Oedipus Ubiquitous: The Family Complex in World Folk Literature

by Allen W. Johnson and Douglass Price-Williams, Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1996. Pp. 342. Hb ISBN: 0 8047 2576 4, pb ISBN: 0 8047 2577 2

reviewed by Douglas Cairns

University of Leeds

Despite its title, this book is not an examination of the Oedipus legend and its analogues in world folk literature (for which see L. Edmunds, Oedipus [Baltimore, 1985]), but a collection and analysis of 'family complex' tales of which the classical Oedipus story of incest and parricide is only one type. Its appeal to a classical audience will be limited to those who have a general interest in anthropology, mythology, or psychoanalysis, for although it does include classical sources in its collection of 'tales' in Part 2 (two passages from Hesiod's Theogony, Robert Graves' synthetic reconstruction of the Oedipus myth, and a version of the birth, slaughter, and rebirth of Dionysus culled from the Orphic poems)[1] and the opinions of a few classical scholars are canvassed in the review of 'Non-Psychoanalytic Perspectives from Folklore and Anthropology' in Chapter 2 of Part 1, the authors offer no detailed discussion of the classical myth or of classical sources.

The authors concede that Oedipal tales of the classical type are rare (pp. 52-3; cf. Edmunds viii), but justify their inclusion of tales which do not conform to this type in two ways: first, although not all variants of tales which the authors would regard as Oedipal involve both parricide and incest, absence or mitigation of one of these motifs is to be attributed to the tales' status as allomorphs of types in which the motifs do occur, as well as to cultural variation in the degree of 'repression' which such elements undergo in different societies (pp. 40-4). This may sound like a hermeneutic blank cheque (see below), but the procedure can be reasonable in practice (cf. Edmunds 19-20 for the same phenomenon). The authors' focus is also broadened by their general interest in the sum total of the potential for forbidden erotic and hostile relations within the family. Having mapped out the possible permutations, however, they conclude that not all are realised, the most typical being (a) father-son antipathy, mother-son intimacy on the Oedipal model; (b) father-daughter intimacy (father the initiator, mother generally supportive of the daughter, occasionally compliant); and (c) brother-sister intimacy (brother generally the initiator, parents - if mentioned - generally hostile). These patterns being found in all kinds of society, stratified and non-stratified, in all parts of the world, the authors conclude that these forms of the family complex are universal, and that while the widespread occurrence of tales of father-son conflict and mother-son intimacy confirms the universality of the male Oedipus complex, tales of father-daughter intimacy provide little support for its female equivalent, but rather support feminist criticism thereof. The folktales reflect the universality of the male Oedipus complex because they encode and present to the unconscious of the audience repressed aspects of mental experience which quotidian society cannot address.

The first problem with the book is the presentation of the tales themselves. A cursory examination reveals their utter heterogeneity: some are verbatim records of the words of traditional storytellers, while others are summaries or paraphrases (sometimes abstracted and conflated from several versions, sometimes including elements of interpretative comment); in some the elements of the 'family complex' are salient, in others much less so; and, as noted above, the criteria for inclusion are somewhat elastic - it is one thing to accept that a mother's aiding of her son in a conflict with the father may represent a mitigation of the incest motif, another to accept the notion of the 'splitting of the mother' (p. 50) in tales which recount a son's intercourse with his father's concubine (see below). In addition, no real attention is paid to any distinction between the tales in the circumstances of their performance or their status and function as cultural artefacts. One often has a strong suspicion that the primary meaning of a tale in its context will lie in its reference to particular institutions of the society from which it comes. The authors themselves accept the possibility of other, more immediate meanings (pp. 46, 99-100), yet maintain that the inclusion of elements of the family complex is sufficient for their purposes. But surely the salience of the family complex in the tale, the particulars of its presentation, and the cultural significance of the tale itself make a difference?

The real difficulties that the book is likely to present for all but the most convinced Freudian, however, lie in its relatively uncritical acceptance of psychoanalytic orthodoxy concerning the phenomenon of repression and the existence of the Oedipus complex. The authors' only real concession to criticism of these theories is to accept psychoanalytic modifications of Freud's assumption that the Oedipus complex is an spontaneous biogenetic development; accordingly, they argue for a role for the actual behaviour of parents towards their infant sons in activating Oedipal tendencies (p. 101). Such a limited concession to empiricism sits uneasily with their rejection of an analogue to the Oedipus complex in females; for if the folktales of six continents confirm the objections of feminists that there is no universal complex of repressed incestuous fantasies in females, the reason presumably lies in the empirical fact that females in real incestuous relationships are typically the objects and victims of male sexual aggression. Thus we do not need speculative theories of the repression of infantile sexual fantasies to explain the occurrence of male-initiated brother-sister and father-daughter incest in world folklore. Should we not, therefore, seek a similar empirical basis for tales of mother-son incest and father-son rivalry?

Moreover, despite accommodating a limited degree of criticism of the radical interiorisation of experience inherent in strict Freudianism, the authors still seek to retain something of Freud's conviction that his model of human development is rooted in biology, in so far as they speculate about a possible evolutionary explanation, if not for the Oedipus complex itself, then at least for Oedipal capacities (pp. 94-7). But Freud cannot be so easily Darwinised. Such plausibility as the Oedipus complex possesses in evolutionary terms derives from the fact that it seems to account for empirically verifiable phenomena which do make evolutionary sense: there can be a quasi-sexual aspect to the relationship between mother and infant son, on both sides; this can (but need not) be occasion for guilt on the mother's part and for jealousy on the father's, and it is also very likely that this aspect of the relationship has significant effects on the psychology of the developing child; but there is no evidence for the more specific Freudian hypothesis of repressed fantasies of coitus with the mother in male children in the supposed 'phallic' stage of their development (i.e. between the ages of 2 and 5). It is also true that male infants vie with their fathers for the attention of their mothers; equally that adult males in some societies may compete or behave as if competing with their fathers over sexual partners; but in the former case the father-son rivalry is not sexual, and in the second it is not for the attentions of the biological mother.[2] This is why tales in which the son has sex with his father's concubine (as in Phoenix's autobiography in Iliad 9. 447-63) need to be taken at face value, and not regarded Oedipal tales in which 'splitting of the mother' has occurred. The robustness of Freud's theories is largely due to their having been designed to be independent of any empirical verification; attempts retrospectively to endow them with some empirical basis fail to take account of their entirely speculative origins.[3]

In short, if you believe in Freud, there is a chance that you will find this book credible, but the authors have failed to convince me that it is reasonable to do either.

[1] The authors confuse fragment numbers from Kern, Orphicorum Fragmenta (Berlin, 1922) with page numbers in their references for this tale (p. 113), and these references are anyhow inadequate as sources for the mixture of paraphrase and reconstruction which they quote from J. Campbell, The Masks of God (New York, 1959), 101. See rather M. L. West, The Orphic Poems (Oxford, 1983), 74.

[2]See M. Daly and M. Wilson, 'Is Parent-Offspring Conflict Sex-Linked? Freudian and Darwinian Models', Journal of Personality 58 (1990), 163-89. See also R. L. Trivers, 'Parent-Offspring Conflict', American Zoologist 14 (1974), 249-64. Cf. R. Wright, The Moral Animal (London, 1995), 166-70, 313-26; S. Pinker, How the Mind Works (London, 1998), 440-60. On the (erroneous) biological orientation of Freud's theories, see F. Sulloway, Freud, Biologist of the Mind (London, 1979).

[3] For a devastating exposition of the origins and development of psychoanalytic theory (though perhaps a little too critical of Freud's 'intellectual dishonesty'), see R. Webster, Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science, and Psychoanalysis (London, 1995). For a more charitable assessment, see Sulloway, op. cit., 499-500.

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