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Where Has Oedipus Gone? A Turn of The


Century Contemplation
Rosemary H. Balsam M.D.
Available online: 20 Nov 2010

To cite this article: Rosemary H. Balsam M.D. (2010): Where Has Oedipus Gone? A Turn of The Century
Contemplation, Psychoanalytic Inquiry: A Topical Journal for Mental Health Professionals, 30:6,
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Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 30:511519, 2010


Copyright Melvin Bornstein, Joseph Lichtenberg, Donald Silver
ISSN: 0735-1690 print/1940-9133 online
DOI: 10.1080/07351690.2010.518532

Where Has Oedipus Gone? A Turn


of The Century Contemplation

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Rosemary H. Balsam, M.D.

Sigmund Freuds King Oedipus is still alive and well at the beginning of this second century of
psychoanalysis. He has undergone multiple transmogrifications, but he is still with us. He has
been analogized, metaphorized, and split into bits of conscience, guilt, fear, omnipotence, power,
powerlessness, fate, helplessness, dominance, submission, archaic chaos, and rage. As a father, he
was both lost and found recently (Kalinich and Taylor, 2009). He has taken a lowly back seat to his
father, Laius (Munder Ross, 1982); been pushed aside for his mother/wife, Jocasta (Stimmel,
2004); been levered out of the central inner drama for women by the Goddesses Demeter and
Persephone (Kulish and Holtzman, 1998); turned into a marionette (Cocteau, 1934); contextualized in the nineteenth-century German literary tradition (Rudnytsky, 1987); polygendered as allusive to analyst and analysands intersubjective impact (Benjamin, 1998); been demanned; and,
above all, rendered a castrati (Brook, 1988), in exile self-blinded and leaning heavily on the devotion of his daughter/sister, Antigone (Almansi, 1991). He has been held up to society as an exemplar of the universal workings of the unconscious, of the repetition compulsion; of denial; of sadomasochism; of splitting and isolation of affect; of sexual impulsiveness and violence. He has been
described as the Scapegoat of Fate (Pollock, 1986, p. 104), of Tiresias, or the gods; or used to interrogate psychoanalytic theory itself and the current chasm between drive and interpersonalism
(Greenberg, 1991). But as a powerfully self-punishing and tragic icon, especially of a boy struggling to become a man, we have all seen his image linger on our couches: that is, if we have eyes
that are willing to see and accept his form and pattern.
Our gradual attempts of incorporation and integration into the psychoanalytic field of the varying theoretical pluralities that have developed over the last century have been accountable for the
changing faces of Oedipus. Most reformulations have vigorously deemphasized the defining raw
biological male sexuality that was so important to the Freudian drive/conflict theory. As well as
the many mainstream famed drive/conlict ego psychologists of the 60s and 70s who developed
further the Freudian structural model, another author contemporary to them was Hans Loewald,
who, if also an ego psychologist, has been called a theoretical radical conservative, because of his
two-person integrative theory of the instincts developing in the crucible of the earliest object relation. Others, such as Margaret Mahler (1975), had heavily emphasized the pre-Oedipal stages of
infantile separation/individuation, thus spotlighting the mother with the child and putting in the
shadows additional father involvement and Oedipal integration. Loewald (1979), in spotlighting
the original caretaker together with the infant, additionally maintained the vigor of the Oedipus

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complex. He elaborated dramatically on the impossibility of growing up without internally killing


off ones parents. Within genuine creativity was utter destruction. Parricide in the unconscious
mind (rendered symbolic by the tempering of reality and superego control of course) was an essential feature of Loewalds vision of the continuing generations of socialization and vitality of
the psychic apparatus.
There have been many rich meandering avenues of avoidance or contradiction of Freuds original emphasis on the power of intrapsychic conflict that concerns burgeoning sexuality within relationships. Those who focused on the role of the early caretaking mother, for example, dwelled
more on pre-Oedipal registers of nurturance or abandonment, or the affect of shame associated
with struggles with the archaic externalized and primitive superego, and less on the sharply sexually charged negative Oedipal complex with its attendant guilts and specific sexuality and aggression. For example, Kohutian self-psychology naturally finds narcissism as the fundamental issue,
especially for the ubiquitous-seeming individuals who have unempathic and self-involved, unconsciously exploitative parents. In agreement, it is not putting too fine a point here to claim that poor
Prince Oedipuss biological parents were certainly unempathic, and criminally so by our contemporary standards.
Dunbar-Soule Dobson (2007) notes that, taking a fresh look at Sophocless whole cycle of dramas, including Oedipus Tyrannos and Oedipus Coloneus.
In The Restoration of the Self, Heinz Kohut (1977) claimed to have a fuller understanding of the
Oedipus complex than does Freud. In his discussion, he supplemented Freuds notion of Guilty
Man. Guilty Man directs his life energy toward the activity of the drives; Tragic Man directs his
life energy toward the fulfillment of the self. Oedipuss apotheosis at the end of Oedipus
Coloneus is conceived in self-psychological terms as what it means to be fully human (p. 53).
Guilty Man was thus accorded lesser centrality than Tragic Man.
Other contemporary schools have approached Oedipus to demonstrate their own characteristics and insights. I will choose just a few examples. I am sure the reader will think of many others.
Perhaps it is a mark of Freuds genius in utilizing Sophocless play as a claim to universality in human inner life that it has stood so very many interpretations, each angle probing the aims and character of the benighted King in multiple, and often enlightening and productive, ways. If anything
can challenge the fundamentally awry notion that a given psychoanalytic interpretation is either
correct or incorrect, it can be approached through the contributions to Oedipus scholarship over
the last half-century.
Many, if not most, psychoanalysts today will challenge Freuds claim about the utter centrality
of the Oedipal complex in everyday psychological life. Renee Girard, the prominent academic
French literature critic, for example, recalls that Oedipus is a scapegoat for a community plague.
For Girard (2004), the main focus is not on desire for the mother, but on a desire based on rivalry of
the other for any element that the other possesses that one may wish to possess oneself. His fascination is with the connections between imitation and rivalry. The late Ruth Stein, in her most recent 2010 book, believes, for example, that although Loewald has merit, we should return for
foundational insight to Freuds more primitive father of Totem and Taboo (1913), in which killing
the father was an actuality and more than a mere dream. It has been said that nothing binds a
group together more than a shared crime, she says (p. 87).
Knowing that, in no way, can I do an iota of justice to the creative and brilliant contributions of
the postmodern psychoanalytic thinkers, I will mention but a few. Adrienne Harris (2005), whose
offering of chaos theory sees the bidirectional libidinal forces between the child and his parents as

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kinds of strange attractors, fractal structures that can disequilibrate and reform with dazzling unpredictability (p. 207). If I understand her accurately, she believes fervently in the radical uncertainty of psychic existence, and that clinging to developmental trajectories such as the classical
Oedipal story strongly suggests that the need arises from a defense against a resistance to a common terror in ourselves about bearing uncertainty. Psychic patterns, for her, are evanescent and
evoked often in interaction as coconstruction. North American intersubjectivists, I believe, often
seem to refer to Oedipal with a small o these days, using it loosely as a shorthand adjective, synonymous with descriptions of here-and-now sexual or sexualized qualities in an interaction, with
perhaps a hint of forbidden fantasies of incest. Harris (2000) speaks to the general postmodern
project of separating off the biological body from what is then said to be of much more genuine
psychological interest to the minds workings, when she states, for example, that a potential for
the fates and consequences of desires and identity is possible if one unyokes, or at least unsolders,
gender from body and desire (p. 246). For many, following Foucault, and in contrast to Freud, the
anatomical biological body itself is the very least of the important inner signals that the mind registers. One can see how strained it would be to reimpose Freuds raw and intricate sense of the biological body and its sexuality on such contemporary psychoanalytic understandings, in addition to
the critique of most contemporary analysts that his fin-de-sicle bourgeois Viennese view of sexuality and gender was far too polarizedthe literal Oedipal myth for a boy being a good example of
idealized masculinity, and the awkward notion of his ideal feminine girl as sexually yearning for
her father, while repudiating her mother for not making her a boy. It is no wonder that in one contemporary psychoanalytic institute that I site-visited, the candidates had requested that they read
in class nothing that was written before 1950, because what came before had been rendered irrelevant! Some of the older teachers did have a few questions about that, however, and managed to at
least include some papers of Freuds to enrich the discussion about where we came from.
I find myself neither totally committed to the past nor to the present trends in theory. I see myself as a contemporary ego psychologist who is very interested in culture and how it affects processes of internalization and object relations and, therefore, also the psychoanalytic theories we
hold dear. I think that it is important to teach a great deal of Freuds work as foundational knowledge, so that we can know more about how and where the subsequent shifts have taken place in the
history of the fields ideas. I see a value in tracing developmental sequences in intrapsychic life as
they reverberate with the macroscopic biological evolution of growth, and as a way of thinking
about parent/child interaction that becomes encoded intrapsychically. I think that King Oedipus,
in his positive and negative original fantasy forms, has a definite place in the inner life of men especially. If further complicated and offered with a variety of other myths such as Demeter and
Persephone, Oedipus may also play a role for certain women, either as an expression of her bisexuality or as cast in the roles of Jocasta or Antigone.
Some of the aforementioned points are illustrated by the following three examples from my last
twenty years of teaching and supervising psychoanalytic psychotherapy.

1. PSYCHOANALYTIC PSYCHOTHERAPY TEACHING


In 1984, I wrote material for a second edition of my first book, for the University of Chicago Press,
called Becoming a Psychotherapist: A Clinical Primer. I added a few chapters. One of them was
entitled, Women Therapists and Women Patients. I noted how, since the second wave of femi-

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nism and the social turmoil of the 60s and 70s, so many female patients, especially, would insist,
I need to work with a woman. A common notion abroad in the lay public was that only a woman
could truly understand another woman. Although, to some extent, there may be something of substance to that fantasyfor example, in imaginatively tapping into the vagaries of being born into a
similar body as the patientan analytic therapist obviously needs to be very cautious about accepting such a statement at face value. Countertransferences that can become ignited in that situation may be fueled by a sense of camaraderie and sisterhood, set against the folly of generic males
who stereotypically, publicly or secretly, regard themselves as superior to the female of the species. In other words, ones usual alertness as a therapist may become numbed and limited to seeking out only the admiring aspects of such a transference. The defensive aspects of the alliance,
however, need attending as well. The example that is still cogent these days, and frequently observed with inexperienced therapists, is that such a cozy female alliance can cloud awareness of
the mutual components of insecurity. Many who were consciously discovering women, I wrote
then, referring to trends I noted in working with a university student population in the late 70s and
80s,
found themselves in therapy eventually confronting the choice of a woman therapist as being a sad
choice to work with, a fellow second-class citizen. These patients were unconsciously afraid of
these disturbing feelings. The disappointment and rage that the patient would experience when engaged in an interpretation of these wishes instead of being enfolded in a defensive union, could then
result in constructive self-reflection and examination of how automatically she thought of herself as a
second-class citizen. [p. 310]

The general lack of comprehension in the psychoanalytic theory of the 50s, 60s, and early 70s
female sexual development became obvious with the help of these young feminist students. Part of
this critique of Freudian psychosexual theory involves, of course, for some of us, the folly of using
the Oedipus myth as a mirror image for girls, ignoring that their psyches are integral to their female bodies as female, however they may ultimately interpret their biological housing. As one
woman patient said, I never did see why a fight at a lonely crossroads between some angry old
guy and some young punk upstart had much to do with me! I concurif we were to take the myth
literally. Many analysts, especially since the 90s, have helped make rich advances in areas of how
females develop psychologically within their own female bodies. I myself am still working over
that theme and still puzzling about the varying and multifarious angles of gender, identity, aggression, and the psychic integration of the female body.
2. CLINICAL EXAMPLE #1
Here is an example of a supervisory experience that starts off as a common and often discussed
theme in any therapeutic relationshipone of distance and closeness. In this instance, there was
an issue actually of fusion and merger between the female patient and the female therapist, an issue that, for the purposes of this article on Oedipus, I would like to stress as either usually a
pre-Oedipal fixation in development, or perhaps a preciously guarded defense against anal and/or
especially so-called Oedipal anxieties. I am using Oedipal here in the way that I think of it these
daysa stage in development in which an internalized triangulation of objects becomes a possibility as a progressive reintegration and forward emotional trajectory, and that for an individual
grows out of an inner state of dyadic preferences. In this state of development, there is often avail-

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able more awareness of the childs own sexed body, tinged with rich fantasy. Winnicott (1958) has
said that the hardest thing a child copes with emerging from early caretaking, focused as it is on
one-to-one relations, is the ability to include a third party, usually the father figure (or as we see
nowadays, in any adult partnership, the adult who has been less central in hands-on caretaking of
the infant).
This recently divorced woman of 32, the mother of a 4-year-old, had been in twice-weekly
therapy with a woman therapist the same age as herself. She missed three consecutive sessions
and, in behavior unlike her usual devotion to the process, she left no message for this puzzled therapist. As the therapist grew worried that perhaps shed been in an accident, she tried phoning her
with no result. This happened a few times, with no response. This was the issue we focused on in
supervision.
The prior atmosphere had been one of a very positive transference, especially as Ms. A. had felt
helped in the trauma of her divorce and achieving sole custody of her 4-year-old daughter. We decided in supervision, as this patient was known by other patients of my supervisee, that the
chances of her having had a sticky end were minimal. I thus encouraged the therapist to adopt a
wait-and-see policy at this point, as I felt shed already signaled her genuine caring.
The next session, at the usual time, the patient appeared. The therapist, trying overly hard to imitate what she perceived was a pure psychoanalytic stance that might please me, greeted the patient with total silence. The therapist maintained this rather stony silence over the next few sessions, in the guise of discovering as much as possible about the situation. The patient unfolded her
story. While playing, her 4-year-old had inhaled a button that obstructed her airway, and the distraught mother had spent the previous week by the childs bedside in the hospital because she had
developed pneumonia after the operation to extract the object. The scene brought up the patients
agonized deep fears about being solely responsible for the child, painful regrets about her divorce
(even though the ex-husband was a neglectful absentee Dad), and terror at being separated from
her little girl. She described, at length, intense yearnings for her ex-husband, whom she had frustratingly attempted to contact many times during this frightening experience. She longed for her
mother, who had died many years previously, but there was no mention at all of the therapist. The
conflicted aspects of the patients not phoning the therapist became clearer. In this traumatic situation, she had regressed. Anger at the therapist, previously viewed as her all-protective heroine savior/mother in fantasy, now became more available consciously. In the subsequent sessions, Ms. A.
became furious at the therapist who had failed magically to know that the patient needed her. The
patient had felt bereft, abandoned, and utterly alone. Her rage at the disillusioning therapist was so
great that, in fantasy, she had killed off her internal image. Since, in her regressed state, fantasy
was reified, there became no point in using the telephone to contact a murdered internal therapist.
For example, she suppressed any knowledge that the therapist had tried to phone her, although after the episode she found the phone record. Ms. A. had vividly transferred her yearning to the father figure, the ex-husband, in lieu of the disappointing mothers. In this case, we grew to see this
shift as an awry attempt on the patients part to push forward defensively into an Oedipal position,
looking desperately for the missing father, to try to solve the dilemma of the poorly integrated and
now all-bad abandoning mother. Such an Oedipal complex in women is fraught with a maternally derived intense singularity carried over from the original dyadic situation. She tolerates in
her inner world, for example, either an all-good father or all-bad mother. In later talking about the
therapists reactions to this incident, some understanding of the nature of this complex triangularity and the Oedipal situation became an aid to this therapists understanding of the contrast be-

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tween the now touted virtues of the ex-husband, actually bitterly resented, it turned out, by the
therapist.
This was the therapists situation: Dr. B. was definitely on the side of female emancipation.
Like her patient, though without children, she too had been divorced from a man she currently despised. She had a strong identification with Ms. A.s struggles to work and support her child. She
enjoyed being admired by Ms. A., and felt useful in the role of the all-good and wise mother.
The therapist herself was mainly comfortable with a form of strongly attached infantile
motherdaughter bond with mutual admiration, some underlying homosexual currents. She expressed her mutuality by a tendency to overread herself into the patients problems. She frequently
in supervision would say, Well, if it were me, Id have done such and such or I was so tuned into
what she was saying, because I know just what its like to have had a rotten husband, too. Direct
aggression between people was clearly very difficult for the therapist to bear. She feared criticism
from me and often began by saying, I hope youll like what I did in the hour today.
In supervision, I focused on her unusual silence when the patient returned after the absence.
She declared that she did not want to gratify the patient. Dr. B. averred that she thought Id be
pleased, and that it was good technique and that it would be more likely to reveal the original maternal deprivation that we had suspected in this case. I sensed her anger at me, a possible identification with the aggressor/bad mother supervisor, and we talked of the meanings of giving someone the cold shoulder. The supervisee had felt my encouragement to wait-and-see was giving her a
cold shoulder. We talked about how her interacting in her usual friendly way with her patient
might have had enabled her even more to alert Ms. A. to how unusual her own telephone silence
had been and piqued further exploration. My supervisee was involved in an enactment that involved unusually stiff and rigid behavior on her part.
On reflection, Dr. B. made very good use of this incident. Her silence had begun as a planned
strategy, but when the patient began to berate her for being a distant, cold, unfeeling woman and
insensitive, the therapist became wracked with self-doubt. She was insecure about not yet having
children. Perhaps Ms. A. was rightmaybe she could not imagine what it was like to have a sick
child? She began to regress in the sphere of the patients aggression and believe the patients accusations. She fulfilled the patients view of her as cold by being too paralyzed to speak. A mutual
enactment of archaic maternal transference and countertransference raged between them.
The center of the therapists rage at the patient involved her reaction to the patient talking so
lovingly and sexually yearning for the touch of her ex-husband. How could she be so dumb? What
ingratitude for all the good feeling theyd had before! Hadnt they agreed he was good riddance?
The invocation of the Oedipal third party in the dyad, therefore, caused this mothertherapist fury
and envy, exclusion, and extrusion.
My supervisee had read some Freud and knew about Oedipus in an intellectual way. I used this
incident to teach her about her emotional reactions as signifying an enacted response to a (speculative) dyadic possessive object relational family pattern in which a mother deeply resents a father
and is envious of his power to attract the daughter and her interest in him, whether affectionate,
sensual, or sexual. We went on to have interesting talks about how, in Dr. B.s urge to gain equality
with men, she was part of a social group who downplayed any sexual and gender differences between men and women as being an old-fashioned trap. This started musings between us about
early childhood development and the ways a child perceives a mother, in fact, as distinct from a father both in the interactional arena and kinetic feel of the body difference. Dr. B. decided to enter
analysis as a result of her deepening interests. The therapy story had a happy outcome. Once Dr. B.

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began to be interested in her own reactions, and with some perspective on their depth and with a bit
of applied theory teaching, she became much more her old friendly self again with the patient, and
was able to listen to the pain of how abandoned Ms. A. had felt. In turn, this led to deepening the
genetic exploration, especially with new material about her teasing father within these old, repeated, well-worn patterns.

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3. CLINICAL EXAMPLE #2
This is a general set of comments about some practicalities encountered in current analytic education. This story is based on a typical generic supervision case of a contemporary young female analyst in her late 30s, analyzing a male schoolteacher slightly older than she. In a word, the patients
problem is that he finds himself abidingly and frustratingly in second placewhatever the situation, whether in line to buy the latest home equipment in IKEA, or applying for a job, or in publishing an idea. His father looms vast in his pantheon of inner objects. Father was boastfully the
leader of all he undertook. He always landed a bargain, say, unlike the patients fee to the analyst.
He was premier in his field, unlike the patients pipsqueak teaching job. An older analyst, educated 25 years ago, listening to the story would have little difficulty in anticipating the inflamed
Oedipal situation that could be crucial in the inner life of this patient. The neophyte analyst these
days, I find in contrast, is very likely in theory, in her head, to be thinking of, say, problems of
containers and containment, puzzling over alpha and beta elements (after Bion); or looking for
primitive rage, guilt, and reparations (after Klein) while using every communication in the session
as a symbol of the war of inner objects (after Joseph); or she is thinking of the composition of the
patients superego, technically obsessively focusing on the break-points in the train of association,
straining to detect the subtleties of anxiety that signal the operation of a specific defense (after
Gray). If the young analyst is thinking of transference, she is usually preoccupied by what kind of
attachment this actually isis it insecure or secure? And what consequences should she be looking for (after Fonagy and Target).
She may well struggle in her role as analyst as trying to think about and undo these traumata
within her interaction with the patient on the couch in the here and now. Analytic teachers who
say, Everything outside the room is a distraction with injunctions to stay in the present interaction if you want to make a therapeutic gain! may ring in her ears. In other words, there can be such
a cacophony of a vast variety of (possibly cogent) but differing theoretical perspectives for a
young analyst to contend with that the very last element that seems to be on anyones mind in these
days of more-than-widening scope patients is the possibility that sometimes one just manage to
have on ones couch a patient, such as this male schoolteacher, who has many minor and interesting developmental traumata, but had good-enough devoted parents and a reasonably stable home
environment. He is far from an archaic empty shell of the kind of blitzed mind (it seems to me) that
Bion or Fairbairn were encountering while treating and helping their in-house inmates of British
mental hospitals of the dark days before socialized medicine. There are differences in mental
health culture, as a whole, in Great Britain and in North America in contemporary times, too;
hence I believe differing emphases in theory may have arisen. The idea that there can, indeed, exist
analysands these days who are in the neurotic spectrum, and, therefore indeed may have internal
dynamic conflicts stemming mainly from an Oedipal complex like this teacherwith attendant
work inhibitions, sexual inhibitions, castration anxieties, and great fears of aggression and compe-

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tition with other men might seem strange. This patient also has a history of being quite erotically
attached to his adored mother, a relation of which his father seemed (to him) to be jealous and angry and forbidding. Even the pattern of this mans dating, for example, is rich with attempts to seduce women who had previously been with powerful men. There are many approaches to such dynamics, such as through the lens of puzzles in how to be a man, or identity issues, or though the
vicissitudes of his homo- and heterosexuality. But without having a living portrait of the vitality of
the Oedipal situation in mind, it is amazing how, say, an intense erotic maternal transference to a
female analyst can be perceived and described and subtly dismissed as sexualized or rendered in
more archaic terms, described as a reaction against profound unconscious fears of being swallowed up by the archaic witch-mother.
We have become so expert, I believe, in treating and theorizing the most archaic parts of our
analysands, often with benefit, of course, that in restoring the viability of the Oedipus complex
such as in the work of Hans Loewald (1960), who made ample room for all levels of integration
within the same person with a sense of growth toward maturity and triangulationwe can become
somewhat blinded to a generation of analysands who may well be actually better put together internally (to use the vernacular shorthand) than our current theories, which are in vogue, can tolerate. I end where I started. Oedipus, as a measure of advanced ability to integrate both a mother figure and a father figure in inner life, is still with us if we have eyes to see him and have ears to hear
him.

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