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NEW IDEAS ABOUT THE OEDIPUS COMPLEX
by Robert M. Young
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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 dealt.
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. 78-9).
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 preoccupations.
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 chronological scheme.
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. 52).
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.
(Place of publication is London unless otherwise indicated.)
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Reprinted from Melanie Klein and Object Relations , 12 (no. 2):1-20, 1994.
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The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM