Our theories, at times, take on a religious fervor. Such predetermined ends generate an overdetermined concept. This “dogma eat dogma” began with Freud, who couldn’t tolerate even minor dissensions. What he wrote was final and perfect, and it could not be improved upon. The swiftness of his revenges were so well known that he didn’t even have to warn anyone of the potential calamities, should they tamper with his gospel. He could have as well repeated after the Revelations: “If anyone adds anything to this book, God will strike him with the plagues that are written in this book. If anyone takes away any words from this book, God will take away his portion of the Tree of Life and the Holy City that are described in this book.”
The best example of the theoretical monogamy that promotes overdetermined concepts is the Oedipus complex. One can say that psychoanalysis has originated and pivoted around it. The oedipal conflict, the prototype pathology, is supposed to be a nodal point in the consolidation of the superego and ego ideal. As the child identifies with the same-sex object, fear of punishment transforms into guilt, and idealization of the opposite sex transforms envy and jealousy into an ego ideal. This is the perfect patient of orthodox analysts.
In fact, if you carefully read the details of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, you’ll see that the portrait of Oedipus has great resemblance to an abused child. Arnold Cooper has noted this discrepancy in his rereading of the classic myth. He suggests that the significance of the change in point of view is made clear in the content of Sophocles’s play. He believes that Freud, contrary to his usual practice, saw the meaning of the work in its surface. He thought it was a perfect fit when he came to the conclusion that if Oedipus murdered his father and slept with his mother, then ipso facto he must have wished to do so.
Although Odysseus is the one who is known as being “the man of many turns,” polytropos, Oedipus had its own share of twists. Closer scrutiny of Oedipus reveals pertinent elements of this perfect fit that can be interpreted in many different and maybe more authentic ways. For example, Oedipus’s parents decide, because of the prediction of the gods, to kill Oedipus; his father puts a thong through his ankles and his mother, Clytemnestra, actually hands him to a shepherd to be killed. From this very early childhood scenario is garnered the crucial findings that Oedipus is an abused, abandoned, and adopted child who never, until near the end of the play, knows who his biological parents are. It is also not surprising to realize that he is a severely impulse-ridden character. For starters, he almost automatically tries to kill every older man who crosses his path ― Laius, Tiresias, the old shepherd, and Creon his uncle. Furthermore, he is unable to withhold or delay need gratification; emotion prevails over reason and he thus unthinkingly marries an older woman, despite knowing the prophecy that he would at some time sleep with his mother.
The critical point is that while Oedipus may well have had an Oedipus complex, we might better understand it in terms of his preoedipal history of abandonment and attempted infanticide. It is further revealed in its deleterious effects on his development of impulse control, capacity for object relations, self-esteem regulation, and self representation. I thus believe that the castration anxiety–related fear is mythological overshooting. I agree with Cooper, that castration anxiety is so close to consciousness because it is the least frightening, thus least repressed, of the body fears. More significantly, it represents compromise formations arising out of, as well as hiding within, the prior preemptive fears, which are of even greater threat. Thus the oedipal conflict, however potent, has preoedipal origins that are both more primitive as well as more powerful. Freud’s perfect example of psychopathology, the Oedipus complex, turns out to be not just an oedipal conflict, but also an oedipal deficit, in fact, a preoedipal deficit, warping of the childhood nucleus.
Different theories run up against the same common problems, having both assets and limitations. For example, psychodynamic psychotherapy’s introspective approach may help the depressed patient to search inward for self-understanding and sense of self as an adaptive alternative to pathological reliance on external sources of self-esteem; it may also strengthen general ego capacities needed for structural change. Yet its regressive transference can foster the very idealization and ungratified demands for love from others that often exacerbate the depressed picture per se, and may itself create inertia, or worse, despair which compounds the already depressive scenario. It is like saying, “Your situation is your misfortune.” And how real are those remembered misfortunes anyway? Did they actually occur, or are they some distorted mix of memory and fantasy? Mark Twain once said, “My life has been full of misfortunes, most of which never happened.”
In contrast, cognitive therapy allows the therapist to directly intervene in offering new logical thought patterns. Yet its aims may be too restricted, superficial, or temporary, stressing symptoms over unconscious problems of the past. It has been criticized for its critical overreliance on the patient’s impaired cognition at the expense of affect, and also further diminishing the patient in the process. John Rush tells the following anecdote: When the cognitive-behavioral therapist confronts a patient with his or her dysfunctional thoughts, the depressed patient says, “I came here because I cannot be happy, and now you are saying that I cannot think straight either!” And interpersonal therapy can target in on recent marital disputes, role transitions, social deficits, or abnormal grief reactions. But its emphasis on the socioenvironmental context and social bonds, especially the spousal role, may overlook individual deep dynamics of loss. When one or another aspect is ignored, ubiquitous claims of therapeutic success from divergent treatments for depression soon lose their potency.
Both interpersonal therapy and cognitive-behavior therapy forget that marriage is also a developmental process. Regardless of the variety of real events that may precipitate depression, interpersonal therapy seems to be seeking solutions from significant others; cognitive-behavioral therapy seeks solutions from a straight-thinking therapist; and psychoanalytic psychotherapy tends to seek solutions from within. As one observer colorfully put it, the interpersonal therapist is like a travel guide who will give lots of information about the trip; the cognitive-behavioral therapist is like a travel companion who will come along on the trip; and the analyst is like a travel agent ― he’ll point the way; he will not give lots of information and definitely will never take you there; in fact, it is quite likely that, as with most travel agents, he himself may never have been there.
One can construct facts to explain one’s theories. In fact, most therapists search patient testimonials for their autobiographical theories, rather than formulating a theory for that specific individual. Theory is a systematic sense of worldview, which interferes with creative adaptation. Many theorists have tried to loosen the therapist’s tenacious attachment to his preferred theoretical viewpoints. These have ranged from recommending an attitude of irony (R. Schafer), to demonstrating how useful not knowing can be (L. Havens), to actively advising the clinician to continuously reopen all conceptual closures (E. Schwaber). This “loosening” is also intended to encourage therapists to be more eclectic and to integrate various orientations. However, not everyone is in agreement on doing so. For example, R. Chessick notes its difficulty when he observes that: theoretical orientations are being used that directly conflict with one another and cannot be thought of as complementary because their basic premises, both their epistemological foundations…and their basic assumptions about human nature and its motivations…directly collide. This forces a radical discontinuity as we shift from channel to channel in our receiving instrument, rather than allowing us, as we would all prefer, to slide back and forth between theoretically consistent positions ― or at least complementary positions that are consistent with one another.
All theories can include completely unproven assumptions, even though they may be scientifically sound or at least plausible. They can be compelling, even persuasive, especially if they are susceptible to social support and professional sanction. The theories have a fated fragility, in that they must forever straddle an unsettled status that resides somewhere between myth and truth. Yet viewing theories as a form of credible fiction is what scientific openness entails. But “our interest is not in whether the theory is true or false, or even whether it can be tested or falsified, but rather in what difference it makes to a practitioner” (R. Michels), and ultimately, in the difference it makes for the patient. That is, the theory must be always formed, and forming, at the interface between the therapist and the patient.
Theories proliferate in order to fill gaps in knowledge. For the same reason, psychoanalysis has to be rediscovered over and over again, says J. Lacan. Science advances by the perpetual replacement of theories, in whole or in part, in the ongoing exchange of falsified premises for presumably truer ones. A scientific stance also avoids remaining on the opposite sides of the dangerous coins of reductionistic dogmatism and skeptical nihilism. Somewhere in between are a panoply of potential truths. These myriad relative and partial truths are the pearls of different size, shape, and color. Our goal as clinicians is to find how to thread them together in such a way as to make a fitting necklace for a specific individual. [It isn’t pearls that make the necklace; it’s the thread, said Gustave Flaubert.]
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T. Byram Karasu, M.D. is the author of The Psychotherapist as Healer