Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Freud & Oedipus: the Ancient Struggle

I have found myself wanting to reference this concept a number of times  and, given some of the films which are coming out in the near future, I felt this would be a good time in which I could discuss this as a preface to discussions on the struggles between one generation and the next. I really consider Sigmund Freud to be a genius; if you enjoy what I do in trying to decode symbols and meanings, you would really enjoy The Interpretation of Dreams; it is a work of great insight and intellect; however, I do differ greatly with Freud on one of his important theories, the Oedipus complex, based upon the play Oedipus Rex by the Greek playwright, Sophocles.
Oedipus Explains the Riddle of the Sphinx, Ingres. The riddle of the sphinx was: "What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?" Oedipus answered: "Man: as an infant, he crawls on all fours; as an adult, he walks on two legs and; in old age, he uses a walking stick". Oedipus was the first to answer the riddle correctly and, having heard Oedipus' answer, the Sphinx was astounded and inexplicably killed herself by throwing herself into the sea, freeing Thebes from her harsh rule. Ironically, it is also a riddle to which many feel Oedipus himself is cursed to kill his own father and marry his mother (the words of the oracle) but it's really just the sensationalism of the generation gap.
In the play, Oedipus, orphaned, is told that one day he will kill his father and marry his mother; unknowingly, Oedipus quarrels with a man whose chariot blocks his path and kills the man who is the king and happens to be his father and thereby has to marry the queen, his mother. Freud saw the play performed and, for him, a light went off which explained everything he had been struggling with, in Freud's own words: "His (Oedipus') destiny moves us only because it might have been ours — because the Oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. 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." There are several problems with this, unfortunately, by Freud's own standards.
Oedipus & the Sphinx, Moreau.
The first problem is: there is nothing unconscious about Freud's reading of Sophocles' play.
Freud based his principles upon the suppression of our desires, burying them in our unconscious so we wouldn't be tempted to act upon them. Sophocles, however, has all this out in the open, for all to see, so it doesn't qualify as something being suppressed (you may very well argue that it is suppressed for Oedipus, yet he is merely a character, a projection of Sophocles' imagination, so Oedipus doesn't have an unconscious of his own to suppress desires, Oedipus is a vehicle for Sophocles). As I have said in the section of "Decoding" in How To Eat Art, art cannot decode itself. The very identity of art depends upon the "hidden nature" of it, in symbols, theory, ambiguous language, jokes, etc., but art cannot tell you what it is about, it can only try to create a pathway and then lead you upon it. Freud's reading of Oedipus Rex is claiming that it has decoded itself, and that's impossible.   
Sophocles, the great playwright of Athens.
The second problem is: Oedipus Rex didn't change history or lives.
After the great debut of his play, no one ran out and started murdering their fathers or raping their mothers, no one exclaimed liberation over what Sophocles "revealed" to them, according to Freud's interpretation of the play. So, what does this great play mean, if it doesn't mean what became a stable foundation of psychoanalysis even up to this day?
Albert Greiner as Oedipus in 1896.
I would like to posit that it was about what was all ready going on.
The time in which Sophocles was living is called the Golden Age of Greece, or the Age of Pericles, after its first citizen. When most of us think of Greece, this is the age we think of: Socrates, Aeschylus, the Acropolis, Hippocrates, Herodotus and many more, flourished during this period, but it wasn't always like this, and I believe this is the point of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex.
In order for the Age of Pericles to become great, they had to kill their father, the blind bard Homer. The greatness of the heroes in the Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey suffocated all later generations of Greeks; while offering perfect role models for the Greeks, it also made it impossible to surpass their achievements. As Greeks, specifically those in Athens in the 5th century BC, were trying to work their own way, their own path, their own destiny, Sophocles--I believe--felt this will of the times and characterized it in the story of Oedipus: killing his father the king who stood in his path was killing the obstacle which stood in their way of becoming their own people with their own identity, of seizing the motherland of Greece and bearing their own fruit, by their own will. They would no longer look up to the Homeric heroes, they would make themselves worthy to be looked up to by future generations.
The Iliad, Book Book VIII, Lines 245-53, late 5th Century AD.
What's my basis for this?
This is what every generation does.
The older generation is always struggling to "stay in power," remember their achievements and continue on their way; the younger generation is always trying to find their voice and break free of the restraints put upon them by the previous generation. Films such as The Shining, The Outsiders, Tangled and I believe the upcoming films Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror, Mirror will all detail this struggle of one generation against another for the sake of preserving or forging their identity.
Expect more to come on this topic.
The sofa Freud used in his sessions.