The name of the complex comes from the Greek drama of King Oedipus who, estranged from his family at a young age, unknowingly marries his own mother and murders his father. For Freud, the mythical figure of the mother and father carry psychological importance. The Oedipus complex describes a stage of development where a child desires copulation with the mother, and strives to overcome the father by killing him. For psychoanalysis parents are transformed into symbolic figures. In the same manner that myths structure ancient cultures, the symbolic mother and father structure family life for the child. The early formative experiences of childhood determine a structure of neurotic symptoms in the mature adult according to how one navigates the Oedipal drama in the family.
For Freud, all desire is intrinsically sexual. The unconscious invests flows of energy into different objects that provide pleasure. The unconscious develops an economy of libidinal drives that refer back to patterns of satisfaction. The Oedipus complex is “the painful disturbance of the child’s relations to its parents caused by the first impulses of sexuality” (Freud, Interpretation of Dreams, ch.5).
In the Oedipal structure parents have a role in either regulating (father) or satisfying (mother) the child’s desire. It is only by successfully navigating the Oedipal crisis does consciousness reach a state of maturity. It is only by censoring the illicit drives for sex with the mother and death of the father that the unconscious can continue along a civilized path of development. For Freud this very capacity to censor illicit drives is the foundation for civilization itself. Through processes of sublimation we transform our desire from an illicit form to one that is culturally acceptable.
In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) Freud writes the “better path” to human happiness is one of “becoming a member of the human community, and, with the help of a technique guided by science, going over to the attack against nature and subjecting her to the human will” (24). Freud fuels the attack against nature with an ethical commitment to domination. As such, humanity’s relation to nature is an attack. “Then,” he writes, “one is working with all for the good of all.” I am not so much concerned with the idea that Freud is misguided, but rather how exactly his analysis goes awry.
Freud installs an ethical value in working “for the good of all” as something inherently exploitative. Science is not merely a tool for human advancement. It is an off-shore oil rig. There at the point of contact with the Earth’s crust Freud locates “the attack against nature” as an ongoing conquest for domination over nature.
“The Scandal of Oedipus”: Instituting Lack in Lacan’s Subject
The Oedipus complex for Freud plays an essential role in structuring the unconscious through successive stages of development. Freud believes himself to have discovered a universal principle for the mind’s functioning. However, he does not anticipate the degree to which his diagnosis reflect the historical contingencies of capitalism, rather than eternal requirements of civilization.
The dynamics of psychical life are determined by the circumstances of our infantile selves. Freud’s discovery of the unconscious is critical, so I remain a Freudian in a particular sense. I would argue for the validity of the unconscious as a signifying assemblage, but a productive machine rather than the stage for a primordial Oedipus.
For psychoanalysis, the Oedipus complex is central to the development of the mind’s infantile form into its mature form. Precisely what counts as a healthy mind depends greatly on the cultural form. But the needs of civilization itself, for psychoanalysis, place requirements on the human mind so Oedipalization is made inevitable. Freud interprets Oedipus everywhere, reading it into the lives of his patients. It became inevitable that desire becomes structured by way of Oedipus.
“Castration has a place, too, in the Oedipus legend, for the blinding with which Oedipus punished himself after the discovery of his crime is, by the evidence of his dreams, a symbolic substitute for castration.” (Freud, An Outline for Psychoanalysis, ch.7)
The Freudian formula for castration functions in the Oedipus complex, a threat followed by a promise. The subject gives up their sexual desire for the mother, and sacrifices his penis to the father “in exchange for a certain freedom from the organic, the necessitarian. It is the freedom from nature only culture could provide” (MacCannell, Figuring Lacan, 69). The entrance into culture from the primordial soup of nature is simultaneously a promise and a sacrifice. But “the promise culture makes is never kept” (69). One enters inside “the world of presence and absence now formed into a deferral — for ever — of presence by means of a process that is endless” (69–70). This is the psychoanalytic existentialism unique to Lacan’s theory of the unconscious. There is for him a tragic nature to the subject because they are determined by their desire. And the nature of desire is a lack, the infinite deferral of satisfaction. There is ultimately no strategy to overcome the cause of desire, an essential lack installed by the inevitable agency of Oedipus.