The Bejeezus Out of Me

Startling behavioral science.

Oedipus, Schmoedipus

On Fathers Day, what do we wish we were celebrating about fathers and sons?

author's drawing
This Father's Day it will be almost 75 years since Sigmund Freud’s death.

I want us to re-examine the Oedipus Complex. Freud devised the idea that sons want to kill their fathers and have sex with their mothers by combining Greek mythology with notes he’d made analyzing a patient he called Rat Man; the nickname derived from the patient’s symptomatology. Whenever strong sexual cravings visited him at inopportune moments, Rat Man stifled them by imagining that a jar with a live rat was being strapped to his naked behind. The rat would use its teeth to tunnel through his….

Rat Man couldn’t say it.

“Anus?” Sigmund Freud may have suggested.

“Yes. Thank you,” Rat Man might have replied. We do know, anyway, that "anus" was his choice of words.

In addition to ideas about a rat, Rat Man feared that his thoughts determined peoples’ fates.

There was a third layer of anxieties about unpaid debts and a fourth, too, and this is the one that so richly seeded Freud’s fancy. Rat Man wanted to kill his father by taking the jarred rat and strapping it to his father’s backside whence the rat, once released, could tunnel through the ….

“Eureka!” Freud might have shouted to his verbally reticent patient.

Anyway, somehow from the epiphany of a clinical moment, Freud formulated the Oedipus Complex. All boys, he said, want to kill their fathers and have sex with their mothers in the same way that Oedipus of Greek myth did and Rat Man of turn-of-the-century Vienna aspired.

That Freud had found no evidence whatsoever that Rat Man wanted to have sex with his mother didn’t figure into his calculus. For he knew that, once, when Rat Man’s father had beaten him, he’d been filled with murderous rage. Years later, during his first sexual dalliance, at the moment of climax Rat Man had thought, “But this is wonderful! For this one could murder ones father!”

“And one could, couldn’t one?” Freud apparently agreed.

Freud’s own father was Jacob Freud, a wool merchant of no talent. Jacob was disappointing as a provider and protector for all of Freud’s memory of him.

Freud’s mother, Amalia, on the other hand, was a lioness, and one of the great loves of Freud’s life. She was beautiful, for starters, and willful, and she favored Freud over all of his siblings. Amalia was Jacob’s third wife, about the same age as Jacob’s sons from his first marriage. Writers have, for years, imagined the lust that Freud’s grown brothers must have felt for their bodacious stepmother and the lust that little Sigmund, emulating the big boys, must have felt for the woman who pinched and pampered him so.

“For THIS one could murder one’s father!”

On the Father's Day 75 years after Sigmund Freud’s death, perhaps it's time to wonder whether the Oedipus Complex is a UNIVERSAL male tendency that Freud identified or merely the abiding bathtub ring of Freud’s own psyche. After all, the original Oedipus myth is about a young man who only inadvertently killed his father and bedded his mother. Never aware that he’d been abandoned by birth parents (King Laius and Queen Jacosta of Thebes), he loved and honored as parents King Polybus and Queen Periboea of Corinth, for they had cherished him and instructed him so well that, as an adult, he could answer the Riddle of the Sphinx.

For the next 75 Father's Days, perhaps we could talk about a Polybus Complex when we talk about fathers and sons. We could define it as describing the immense love and occasionally ambivalent feelings that even the best fathers and sons feel for each other. The Polybus Complex would be about fealty, forgiveness and the willingness of imperfect people to move on together in life.

Isn’t that what want to celebrate on Father's Day, anyway?


 

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By day Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist, contributing to Scientific American, Discover, and Vermont Public Radio, for starters. By night she is a novelist and humorist. Hysterical: Anna Freud's Story (She Writes Press 2014) is the fact-based, fictional autobiography of Sigmund Freud's smartest daughter. 

Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist and broadcast commentator with Vermont Public Radio. 

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