Show Summary Details

p. 494. Oedipuslocked

  • Daniel Pick


‘Oedipus’ considers the Oedipus complex, a pivotal but much criticized idea in psychoanalysis. Freud suggested the ancient story of the murder of the father and union with the mother has such power because it resonates with a psychic truth about archaic states of mind in all of us. The psychological, anthropological, and political implications of Freud’s account have been much explored. It can be argued that with its focus upon such core triangular relationships in the mind it affords a useful perspective, and one with considerable purchase on psychic truth and people’s lived experience. Whatever the particular familial details, analysts would argue, the Oedipus complex plays a fundamental part in personality structuring.

Ever since Freud formulated the Oedipus complex, wrote the analyst Hanna Segal, ‘it has been recognized as the central conflict in the human psyche—the central cluster of conflicting impulses, phantasies, anxieties and defences. It has therefore become the centre of psychoanalytic work.’ It is indeed a pivotal idea in psychoanalysis, and one that has also been the source of withering criticisms.

Freud’s ideas about Oedipus garnered enormous cultural interest and admiration too; for many it became an organizing model and a key to self-revelation. When Woody Allen created a sketch, ‘Oedipus wrecks’, for the movie New York Stories, the Freudian reference to the unfortunate King (Rex) and the condition to which he gave his name could be lightly assumed: Allen expects the audience to ‘get it’. No doubt there would be puzzlement in some parts of the world about the joke, but the Oedipus complex must be among the most famous psychological ideas of the 20th century. The New Statesman magazine may have oversold Freud when it opined in the 1920s that ‘we are all psychoanalysts now’, but it captured nonetheless the excitement that was provoked by such core ideas from the talking cure.

This story begins in the 1890s, the period in which Freud was rethinking hysteria. In fact, Freud concluded, the two p. 50issues—hysteria and Oedipal wishes—are related. In 1926, he wrote of how obsessional compulsions and hysterical symptoms might stem from ‘the necessity of fending off the libidinal demands of the Oedipus complex’. It was not the wishes, so much as the desperate quest to be rid of them altogether that caused the most trouble.

Small children do sometimes say out loud that one day they will marry mummy or daddy, before the penny drops that they cannot; even the expression of this wish may in some families be regarded as unacceptable. But whether or not the desire can be articulated freely, we all have to deal during infancy with the knowledge that enacting it would be impossible, and profoundly taboo. Freud found his inspiration in Greek myth: there you saw what happened when the gods permitted paternal murder and incest between son and mother to run their course: the result was tragedy.

The fate of Oedipus, set out in Sophocles’ dramas, formed part of a larger network of myths. Freud explored the plot and took it as a useful means of understanding interior life: a baby cast out into the world, or here actually abandoned to die by its parents (convinced that thereby they would prevent a foretold disaster), surprisingly survives, is cared for by others, and eventually returns, unwittingly, in the direction of the very place from which he had been ejected. It is fated that Oedipus will meet and kill his father, blind to the knowledge of whom he is fighting; he is also destined to marry and sleep with his mother, oblivious about (or at least turning a ‘blind eye’ to) whom he is coupling with, thereby producing children who are both siblings and progeny. To deny vital differences between generations in this way brings catastrophe, whichever way around that denial occurs. Parents and children eventually have to let each other go.

This ancient story of the murder of the father and union with the mother—or alternatively matricide and union with the father—has such power, Freud suggested, because it resonates with a psychic truth about archaic states of mind in all of us. It horrifies us, he p. 51thought, because it is so close to the bone. Variations of the story of incestuous disaster often come back to haunt us, even when Freud’s name is not invoked. Indeed, certain grotesque crimes have been much in the news lately, leading to renewed debates about the damage inflicted upon a person when Oedipal desire, or its reverse (the parent who seeks totally and brutally to possess the child as their thing) is enacted in psychotic form. At the very extreme was the monstrous case that came to light in Austria in 2008, of Elisabeth Fritzl, held in a secret dungeon for more than twenty years and repeatedly raped by her father, Josef. The daughter’s babies born into this nightmare captivity were her siblings.

When Oedipus’s wife and mother learned what had happened between them, she killed herself. He stabbed out his eyes with her brooch. Even then the tragedy was not complete: it resonated across generations. Freud wrote to a friend, Wilhelm Fliess, in 1897:

the Greek myth seizes on a compulsion that everyone recognizes because he has felt traces of it in himself. Every member of the audience was once a budding Oedipus in phantasy, and this dream-fulfilment played out in reality causes everyone to recoil in horror, with the full measure of repression which separates his infantile from his present state.

Freud sought to give a rough periodization, suggesting these desires reach their most intense phase for a child between the ages of three and five. This he considered a period of crisis and transition, involving loss, anxiety, and guilt. How we meet or seek to evade the task of ‘moving on’ is relevant, Freud argued, to many aspects of mental functioning. The negotiation of the Oedipus complex, so it was claimed, shapes the way we relate to others and assume that others relate to us.

Analysts continue to use Freud’s Oedipal account; the model provides a vantage point through which to explore, for instance, how certain jealousies, wishes, and counter-wishes about p. 52possessing parents or feeling dispossessed by them may be stirred up later in life, including in analysis. Oedipus also offers us a means of conceptualizing infantile psychic development. Subsequent work with children provided evidence to support and to complicate Freud’s assumptions. Klein, for example, believed that these conflicts and desires appeared much earlier than Freud had assumed.


A sense that something was missing, or misconceived, in the original account led to challenges as well as subsequent elaborations. The Oedipus complex offers a model to look at one aspect of psychic life, but by privileging it analysts arguably risk missing or underestimating other considerations.

As the analyst Juliet Mitchell has recently suggested, this focus may have led people to pay too little heed to the psychic significance of siblings, real and imagined; the traumas of displacement and loss for the existing child when a new baby arrives, and sibling desire for each other, are perhaps less well theorized than the ‘vertical’ relationship to parents, although, admittedly, the ‘horizontal’ relationship had appeared in many earlier analytic contributions too, for example in a suggestive paper in 1950 by Bion entitled ‘The Imaginary Twin’.

Freud’s model aroused admiration for its stark simplicity, and continuing criticism for its limitations and blind spots. In the 1920s, the anthropologist Malinowski, who respected Freud, also famously disputed his universalizing claims about the Oedipus complex, writing of cultures with very different kinship systems to those psychoanalysis assumed as standard. Freud’s defenders, such as Ernest Jones, argued that the underlying predicament was not in fact so different, whether it might be a father, an uncle, or some other figure representing the key anchor point, beyond the mother, in the life of the infant.

p. 53Among the most stirring critiques of Freud’s theory was Anti-Oedipus (1972) by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and analyst Felix Guattari. It argued, among other things, that Freud created a kind of ‘Holy Family’, no less constricting than old, religious versions of the same. This ‘daddy–mummy–me’ triangle (Freud’s ‘referential axis’, as they put it) was a highly ideological imposition, constraining the multiplicity of human possibilities into a single, ‘dreary’ scheme. Oedipus, they declared, was a psychological imperialism, with the analysts enacting the very thing they described: the remorseless ‘law of the father’. The story of desire, they pointed out, could be written in countless other ways. In short, they refused to accept Freud’s Oedipal account. Some critics of these critics (including analysts stung by direct mockery of them in Deleuze and Guattari’s writings) accused them in turn of enacting, like some other rebels of the 1968 student movement calling for the overthrow of the state, an infantile ‘revolt against the father’.

The primal scene

In considering infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex, Freud not only made the point that we can feel included or left out, but also that we acquire, early on in life, particular assumptions about our parents’ sexual relations. Indeed, a vision of their sexual act, Freud thought, comes to be repressed. ‘Primal scene’ is the shorthand analysts use to mean the basic idea or image of parental intercourse that exists in somebody’s mind, whether or not they have witnessed or heard their mother and father’s sexual activity directly. For example, is the intercourse imagined as fundamentally loving, mutually enjoyed, hated by one or both, or primarily aggressive and sadistic in intent?

In a landmark text, From the History of an Infantile Neurosis, Freud described such a primal scene in the mind of a patient dubbed the ‘Wolf Man’. This aristocratic Russian, whose real name became widely known, had arrived for analysis with Freud in p. 54Vienna in 1910, his life severely shadowed by depression and other psychological problems. It was in his exploration of this patient’s terrifying dream, featuring wolves sitting in a walnut tree, that Freud elaborated what he meant by the ‘primal scene’ (see Box).

The patient’s associations, Freud suggested, in terse fashion, led towards a particular moment: ‘A real occurrence—dating from a very early period—looking—immobility—sexual problems—castration—his father—something terrible’. Working over W’s associations, they arrived at the rudimentary image of the parents’ intercourse. In this particular case, the sexual act, which the patient linked to castration, apparently took place with the tiny child present in the room. His father was standing behind his mother, a position that gave their intercourse, for this patient at least, a more animal-like aspect. Freud speculated that W saw his

The Wolf Man’s dream

I dreamt that it was night and that I was lying in my bed. (My bed stood with its foot towards the window; in front of the window there was a row of old walnut trees. I know it was winter when I had the dream, and night-time.) Suddenly the window opened of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window. There were six or seven of them. The wolves were quite white, and looked more like foxes or sheep-dogs, for they had big tails like foxes and they had their ears pricked like dogs when they pay attention to something. In great terror, evidently of being eaten up by the wolves, I screamed and woke up. My nurse hurried to my bed, to see what had happened to me. It took quite a long while before I was convinced that it had only been a dream; I had had such a clear and life-like picture of the window opening and the wolves sitting on the tree. At last I grew quieter, felt as though I had escaped from some danger, and went to sleep again.

p. 55parents’ genitalia while they had sex, and that this was frightening, as though mother’s body was mutilated, their physical contact brutal. It supported the patient’s ‘conviction that castration might be more than an empty threat’. Castration, in the analytic context, means not only literally the fear of the disfigurement or removal of the testicles, but the dread of a punitive attack on the genitals, or, more symbolically, a traumatic reduction, even entire incapacitation and annihilation.

This case study provided a complex scheme to explain the layers of meaning associated with that primal scene over time: only in the light of later knowledge and understanding could W make some sense of what he had first witnessed at the age of eighteen months. The image was frequently stirred up, imbued retroactively with new meanings and interest. Freud called this effect Nachträglichkeit. It has been translated as ‘deferred action’ or ‘afterwardness’, and in French as ‘après coup’.

Freud suspected that the terrifying dream, associated with bestial appetites, contained not only fragments of memory from W’s early life, but also depictions of animals copulating witnessed elsewhere grafted on to the scene. Increasingly, this became linked to W’s own obsessions and desires. Freud noted that something in this scenario was both frightening and arousing to W. Analytic interest lies in what a person, as here, makes of their own primal scene, what kind of phantasy it contains, and what, après coup, comes to be associated with it.

W remained in contact with Freud after his treatment stopped. Indeed, he became the most celebrated, although among the more enduringly unhappy, of Freud’s former patients, and one who seemed in the end to belong to the psychoanalytic community and be cared for by it. Freud helped him financially during hard economic times. He had further analysis with Freud’s disciples too, but remained beset by problems including bouts of severe melancholia. He spoke later in interviews with some suspicion p. 56and bitterness of his experiences with Freud. Perhaps he gave to psychoanalysis in the end as much as, or more than, he obtained in return, not least by inspiring Freud’s conceptualization of deferred action and the primal scene.

Freud’s account of the Oedipus complex and the primal scene has also been taken up in many different kinds of inquiries, not just concerning patients’ pasts or phantasies about their analysts during treatment, but also, for instance, regarding public curiosity to discover the latest news about the trysts of so-called celebrities and power couples, young and old. (Judging by the literature, many have also wanted to read about Freud’s own sex life, or the lack of it, intent on knowing for sure whether he was faithful to his wife, or had an affair with his sister-in-law, as rumour has it.)

Children are, of course, often intently curious about where they come from and how they were made, and may well be simultaneously squeamish about the nature of their parents’ love lives. Getting the distance right can be difficult. In some families the very mention of sex may be excruciatingly taboo. But what more embarrassing fate for teenagers, however liberal the household, than witnessing steamy sex scenes at the cinema in the company of their mothers or fathers? It is most likely the proximity of the parents, rather than the film alone, or even at all, that makes them uncomfortable. Parents too may well squirm, of course, at looking on in such company.

Breaking away

Freud places the boy’s story centre stage, although the primary loss of the enveloping mother, inside whose body every new life begins, is shared equally by both sexes. Freud took up first the situation of an infant (boy) who imagines he is the exclusive object for mother, and she his. The illusion must be broken, the child obliged to cede this imagined place and come to recognize that it was never, in fact, quite his to start with: he is faced with the fact that he is part of a triangle, not simply fused, or even in a dyad. Arguably the p. 57full-blown version of the complex is but the end point of many earlier shocks, including the disturbance a baby may feel when the mother even inches away. One of Freud’s followers, Otto Rank, had made much of the trauma of birth; others such as Klein and Winnicott would pay particular attention to weaning.

In the nursery years, the infant has to contend with the mother’s comings and goings: she cannot be ever-present or all-obliging, indeed to be so would hinder development. The tiny child has to realize he can never be fused with her, never return to the womb, nor bask forever, uninterrupted in her arms. (Later analysts, such as the Hungarian émigré to the United States, Margaret Mahler, wrote of the infant’s own widening horizons, as it begins to ‘toddle’, moving exuberantly but also perhaps anxiously from the lap of the mother. This was not just a physical but also a psychical achievement, part of what Mahler called the ‘individuation-separation phase’.) Infants may want to wriggle free from their mothers’ embraces into a wider world, but parents also impose constraints upon the primary wishes to retain an early fusion. The infant realizes that there are rivals for her attention: he or she is not her only loved object.

The father not only brings his powerful claim upon the mother but also, as Lacan put it, symbolically says no. Father imposes his name (nom) and ‘non’ upon the child. He asserts his place with the mother, thus enforcing the taboo upon incest, a regulation that, Freud not unreasonably assumed, exists in all cultures. Whatever Freud ascribed to the paternal function, as many have noted since, this ‘third’ presence and vital ‘no’ is not necessarily imposed by an actual father. Evidently we all have a biological father, however remote he may be in our lives; but someone else may represent the third, or it might even be a figure existing inside the primary caregiver’s mind.

Recently there has been extensive discussion of the psychological consequences for children of single parents, conceived through new technologies (sometimes with surrogates), or brought up p. 58collectively in communes. It can be argued that when the father is not there, an infant might still fashion a paternal figure, as it were, from a friend, relative, or ancestral figure, or indeed from a mother’s lesbian partner. Others might question the very idea of calling this position necessarily ‘paternal’ at all. Yet we must become aware of a point of reference beyond the baby–mother dyad; ultimately of a world, indeed, of relationships for the mother. Each of us must recognize here how she has a mind, replete with her own longings and losses, and connections to others distinct from our own. A patient of mine once brought a dream in which his mother excitedly rushed up to him and said that she had just seen her own father, out of the blue, bearing cakes and presents. The patient knew that in reality his grandfather had abandoned his daughter (the patient’s mother) when she was two, never to return. Part of his work in analysis was to sort out what belonged to whom: where his mother’s grief really ended, and where his own began.

In their personal beliefs, analysts cover most of the spectrum of conventional political—and sexual political—views in modern secular societies. They too are influenced by their professional societies, by theory, and by the larger culture. At times some analysts, or analytic institutions, have been cautious or downright reactionary in referring to the life chances of children raised for instance by same sex couples; in other contexts, analysts individually or as a group have been more radical, or strikingly libertarian. Freud himself could be notably relaxed and questioning of social assumptions about sexuality, famously replying to an anxious mother with a homosexual son in a tolerant tone, and with a challenge to the knee-jerk assumption that his orientation was to be regarded as some pathology or defect in itself. Freud’s statements on such matters were not always consistent, however.

The key point for Freud was how a paternal figure breaks in upon the nursing couple. He wrote that the superego is heir to the Oedipus complex and p. 59

retains the character of the father, while the more powerful the Oedipus complex was and the more rapidly it succumbed to repression (under the influence of authority, religious teaching, schooling and reading), the stricter will be the domination of the super-ego over the ego later on—in the form of conscience or perhaps of an unconscious sense of guilt.

The desire to do away with his rival, most notably the father, presents acute problems: it leaves infant and mother alone, but also bereft; it brings fear, and potentially remorse. Freud suggests that the wish for complete union with the mother comes up against the terror of the subject’s own annihilation. The infant cannot ignore all of this, cannot ‘foreclose’ as Lacan later put it, with regard to this paternal (or at least ‘third-ness’) function, if he or she is to enter the symbolic dimension of language and law, and avoid psychosis: we are obliged to turn elsewhere, realizing that neither mother nor father can be ‘ours’ in this sense. (Lacan uses a legal term, foreclosure, to suggest a contract that was found to be null to start with, so an Oedipal negotiation was never really made at all.)

Failure to renounce this primary expectation for fusion and possession comes at a heavy cost. Freud set in train a rich seam of inquiries, also pursued by other analysts, into the consequences—when denial, or worse foreclosure, of the Oedipal situation occurs. Freud was particularly interested in the narcissistic blow that all of this brings, as each of us moves from a position as ‘his Majesty the Baby’, a being for whom practically everything is done, and who may well be treated for a time as the most important person in the world, above all to his mother. To continue to believe ever after, ‘l’État, c’est moi’ would indeed be delusional.

Gender trouble

The implications of Freud’s Oedipal account for theories of homosexuality and for understanding femininity and masculinity p. 60have been much debated. Freud, as we have seen, rather privileged the male and heterosexual position. Indeed, even among his followers such assumptions about the consequences of the anatomical differences between the sexes, and the distinct manner in which boys and girls have to deal with their Oedipal problems, were contested. Several women analysts, such as Karen Horney, were among the most vigorous in their challenges to Freud’s assumptions.

Freud’s accounts suggested the girl has the worse of it, and not only because of cultural norms and prejudices. Some commentators have argued that we should see Freud’s presentation as descriptive: charting the mores and neuroses of a particular patriarchal society. Others highlight the way he was prescriptive—suggesting it must always be thus because ‘anatomy is destiny’.

Freud believed, controversially, that the infant girl experiences herself as already castrated: her genitals, less visible, are perceived, so he assumed, as lacking her brother’s desirable penis. (A crucial point reinforced by Lacan, however, is that the penis, the actual member, is not the ‘phallus’; this latter signifies the totemic version of the penis ascribed wondrous powers to restore, complete, and fulfil. Nobody has that magical plenitude. We are all in a state of lack.) Like the boy, the girl must give up her exclusive and all-possessive relationship to the mother; she looks to her father. But then he cannot be hers either; again, like her brother, she has to turn outside the immediate family for another love object. Freud also thought, contentiously, that the girl might seek (in phantasy, via her father) a baby as some compensation for her ‘lack’ of the penis. He gave less thought to boys’ and men’s envy of women’s capacity to have babies.

Whereas both sexes have to move out, the heterosexual male has switched from one woman to another; the heterosexual woman from mother to father, to another man. Freud believed the girl’s (ambivalent) tie to the mother was always, in a sense, more intense and difficult. Her double switch here (of the object and of p. 61its gender) was part of the reason why Freud thought sexuality often proved more complicated for girls than boys. Many feminist commentators took issue with Freud’s account; some, such as Hélène Cixous, arguing that the girl’s marginal position gave her a greater chance of escape from the suffocating ‘phallocentric’ order. Thus, far more than the boy, the girl might come to enjoy freedom from the superego and the ‘paternal law’. Be that as it may, few if any serious clinicians would now hold exactly to Freud’s original formulation, in which the girl is simply destined to be the one most prone to bear the envy and suffer the greater sense of lack.

Freud’s ideas about Oedipus have continued to resonate in discussions of identity and of sexuality ever since. Lacan’s emphasis upon the way we long to discover the desire of the other is also relevant here. A boy or girl, for instance, may want to be a ‘real man’ or ‘authentic woman’, but actually be fulfilling what he or she unconsciously imagines to be the unspoken desires of their parents for him or for her.

Although the boy has an apparently less serpentine route, things soon grow more complicated for him too. Freud presupposes that infant boys and girls alike desire the parent of the same sex, so there is a negative as well as a positive Oedipus complex. Each may wish to merge with, possess, or be possessed by the father and the mother. We are all caught, as we work out our Oedipal situation and identifications, between wanting to have and to be, and not to have or to be, these primary figures. We have to ‘get away’, but our difficult struggles amid these early conflicted loves, hates, and fears are likely to resurface sometimes, whatever our age.

A certain style of character may also be used as a disguise, to hide qualities that we imagine others will find unpalatable. Or a persona may be acquired in order, consciously or unconsciously, to curry favour and ward off perceived attack all at once. The analyst Joan Riviere observed this when she suggested how male fears of women, and women’s concern about that masculine fear, p. 62encouraged a coy and easily accommodating form of femininity; this was a ‘masquerade’ played out because women suspect that men find their intellectual capacities and strength unwelcome and threatening. Such ideas are relevant in both analytic theory and practice. Our second-guessing about other minds may be well founded, or wide of the mark, but either way it is pertinent in understanding the nature of mind. In analysis, patients may similarly be grappling with the question: what do analysts really want, and what can they stand?

Freud’s account assumes a kind of rise, fall, and later revival of burning Oedipal feelings. He suggested such preoccupations become more subdued in most children around the age of five or six and then re-emerge with force in puberty, to be reworked as part of the process of adolescence.

The psychological, anthropological, and political implications of Freud’s account have been much explored. Historians and social scientists point out that some of the concepts at stake (adolescence, the nuclear family, and so on) are not constant across the ages, nor geographically uniform. The very idea of infancy and childhood is profoundly shaped by culture and place. Nonetheless, it can be argued that the Freudian account of Oedipus, with its focus upon such core triangular relationships in the mind, affords a useful perspective, and one with considerable purchase on psychic truth and people’s lived experience. Indeed, whatever the particular familial details, analysts would argue, the Oedipus complex plays a fundamental part in the structuring of the personality.