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Revisiting Oedipus: The Weakened Masculinity of Modern Man


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In my opinion, it is an era of weakened masculinity. Anecdotal evidence and scientific research suggest the presence of a large demographic of men who lack self-esteem, have difficulty forming and maintaining positive relationships, are poor decision-makers, resort to a variety of high-risk and maladaptive behaviors including internet pornography, substance abuse, and sex and work addiction, and harbor a general dissatisfaction with their quality of life. Although Freud is viewed by many to be obsolete at this point in time, for me his perspective on the Oedipus myth provides a compelling psychological explication of the predicament of modern men. In this talk, I will outline my understanding of Freud’s interpretation of Oedipus, its ramifications for male psychological development, and its relevance to the contemporary problems of men. What I have also discovered in my analysis of Oedipus is the emergence of a theory of male sexual addiction which centers on the man’s compulsive attempt to proclaim his identity in the context of it never having existed.

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Revisiting Oedipus: The Weakened Masculinity of Modern Man

  1. 1. The Weakened Masculinity of Modern Man: Revisiting Oedipus March 1 & 15, 2014 James Tobin, Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist, PSY 22074 220 Newport Center Drive, Suite 1 Newport Beach, CA 92660 949-338-4388
  2. 2. Oedipus in Mythology • Oedipus, in Greek mythology (Sophocles), was the king of Thebes who unwittingly killed his father (King Laius) and married his mother (Jocasta). 2
  3. 3. Oedipus in Mythology • Laius, king of Thebes, was warned by an oracle that his son would slay him. • Accordingly, when his wife, Jocasta, bore a son, he exposed the baby on Mt. Cithaeron, first pinning his ankles together (hence the name Oedipus, meaning Swell-Foot). • A shepherd took pity on the infant, who was adopted by King Polybus of Corinth and his wife and was brought up as their son. • In early manhood Oedipus visited Delphi and upon learning that he was fated to kill his father and marry his mother, he resolved never to return to Corinth. 3
  4. 4. Oedipus in Mythology • Horrified, Oedipus fled Corinth and, at a crossroads while traveling toward Theses, Oedipus met Laius, quarreled and killed him (not knowing he was his father). • Continuing on his way, Oedipus found Thebes plagued by the Sphinx, who put a riddle to all passersby and destroyed those who could not answer. Oedipus solved the riddle, and the Sphinx killed herself. In reward, he received the throne of Thebes and the hand of the widowed queen, his mother, Jocasta. • They had four children: Eteocles, Polyneices, Antigone, and Ismene. 4
  5. 5. Oedipus in Mythology • Later, when the truth became known about the relationship between Oedipus and Jocasta, Jocasta committed suicide. • Some versions indicate that Oedipus apparently continued to rule at Thebes until his death. According to another version, after Jocasta’s suicide Oedipus blinded himself, went into exile, accompanied by Antigone and Ismene, leaving his brother-in-law Creon as regent. Oedipus died at Colonus near Athens. 5
  6. 6. Interpretation of Dreams (1899) • Freud chose the term Oedipus complex to designate a son’s feeling of love toward his mother and jealousy and hate toward his father, although these were not emotions that motivated Oedipus’ actions or determined his character in any ancient version of the story. 6
  7. 7. The Electra Complex • There is a female equivalent, known as the Electra complex, but Freud was more concerned with what he termed female "penis envy.” 7
  8. 8. Freud’s Oedipus • Freud viewed the Oedipus complex to be a crucial stage in the normal developmental process. • Freud theorized that all small boys select their mother as their primary object of desire. • They subconsciously wish to usurp their fathers and become their mothers' lover. The boy has considerable jealously and anger towards his father. 8
  9. 9. Freud’s Oedipus • Essentially, the boy feels like he is in competition with his father for possession of his mother. He views his father as a rival for her attentions and affections. • Typically, these desires emerge between the ages of three and five, when a boy is in what Freud defined as the "phallic" stage of development. • Around three to five years of age, in consequence of his approach and attainment of genital sexuality (which is also to say, object-related sexuality), the child experiences sexual desire for his parents (the cause of all restriction and fear to act on one’s wishes). 9
  10. 10. The Positive Oedipal Situation • In the positive Oedipal situation, the male child feels desire toward his mother, and jealously regards the father as a rival; Freud assumed that most children had direct knowledge of this rivalry through witness of the primal scene of intercourse, either between their parents, or from another source (such as the sight of animal copulation). 10
  11. 11. The Positive Oedipal Situation • Freud also assumed that the child had by this time become aware of the anatomical difference between the sexes, and from this discovery, inferred the threat (or in the case of the female, the fantasized "fact") of castration—the loss of the penis as punishment for his incestuous wishes. • Because the child suspects that acting on these feelings would lead to danger, desires are repressed, leading to anxiety. 11
  12. 12. Resolving the Oedipus Complex • In order to develop into a successful adult with a health identity, the child must identify with the same-sex parent in order to resolve the conflict. • Freud suggested that while the primal id wants to eliminate the father, the more realistic ego knows that the father is much stronger. • According to Freud, the boy then experiences what he called castration anxiety -- a fear of both literal and figurative emasculation. • Freud believed that as the child becomes aware of the physical differences between males and females, he assumes that the female's penis has been removed and that his father will also castrate him as a punishment for desiring his mother. 12
  13. 13. Resolving the Oedipus Complex • In order to resolve the conflict, the boy then identifies with his father. It is at this point that the super-ego is formed. The super-ego becomes a sort of inner moral authority, an internalization of the father figure that strives to suppress the urges of the id and make the ego act upon these idealistic standards. 13
  14. 14. Resolving the Oedipus Complex • In The Ego and the Id, Freud explained, "The super-ego retains the character of the father, while the more powerful the Oedipus complex was and the more rapidly it succumbed to repression (under the influence of authority, religious teaching, schooling and reading), the stricter will be the domination of the super-ego over the ego later on—in the form of conscience or perhaps of an unconscious sense of guilt.“ • The development of the super-ego prevents the continuation of incestuously-oriented relationships. 14
  15. 15. Resolving the Oedipus Complex • The conjoining in the boy’s mind of these factors (his rivalry with his father for his mother's love and the threat of castration) awakens in the male child an intense anxiety, and set in motion the repression of the child's incestuous desires, and a subsequent switch in identification from the now-dangerous mother to the powerful and punishing father. • Significantly, the male child did not at the same time renounce his sexual desire for the opposite sex. 15
  16. 16. Resolving the Oedipus Complex • As a result of the dramatic repression of the Oedipus complex, the child unconsciously internalized the Oedipal situation, and especially the punitive idea of the father as a way to ensure continued protection from castration. • These new internalized others collectively became the new super-ego, which henceforth governed the child's object-oriented actions, and superintended his sense of morality. 16
  17. 17. The Negative Oedipal Situation • Freud also suggested the presence in both genders of a negative Oedipus complex, involving the opposite series of identifications. • In the male child, the father became the object of his (passive) sexual desire, fostering a sense of identification with his mother who was the father's sexual object. • This constellation, too, required repression, and if this was insufficiently accomplished, Freud believed, it could serve as an important foundation for homosexual object choice. 17
  18. 18. The Negative Oedipal Situation • Much of the rationale for the Oedipal struggle is rooted in the sexual, animal child's acceptance of the moral order of "civilized" culture, and it is often on this basis that it is criticized. Nevertheless, Freud believed that the Oedipus stage was central, not only because of its implications for the infant's psycho-sexual development, but also because it marked the infant's attainment of human subjectivity. 18
  19. 19. The Negative Oedipal Situation • With the Oedipus conflict the child also attained the capacity for "triadic relationships" (in which the child was able to regard others not simply from his own frame of reference, but as existing outside of and independent of his needs and wishes—and hence different from and at odds with his own) and with it the complex capacity for symbolism that was the precondition for language and for thought itself, as well as for the free association that was at the heart of analytic work. 19
  20. 20. Sexual Awakening • At some point, the child realizes that there is a difference between their mother and their father. • Around the same time they realize that they are more alike one than the other. Thus, the child acquires gender. • The child may also form some kind of erotic attachment to the parent of the opposite sex. While their understanding of the full sexual act may be questioned, some kind of primitive physical sensations are felt when they regard and think about the parent in question. 20
  21. 21. Jealousies • The primitive desire for the one parent may also awaken in the child a jealous motivation to exclude the other parent. • Transferring of affections may also occur as the child seeks to become independent and escape a perceived 'engulfing mother'. • A critical point of awakening is where the child realizes that the mother has affections for others besides itself. 21
  22. 22. Jealousies • Primitive jealousies are not necessarily constrained to the child and both parents may join in the game, both in terms of competing with each other for the child's affections and also competing with the child for the affection of the other parent. • Note that opposition to parents may not necessarily be sexually-based -- this can also be a part of the struggle to assert one's identity and rebellion against parental control. 22
  23. 23. The Process of Transitioning • A critical aspect of the Oedipal stage is loosening of the ties to the mother of vulnerability, dependence and intimacy. • This is a natural part of the child becoming more independent and is facilitated by the realization that the mother desires more than just the child. • The Oedipal move blocks the routes of sexual and identification love directed toward the mother. 23
  24. 24. The Process of Transitioning • She becomes a separate object, removed from his ideal self. Thus she can be the subject of object love. • This separation and externalization of love allows a transition away from the narcissism of earlier stages. Oedipus is an escape from early fantasy of omnipotence. • The father effectively says 'You must be like me -- you may not be like the mother -- you must wait to love her, as I do.' The child thus also learns to wait and share attention. 24
  25. 25. The Process of Transitioning • The boy thus returns to the mother as a separate individual. • That separation may be emphasized with scorn and a sense of mastery over women, which may become a source of male denigration of women. • Women become separated reminders of lost and forbidden unity. Their unique attributes, from softness to general femininity are, in consequence, also lost and must be given up as a part of the distancing process. 25
  26. 26. The Process of Transitioning • While the boy becomes separated from the mother, it is a long time before he can be independent of her. Separation leads to unavailability and hence the scarcity principle takes effect, increasing desire. Women thus create a tension in boys between a lost paradise and dangerous sirens. Excessive separation leads to a sense of helplessness that can in turn lead to patterns of idealized control and self-sufficiency. • Women become thus both desired and feared. • The symbolic phallus becomes a means of protection for the boy and the rituals of mastery used to cover up feelings of loss. 26
  27. 27. The Process of Transitioning • The relationship with mother ultimately may reflect the tension of love and difference the boy feels. • The relationship thus may return to a closer mother- son tie, where the point of healthy distance is a dynamically negotiated position, such that comforting is available but is required only upon occasion. • Oedipus represents responsibility and guilt, in contrast to Narcissus, who represents self-involvement and denial of reality. Oedipus is an escape from early fantasy of omnipotence. 27
  28. 28. Girls and the Electra Complex • Most writings about the Oedipal stage focus largely or exclusively on boys, who are seen to have a particular problem as they start with an attachment to the Mother that they have to relinquish both from the point of view of individual independence and especially as a result of the social incest taboo which forbids excessively-close in- family relationships. • The Electra complex, identified by Carl Jung, occurs where a triangle of mother-father-daughter plays out is not a part of traditional psychoanalysis. It is neither a direct mirror image of Oedipus, as the start position is female-female connection. • Jung suggested that when the girl discovers she lacks a penis In the female child, the discovery of the "reality" of her castration led to penis envy, and with it a hatred of her mother, a sense of rageful betrayal at having been left unmade, unfinished. 28
  29. 29. Girls and the Electra Complex • In her anger, Freud postulated that she would turn toward the father, and seek from him a penis—his penis—and later a baby; she imagines she will gain one if he makes her pregnant, and so moves emotionally closer to him. She thus resents her mother who she believe castrated her. • The father symbolizes attractive power and a potentially hazardous male-female relationship is formed, with predictable jealousies. • The dangers of incestuous abuse add, and perhaps develop, the female position of siren temptation. 29
  30. 30. Girls and the Electra Complex • Girls, as well as boys, need to find independence and their separation from the mother is a matter of creating a separate femininity. This is not as strong a separation as boys and girls can sustain a closer female-female relationships with the mothers. This perhaps explains something of why relationships with others is a more important part of a female life than it is for a male. • The father does provide a haven from female-female jealousies, and so a healthy father-daughter relationship may be built, that also includes appropriate distance. As with mother-son, once the incest taboos are established, a uniquely satisfying opposite-sex relationship can be built, although secret desires for the father can result in the girl feeling some guilt about the relationship. 30
  31. 31. Girls and the Electra Complex • Freud believed a girl's sexuality was initially dominated by her clitoris, her "little penis." Only with the move to vaginal sexuality was a woman's sexual maturation complete. • Freud himself, however, remained unconvinced as to the motives for this change. • The "phallocentric" nature of the Oedipus complex had far- reaching consequences for female development. • Without the threat of castration, the girl's movement toward heterosexual object choice is not characterized by the same intensity of repression as the male's, and consequently, Freud believed, the super-ego development that was the legacy of the Oedipus complex was less developed in girls. 31
  32. 32. Hans Loewald • Among the most vital of these contributions have been those of Hans W. Loewald, who came to regard the Oedipal conflict as an unending struggle perpetuated in the superego against the internalized imagos (unconscious representatives) of one's parents. 32
  33. 33. Pragmatic Problems in Everyday Life (1) The boy cannot desire the mother, and/or the mother cannot tolerate the boy’s desire. (2) The mother does not recognize the boy as formidable (his penis as worthy), and so the boy realizes too early that he is unable to compete for the mother. (3) The father does not enter and pull the boy away from mother; the mother engulfs the boy. (4) The boy cannot identify with the father, and so the boy is left caught between genders, and between narcissism and guilt/morality. (5) The desire for mother and a harsh resolution of the Oedipus complex may result in an intensive desire for and fear of women, leading to issues of control, sabotage, abuse, violence, and child- like attitudes and behaviors. 33
  34. 34. James Tobin, Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist PSY 22074 220 Newport Center Drive, Suite 1 Newport Beach, CA 92660 949-338-4388 Email: Website: