Lorraine Balint--- Intro. to Literature--- December 15, 2003

2.) Does Sophocles's Oedipus have an Oedipal Complex?
Oedipus does not appear to have had a specific yen to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Quite the contrary--- when, after having been raised as a Corinthian prince, he learns of the prophecy that he will do both, he leaves the only parents he knows, Polybos and Merope, even though a doubt has been raised that they are not his natural parents. In which case, while killing his father, even accidentally, would have been a terrible act, marrying his mother would not have been, technically speaking, incest; in any case, this would be a conscious, deliberate choice. Even so, years later, when he hears that his Corinthian father has died of natural causes, Oedipus has enough fear of the prophecy, to avoid visiting the elderly mother who raised him, just in case this should somehow happen, even though he already has a wife with whom he's satisfied. Perhaps, he fears he will have to do the deed under threat of death, or the influence of drugs?

Oedipus's problem isn't sexual perversity, it's blindness to hints that he's walking right into the trap he so fervently wished to avoid. Not subtle hints, either, but big, neon-blinking, how-can-you-possibly-miss-them clues. The young man runs away from his boyhood home to escape a prophecy which, because he's already been warned, he COULD choose to stand his ground, and defy. Then what happens? Because of a primitive form of road rage, he bludgeons a kingly sort of man who is also about the right age to be his father, plus a few servants, an atrocity so extreme, that the one servant who escapes, at first reports that it was committed by several bandits or assassins.

Still, at this point, Oedipus COULD escape the rest of the prophecy, but hies right into Thebes, his ancestral hometown, where, coincidentally, they are mourning the death of their king, Laius, killed by a gang of bandits. (The one eyewitness is, apparently, unavailable at that moment to identify the newcomer.) The city-state is also trying to rid itself of the Sphinx, a half-lion, half-woman hybrid, who has taken over, and forces all to try to answer her riddle--- the penalty for failure being death. The body count is already high. Oedipus may not be attuned to the inscrutable will of the gods as regards his future, but he IS good at other puzzles, and vanquishes the monster with the right answer. His reward? To become the new King, and to marry the mature, but still-youthful widowed queen (girls were often married in ancient times as soon as they achieved puberty, so Jocasta was probably less than 35, not TOO old for the 20-ish hero.)

STILL, the light doesn't go off in Oedipus's brain, and he happily begets children with this beautiful older woman who is also blind to any resemblence her new husband might have to the dead one, or herself, because she trusted others to do what she, and her late husband, had to, but, because of their royal status, would not, personally--- abandoning their newborn son on a rugged mountain. She doesn't even acknowledge the scars on Oedipus's ankles--- the source of his very NAME--- which Laius caused when he bound the infant's feet together. In any case, Oedipus HAS, also unknowingly, inherited his father's gift for leadership, directing Thebes into prosperity for many years, until Destiny arrives to collect its due, and famine and plague settle upon the once-happy kingdom. Soon, the couple is destroyed, their children's fates uncertain (but sure to be miserable), their kingdom in the hands of an untainted, but unready in-law, who will also eventually face defiance and a come-uppance via family conflicts left over from this tragedy.

Judging by the foregoing, it still COULD be argued that, indeed, Oedipus must, unconsciously, have WANTED to fulfill the dreadful prophecy, since he arrogantly puts himself in the way of achieving it, and then, when the vengeance of Fate finally arrives, he gets more than he bargained for when he demands the truth. And, as Freud observed, this kind of sexual union IS repugnant, a taboo that has crossed world cultures for millennia. Even father-daughter incest, while also frowned upon , HAD been a component of royal relationships in ancient Egypt (of which Thebes was part, but Sophocles and other Greek writers made it an extension of their own culture.)

"Electra", a play about a daughter obsessed with avenging her dead father by plotting her adulterous mother's death, seems more in line with the morality of her time, even though her father had cruelly sacrificed her sister for the sake of his Trojan campaign. (And Electra's convincing ger younger brother Orestes to actually do it put HIM in a bad position.) In most cultures, it has been customary for fathers to have total authority over their daughters before marriage, though not necessarily implying a sexual threat. It is generally more acceptable for a daughter to be fond of her father through most of her life, which Freud himself had with his own Anna. However, mothers who have close relationships with sons, in the Western world anyway, are seen as possessive, predatory, emasculating, and just downright creepy, though, in most cases, sex acts are not involved.

Even so, for the most part, in the real world, sons are not ordinarily regarded as SEXUAL competition for their own mother's affections, though a husband may initially resent his wife's immersion in the care of the child. In later life, an aging father might fear having to relinquish authority, and exposing growing incompetence, to a maturing son. Some fathers put up a great front of bullying sons in advance, hoping to prevent, or at least, delay, the inevitable. However, a total pre-emptive strike, by killing a helpless infant because of a threat that he MAY represent, is a more repugnant concept than even incest (though it might not have seemed so to ancient Greeks, who accepted passive infanticide by exposure when the child was defective, illegitimate, or, occasionally, the wrong sex, USUALLY female.) Freud seems to have forgotten that LAIUS was punished for HIS crime, as much as his hapless son and widow. This irony overwhelmed Laius, when his chariot nearly ran down a young man with a slight limp, who then proved more than a match for the older man AND his (presumably younger) servants. One wonders if, in the last moments of his life, the King realized who was beating him to death.

Laius's desperate act of attempted murder turned out to be counter-productive in EVERY way--- after he was rid of his firstborn, he and his wife never had other children, another part of the complex web of destiny that so enthralled the ancient Greeks. Never having raised and warned his son himself, Laius lost the chance to defeat fate, and to have a proper heir to the throne, and legitimate descendants. His death left Thebes open to predation by the Sphinx, which brought Oedipus back home. Perhaps Jocasta had become alienated from Laius in the intervening years, which made her extra eager to accept a young, studly husband without question. The young husband, probably missing the mother he believed was his own, responded to Jocasta's thwarted maternal warmth and wisdom, as much as her still-youthful loveliness and passion, yet genuinely without knowing the cause, until it was too late.

Freud argues his own generalizations about parent-child relationships and the significance of dreams, many of which are no longer widely accepted, or have been modified. Most children engage in heated conflict with
BOTH parents at different times, occasionally feel hatred towards them, and may fantasize that killing or at least removing the offending parent or parents will improve their lot. Fortunately, most children don't carry out these threats, but when they do, it's just as likely to include the parent of the opposite sex--- a package deal. Most of the highly-publicized crimes have been committed by boys, and they don't often spare their mothers, no matter the nature of the relationship; former close fondness does not appear to calm their rage. They are, obviously, NOT killing fathers to usurp their place in the mothers' beds.

Freud believed that dreams could reveal hidden psychological realities, and, indeed, some dreams can reflect fears and desires. Still, even the most disturbing dreams don't necessarily have concrete significance, and many are so distorted, they probably cannot be interpreted. Jocasta, in her last moments of security, before the Corinthian messenger reveals that Oedipus was adopted after being saved from exposure, tries to reassure her husband, who still fears somehow being compelled to wed his newly-widowed "mother" Merope: "How many men, in dreams, have lain with their mothers? / No reasonable man is troubled by such things." Indeed, most people have had dreams of all manner of "inappropriate" sexual encounters, and while some can be upsetting and embarrassing (especially if one has to face the object of the dream later that day), most don't appear to have a lasting impact, and are eventually forgotten. It isn't the ordinary dreamer that must be feared; it's the one who believes there are real meanings and messages in their dreams, to be ferreted out and pursued to some dire end.

So, did Oedipus have the Oedipus complex? In point of fulfilling a subconcious urge to kill his father to have sexual access to his mother, very probably not. Oedipus killed Laius in the heat of the moment, but certainly would NOT have, if he'd known who that older man really was ! He would NOT have married Jocasta if he'd made that connection--- he felt badly enough when he simply realized that he'd killed her first husband. And the couple certainly punished themselves quite thoroughly when they realized their mistake. Most people long for the kind of unconditional fondness usually associated with mothers, and many have conflicts attendant on establishing independence from fathers. But though these can impact on sexuality, they don't necessarily carry the almost-sinister incestuous implications Freud expounded a century ago.