Modernity's Classical Age: 1848-1919
A work of literature is considered a "classic" when, long after it was written, readers continue to read it. A famous example is Sophocles' dramatic telling of the story of Oedipus. This is so much a classic that one does not need to have read Sophocles, Shakespeare Hamlet, or Freud to know something of the story. Most people recognize in themselves the truth told in this ancient Greek drama: that human beings are affected deeply by extreme feelings of love and hate for their parents. In most versions of the story, Oedipus loves his mother too much. Without knowing what he is doing or who the people involved really are, Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother. He rules his land with Jocasta, his mother-wife and queen. When a plague threatens the kingdom, Oedipus learns that his land can be saved only if his father's murder is avenged--and that he himself is the murderer! He blinds himself and goes into exile. Oedipus's actual blindness represents his deeper blindness to the effects of his desires on his behavior. His fate is tragically determined not because he had forbidden feelings of love and aggression for his parents but because he acted on them without knowing what he was doing. This story is a classic because people find in it some sort of standard for normal, if confusing, human experience. In literature, a writing is classic because it still serves as a useful reference or meaningful model for stories people tell of their own lives.
Hence, a period of historical time is considered classical because people still refer back to it in order to say things about what is going on today. Generally speaking, classical ages contain a greater number of classical writings for the obvious reason that literatures express their social times. Thus, at present, when people refer to the Oedipus story, they usually have in mind Freud's version, which still conveys much of drama of the modern world affecting people today. The Oedipus story figured prominently in one of Freud classic writings, The Interpretation of Dreams, which was published in 1899. In this book, Freud made one of his most fundamental claims about dreams just after retelling the Oedipus story. Dreams, he explained, are always distorted stories of what the dreamer really wishes or feels. They can thus serve "to prevent the generation of anxiety or other forms of distressing affect."
Freud's telling of the Oedipus myth is a subject of controversy today because it is taken as a case in point for the feminist criticism that most classical writings in the social and human sciences systematically excluded and distorted women's reality. They did. In this case, Freud distorted reality by his preposterous inference from the Oedipus he saw in his patients to the claim that the major drama of early life is the little boy's desire to make love to his mother. Little girls were left out of this story, the crucial formative drama of early life. They were said to be driven by the trivial desire of envy for the visible instrument of true human development, the boy's pe