Freud on the Oedipus Complex: People like to talk about this but don’t like to find out what Freud actually said. The initial description of what came to be called Oedipus Complex can be found on pages 294-297 of the old Avon edition of The Interpretation of Dreams (James Strachey translator, Chapter V, part D, “Typical Dreams”). It has often been noted that Oedipus did not suffer from an Oedipus Complex. Two things need to be said about that. 1) Freud never said that he did. 2) If Freud is right about the complex (about which everyone today seems to have reasonable doubts at the very least) then Oedipus, if he is an accurate representation of a human being, did suffer from an Oedipus Complex, though, of course, he didn’t know he did. Nor did his killing of his father or sleeping with his mother occur as the fulfillment of his desires to do so. But of course the Oedipus Complex in actual humans never leads to the killing of the father and sleeping with the mother. It leads to neuroses. Had Oedipus known Laius was his father and Jocasta his mother, he’d never had done what he did. The only reasonable claim is that the play is not about the Oedipus Complex. But again, Freud never said that it was.
Let’s assume that Freud was right about the Oedipus Complex, just to see where that assumption will take us. If so, Sophocles would have suffered from it and so would the audience. A fictional character, not being a person, need not have so suffered. But a character who in fact kills his father and marries his mother is almost certainly going to manifest the author’s unconscious awareness of the psychological implications of it. Does Oedipus?
Before answering that question, a brief look at the actual Freudian Oedipus. According to Freud, the thing that distinguishes Oedipus Tyrannous from all other “tragedies of destiny” cannot be its treatment of fate, since that is what they all have in common. It must therefore be that alone among them this one appeals to us at an unconscious level. And the place where this does appeal to the audience unconsciously is in the dream-like reflection of the desire to kill the father and sleep with the mother. Since the audience also has this desire, they will feel the appropriate and deeply seated emotion that must accompany its representation. They won’t know why they are experiencing this emotion and will resist attributing it to its proper source. They will therefore find some other explanation for the play’s appeal—though that one being false, and unconsciously known to be so, will never satisfy.
This analysis has already gone beyond what Freud actually says in the pages cited above. But it keeps, I believe, very safely within the understanding of Freud. Here I extrapolate further, but still remain, I believe, safely within Freudian thought.
Sophocles too will of course also have suffered from his own Oedipus Complex. And without intending to do so, would have represented this complex in some way, perhaps in various ways, in this drama. Where might this representation occur in the play? I believe in three places. The first is the least important. Believing the Oracle, he runs away from Corinth. The disgust he feels at the idea that he will fulfill the prophecy unnerves him. Nor does it make much sense logically. If you really don’t want to kill your father or sleep with your mother, then it seems to me it would hard to bring yourself to do these things. Unless a frenzied mob were going to force you at knife point or threaten you with the murder of your own children if you did not, it’s hard to imagine any scenario in which one would even entertain the thought. And how likely is this sort of overwhelming compulsion? True, one could say, “but he understood that the gods were behind this prophecy and therefore however unlikely, surely the gods had to power to make this happen.” Perhaps so, though the mechanism still seems hard to imagine. But even if so, then acknowledging the power of the gods to bring about such an extraordinary event must compel the corollary acknowledgement that fleeing Corinth will not help. Gods that can make you kill your father and sleep with you mother won’t be stopped by anything you can do. This means that it makes more sense to see Oedipus’ fleeing of Corinth as an irrational manifestation of his desire to fulfill the prophecy accompanied by his disgust at his own desire than it does to see it as a rational decision based upon an overestimation of his own powers to thwart the gods. In fact it would not be out of the question to see his fleeing Corinth as a manifestation of his desire to fulfill the prophecy. After all, he has reason to believe that Merope and Polybus are not his parents. And he fails to pursue the question to the end to find out if indeed they are. He leaves Delphi under the suspicion (or unconscious understanding) that his real parents are out there somewhere. And if he’s going to get to the business of killing and fucking, he’s going to have to let himself be led to where they are.
Second, the expedient of the solving of the riddle of the sphinx. It’s an essential moment in the myth, not original to Sophocles as far as I know, but nonetheless bringing to the play the notion that the solving of a riddle is part of the reading of the play. Something has to be done to lead the people of Thebes to declare Oedipus King, and this event has the thematic advantage of doubling the central action of the play, which is the solving of the riddle of who killed the former king. At the same time the circle of the riddle expands to the play itself, an unconsciously plea or opportunity for the audience to comprehend the riddle of Oedipus—to make conscious the unconscious appeal.
More profoundly, though Oedipus did not knowingly kill dad or sleep with mom, if he does suffer unconsciously like the rest of humankind from an Oedipus complex, the realization that he has in fact done these things is going to determine his reaction to these acts. Here is where the psychoanalytic interpretation of the play finally becomes interesting. Oedipus feels disgust at his actions, plucks out his eyes and makes himself an exile. On the one hand this reaction is precisely what one would predict for all the reasons that easily come to mind about the breaking of the taboo. Oedipus’ reaction manifests his own internal accord with the socially defined disgust at what he’s done, which disgust if already a sign that everyone wants to do what he has done but is afraid of the reaction of others. Oedipus’ reaction is a perfectly represented representation of the personal desire against the social taboo. The society (not the gods) is such an overwhelming force that even the fulfillment of the deepest unconscious desire can only mirror the social consensus.
And yet, I find the lack of ambivalence troubling. I ask a couple questions: what if Oedipus had realized what he had done and yet been able to hide this knowledge from the public? We do get a sense of the possibility in the reaction of Jocasta to her own realization of what has happened, a realization that precedes her son’s. Her reaction suggests that she might have been able to live with the realization if the public did not also find out about it. But the public shame (it is a social taboo not a personal one) that drives her to suicide. Perhaps Oedipus too would have been less disgusted had he not been publically revealed. He might have exiled himself without also blinding himself and found some excuse other than guilt. He might also therefore have manifested some ambivalence toward his own acts.
Of course the problem with this whole analysis is that it seems to depend upon the acceptance of the terms of the Oedipus Complex? But does it really. I do not think so. Oedipus is a character who nearly got away with a crime. The Oedipus Complex is too narrowly defined to cover the appeal of this play. One does not need it, when the not even unconscious desire to get rid of everyone who annoys us and sleep with everyone who attracts us is already part of everyone’s experience. Choosing the father as the murder victim and the mother as the sexual object merely puts the desire into its most dramatic form. If you want to get rid of annoying people, how about killing your own father? If you want to sleep with every desirable women, how about your own mother? Any infantile impulses notwithstanding, the truth is normal people don’t want to kill fathers or sleep with their mothers. If those infantile impulses ever did exist, they do not determine the later psychological development of the individual. They do not become repressed. They are chuckled at, abandoned, likely forgotten—erased altogether, without legacy. The mystery is that though sexual desire is universal we are more likely to want to escape our families whom familiarity has made boring and whom a changing power dynamic from child to adult has made uncomfortable, caging. They may always be fun to visit. But they’re more fun to leave. We want to get back to our own lives, where we are king and queen.
So in the end, the appeal of Oedipus over all other tragedies of destiny does not lie in the Oedipus Complex but in the larger family dynamic and also in the larger human dynamic of sex, power, autonomy and freedom. The desire to get away with crimes accompanied by a realization of the need for the laws that define those crimes as crimes.