The Freud Museum

Events Archive

31 October 1998

Analysing the Oedipus Complex: Is it still Central?

"His destiny moves us 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. King Oedipus, who slew his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta, merely shows us the fulfilment of our own childhood wishes" (The Interpretation of Dreams)

Conference Report

In the latest conference jointly organised with the British Journal of Psychotherapy, we decided to go back to basics. Freud was fascinated with the Oedipus legend from an early age. With the themes of solving riddles, breaking taboos and gaining self knowledge at the heart of his understanding, it is not surprising that the story should figure in his theories of human development. Nevertheless there is no single work of Freud's devoted to an elucidation of this important concept, and it often seems that recent psychoanalysis has downgraded its importance. So it was gratifying to see an attendance list of two hundred people eager to debate the question 'Analysing the Oedipus Complex: Is it still Central?'

In her introduction to the conference Jean Arundale commented on the long history of the Oedipus Complex in Freud's work, and its status as the 'core complex of the neurosis'. She asked the questions which underpinned the conference: Is it still the core complex for analysts today? Is it still regarded as a fundamental human experience? Is overcoming the Oedipus Complex still necessary for emotional maturation?

Richard Rusbridger in his paper 'Elements of the Oedipus Complex' was quite clear where he stood on the issue. He claimed that the Oedipus Complex was a fundamental dynamic and structure that operates on every level of psycho-sexual development; analysing the characteristic reactions to it was still the core task of analysis. But the complex was, paradoxically, often hard to detect in analysis. What one saw were the defences against the Oedipal dilemma, while only fragments, 'elements' of the complex, come to the surface as phantasies, feelings of envy or exclusion and so on. In a subtle and beautifully crafted exposition he showed how reactions to the generation of meaning in analysis may actually reflect the underlying Oedipal dynamics of the transference relationship.

Julia Fabricius, Director of the Anna Freud Centre, took up similar themes in her fascinating paper 'Internal 'Soul Murder': An impediment to psychic development'. Using material from a six and a half year analysis, she said the power of denial gives the Oedipus Complex its importance in analysis. She argued that failure of Oedipal separation is a generational problem and made use of Kernberg's concept of 'internal soul murder' to describe a condition of 'Oedipal impasse'. In such cases an sexualised relation with the mother is internalised, short circuiting the need to grow up and form adult relationships. The analysis itself may become a kind of fetish.

The eminent French psychoanalyst Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel also addressed the themes of separation and merging. In a wide ranging exploration she linked neurotic mechanisms attempting to circumvent the Oedipal situation with philosophical traditions and current theories within analysis itself. The Dionysian dream of total pleasure - jouissance - is actually impossible. It is only by working through the Oedipus Complex that the drive is soldered to the object and the 'I' and 'You' truly emerge. On the other hand there are tendencies within analysis that entirely leave aside Freud's focus on sexuality and Oedipus. They focus on 'interpersonal communication' and see the child's only desire as the wish to 'relate'. The idea that human beings must pass through a succession of painful traumas is rejected for an egalitarian phantasy. Mme Chasseguet-Smirgel reminded us that the relationship between a parent and child is fundamentally unequal , and claimed that the Oedipus Complex is one of the primary organisers of our experience.

Finally the Kleinian psychoanalyst Gigliola Fornari Spoto looked at some of these impossible dreams of 'anti-Oedipus' in the consulting room. Her detailed case material validated the complete truth of the assertion that the move from illusion to reality is not a painless one. In her patient the Oedipus Complex was too much. He was forced to 'turn a blind eye' and try to get rid of it. Thus he lived in a solipsistic world of perverse phantasies and parasitic dependence. But unable to locate himself within the Oedipal drama it was an emotionally dead world, imprisoned by anxiety and disdain, cut off from others. Fornari Spoto showed clearly the impossibility of a position outside the Oedipal struggle. As Daniel Schreber said in his famous Memoirs "...a human being who actually exists - has to be somewhere ."

We would like to thank all the speakers who contributed to such a fascinating and important event, and to the staff of the French Institute for all their help on the day.

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