Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Oedipus Schmoedipus

June 21 is Fathers Day 2009, and time once again to do battle with Sigmund Freud, for 2009 is the centenary of the Oedipus Complex, the idea that all sons fantasize about killing their fathers and having sex with their mothers.

Freud formalized the Oedipus Complex after treating a patient whom he called Rat Man, so nicknamed because thoughts of a rat preoccupied the patient. Whenever strong sexual cravings visited him, Rat Man conjured up an idea that a jar with a live rat was being strapped to his naked behind. The rat would use its teeth to tunnel through to his….

Perhaps Rat Man couldn't say it.

"Anus?" Sigmund Freud may have had to suggest.

"Yes. Thank you," Rat Man might have gasped in reply. We do know, anyway, that "anus" was the word upon which he settled.

In addition to longings (and fears) about a jarred rat, Rat Man hoped (and hoped not) that his thoughts determined peoples' fates. There was a third layer of anxieties and desires about unpaid debts and a fourth, too, and this is the one that formed Rat Man's psychoanalytic legacy. Rat Man told Sigmund Freud that he had wanted to kill his father. He told him that, again and again, he had imagined taking the jarred rat and strapping it to his father's backside whence the rat, once released, could tunnel through to his father's….

"Anus?" Freud may have again had to suggest to his verbally reticent and all a-quiver patient.

Anyway, somehow from the epiphany of such a clinical moment, Freud formulated the Oedipus Complex. All boys, Freud said after one year of analyzing Rat Man and two more years of thinking about him, want to kill their fathers and have sex with their mothers in the same way that Oedipus of Greek myth did and Rat Man of turn-of-the-century Vienna aspired.

That Freud had found no evidence at all that Rat Man wanted to have sex with his mother didn't figure into Freud's calculus. All that Freud factored into his ideas about Oedipus were two items from Rat Man's history. First, when Rat Man was six years old his father caught him masturbating and beat him in punishment. Rat Man was filled during that beating with murderous rage. The second item: Rat Man's account of his first sexual dalliance. At the moment of climax, Rat Man had thought, "But this is wonderful! For this one could murder ones father!"

"And one could, couldn't one?" Freud apparently thought.

Freud's own father was Jacob Freud, a wool merchant of no particular talent. After he went bankrupt, he moved the family from Moravia to Vienna, where he rented a series of increasingly dismal apartments in what had been Vienna's Jewish ghetto. Jacob may have been involved in a counterfeit scheme. Regardless, he was disappointing as a provider and protector, or so Freud remembered.

Freud's mother, Amalia, on the other hand, was a paramount protector, a lioness, and one of the great loves of Freud's life. She was beautiful, for starters, and willful, and she favored Freud (her firstborn son) over all of his siblings. Amalia was Jacob's third wife, about the same age as Jacob's sons from his first marriage. Writers have, for years, imagined the lust that Freud's grown brothers must have felt for their bodacious stepmother and the lust that little Sigmund, emulating the big boys, must have felt for the woman who pinched and pampered him so.

"For this one could murder one's father!"

Fathers Day is one year younger than the Oedipus Complex. Nine-nine years into its celebration, perhaps its time to wonder whether the Oedipus Complex is a universal male tendency that Freud identified or merely the abiding bathtub ring of Freud's own psyche. After all, the original Oedipus myth is about a young man who only inadvertently killed his father and bedded his mother. Never aware that he was abandoned by birth parents (King Laius and Queen Jacosta of Thebes), he loved and honored as parents King Polybus and Queen Periboea of Corinth, for they had raised him lovingly and instructed him so well that, as an adult, he and he alone could solve the Riddle of the Sphinx.

For the next ninety-nine Fathers Days, perhaps we could talk about a Polybus Complex when we talk about fathers and their sons. Actually, the conversation needn't exclude daughters. We could define the Polybus Complex as describing the immense love and occasionally ambivalent feelings that even the best fathers have for their children and the immense love and occasionally ambivalent feelings that even the best children have for their fathers. The Polybus Complex would be about fealty, forgiveness and the willingness of imperfect people to move on together in life.

Isn't that what we've been celebrating all of these Fathers Days, anyway?


  1. Rebecca,
    So glad to connect with you via Twitter, particularly to "discover" your exquisite writing through your blog. This post is a fascinating piece, not only informative and provocative, but very touching.

    Your final paragraph actually brought tears to my eyes. I intend to direct my own father (an English major and a writer -- then, unfortunately -- a lawyer) here as well.


  2. Nice. Maybe you can convince Harold Bloom to substitute Boccaccio for SF in the next ed. of Genius. :) S