NEW IDEAS ABOUT THE OEDIPUS COMPLEX
by Robert M. Young
It has always seemed odd to me that the Oedipus myth and
complex should lie at the heart of our humanity. It strikes me as so eccentric,
so weird, in the same way that being turned on by dangling bits of fat with
nipples on them or an enlarged vein with a sac beneath it seems undignified and
comical. But there it is: evolution, culture and fashion have left us this way,
with sexuality and the Oedipal triangle intermingled and as lifelong unconscious
preoccupations which ramify throughout both personal and large-scale history.
For example, as the artist Otto Dix once said, all wars are fought over the
pudenda. We’ll just have to make the best of it and play the hand we’ve been
In a similar way I have been slow to accept the centrality of
the Oedipal triangle in psychotherapy - to realize that the analytic space is an
Oedipal space, that the analytic frame keeps incest at bay and that the analytic
relationship involves continually offering incest and continually declining it
in the name of analytic abstinence and the hope of a relationship that
transcends or goes beyond incestuous desires. Breaking the analytic frame
invariably involves the risk of child abuse and sleeping with patients or
ex-patients is precisely that.
Martin Bergmann puts some of these points very nicely in his
essay on transference love (Bergmann, 1987, ch. 18). He says, ‘In the analytic
situation, the early images are made conscious and thereby deprived of their
energising potential. In analysis, the uncovering of the incestuous fixation
behind transference love loosens the incestuous ties and prepares the way for a
future love free from the need to repeat oedipal triangulation. Under conditions
of health the infantile prototypes merely energize the new falling in love while
in neurosis they also evoke the incest taboo and needs for new triangulation
that repeat the triangle of the oedipal state’ (p. 220). With respect to
patients who get involved with ex-therapists, he says that they claim that
“‘unlike the rest of humanity I am entitled to disobey the incest taboo,
circumventing the work of mourning, and possess my parent sexually. I am
entitled to do so because I suffered so much or simply because I am an exception’”
(p. 222). From the therapist’s point of view, ‘When the transference
relationship becomes a sexual one, it represents symbolically and unconsciously
the fulfilment of the wish that the infantile love object will not be given up
and that incestuous love can be refound in reality’ (p.223). This is a variant
on the Pygmalion theme. The analytic relationship works only to the extent that
the therapist shows, in Freud’s words, ‘that he is proof against every
temptation’ (Freud, 1915, p. 166).
These are weighty matters, ones which Freud claimed in Civilization
and Its Discontents (1930) provide the historical and emotional foundations
of culture, law civility and decency. I find it embarrassing to admit that when
I asked myself how much of this I carry around as my normal conceptual baggage,
it turned out to be a light valise. First, there is the Oedipal triangle,
whereby a child somewhere between three and a half and six wants the parent of
the opposite sex and has to come to terms with the same sex. It's a bit more
complicated with girls, but that's not part of my normal baggage, is hotly
debated and is not central to my purpose today (see Klein, 1945, pp. 72-5;
Mitchell, 1974; Temperley, 1993). The incestuous desire and the murderous
impulses make the child feel guilty, and the result is that the superego is the
heir to the Oedipus complex. The whole thing gets reprised in adolescence, with
respect to sexuality and to authority and may arise again when one or the other
parent dies. Patients who have not negotiated these rites of passage have
unresolved Oedipal problems. One of the big ones that inhibits achievement and
satisfaction is fear of Oedipal triumph; another is the risk of believing one
can be an adult without growing up emotionally (Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1985).
You'll be embarrassed on my behalf that it's such a small
valise with only a beginner book inside. I had another look into my tacit
clinical baggage and came up with the copulating couple with whom the patient
has to come to terms - hopefully moving from an unconscious phantasy of
something violent and feared to a more benign one, in the lee of which he or she
can feel safe, benefiting from the parents' union. Some of my patients are stuck
because they have no phantasy of their parents together and believe that
they are in bed preventing the parents from getting together and cannot get on
with relationships themselves because of the harm they unconsciously believe
they have caused. Lack of fulfilment, stasis and longing are the likely results.
Beyond that my ideas were unclear, but they have become much
clearer as a result of preparing this essay. I want to dwell on this matter -
the unclarity - because I now think that I am clearer about that and hope
you will find it interesting. That is, I hope to clarify the unclarity.
Let's start with a definite developmental scheme, the one
which constitutes the classical chronological story of orthodox Freudianism, as
modified and enriched by Karl Abraham and, some would say, Erik Erikson. We
begin with primary narcissism and pass through psychosexual phases, in which the
child is preoccupied with successive erogenous zones - oral, anal, phallic and
genital (oral for the first year and a half, anal for the next year and a half
and phallic beginning toward the close of the third year. See Brenner, 1973, p.
26 and Meltzer, 1973, pp. 21-27). As I have said, the classical Oedipal period
is ages three and a half to six (some say five). This leads on to the formation
of the superego and a period of relatively latency, during which boys are
quintessentially boyish and horrid, with their bikes, hobbies and play, and
girls are sugar and spice and everything nice, playing nurse and mommy (or so it
is said; cf. Chodorow, 1978). Things get fraught again in adolescence
when biological changes coincide with agonising problems about gender identity
(Waddell, 1992, esp. pp. 9-10), sexual exploration and maturation, conflict with
parents, competitiveness and achievement. Erik Erikson spells out a further set
of stages, beginning with a psychosocial moratorium in late adolescence,
followed by young adulthood, adulthood and mature age, the last of which (you
may be troubled to hear) he characterises as a period in which the central
conflict is between integrity on the one hand and disgust and despair, on the
other. I certainly recognise that dichotomy (Erikson, 1959, p. 120).
How do specifically Kleinian ideas relate to all this? First,
of course, she famously claimed to find what she called 'the Oedipal situation'
much earlier in life, along with persecuting ideas from the superego, long
before a Freudian would grant that there could be a superego. Indeed, she
found the copulating couple - for ill or good - in very early phantasies.
I am going to say quite a bit about all this, but first I
want to linger over the classical Freudian story. Freud called the Oedipus
complex 'the core complex' or the nuclear complex of every neurosis. In a
footnote added to the 1920 edition of Three Essays on Sexuality, he made
it clear that the Oedipus complex is the immovable foundation stone on which the
whole edifice of psychoanalysis is based: ‘It has justly been said that the
Oedipus complex is the nuclear complex of the neuroses, and constitutes the
essential part of their content. It represents the peak of infantile sexuality,
which, through its after-effects, exercises a decisive influence on the
sexuality of adults. Every new arrival on this planet is faced with the task of
mastering the Oedipus complex; anyone who fails to do so falls a victim to
neurosis. With the progress of psycho-analytic studies the importance of the
Oedipus complex has become more and more clearly evident; its recognition has
become the shibboleth that distinguishes the adherents of psycho-analysis from
its opponents’ (Freud, 1905, p. 226n).
In the first published reference to the incest taboo in 1910
(he had written about the ‘horror of incest’ and incest as ‘antisocial’
in an unpublished draft in 1897), Freud refers to it as ‘a cultural demand
made by society’ which may get passed on by organic inheritance and adds, ‘Psycho-analytic
investigation shows, however, how intensely the individual struggles with the
temptation to incest during his period of growth and how frequently the barrier
is transgressed in phantasy and even in reality’ (Freud, 1905, p. 225 and
225n). In both the development of the individual and the history of mankind he
identified the incest taboo as the basis of all other prohibitions. Guilt was
the essential weapon in the struggle against uncivilised, rapacious impulses,
and sublimation of sexual energies provided the energy for all of culture
and civilisation, concepts which he disdained to distinguish. 'Incest is
anti-social and civilisation consists of the progressive renunciation of it'
(Freud, 1930, p. 60). 'We cannot get away from the assumption that man's sense
of guilt springs from the Oedipus complex and was acquired at the killing of the
father by the brothers banned together' (p. 131). The price we pay for the
advance of civilisation 'is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the
sense of guilt'. He calls this 'the final conclusion of our investigation', thus
making vivid the juxtaposition of civilisation and discontent (p. 134). He saw
all of the vast panorama of human history as being acted out in the emotional
space between Eros and Thanatos - the constructive impulse to love and create
and the aggressive impulse to destroy and die.
I think Klein is Freud's most assiduous follower with respect
to the dual instinct theory and the sombre lessons of Freud's theory of
civilisation and its discontents. But I also think that there is a quite
fundamental divergence between them with respect to development, structures and,
indeed, all of the signposts in the inner world which help Freudians to find
their way about. I think Kleinian ideas in this area help us to see why it is so
hard to get hold of Klein at all. I am going to spell out the history and
present situation with respect to the Kleinian tradition on the Oedipus complex,
but I'm going to tell you my overall conclusion now.
I think it's a matter of background and foreground. This may
appear at first glance a small matter, but I think it is of fundamental
significance. At first I thought that developmental chronology and stages didn't
matter at all for Klein. I thought the structural hypothesis of id, ego and
superego didn't matter to her, either, but I was wrong. These concepts are there
- all of them. So are oral, anal, phallic, genital, as well as the Oedipus
complex, but they are not in the foreground. They are background. What is in the
foreground is the interplay of positions and emotions. The fundamental dichotomy
is between Eros and Thanatos; this creates the fundamental split between the
depressive and paranoid-schizoid positions, which, in turn, give us paired
emotions such as love and hate, gratitude and envy - all directed to
whole-object and part-object relations.
There is another general point to be put alongside this one
about positions and emotions. It is that the primitive is never transcended in
the way it is in the Freudian developmental scheme. In particular, psychotic
anxieties associated with the paranoid-schizoid position continue to break
through integrated perceptions, leading to a perpetual oscillation between the
paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions, the latter of which is characterised
by integrated, more mature thinking in relation to whole objects, where
part-object relations dominate the paranoid-schizoid position. The two positions
were eventually linked with a double-headed arrow to show the oscillation
between them: Ps÷D.
It is because the primitive continues to dominate that the developmental scheme
is background, while the interplay of emotions is foreground.
I'm not making all this up. It follows from the argument of a
lovely paper by Ruth Stein (1990) to which I will return at the end. I am
suggesting that the problem of finding one's way in the Kleinian inner world is
to a considerable extent explained by the fact that they have taken the
signposts down, rather as the British did when they expected Hitler to invade.
The result is that feelings are rushing around witout the benefit of the sorts
of roadmaps, boundaries and tramlines that make Freudians feel safe.
If you don't find that way of seeing things congenial, don't
despair. I'll still tell you the orthodox story, but before doing so I want to
ponder Oedipus a bit. In the light of all the recent revelations and
controversies about child abuse I had a sudden insight about old 'King Oedipus',
the play Aristotle called the perfect tragedy, the inspiration for the other
candidate, ‘Hamlet’ (see Jones, 1949). If we ask when Oedipus did it, the
answers can be seen in a very different light than the usual story gives. What
really happened is that having heard from the oracle that his son would murder
his father and marry his mother, Laius assaulted the kid at birth. Jocasta tells
it like this:
'As for the child,
It was not yet three days old, when it was cast out
(By other hands, not his) with rivetted ankles
To perish on the empty mountain-side' (Sophocles, p. 45).
'Oedipus', the name he was given by his adoptive parents,
Polybus and Meropé, means 'swollen footed'. When he was older and heard from a
drunkard that he was not his father's son, he asked his supposed parents who
were upset that anyone had said this. He went to an oracle.
'I went to Pytho;
But came back disappointed of any answer
To the question I asked, having heard instead a tale
Of horror and misery: how I must marry my mother,
And become the parent of a misbegotten brood.
An offence to all mankind - and kill my father' (p. 47).
Oedipus fled from Corinth, 'never to see home again, That no
such horror should ever pass' (ibid.), in order to avoid harming the man
he believed to be his father and to avoid sleeping with the woman he believed to
be his mother. As he did so, he had a chance encounter with Laius. Did his
father greet him with open arms? No, he did not. He tried to bully him over a
trivial matter of who should pass first at a cross-roads.
'When I came to the place where three roads join, I met
A herald followed by a horse-drawn carriage, and a man
Seated therein, just as you have described.
The leader roughly ordered me out of the way;
And his venerable master joined in with a surly command.
It was the driver that thrust me aside, and him I struck, for
I was angry. The old man saw it, leaning from the carriage,
Waited until I passed, then, seizing for weapon
The driver's two-pronged goad, struck me on the head.
He paid with interest for his temerity;
Quick as lightening, the staff in his right hand
Did its work; he tumbled headlong out of the carriage,
And every man of them I killed' (Sophocles, p. 48).
So what has Oedipus done except get assaulted at birth and
again when he was trying to run away from the Oedipal triangle (Young, 1988)? Of
course, he certainly over-reacted to the bullying, but he was assaulted twice.
Then he answers the riddle - about the life cycle - ends the tyranny of the
Sphinx, gets the prize (which turns out to be incestuous union with his mother),
learns the truth from wise, blind old Teiresias, doubts him, pursues the truth
relentlessly, gets it confirmed by servants who were directly involved when he
was an infant and in the wake of a new pestilence He feels awful, and Jocasta
hangs herself. Oedipus puts out his own eyes and eventually gets wisdom from
looking into the inner world. I'd say he has had bad, uncontained and
uncontaining parents, a far from good enough mother, a grossly and repeatedly
abusing father and a bad press, one which could rival our own renditions of
couples and triangles. This man was well and truly maltreated and has the scars
to prove it.
But as close inspection reveals with respect to many of the
abused, this is not the whole story. A very different one can be told about his
unconscious. Indeed, there is some evidence that Sophocles was a Kleinian,
since, if we look at the inner world, Oedipus will have been having the impulses
which justified Laius' behaviour at a very early age. He wasn't
committing incest in his mind at three and a half, as he would have if he was a
Freudian baby, but straightaway, like a good Kleinian baby. No primary
narcissism but object relations at birth.
As John Steiner has argued, there is evidence that all the
people involved in the tragedy really did know the other story or could easily
have worked it out, but they turned a blind eye (Steiner, 1985). I've had
another look at Sophocles' Theban Plays, and I am here to tell you he
must certainly have read Klein's 1928 paper, though we cannot be sure about the
1945 one or the 1946 one, where the role of projective identification in the
paranoid-schizoid position was fully formulated, thus providing all the elements
of the modern Kleinian analogue of the Oedipal story.
It would be a truism to say that this play made a deep
impression on Freud, but I think it might benefit us to dwell a moment on that
fact. We know that he said to Fliess in 1897, '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 childhood... If that is so, we can understand the
riveting power of Oedipus Rex...' (Freud, 1953, p. 265). He tells about
seeking out his own family story in that letter and suggests that the same
tragic triangle is at the bottom of 'Hamlet' (pp. 263-66).
Freud wrote of Oedipus in The Interpretation of Dreams. ‘Here is one in whom these primeval wishes of childhood have been fulfilled,
and we shrink back from him with the whole force of the repression by which
those wishes have since that time been held down within us' (Freud, 1900, vol.
4, pp. 62-3). He added the term 'complex' under the influence of Jung in 1910,
and in Totem and Taboo claimed that an actual killing of a father by a
primal horde lay at the foundation of human history (Freud, 1910, 1913).
Freud's own family constellation was multi-generationally
confused. His father as twenty years older than his mother and already a
grandfather by a grown son from his first marriage when Freud was born. That son
and another were at least as old as the new bride. Freud was the eldest son of
his family but the youngest child in the broader family group. The other young
children were, respectively, a year older and the same age but his nephew and
niece. A brother once said to him that he was of the third generation, not the
second, with respect to his father (Rudnytsky, 1987, p. 15). (I’m reminded of
a novelty song on the Hit Parade when I was a boy, which told of family
relations and remaarriages so complicated that the singer could logically claim,
‘I’m my own grandpa’.) It is no wonder that when Freud was reflecting on
finishing secondary school, the one bit of study he singled out for mention was
‘Oedipus Rex’ and that he came first in his class on the basis of a
translation from the Greek of the opening speech of the priest, beseeching
Oedipus to deliver the Thebans from a complex and bewildering pestilence which
was caused by the breaking of the inter-generational incest taboo (pp. 11-12).
The significance of all this was driven home when Freud's
disciples presented him with a medallion on his fiftieth birthday. On one side
was Freud's portrait in profile, and on the other a design of Oedipus answering
the Sphinx, with this line from the closing passage of the play: 'Who knew the
famous riddles and was a man most mighty'. When Freud read it he became pale and
agitated, because as a student he had strolled around the arcade of the
University of Vienna, inspecting the busts of the famous professors. He had
imagined his bust there in the future with that exact inscription. His
identification with Oedipus could not have been more complete (pp. 4-5; Anzieu,
1986, ch. 3). Even Freud was shaken by feelings of Oedipal triumph. In the light
of this life-long preoccupation, it is all the more striking that he never wrote
a systematic exposition of his mature views on the Oedip[us complex - the
centrepiece of his theory.
I want to turn now and for the rest of my paper to an
exposition of Kleinian views on the Oedipus complex. Klein's answer to the
question, 'When did Oedipus do it?' is that he did it from the beginning, at
least in phantasy. I will offer you a clear and a diffuse version of this point.
The sharp one can be found in all the various attempts to delineate Kleinian
accounts from Freudian ones. They all depend on the developmental scheme I
outlined above and to holding fast to the chronology that implies. If it were
not for this distinct schema, there would be little or no conflict between the
conceptions. If you read through the Controversial Discussions between the
Kleinians and the rest in the 1940s, the point comes up again and again that she
is thought to be, as they repeatedly put it, 'depreciating' the classical
Oedipus complex which occurs at three or beyond (e.g., King And Steiner, 1991,
pp. 432-33). Klein denies this but acknowledges that there is a conflict. It is
a conflict about what can be in the child's mind earlier in life. As I have
already said more than once, it is also a conflict about structure and
chronology, foreground and background, how the mind works and how to think about
it, but I'll return to that later.
Let's start with what was called when I was a medical student
'the ice cold dope' - the crude version you needed to pass the exam. You can
find it in two places - at the end of Klein's 1945 paper, 'The Oedipus Complex
in the Light of Early Anxieties' (recently reprinted in the collection The
Oedipus Complex Today, Britton et al., 1989, summary, pp. 63-82). An
up-to date exposition is available in the entry on 'Oedipus Complex' in
Hinshelwood's Dictionary of Kleinian Thought (1991), and the issues are
broadened and deepened in two recent papers by Ron Britton (1989, 1992) and one
by David Bell (1992).
Klein makes a distinction between what she calls 'the Oedipal
situation', which occurs throughout life, and the classical Oedipus complex of
Freud. 'According to Freud, genital desires emerge and a definite object choice
takes place during the phallic phase, which extends from about three to five
years of age, and is contemporaneous with the Oedipus complex' (Klein, 1945 in
Britton et al., 1989, p. 76). The superego and the sense of guilt are
sequels of the Oedipus complex (pp. 76-7). Klein's view is that emotional and
sexual development 'from early infancy onwards includes genital
sensations and trends, which constitute the first stages of the inverted [desire
toward same-sex parent; aggression toward olpposite sex one] and positive
Oedipus complex; they are experienced under the primacy of oral libido and
mingle with urethral and anal desires and phantasies. The libidinal stages
overlap from the first months of life onwards' (p. 78). She dates the superego
from the oral phase. 'Under the sway of phantasy life and of conflicting
emotions, the child at every stage of libidinal organization introjects his
objects - primarily his parents - and builds up the super-ego from these
elements... All the factors which have a bearing on his object relations play a
part from the beginning in the build-up of the super-ego.
'The first introjected object, the mother's breast, forms the
basis of the super-ego... The earliest feelings of guilt in both sexes derive
from the oral-sadistic desires to devour the mother, and primarily her breasts
(Abraham). It is therefore in infancy that feelings of guilt arise. Guilt does
not emerge when the Oedipus complex comes to an end, but is rather one of the
factors which from the beginning mould its course and affect its outcome' (pp.
Klein’s final rermarks begin with a passage to which
supports my impression that she intermingles concepts which would be carefully
distinguished in a Freudian developmental scheme: 'The sexual development of the
child is inextricably bound up with his object relations and with all the
emotions which from the beginning mould his attitude to mother and father.
Anxiety, guilt and depressive feelings are intrinsic elements of the child's
emotional life and therefore permeate the child's early object relations, which
consist of the relation to actual people as well as to their representatives in
the inner world. From these introjected figures - the child's identifications -
the super-ego develops and in turn influences the relation to both parents and
the whole sexual development. Thus emotional and sexual development, object
relations and super-ego development interact from the beginning’ (p. 82)
She concludes, 'The infants emotional life, the early
defences built up under the stress between love, hatred and guilt, and the
vicissitudes of the child's identifications - all these topics which may well
occupy analytic research for a long time to come' (pp. 81-2). As with Freud, it
it striking that although she lived for a further fifteen years and remained
intellectually productive, she did not provide an integration of her views on
this topic with her mature versions of other characteristically Kleinian
This paper was published a year before she coined a term to
characterise the mechanism which she called 'a particular form of identification
which establishes the prototype an aggressive object relation. I suggest for
these processes the term "projective identification"' (Klein, 1946, p.
8). This lies at the heart of the paranoid-schizoid position, in which
splitting, projective mechanisms and part-object relations predominate. Once
again, this configuration is in a dynamic relation with the depressive position,
in which whole-object relations, concern for the object and integration
predominate. What has happened in the subsequent research to which Klein alluded
is that these ways of thinking have been brought into relationship with one
another. As David Bell puts it, 'The primitive Oedipal conflict described by
Klein takes place in the paranoid-schizoid position when the infant's world is
widely split and relations are mainly to part objects. This means that any
object which threatens the exclusive possession of the idealised breast/mother
is felt as a persecutor and has projected into it all the hostile feelings
deriving from pregenital impulses' (Bell, 1992, p. 172)
If development proceeds satisfactorily, secure relations with
good internal objects leads to integration, healing of splits and taking back
projections. 'The mother is then, so to speak, free to be involved with a third
object in a loving intercourse which, instead of being a threat, becomes the
foundation of a secure relation to internal and external reality. The capacity
to represent internally the loving intercourse between the parents as whole
objects results, through the ensuing identifications, in the capacity for full
genital maturity. For Klein, the resolution of the Oedipus complex and the
achievement of the depressive position refer to the same phenomena viewed from
different perspectives' (ibid.). Ron Britton puts it very elegantly: 'the
two situations are inextricably intertwined in such a way that one cannot be
resolved without the other: we resolve the Oedipus complex by working through
the depressive position and the depressive position by working through the
Oedipus complex' (Britton, 1992, p. 35).
Isn't that neat and tidy - a sort of Rosetta Stone, providing
a key to translating between the Freudian and Kleinian conceptual schemes? In
the recent work of Kleinians this way of thinking has been applied to broader
issues, in particular, the ability to symbolise and learn from experience.
Integration of the depressive position - which we can now see as resolution of
the Oedipus complex - is the sine qua non of the development of 'a
capacity for symbol formation and rational thought' (p. 37). Greater knowledge
of the object 'includes awareness of its continuity of existence in time and
space and also therefore of the other relationships of the object implied by
that realization. The Oedipus situation exemplifies that knowledge. Hence the
depressive position cannot be worked through without working through the Oedipus
complex and vice versa' (p. 39). Britton also sees 'the depressive position and
the Oedipus situation as never finished but as having top be re-worked in each
new life situation, at each stage of development, and with each major addition
to experience or knowledge' (p. 38).
This way of looking at the Oedipal situation also offers a
way of thinking of self-knowledge or insight: 'The primal family triangle
provides the child with two links connecting him separately with each parent and
confronts him with the link between them which excludes him. Initially this
parental link is conceived in primitive part-object terms and in the modes of
his own oral, anal and genital desires, and in terms of his hatred expressed in
oral, anal and genital terms. If the link between the parents perceived in love
and hate can be tolerated in the child's mind, it provides him with a prototype
for an object relationship of a third kind in which he is a witness and not a
participant. A third position then comes into existence from which object
relationships can be observed. Given this, we can also envisage being observed.
This provides us with a capacity for seeing ourselves in interaction with others
and for entertaining another point of view whilst retaining our own, for
reflecting on ourselves whilst being ourselves' (Britton, 1989, p. 87). I find
this very helpful, indeed, profound.
I had an odd experience while I was working out what I had to
say about this matter. I knew that an important source would be the
Controversial Discussions where Kleinians and Freudians debated, as I
confidently supposed, this very matter (King and Steiner, 1991). I had done
research in the compendious volume on these debates with respect to other
topics, in particular, phantasy and psychotic anxieties, which have huge index
entries - a whole page in one case and a half page in the other. 'Oedipus
complex' has only a few lines. After reading all the relevant passages, it took
me the longest time to figure out this apparent inconsistency. The answer is
that they are not separate topics. That is, the Kleinians were challenging the
neat developmental scheme of classical and neo-Freudians. They were drawing
attention to the content of early emotional processes, where Freudians
tended to focus on scientistic models and metapsychological presentations of
their forms. What I think was really novel and utterly breathtaking about what
Klein and her colleagues were reflecting upon was the primitive ferocity of the
content of unconscious phantasies and psychotic anxieties which, as Hinshelwood
puts it, lie 'beneath the classical Oedipus complex' (Hinshelwood, 1991, p. 57).
This is particularly true of the combined parent figure and
the terrified phantasies - normal but psychotic anxieties - associated with it
(p. 60), as well as the child's feelings about his or her role and situation -
at risk, excluded, responsible. I experience a number of my patients as in
stasis because of inactivity in this space due to depression, preoccupation or
estrangement between the parents. (André Green has written a moving paper on
this: Green, 1986) They cannot get on with life, because there is no living
relationship in the lee of which they can prosper. Sometimes they stay very
still, lest the stasis give way to something far worse.
I often feel that the controversialists in the Freud-Klein
debates were talking past one another - the Freudians about actual parents and
conscious feelings and the Kleinians about internal objects, part objects and
utterly primitive unconscious phantasies of a particularly distressing and
preverbal kind. The analogy occurs to me between the truths Oedipus thought he
was seeking and the deeper ones which eventually emerged and which Steiner
suggests were unconsciously known all along. One of the main features of recent
Kleinian developments in this area is that the Oedipal situation is increasingly
being seen as concerned with the prerequisites of knowledge, containment and
that which is being contained. The focus changes to the riddle of the Sphinx and
the search for the truth of origins which represent the Oedipal quest in its
widest sense - that of the need to know at a deeper level: epistemophilia.
I now want to turn to matters to which I promised to revert.
There are a number of points to be made. First, Klein's views on the Oedipal
situation and the Oedipus complex were developing in ways which interacted with
the development of other major concepts, in particular, the depressive position,
the paranoid-schizoid position and projective identification. Something parallel
happened with Freud's conscious, preconscious and unconscious (deep categories
of topography) and id, ego and superego (important but not so deep categories of
structure). Freud never explicitly replaced his topographic metapsychology with
the structural one, nor did he make a clear distinction between the super-ego
and the ego ideal (Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1985a). Evolving theories are not tidy.
Second, my signposts about background and foreground can now
be applied to the relationship between primitive processes, positions and
emotions, on the one hand, and developmental schemes, chronology, topography and
the structural hypothesis, on the other. Klein had no quarrel with the
background, but it was not her central concern. It was the depths of the id and
the unconscious which preoccupied her. People would hear her to be speaking in
unorthodox ways about structures, when she was burrowing away at the core of a
child's being. What was foreground for Klein was the interplay of unconscious
feelings; that was background for the Freudians or they were silent about it,
preferring to present things in scientistic analogies of forces, energies,
structures, adaptations, etc. (See Rapaport, and Gill, 1959; Rapaport, 1967).
Klein often chucks in the whole caboodle: the phrase 'oral, anal and phallic'
recurs throughout her writings, as does 'mingle', as if she was making a salad
or immersing us in a bubbling cauldron or maelstrom rather than referring to a
In a very interesting paper in the International Journal
of Psycho-Analysis Ruth Stein took 'A New Look at the Theory of Melanie
Klein' (Stein, 1990). She argues that Klein's is fundamentally a theory of
affect in which the focus is 'shifted from Freud's cathectic explanations to the
concepts of objects and the feelings attached to them' (p. 500). 'Positions'
become more important than structures, and these are 'built around different
core feelings' (p. 504). There are basically two psychological configurations,
corresponding to the two basic instincts. They 'differ fundamentally according
to the capacity of the individual to tolerate unpleasant or conflictual
feelings’ (p. 505). Psychic life is the regulation of feelings (p. 508).
She concludes that 'Klein has no theory of the mental apparatus, and feelings
are not placed in any such frame' (p. 509). Anxiety and guilt are the inevitable
outcome of the coexistence of love and hate, and the Oedipal situation generates
them (p. 505).
What I find helpful about this point of view on Klein is that
it - along with my own distinction between background and foreground - helps me
to understand why I cannot find my way around using a map of the Freudian
structures with which I was educated in my original reading of psychoanalysis in
an American neo-Freudian context. Kleinian explanations ring true for me. They
did when I was an analysand and continue to do so for me as a therapist and
supervisor in individual therapy, group therapy and group relations work. In
fact, group relations work was founded on the very point I am making here. Bion
said, in Experiences in Groups, that there is nothing wrong with Freud's
explanations in terms of id, ego and superego (which Freud insisted explained
all individual and social phenomena) except that they didn't go deep enough and
thereby missed out the 'ultimate sources' of group behaviour, just as they did
the behaviour of individuals (Bion, 1955, pp. 475-76; 1961, pp. 187-90). What he
pointed to as more basic was psychotic anxieties, along with the
paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions and the emotions and basic
assumptions which were derived from them and sundered sensible work in groups
(Young, 1994, chs. 5-7).
I have tried to do two things. First, I have sketched
Kleinian views on the Oedipus complex and how they differ from Freudian ones.
Second, I have offered a couple of ideas which may help us to understand why
these two ways of thinking about human nature seem so hard to bring into one
framework of ideas - why they are so hard to mesh. I think it is because the
fundamental determinants of human nature which are emphasised in the respective
frameworks are on different levels. For Klein what matters is always the
primitive processes and the task is never-ending. What matters for Freudians is
that 'Where id is, there ego shall be. It's reclamation work, like draining the
Zuider Zee' (Freud, 1933, p. 80). Freudians believe that you can resolve the
Oedipus complex. Kleinians believe that you will be faced again and again with
the Oedipal situation, more like Sisyphus that Promethius.
In passing I should mention that the Kleinian position in
this matter is difficult, if not impossible, to square with recent arguments on
behalf of ‘plastic sexuality’, whereby gays, lesbians and bi-sexuals claim
that one can refuse the Oedipal path and choose another developmental
trajectory. I have considered this debate elsewhere (Young, 1993). I only want
to mention here that the Kleinian view makes the Oedipal confuguration something
one cannot evade and be a throughtful, creative person.
A closing note on Sophocles. When I read of Jocasta's last
agony, an old joke I’d recalled about Oedipus was suddenly not so funny:
'There she bewailed the twice confounded issue of her wifehood - husband
begotten of husband, child of child' (Sophocles, p. 60). And 'worse was yet to
see' (p. 61) when Oedipus found her, cut her body down and blinded himself with
her golden brooches. I remembered that we are here in the realm of actual and
phantasied violence, child abuse and incest, sometimes nominally consenting,
usually coerced, leaving deep scars. The failures to negotiate this complex are
myriad in the present and throughout history. I think Kleinian psychoanalysis
has shown that it is a never-ending battle, as we move back and forth -
sometimes moment by moment and surely at every challenge point in life - between
fragmentation and integration, blaming and reparation, hate and love.
We can make a choice of levels. The first is the Yiddisha
momma who brings her son to the psychologist, who examines the boy and calls the
mother in to announce gravely that he has an Oedipus complex, to which she
replies, as I'm sure most of you will recall, 'Oedipus, Schmeedipus, as long as
he loves his mother'.
The historic Mrs. Oedipus, the queen Jocasta, was equally
keen to avoid deeper truths:
'Fear? What has a man to do with fear?
Chance rules our lives, and the future is all unknown.
Best live as best we may, from day to day.
Nor need this mother-marrying frighten you;
Many a man has dreamt as much. Such things
Must be forgotten, if life is to be endured' (Sophocles, p.
Sophocles offers another punch line, one which evokes the
tragedy in every life, where, as Teiresias put it (p. 36), each is the enemy of
himself, as well as detective and criminal:
'Sons and daughters of Thebes, behold: this was Oedipus,
Greatest of men; he held the key to the deepest mysteries;
Was envied by all his fellow-men for his great prosperity;
Behold, what a full tide of misfortune swept over his head.
Then learn that mortal man must always look to his ending,
And none can be called happy until that day when he carries
His happiness to the grave' (Sophocles, p. 68).
This is the revised text of a talk given to the Guild of Psychotherapists at
a study day on ‘The Oedipus Complex’ in February 1993 at a meeting of a
group of psychotherapists in Brighton in October 1993. It will be published in Melanie
Klein and Object Relations.
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Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ.