Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Oedipality and Oedipal Complexes Reconsidered: On the Incest Taboo as Key to the Universality of the Human Condition

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Oedipality and Oedipal Complexes Reconsidered: On the Incest Taboo as Key to the Universality of the Human Condition

Article excerpt

In terms of the scientific progress (and regress) of the discipline of psychoanalysis, it is perhaps regrettable that Sigmund Freud articulated his discoveries about the oedipal constitution of the human condition in terms of the famous legend popularized by Sophocles' dramas (Freud 1900,1901; Freud and Fliess 1887-1904). This articulation, which succeeded in accommodating both the insights garnered from his "self-analysis" and the need to explain his ideas to an audience educated in the classics, has led to an emphasis within our disciplinary literature on content (i.e. the particular dramatis personae composing the inner theatre of each individual's oedipal journey), rather than the essential and universal processes and structures of oedipality as such. This articulation of his discoveries certainly enabled Freud to underscore, initially for the benefit of Fliess in a letter dated 15 October 1897, how we all "recoil in horror" (or in trenchant denial) at the very idea of our oedipal strivings (Freud and Fliess 1887-1904, p. 252). However, this mode of presentation has led to 13 decades in which oedipality has all too frequently been defined and understood in a rather specific and culturally circumscribed manner, simply because the literature has tended to focus on content. By "content," I mean the configuration of the family arrangements and caretaking practices that contextualize the child's development, as well as the particular styles of maternal and paternal functioning. Such issues of content are actually known to be quite variable across cultures. Consequently, this focus has somewhat distracted our thinking away from the dimensions of oedipal processes and structures that are-as will be suggested in the course of this paper-indisputably universal. In short, this expository emphasis has fueled skepticism and resistance toward the discipline of psychoanalysis.

In terms of skepticism, critics have understandably wondered how Freud, as early as 1897, could boldly announce that oedipality is a "universal event," when he had almost no experience with non-European patients, and had only discovered the distinctive method of psychoanalysis a year or so previously (Freud and Fliess 1887-1904, p. 272). How, asks the skeptic, could Freud possibly know what mothers and fathers are like, or what the child's experiences of the relations between them is like, across all cultures and historical epochs? After all, his immediate evidence amounted to the treatment of a handful of patients, his own efforts at "self-analysis," and his-somewhat tendentious -reading of a legendary classic. To anticipate, this paper will suggest that his apparent hubris might have been warranted precisely because Freud already intimated the possibility that oedipality is not just a matter of the content of relations with a particular "mother" or "father," but that it is the deeply inscribed consequence of the incest taboo.

In terms of resistance, surely every psychoanalyst has listened to countless individuals, who have not had the advantage of full psychoanalytic treatment, declare that they "never had any such feelings for" their mother or father. Freud himself reports such experiences. As is well known, Freud understood this denial-in which attraction is often only manifest as a conscious sense of disinterest or of repulsion-as indirect evidence of the operation of repression and the "repression-barrier." At least in its inherently sexual dimension, the notion of the oedipal complex is notoriously difficult to explain to those who have not been in psychoanalysis, as has been discussed by several experienced teachers (e.g. Blass 2001). This is not because the general public fails to understand that threesomes are difficult (stimulating rivalries, loyalty conflicts, competing affiliations, jealousies, and the like). Rather, it seems to be a resistance to acknowledging the significance of the erotic feelings and fantasies of childhood, particularly as implicating early caretaking relationships. …

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