Part 21: Oedipus And The Complex
Freud's interpretation of the Oedipus myth was that men had an inherent desire to have sex with their mother and kill their father. This is unlikely, because it makes the basic assumption that psychology depends critically on gender. But even now we consider incest a sin, which warps our view of the myth. In fact, Oedipus' incest was unimportant.
If incest was not Oedipus' sin, what was?
Consider Oedipus' relationship with his father. They met in the pass leading to Delphi; Laius coming and Oedipus going. Laius demanded precedence, which he expected was his right. Laius had that right by virtue of his position:
as an elder,
as Oedipus' father (though neither knew it) and
as King of Thebes (though traveling incognito).
Laius was thus triply representative of community values. He was the symbol of all that was desirable for the stability of civilization and the preservation of the human species.
Oedipus, however, was a Hero who valued his own will before anything else.
The Hero is the ultimate individualist. If he were not he would not be seeking fame through individual combat with other Heroes and mythical beasts. Oedipus would not give way. He could not give way and be true to his character.
But Laius had the dignity of his position as embodiment of civic values, so he couldn't give way either.
They had to fight, and in the scuffle Laius was killed.
Were it just a battle between two Greek warriors Laius' death would be appropriate, because Laius had already made one attempt on Oedipus' life by having him abandoned in the wilderness. Poetic irony would require that Oedipus get revenge for that attempted murder, even if neither knew what the crime was that was being revenged.
But this wasn't just a fight between individuals, it was the epic symbolic battle between the individual and the community. By entering into that battle Oedipus proved that he was the ultimate kind of sociopath, the nonconforming individualist.
After this Oedipus met the Sphinx, challenged and conquered it, and saved Thebes. As the rescuing Hero he was given the usual reward, i. e., he was married to the recently widowed queen so he could be made king. He did all the things necessary to be a Heroic savior of Thebes.
If Oedipus was not a sociopathic individualist the scenario would not have happened, because Oedipus would have cowered in Thebes with the other respectable, conventional citizens until they all starved to death. Neither Oedipus nor Thebes would have been heard of again, much less be featured in a primary myth.
Oedipus' character as a Hero was necessary to the salvation of Thebes in a crisis, just as Oedipus' character as an individualist was a danger to Thebes when there was no crisis.
Thus Oedipus' individualism was, from the standpoint of the community, simultaneously Oedipus' greatest virtue and greatest sin.
This is the Oedipal Dilemma; that we do not have a choice between conformity and individuality. The Oedipus Complex is the circumstance that in order to preserve the species we must be both individual and conformist.
If this were just a story of an aberrant individual it would not be half so interesting. What makes the Oedipus myth resonate so strongly that people with no knowledge of the rest of greek mythology are familiar with Oedipus is that all of us repeat the Oedipal trauma.
How does the Oedipal Dilemma work in the individual?
It happens at the threshold of becoming a person. The infant has no language but it has a powerful intelligence and intuition. All it has to work with is body language and the utterance of frightening cries or seductive coos. With only those tools it still manages to manipulate its parents into providing food and shelter.
As all non-linguistic animals are, the infant is sensitive to emotional atmosphere. It intuitively recognizes and responds to its parents' fears. A particular parental fear is that the child will not be a person, but a monster-birth. If it is a monster-birth it may well be allowed to die like Oedipus was. At the very least it will not be loved and it is likely to be neglected and abused.
The ultimate monster-birth is when the infant will not become a person, i. e., if it cannot learn to use language. "Baby's first word" is a terrible source of anxiety, and a relief when it finally comes. There is a storm of emotion just at the time the infant is expected to learn to speak.
And yet, as an animal that lives by its intuition and has no concept of language, how is the poor baby to understand what is expected of it? How can it know what it must do in order to live? But somehow it manages, under the most trying of circumstances.
This is the most creative act that a human is capable of, the recognition that the strange noises its parents are making have symbolic significance, and that it must make those noises in strict conformity to those its parents are making.
Because most of us manage to cross that threshold we take it for granted. But it is hard to imagine a more terrifying situation. We must understand that if the child does not show that it is human, its parents, who are the source of nurture, love and life, are also its potential executioners.
We must try to understand that intellectually, because we cannot remember it.
Keeping the complex image of the parents as life givers and as executioners is too much to expect. What we do to protect ourselves is forget: in psychological jargon we 'repress' the memory of the Oedipal Trauma. But a fear that great cannot be eradicated. It floats in the repository of the unremembered to return when it is needed.
Whenever we are non-conformist, deliberately or accidentally, the Oedipal fear recurs as a fear without referent: at different times we experience it as embarrassment or shame, as guilt, as free floating anxiety, as existential dread, or whatever the current popular term might be.
That is the power the Superego has to control our behavior.
That fear returns in a chronic form when we approach the ultimate nonconformity, the creative act. Being creative resonates with that sublime act of creativity, our reinvention of the concept of language, to provide that terrible anxiety that is the ultimate barrier to creativity.
This explanation seems straight-forward, even if it is hard to accept because it resonates with our deepest fears. But Freud was a brilliant student of mental functioning. Why would Freud have interpreted the clear myth of Oedipus as a biological level sexual phenomenon? And why ignore the fact that women function the same way as men aside from a few customs and some reproductive biology?
Freud developed his theory in Victorian Vienna, where the community values were symbolized by the authoritarian father, and love (which was equated with sex) by the mother. The Oedipal Dilemma was easily dichotomized: the need for individuality symbolized by conflict with the father, the need for nurture associated with love from the mother.
Because sexual desire was taboo in public and ubiquitous in private in middle-class Imperial Vienna, so was motherhood and the female gender in general. The repression that Freud experienced was clearly of his subculture.
However, even after stripping the parochialities of the Freudian theories we still have Oedipus as a potent symbol of the need both for the expression of individuality and for conformity to community values. We are all subject to that conflict, and will continue to be its captive till we can free ourselves.