In search of happiness

A psychoanalytic examination

Shortly before starting my journey by foot to Santiago, I was called by the organizer of this conference. When he asked me to say something about ‘psychoanalysis and happiness’, it gave me a special feeling. When he added that “according to others, you’re good at it,” I became perpetually restless, anxious, and nervous, feelings which alternated with a great sense of flattery. Subsequently I asked myself, “Why is he asking me? Does he want something from me, what does he expect of me – what does he see in me that could make him ask me?” Simply put, that message put into motion all sorts of feelings and emotions, some of which overlapped and conflicted with each other.

Two days later the storm within me grew even fiercer, when someone from the organization called me, thanking me for agreeing to speak, and wanted to know the topic and title of my talk. I immediately became a bit flustered, and while the talk was still a long way off, in an emotional sense it quickly felt very close at hand. I got the feeling that, albeit in a very friendly manner, they were breathing down my neck. It all got even worse when I saw myself referred to on the website as a leading psychoanalyst.

FreudbusteIt seemed just like an analytic treatment session. Only with great difficulty could I get my brain in order and capable of reflection. I had to use everything at my disposal to regulate my feelings and continue thinking.  I realized that this is precisely what psychoanalysis is interested in: How does the brain work, and how is it influenced by our own relational experiences, how can we zoom in on what we think other people want and reflect on our own thinking? Language – words –  play a crucial role in this. Words contemplate something, they have a purpose, they effect change within others. The speaker and the listener are connected to one another, participants in a lingual universe.

Otto: Prelude

When Otto came to treatment he was in his late twenties. He had been trying for years to graduate from university, but due to his time consuming job and his active role within his student union he was unable to accomplish his goal. He made a jittery impression on me, as though the moment he arrived somewhere, he’d immediately like to leave. Otto felt empty and depressed. He was not capable of having long lasting relationships. The short relationships he had were of an extreme and aggressive nature. Physical fights with his girlfriend were often followed immediately by intense sex. Less than a year before his birth, Otto’s sister had died at a young age from a genetic heart defect. Reminders of her were all over the house. He was highly anxious and felt extremely unhappy. Intimate relationships were severely frightening for him, yet his attempts at maintaining distance were unsuccessful: “The closer I am to someone, the more I start to sweat. I become panicky, and feel like I’m collapsing. Everything overcomes me and I have no control over it at all. And at the same time I feel a sort of impulse to be close to someone.” The relationships he had were short. As soon as intimacy began to increase, contact had to be cut off, leading to a pattern of on-again, off-again relationships. When Otto’s panic became too much, he would wander, and after a period of time would find himself at a place he did not know. Otto was wearing an outfit that looked almost military at his first appointment. From the outset, I liked him, and felt sorry for him. We decided to work together, but only for the period of a year – the shorter the better – since he was in a hurry and had work to do. In fact the treatment lasted 4.3 years after a period of once a week treatment, the frequency increased to 4 times a week on the couch. But there were periods of time in which the level of anxiety was so high that he should sit in a chair across to me.


Freud: Psychoanalysis

Freud tried to situate his psychoanalysis in the border area between biology and psychology, brain and mind. He believed that the possibilities of human behavior are determined by biology, and thus through specific, genetically determined, vulnerabilities. At the same time he believed that behavior was meaningful. In this regard, language and wording were very important to him. Psychoanalysis is aimed at putting emotions and events into words. It is meant to generate the ability within people to feel happy in a realistic manner.

By making use of language, a person discovers meaning. Without language there is no internal life and no meaning. People are lingual, that is, intentional beings. Without language, one lives in a world which is threatening; thanks to language, one lives in a world which is sometimes experienced as threatening. Happiness, but just as much feeling unhappy, demands disengagement from the first symbiotic connection a child has, in order to then begin participating in the symbolic order of language. If this is not successful, all that remains is feeling overwhelmed by threat and panic. Freud attempted to bring together genetic vulnerability and psychological meaning – the somatic and psychological selves. From the beginning, Freud tried to create an explanatory model for human behavior in which bodily sensations are constantly developing into human feelings. From the beginning it was about the development from somatic to psychological self.

  • How do emotions develop into feelings? In other words:
  • how does someone turn from a reflexive, reactive being into an individual with specific intentions and a sense of social relations?
  • How do bodily sensations develop into intentional behavior with symbolic meaning?
  • How do biological, genetic, and experiential factors interact with one another?
  • How does a child develop itself, from its relationship with its parents, into an individual capable of more or less intuitively or unconsciously understanding other people and engaging with them in reciprocal emotional relationships?
  • What is the relationship between mind and brain? (The metaphor of software and hardware does not suffice here.)


Psychoanalysis has concerned itself with these questions since its beginnings. Freud believed that the quality of early childhood relationships were of great influence on relationships later in development. A focus on relationships was also of the utmost importance to him. Development revolves around holding and containment by the important people in our immediate environment. It revolves around the experience that you are being watched over, if possible in a loving way, and that you are in another person’s hands, if possible in good hands. Still we will have to disengage ourselves, separate ourselves from these people that see something in us before we do, that have expectations of us, but undoubtedly also have anxieties and reservations about us. We must separate ourselves in order to participate in the symbolic order of language. Just as Abraham left Ur to find the promised land and as Odysseus left Penelope to enter the story of the Trojan War, to finally return to her as another person that was ultimately the same. Odysseus knew that, for the entirety of his journey, he had a clear place in the internal world of Penelope. During his journey he was perpetually present in the mind of Penelope. Penelope was able to have a relationship with someone who was not actually present, since she had represented Odysseus in her internal world. She carried him with her night and day, and because of this Odysseus could find himself on his journey and ultimately return to her. He knew himself to be carried by another. Penelope was able to have a relationship with him without losing herself and to be alone without losing him. That is what parents are for, to have their children in mind and yet let go of them without losing themselves or their child.
Oedipus 01That was exactly the tragedy of Oedipus: he was unable to let go of his mother in order to find happiness. After his realization, he was doomed to wander despairingly through Peloponnese until his death. To be become happy, people must separate themselves from their primary objects, they must participate in language in order to rediscover their parents and early attachment figures. This requires a safe environment in which the individual knows they have a place in the internal world of their mother and father. Happiness demands security, separation, and finding oneself.
Happiness, then, is the result of adequate holding and containment, whereby one can be alone without losing others and can connect with others without losing oneself. Sometimes holes become evident in holding and containment during development. Then a disturbed balance is found by sacrificing relatedness with other people, in which case only investment in oneself remains. In other cases the self is sacrificed, after which only fusion with or losing oneself in another person remains. Happiness includes to be in the mind of someone else. Happiness in the realistic sense of the word means to have someone in your mind. Happiness is a second order or mental representation and not a first order representation.

Psychoanalysis revolves around finding the proper balance between autonomy and relatedness, between distance and intimacy. This is a prerequisite to reaching realistic happiness. Without facing their history, however, a person cannot exist and has no future. We will never be able to leave behind the stories we have taken with us, they have formed and defined us, they live within us, they have hurt us, made us unhappy, carried our anxieties and offered them a place. Without our specific history we would not be who we are.

This is typical of psychoanalysis: thanks to the past, a person has a future. Psychoanalysis revolves not around the past as a goal in itself, but around the future. The language a person uses is important in psychoanalysis. Not rational but passionate language is examined, emotionally laden language through which an internal world is represented.


The Greeks

For emotional and psychosomatic problems, the Greeks sought help in the temple of Asclepius in Epidaurus, or in the temple of Apollo in Delphi. In Delphi the words “Know yourself” hung above the entrance to Apollo’s sanctum – self-knowledge as a form of healing. HermesAsclepius was brought into the world by the god Hermes. Hermes was also referred to as Psychopompos, since he would accompany people on their journey to the underworld. He was the god of sleep and dreams, the messenger of the gods. The term hermeneutics comes from him, also known as the art of interpretation: “the art of explaining”. Asclepius was the father of Hygeia, the goddess of health. Without her no happy life existed. According to some Greek stories, Hygeia was one of the names of the goddess Athena. The story goes that when Tiresias accidentally saw Athena naked while bathing, Athena put her hands over his eyes, at which point he became blind. At the same time she bestowed upon him the gift of inner vision, the gift of insight. When Liriope, the mother of Narcissus, asked Tiresias if her son would be happy and live a long life, he answered, “Yes, unless he learns to know himself.” In essence, self-knowledge is not always required for happiness. Psychoanalysis is not concerned with the idea of insight or no insight. Remembering goes together with forgetting, it is about revealing and hiding.


Logos and Mythos

Since time immemorial, people have told each other stories, in order to explain who they are, where they are going, and where they come from. They tell of their experiences, what makes them suffer, and what they dream of. The myths about the vicissitudes of people and gods give meaning to human existence. It is unclear who originally conceived of these myths and stories. In reality, they were never invented, they have been handed down to us. Myths reside outside the bounds of concrete history. They lay the foundation for history, and offer comfort, meaning, and thus perspective. They are not set in chronological time, but in archaic time. Myths form the basis of human life.

Myths are stories about gods, and all these stories together make up mythology. Gods are not characters completely separate from people. They are personifications of the desires, shortcomings, conflicts, and dreams that confront us, with which we wrestle in our internal or external worlds, and for which we try to find solutions and consolation.

The words mythos and logos are related to one another. Logos means ‘word’, but also ‘speech’, speech as in an oration, but also as in’line’, a line of text in the grammatical sense, but also a line of thought, or reasoning. Form and content, inside and outside are inseparably connected. Language, and thereby the myth or story is an impassioned word or story. It represents a certain reality; put another way, it reveals a reality to be present. The word, the story, the myth, they move people and set them into motion.

From wording emerges meaning. It is for this reason that people who cannot find words to describe what they feel live in a very momentary, concrete, and thereby threatening world. Their self is still a somatic self, the psychological self has not (yet) been born. This is the world of somatoform disorders, personality disorders and certain eating disorders. Their reality is that of the moment, they do not have the perspective of the present, the past, and the future. Their reality is one-dimensional, absent of stratification. They are incapable of functioning alone, they remain dependent on the gratifying and comforting presence of others – they cannot comfort themselves. They live in a world of concrete and practical solutions. Through the telling, repeating, and reciting of myths and stories, reality is once again represented as a meaningful reality. Thus people become rooted in existence, and obscurity and emptiness are avoided. Of importance is the struggle between remembering and forgetting. Without wording and language there can be no meaningful reality or world. Without wording  there will be no past and no future, the only thing there is will be the diffused here and now. No happiness without differentiation between self and object, without self and object differentiation there is no past no future and no happiness, it is the area of identity diffusion.

Psychoanalysts concern themselves with the phenomenon of man. People are constantly making pronouncements, spoken or written. In Ancient Greece, rhetoric was held in high regard. The sophists were acutely aware of the power of words. ‘Logos’ in those days had a double meaning. A word was not a static piece of information, a means of identifying something outside itself. A word was Geschehen, an event of showing or hiding. Speech creates truth and meaning; even as it is being spoken, a discussed topic is snatched away from oblivion, while at the same time speech conceals other meanings. As the philosopher Ricouer explains, it is about cacher, obscuring, and montrer, exhibiting.

Every psychoanalysis is a fight between remembering and forgetting. Just like life itself, forgetting is selective, the same as remembering. Our memories about how things used to be are influenced by our experiences between then and now. The Greek poet Hesiod personifies the act of remembering in the goddess Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses. She is the source and origin of verbalization, and stands opposite to ‘forgetting’, personified by the river Lethe that leads to the underworld. Mnemosyne means not only remembering,  but also eileithyia: the truth, breaking away from nothingness.

GorgiasLogos is not a vehicle for the purpose of communication. It is a way of reaching the individual psyche of a person. In his eulogy of Helen, who triggered the Trojan War, the sophist Georgias writes of the great power of language, which can bring an end to fear and pain, that can solicit joy and elicit sympathy. Rhetoric is not only an activity of reason, wit, rationality, or Vernunft, good sense. It is an activity concerned with the efforts and investments of the whole person. Within logos, as the sophists remark, are ratio and pathos, reason and feeling indivisible. A story enraptures listeners with its nature and its content. This view of logos stands in stark contrast to the rational ideas of Socrates and Plato.

Plato and Aristotle

Plato saw logos as contrary to emotion and feeling. Here the distinction begins between emotions and affects, cognition and rationality. With Plato and later also Aristotle, a separation is seen between ratio and pathos, between thinking and feeling. Meaning and intention are disconnected from language. A distinction emerges between the ‘true’ internal world and the seeming reality of the external world. Fantasy and reality are disengaged from each other and are no longer tested against each other. Thereby, language becomes a means of transport, allowing people to come into contact with truth. In this way language loses its intentional meaning and becomes an objectively manipulable instrument. True language becomes a more and more internal spiritual language, hidden within thinking and behind observable reality. Reality is no longer by definition subjective, but has become objective. Reality is independent of any relations or connections.
For Aristotle, rhetoric was most of all a means of persuasion. He was concerned with the art of persuasion, of which rhetoric is the primary instrument. His writings on rhetoric, thus, also present a theory of persuasive communication. Yet he places his own thinking outside the realm of rhetoric. Plato and Aristotle hit on a point of concern here. With the sophists, the danger is that fantasy and reality, an actual word and what it describes, will overlap and become completely blended. Put another way, with the Sophists lies the danger that reality will disappear within the relation or connection. With Plato, on the other hand, lies the danger that the relation will disappear within reality.


The tension between philosophy and rhetoric that we saw with Plato and Aristotle is seen again with Augustine. For him, as well, rhetoric is deception, it is filled with guile and deceit. It is concerned with the external, it envelops inner emptiness: “They are just words.” Augustine believed rhetoric was about hidden spiritual meanings, about an inner truth. The problem is that internal reality takes the place of external reality. Inside and outside lose touch with one another.

In Psychoanalysis, the internal and external worlds are connected but do not coincide. This is why the analyst concerns him or herself with the question of how the mind works – in which way and in which form the external is internally represented.

Augustine was, to borrow Nietzsche’s metaphor, in search of ‘hidden rhetoric’. Rhetoric is a means of revealing or veiling the truth. Rhetoric, or oratory, is no longer a goal in itself, but a method of finding truth. Within this framework, language can be alluring and attempt to gratify and enthrall. nietzsche 1864Through the use of language, something can be recalled from memory, and one person can convince another person of something. But in order to truly gain insight, an inner master is required. Insight demands introspection. Truth and insight do not reveal themselves in the monologues of pre-Socratic orators nor in the Socratic dialogues of Plato, but through internal conversations with others. This journey inside, towards truth, towards insight, is described by Augustine in his Confessions. Here he is concerned with the internal, with actual meaning – free of and behind the manifest word. Inner and outer worlds are separated from one another; language is constantly falling out of touch with its subject-matter, and thus with its meaning. The intersubjectivity still present with pre-Socratics and Plato disappears. In other words, behavior and intention, or meaning, lose contact with each other. Of importance is turning inward: this is where internal truth, or God, resides.

In Psychoanalysis we know that the inner and outer world are related, but do not coincide. That which was external is not internally represented as an internal copy of external reality. The internal image is beset with various projections and biases. Psychoanalysis is concerned with words, and more concerned with relational connections than with content. As Freud put it: “The only thing that happens in psychoanalytic treatment is that patient and doctor exchange words… Words were originally considered magic… Through words, one person can make another person happy, or drive them to despair… Words can have an effect on affects, and are the general means used by people to influence one another. Thus we will not disparage the use of words in psychotherapy.” (Freud, 1915 (1989), p. 27).
In contemporary psychoanalysis, we realize that speaker and listener, patient and psychoanalyst, exist within one rhetorical structure. It is within this structure that insight and meaning loom, where happiness, pain, and sadness find their place. Thanks to the rhetorical structure of language, tears turn into sadness, aggression into anger – emotions turn into feelings. Happiness, along with unhappiness, make their entries. In a certain sense, there can be no happiness without giving words to emotions. Language is the natural environment in which people thrive. Language is for people what water is for fish. Without language, there is no growth and no development.

For Nietzsche, contrary to Plato, truth, knowledge, and thus memory are always selective. Once one enters the domain of language, of symbols, reality is no longer immediately cognizable; of importance is a verbalized or imagined reality. Reality is an interpreted reality – interpretation and reality are inseparable at this level. The so called objective reality that one could remember has been lost and can no longer be reached. This is what the psychoanalyst means when he or she says that only the psychological reality can be known.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle refers to another important element of growth and development. He writes about virtues and vices and how they are acquired. Virtues and vices become apparent through people’s concrete, manifest behavior; people fulfill an example function for each other. Based on the behavior of another person, we determine their temperament. The only way to be like them is to start looking like them, to identify with them, to internalize them. We interact with ourselves the way others interact with us. You could call this the principle of imitation, as described later in history by the Augustinian canon (priest), Thomas á Kempis in his work, The Imitation of Christ (1424).
thomas a k (Custom)
Next to language as a rhetorical structure, identification and internalization would hereby appear as a second instrument for achieving growth and development. Both of these instruments are fundamental pillars of psychoanalysis.


Psychoanalysis as rhetoric

Psychoanalysis is rhetoric, not so much in the sense that it is primarily concerned with tracking down hidden meanings, but with generating emotionally experiential thinking. It is aimed at exposing hidden rhetorical structures that move psychoanalysts and with which patients speak to us and try to convince us. Psychoanalysis is not rhetoric in the sense of speaking eloquently and convincingly, but as a critical science that attempts to discover the veiled rhetorical nature of what our patients say to us – what they think, feel, do, and dream. It is a dexterity for listening, without the listener stepping out of the story. The analyst forms a part of the story. They create, as it were, the hermeneutic circle. They do not exit the story nor do they become one with the story. The analyst listens with Gleichschwebende Aufmerksamkeit, evenly suspended attention. They listen to the seductive words of their patients without letting themselves be seduced. They recognize the seduction and react to it,  but at the same time they take up a third position. The analyst takes part in the story, but, again, does not coincide with it.

Gratification silences desire, yet the psychoanalyst, in fact, tries to expose the specific paths along which longings wander in search of gratification. The words of our patients reveal the presence of a reality, and at the same time provoke us. These words show us and hide from us all manner of things about our patients. The analyst, on the contrary, speaks as Lacan says with “parole vide”, empty speech, thereby challenging the patient to express him or herself further. By speaking, a patient builds up a personal image of themselves, an own identity. Along with joining in the structure of language, with the help of the psychoanalyst, psychoanalysis is concerned with the relationship that the patient internalizes. Odysseus was able to go on his journey and  leave his

Penelope by internally carrying her along. He was capable of having a relationship with a person who was not actually present; he had internally represented his Penelope, made possible by his participation in language, allowing him to remember her. Disengagement, separation, internalization, and identification fall together in a circular causality.

Along with Mnemosyne, Eros

MnemosineAlong with Mnemosyne, of whom we spoke earlier, Eros also plays an important role in psychoanalysis. In his Symposium, Plato quotes Socrates as saying that Eros was born from Porus (excess) and Penia (poverty). He was begotten at the birth celebration of the goddess Aphrodite, of whom he would become a faithful companion. Eros lives in the hearts of people – this is why human existence is needy, and simultaneously capable of pursuing the intoxication of gratification. Plato reports Socrates saying that, generally speaking, Eros encompasses all desires for a happy, good existence, and a desire to continue enjoying this happiness and goodness. There is no meaning without desire, no purpose without experience, no reason without pathos. All this reveals itself within the context of the relationship; in short, psychoanalysis is rhetoric.


Intermezzo: Otto

In treatment, Otto immediately draws me to his surface-level anxieties. His anxiety can be felt as soon as he enters the room. He experiences himself as fragmented and says, “I am a collection of bones held together by a sack. Sometimes it seems like the sack opens and everything falls out – panic and chaos are inside, a giant black hole.” He had a similar experience in his latency period at the age of eight. When his father brought him to bed, he would tell him highly visual stories, in which the line between fantasy and reality became blurred: “It was all very frightening, these people came into my bedroom, moved over my bedsheets and over the wallpaper. I wasn’t sure if they were real, or if they were shadows of the hand-figures my father would make. It was terrible, I was nothing but anguish.” That’s where this idea about bones started. Another time he says, “I am an amoeba, that disappears in the body of another during sex.”

Then there comes a period in which, immediately upon entering the room, he removes his military outfit and sits across from me in a T-shirt and a pair of short sport-shorts. Doubts about his sexuality rush forth without reservation; he describes how during sex he feels like he is dissolving, and how he experiences his genitals turning into a worm-like, teeming mass that disappears within her. When he is a bit calmer, he tells me how at home he used to feel like he was living on stolen time. He was there because his sister was gone, and he always feels that when his mother looked at him she was actually looking at his sister. It is during this period that he goes on extremely dangerous hiking and wandering journeys. He seeks excitement in the outside world, but in such a way that it begins to worry me; the feeling creeps over me that he is walking on the edge and, as it were, tempting death. As though he thinks, “Mom and Dad will only really love me if I am a girl and if I am dead.” Slowly, his life outside of therapy becomes more peaceful, while during his sessions his anxieties only intensify. At one point he hisses at me that I have probably noticed that his life has calmed down, but that I should not think he is doing better. This was not the case. In the past he could feel terribly miserable and threatened, and all sorts of things would happen: Physical violence would be followed by very intense sex, and then it was all over. “A lot happened,” he says, “but along with very threatening moments I also had very good moments. Yet now we are much less physical with each other, I feel the pain much more inside, my anxieties are changing, and I feel more sadness inside. But happiness? Forget about it.”

His fear of building up an internal psychological world was intensely tangible. With clenched jaws, he hisses at me that he will not allow me to think the treatment is working. Then his intonation changes, and in a soft voice, close to tears, he explains that he cannot bear such a thought, since that gives him the feeling he doesn’t know where I begin and he ends, which gives him the unbearable feeling he is disappearing. At one point it becomes clear that Otto has a new girlfriend, and I understand why he can barely bring himself to tell me. It is about his life, not mine. His and mine must remain separated, and for the time being stay that way. His anger and stubbornness have less to do with aggression and more to do with the fear of fading away. It is important to him to differentiate himself from myself, to set boundaries, to individuate. Saying “no” goes before saying “I”. Fortunately, his new girlfriend is a loving but also firm person who can sense his internal struggles, on the one hand giving them a certain amount of room but without going along with them. Thanks to this, the anxieties do not increase unnecessarily, and it becomes clear to Otto that these are his fears and not those of his girlfriend. There is room for boundaries within the relationship.


Sophocles: King Oedipus and Oedipus at Colonus


SophoclesSophocles tells how King Laios of Thebes hears from the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi that he will soon receive a son, and that this son will murder him and marry his wife, Jocasta. When shortly thereafter a son is indeed born, Laios drives a stake through the child’s ankles, and Jocasta gives him away to a shepherd with directions to kill him, so that the prediction of the Oracle may not come true. The shepherd, however, cannot bring himself to kill the baby, and ultimately the childless King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth take the child and rear it as their own. Because of the wounds to his feet, the couple names their adopted child Oedipus, which means ‘swollen foot’. Oedipus grows up as an only child at the court of Corinth, and when a guest at court tells the adolescent Oedipus he is an adopted child, doubt takes hold of him. His parents deny everything, however, and Oedipus seeks counsel from the Oracle at Delphi. The Oracle tells him he will murder his father and marry his mother. Shocked by this pronouncement, Oedipus decides not to return to Corinth, so that the prediction cannot come true. Walking on an aimless journey, he encounters a group of travelers at a crossroads. None of the travelers will step aside to allow the other to pass, and in the fight that follows, Oedipus kills a number of travelers. Ultimately he reaches the city of Thebes. Thebes is being plagued by a Sphinx. Each day the Sphinx  demands a young man come visit her, upon which she gives him a riddle to solve. When the man cannot solve the riddle, she kills him. Oedipus also goes to the Sphinx, but contrary to his predecessors, he succeeds in solving the riddle. In great despair, the Sphinx throws herself into a ravine, and Thebes is freed from the plague. Oedipus is hailed as the city’s savior, and is offered the kingdom’s throne. The throne is vacant, seeing as the king, Laios, had recently been killed by robbers. Consequently, Oedipus takes the widowed Queen Jocasta as his wife. Oedipus rules for fifteen years, until the plague breaks out in the city. Creon, the brother of Jocasta, goes to Delphi to seek counsel. The Oracle answers that the murderer of King Laios lives unavenged in Thebes and must be tracked down. Slowly it becomes evident that Oedipus himself is the murderer. He is the biological son of Laios and Jocasta, and he killed his father and married his mother. When all of this finally becomes clear, Jocasta hangs herself in desperation, and Oedipus, upon seeing his wife/mother, stabs his own eyes out.
In Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles describes how Oedipus, guided by his daughter, Antigone, wanders the land as a poor, old, blind vagabond. The gods have advised him to go to Colonus – to die there when a sign is given by Zeus. Under the protection of King Theseus of Athens, Oedipus first reckons with the brother of Jocasta, Creon, who is defeated by Theseus in battle. He then also reckons with his son, Polynices. Oedipus refuses his son help, intercession, or forgiveness, thereby ensuring his son’s death. Finally Oedipus withdraws himself to a hidden place, after entrusting Theseus with a secret. Oedipus disappears with a lightning strike, taken up into the kingdom of the gods.


Oedipus: Interpretation

In Freud’s view (1900), the oedipal theme is central to both the dramas Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus. In the first play we see the son Oedipus, who battles his father and after killing him marries his mother. In Colonus the theme is reversed: it is the father Oedipus who competes with his son, sends him to his death, and at the same time demands his daughter accompany him during the last years of his life. With that he attaches Antigone to himself.

The stories of Sophocles about Oedipus are specific interpretations of the Oedipus myth. Today we know that his interpretation is but one of a long series of interpretations, one that came quite late in the history of the Oedipus myth. Within the interpretation of Sophocles, which revolves around the rivalry between father and son for the favor of the primary mother object, an interpretation resides much more concerned with a child’s disconnecting itself from the dyadic/symbiotic bond made with the first object in a child’s life, namely its mother. Therein lies the connection between the oedipal myth and the stories of Narcissus.
In Ancient Greece, the hegemony of holy queens superseded the hegemony of a king. Graves (1960) shows how the mother goddess was viewed at the beginning of Greece’s development as immortal, eternal, and all-powerful. She took lovers for her pleasure, not as a father for her children. It seems a young man was chosen each year as the queen’s lover. He was made king, and was sacrificed after a year. Another man would then take his place, to be sacrificed just the same a year later, and the cycle would continue. Gradually, man became a symbol of fertility instead of only erotic pleasure to the queen. These kings only had any power if they were clothed in the robes of the queen and were equipped with false breasts. They acted as deputies or extensions of the queen. The king himself had no function, he was given meaning only thanks to his identification with the mother queen. The king had power to the extent he partook in the power of the queen. But die he must.
Iokaste-sfinxSeen within this context, the murder of Laios is the ritual death met by the king at the moment he is succeeded. According to the old stories, the king was succeeded by his son, who killed the old king and married his widow. The myth of Oedipus is not just about the incest and patricide of Oedipus, but also about the fate of Jocasta, and how Oedipus separates himself from her so that he can individuate. Out of revenge against her son, who no longer wants to be just an extension of her, Jocasta commits suicide. Ashamed at his striving for autonomy, Oedipus stabs his eyes out, with the needle that holds together the dress of Jocasta, by doing that the last thing he saw was the naked body of his wife/mother. On the one hand Oedipus was trying to reverse his actions, while also preserving the image of the dead Jocasta on his retinas. His fate was to be autonomous, independent of the mother object, delivered to his own anxieties, which are personified by the Furiën, the furies that follow him to Colonus, where Oedipus finally finds peace in death, thereby restoring the symbiosis with Jocasta, the lost love object.
It was the seer Tiresias who was involved in predicting the unhappy fate of Laios and Oedipus, but he also told the nymph Liriope, the mother of Narcissus, that her son would be happy and live a long life, as long as he never learned to know himself – or, as the myth goes, as long as he never gazed upon himself.

Narcissus and Echo

In the third book of his Metamorphoses, Ovid describes the history of Narcissus and Jupiter. Narcissus was, as we know, the son of the water nymph Liriope, conceived in the meandering stream of the water god Cephissus. Liriope gave birth to a child with whom, from the very beginning, everyone fell in love. Narcissus became acquainted with love at a young age. At the age of sixteen, he had already rejected countless potential male and female lovers. Yet Narcissus, stubborn and under the spell of his own budding beauty, could not allow others to touch him.


Echo NarcissusOne of his suitors was the nymph Echo. Echo could not speak independently, she could only repeat what others said. This was a punishment brought upon her by Hera, since every time Hera came close to catching Zeus making love to nymphs, Echo would speak to her unabated, giving the other nymphs time to escape. Echo first sees Narcissus while he is hunting in a quiet area. She stealthily follows in his footsteps. Narcissus asks, “Is there anyone here?” Echo echoes, “here”. From this moment on, a game unfolds in which Echo traps Narcissus and herself in a folie à deux, a madness shared by two, a dyadic engagement in which it is unclear who is who, who is speaking and who is answering. When Echo then finally emerges from the forest to take Narcissus in her arms, he runs away and rejects her. He shouts that he would rather die than “that you may win my heart”, to which Echo replies, “that you  may win my heart”. Echo subsequently hides herself in the forest, dejected and filled with shame. Through her sleepless sorrow, her body becomes emaciated and her skin withered. All lifeblood escapes her body; only her bones and her voice remain, writes Ovid. The voice endures, the bones turn to stone, and from then on she lurks in the forest, and is invisible in the mountains. But the sound of her voice, through which she lives on, remains audible everywhere. Just as Narcissus refused Echo, he also refused all the other nymphs and young men who fell in love with him. One of the rejected men cries out, “Let him fall just as madly in love, and let his love be just as elusive.” Artemis, who hears this desperate curse, then punishes Narcissus by letting him fall in love with himself.


Thirsty from his hunt, Narcissus wants to go and drink from a spring. As he drinks, he feels attracted to his reflection, not immediately realizing this image is his own. He continues to stare, immoveable, at the image in the water. Without knowing it, he seeks himself and is gratified by himself. He longs for the one who longs for him. Each time he tries to grasp the image in the water, he misses. What he desires cannot be touched. Narcissus is in love, but the image, the object of his love, is unreachable, separated from him by the surface of the water. Each time Narcissus brings his head closer to the image in the water, the image seems to inch closer to him. Each time Narcissus motions for the image to come to him, the image waves back. Then Narcissus shouts, “It is I, I can feel it now, I am burning with love for myself, I am feeding the fire and am warmed by it. What I long for is myself, how can I walk away from my own body?” A strange desire for a lover, to wish away the object of one’s desire. How can someone simultaneously bear possessing something and not possessing something? Sadness consumes him. In the throes of despair, he tears off his clothing and bangs his balled fists against his body. Reddish spots and wounds appear where the punches land. When Narcissus sees these marks, he can bear it no more, languishing away. Nothing remains of the body Echo once desired.


In spite of her grudge, Echo keeps track of Narcissus, and shares his sadness. When Narcissus desperately cries out “Oh, me”, she echoes, “Oh me”, and when he punches himself, she sounds the same exclamations of despair and grief. While Ovid writes of Narcissus dying of sadness, Graves (1960) describes a version of the story in which Narcissus takes his own life with a dagger to the heart. Where the blood stains the ground, white narcissus flowers with red centers sprout up. Ovid describes how even in the kingdom of the dead, Narcissus keeps staring at himself in the water. He tells of how the water nymph sisters of Narcissus weep, and how the forest nymphs weep along with them. Echo weeps after them. When the firewood deathbed of Narcissus has been prepared, his body has suddenly disappeared. Where his body had lain, they discover a yellow flower contained within a wreath of white leaves.


Interpretation: Narcissus and Liriope

The myth of Narcissus is about the meaning of looking and reflecting, about eyes and mirrors. The first image a child sees is the visual image of a human face, normally the face of the mother. The face of the mother reflects how she sees her baby, but at the same time the mother reflects the child itself in her eyes. Put another way, the child sees its own reflection in its mother’s eyes. This reflection mirrors both the feelings of the mother object towards the child and the child itself. In other words, the feelings and expectations of the mother object coincide with what the child itself is. At the beginning of development, it is still unclear what belongs to the mother and what belongs to the child. Narcissus existed within the loving eyes of his mother and the other people around him. This love gave him life. The attitude he developed was egocentric: he was incapable of giving or of loving others. The unconditional worship and honoring of Narcissus by his primary object confirm Narcissus’s greatness, and at the same time hold him captive within the dyadic relationship with the mirroring mother object, rendering him incapable of adequately detaching from his mother and individuating further as a separate, autonomous object. The price he pays for this is that his inner life, his inner world, remains empty. This returns us to the prophecy of Tiresias: existence for Narcissus entails not knowing himself. Because he does not know himself, he will have no image and no internal identity of himself.

LeiriopeBeing happy, and being able to realize one is happy, means being independent without losing others, while also not coinciding with them. At the same time, being happy requires that a person can feel connected to another person without losing themselves. Happiness is located somewhere between lonely solitude and symbiotic fusion with another person. Seen through the psychoanalyst’s eyes, it is about connectedness and autonomy. For Narcissus, knowing means a confrontation with his inner emptiness, and the deep depression that ensues. Knowing also means: differentiating oneself, being separate from others. This breaks the dyadic relationship with the primary mother object. In normal development, the limited failure of the primary mother object and the presence of another, third safe object, leads to the relinquishment of the dyadic relationship. A new perspective is found, in which one can individuate and differentiate oneself and develop into an autonomous person, capable of loving other people without losing oneself in them and able to love oneself without losing the bond with others. This is true happiness, and Narcissus was incapable of achieving this. The relationship between Narcissus and Echo was merely a repetition of the primary relationship between Narcissus and Liriope. For Narcissus it is unthinkable that two people, two autonomous persons, can be in a relationship without giving up their individuality.
Narcissus is unable to build relationships, nor does he understand how relationships develop and function. He cannot love, nor is he able to let himself be loved by others. Without relationships there can be no happiness; people are by definition relational, lingual creatures. What remains for Narcissus is the rejection of others, while at the same time feeling eternally failed by them. Along with this he envisions the promise of the perfect, eternal love that will one day come. Put another way, Narcissus lives with the fantasy of ‘if … then …’: One day there will finally be paradise on earth, and I will be happy.


Oedipus and Narcissus


Oidipus 03Looking back at the myths of Oedipus and Narcissus, we conclude that to become happy, a child must be able to safely bond with the primary mother object and that it must be capable of internalizing others in order to then disengage from them, in a way that it does not lose them while being able to find itself. At this point, true happiness is within reach. But there can be no happiness without pain and anguish. We have also seen that others must be, within certain limits, allowed to ‘fail’. The ‘good enough’ primary mother object and the third object allow the child to break itself out of the dyadic relationship with the primary caring object, thereby creating room for the child to experience itself as a differentiated, autonomous, separate person. If there is no third object, the child will, as stated earlier, remain trapped in a dyadic relationship, unable to experience itself as a separated, autonomous, functioning identity. Separation then becomes intolerable, something which must always be avoided and never accepted. In such a situation, a child does not learn to adequately delimit itself and cannot see and accept the limits of reality. The attitude of such personalities will remain egocentric, aimed at instant gratification of desires. There will be an inability to love and to experience depressive feelings.


Otto: Finale

In a follow-up interview a few years after finishing treatment, Otto tells me that he experienced me as being involved and at the same time at a healthy distance. “You shared my feelings, but did not let them overwhelm you the way I did. From the start, it was clear where you began and where I ended. Because of this, the reverse was true as well. That feeling of involvement was very important to me, as was the feeling that you took pleasure in the therapy, helping sort things out and search for what lay behind my problems.”

Otto looks at his life differently as a result of his therapy: “At first everything was very confusing, everything was blurred together. I came to realize the things I had missed, which made me sad. There were images of my youth, but they did not come across as meaningful. It was like a book where the pages had fallen out and become disordered. In therapy we put the book back together, at which point I realized I could not understand the grammar. Things only became meaningful once I could understand them. When I was young, I was really just extremely afraid. Now I understand better, somehow, what it’s all about, and therapy was the first step in discovering what is behind it all. I became aware that something was wrong. It’s not that my anxieties have disappeared, but I can cope with them better now. I better understand what I’m looking at. I know what is mine, and what belongs to others – I am more aware of where I stop and others begin. I have more room in which I can be happy. Even though there are definitely days where I’m not happy, the fact that I know I can be happy gives me solace.”

Otto also tells me that he is still with the same girlfriend as during therapy, that they live together and both have fairly busy jobs. I think to myself, “Those busy jobs are probably for the best.” Thanks to therapy, Otto’s life had become a story, thereby gaining meaning. He learned the grammar needed to comprehend his story, allowing him to take ownership of his story, and thus his history. With this, the future had opened to him; he was no longer captive in a threatening past.

When he is about to leave, I notice that I give him a firm but warm handshake and that Otto does the same. With warmth in my heart, I watch him through the window as he walks down the street.

In closing

Psychoanalytic therapy is about going on a journey in order to come back home. This journey is made according to a certain process, in which security is a core theme, along with the themes of verbalization, reflection, fantasy, and learning to fantasize. Psychoanalysis is concerned with the inner working models that drive and direct us, with security, with attachment and detachment, and with letting go in order to rediscover others. It is about the building of layers, about internalization. It is the relationship we have with another person that we internalize. Psychoanalysis studies how that happens, and which conditions facilitate or hinder the process. Psychoanalysis is about all of these things.
Psychoanalysis is concerned with the function and creation of the mind, of an internal world. About how and why the external world takes its specific form within the internal world. Happiness ultimately revolves around the creation of an inner world that represents an optimal balance of distance and proximity. This demands sufficient and adequate security in the external world, along with adequate sensitivity and responsiveness from the people around us. That which does not exist in the external world cannot enter the internal world. Psychoanalysis certainly has something to do with finding happiness, but always with the knowledge that there can be no happiness without pain and anguish.



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