Oedipus: dyadic and triadic functioning



In this lecture the frame is the Oedipus myth written by Sophocles. Through this lecture, we will be encouraged to try a different way of reflecting upon psychoanalysis. We will have been offered, in this lecture, the opportunity to formulate an alternative way of thinking about our profession.


Oedipus 03The story of Oedipus is about the process of going from the dyad to the triad, a developmental process that the individual can enter and exit, as the developmental process is not a linear but a circular process. The Oedipus story is not a father/son story, but a developmental task to pass from dyadic to triadic functioning without losing the dyad. The oedipal story is about fathers, mothers, and their children. It is about feeding and sexuality, about love and hate, about Narcissus and Oedipus, about a deficit in the development of the Self. Put more traditionally, the task is to enter into a relationship with father (the third or the Other) without losing the relationship with the ‘first’ object, mother. This is precisely what Oedipus fails to accomplish in the story by Sophocles. This is also the difference between Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus. If you do not reach the triad, all that remains is what Melanie Klein describes as “paranoid schizoid”, in which the “depressive” position is never reached. The transformation from doing to fantasizing, from acting to desire or wish, from narcissism to oedipality (Faimberg, 2005) is what happens in the oedipal constellation. It is about the position of the ‘third’ or the ‘Other’. At the end, the other will be a real other person with his own life space, feelings, and intentions, no longer an extension of someone else. Being an extension belongs to the narcissistic way of functioning; accepting the other as a real person in themselves, without losing yourself, belongs to the oedipal way of functioning. Everyone has, somewhere, the illusion of being “the master in his own house” (Freud, 1917a). His developmental task is accepting that he is not, without losing himself.

The secret of Oedipus’s life was not so much who his mother and father were, but what happened to his feet; he was thrown away to die. Oedipus lived on stolen time. His life was full of deceit: he did not realize that he did not know who his parents were. His supposed parents adopted him in secret because of their unwanted childlessness. They had to undo that by acting/adopting. So adopting Oedipus was related to their narcissistic needs and wounds. It was Laius who had to kill his son, because of what the oracle had predicted. In his life, there was no place for ‘another’ or a ‘third’. He also had to ‘do’ to ‘act’. He decided in a narcissistic way about the life and death of his unwanted son. So it all started with narcissism and deceit. Where there is deceit, there is no place for trust. The Oedipus complex began in his parents’ generation and continued by the introjection of the narcissistic parental figures into the generation of his children. The Oedipus complex is transgenerational. It is a complex of the parents, their children and their children’s children (Faimberg, 2005). Is it about parricide or filicide? Is it about incest? Maybe it is a matter of interpunction, where to start reading and listening. A fact is that Oedipus did not know that he was ignorant about his origin. There was no warm, loving, safe place for him where he could feel welcome and seen as a real person. There was no ‘third’ or real loving ‘Other’. In a way, Oedipus was fatherless.

We will see that the Oedipus complex comprises not just rivalry and aggression, but also separation from mother and thus autonomy and relatedness. We will also see that the Oedipus complex is not something that takes place only in the world of the child, but also in the world of the parent objects and in the world of the child’s children. At the same time, the question arises whether it is a matter of the inner world or more a matter of what occurs in the outside world. This question is not easily answered. After all, the inner and outside worlds influence each other. In this sense, they are related but are not one and the same. Our vision of the Oedipus complex corresponds to the vision of Zepf et al. (2017), who also employ the transgenerational perspective, and in a way, it is also related to the way of Kohut’s (1984) thinking. In his theory about the oedipal conflict and castration anxiety, Kohut (1984) states that for him the castration anxiety is not the cause of neurotic development but a symptom, so it is not primary but secondary. In his view, castration anxiety is not related, as it is for Freud, to normal development but to pathological development. In sharing that idea, both castration anxiety and penis envy are related to a pathological and not to a normal development. A positive development is related to the existence of an adequate holding environment; that means adequate sensitivity and responsivity of the caring objects. Such an empathic environment facilitates the development of a coherent and cohesive Self. Lack of such an empathic atmosphere facilitates a pathological development of the Self. Concluding, as Kohut stated, it could be said that a positive development is related to adequate empathy and, by that, to safety. The development of pathology is related to traumatic experiences in the outside and inside world by which the holding environment inside and outside is destroyed. However, it is also related to all kind of damages or deficits in the relation between the child and his or her caring objects. That means that our caring objects are always also traumatizing but in the normal development within limits. The breakdown of empathy is the central issue in traumatic experiences, either in the outside or the inner world. In the external world, because of the ‘real’ aggressive destruction of the protective empathic shield by the outside world. In the inner world, because the communication between the Self and the good inner objects is destroyed and, by that, the protective shield of empathy. What rests is the inner loneliness and hopelessness (Gerzi, 2005). In order to avoid the awful traumatic feelings, the person will develop the narcissistic protective membrane (Solan, 1998).

The Oedipus complex

The introduction of the Oedipus complex was of great importance to Freud’s theory, because of the crucial role that the Oedipus complex and its ramifications play in the vision of Freud on the further development of the personality or the Self. Freud states that the seductive object is the mother, and only later in development the father. Lacan concurs with this when writing about “Le desir de l’autre,” as does Laplanche in formulating his structural theory of seduction. Both Lacan and Laplanche placed the seduction into the mother. The goal of development for the child is thus to free himself from the mother’s seduction without losing her. The phallic phase is the third phase of psychosexual development, as described by Freud (1905d). It is the phase in which the sex difference is emotionally manifested and the Oedipus complex appears. Freud gave great significance to the Oedipus complex, seeing it as the core of every neurosis. Moreover, it is Klein who places the oedipal phase much earlier in development than Freud did. In doing so, she concurs with Balint (1968).

Freud by Liesbeth Dullaart

While Freud attempts to gather evidence from mythology by use of the Oedipus myth, and from anthropology with the story of the primal horde in Totem and Taboo (1912–13), the fact is that there is hardly any scientific evidence in support of the Oedipus complex (Fonagy & Target, 2003). The rest of this discourse will attempt to develop a reading of the Oedipus myth that is different from the interpretation of Freud and that corresponds more to modern ideas of psychoanalytic, developmentally oriented thinking. There is not one ‘correct’ interpretation of the Oedipus myth hidden somewhere deep down that needs to be found. The myth of Oedipus was central to Freud’s psychoanalysis. He believed the Oedipus complex to be at the heart of neurosis. In his interpretations, he emphasized the triadic aspect of the myth and the (unconscious) fantasy. Ferenczi, in turn, placed more emphasis on the dyadic aspect and by that, on trauma. Since Melanie Klein (1928, 1945), we have known that triadic aspects can be found in behavior from the start of development. It is not merely a question of the murdered father, but also of separation from the mother. Behind the triad, the dyad glimmers. The mainstream of psychoanalysis is increasingly focused on editing mental representations. The modification of the transference relationship has become more central and the significance of the primary relationship has thus shifted to the sidelines. Unconscious fantasies have become increasingly important while concretely observable behaviors, such as trauma, receive less attention. Nowadays there is a change into a more intersubjective direction; we see the reappearance of the thinking of Ferenczi.

In a recently published book about Oedipus and the Oedipus complex, Zepf et al. (2017) show that Freud used a very specific interpretation of the oedipal myth, corresponding to the shift away from the emphasis on real trauma and toward the (unconscious) fantasy or desire. In addition to the emphasis on oedipal fantasies, they focus on the incestuous behavior of kings and queens (parents), underlining trauma and fantasy. In our discussion of the oedipal myth, we will do this as well, placing greater emphasis on separation from the mother, in addition to the murder of the father. Our reflections on the oedipal myth are inspired among others by Rank (1924), Graves (1960), Kohut (1984), and Pollock and Ross (1988).

Sophocles: Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus

The story of Oedipus begins long before Oedipus was born. He was expected by his parents with great fear and deep anxiety. In fact, the myth of Oedipus begins with Zeus (Klockars, 2009), whose son Epaphus had a daughter, Libya. Poseidon conceived a son named Agenor with Libya. Agenor in turn had two children, a son, Cadmus and a daughter, Europa. Zeus fell in love with Europa, kidnapping her and bringing her to Crete. Cadmus stayed in Thebes as king and would be one of the ancestors of Oedipus. Polydorus, son of Cadmus, was the great-grandfather of Oedipus. He was raised without a father, as his father, Cadmus, had left Thebes. The son of Polydorus, Labdacus, was also raised fatherless, after losing his father when he was barely a year old. Laius, the son of Labdacus, was the father of Oedipus and also lost his father at a very young age. Laius fled to the Peloponnese, where he was protected by King Pelops, whose son Chrysippus he seduced into homosexual contact. He was punished by the gods for breaking the trust of his patron, not for the homosexual relationship with his son. The punishment was that when Laius had a son, his son would kill him and marry his wife. Laius returned to Thebes, where he married Jocasta. Laius avoided sexual contact with Jocasta to keep the prophecy from coming true. Jocasta, in turn, got Laius drunk, seduced him, and became pregnant with Oedipus.

Oedipus would father four children with Jocasta; two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. Of these four children, whose father was also their (half-) brother, none would survive the drama. In short, the drama does not begin with the birth of Oedipus, and it does not end with the brutal end of his life. One can speak of a transgenerational process: Oedipus as the child of Laius and Jocasta, as the lover of his mother, and as the father of his half-brothers and sisters, who were also his children. The drama initiated by Laius and Jocasta is inflicted upon Oedipus, and Oedipus inflicts upon his own children what was done to him.

With this, the stage is set for Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus. In examining the backstory of Oedipus, one is struck by the often fatherless upbringing of his ancestors. This is no easy starting point for a child to begin separating from the mother object. The lack of a father figure is also not conducive to developing an own (male) identity. Freud (1910c) pointed this out when discussing the life of Leonardo da Vinci by examining the childhood memory of Leonardo. The relationship between Laius and Oedipus seems to be marked, especially from the side of Laius, by fear and aggression. Put simply, Oedipus is unwanted, is disposed of, and severely mutilated by his parents. That is not a good breeding ground for a firm Self. Oedipus subsequently drags his children into his destructive rage over what was done to him.

Sophocles tells us how King Laius of Thebes heard from the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, from whom the ancient Greeks sought help for their psychological and psychosomatic suffering, that he would soon have a son and that this son would kill him and marry Jocasta, his wife. When a son is indeed born shortly thereafter, Laius pierces his ankles, and Jocasta gives the child away to a shepherd with the order to kill him, so that the prophecy of the Oracle cannot come true. The shepherd cannot bring himself to this act, however, and eventually the baby is secretly adopted by King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, who were, to their regret, without child. The royal couple calls their adopted child Oedipus, meaning ‘swollen foot’, because of the injuries to his feet. Oedipus grows up as an only child at the court of Corinth. When a guest at the court of Polybus tells the adolescent Oedipus that he is an adopted child, a seed of doubt is planted in his mind. His parents deny everything, at which point Oedipus seeks counsel from the Oracle at Delphi. The Oracle does not tell him who his parents are or where he is from, but she does tell him that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Shocked by this statement, Oedipus decides not to return to Corinth, so that the prophecy cannot come true. On his aimless journey, he meets a group of travellers at a three-way intersection. None of the travellers wants to yield the right of way to the other. One of them provokes Oedipus, and, in the fight that follows, Oedipus kills some of the travellers. Ultimately, he reaches the city of Thebes.

A Sphinx plagues Thebes. Every day, the Sphinx demands that a young man from the city comes to her, at which point she tells him a riddle. If the man cannot solve the riddle, the Sphinx kills him. Oedipus also goes to the Sphinx, but unlike his predecessors, he manages to solve the riddle. The riddle was: Who walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three legs in the evening? The answer is: man. In desperation, the Sphinx throws itself into a ravine, thus saving Thebes. Oedipus is brought into the city as a savior, and is offered the throne of the kingdom. The throne is vacant, as King Laius is said to have been recently killed by robbers. Oedipus hereby also becomes the husband of the widowed queen, Jocasta. Oedipus reigns for fifteen years, until a plague breaks out in the city. The brother of Jocasta, Creon, goes to Delphi to seek counsel. The answer of the Oracle is that the murderer of King Laius lives in Thebes, unavenged, and needs to be tracked down. Gradually, it becomes clear that Oedipus himself is the murderer. He is the biological son of Laius and Jocasta; he killed his father and married his mother. When all this finally becomes clear, Jocasta hangs herself in desperation, and Oedipus gouges his eyes out at the sight of his wife/mother, because of tremendous feelings of shame. He uses the pin holding Jocasta’s dress together to remove his eyes. Thereby, the last image that settles on the retinas of Oedipus is that of the naked body of Jocasta, his mother and lover. The first image that settled on his retinas was also the image of Jocasta (just when he was born), who knew the message of the Oracle, and she must have looked at her newborn son with terror in her eyes. Oedipus exclaims that his eyes will never again behold his crimes. Though he is filled with guilt and especially shame, Oedipus, in any case, is not responsible for what Laius and Jocasta did. They gave their child away and severely mutilated him. Moreover, should Jocasta, after he defeated the Sphinx, not have recognized Oedipus as her son by his deformed feet? And Laius, shouldn’t he have recognized the traveller he met at the three-way intersection as his unwanted son, by his deformed feet?


Oedipus and Antigone

In Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles describes how Oedipus, as a poor, old, blind vagrant, travels the land with the help of his daughter Antigone. His fate was to be autonomous; cut off from any connection to the mother object and surrendered to his own fears, personified by the Furies that followed him to Colonus, where Oedipus found peace in death and in turn achieving symbiosis with Jocasta, his lost love object. In other words, the story is about a failed separation from the primary love object. The gods have ordered him to go to Colonus to die there, upon receiving a sign from Zeus. The Oedipus that we find in Oedipus at Colonus is not the man we see at the end of Oedipus Rex, a man tormented by intense feelings of guilt and shame. In Oedipus at Colonus, the focus is much more on revenge and ‘undoing’ by retreating into space, as Steiner (1993) describes.

Under the protection of King Theseus of Athens, Oedipus first settles the score with the brother of Jocasta, Creon, who is defeated by Theseus. He then deals with his son Polyneices. Oedipus refuses to help him, by not accepting Polyneices’s request he return to Thebes. Had he returned, Oedipus could have prevented the bloody power struggle between his two sons. Instead, Oedipus curses his son, thus driving his son toward certain death. Polyneices and Eteocles fight each other to the death over power in Thebes. Polyneices asks his sister Antigone to bury him if he is killed, though Creon forbids it. Both brothers die and despite Creon’s ban, Antigone buries her brother Polyneices as promised. Creon in turn punishes Antigone, who has broken the law imposed by him, by locking her in a tomb, at which point Antigone kills herself. Haemon, the son of Creon, in love with Antigone, kills himself when he hears of Antigone’s death, as does Haemon’s mother when she hears of her son’s death. Antigone’s sister Ismene does not survive either, though the stories of her death differ. In the meantime, Oedipus has retreated to a hidden place after telling Theseus a secret. Then lightning strikes and Oedipus is gone, taken into the realm of the gods and forever united with his Jocasta. In short, we see a lot of ‘doing’ and little ‘inward experience’. Is the emphasis on doing because the experience is intolerable, or is doing the only possibility for communication?

The question is whether the myth of Oedipus is about a real story or a fantasy, whether Oedipus knew he was killing his father and marrying his mother or if it was an inner wish. Did Jocasta know that she was marrying her son, or was it, too, her wish? In any case, she tries to persuade Oedipus, when he is about to learn the truth of his origins, to abandon his inquiry. “Calamitous one, never discover who you are!” she exclaims. What does Jocasta know that Oedipus does not know? Moreover, she must have recognized Oedipus from the mutilation of his feet, as pointed out earlier. In short, what Oedipus did not know, Jocasta must have known. Apparently, she had other motives for not wanting to know. This corresponds with an interpretation of the story about the Sphinx’s riddle. In it, Jocasta is actually one of the Sphinx’s priestesses and whispers the answer to Oedipus (Zepf et al., 2017), hoping he will live and come to her as her partner and lover.


According to Freud (1900a), both the dramas Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus focus on the oedipal theme. First, it is the son Oedipus who fights his father and, after killing him, marries his mother. However, it is the father Laius who provokes his son Oedipus into the deadly fight, while he must have known that that traveller was his son. In Oedipus at Colonus, the theme is reversed: it is the father Oedipus who fights his sons Eteocles and Polyneices, driving them toward their deaths, while at the same time requiring his daughter to accompany him during his last years. In doing so, he ties Antigone to himself, proclaiming that Jocasta did to him then what Antigone is doing to him now. In other words, a daughter loves her father more than a mother can. In the end, Antigone also hangs herself. It is clear how the Oedipus story proceeds destructively through the generations. It is all about failing to separate: the mother from her son, the son from his mother, the father from his daughter, and the daughter from her father. Our future is related to separating from the other without losing the other. In all that is said until now, there seems to be no place for a third object. The father cannot accept the son, and the son cannot live with a father who wants everything and is not able to share the mother, Jocasta. For both of them, Laius and Oedipus, the object of their desire is Jocasta. They are not able to share. Both Laius and Oedipus are the object of desire for Jocasta. The narcissistic law means that one has the absolute power: that is the world of dyadic functioning. In the oedipal triangle, they should share in such a way that they do not lose themselves or the other. Oedipality is about sharing without losing.

Freud,seated on the left; Sàndor Ferenczi seated in the middle

Since Freud, many other psychoanalytic authors have examined the Oedipus myth. Ferenczi (1912) chiefly emphasized the fact that, within Oedipus, a conflict plays out between the principles of reality and lust. His thesis is that the greatness of Oedipus lies in the fact that he, who solved the riddle of the Sphinx, places the search for truth above his own happiness. Increasingly, analytic literature has dealt with other characters from the myth, like the Sphinx and Jocasta. Reik (1920) relates the Sphinx to the mother figure. He points out that in Greek mythology, the Sphinx is seen as a woman with a male sexual organ. This refers back to the early childhood fantasy of being perfect and complete, male and female at the same time. With this, a new relationship is established between the Sphinx and Jocasta, the mother and wife of Oedipus. Reik (1920) argues that the Sphinx, which tells riddles, is only seen in later versions of the Oedipus myth. In the version Freud used, the Sphinx kills its victims if they are unable to solve the riddle. In doing so, she sends men who approach her to their deaths. When Oedipus succeeds in solving the riddle, the Sphinx kills itself by jumping from its cliff and the spell is broken. The city of Thebes is freed from the Sphinx’s powerful grasp.

Rank (1924) criticized Freud’s views on the Oedipus complex in his book on birth trauma, in which he emphasized birth as the first separation between the child and the mother object. Reik (1920) goes further than Rank when, based on his findings, he concludes that in older forms of the myth there is no mention of solving a riddle, but instead a titanic battle is described between the Sphinx and Oedipus, between the child and his parents, in which Oedipus kills the Sphinx. Reik merges Laius and Jocasta in the image of the Sphinx. He thus also sees in the myth the representation of Oedipus’s hatred toward the mother and father. Van der Sterren (1948) also pointed out the intense hatred toward the mother object. Concerning Laius, the biological father of Oedipus, the story goes that he fell in love with a boy named Chrysippus. After having intercourse with Chrysippus, Laius, king of Thebes, was cursed by Pelops, the boy’s father. Chrysippus himself is said to have committed suicide out of shame for what had happened to him: rape by a man. The curse, pronounced by Pelops, stated that Laius had to remain childless. If he did not, he would be killed by his son.

Hera, enraged at Laius’s crime, sent the Sphinx to Thebes to punish and torment the city. Laius now asked the Oracle of Apollo if he could have children. The oracle’s warning confirmed the curse of Pelops and made Laius decide not to sleep with his wife Jocasta. One day though, Jocasta got Laius drunk and seduced him. Laius was stupefied by the wine and had intercourse with Jocasta. Nine months later Oedipus was born, deeply unwanted and feared by his primary caregivers, his mother and father. The oedipal constellation was there from the beginning.

Put briefly, an interpretation of the oedipal myth might well, in fact, start with Laius. As in many other Greek stories, the blind seer Tiresias also plays a role in the story of Oedipus. It was he who tried to persuade Laius to make amends with Hera when Laius went on a journey to consult the Oracle of Apollo. Laius, however, did not pay any attention to what Tiresias had to say and was killed shortly thereafter by Oedipus.

Interpretation: oedipal versus preoedipal

Groen-Prakken (1992) elaborates on the above findings in a lecture on Freud and Oedipus. She points out that Oedipus lives at the court of Corinth with a great secret. He is ignorant of his origins; he does not know that his parents are not really his parents. This is why Oedipus goes to the Oracle to ask who his parents are, or, put another way, “Who am I and where do I come from?” There is the question of his own identity. He does not know that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Additionally, there are his mutilated feet, which gave him his name. A person’s name says who he is. He carries this burdensome mutilation with him, which surely causes him much hindrance and pain. The question remains: Why are his feet mutilated? He must have been quite ashamed of his scars, and he does not even know where they came from. Without knowing why, he was mistreated, mutilated by his father, and thrown away to be killed by his mother. Due to his wounds, he was hindered and obstructed in his development. Then there are his foster parents, who were ashamed of being childless and undoubtedly felt ambivalence toward their adopted child with his deformed feet. Here, too, Oedipus does not know that his foster parents are not his real parents. Oedipus does not know what his parents know.

In essence, he should not have existed. From the beginning, Oedipus’s existence is permeated by feeling thrown away, ashamed, not allowed to know, along with a deeply wounded and hurt sense of self. Oedipus lived on stolen time. The concept of borders was foreign to him. There was no father to offer security and protect his son, no father to set boundaries and thus, set the law.

At the end of Sophocles’s tragedy, Oedipus discovers the truth about his father’s murder and his marriage to his mother; the seer Tiresias plays a decisive role in this. When Oedipus realizes what has happened, what the truth is, he gouges out his eyes out of shame, after one more time embracing Jocasta, who has hanged herself. He cannot face reality. What he does not discover is the truth about his feet. This, in short, is not fertile ground for healthy development.

Oedipus emerges as a man who, as Groen-Prakken (1992) describes, must strive for power and prestige in order to counteract his wounded self-control and the great anger and shame that come with it. The question is, however, whether Oedipus’s emphasis on doing should be seen as a defense mechanism against his feelings. Is it not really the case that there was so little adequate reflection and holding in his life that doing was the only form of communication that Oedipus had at his disposal, and he thus had no reflective power or inner transitional space in which to think? Oedipus then, had mainly an outside world and no inside world. Development starts outside and goes from outside to inside. Development is principally an interpretation.

As his power begins to wane, Oedipus reacts insulted; he is aggressive and hurt. At the end of the tragedy, Oedipus discovers two terrible truths: on the one hand, that he killed his father and married his mother; on the other hand, that his father mutilated him and his mother disposed of him to be killed..

Oedipus reacts as a small child would: he wants to sink into the ground in shame; he does not want to be seen, he wants to disappear. A child who is ashamed holds his hands before his eyes, with the magical thought that if I don’t see them, they don’t see me. To not ‘see’ is to not ‘be’. Looking away from a reality allows it subsequently to not exist.

Moreover, in Greek antiquity, ‘not being able to see’, or being blind, is related with sexuality. The seer Tiresias was blind. The story goes that he accidentally saw the goddess Athena bathing naked. Athena then put her hands over his eyes, upon which he became blind. At the same time, she gave him the gift of inner sight: in other words, she gave him insight’, or ‘knowledge’. With Tiresias, the process of reflection and thinking can begin. Seers and poets in ancient Greece are often portrayed as blind. It is equally noteworthy that an old Jewish word for genitalia is shame. Oedipus will now have to live with a terrible truth. The once celebrated monarch spends his last days as a poor, old, blind vagabond on the plains of Colonus. He who was once mighty is now powerless.

From the discussion above, we can posit that Oedipus’s self-esteem must have been severely damaged from the outset. The aggression and shame associated with this must have been tremendous. Groen-Prakken (1992) also indicates that there are no signs in the story that Oedipus could feel love or have tender feelings for others, as profoundly rejected as he had been by both parents, never receiving love, affection, or tenderness. Remarkable in the oedipal myth is how it is always a question of either/or, that it is concerned with ambitendencies and not ambivalences. There is more doing than thinking. It is about a processing disorder rather than a representation disorder. Until now, we can say that Oedipus is much more functioning in the myth of Sophocles on a dyadic than on a triadic level, the level of mental representations is hardly there, and it is much more on the narcissistic (basic fault) level than on the level of ‘oedipality’. In the course of such an examination, one can regularly come across the concept of ‘shame’, which is a very important and central emotion related to narcissism (dyadic), while the concept of guilt is more related to ‘oedipality’ (triadic). Shame is functioning as a form of resistance against terrible and painful feelings, as guilt is.

Interpretation: Jocasta and Oedipus

Earlier we looked into Sophocles’s interpretation of Oedipus. Nowadays, we know that his interpretation is but one in a whole series of interpretations, one that appeared quite late in the history of the Oedipus myth.

In ancient Greece, the king’s hegemony was preceded by the hegemony of the holy queens. Graves (1960) shows how the great mother goddess stood at the beginning of Greece’s development: She was seen as unchanging, immortal, and omnipotent. She took lovers for her pleasure, not to give her children a father. The nymph of the tribe, it seems, chose a lover each year from the available young men. This man became king and was then sacrificed at the end of the year. Another man then took his place as the queen’s lover, and at the predetermined time (midwinter) was, in turn, sacrificed. Gradually, man became a symbol of fertility rather than an object of pure erotic pleasure for the queen. These kings initially only had some power if they were dressed in the queen’s garments and were adorned with false breasts. They acted as substitutes or extensions of the queen. The narcissistic element is clear here. The king had power to the extent that he participated in the queen’s power. However, die he must. Man was seen as an object of lust and as an extension of the mother/woman. It was Oedipus who, by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, tried to break through this established order.

In this context, the murder of Laius is the ritual death of the king at the hands of his successor. All sons are becoming fathers and all fathers are sons. Behind the ‘replacement king’ hides the almighty queen mother. She has the ultimate power. In ancient stories, the new king was the son of the old king, whom he killed and whose widow he married. But as with men, all women are mothers and daughters. This religious ritual was portrayed by Freud as parricide and incest. In ancient Greece, incest was not so much a taboo as a privilege reserved for queens and gods. The myth of Oedipus is not only about the murder of Laius and the incest of Oedipus, but also about the fate of Jocasta and about how Oedipus tries to free himself, to separate himself from her and thus individuate. The story of Oedipus and the Sphinx is related to the tradition that the new king should dedicate himself to the Sphinx before marrying her priestess, the queen. In the Oedipus myth, the Sphinx kills itself, as Jocasta does later.

In short, the Oedipus myth must be interpreted on different levels. The interpretation of the oedipal myth cannot be separated from a specific moment in a child’s developmental history. The Oedipus complex is present from the beginning. It starts with the parents and only ends with the child’s children; it is transgenerational. Each phase of development knows its own Oedipus. There is no ‘one’ correct interpretation of the Oedipal myth. The oedipal conflict begins with the parents, Laius and Jocasta. It is about the competitiveness of a father who feels threatened by his son. Beyond that, it is about a mother who cannot let go of her child and about a child who both does and does not want to individuate. To do this, he needs a father who can set boundaries and thereby offer protection. Such a father was not available to Oedipus, or to the six generations before him (Klockars, 2009). The myth is about the Oedipus who allows himself to be provoked by his father and becomes his father’s rival. It is also about the Oedipus who gives in to the temptations of Jocasta, who wants to keep her son for herself. And, finally, it is about Oedipus repeating to his children what was so painfully done to him. His feet are the misunderstood proof of this.

Tiresias, according to another story, was punished by Hera with eternal blindness when, in a dispute between Hera and Zeus, he took sides with Zeus. The dispute was over who could enjoy love more, men or women. Tiresias had once been turned into a woman for seven years, having seen two snakes mating, thereby disturbing the animals. As he understood both sexes in this way, he was seen as an expert by the two gods. Hera insisted to Zeus that a woman does not derive any pleasure from the act of love, but Tiresias said that, from his own experience, a woman’s pleasure from lovemaking is nine times that of a man. Hera thus saw herself robbed of the secret of her sex. While Hera punished him with blindness, Zeus gave Tiresias the gift of clairvoyance to console him.

Interpretation: Oedipus, fantasy or reality

We looked earlier at Freud and Ferenczi’s different interpretations of the Oedipus myth. Freud developed his theory of the Oedipus complex at the same time as he was abandoning his earlier theory of seduction. Many (including Anna Freud), believe that the shift from seduction theory to the Oedipus complex marks the true beginning of psychoanalysis, while others, like Masson (1984), have a completely different opinion.

With this shift, Freud focuses on the inner world and no longer on the outer world. External reality is exchanged for the psychological inner world. With this, the inner and outer worlds are separated and are no longer tested against each other. While fantasy and reality no longer coincide, as was the case with the equivalent mode, the step toward the reflective mode is not taken. Freud places himself in the world of the pretend mode. It was impossible for Freud to distinguish fantasy, the desire for the mother, from the reality of seduction. Freud was more and more focusing upon the individual and, by that, on autonomy separated from the other object or relatedness. Both are separated and not intertwined.

For Freud, this makes the Oedipus complex a complex of the child, independent of a complex of the parents. It becomes a desire of the child and no longer a reality of the parents too. The step toward the reflective mode is only made when a wish is sometimes a wish and sometimes a reality. Fantasy and reality can both exist at the same time but do not coincide. In the oedipal constellation, it is constantly a question of whether the child is able, or is placed in a position, to enter into a relationship with the other without losing the relationship with the primary mother object. Can I be with myself without losing the other and can I be with the other without losing myself? Can the child let go of the dyad (mother) and enter into the triad with the Other (father) without giving up the dyad and thus the desire for mother?

Sandor Ferenczi by Liesbeth Dullaart

Laplanche (1985) posits that Freud completely ignores the unconscious of the parents. In Freud’s case, transference and desire, or fantasy, take the place of the real relationship. This is in contrast to Ferenczi, who continued to focus on the real relationship and less on transference, as he describes in his article on the ‘Confusion of Tongues’ (1933). The relation between inner and outer world was the main topic of discussion between Freud and Ferenzci. We saw earlier how complex it is to distinguish between reality and fantasy or desire. For Freud it is a matter of the reality principle and for Ferenzci it is a matter of the lust principle.

With Laplanche, we see a return to seduction theory. He formulated a structural seduction theory in which seduction comes primarily from the mother, not the father. An idea, moreover, that we also encounter in Freud’s own work.

We encounter another theme of the Oedipus complex when we examine the inner world of the child. How does this wish, this oedipal fantasy in the child’s inner world, come into being? Or is it actually just a copy of the world of the parents? Earlier, we have noted that development proceeds from outside to inside and takes place via the mechanism of internalization. Inner and outer are related but do not coincide. This corresponds partly to Fenichel (1931) when he states that neurotic parents have neurotic children and that a child’s Oedipus complex reflects that of the parents. In keeping with Ferenzci, Fenichel, and Laplanche, we could say that it was Jocasta who seduced Oedipus, because she could not let him go, and that it was Laius who battled Oedipus, in order to prevent the prophecy from becoming a reality. The Oedipus complex is about both the reality of the parents and that of the child. It is about the separation of mother and child and vice versa. It is about love, hate, and shame.

Psychoanalytic reflections about shame, pride, and the Self

Shame (Ikonen & Rechardt, 1993) is related to the relationship between ego and superego and the ego ideal. Shame should be differentiated from guilt. Ikonen and Rechardt (1993, p. 101) stipulate that the difference is that “guilt refers to an act of the person, either psychic or concrete, whereas shame refers to the whole person”, the whole self.

Shame is a specific feeling on the border of the inner and outer world, on the border of biology and psychology. You feel shame on the skin of your body. It is like blushing. Every time when you remember a shameful event, the shame will be there again. Shame has to do with seeing and being seen. It appears at the moment that inner and outer world are differentiated. It appears when the possibility to empathize is developing, or when the equivalent mode is going to the background and the pretend mode is coming to the foreground. The other as ‘another person’ comes into the picture, while the other as an extension of the self is disappearing. Problem solving is taking the place of magic or concrete thinking. The ability to play helps the child in his mental development toward reflective functioning. Playing with reality (Fonagy et al., 2002) facilitates the mental development of the mind and the development of the self. Without playing, the development from the somatic to the psychological self will be inhibited. Shame is related to concrete or factual realities, while guilt, in neurotic persons, is more related to psychic reality. Shame appears at the border of the bodily and the psychic self. It helps the development from the equivalent to the pretend and the reflective mode. Symbolic meaning takes the place of concrete meaning; intentions appear. From inner emptiness to mental representations. ‘Word representations’ instead of ‘thing representations’. The empty body becomes an ‘inhabited’ body. Next to biology, psychology takes its place; it is about feelings, instead of about sensations.

The anger generated by shame is directed to both the self and others. Shame has to do with an intense feeling of being frozen, paralyzed. It is connected with bodily reactions; the bodily self is at stake. The whole self is experienced as bad and should be changed. From a psychoanalytic perspective, guilt belongs to the oedipal phase and shame belongs to the narcissistic phase. It is an almost physical feeling that always reverts to the Self. It is on the edge of inner and outer world. It comes close to the skin. Shame appears when the ego is going to be differentiated from the ‘Other’. A well-known form of shame is what we call ‘stranger anxiety’. A child is looking for pleasure and wants to avoid negative feelings. So he (or she) is looking for control. By that, he is creating expectancies. Control of himself or the outer world creates narcissistic satisfaction and pleasure. The child feels good and enjoys himself. A baby doesn’t have clear intentions; ideas about ‘food’ or the ‘breast’ all come later. In the beginning, the child is doing things and the effect of that is either satisfactory or not. When this produces satisfaction, the baby will try to repeat it. So in the beginning there is the drive for mastery and the creation of expectations (Talvik, 2019). This drive for mastery forces us to do something to achieve well-being and to avoid unpleasant things. It is not yet related to an object but, on the other hand, it asks for a context of a safe, intersubjective relationship. The baby and later on, the child, and the primary caregivers are regulating each other, so there is a form of reciprocity from the beginning. This is what we call narcissistic satisfaction. Inside of us, there is a narcissistic balance between looking for pleasure and avoiding negative feelings. It is about providing narcissistic satisfaction by achieving repetition of earlier satisfaction. So shame is connected with narcissistic aspirations and the failure to realize them. Narcissism also has to do with pride: I am good, and I like it; but also with shame: I am bad and I don’t like that. In everyone, there is such a narcissistic balance between pride and shame. Later on in development, that balance would be the function of the ego Ideal. Pride has to do with positive feelings, but it also can be used to avoid negative feelings. Shame has to do with inner negative feelings, with the feeling of failing, of being bad: I don’t live up to my own expectations, and because my aspirations are not fulfilled or forbidden, I don’t want to be seen. So both shame and pride are normal and healthy feelings. When shameful feelings have to be avoided, we enter the area of pathology. A person who is ashamed also feels ashamed, but a person who claims to be guilty does not necessarily have to feel guilty. Shame is related to failure or painful inadequacy. It is a painful but powerful affect that can strike suddenly and overwhelmingly. In a way, you can say that shame is related to autonomy, as narcissism is, and not to relatedness.

Shameful experiences are not easily forgotten, and when they are recalled, the feeling is relived intensely, almost physically. Shame is related to a feeling of mental and almost physical nudity. Shame is always accompanied by the awareness of being viewed by either a concrete, possible, or imagined other. This observing ‘other’ is then perceived as negative. According to Yorke et al. (1990), the presence of an observing other connects shame to pride, exhibitionism, and voyeurism, and a need to hide as a defense. Shame is said to be etymologically related to hiding. Pride is the counterpart of shame. Shame must be localized both inside and outside the body; it sticks to the body, as it were. It arises the moment a little child begins to separate from the mother object. In the beginning of his (or her) development, each child undergoes a phase in which he experiences himself as transparent. Father, and especially mother, are expected, if not required, to understand the child wordlessly, to comprehend and foresee the child’s wishes. Gradually the child starts to differentiate, detach, and demarcate himself. A differentiation emerges between the Self and the objects around it. The child develops his own protected inner self that belongs to him alone. This is the phase in which the child starts to say no in order to cordon himself off. Gradually, a growing, clear awareness develops of what the inside and outside worlds are. Within this development from transparency to demarcation, shame arises. Freud (1905d) states that very young children have no shame; they enjoy showing off their bodies and being seen. When shame later develops, the accompanying feeling of nudity indicates the dissolution of the boundary between the Self and the other. A lack of shame later in development points to fundamental shortcomings in emotional development. Shamelessness can, moreover, also be a reaction to shame. We will now return to Oedipus.

Psychoanalytic discussion

Oedipus 03When men are at the same time fathers and sons, and women are at the same time mothers and daughters, that means that the oedipal situation is about men and women, about humankind. It also means that all men are Oedipus and all women are Jocasta. The myth of Oedipus is about feeding and seduction, about love and hate, about relatedness and autonomy. The oedipal situation is about the rivalry between the son and the father, but also about the rivalry between the father and the son. Behind the rivalry with the father looms the almighty mother, who wants to confiscate her child, and who cannot give him an autonomous life of his own. Seduction comes from the mother. It is about the narcissism of kings and queens, of grown-ups. It is about life and death. It is about the father who sets the law and has the power, like Creon, but also Laius, who did not want to give in to his son. There is only room for one person; the other person must leave, meaning that this other person must die. Mothers are feeding and seducing, fathers are setting the limits and fighting their children. The oedipal constellation could be solved in realizing that the good, feeding mother is the same as the seducing and aggressive mother, and that the loving father is the same as the envious and aggressive father.

Behind the rivalry in the Oedipus myth, one can clearly see a narcissistic need, driven by fundamental deficiencies and deficits. The myth of Oedipus is about severely traumatized people, about interpersonal and not intrapsychic conflicts. It is not about ambivalences but about ambitendencies. The mind cannot come into existence due to traumatization. Oedipus did not suffer from oedipal problems, nor from a representation disorder, but from a processing disorder. He did not succeed in leaving the Oedipus complex behind him; he would remain stuck in either autonomy or relatedness, unable to find a balance between the two. Finding a balance between autonomy and relatedness is needed to solve the oedipal conflict. That means to find a balance between dyadic and triadic functioning. By that, a person can have a relation with himself without losing the other and be connected with someone else without losing himself. That is the essence of the depressive position, of triadic functioning instead of functioning in the paranoid schizoid position and at a dyadic level. Nevertheless, no one would ever totally give up the urgent need to possess the almighty feeding mother and to be her lover, at the same time everyone needs to have a relation with the dominant father who sets the rules. It is about having the mother without losing the father and without losing yourself.

The myth is layered and has multiple meanings at the same time; there is not an unambiguous, definitive interpretation of the myth. Each phase of development has its own Oedipus. The interpretation of the oedipal myth does not exist. How the developmental task is shaped depends on the developmental phase in which a person finds him- or herself. It is about both rivalry with the father and about the child trying to break free from the primary mother object. The way in which all of this takes place determines the way in which the child does or does not shape the triad.

This is what Oedipus fails to do; he cannot get out of the relationship with his mother, Jocasta, without losing her. On the one hand, Oedipus was leaving his seducing mother (Jocasta) and looking for his ‘feeding’ mother (Meriope); by finding her, he had to leave her again for his seducing mother. The same with his father: he left the murderous father for the father who raised him, but he also left this father in order to fight his murderous father. And after that, he beat the Sphinx who was both the mother and the father. What remained for him was the restoration of symbiosis with mother Jocasta in death. In this sense, Oedipus has not been able to transcend the dyad and has not truly reached the triadic constellation. He has not been able to overcome the tension between the dyadic and triadic connection. What do you expect, with a mother who could not let him go and without a loving, committed father?

The Oedipus complex is layered. It is about aggression and libido, about rivalry and separation, about autonomy and relatedness, but it is also about the interaction between generations. It is about Laius and Oedipus, but also about the children of Oedipus, none of whom would survive the drama. It is always the Oedipus complex of the parents, of the child, and of his or her children, playing out within a reciprocal framework.

Klockars (2009) gives a very interesting solution to the riddle of the Sphinx, “What walks on two legs?” This would, in her interpretation, refer to dyadic functioning. “On three legs” would refer to triadic functioning. Finally, with “four legs”, the triangle would be augmented into a quadrilateral, with the child’s children being added to the triangle. After all, the parents’ child, in time, becomes the father/mother of the child’s own children, but remains the child of theparents. This is what Stern (1994) calls the motherhood/fatherhood constellation.

We have seen that what Freud called the Oedipus complex is intertwined with the narcissistic development. In his book about a childhood memory of Leonardo da Vinci, Freud (1910c) discussed the development of Leonardo. There, Freud pointed out the significance of the father for developing from the dyad to the triad. Both Leonardo and Oedipus, along with the preceding six generations of Oedipus’s ancestors, were raised against the backdrop of fatherlessness.

The myth of Oedipus is more a description of the destructiveness, unleashed by a stagnant development, than a description of what takes place in normal development. It is more about a development that comes to a standstill due to all sorts of risk factors that loom out of a person’s developmental history, than it is about a successful development process. Empathy was lacking too much in the life of Oedipus.

In Freud’s case, the oedipal myth is about rivalry and about the ultimate murder of the father. In addition, though, the myth of Oedipus is about separation from the mother object, which is exactly what Rank emphasizes in his book on birth trauma. Mother is separating from the child without losing the child, and the child is separating from the mother without losing her.

As stated earlier, the Oedipus complex is not a specific and distinct phase of development, as Freud believed, but a constantly present, dynamic process in which dyad and triad distinguish themselves from each other without either of them disappearing. The developmental task given to a child is to develop, from as safe a base as possible, into a person who can be alone without losing the other and who can be with the other without losing the Self. The Oedipus story is a dynamic process that the child can enter and exit; the developmental process is circular, not linear. The Oedipus story is the task in the developmental history of parents, the child, and the child’s children.

Close and summary

In concluding this chapter, and looking back at the myth of Oedipus, we can see how important it is to a child’s continued development that he (or she) detach himself from the primary relationship with the mother object and differentiate himself from her, partly with support from the father, but without losing her. This can only happen if the mother can accept the separation and if the father facilitates it. Facilitating, that is, both for the mother by being her lover and for the child by being the protective father who knows how to set boundaries. When the quality of the primary object relationship is such that separation and individuation cannot take place optimally, it leads to serious disturbances in self-esteem and in further emotional development. The triad cannot be reached and the dyad cannot be transcended.

In discussing the Oedipus myth, we have seen that it is not only a story about rivalry and aggression, but also a story about the process of disengagement and self-protection; it is about parting with the dyad, in which a child can have the fantasy of being the all-mighty center of his world. The Oedipus complex is about the enormous developmental step from dyadic to triadic functioning, from narcissism to oedipality. From the necessity to have all, to the possibility to share.

The myth of Oedipus is about the development of autonomy and about the relatedness and complexities that come along with it. It has become clear how much Oedipus was driven by his desire for connection to the mother object, a connection he missed so dearly in his early childhood. We have also seen how Oedipus lived with a very hurt sense of self, intense shame, and ambivalent separation from the mother object, by which the process of individuation was also highly disturbed. Behind the secret of who his parents were lies the secret of his deformed feet.

We have also seen that the oedipal phase is not, as Freud believed, an intermediate phase in the development of a child. In his view, the oedipal phase occurs after the symbiotic and narcissistic phases. Then, when the oedipal phase is more or less adequately resolved, the child enters the genital phase. The ‘good enough’ primary object (failing only within certain limits) and the third object, the Other, enables a child to free himself from the dyadic relationship with the primary caring object and to experience himself as a differentiated, autonomous, and distinct object. If the third object is absent, the child will, as mentioned above, remain trapped in a dyadic relationship and will not be able to experience himself as separate, as an independently functioning object. Separation then becomes unbearable and must be refused. In such a situation, the child does not learn to adequately demarcate himself, nor can he face and accept the limitations of reality. The attitude of such personalities will remain egocentric and focused on the direct satisfaction of needs. There will be an inability to love on a reciprocal level and to experience depressive feelings. It is unthinkable for such a person to have a relationship with someone who is physically absent. The degree to which a healthy sense of self and a healthy differentiation between Self and Object have been achieved, will determine the manner in which a child enters the oedipal, triangular situation. If a child, due to inadequate holding from the primary parent objects, is unable to disengage from his narcissistic bond with the primary parent objects, or when the primary objects do not allow disengagement, development stagnates, and the primary caring objects cannot adequately differentiate between their own wishes and the wishes of their child. The Oedipus story is the task in the developmental history of parents, the child, and his or her children. As Balint told us: there are alternatively the oedipal level of functioning where there are three, the level of the ‘basic fault’ where there are two, or the ‘area of creation’ where there is only one person available, the child.

So the wounded feet of Oedipus meet the tears of Narcissus.