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Sigmund Freud


INFANTILE SEXUALITY AND THE OEDIPUS COMPLEX According to Freud our libido – our basic, instinctual sex drive – leads us towards a build-up of energetic excitation and a subsequent desire for release. (See Chapter 5 for more on this idea.) Freud believed that each infant begins life in a state of polymorphous perversity, loving, eroticising, wanting everything and everyone who interests it. A baby wants to put everything in its mouth, to make everything outside itself a part of itself and its immediate world. The youngest children do not distinguish between the outside world and the boundaries of their own bodies. For the child, becoming aware of oneself as a separate individual is a process of learning to detach an understanding of an interior self from the outer circumstances the world provides. Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth (1770–1850) have also explored this early development of a sense of self, first in an imagined harmony with a maternal body, then forced to separate off into a potentially hostile world. In his long autobiographical poem of 1805, The Prelude, Wordsworth describes the happy infant at the mother’s breast: ‘No outcast he, bewilder’d and depress’d;/Along his infant veins are interfus’d/The gravitation and the filial bond/Of nature, that connect him with the world’ (Wordsworth 1970:27). As we discussed in the last chapter, Freud’s theory of dreams suggested that dreams fulfilled unconscious (or conscious) wishes. At least in our dreams, if not in reality, we can all get what we want. As adults do in dreams, the youngest infants do in real life – they imagine that the world will satisfy their desires instantly. Freud argues that the youngest babies make no distinction between having a desire and fulfilling it – this sort of distinction is something which must be learned. The child at the breast is the best example of this. Until the child finds himself hungry or alone – suddenly not having all his needs met as soon as he has them – he does not conceive of himself as a being separate from the mother (or the breast), whom he sees as an extension of himself. We don’t see ourselves as separate from the outside world until the first moment the world doesn’t give us what we want. We recognise our separateness, our individuality, at the same time that we discover that our desires aren’t always met – that we are beings who can lack something. At the moment we realise that the world around us doesn’t always respond to our wishes, we express ourselves by crying out and trying to signal our desires. We learn how to communicate in order to let the world know that something is missing from our lives, that we need more than we are getting. This moment, which combines the onset of the baby’s need to communicate and its sense of a loss of plenitude or oneness with the world, is associated with those early important relations to the parents, who are the first suppliers and withholders of the baby’s demands, and the baby’s first audience. Freud postulated that one of the primary wishes of early childhood is to be the centre of attention and love from the parents. We can picture this by looking at what Freud imagines happening with the happy, satisfied child nursing at the breast. Sucking at the breast is the first form of infantile erotic satisfaction that Freud identifies. Nursing, of course, is initially for nourishment, for the sake of self-preservation. But one of the key moves that psychoanalysis identifies is from the self-preservative instincts to the pleasure principle (see definition, pp. 82– 3), the idea that the primary aim of life is to get as much pleasure as possible: ‘The baby’s obstinate persistence in sucking gives evidence at an early stage of a need for satisfaction which, though it originates from and is instigated by the taking of nourishment, nevertheless strives to obtain pleasure independently of nourishment and for that reason may and should be termed sexual’ (Freud 1938:385). The child will keep sucking even after all the milk is gone – perhaps

the child reminds himself that he is protected and loved by the presence of the mother’s breast. But there is also, according to Freud, an element of pleasure in this scene of oral satisfaction – an excess beyond what is needed (food) to what is desired (the sensuous enjoyment of the breast). The parents always signify more than just the providers of nourishment and protection to the child – it is in this excess of meaning that what Freud calls sexuality takes hold. In a discussion of thumb-sucking Freud points out that the satisfied baby at the breast prefigures post-coital bliss: ‘No one who has seen a baby sinking back satiated from the breast and falling asleep with flushed cheeks and a blissful smile can escape the reflection that this picture persists as a prototype of the expression of sexual satisfaction in later life’ (Freud 1905b: 98). Unfortunately for the self-centred baby, parents are not exclusively focused on the child; they are also interested in each other. The infant, who has, up until the moment of this upsetting realisation, imagined him or herself the centre of the universe, suddenly finds himself relegated to a position of minor importance. The desolate child encounters a new crisis of sexual desire and jealousy that Freud names the Oedipal crisis. Taking the Greek mythical figure Oedipus as a model, Freud claims that typically the child will develop an erotic love for the parent of the opposite sex and a rivalrous hatred for the parent of the same sex who seems to monopolise the other, desired parent. Freud finds a symbolic enactment of his theories of early childhood sexual development in Sophocles’ fifth-century BC tragedy Oedipus the King. Looking at his development of the Oedipal complex can help us understand the ways in which Freud’s ideas about interpretation in analysis overlap with his theories of sexuality. Freud’s use of Oedipus is one example of a place where psychoanalytic theory develops from a sophisticated reading of a literary text. Sophocles’ Oedipus the King has often been described as the first detective story in the Western tradition. It is a play about uncovering a mystery – or, really, several mysteries. Oedipus, King of Thebes, begins the play by determining to find and eradicate the cause of the pollution in his city that is killing his crops and people. To find the source of the pollution and save the city, an oracle tells him, he must discover who killed the last king, Laius, whose murder has gone unsolved and unpunished. At the beginning of the play Oedipus appears to be an assured and powerful leader; he assumed his crown by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, the exotic, lion-headed beast which had kept Thebes under its spell. By solving the riddle of the Sphinx he freed the city from enslavement. He then married Laius’s widow, Jocasta, and became king himself. The confident Oedipus initially pictures himself as a master reader, an expert at solving puzzles; he is one who uncovers truth and leads the way to knowledge. During the course of the play Oedipus discovers that he himself is the criminal whom he seeks; he murdered Laius unknowingly in a fight before he first arrived in Thebes. But, worse, Oedipus also discovers that Laius and Jocasta were his parents, who abandoned him as a child because of a prophecy which warned them that their son would kill his father and marry his mother. Through no fault of his own Oedipus is the source of the poison in the city. It is the riddle of his own birth – his unknowing murder of his father and incestuous marriage to his mother – that has brought the gods’ curse upon his city. He is the answer for which he seeks: specifically his mysterious (murderous and incestuous) origins are what is at issue. At the end of the play Jocasta hangs herself, and Oedipus blinds himself so that he will no longer have to see the results of his incest and murder. Freud found in the myth of Oedipus a version of a tragedy that he saw as enacted in every family, although on a less dramatic scale. Oedipus, according to Freud, acted out a wish that everyone has in early childhood. In his clinical work, and, significantly, in his own self-analysis, Freud continuously found this recurring pattern – of attraction to and love for the parent of the opposite sex, and jealousy and hatred, even a death wish, towards the parent of the same sex – that

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