It was the German sociologist Marianne Krüll who analysed Freud’s handling of the Oedipus story in the light of his own family history. In her view it was a creative compromise of the kind sometimes used by children with parental conflicts. Instead of seeking the real source of hostility toward his father, Freud made the Oedipus myth one of the most pervasive parables of intellectual life. Thus, she claimed, he may have stood Oedipus on his ear and a ‘Laius complex’ would have been more accurate.

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In other words, it was Laius, the father, who, because of a prophecy that he would one day be murdered by his son, left the infant Oedipus on a mountaintop. Freud chose to believe that the power of Sophocles’ drama lay in the tragic destiny of the son who, not knowing his real parentage, unwittingly murders his father and marries his mother. Krüll claims it was only Freud’s bias that prevented him from recognizing the guilt of Laius. Nevertheless there remain convincing reasons behind Freud’s interpretation and one of these ironically comes not from The Interpretation of Dreams but from The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.

The strange fact that the [Oedipus] legend finds nothing objectionable in Queen Jocasta’s age seemed to me to fit in well with the conclusion that in being in love with one’s mother one is never concerned with her as she is in the present but with her youthful… image carried over from childhood.”

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life deals mainly with the type of error (parapraxis) which has become the everyday concept of the Freudian slip. Apart from the many vivid examples of slips of the tongue and pen, and of forgetting and bungling, we should be interested too in a comment he makes on the losing of objects of value. He says it may be the offering of a sacrifice to the obscure powers of destiny to which homage is still paid today. This is one explanation of karma: despite logically ridiculing superstitions, often we are unconsciously superstitious and will attract misfortune because we believe deep down we deserve it, for something we have done or failed to do. Another lies in the fact that bad behaviour that earns an advantage in one situation often rebounds in another.

Later in the book he unsurprisingly states that superstition is in large part the expectation of trouble. In this light, Oedipus is trouble. He too is a sacrifice to the obscure powers of destiny; a lost object of value. A Greek tragedy reflects that life is a tragedy. Is it any surprise then that Freud’s favourite cynical joke concerned a brandy drinker who was ordered by his doctor to give it up on the chance that might save his failing hearing? As soon as he did, his hearing improved, but when his doctor hailed him to no effect on the street, months later, he knew he’d gone back on it. In a loud voice, he asked the man why. Solange ich nicht getrunken hab’, hab’ ich gehört; aber alles, was ich gehört, war nicht so gut wie der Branntwein (‘When I didn’t drink, I heard, but nothing I heard was as good as the brandy’).

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life shows us that many absurdities in human interaction are almost miraculously capable of rational explanation but moreover his work also carries the implication that the surreal aspects of existence evoked by slips and superstitions are part of the eternal order of human affairs and therefore comprehensible, at least to a figure like Freud. Given his field of interest, he doubled up for a twentieth-century casting out of spirits.

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