of early childhood…” (Freud, 1897: 265). He asserted that, “Every new arrival on this planet is faced with the task of mastering the Oedipus Complex” (Freud, 1905: 226). Thus:
Psychoanalytical anthropology seeks to uncover the triangular structure of the Oedipus Complex, which it holds to be universal, in the most varied cultures, including those where the conjugal family is not predominant.
(Laplanche & Pontalis, 1973: 283).
What is at stake is the transition in every small child’s life from nature to culture: from the mother’s womb and suckling (nature), to the father and insertion into the world of meanings (culture). Without the very substantial presence of a kind but firm father (or equivalent, but it is typically the father) the child may not properly enter the world as such but remains on the border (borderline), between nature and culture or indeed in the worst cases, from a psychoanalytic perspective, becomes psychotic, perverse, autistic or psychopathic.
Put simply, the Oedipus Complex represents the outworking of loving and hostile wishes which every child experiences towards its parents which are then transferred into all subsequent social relations, including the special transference relation with the analyst. We are born to our mothers with whom we have formed a bond of intense love, only to be taken from her embrace after a short few years by the father (or his representative) and thus led out into the world reluctantly and ambivalently – that is, we hate him (and could kill him) for taking us away from her love. Very complex derivatives of these loving and hating impulses, incest and parricide, and the defences against them, persist into adult life hidden in the unconscious, waiting to be interpreted (if they are too troublesome) by the psychoanalyst. But the massive resistance to knowing, or what the French analyst Lacan (1972-3) referred to as the “passion for ignorance” (110), or Bion (1967) called ‘K’, is the main reason why Oedipus is conveniently disregarded. Thus, the Oedipus Complex will be laughed out of court and, along with it, the discrediting of psychoanalysis itself. But as the old adage goes, such laughter is “at the expense of all serious things” (Nietzsche, 1886: 231). Even psychoanalysts themselves fight shy of the radicality of Freud’s original insight, preferring to let the idea drop, fall out of fashion, in favour of feminism, queer theory, political activism, and so on. Recall also, even Oedipus himself was so troubled by his own discovery about himself that he gouged out his eyes. Freud (1905) was so clear about the importance of Oedipus that he suggested, “Its recognition has become the shibboleth that distinguishes the adherents of psychoanalysis from its opponents” (226). The best known postmodern philosopher and populariser of Lacan, Slavoj Žižek (2006), has suggested, “We should elevate the unfortunate ‘Oedipus Complex’ to the dignity of ontology” (405).
Thus, the normal but often intense love-hate relations which co-exist and persist in the unconscious within families between siblings, between the generations, and between genders, people generally try to resolve and heal without help. The family is, and always has been, regarded as the glue that binds a society together, but unresolved Oedipal struggles can drive them apart, especially when incest or murder actually come to pass.
Freud said that psychoanalysis was ‘a cure through love’ (see Bettelheim 1983, iv). Thus, the patient comes to analysis always feeling in some strong sense bereft of love, and thus troubled by hate and depression. The analytic task is to gradually come to hypothesise the unique Oedipal configuration underlying these feelings. The patient’s speech, dreams, jokes and slips of the tongue eventually betray Oedipal derivatives for those well trained enough to hear. That great transition from nature to culture at the heart of the Oedipus Complex has survived via reformulation and de-sexualisation in more scientifically acceptable terms as attachment theory (Fonagy, 2001).
The repressed Oedipal wishes (for love) try to sneak their way back into our lives today together with our denials and insistence that there is very good reason to complain about my boss, my friend, my partner, my analyst and so on, all of whom in no way value me sufficiently – today I insist! I resent them greatly for not appreciating me, but I feel guilty for secretly wishing them ill. I try to hide my negative feelings and occasionally feel depressed or sometimes I just hate myself and wonder how anyone could love me. Or I may be obsessive as I try not to hurt the other, which would incur losing their love. Or these days I may become panicky and anxious as the drives try to break through the repression barrier. Or I might set up extreme ideals to make myself worthy of (impossible) love and thus damage my mind and body by working too hard. One way or another I still crave the (lost) love of the (m)other. All these vicissitudes of the drives and defences need to be: 1) confronted-clarified, then 2), interpreted, and, most importantly, 3) worked through again and again during the process of analysis. This working through is key because intellectual understanding precedes deeper emotional understanding. As Freud (1926) stresses, “The power of the compulsion to repeat – the attraction exerted by the unconscious prototypes upon the repressed instinctual process – has still to be overcome” (199). Freud clearly means this is an uphill struggle. The interpretation of the Oedipal conflict is the easiest part and just the beginning.
The point about the anti-Oedipus Complex is that this great effort at Oedipal resolution and healing, which is imperfect at the best of times, has been scorned and reversed in the name of so-called liberation over the last half-century. In the 60s this became a whole political movement, a cultural revolution, on the radical fringes of the Left at first, then spreading to the mainstream. In the 80s it was met by the new Right and the Thatcher-Reagan ‘greed is good’ neo-liberalism ideology, which had a further corrosive effect on mental health. The two revolutions together created a perfect storm – the globalisation of unfettered enjoyment accompanied by a mental health crisis. The Left deconstructed all taboos and the Right provided the energy for enjoyment unlimited via the market. The new superego imperative was to enjoy and enjoy. Earlier, Marcuse (1964) called this ‘repressive desublimation’. The nihilistic conclusion to be drawn was that the greatest meaning in life could only be obtained from enjoyment, especially of a compulsive (repressive) autistic-addictive nature. The opioid crisis in America is now claiming more lives each year than in the whole of the Vietnam War. Capitalism was always there to respond to/fashion our needs. The market fanned the flames of hedonistic consumption. And we became increasingly and fatally attached to things.
Ostensibly, anti-Oedipus is about breaking the taboos (of the Father) and the ‘liberation’ of all formerly oppressed and excluded groups, accelerated paradoxically by the hyper-flexibility of the market. Total freedom! This rainbow effect is entirely utopian and hyperreal. This is either a wonderfully courageous experiment in nihilism and total openness, risking mental destabilisation of the many and/or the end of the West and its former values under the rubric of Nietzsche’s transvaluation of all values, currently being opposed around the world in the most vicious way possible by Islamism, as Terry Eagleton has pointed out (2014: 201).
If this meta-analysis citing de-Oedipalisation and desublimation is true in any sense, then we should find: 1) greater levels of incestuous desire, and 2) more violence. We have undoubtedly become more aware of the former (incest as sexual abuse) and its explosive increase via the internet is beyond question. Likewise, hate and violence seem to have mushroomed with the rise of identity politics and the divisive politicisation of everything via the net. The ‘personal has become political’ – a slogan from the 70s – now with a vengeance. It is a kind of no-holes-barred situation, where the poor and disadvantaged suffer most and the elites are increasingly out of touch.
I summarised the ‘a-Oedipus complex’ under just ten headings: 1) Excess of hate over love often turned against the self – self harming, 2) Retreat from Otherness of the other sex and the other generation, in favour of the self and the Same, 3) Rejection of and hatred for authority of any kind, 4) Predisposition to pre-Oedipal aims, infantile, demanding, ‘relating’ mainly to part objects, 5) In Lacanian terms, the imaginary and the virtual displace the Symbolic register (Evans, 1996: 201-3), 6) The notion of ‘complex’ implies a certain pseudo-stability, even an intense resistance to change, 7) Disavowal of reality, leading to borderline phenomena, 8) The replacement of the Ego Ideal and social values in favour of the tyrannical and narcissistic Ideal Ego on the one hand, and archaic superego on the other, 9) Failure to initiate and/or maintain relationships and the social bond, 10) Indifference to these developments.
Each of these deserves an explanation. What is undeniable is that without the father’s authority the drift towards emotivism, narcissism, regression and infantilisation – in short unfreedom – seems unstoppable. Any kind of dynamic psychotherapy must therefore anchor itself on the structuring principal of the Oedipus Complex if we are to convert neurotic suffering into ordinary human misery. Or to quote Freud from the last page of Studies in Hysteria,
I do not doubt that it would be easier for fate to take away your suffering than it would for me. But you will see for yourself that much has been gained if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better armed against that unhappiness.
(Freud & Breuer, 1893-5: 305)
Lacan (1971-72) had a succinct formula: Le père ou pire – the father or worse. Things may have been called bad under patriarchy but what comes next?
Rob Weatherill is a practising and supervisory psychoanalytic psychotherapist based in Dublin. He has written several books over the last quarter century, the most recent of which is The Anti-Oedipus Complex: Lacan, Critical Theory and Postmodernism (Routledge, 2017).
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