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Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Before moving on to the Oedipus Complex, I need to correct a mistake [this is what comes of trying to do this from memory.] According to Freud, the third stage of psycho-sexual development is the phallic stage. This is followed by the latency period, and finally, at puberty, by the genital phase. The terminology doesn‘t matter, of course, but I might as well get it straight.

So, on we go. Sometime around the age of three or four, the young boy transitions from focusing his libidinal energy on the anal region to focusing on the phallic region. He develops the desire to have his mother sexually, and fantasizes about killing his father to get him out of the way. [Needless to say, I am here simply expounding Freud’s views.] Classically trained like most well educated people of his day, Freud connected this family drama with the Greek story of Oedipus. Since this is a very big deal, and the play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles is generally considered the greatest of the classical Greek tragedies, I am going to insert here the entire plot summary given by Wikipedia. Read it. It is heavy stuff.

“As is the case in most climactic drama, much of what constitutes the myth of Oedipus takes place before the opening scene of the play. In his youth, Laius was a guest of King Pelops of Elis, and became the tutor of Chrysippus, youngest of the king's sons, in chariot racing. He then violated the sacred laws of hospitality by abducting and raping Chrysippus, who according to some versions killed himself in shame. This cast a doom over him and his descendants.

The protagonist of the tragedy is the son of King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. After Laius learns from an oracle that "he is doomed/To perish by the hand of his own son", he tightly binds the feet of the infant Oedipus together with a pin and orders Jocasta to kill the infant. Hesitant to do so, she orders a servant to commit the act for her. Instead, the servant takes baby Oedipus to a mountain top to die from exposure. A shepherd rescues the infant and names him Oedipus (or "swollen feet"). The shepherd carries the baby with him to Corinth, where Oedipus is taken in and raised in the court of the childless King Polybus of Corinth as if he were his own.

As a young man in Corinth, Oedipus hears a rumour that he is not the biological son of Polybus and his wife Merope. When Oedipus questions the King and Queen, they deny it, but, still suspicious, he asks the Delphic Oracle who his parents really are. The Oracle seems to ignore this question, telling him instead that he is destined to "Mate with [his] own mother, and shed/With [his] own hands the blood of [his] own sire". Desperate to avoid his foretold fate, Oedipus leaves Corinth in the belief that Polybus and Merope are indeed his true parents and that, once away from them, he will never harm them.

On the road to Thebes, he meets Laius, his true father. Unaware of each other's identities, they quarrel over whose chariot has right-of-way. King Laius moves to strike the insolent youth with his sceptre, but Oedipus throws him down from the chariot and kills him, thus fulfilling part of the oracle's prophecy. He kills all but one of the other men. Shortly after, he solves the riddle of the Sphinx, which has baffled many a diviner: "What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?"

To this Oedipus replies, "Man" (who crawls on all fours as an infant, walks upright later, and needs a walking stick in old age), and the distraught Sphinx throws herself off the cliffside. Oedipus' reward for freeing the kingdom of Thebes from her curse is the kingship and the hand of Queen Dowager Jocasta, his biological mother. The prophecy is thus fulfilled, although none of the main characters knows it.”

The psychodynamics of this tragedy – the son who kills his father and marries his mother – are, Freud believed, the central emotional conflict confronting the young boy. He also thought [rather plausibly, I must say] that this explains why the barest narrative account of the story of Oedipus strikes us with such power and produces in us the feelings of pity and terror that are, Aristotle says, the characteristic responses to a true tragedy. The central developmental problem for the little boy is First to accept the fact that he cannot have his mother sexually, Then to identify with his father instead of fantasizing about killing him, and Finally by this identification and internalization to become in effect like his father, so that when he exits the long latency period he can in puberty begin to seek appropriate sexual partners.

There are all sorts of ways in which this necessary transition can get royally screwed up, Freud thought, basing his belief on what he discovered in his clinical work. First of all, the attachment to the mother may be so strong that the little boy cannot give it up. This, Freud thought, could be prompted in part by overly and inappropriately clinging and loving behavior on the part of the mother. The little boy becomes fixated at this stage of development, never is able to give up his fantasies, which are repressed [as unacceptable or as threatening] but never forgotten, and thus grows into a man who can only find satisfaction in sexual relationships that are characterized by a childish clinging to a maternal-seeming woman. [Personal aside: My father’s parents had four children – my father, my uncles Bob and Ben, and my aunt Rosabelle. In my grandmother’s letters, which I used as part of the basis of the book I wrote about my grandparents, I found that she referred to him as a “big baby” and her “fifth child,” even though to the world he was an impressive Socialist leader with a booming voice and presence. This contrast is extraordinarily common, especially in some cultural and ethnic groups, lending some credibility to Freud’s theoretical explanations.]

A second danger is that the hostility toward the father will be so strong as to interfere with the identification through which the boy can eventually develop into a mature, stable man himself. This failure of development may be caused in part by an overly punitive father [who may, of course, feel threatened by the son for reasons having to do with the father’s inadequate resolution of his own “Oedipus Complex”] or by the son’s perception of the father as not strong enough to handle the little boy’s hostility. [Remember that although it may strike us as humorous that a little boy would think of his father as in any danger from him, to the boy the feelings are enormously strong and dangerous.] This may lead the boy to grow into a man who is constantly challenging authority figures, both in anger at his own father’s weakness, and in hopes of finding a father substitute [Kant?] who is strong enough to stand against the boy’s powerful hostile feelings. Indeed, the boy may conclude that there are no father-figures strong enough. He may even – dare I say it? – become an Anarchist and deny the legitimacy of all authority.

Whew, maybe I ought to take a break and go have some coq au vin at Chez Rene. More tomorrow.

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