On Freud’s Oedipal

In the article ‘Ardent Masturbation’, Leo Bersani compares the methods by which influential thinkers of the west like Descartes and Proust presented, questioned and convinced their audience of what they thought was the truth about the world they are in. While questioning the self-appropriative nature of ontology itself in this piece, Freud is examined through his interpretation of the subject-object narrative in the Oedipus Rex. As per Freud’s view, when simply broken down, the story of Oedipus was about a son’s wish to possess his mother and eliminate his father. What was missed was that the aggression towards the parent was not directed by the child but came from the aggression and self preservation drive from the parents who abandoned him to die such that the prophecy they had known of wouldn’t come true. What Oedipus did in the years that followed was to only avoid the fate of being the one who murders his father and sleeps with his own mother. It is fate that wins, rather than anyone’s desires to preserve or to kill.

The given remark of Bersani, when thought of at the level of the civilization, sets the role of the father that protects yet also acts as a threat. This role could be best assigned to an authority such as a government. It is this authority that keeps us safe, from what could be said to be the primal within and the hostile exterior world. The survival of this authority is based on the control over the sexual urges and confusions of the society, which could be analogous to an child exploring his or her phallic stages of psychological development by seeking pleasure from and assigning it to different objects. This rivalry is at root in all conflicts at a social scale and thus the reform, where the child becomes his own the father through a sacrificial murder, is the bloody struggle of a revolution. The entire idea of questioning the established narrative to protect or lay claim to what we feel is naturally ours (resources, personal rights etc.) can be seen at the core of all revolutions and reformations that occured in Europe. Even now, in a society that has probably been at its healthiest, safest and at the peak of its freedom, we still see this in a constant strive to better and overthrow what exists.

The rivalry and challenge to authority is not exclusively directed to the male parent but also the female, as was proposed by Carl Jung through the Electra Complex. But there is another facet to the female authority in the story of Oedipus, where it doesn’t play accomplice to what the male has to say. The Sphinx is the representation of the feminine authority that dominates and punishes with much deadly a force than what the father would unwield. This female figure is not only a match when it comes to physical strengths but is also cunning. Her suicide shows the intensity of this dishonor felt after having Oedipus solve the riddle. This reveals the other controlling end of vanity that results, as Freud suggests, in females when the reverse Oedipus Complex is not properly addressed.

Bersani sees the story of Oedipus more than just a tragic story of a family but rather as a struggle by human consciousness to gain autonomy, in which it separates itself through struggle and recognizes itself as separate from the object realm, with ‘crudest sexual fantasies to the most refined scientific inquiries and philosophical investigations.’ From a Cartesian perspective, it can indeed be the individual gaining control over the forces that made him, creating that demarcation between man and nature which is ever so strong today, more so in the developed world. But then again, there is also a yearning to get back to it, which could be said to be the wish of becoming that father – the illusion of control that is laden with guilt that we as a developed society exhibit towards the world around us.

But when the child identifies with his father, this is the points where he submits to authority and gradually ends up later being a father to a child like himself, choosing a mother that emulates what he had found attracted to in his own. The conflict repeats almost like a ritual – a sign of an illness according to Freud but so essential to human existence. This is where the differences between Occidental and Oriental philosophies show their face, especially relevant to this issue.

The Oedipal Myth, in a way, does largely pertain to the thinking of the West, at least to how it works in the sub-dermal. I feel that Bersani limits his statement safely to an Occidental perspective because of the Greek influence on Abrahamic faiths, which eventually influenced the Western thought. While the Old Testament was largely about an enigmatic father figure exhibiting his authority, usually through severe punishment, things took a different turn in the Bible. Christ’s life in itself was all about questioning the establishment and his crucifixion could be an equivalent of the child murdering the father (or a part of him) thus being bound by guilt. God, or a symbol of his, was brought down from an unreachable place, humanized and murdered by his children. All of this lies at core of what Freud presents through the story of Oedipus – the fact that the son must murder his father only to be reborn again as his son. This influence from more recent and influential stories might have played some role in Freud analysing the myth in this way.

In eastern philosophies, particularly Hinduism (including Buddhism), examples of father-son conflict do exist but they go beyond the mere dialogue that revolves around the claim and access to the mother (the closest being of Ganesha being decapitated by his own father, Shiva, only to be established as a new divine entity by replacing his head with that of an elephant – an analysis of this scenario interestingly correlates the trunk of the elephant to that of the penis and discusses how Ganesha is a celibate, thus ‘put in place’ by his father’s authority) – in the rest of the cases, the father was to be obeyed and there are countless stories about sons being sacrificed for the preservation and sometimes the selfish needs of the father. This approach does show up in the passivity of the eastern thought where historic reforms at social and political level have not been as aggressive as in the west.

The Oedipal Myth, as interpreted by Freud, does not directly influence or play about in the modern Western culture but its theme of challenging an authoritative figure has the essence of what could have led to the influence of Judaeo-Christian thought. It should also be stated that the outcomes of it are not a universal phenomenon but the conflict between the parent and the child is a universal one.

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