Washington, D.C. 20015
Moving from his revolutionary self-analysis to his clinical psychoanalytic experience and considering both culture and myth, Freud took the Oedipus complex to be central to human life. However, questioning that drastic inference has never disappeared from the front lines of analytic debate. Do oedipal issues stand at the heart of the psychoanalytic venture, defining an individual's character (as some believe), or (as others are convinced) does such a view wrongly exclude vast areas of human experience?
The controversy is centrally a problem of definition having to do with levels of abstraction, with the difference between unique phenomenological experiences and the theorizing generalizations drawn from and about them. Human experience is always specific, singular, particular, unique. Just as no two snowflakes are exactly alike, no two anything are exactly the same. Generalizations are essential to the recognition of patterns, yet no two instances can be identical.
The Oedipus complex in individual lives differs from that spoken of by theory. While the specifics of any individual's oedipal constellations can deviate vastly from the abstracted norm, far from Psychology 101 simplistic models, essential aspects of that infinitely varied human life that we also call oedipal may nonetheless indeed be universal, even inevitable.
Freud's personal and clinical work led him to take one specific myth as a model metaphor for development. To the extent that the narrow tale of Oedipus fit him and his experience, it is specific and appropriate. Nonetheless, the manifest myth that best captures one person's life and times may not be most apt as the metaphor for another person's life. Indeed, humanity has created many myths precisely because individual constellations [End Page 561] of experience and psychology are numberless. The Persephone myth, incisively defined by Kulish and Holtzman (1998), fits some. Or the tale of Achilles' humiliation as emphasized by Chodorow (n.d.), or the myth of Cain and Abel, and on and on and on. Beyond those legends readily familiar to us, there is a wide range of tales alien to our Western eyes, with each fitting the life stories of individuals in their respective cultures.
Nonetheless, there are issues innate to human life whatever the setting—issues of sexuality, aggression, and conflicts related to the distinction between generations. Each child entering the world must come to grips with the differences between the sexes and the riddle of where babies come from. Each child newly born must deal with smallness and helplessness in a world structured by bigger older people. Each child must deal with biological imperatives, not only those crucial sexual and aggressive drives but also inner forces pressing for mastery of self and world. It seems reasonable to infer that this mixture of love, hate, and cross-generational struggle is what Freud (1905) had in mind when he wrote, "Every new arrival on this planet is faced with the task of mastering the Oedipus complex" (226n1).
To address these matters, Freud and his early followers used the model at hand that seemed to them to fit best, the Oedipus myth. Similarly, it seems fair to say that most of those who now argue for the universality of oedipal issues are not ignorant of or indifferent to individual variability, to specificity, singularity, and particularity. Freud himself made the distinction, noting, "the simple Oedipus complex is by no means its commonest form, but rather represents a simplification or schematization" (1923, 33) in the face of the variety of actual experience.
A price is paid for keeping the local name "Oedipus complex" to refer to the universally inevitable but infinitely varied human struggles of every child newly born onto this planet.
Had Freud called the theoretical complex by a different and more general name, perhaps we would not have these present disputes. But given the weight of historical usage accrued by the word "oedipal," it is unlikely we could now coin a new name...