December 6, 1997
How Oedipus Is Losing His Complex
By SARAH BOXER
But is it really possible in the late 20th century to read Sophocles' ''Oedipus Tyrannus'' so that the central point of the drama is not Oedipus' terrible discovery that in killing his father and sleeping with his mother he surrendered to his unconscious wishes? Sure, if you listen to the latest generation of theorists, who suggest that Oedipus' shame about his crimes masked the real point of the story: the violence of fathers, the inevitable perversity of nature, the authoritarianism of the state and the patriarchal roots of society.
Here is the basic plot of the Oedipus myth, which Sophocles drew on for his 2,500-year-old play: Laius, the King of Thebes, hears a prophecy that his son will kill him and marry his wife, Jocasta. So he cripples him and leaves him on a mountain to die. The baby is found by a shepherd and raised by the King and Queen of Corinth. They name him Oedipus, meaning ''swollen feet.'' When he grows up, the oracle at Delphi tells him he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. To avoid this fate, he runs away from Corinth. On the way to Thebes, he kills a man during a dispute, not realizing the man is his true father, King Laius. Once in Thebes, Oedipus saves the town from the Sphinx's spell by solving her riddle: What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three legs at night? He answers, ''Man.'' The Sphinx dies. An instant hero, he marries Queen Jocasta and has four children with her. Finally, Oedipus tries to discover who Laius' assassin was and learns his true history. Jocasta hangs herself, and he blinds himself with his mother's brooches and leaves town. The Oedipus story has been traced to cultures all over the world, as Lowell Edmunds shows in his book ''Oedipus: The Ancient Legend and Its Later Analogues'' (Johns Hopkins, 1985). It has been the plot of musical works by Leoncavallo, Orff and Stravinsky, the basis for Pier Paolo Pasolini's movie ''Edipo Re'' and Andre Gide's play ''Oedipe,'' the subject of philosophical works by Hegel, Heidegger and Nietzsche, and even the outline for an on-line verse that Daniel Nussbaum, a movie-location scout, composed out of 154 personalized license plates in California: ''YEGODS WHYMEE? YMEYYME? . . . IAMBAD, IAMBADD, IMSOBAD. . . . ITZ 2MUCH PAYNE 4ONE2C. TAKEGOD MYEYES!''
Still, the most famous reading of Oedipus is Freud's idea that the play ''shows us the fulfillment of our own childhood wishes'' and the guilt that goes with them. That is not to say that the Oedipus complex is exactly the way Freud left it.
Melanie Klein amended the Freudian idea by showing that a child's earliest hostility begins at birth and is directed not against the father but the mother. Jacques Lacan brought the father figure back into the picture by suggesting that when the child doesn't get total satisfaction from the mother, he blames a symbolic father and wields language to get what he wants.
Despite these emendations, though, Freud's Oedipus complex, a mix of unconscious, murderous, incestuous wishes, remains more famous than Oedipus himself.
Yet today, with Freud under full attack, his central theory has become the subject of a critical free-for-all, and many contemporary scholars have been doing their best to de-oedipalize Oedipus. In these recent readings, Oedipus is not a man to be pitied for his unconscious crimes and his guilt, but a man who never understood the real crimes in his own story. To some theorists, he is a victim who has no reason to feel guilty. To others, he is a more destructive man than even he perceived.
The more sympathetic interpretations suggest that Oedipus' horror about incest and murder is his way of not facing his own victimhood. In ''Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul,'' a book that will be published next year, Mr. Lear argues that Oedipus, in his passionate quest for the truth, overlooked the most essential fact about himself: not his relationship to Laius and Jocasta but their cruel abandonment of him. Oedipus, the self-made man, the know-it-all, busied himself with his royal investigation of Laius' murder to avoid looking his abandonment in the face.
Mr. Lear, who is an analyst as well as a philosopher, does not go so far as to suggest that if Oedipus had acknowledged his true history he might have felt justified in killing his father. That is work for another analyst.
Martin S. Bergmann, in his book ''In the Shadow of Moloch: The Sacrifice of Children and Its Impact on Western Religions'' (Columbia University, 1993), suggests that Laius may have got what he deserved because he tried to murder his son and was a pederast to boot. Although Sophocles' drama and Freud's theory focus on the son's guilt and thus suppress the father's history of abusing children, that does not change the legend. Long before Oedipus was born, Laius raped Chryssipus, who was King Pelops' son. In other words, Laius had a ''Laius complex.'' He wanted to murder his son.
Other interpretations see Oedipus as needlessly tortured about sleeping with his mother. Take, for example, an essay in ''The Libertine Reader'' (Zone Books, 1997) about the Marquis de Sade's ''Florville and Courval,'' a reworking of the Oedipus story with a woman at its center. Florville, while attempting to live the most prudish life possible, somehow manages to commit unwitting incest three times -- with her father, her brother and her son -- and to send her mother to her death. When she discovers what she has done, she kills herself.
In the essay, Marcel Henaff, a French professor at the University of California at San Diego, suggests an interpretation of Florville that could also be applied to Oedipus: since ''the transgression takes place despite all the precautions taken to prevent it,'' this proves ''that good intentions are inevitably punished.'' In other words, ''nature accomplishes its designs no matter what.'' If Oedipus was guilty it was not because he broke the incest taboo but because he didn't understand the polymorphous perversity of nature. He was too repressed to enjoy it.
Other recent interpretations fault Oedipus not so much for being repressed as for being repressive. These ideas follow the lead of ''Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia'' (University of Minnesota), an attack on Freudian psychoanalysis written in the 1970's by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. In that book, Oedipus is ''the iron collar'' that leads us to see all desire in terms of ''the father-mother-child triangle'' and that therefore prepares us for the capitalist formation ''Mister Capital, Madame Earth and their child the Worker.''
Oedipus has also become the enemy of women. Although he is usually seen as the man who killed his father and loved his mother, now some theorists are saying that Oedipus, if you look closely, is also a mother-killer. ''Matricide, not patricide, is at the heart of the heroic myth,'' Jean-Joseph Goux writes in ''Oedipus, Philosopher'' (Stanford University, 1993). When Oedipus responds to the Sphinx with the simple answer, ''man,'' he kills her. ''The hero who is to become king is the hero who kills the female dragon, the female serpent, the female monstrosity.''
In ''The Castration of Oedipus: Feminism, Psychoanalysis and the Will to Power'' (New York University, 1996), J. C. Smith and Carla Ferstman argue that Oedipus' relentless pursuit of answers to life's riddles is typically male. And they are happy that he is punished for it. But is it enough? ''Feminism demands the castration of Oedipus,'' they write. Why? Poetic justice. Now Oedipus becomes the one lacking the phallus, leaving room for woman to become ''She who must be obeyed, or She for short.''
If Oedipus had foreseen everything he would ultimately be held accountable for -- order, capitalism, patriarchy, rational thought -- he might not have been so upset by his crimes of incest and patricide. On the other hand, he might have saved everyone a lot of trouble and just killed himself.