Arguably Freud’s most controversial theory, possibly one of the most powerful and core aspects of the human psyche and probably one of the most debated subjects in the history of psychoanalysis, the Oedipus complex has been the bane of thousands stretching from as early as Greco-Roman times.
Briefly, an overview of Freud’s Oedipus complex (in all its decidedly masculine perspective) is:
The sudden outburst of carnal feelings from the child for the opposite sex parent in conjunction with inimical feelings for the parent of the same sex.
Freud adamantly asserted, first in The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900 and then later in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), that the Oedipal period of the child’s life (from between 3-6 years) was the crucial moment in which adult personality disorders later formed if unresolved. Due to the innate disharmony of the emotions felt towards both parents there is an overwhelming sense of ambivalence in regard to the father figure whom the boy has to identify with yet feel at odds due to the competition for the mother’s affections. To some extent there is conflicted feelings felt towards the mother due to the undercurrents of sexual desire contrasted with the inbuilt sense of the incest taboo. It is during the ages of 3-6 that the boy allegedly seeks genital stimulation and starts to develop subliminal desires for the mother as well as jealousy and hostility towards the father, now in the fixed position of rival and competitor. However Freud elaborated this proposition further by stating that the child feels additional guilt in respect to the father in that there is the underlying fear of punishment by castration at the hands of the father. At the tail end of this tumultuous period (5-6 years) the child should have begun to resolve the complex and this is the final stage of Oedipal trauma. While the effects may still reverberate later on in life they are technically separated from the initial feelings undergone in childhood. According to Freud the Oedipus complex is a normal and essential stage in the psychological growth of a human being and in his own words “the passing of the complex consolidates the masculinity in the boy’s character”
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The Oedipus complex derives its name from the protagonist of the acclaimed Sophocles Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex which tells the story of a man, Oedipus, cursed by fate to kill his father and marry his mother. Attempting to circumvent this undesirable outcome his parents abandoned him and ironically set this sequence of events in motion causing Oedipus to unwittingly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The idea of a curse of fate is very important as it correlates with Freud’s opinion that it is intrinsic in human nature, the famous quote from which Freud extrapolated and used to back much of his theory being: “Before this in dreams too, …many a man has lain with his mother”. It is from this single quote that Freud realised that this phenomenon was not only limited to himself and Sophocles but “many” men stretching back centuries
Like the Jacobean revenge tragedies that so captivated audiences because of their ability to act as a form of cathartic outlet for expressions of pent up rage and bloodthirsty sentiments the story of Oedipus Rex delivers the same effect and has fascinated audiences for thousands of years because of this same unconscious release for confusing and deliberately ignored or repressed feelings.
Since its discovery the Oedipus complex has caused global disturbances and controversy. It has been argued that the world was not, and still is not, ready to find out that the human race was inherently incestuous in nature. As a result of this a plethora of studies have been done in order to prove Freud wrong and to provide evidence that the Oedipus complex is not valid, not common or, valid but only in certain patriarchal societies. However Allen W. Johnson and Douglass Price-Williams would beg to differ as they argue in their anthropological psychiatric cross-study – Oedipus Ubiquitous:
“We found little evidence that the motif of the men of the family fighting over the women of the family was a property only of tales told in stratified patriarchal societies. On the contrary… the core tale of a boy who struggles to replace father as husband to his mother is remarkably widespread.
“Far from being diminished in strength the greater the distance from Freud’s Vienna, the tale can actually be bolder in remote societies…. In these tales the actors do not accidentally commit murder and incest, but act wilfully and without apparent guilt or remorse.”
This would seem to indicate that the myth of Oedipus is more far reaching than extreme critics that deny the existence of the Oedipus complex completely would have first believed and is not limited to patrilateral, class-structured societies as those that are more lenient have proposed.
Many authors have used the Oedipus theme in stories in order to offer a scandalous aspect used to shock, excite or entertain readers; for example in Time Enough For Love by Robert A. Heinlein the protagonist gives into his carnal feelings for his mother and as well the novel Paradise Lost by John Milton which features the character Death raping his mother Sin. Even to a reader with no prior knowledge of the Oedipus complex the idea of a son copulating with his mother while seeming abhorrent could invoke powerful feelings of guilt and even fear.
The most prominent work featuring the Oedipus complex is William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which many directors (most noticeably the version directed by Franco Zeffirelli) have laid undertones (or in the case of Mel Gibson overtones) of repressed Oedipal aggression which demonstrate the desire for the mother as well as the struggle to fulfil his filial duty in regards to the father. Supposedly this is the reason that Hamlet delays avenging his father for five acts; however having said this most psychologists, whilst analysing Hamlet, ignore ideas of Hamlet’s fear of damnation and his misinterpretations of how to exact revenge. Freud himself divulges that “it was not until the material of [Hamlet] had been traced back…to the Oedipus theme that the mystery of its effect was at last explained”, as well as giving his own interpretation behind the reason of Hamlet’s delay:
“Hamlet is able to do anything – except take vengeance on the man who did away with his father and took that father’s place with his mother, the man who shows him the repressed wishes of his own childhood realized. Thus the loathing which should drive him on to revenge is replaced in him by self-reproaches, by scruples of conscience, which remind him that he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish”
Subsequently after the death of his father in 1896 and suffering with mixed, guilty sentiments due to his own psychological flaws Freud happened to attend a performance of Oedipus Rex and it is after this reported attendance that Freud starts to use “Oedipus” in his analyses; however it is not until 1910 that the phrase “Oedipus complex” appears. A large component of Fromm’s criticism of Freud was that he projected too much of his own feelings on his theory, and perhaps, given its inception, this can be said to be true. After much revision Freud finally settled on this as a definition for the origin of the complex
“At a very early age the little boy develops an object-cathexis [fixation] for his mother…; the boy deals with his father by identifying himself with him. For a time these two relationships proceed side by side, until the boy’s sexual wishes in regard to his mother become more intense and his father is perceived as an obstacle to them; from this the Oedipus complex originates his identification with his father then takes on a hostile colouring and changes into a wish to get rid of his father in order to take his place with his mother. Henceforward his relation to his father is ambivalent; it seems as if the ambivalence inherent in the identification from the beginning had become manifest.”
For Freud the Oedipus complex was fundamental and inseparable element of the human condition as well as being a component of the third stage in what he called Psychosexual Development. Psychosexual development is the process during which personality and sexual behavior mature through a series of stages (Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latency and Genital) in childhood. Freud hypothesised that fixation at any of these stages, that is to say obsession with that particular erogenous zone or large expense of pleasure-seeking energies on behalf of the id, would result in personality traits in adulthood. Freud further stipulated that if anxiety was experienced at any stage then the child would later develop anxiety in relation to that stage. As he himself argues “the Oedipus complex is the nuclear complex of the neuroses…Every new arrival on this planet is faced with the task of mastering the Oedipus complex; anyone who fails to do so falls a victim to neurosis” From Freud’s point of view ‘neurosis’ encompasses a wide spectrum ranging from anguish to homosexuality. For example at the anal stage of psychosexual development fixation can manifest itself in two ways: anal retentiveness and anal explosiveness. Traits of an anal retentive include excessive neatness and a requirement for order, and anything in opposition to this causes anxiety, whereas on the other hand characteristics of an anal expulsive include recklessness, rebelliousness and disorganisation.
Girard in Violence and the Sacred offers an alternative view on the Oedipus complex by incorporating his theory of mimetic desire. Girard’s theory that the Oedipus complex does not include the child acknowledging the hostile feelings felt towards the same sex parent but does however feel guilt, albeit unknown, for provoking negative feelings in the parent. Mimetic theory states that the child, in order to emulate the father, reaches out for the father’s possessions or “objects” or what he hopes to obtain, which would include the mother. In this way the child in unaware of the reason of the negative feelings provoked in the father
“Girard’s view that Freud uses the Oedipus Complex idea to classify the child as ‘guilty’ – because he really does have the wish to commit incest with his mother – which fits Girard’s thesis of societies (in this case a ‘mini-society’ of the family) achieving cohesion by creating victims (in this case the child) who are seen as ‘guilty as charged’ and therefore deserving of their victimisation.”
Erich Fromm, a twentieth century philosopher and psychoanalyst, argued that Freud did not indeed have the entire picture behind the Oedipus complex. However Fromm’s criticisms are on the whole positive and Fromm admits a great deal of respect for Freud and his theories. Fromm stated that it was not conflict with the father figure but in fact any figure of parental authority. This was proved with a study on an avuncular society where from birth children were raised by their uncles. Fromm discovered that the children experienced similar feelings of conflict with the uncle despite the absence of a relationship between the father figure and the mother figure. This would seem to signify that the conflict is in fact with power and not “sexual rivalry” as Freud had hypothesised. Fromm’s criticism is fluidly worded in his essay “Individual and Secret Origins of Neurosis”:
“Freud states that the Oedipus complex is justifiably regarded as the kernel of neurosis… What Freud meant in his statement was this because of the sexual desire the little boy, let us say, has for his mother, he becomes the rival of his father, and the neurotic development consists in the failure to cope with the anxiety rooted in this rivalry in a satisfactory way…But I do not think that this conflict is brought about essentially by the sexual rivalry, but that it results from the child’s reaction to the pressure of parental authority, the child’s fear of it and submission to it.”
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Nevertheless having said all of this Fromm did not believe Freud to be entirely incorrect as he believed “the development of scientific thought is not one in which old statements are discarded as false and replaced by new and correct ones; it is rather a process of continuous reinterpretation of older statements”. Besides this Fromm wrote in a review of the founder of scientology L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics that “Freud’s aim was to help the patient to understand the complexity of his mind, and his therapy was based on the concept that by understanding one’s self one can free one’s self from the bondage to irrational forces which cause unhappiness and mental illness. This notion is part of the great Eastern and Western tradition from Buddha and Socrates to Spinoza and Freud” which thus reiterates the respect Fromm had for Freud and his insight into the human psyche.
As Freud’s version is almost exclusively from a male perspective, it has therefore come under a lot of feminist critique especially Freud’s equivalent theory for women – the Electra complex, coined by Carl Jung, (where the woman initially identifies herself with their mother until she realises she lacks a penis). Other opinions about women’s sexuality, which he himself confessed that he knew nothing about, have come under criticism especially about penis envy. Freud’s Oedipus complex incorporates women very badly by refusing to take into account that women have their own active sexual drive. DEVELOP?
Fromm believed that Freud projected too much of his own personal flaws into the Oedipus complex theory and as a result this distorted his diagnoses which “misinterpret the tendency of youngsters to rebel against patriarchal authority and to desire closeness with their mother.” What Fromm believed was that the attachment to the mother was utterly separate from “hostile rivalry” faced from the father. Another flaw that Fromm highlighted was the “well-known fact that sexual desires… are not characterised by great stability”, which puts forward the question: how are men supposed to retain a sexual bond with the mother for, apparently, decades given a large proportion of men do not find themselves fully bound to their wives after three years of “a sexually satisfactory marriage”? Fromm offers supplementary examples of little boys that are just as prepared to attach themselves sexually to girls of their own age even to the extent of disregarding their own mothers.
Furthermore Fromm offers his own estimation on the nature of the connection to the mother figure which as he sees it “wavers between the wish to find the mother again in another woman, and the wish to get away from mother and to find a woman who is as different from the mother figure as any woman possibly could be.” Fromm, as many others have said, wrote that Freud “distorted…it as a sexual phenomenon” when actually man’s attraction to his mother is rooted in the fear of losing her. A common utterance heard from children is “When father dies I will marry you, Mommy” which have been used by Freudians to prove that the extent of the rivalry goes to extent of killing the father but Fromm interprets it as “I wish father was away, so that I can get all her attention”, believing that a child’s concept of death is not quite as sophisticated and final as we adults claim to have. In my personal opinion when a child expresses the wish to marry someone – or in some cases something – they are in fact conveying the deepest pronouncement of love that they are aware of. Given this understanding the phrase becomes “when father goes away, I will take care of you” which is far removed from the murderous and gory Freudian point of view.
Fromm arrived at this tangent of separating the progression of relationships and distinguishing between sexual rivalry and a conflict of power by examining the Oedipus trilogy in its entirety, rather than looking at only Oedipus Rex. Discovering that paternal conflict is thematically present in all three books as opposed to the maternal fixation that only superficially occurs in Oedipus Rex he derived that the fundamental component of the Oedipus complex is the power struggle between fatherly authority and the rebellion desired by the child. Fromm additionally stated that the Oedipus trilogy is more about the conflict between patriarchy and matriarchy citing the Egyptian matriarchal society’s appraisal: “O true image of the ways of Egypt that they show in their spirit and their life! For there the men sit weaving in the house, but the wives go forth to win the daily bread.”
To demonstrate how the discrepancy in theory can alter the diagnosis of a patient I have chosen the case study of Little Hans to reveal how both Oedipus complexes can be applied to achieve different, almost opposite, outcomes. Little Hans, for all his theories on child sexuality, was the only case study Freud in fact did on an infant.
The Little Hans case is unusual because of how it was conducted. Freud first began receiving information pertaining to the case when the child was three, however when his equinophobia (fear of horses) developed at the age of five Freud actually saw Little Hans, which was a cover up name for Herbert Graf due to the nature of publicity of his essay, in person albeit for a brief period. How Freud mostly conducted the case study was by supervising Little Hans’ father’s analysis. Hans’ father would send his analysis to Freud who would then give his own opinion on the case. Notable facts in the case include the fact that Little Hans enjoyed being in the same bed as his mother as well as accompanying her to the bathroom; additionally Hans had supposedly expressed the desire that his father ‘go away’ which Freud translated as a death wish. So apparently Little Hans had the two components that constitute the Oedipus complex which is what Freud diagnosed him with drawing reasons from his relationship with his mother and father, the birth of his sister, which limited his access to his parents’ room and their attention for him, and his fear that his father would castrate him. Ultimately his phobia culminated when Little Hans saw a carthorse collapse on the street. The blinkers on the horse purportedly reminded him of his father’s glasses and the black around the horse’s mouth of his father’s moustache. Additionally the horse’s long neck reminded Hans of a large penis which incited fear in Hans. To summarise Hans’ fear of horses is chiefly rooted in the fear of his father.
Fromm’s view on the other hand is that the root cause of the phobia is in fact caused by fear of castration and abandonment from the mother. Fromm cites two quotations that support his claims: “if you do that again [touch his penis with his hand], I shall send for Dr A. to cut off your widdler…” and Hans: “Mummy’s told me she won’t come back.” Fromm also stipulates that the mother plays the role of seducer and that “there can be little doubt that Han’s mother liked to have him in her bed and to take him with her to the bathroom”. Fromm’s hypothesis is that Little Hans’ phobia originates from the castration threats of his mother and Little Hans’s first encounter with death – the carthorse that collapsed in front of him. The phobia manifested itself in order to protect Little Hans from both fears as it prevents him from seeing horses and reliving them. Fromm also emphasises to the reader that there is one fact that supports the hypothesis that Little Hans wished to liberate himself from the “hostile aggression of his mother” and “his fixation on her” which is a conversation between him and his father:
Hans: “I took it [a whip] out because I wanted to whip it.”
Father: “Which would you really like to beat? Mummy, Hanna or me?”
Hans: “I should just like to beat her…With a carpet beater.”
The significance of a carpet beater is that his mother frequently threatened Little Hans with a carpet beater. This passage clearly implies at least some deep-felt resentment or hostility towards his mother however Fromm states that “there is not enough material to prove it [the wish to liberate himself].” Moreover Fromm makes the point that another factor in creation of Little Hans’ equinophobia is tied in with Little Hans’ misconception of childbirth. Having been told that it was the stork that brings babies Little Hans made the connection that the boxes that fell when the cart horse crumpled were in reality carrying babies for the stork, and that these babies, like his little sister, would drive him further away from his fixated-upon mother and the father he needed to protect him from his mother.
So it is clear that even a subtle digression can lead to wildly different conclusions, and this highlights a major problem in the field of psychoanalysis which is that because empirical data is nigh on impossible to obtain diagnoses are open to many interpretations and are exceptionally subjective. This is the principal reason behind almost every psychological debate and will probably continue until technology is able to read and interpret the minds of humans.
In conclusion I believe that Erich Fromm’s vision of the Oedipus complex is not an alternative version but instead an improvement or an elaboration upon the foundation that Freud first speculated. It provides a more rounded overall embodiment taking into account female sexuality and updating the progression of relationships of mother fixation and father hostility. Despite the fact that Fromm has been criticised with the fact that he is not credited with any type of doctorate Fromm has rarely received negative criticisms of his essays and even after his death he is credited as a notable theorist of the Frankfurt School of critical theory. The Oedipus complex is a subject that will be manipulated and used to suit diagnoses for some time to come and so even in its evolved state its implications and consequences are still seldom fully understood.
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