Psychoanalysis: Oedipus Complex
The term Oedipus complex designates a network embracing the wishes and hostile impulses of which the mother and the father are the objects, along with the defenses that are set up to counter these feelings. Freud called this complex "the nucleus of the neuroses," and, beyond that, it may be considered the central structure in the functioning of the human mind.
This skeletal definition needs refining in a number of ways:
Although very direct expressions of the Oedipus complex can be observed in young children, for the most part it manifests itself through unconscious formations identifiable only through their transposition onto other objects and their impact on other kinds of conflict.
The term itself suggests the complexity of this network; most modern-day authors assign it a structuring role in the development of the psyche, of which it will later become an essential functional feature.
It is important to distinguish between two aspects of the Oedipus complex, depending on whether the little boy's desire is directed at his mother and his hostility at his father (the positive version), or vice versa (the negative or inverted complex).
In both of these instances, the conflict is between wish and prohibition, a fact which signals that the cultural context of the establishment of the conflict in the child must not be overlooked.
By extension, it should be borne in mind that, although the objects in question in any society founded on the triangular or nuclear family are the father and mother, this may not be so in other cultures.
Lastly, because the Oedipus complex concerns not only the difference between generations but also that between the sexes, a distinction must perforce be drawn between the case of the girl and that of the boy.
The term Oedipus complex itself did not appear in Freud's published work until his paper "A Special Type of Object-Choice Made by Men" (1910h, p. 171). At that time, with some reluctance, he borrowed the word complex from Carl Jung. Freud's reference to the myth of Oedipus, however, originates much earlier. In a letter dated October 15, 1897, to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, he wrote: "I have found, in my own case too, falling in love with the mother and jealousy of the father, and I now regard it as a universal event of early childhood. . . . If that is so, we can understand the riveting power of Oedipus Rex" (1954 [1887-1902]). Indeed the notion is to be found in Studies on Hysteria, where Freud, in quest of the etiology of hysteria, stressed the traumatic role of sexual seductions, experienced by the child and for which the father was responsible (1895d).
The notion took on growing significance for Freud over the next few years, as witnessed by the following remarks from The Interpretation of Dreams : "It is as though—to put it bluntly—a sexual preference were making itself felt at an early age: as though boys regarded their fathers and girls their mothers as rivals in love, whose elimination could not fail to be to their advantage" (Freud, 1900a, p. 256), and "it is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so. King Oedipus, who slew his father Laïus and married his mother Jocasta, merely shows us the fulfillment of our own childhood wishes" (p. 262). The theme was also central to Freud's analysis of "Dora" (1905e ). It is noteworthy, however, that the Oedipus complex made no explicit appearance in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), though Freud took an important step forward in that work by fully acknowledging for the first time the idea of a childhood sexuality prior to puberty. The implications of this were very clear in the case of "Little Hans," published four years later, where Freud focused his explanation of the horse phobia of this "lively little boy" on oedipal impulses: desire for the mother founded on a very active infantile sexuality, along with fear of the father's retribution (1909b). In another case history published in the same year, that of the "Rat Man" (1909d), the role of the Oedipus complex, though evident, was veiled. By contrast, in his narrative of the "Wolf Man" case, effectively completed by the fall of 1914, Freud assigned the complex a major role, correlating it with the theme of the primal scene (the perception, whether real or fantasized, of sexual intercourse between the parents) (1918b ).
Throughout this whole period, therefore, the Oedipus complex was pivotal to Freud's clinical thinking. One problem continued to bother him, however. He considered that the complex was universal, a defining characteristic of the human race. But how was this universality to be explained? He offered one possible answer in Totem and Taboo (1912-13a), where he hypothesized as follows: In very ancient times humans were organized in primal hordes, each dominated by a strong, despotic male who monopolized the women and banned their access to the young men under the ultimate threat of castration. But a day came when the sons rose up, killed the father and thus gained access to the women. Thenceforward, however, guilt for this primal crime dogged them. Passed down from generation to generation, the conflict between wish and prohibition, still dominated by guilt regarding the murder of the father, is reborn in each individual: Such is the origin of the Oedipus complex. This mythical story (which aroused opposition even among prehistorians) is typical of Freud's tendency to revisit history and model the past of the individual on the past of humanity as a whole: Psychogenesis was based on what he called phylogenesis. Two years after Totem and Taboo, Freud carried this line of inquiry even further in A Phylogenetic Fantasy: Overview of the Transference Neuroses, a text so speculative that he himself refrained from publishing it.
As omnipresent as the notion is in his works, it is striking that, aside from these two contributions concerned with the conjectured history of humanity, Freud never devoted a theoretical text to the specific issue of the Oedipus complex; in the great metapsychological papers of 1915 the oedipal theme is evoked only indirectly. There are, however, two papers, from 1923 and 1924 respectively, which clarify Freud's thinking on the issue in two major respects.
In "The Infantile Genital Organization" (1923e), Freud described for the first time what would thereafter be considered a major turning-point in mental development, namely a complete reorganization, occurring roughly between the ages of three and five, centered on the primacy of the penis as erotogenic zone and, with respect to object-relations, on the oedipal drama. In this way Freud rounded out his developmental theory, which identified a series of stages or phases, also referred to as organizations), each characterized by the primacy of a particular erotogenic zone and by a specific object-relational mode. Thus, the oral phase was followed by the anal, the phallic (or oedipal), and then, after a "period of latency," adult genital organization. The phallic phase constituted the high point of the oedipal scenario: During this time sexual desires directed toward the parent of the opposite sex, as well as castration anxiety aroused by the child's fear of retribution from the rival parent, were at their most intense. Later this conflict would wane, as repression did its work (in this case welcome work), and the child would enter latency. Puberty and the intense psychic work it initiated would reactivate the earlier conflict in new guises, but after this stormy episode equilibrium would be achieved thanks to the onset of adult genital organization and the changes of object it made possible: the shift of desire to a woman other than the mother, or a man other than the father.
May we then conclude that the Oedipus complex fades away? Freud's paper titled, precisely, "The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex" might be thought to suggest as much. In this text, Freud spoke of the complex being destroyed, or collapsing "because the time has come for its disintegration, just as the milk-teeth fall out when the permanent ones begin to grow" (1924d, p. 173). It is impossible to believe, however, that Freud intended to abandon his major thesis according to which the Oedipus complex was the very framework of the human psyche. What disappears, in fact, is oedipal conflict in its infantile form—not the form of organization that results from it.
There are two points that need emphasizing here. In the first place, oedipal conflict in its most acute phase constitutes an essential motor of the play of identifications through which the individual person is constructed; the little boy, after wishing to be his father, and thus replace him in his mother's bed, eventually wishes instead to be like his father with respect to other women. Secondly, the reference to the boy cannot be allowed to obscure the problem of the Oedipus complex in the girl. This issue constituted a major theoretical stumbling block for Freud, and it has been a continual source of difficulty for Freud's successors.
To begin with, Freud simply described the Oedipus complex in boys and added that, mutatis mutandis, the same applied to girls. The problem lay in the mutatis mutandis. As long as only the "positive" aspect of the complex was considered, it was enough to say that the little girl directed her incestuous desires toward her father, from whom she wished to obtain a child; indeed, this represented the realization in fantasy of the penis envy that, according to Freud, she harbored since finding out that, unlike boys, she had no penis (1925j). Later on, after the "resolution" of her Oedipus complex, she would obtain that child from a man other than her father.
But this account appeared too simple, even to Freud himself, once it became clear that the Oedipus complex had to be viewed in its complete form, composed of both positive and negative aspects. How did the boy and the girl, respectively, enter the oedipal crisis that confronts these two aspects, and how did they emerge from it? And how, in each case, did the play of identifications become established?
Freud's own answer to this question focused on castration anxiety. He asserted that, for the girl as for the boy, there was at first only one sexual organ, the male one. According to this infantile sexual theory, everyone had a penis, even if it was not obvious; it sufficed to say, with "Little Hans," that it was "quite small," but "it'll get bigger all right" (Freud, 1909b, p. 11). The child's discovery of the anatomical difference between the sexes was greeted at first by incredulity. In the boy, this was soon replaced by anxiety: if the little girl did not have one, it must be that she no longer had one; he believed that she used to have one, like everyone else, but had been deprived of it. In other words, the little boy understood girls to be, in effect, boys castrated as punishment for their masturbation and incestuous wishes. Thence-forward, castration anxiety, in the case of the boy, would be the chief motor of renunciation of such wishes and behavior, and the factor that would get him out of the acute oedipal crisis of the phallic phase. In contrast, Freud described castration anxiety in the case of the girl as stemming from a castration that had already taken place, and for which she sought reparation from her father, was what caused her to "enter" the oedipal crisis. She would emerge from it, like the boy, by means of a change of object, by directing her desire toward a man other than her father, just as the boy directed his toward a woman other than his mother.
The term change of object needs clarifying, for it might seem ambiguous. The child's first object, for both the boy and the girl, is said to be the mother; this was Freud's view, and all psychoanalytic thinking since Freud has confirmed it. The boy effects change in a fairly simple way, shifting his desire to another person of the same sex as his mother; the girl, for her part, must transfer her desire onto someone of the opposite sex. Things remain straightforward, however, only as long as we focus exclusively on the positive complex; things become much more complicated as soon as we consider the complete form, and this theoretical step has sparked a good deal of controversy. Indeed, debate surrounding the theory of the Oedipus complex has remained intense in post-Freudian psychoanalytic discourse.
Freud's original phallic monism aroused vigorous protest during his own lifetime, notably among women psychoanalysts such as Ruth Mack Brunswick, Helene Deutsch, Karen Horney, and Melanie Klein. It is important to bear in mind that Freud's ideas on the primacy of the phallus, penis envy, and castration do not apply to biological or sociological realities but rather to an imaginary register inscribed in culture as well as in the unconscious of each individual. Beyond that, problems of female sexuality, and of femininity itself, remain important areas for psychoanalytic investigation.
As mentioned above, Freud saw the phallic, or oedipal phase as preceded in turn by two other major modes of organization, dominated by the oral and anal erotogenic zones respectively, each having its specific type of object-relationship. Since Freud's time, ever greater attention has been paid to these so-called pregenital phases, such as the earliest object-relationships, the primary narcissism in which the subject is forged, and lastly to autoerotism, the basis of this whole process of development. Their deep theoretical divergences notwithstanding, Anna Freud and Melanie Klein, the founders of child analysis, have played an essential part in this avenue of research; other contributors include pediatricians, notably Donald W. Winnicott, and, more typically, child psychiatrists such as Margaret Mahler, Donald Meltzer, Frances Tustin, Serge Lebovici, and René Diatkine. The field in which most of this work was done was childhood psychopathology, though it has been rounded out by studies of the earliest mother-child relationship conducted within psychoanalysis (Serge Lebovici) or on its fringes (Daniel N. Stern).
Beyond the consideration of the origins of the Oedipus complex, this whole line of advance has given rise to the suggestion that the complex itself might be primal in character. Thus Melanie Klein, in certain of her writings, went so far as to say that, like the object, the oedipal structure was present from birth or even earlier; this thesis has been widely rejected, however, by many psychoanalysts. More acceptably, Claude Le Guen (1974) has described a primal Oedipus complex said to embody an initial triangular situation involving the nascent subject, the mother, and a third party who provokes eight-month anxiety, characterized by René Spitz as a response to the perception of a stranger whose presence suffices to reveal the absence of the mother and cause the child to recreate her intrapsychically to mitigate this loss (Spitz and Cobliner, p. 155). Similarly, André Green (1990) has evoked the relations between the self, the object, and the Other's object.
The claim that the Oedipus complex is universal has occasioned lively polemic. Some authors, such as Géza Róheim, set out to demonstrate the correctness of Freud's view by mustering the ethnographical evidence. This approach was contested by anthropologists and sociologists who emphasized the diversity of family and social structures from one culture to another, and based on those grounds argued that such a complex could only exist within a modern Western society—or even only in the fin-de-siècle Vienna of Freud's day. A whole culturalist current (Bronislaw Malinowski, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and others) sought a middle way. Many years after Freud's time, these controversies seem somewhat dated. Claude Lévi-Strauss (1949/1969) crystallized an important idea in this connection by asserting that, whatever the differences in human social and familial forms, the prohibition against incest was both fundamental and universal.
Finally, it has long been evident that non-oedipal forms of mental organization, or those just lightly marked by the Oedipus complex, are widely found; this truly vast field, extending from perverse structures to autism and infantile and adult psychoses, has seen very significant developments over the last two or three decades.
In conclusion, let it be said that the Oedipus complex and its correlate, the castration complex, are at the very heart of psychoanalysis. These ideas underwent a long maturation within Freud's work, and the theoretical tendencies that have developed since Freud have brought out the great complexity that attends them. The fact remains that in clinical practice these two notions are indispensable to the analyst and invoked on a daily basis; from a theoretical point of view, even if a synthesis is still elusive (there are as many attempts as there are major authors), there is a good measure of agreement on a few essential points. The assumption that the Oedipus complex is universal remains axiomatic to the architecture of the theory; after all, it is felt to be the basis of the specificity of the human race. It is generally acknowledged, further, that a primary conflict between desire and its prohibition first arises in relation to two parental figures who incarnate its future operation. To which it should be added, in accordance with the contribution of Melanie Klein, that each of these two figures, just like the subject, present two aspects, as "good" and "bad" objects of love and hate. This is the context in which the complete Oedipus complex, and the play of identifications that springs from it, need to be apprehended.