Oedipus is Complex

In his autobiography written in the later years of his life, Charles Darwin recalled an episode from 1831 where as a young man still learning his craft he went on a field trip to Wales with a prominent British geologist colleague. Anxious to find fossils they scoured hill and valley examining the rocks in great details. But they completely missed the evidence for glaciation that surrounded them. And so years later but by then fully aware that the Earth had experienced extensive glaciation, Darwin wrote about this excursion; “On this tour I had a striking instance of how easy it is to overlook phenomena however conspicuous before they have been observed by anyone. Neither of us saw a trace of the wonderful glacial phenomena all around us. We did not notice the plainly scored rocks, the perched boulders and the lateral and terminal moraines.” Darwin marvelled that he and his geological colleague could have overlooked these glacial features that he later found so conspicuous and commented that “a house burned down by fire did not tell its story more plainly than did this valley.”

It was Louis Agassi the Swiss naturalist who observed the effects of the glaciers that were all around him. From that he was able to show marks where previous glaciers must have been and with a leap of imagination he went on to propose his theory of the Ice Ages, leading back in time and therefore opening up for us the developmental history of the Earth.

It was Freud who like Agassi had observed for us what had always been there to see, the evidence of psychic reality. From the first hints of unconscious meaning in symptoms and dreams he likewise, with a leap of imagination and insight, went on to lay open for us the landscape of psychic reality and developmental history of the mind. One particular formation that he described is the Oedipus complex, which in his time and since has been shown to be fundamental to our psychic development. Freud’s interpretation of the Oedipal story, as he found it in Sophocles play ‘Oedipus Rex’, is but the first of many. Later writers have returned to this fertile story and found waiting there, images that capture the more recent insights that have developed in Psychoanalysis.

George Devereux(1953) in his paper ‘Why Oedipus killed Laius’, reveals that the Oedipus myth as we usually think of it is in fact a kind of cross section of an extensive series of inter-connected myths which tell the stories of Laius, Father of Oedipus , of King Pelops, and of the origin of the curse which haunts Oedipus. There is also the related story of the blind seer Tiresias and much more. In exploring these and related myths we find ourselves leaving the genital level of psychosexual fantasy as described by Freud and coming across the same themes but at the earlier oral and anal levels. The myths also embody the discoveries of Abraham and Klein about the earlier stages of the Oedipal complex.

I would like to make use of the myths as a framework for helping in summarising some of the psychoanalytic formulations we seek. In particular, I want to focus on one aspect of these many formulations, that of the significance of the combined parents in the psyche, and I will conclude with some clinical material which I think illustrates the theme of the missing link, the structural importance of the internal parental couple as guardians of insight.

Freud and Oedipus

Freud’s first reference to what would later be known as the Oedipus Complex came in a letter to Flies, in May 1897 (1897a). He wrote that he was beginning to think that ‘an integral constituent of the neuroses was hostile impulses against parents. This death wish is directed in sons against their father and in daughters against their mother.’ He went on to comment that ‘a maid servant makes a transference from this by wishing her mistress to die so that her master can marry her (this is Liste’s dream of Martha and me)’. Liste was Freud’s nursery maid and she had told them of her dream in which Freud’s wife dies and the Professor marries her.

Five months later in September, Freud(1987b) tells Flies in another letter that he has discovered the same configuration himself in the course of his self-analysis. ‘I have found love for the mother and jealousy of the father in my own case too and now I believe it to be a general phenomenon of early childhood. If that is the case, then the gripping power of Oedipus Rex becomes intelligible’. He extends this idea in the interpretation of dreams (Freud 1900). In the section dealing with typical dreams of the death of persons of whom the dreamer is fond, he discusses dreams of the death of parents, relates them to the themes of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and of Oedipus Rex and quite confidently affirms now his belief that ‘it is the fate of all of us to direct our first sexual impulses towards our mother and out first hatred and our first murderous wish against our Father’. He also shows that there is ‘an unmistakeable indication in the text of Sophocles tragedy itself that the legend of Oedipus sprang from some primaeval dream material which had as its content the distressing disturbance of a child’s relation to his parents owing to the first stirrings of sexuality’. This comes at a point in the play when Oedipus is married to Jocaster but not yet enlightened, and begins to feel troubled by his recollection of the oracle, who prophesied that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Jocaster consoles him by telling him ‘many a man before now in dreams has laid with her who bore him’. In other words she thinks it has no meaning, it’s just a dream.

Freud went on in the years that followed to demonstrate his belief that the experience of the Oedipus Complex and its successful working through were essential steps in achieving integration of the many strands of our infantile sexual life. This involved the painful renunciation of the wishes to possess one or other parent and eliminate the rival, and also involved internalisation of the parent’s values and beliefs in the form of the Super Ego.

Freud also showed that in the internal structure of the neuroses we can see the evidence of the Oedipus Complex that is still not resolved, but is being lived out in symptoms, behaviour and character. The case histories of Little Hans, The Rat Man and The Wolf Man are particularly relevant but I want to remind us of the short paper written in 1910 ‘A special type of Object choice made by Men’ (Freud 1910).

Here he makes use of his understanding of the Oedipal fantasies to lay bare the meaning of a particular set of ‘conditions for love’ met with frequently in clinical practice. Briefly, he describes men who showed the following characteristics: The woman chosen must belong to another man; she is a ‘fallen’ woman, in that she is known to have sexual relationships with more than one man; this last feature is highly valued and essential to the choice; there is a thirst for jealousy and a preoccupation with it; fidelity is demanded yet the man continues to choose someone who is repeatedly unfaithful or marries another; and there is a longing to ‘rescue’ the woman. Freud shows how these features all derive from ‘a fixation on the infantile feelings of tenderness for the mother’. In fact, we can see that the fixation is with the unfaithful mother and Freud emphasises that what underlies this is the boy’s awareness of the sexual relationship between the parents. For the first time this third side of the triangle is given prominence and the impact on the child of his experience of the parents together is explored. Freud comments that ‘the boy does not forgive his mother for having granted the favour of sexual intercourse not to himself but to his father, and he regards it as an act of unfaithfulness’.

Freud struggled with this third side of the triangle in his case history of The Wolf Man (Freud 1918) where he discusses what he called the Primal Scene. He could not decide if the evidence from his patient supported the construction that the child had actually witnessed the parents in intercourse, or whether it was a fantasy with later elaborations. Either way it was apparent the patient was being profoundly influenced by his unconscious picture of the intercourse, in which the father enters the mother from behind. The more Freud discusses it the more he comes to think that once again he may have come upon a universal fantasy structure, a crucial aspect of the Oedipal experience, which acts as a kind of template upon which sexual identities and personality are moulded.

For example, in the Wolf Man, in some of the patient’s bodily complaints, such as anxieties about blood in his stools, Freud shows he has identified with his mother and her pains and haemorrhages. This leads to understanding his great anxieties about being passive, treated as inferior and cruelly ridiculed, all of which show his identification with the mother in the primal scene in his mind. The feminine position so called is experienced by the patient in this way. It can also be eroticised thereby making the patient into his own father’s Chrysippus (see below), in other words his father’s special partner. We might notice with hindsight that the patient was indeed special, producing a dream that is so much studied from that time to this and receiving financial help from Freud at times. The patient’s own cruelty and wish to dominate were revealed in numerous ways, such as his tormenting of his sister and nanny, his preference for intercourse from behind, and his withholding from Freud for so long in the analysis, rendering the father / Freud analytically impotent, and being in control of Freud himself. In these ways he reveals what it means to him to be in the masculine position in the primal scene. It is a very sadistic conception of intercourse alternating with fantasies of being very specially involved in the scene.

Freud did not develop this aspect of the Oedipus situation, instead moving on to issues of castration anxiety and its effects on the boy’s and the girl’s development.

He also outlined the various stages of development in infantile sexual life, describing them as oral, anal genital stages. But Melanie Klein and others have greatly elaborated on these fantasies of the internal couple and I would like to summarise some of their work in this regard after first examining the story of the myths.

The Landscape of the Myths

Let us begin with Sophocles play ‘Oedipus Rex’. This is quite a short, fast paced thriller, a detective story that still has the power to affect us even though we knows the plot. Here is Oedipus in the full satisfaction of his kingship, his curse forgotten, being implored by his adoring subjects to find the cause of the plague in their city. He grandly vows to use all his determination and powers to do so, stopping at nothing in his mission. After all he vanquished the sphinx. From that moment in the play the truth begins to emerge, initially as a dire warning from Teiresias not to pursue such knowledge. In the face of his outrage and disbelief Oedipus learns his story. In condensed and dramatic form, the play resembles the analytic process for the patient and for us in our expanding understanding of the Oedipal Complex.

As Devereux shows, behind this play is an extensive landscape of related myths which begin with the story of Tantalus, who was the father of Pelops. Pelops is the king who laid the curse upon Laius, father of Oedipus. King Tantalus, born of the immortal Gods (as are we all of course in our fondest dreams) decided to impress the Gods by inviting them to a great feast. Finding he did not have enough food, he dismembered his son Pelops and added him to the stew, sure the Gods would be blind to his ruse. However none of them was fooled, except a grieving and distracted Demeter, who took a bite of Pelops shoulder before she realised what was happening. The Gods with their great powers reconstituted Pelops, complete with a replacement ivory shoulder, and visited eternal punishment upon Tantalus. The details of this punishment are most revealing. He was suspended forever beneath a pear tree laden with ripe pears that were just out of his reach, beneath him was water and mud which rose to his waist yet receded beyond reach when he tried to drink. He was in fact tantalised eternally. Further he lived in constant dread of being killed by a huge rock precariously suspended above him.

Here we have the oral stage of psychosexual development as first described by Freud, and one could not wish for a more vivid portrayal of the agony of infantile helplessness, desire and dread than in Tantalus’ punishment. The mother is present in the primitive part objects of tantalising pears and overwhelming tree and rock towering above Tantalus. The infantile experience is also projected into the father who enacts the devouring wishes and suffers the eternal agonies as a result.

When we study the myths to do with Pelops we come across ‘the same themes but in a language and by means of symbols that pertain to a different level of psychosexual development’ (Devereux), in this case the anal stage as formulated by Freud. To begin with as is so often the case, different versions of the same myth exist. For example, in one of his odes, Pindar insists the feast of Tantalus is hollow gossip and that in fact Pelops was abducted by Poseidon, the King of the sea, because Poseidon was in love with him. But whatever his fate at the hands of the father God, all the myths and legends stress the Pelops honoured his dead father devoutly despite what the father had done to him.

We may see here a further transformation of infantile fear and helplessness in the face of overwhelming devouring power. The cannibalism is made into a token of love and the submission to the father is eroticised as passive homosexual abduction and devotion. The rage and helplessness are split off but perhaps the hostility turns up in a series of related stories about Pelops murdering King Oenamaus who was his father-in-law.

King Oenamaus also lived under a dire prophecy that his daughter would marry on the day her suitor slew her father. The king challenged all suitors to a chariot race, which he always won and after which he killed the suitor. Pelops sabotaged the kings chariot thereby killing him and marrying the daughter.

Many year later young Laius (future father of Oedipus) sort refuge at king Pelops’ court when fleeing from a coup d’etat at his native Thebes. There he fell in love with Pelops’ handsome son Chrysippus. Instead of courting him in the proper manner as would have been acceptable to ancient Greeks, in the aristocratic class, he kidnapped Chrysippus, thereby earning himself the title of the originator of pederasty. Pelops in his rage uttered the famous curse that Laius’ own son would murder him and marry his wife, that is the son’s mother. Why this particular curse? Devereux suggests that it reveals the psychological meaning behind Pelops’ murder of Oenamaus and marrying the daughter. Laius had enacted Pelops’ own homosexual conflicts of erotic surrender and murderous rage.

In all this we can see some of the components of the triangular relationship but at what Freud describes as the anal level. The mother is again absent, subsumed by the boy’s identification with her in his feminine position. He and the father are the love couple and the boy believes that with his bottom he, the child, can do all that the mother can do for father. When the woman does appear she is just as the child would want, a woman who rids herself of the father and marries the boy. And with this fantasy we come upon the genital level of the myths.

Once again many versions of the Oedipal story exist which taken together give a more explicit portrayal of the underlying fantasies.  For example, in one version Laius and Oedipus quarterly over who has the right to pass over a certain narrow road.  In another, Jokester is actually present at the fight and the incest takes place immediately after the murder.  In yet another, after killing Laius Oedipus takes his sword, thereby symbolically castrating him, but also deprives him of his belt which the Greeks would understand as the removing of a woman’s belt prior to intercourse. In this way Oedipus feminises Laius, thus portraying the homosexual conflict. This element is further elaborated in those versions in which Laius and Oedipus fight over Chrysippus.  

Myth, Dream and Reality

In this brief summary of the web of the myths I have followed the interpretation first enunciated by Freud, that we are dealing with universal fantasies which appear in individuals via play, dreams and symptoms, and in the transference, and which find cultural expression in legends, myths and literature.

However, one cannot hear these myths without being reminded of the reports our patients give us of their parents. These reports force us again and again to deal with the question of how much is this projected infantile fantasy, and how much is it a picture of the patient’s actual external objects and experience. It is part of our own analytic creation story that Freud agonised over this dilemma and psychoanalysis was born when he decided that what his patients were recounting was not all adult sexuality, prematurely awakened in the child by parental intrusion or abuse, but was also a manifestation of innate infantile sexuality which has a developmental history of its own.

Before going on to the story of infantile sexuality as developed by later analysts, I would like to dwell for a moment longer on the question of the role of the external object, for this too has undergone a great development since Freud’s day.

One interpretation of the myths for example, is that they express actual social and family practices such as ritual royal incest, homosexuality and child abandonment (Devereux 1953 and Stewart 1961). Robert Graves , hostile to any psychoanalytic view, sees behind the myths the account of the clash of cultures and of invading races that came in to the Greek peninsula in the course of history. He sees the myths as depicting the rituals whereby the old king Is replaced by the new (Graves, 1960). The emergence of tragic drama dealing with such matters in more intimate human ways may be seen as a growing questioning of the meaning and consequences of actual social practices on individual experience.

We as analysts too cannot underplay the impact of the external object and external reality on the growth of the internal world. Those who work with families and with child abuse in particular, know how real it is that parents can behave with their children exactly as the myths portray. One can be stunned at the sense of Greet tragedy that pervades some families as a terrible fate is repeated from one generation to the next, with things happening between parents and children that are normally the stuff of dreams. We see parents devouring their children when they use the child as a part of themselves, for example to be a fantasy mother or a sibling or sexual partner. The child can indeed be trapped and abducted in such ways. Parents can hate any separation and individuation in the child, thereby enacting the role of Laius who tried to prevent the birth of a real child with a separate life of its own. These patterns of interaction can have profound effects upon a child’s identity and on his ability to separate his internal fantasy from the external reality of the parent’s behaviours.

Devereux in the article quoted before gives an important place to the role of Laius in the creation of Oedipus’ Complex. He suggests that a pathological outcome can be the result of actual abuse in one form or another by the father, and that this reflects the fear and hostility that belonged to Laius’ own internal conflict. Similarly, Harold Sewart in his paper ‘Jocaster’s Crimes’ explores the evidence in the play that she knew who Oedipus was all along and in some versions of the myth even aided the fulfilling of the curse. He shows that these stories can be taken as a picture of a mother who has her own fantasies of killing the husband/father, and of creating a child who will be an extension of herself and be her own special partner, and be a creation all of her own without the intervention of the father.

One particular relevance of this to analytic work is the necessity to allow for countertransference. The analyst as external object in the encounter with the patient is crucial in his function as container, and equally can be vulnerable to enacting his own internal reality in collusion with the patients. The complex processes we call projective identification were originally described by Klein in wholly intrapsychic terms but we have come to see that they are inter-psychic, a two-way interaction of unconscious minds. In this development I think we have come to realise that our patient’s reports, like the myths, must be assessed constantly for their meaning. They can be seen as evidence for the patient’s fantasy life, they can be seen as reflections of the patient’s unconscious world and they can be seen as accurate perceptions of the analyst’s unconscious interaction with the patient.

Klein and the Combined Object

As a result of her working directly with small children Melanie Klein was able to extend our understanding of the Oedipal conflict in many ways.

In the first place she came across evidence that children much younger than five have rich and complex phantasies concerning themselves and their parents and these phantasies bear a striking resemblance to the myths I have outlined. She proposed the convention of “ph” phantasy for these deeply unconscious processes, in contrast to “f” fantasy, more conscious and akin to daydreams. The phantasies involve eating and being eaten; being cut up and tormented like Tantalus; entering the mother’s body and encountering there such rivals as other babies and the father’s penis; taking the feminine position and becoming father’s partner in order to create babies from the anus and to possess his penis like Chrysippus. She found these phantasies expressed in terms of body parts rather than whole people, so coming upon what she dubbed ‘part object mode of experience’. Many of the fantasies portrayed ruthlessness, dread of retaliation, guilt and efforts to repair and on the whole were pictures of a world of immensely powerful parent figures, small and helpless children, yet also immensely powerful desires and aggression from within the child as well. This is surely the internal world of Gods and mere mortals and superhuman forces.

From the beginning of her work she also found evidence of phantasies in which the parents were seen as joined together in continuous intercourse in one form or another. Sometimes it was genital, but was also mutually consuming, banqueting, killing one another and so on. She coined the term ‘combined object’ for this phantasy object and it seemed to be the focus of tremendous feelings of exclusion, jealousy and envy, and also of dread of being attacked by this figure.

In terms of her later formulations this description would be of the combined object as experienced in the paranoid schizoid position, where splitting is dominant into the phantasies of extremes of continuous unlimited pleasure ,and the opposite of unlimited aggression and retaliation. The combined parental figure in the depressive position however is very different. In the depressive position the splitting is diminished, each parent in gradually experienced as a whole person, a whole object rather than part object, and the good parent and bad parent are seen as one and the same. Concern and wishes to preserve the parent come to the fore. This development is also accompanied by a change in the phantasy of the parents together and it is this aspect in particular that followers of Klein have elaborated. The integration that is achieved in the depressive position is not only in relation to the mother but includes resolution of the Oedipus complex as well. Meltzer(1973) in his ‘Sexual States of Mind’ perhaps expressed this most forcefully. He describes the fantasy of the combined object which he sees as the foundation of the integration of the individual, a primal scene in which the mother’s body can receive the infant’s anxieties and can feed the infant and restore the fragmented and expelled parts. The father and his penis are essential for mother’s survival and for the survival of the other babies. This is a generative creative internal couple working together in the preservation of the children, which Meltzer takes as an essential development, a template for the development of integration of adult sexuality.

The corresponding achievement in the analytic process can be seen to take place when depressive anxieties in the patient are being worked through simultaneously with the struggles to allow the parents to come together and have their own relationship. In the analyst too there is a mode of functioning which is the manifestation of the analyst as combined object integrating both maternal (nourishing) aspects and paternal (separating) functions. I will elaborate on this mode of functioning further particularly in relation to the clinical material in the analysis of a patient that I will present. The other side of this coin is the ever present pressure in the analysis for patient and analyst to abandon the combined object functioning. They become locked into an excessively maternal transference with the creation of states of fusion (often eroticised) in which separateness is fiercely resisted. Or alternatively there can be the development of a one sided paternal transference which idealises or battles over independence and control,and obliterates infantile dependence and need.

We know that sexual relations sometimes occur between analyst and patient. This is usually portrayed by the analyst protagonist as promoting equality and respect for the patient’s independence. In fact, it is incest and the analyst becomes in actuality a Laius or a Jocaster, and the patient like Oedipus looks like a grown up with his analyst partner, but in fact is still a child with the mother and his development to genuine maturity and inner freedom is being murdered. So we can see the myths like dreams do depict inner psychic realities and that parents / analysts can actually be taken over by such states of mind just as much as can infants and children.

Oedipus from another Vertex

The work of Bion has had a pronounced influence on many areas of contemporary psychoanalysis and he too has made use of the Oedipus story to convey his own particular point of view. His concern was with our capacity to know, in the sense of processing and integrating our experiences to form a coherent internal world. He examines some of the forces which can destroy this capacity, substituting instead blindness or misunderstanding. He designated this function of “getting to know” and this mode of relatedness with the letter ‘K’ and reinstated it to be of equal value with relatedness via love and hate. This approach has been very fruitfully applied by many workers, particularly in the study of the manifestation of Oedipal issues in the transference and in the capacity of analyst and patient to join together to think about the patient’s internal experience.

I say reinstate because Freud and Klein had addressed the issue of curiosity and intellectual functioning in their earlier work but did not develop it as specifically as Bion has. Freud showed us in his case history of ‘Little Hans’ that his young patient was bursting with curiosity about the origin of his little sister and the nature of his parent’s relationship. He also understood Hans’ rage and despair when his father fobbed him off with stork stories, not taking up Hans’ fantasy efforts to understand what was happening. Freud thought that childhood theories of sexuality were the first flowering of this innate desire to know and to think, and that intellectual functioning is intrinsically linked with the experience of the Oedipal situation.

Klein too was stuck by the relation between the epistemophilic instinct, as she called it, and the child’s earliest awareness of the parental relationship, finding that both occurred well before the genital phase and had their oral and anal versions as well. But she particularly emphasised the significance that this occurs when the child ego is still so underdeveloped. She remarks that ‘one of the most bitter grievances we come across in the unconscious is that these many overwhelming questions which are only partly conscious or even when conscious, cannot yet be expressed in words and remain unanswered. Another reproach follows hard on this, namely that the child could not understand words or speech. These grievances give rise to an extraordinary amount of hate, the early feeling of not knowing has manifold connections’ to feelings of being incapable and impotent. She also showed that anxieties about this hate can seriously inhibit intellectual capacity.

Bion (1977) returned to the Oedipus myth and highlighted the themes of curiosity and blindness as distinct from the familiar sexual elements. We know that in Greek eyes the greatest crime was hubris, or the exercise of over weaning pride that pursues its end while blind to the consequences and blind to others’ interests. It was this that enraged Pelops about Laius’ abduction of Chrysippus, not the homosexuality per se, and it is hubris that blinds Oedipus to the mounting evidence. The sphinx is an enigmatic figure who stimulates fatal curiosity until it is vanquished by Oedipus. Tiresias was blinded because he had witnessed two snakes copulating and had attacked them, yet he knew what Oedipus could not see and he warned Oedipus not to seek the truth about himself. And in the end Oedipus blinds himself when his mother’s suicide confirms the truth at last.

So Bion brings out the themes of arrogance, curiosity and punishment for knowing,linking this with other myths, such as those of Eden and Babel, which suggest the existence of a God-like presence within us that is hostile to knowing the truth about our psychic reality. This internal God is later formulated as the manifestation of a narcissistic organisation which resists all attempts to dispel the illusion of supremacy and self-sufficiency (Rosenfeld 1971). This resistance can take the form of attacking any representation of the parental couple, keeping them unrelated, and appropriating to the self the maternal and paternal powers. In so doing any form of creative link between self and other can be attacked and devalued, preventing the growth of understanding and insight.

John Steiner (1985) explored these themes in a very illuminating way by drawing our attention to yet another feature of Sophocles play. He suggests that everyone really knew that it was Oedipus who killed Lauis, and that he was the abandoned child of Laius and Jocaster. He draws our attention to the evidence in the play and describes the process of “turning a blind eye” to the truth. He suggests that in this way a collusion is established between the sane and knowing self and the narcissistic organisation that wants to maintain its illusion and to live out the Oedipal fantasy. This is a more subtle perversion of the capacity to understand in contrast to total destruction of it. In a further paper (1990)he draws on Sophocles play ‘Oedipus at Colonus’ to show how Oedipus briefly faces the truth of what he has done and of his self-deception, but then retreats into omnipotence, denying his insight and becoming convinced that he is a God-like hero who has suffered great persecution.

Steiner particularly emphasises the role of unbearable guilt in tipping the balance away from insight and towards omnipotence. He points out the Oedipus blinds himself when he discovers Jocaster’s suicide, proposing that at that moment he not only realises Jocaster’s complicity but he simultaneously loses the good mother who does not enact the fantasy, but can help with the guilt and disillusionment. Again the external object is vital to the process of working through.

Chasseguet-Smirgel(1976) is one of the several writers who have developed further the nature of the disillusion and the rage in the Oedipal situation. She highlights the importance of the child’s discovery of the difference between the generations, alongside that of the difference between the sexes which Freud describes. This is the narcissistic blow of discovering that the child’s immature body cannot do what the parent’s mature body can, he or she cannot have babies and cannot be the appropriate and complete partner for mother or father. The efforts to deny this difference underlie the attacks on the creative couple and lead to the substitution of what she calls “the anal world”, where there are no differences at all so the child can maintain the illusion of being the desirable partner to the parent and of being able to do with his or her bottom all that the parents can do with their mature bodies.

She goes on to mention the effect of this state of affairs on the patient’s thinking. She describes “the archaic matrix of the Oedipus complex” as the phantasy of the mother’s belly being completely open, accessible, smooth and without any content that would obstruct the infant’s entry and his possession of her. There are no other babies, no father, no paternal penis. In effect this means the phantasy of no reality to set limits on the infant, and she demonstrates this destruction of reality in states of perversion.

The Missing Link

This brings me to the last aspect of the Oedipal story that I wish to mention, which is the structural importance of the internal couple in the psyche and in particular the transference manifestation of this in the modes of thinking of patient and analyst. In a collection of papers ‘The Oedipus Complex Today’ (1989) two articles address the clinical problem of patients in whom one can find no evidence of the Oedipal triangle. It suggested that this is brought about by active means following Bion’s line of thought, whereby the patient prevents any creative coupling from taking place. What is illuminating about these papers is the demonstration of this process as it effects the patient’s ability to think and the analyst’s ability to engage in internal thought with his own ideas, and as it manifests in the way interpretations are given and received. The Oedipus complex is thus hidden (O’Shaughnessy) and there is a missing link in the mind (Britton).

Britton uses the idea of the Oedipal triangle as an internal structure to illustrate his points. When all three sides of the triangle are in place-child to mother, child to father, mother to father- then an internal space is created in which insight and awareness of separateness and differences can grow. With the missing link, the link between mother and father, there remain only two sides and no container. With this metaphor he vividly captures the importance to the child’s growth of seeing the parents together and separate from him, and at the same time being seen by the parents as a child. This seeing and being seen, while full of disillusion is also the foundation of insight, of seeing oneself through new eyes, which allows for the distinction between fantasy and shared reality.

He gives a memorable vignette of a woman who made every effort to maintain a split between mother and father, feminine and masculine, to the point of hating any intervention that would address the matter. In particular, she hated the analyst thinking and would shout ‘stop that fucking thinking’. Britton realised that in his thinking, even quietly to himself, he was in a creative internal relationship with his own internal objects such as supervisor, analyst and others, and this the patient feared and hated. Our functioning as analysts capable of understanding the patient is a manifestation of a combined object functioning within ourselves, not just of being a separate maternal or paternal object in our functioning.

Britton explores this experience of his patient further. She would react with rage and panic to any hint of him abandoning her point of view and intruding with his own, and it emerged that when this happened he became ‘one thing’. She could not let him be ‘one thing’. Her psychic survival seemed to depend on being able to preserve an ideal good mother completely split off and un-associated with anything else. There were bad mothers and there were men which must never come together with her good mother object. When this was threatened she experienced a monstrous object, felt abandoned and attacked and in fact lost all belief in good things existing at all. Nothing that she and her analyst had been developing together had any meaning at all when that took place.

This would seem to correspond to the primitive combined object that comes together in such a way as to attack and shatter any good connection between infant and mother, as described by Klein. Any such intercourse is experienced as disastrous and threatening to life itself.

I would like to conclude my survey of analytic thought about the Oedipus situation and the internal couple with a brief case report which illustrates the development of a more benign combined object, an internal parental couple who can function as guardians of insight.

Case Presentation

Mr E was an unmarried man in his mid-thirties who had been in analysis for four years when the following developments took place. He had prominent obsessional and schizoid features and the analysis was dominated by his slow monotone delivery and the distancing and controlling of all emotions. Dreams and actions indicated a transference situation in which he and I were merged, kept together indistinguishable and unchanging. For example, we were two peach faced parrots who loved each other so much that if one should die the other would wither and die also. Or he was a fish in a bowl which in one dream, following a weekend separation, showed the bowl was smashed and the fish was nearly dead, lying in a small pool of water. The absent mother just returned to the house in time to save the fish. In another dream in a fish tank there were supposed to be two small flat worms, but only one could be seen until on close inspection he saw that one was on top of the other so closely that they were as one. He lived with a flat mate who was very like himself, both of them static in relationships and career.

Despite repeated efforts on my part to interpret this and bring some dislodgement and movement, a very deadly soporific impasse descended upon us. I became listless, frequently sleepy, without initiative and with no conviction in what I was saying, and increasingly without hope. During this time, he dreamt there was a thick steel barrier between him on the couch and me in my chair such that only my head could be seen. We were indeed reduced to talking heads, lifelessly exchanging the occasional word. In retrospect I can see that there were references to mother or father but never as a couple, always to one or the other. My thinking also was exclusively concerned with the primitive fused maternal transference and the anxieties at that level. As I became more worried about the impasse I sought help, the first step in forging the missing link in myself. With somewhat renewed hope and a belief in being able to do something effective, I took action. I could now talk of the helplessness, the stalemate of our mutual deadness and of our very real prospect of him going on like this forever. I focused on what I suggested was something in himself that was actively keeping us utterly unchanged even at the expense of his own development.  I also suggested that any prospect of real change brought with it terrors of something catastrophic happening. I reminded him of his frequent references to suicide in his family and I thought this had kept us both very cautious.

In addition to these interpretative efforts I changed the way I charged all patients and raised the matter with him for discussion. I thought it was important that patients contribute some proportion of the monthly account themselves and not leave it all to Medicare. He correctly understood that I was doing this out of my concern for his analysis as a kind of lever. I agreed with him saying I believed that he and I were allowing Medicare to be just the kind of mother of his phantasy, one we did not have to think seriously about who would go on supporting us forever no matter what the cost of his analysis.

The results were striking and not wholly unexpected. He was enraged at this abuse of my power as he put it, at my betrayal. He dreamt of being a terrorist with a small highly dangerous plastic explosive concealed in his anus, intent upon entering and destroying the citadel of an evil Lord who ruled over the city like a tyrant. We weathered this for about a month while I persisted with the interpretative line I had begun. Then came the development which did surprise me.

He dreamt that he had moved out of his old flat but was returning one evening to see his flatmate, with two tickets for the theatre. His flatmate said he did not want to go to the theatre, to which Mr E said with great relief that he didn’t either, he really wanted to just sit down together and talk into the night as of old. It was at this point that he noticed a young woman in the room. She had in fact been there all the time he realised, but he had not paid any attention to her. She and his flatmate were going out for the night. Mr E felt devastated and betrayed and the dream ended abruptly.

In the session he was enraged and despairing and said he understood how someone could just want to kill themselves. The possibility of suicide had hovered over us for quite some time before this. I was taken by surprise in that I had not been thinking in Oedipal terms at all, yet here we were with the missing link. I had become through my actions not just the mother of separateness but a combined object with profound impact on him. The intensity of his reaction helped me to understand why this had been hidden so totally from both of us.

I want to describe a little of the subsequent developments as we worked through this upheaval. He dreamt some weeks later of being on a bed at the mercy of some doctors who were using a machine to take the soul out of his body. The body was then the doctor’s property to be used or sold, while his soul remained trapped in the machine. We dealt initially with his rage and persecuted experience of me as shown in the dream, then he went on to say that in the dream he had such a machine, like a paging unit, that he used all the time to separate soul from body. What he hated was the doctor having the power, not him. I said that he had used his apparatus many times before, creating the terrible deadness that had overwhelmed us both. He agreed saying it was a weapon he used to jam my radar, which stood for my apparatus that allowed me to see the unconscious meanings of our interaction. His mood changed now and he went on to say how horrifying it really would be to be a disembodied soul, that it was not powerful and superior at all. It would be a state with no sensory stimulation, just pure thought, and no connection to his body or the world. This was the perfect picture of his cut off encapsulated state, but now there was horror at being like this forever, trapped in trying to enjoy the power and triumph over me.

As the holiday break approached he was uncharacteristically anxious, fearing he could return to his old familiar way of cutting off or of acting out with girlfriends,to eliminate any awareness of need for me, and so remain that disembodied soul. He dreamt of being in his car (a frequent picture of his encapsulated state) heading for a main highway along a dirt road, but before he got to the road and joined the holiday traffic there, he turned onto a parallel road and stayed on that. Suddenly he noticed a police car following him with a policeman and a policewoman inside using their radar to check his speed. He looked down and saw that he was well over the speed limit. Curiously the police couple were not trying to arrest him, they were just using their radar to make him aware of what he was doing.

He realised then what he was at risk doing before this as on other breaks, and in particular spoke of his thinking lately that we had often been on parallel lines that could go on forever and never meet, and so never really engage together or maintain internal contact over a separation. I think we have here the internal couple with radar restored as guardians of the insight that Mr E and I had struggled so hard to develop, yet which could be so easily jammed and rendered ineffective by him. 

By John McClean, August 2016


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