Bradley W. Buchanan. Oedipus against Freud: Myth and the End(s) of Humanism in Twentieth-Century British Literature

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Bradley W. Buchanan. Oedipus Against Freud: Myth and the End(s) of Humanism in Twentieth-Century British Literature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. Pp. x + 200. $45 (cloth).

This book aims at modifying the general belief that the influence of the Oedipus myth on modern literature was confined to its embodiment in Freud's theory of the complex of the same name. It proposes that Sophocles's plays Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus were themselves an equally important influence on modern writing, though an influence of an essentially contrary nature. Buchanan sees Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex as "humanistic" in positing the concept of a universal "human nature" susceptible to rationalistic explanation, whereas the Theban plays expose such a reliance on human reason as delusory--human beings are here gripped by forces they cannot control or fully comprehend. Oedipus's success in solving the Sphinx's riddle leads to a hubris that results in his downfall. This Sophoclean type of action, for Buchanan, provides an alternate, non-Freudian paradigm consonant with much modernist and postmodernist writing.

Buchanan has produced an ambitious, wide-ranging and absorbing study. Partly because it attempts to accomplish much, however, it opens itself to numerous objections. One such is that "humanism" and "anti-humanism" are difficult terms that can be variously defined; Buchanan recognizes this, but he still cannot always avoid confusion. He runs into confusion as well with the word "Oedipal," which can refer either to Sophocles's protagonist or Freud's theoretical use of him. As tends to happen in such rigorously themed studies, Buchanan presses the possible relevance of his major motifs to the limit; Oedipus keeps limping into sites strangely far removed from Thebes or Colonus. On a more broadly intellectual level, Buchanan foregrounds to an extreme degree Freud's place as an exemplar of humanist thought; while Freud was doubtless important in this context, other prominent figures--William James, Albert Einstein, Karl Popper, Jean-Paul Sartre, Aldoux Huxley's scientist brother Julian, to name just a few--were also surely influential. Buchanan sometimes seems arbitrarily to assume that a writer's hostility to Freud or rejection of his theories ipso facto places him or her as an anti-humanist.

Several of these objections apply to Buchanan's treatment of Lawrence, the subject of the book's keynote chapter. (A prior introductory chapter looks at H.G. Wells's pre-Freudian use of the Oedipus myth in The Time Machine). Here Buchanan spends much of his time exploring Freudian and Oedipal motifs in Sons and Lovers. This is very familiar ground, but Buchanan introduces a fresh element by exploring differences between the final version of the novel and the earlier draft entitled Paul Morel. He arrives at some interesting findings, contending that Lawrence's initial indulgence towards Paul's incestuous urges changes, in the final version, to a more critical distance. He explains the change with reference to Lawrence's new familiarity (via Frieda) with Freud's ideas, and his reaction against Freud's "humanist" tolerance for such tabooed impulses. The reaction shows up especially in the less sympathetic portrayal in the final text of Gertrude Morel, who is now more clearly targeted as an inhibiting force on Paul's sexual relationships. This development presages Lawrence's anti-humanist--or specifically misogynistic--bias in his later writing, including Women in Love and Fantasia of the Unconscious. (Curiously, no mention is made of such important works as The Rainbow and Lady Chatterley's Lover, and The White Peacock, which already contains the clearly "anti-humanistic" figure of Annable, is also ignored). According to Buchanan it is only in the late The Man Who Died that Lawrence becomes reconciled with Freud and re-embraces a kind of universalist humanism.

A drawback of Buchanan's method is his tendency to read some of the intransigent stances of the later "Psychoanalysis" essays back into Lawrence's earlier work, above all Sons and Lovers. …