Posts Tagged ‘oedipus’

The first thing to understand about this book is that D. H. Lawrence had no more credentials in this area than I have, and that his grasp of science is not always firm. I’m not sure if anyone has ever taken this book seriously, except as a window into Lawrence’s theory of people, a making-explicit of the ideas he implies in his novels.

Please. Please, do not read this book as containing absolute scientific fact or good advice about interhuman relationships. In this regard, much of it is shocking and horrible.

So. In 1921, after those horrible experiences he had during World War I, after all the difficulty of finding a publisher for Women in Love, Lawrence writes this little fifty-page book about psychoanalysis, presenting an alternate theory for those who are skeptical of the Oedipus complex. In Lawrence’s construction of the identity, the first center is the solar plexus, where the umbilical cord connects us to our food supply. This is where all those “gut instincts” come from. Our experience of the self at this point is one of unity with our environment. The second center becomes active when the child starts to kick and arch her back, which Lawrence associates with a bundle of nerves called the lumbar ganglion. She is asserting her independence, her separateness from the environment. In some ways these two urges are mirror images of each other – being at one with everything, being one apart from everything. Lawrence also calls these subjective poles, because they deal with how we experience ourselves.

The third center develops in the heart region, the cardiac plexus. The child sees its mother and realizes that she is not the self; the child starts to experience a more objective world where there is more than Me and Not-Me. The Not-Me starts to differentiate; the mother is an object in the world, not the entire world. As with the solar plexus, the cardiac plexus draws the child toward what is outside herself, this time in love. Solar plexus and cardiac plexus are called the sympathetic centers because they draw us into the world around us. There’s also a corresponding thoracic ganglion, a pulling-away where the child sees the world not in terms of love, but in curiosity, an emotionally indifferent state of scientific observation. The two ganglia are the voluntary centers; they pull the identity into the self and establish differences. These four poles constitute the child’s subconscious mind. Ideally, energy should move freely between them, subjective and objective, sympathetic and voluntary. The first book only goes this far, though it does imply that these four are part of a system of seven chakras. The chakra-system gets dropped in the second book; he never even mentions it again.

So. In 1922, people had responded to Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, and the response was mostly negative. Critics found his ideas too esoteric, too little grounded in observed reality. Lawrence replies by writing it all again, expanded, with more explanation. He also occasionally uses language that is far more colloquial than I’ve ever seen him use, before or since. The beginning is with the idea of conception. Yes, we all start off as the union of a sperm and an egg, but he says there’s a third something there as well, which he compares to the Holy Spirit of the Christian trinity. Each of us is more than simply a combination of traits from our parents; there’s a part of our identity that is only us. This bit of uniqueness is what people talk about when they use the word soul. From there he talks about those four poles of the childhood subconscious again.

But none of us stays in childhood forever. If we live long enough, we go through puberty and develop additional poles. The first Lawrence calls the hypogastric plexus, I suppose so that he doesn’t have to call it genital or pubic or anything too obvious. This is the sympathetic center that draws us toward other people in sexual desire. There’s also the sacral ganglion that draws us away; the interplay between these two centers of consciousness explains why sex involves a rhythm of toward and away from the partner. In discussing sex, Lawrence is extremely conservative in this book, with essentialist constructs of gender and heteronormative, misogynistic views of gender roles. Homosexuality and androgyny do not exist in the schema he creates. A man and a woman represent opposite energies that attract like the positive and negative poles of a magnet, and while a man may be attracted to more than one woman, he thinks a woman is only ever attracted to one man. He treats his cultural narrative as biologically predestined.

Puberty also activates upper centers of consciousness in the neck and throat, but those get kind of glossed over. The schema demands symmetry so we get it, even if he doesn’t really have a lot of evidence to support it. This symmetry explains the abandoning of the seven chakra system; Lawrence needs eight points.

And then there’s the head. The head is full of ideas and ideals, which as the source of mechanism, automatism, and industrialization are largely anathema. Lawrence claims that only a few elite people need ideas and ideals, and that society would work better if the mass of humanity were uneducated. For him, children should spend their time learning how to live healthily from their unconscious centers instead of learning how to read, write, and do basic arithmetic. He thinks that giving children ideas too soon will overbalance their personalities – the problem with the world of his day is that people live too much in their heads and not enough from all the rest of it.

Speaking of horrifying educational theories, Lawrence encourages domestic violence, as long as the violence is sincere. He thinks a man should beat his wife and children, so long as he is honestly angry. I cannot agree with him. In my experience, this type of violence creates fear and subservience. It’s the most effective way to stunt the psychological growth of the wife and children. The home becomes a place where every choice is made to placate one person at the expense of all the others. As a child, I ended up obsessing over the consequences of my behavior on other people’s emotions, but at the same time I was expected never to let their behavior affect me. If other people were angry, it was my fault, and if I was angry, it was still my fault. It’s taken my entire adult life to embrace the fact that my childhood makes me incredibly angry, and that the problem is with other people and not with me. I’m sure that eventually I will get over it, but right now I’m enjoying the fact that it’s okay to be angry. The fact that it’s okay to forgive will come later.

Lawrence has some thoughts on what creates the Oedipal complex, though he doesn’t call it that, and it does fit into his system. He says that the problem comes from leaving the children too much with adults. Parents have developed that higher form of loving from whatever plexus is associated with the pituitary gland, and so they extend the adult form of love and expect the same in response, when the child isn’t ready for it. We’re not talking about sex here; love in children is generally straightforward, while love in adults is all complicated and mixed up with other feelings. Introducing children to the complexity of adult love prematurely activates the throat plexus, which in turn prematurely activates the genital poles as well. There’s a graphic representation of this in Sons and Lovers, where the mother is disappointed in her husband and sinks all of her love energy into her child, only to have him pull away and start experimenting with girls before marriage. Let kids love as they should, as they are ready to, and things will turn out healthier.

From here, the rubbish gets rubbisher. He has an earth-centric idea of the cosmos; the sun and moon are actually created and sustained by life on earth. Our energy feeds them, and when we die, our energy rises and is absorbed by one or the other. Drifting back to the whole essentialist gender thing, he thinks that men are affected by the sun, so our energies rise from the lower poles to the upper, while women are affected by the moon, so their energies sink from the upper poles to the lower. As such, men need some kind of greater purpose to be real men, while women need to have their physical needs met to be real women. The misogyny gets really intense here. For Lawrence, the act of sex is the ultimate goal of women, because it happens under the moon (I like it during the day too, which must be proof that I’m not female). But for men, pursuing sex as the ultimate good leads to enervation and a waste of life. Men have to work, because that happens under the sun (because no real man works at night). Men have to give their lives to some greater ideal, like Progress or Jesus or Science or Society or Art or Empire or whatever. It’s a tricky thing, keeping the ideal in mind while living from the unconscious as well, maintaining a 51/49 balance between them, working during the day (time of man) and eating and fucking at night (time of woman). I guess it would be easier if days and nights were of equal length.

And, I ask you, what good will psychoanalysis do you in this state of affairs? Introduce an extra sex-motive to excite you for a bit and make you feel how thrillingly immoral things really are. And then – it all goes flat again. Father complex, mother complex, incest dreams: pah, when we’ve had the little excitement out of them we shall forget them as we have forgotten so many other catch-words. And we shall be just where we were before: unless we are worse, with more sex in the head, and more introversion, only more brazen.

Yes, even being an introvert is a problem for Lawrence. He sees it as living too much in the head, ideas having taken the place of physical necessities. Or in other words, he doesn’t really understand what it means to be an introvert. It means that I get my energy from the voluntary centers, from pulling away from others and being alone. Yes, intellectual endeavors are important to me, but that’s not what introversion is really about. I suppose he’d see introversion as feminine, because he sees women’s fulfillment in the isolation of the home. He says that men have to belong to a body of men fighting for a common cause, which sounds like rubbish to me. More specifically, it sounds like a sublimation of homosexual desire; he doesn’t think he wants the man, he wants to be a part of the cause the man is fighting for. There’s nothing wrong with preferring the company of one’s own sex, sexually or otherwise – as long as equal respect is afforded the other genders, such a preference requires no justification. But the idea that extraversion is a requirement for masculinity is stupid. It even seems to contradict his main point, that we should all hold our own souls/selves apart and in peace, which seems like a terribly introverted goal to me.

This book presents an interesting theory of the unconscious and its relation to the body, but that theory is extended to terrible places and misapplied in horrible ways. Misogyny, homophobia, classism, and even anti-Semitism. Lawrence throws shade at Einstein for being Jewish, and the man who can do that has a level of ethnocentric elitism that makes me deeply uncomfortable. Part of me wants to say that Lawrence is a product of his time and place, and that it’s unfair of me to expect him to rise above his cultural milieu. But I’ve seen his characters and read his stories, so another part of me wonders if he really believes all this as much as he says he does. In his fiction, he actually does a good job of demonstrating how destructive these attitudes are toward women, and how undeveloped and unhappy they can be when they’re expected to restrict their attention to the home. But that’s not here. There is so much to resist in the reading of this book, so much that seems contradictory and is offensive. I kind of wonder how Lawrence was doing, whether he wouldn’t like a hug and a cup of tea to give him a more positive view of the world.

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As an undergraduate, I found writing feminist literary criticism to be incredibly simple. You begin with the assumption that somewhere in this text, a man is oppressing a woman, and then you look for the evidence to support that fact. There’s always evidence. I think I would have been a better thinker if I had trained myself to examine the text for what’s there before imposing my narrative on it, but I was more concerned with reading than with writing intelligently. I’m not saying that every feminist literary critic did that, but I know that I sure did. Whenever you start with a narrative and then impose it on the world, you really will find evidence to support your narrative. It’s called confirmation bias.

Martin Grotjahn was a Freudian psychoanalyst in the 1950s. Freud applied a narrative to human development, and his followers kept telling the same story over and over again, as if all human beings were the same. Boys (the significant gender) are born and derive nourishment from their mothers. Their fathers intervene at some point and the boys are weaned. This creates hostility between the child and his father and strengthens the boy’s desire for his mother, while at the same time also creating hostility for the mother as well. The mother is simultaneously loved and hated, while the father is merely hated. As the child grows, all desire is merged with the desire for the mother, so when we call someone a mother fucker we’re merely saying that he’s accomplished what we all want to do. In the mind of the growing child, all authority is merged with the father, whether religious, political, or professional. We men rebel against authority in order to kill the father (symbolically) and thus enjoy the satisfaction of our desires, permanent access to our mothers’ breasts. They call this narrative the Oedipal complex, because of that Greek myth where the guy accidentally killed his father and married his mother.

How is this related to humor? I’m glad you asked. As you can tell from their story, we all hate everyone all the time, but we can’t all live in isolated cells, so we mask our hostility in wordplay and veil our insults in wit. Jokes are a disguised form of aggression. We laugh because of the frisson between the hostility and the playful disguise. Sometimes the hostility is itself a mask for attraction (see above for why we hate and love the same person), as in the cases of Beatrice and Benedick, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Britta Perry and Jeff Winger. The quality of the disguise determines the quality of the humor.

Grotjahn does acknowledge that this style of wit is masculine in our culture, and that women can joke without hating each other – cross reference that to Deborah Tannen’s comments on gendered forms of workplace communication – but women are different to men. According to the Freudians, men are afraid not only that their fathers are going to make them starve to death, but that their fathers are going to cut their penises and/or testicles off. A girl looks down at herself, sees that she has no penis or testicles, and assumes that the worst thing that could happen to her has already happened, so there’s no use fussing about it. The Freudian woman can thus accept the world as a terrible place where incredible violence is being done to women without complaining. I think that Freud followed this interpretation by shouting, “Bitch, make me a pie!” Seriously? Grotjahn doesn’t see women as rebelling?

I find it unfortunate that our ancestors didn’t think to define ‘man’ as ‘a human being lacking a vagina.’ I don’t have one, but society doesn’t see that lack as anything to be lamented. Why is penis the default? According to Grotjahn, men are seriously envious of women’s ability to bear children. Creativity comes from the uterus, which means that as men we can only embody destructive impulses. As I said, we hate everyone and everything. Men who create art are really only expressing their jealousy that we can’t get pregnant. Grotjahn takes some time here to make sure we understand the difference between art and entertainment: art helps us to deal with our hostilities in a disguised fashion, while entertainment only distracts us from our hostilities. With this simple formula, it should be easy to confront your video collection and divide them into movies that are art and movies that are entertainment. Try it; you’ll see how easy it is.

A complication of the Oedipal narrative is ‘the primal scene,’ meaning that at some point every boy watches his parents having sex. I never did, but that’s probably because I’m not European (we all know that Freud was Austrian, and with a name like Grotjahn, he has to be Dutch). The mother’s cries are interpreted as pain rather than pleasure, so the child believes the mother is being attacked or killed. This is yet another reason not to use the missionary position. The child believes that the father is murdering the mother at night, but then she’s awake and happy in the morning, which is incomprehensible (see Hitchcock’s Vertigo). Every crime, every mystery, every murder is a return to the primal scene. Murder mysteries and westerns are apparently our attempts to understand the fact that fathers fuck mothers, which sort of explains rape culture as well. If little boys see consensual sex and confuse it with rape, then of course they’ll stay confused about the importance of consent unless someone talks to them about it. In the United States, parents seem to have decided that talking about sex with their children is too uncomfortable, so every group of teenagers has to reinvent the wheel, making the same mistakes and committing the same crimes over and over again.

What’s that you say? You know a man whose life and psyche don’t fit this narrative? Well, he’s probably gay. Homosexuality gives the Freudians an out, a reason for data points that don’t conform to their line. Grotjahn says that gay men are helpless in the face of their own perversion, so they shouldn’t be discriminated against. It sounds sort of advanced for the 1950s, but in today’s terms it’s not. This is why I don’t get excited about Pope Francis arguing that discrimination is bad – he still thinks we’re freaks, his church still teaches that we need to stay celibate or burn in hell, he just thinks it’s important to love the hellbound aberrations. For the Freudian, gay men are as incomprehensible as women.

Okay, so how much of this shit do I actually believe? Not a whole lot. I think of children as pre-sexual, so I don’t think infants are having Oedipal fantasies of mother fucking. I can agree that a lot of wit is inspired by hostility, whether directed at the self or others, but I don’t think that’s the only source of humor or enjoyment. If there’s a song that I like, not because it helps me deal with my deep-seated issues but because I like the melody, does that mean it isn’t art? Of course not. Psychology and psychiatry, as professions, have moved beyond Freud. His ideas started the modern form of these professions, but now we also think of Freud as someone with a screwy childhood who became famous by trying to convince women they weren’t being raped by their fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, or cousins. Freudianism explains male objectification of women, but doesn’t fight against the objectification. It treats objectification as the normal state of things, as if it’s natural to see the penis as the source of all power in the universe.

Obviously I have many problems with Freud’s theories, and Grotjahn’s book reminds me of most of them. For students of Freud, this is a great introduction to his ideas. Grotjahn was writing for a general audience, so the style is very approachable and he seldom uses phrases like ‘penis envy.’ And, he’s analyzing jokes, and humor makes everything better. He does spend a lot of time talking about Jewish jokes, which can seem a little racist – frankly, every minority I know of tells self-deprecatory jokes that highlight society’s injustices toward them, so singling out Jews is a little weird to me. I guess this is the minority community he had the most access to. So, this book is interesting, dated in offensive ways, and not to be read uncritically. For instance, have you considered the fact that the God of the Bible does not laugh, and have you wondered why that is? Might explain why so many conservative Christians have a hard time with humor. After all, people in the Bible who laugh are generally punished for it. Now, measure that statement against your own experience and beliefs. You’re saying that there are people who believe that someone created a duck-billed platypus without laughing during the process?

Platypus mothers have little channels built into their bodies. They lie back and excrete their milk into the channels and the babies lap it up, because you can’t nurse with a duck bill. Tell me, Freud, what do you make of that?

John Franklin Bardin wrote mystery novels in the 1940s and ’50s. If The Last of Philip Banter is any indication, he wrote very good mystery novels. One of the nice things about Banter is the way that Bardin breaks with tradition; the murder comes at the end instead of the beginning. The primary mystery is something quite different.

The first few pages feel like we’ve dropped in on Mad Men: Philip Banter is a womanizing alcoholic advertising executive in 1945. All the office girls are susceptible to his charms except his own secretary, Miss Grey, who is in love with Tom, a guy in a different department who wants Philip’s job. However, today, when Philip gets to his office, he finds a manuscript titled Confession that he himself seems to have signed. It recounts events that are meant to happen tonight. Philip is a little freaked by finding an apparently time-traveling confession, or a prediction written in the past tense, or whatever this thing is. He’s especially derailed by this because he’s been getting blackout drunk (and hearing voices) with increasing frequency, so he can’t actually remember what he did last night. He really could have written this thing himself.

That night, Philip and his wife Dorothy host their old friend Jeremy and his new girl Brent. The confession predicts this, but it represents him suavely seducing Brent, which in reality becomes a complete failure. Philip is probably thrown off a bit by having seen Dorothy and Jeremy making out; he can philander all he wants, but this is her first minor infidelity, and he’s really uncomfortable with the idea that she could treat him the way that he treats her.

On Day Two there’s another installment of the confession, predicting Dorothy breaking up with Philip over lunch. So of course he doesn’t meet her. She does run off with Jeremy for a little bit, but it’s unsatisfactory for both of them.

It was very inappropriate, too, they both realized, for what they were doing in actuality was endeavoring to escape the cage of the present by admiring and reconstructing the bars that had made the cages of the past.

Even though they had both spent the entire length of Dorothy’s marriage to Philip wondering what would have happened if she had married Jeremy instead, that moment has passed. They’re in love with other people now, and not even running off together for averagely-good sex can help them live up to/live out their what-if fantasies.

The detective in all this is a psychiatrist friend of Philip’s. He doesn’t figure out what’s going on until after someone dies, and he never figures out the creepily Oedipal thing going on with Dorothy and her father, but at least he admits

Even psychiatrists sometimes make mistakes.

which is an impressive confession for a fictonal psychiatrist, I think. I don’t know enough of the real ones to say whether they fit the I-am-the-voice-of-God stereotype.

The psychiatrist gives the author the opportunity to talk explicitly about the main emotional drive of the novel: inadequacy. As in his conversation with Philip:

The young boy who has never experienced sex and the old man who doubts that he will ever experience it again share common feelings of guilt and inadequacy. They both spend an inordinate amount of time daydreaming about exploits they don’t have the courage or opportunity to make real. Sometimes this happens to a man in his maturity, and then his fears are often false. They are only symptomatic of a deeper wound, a hidden conflict. Some men never get over adolescent feelings of inadequacy and guilt, and with such men, every time they have a new relation it is a fresh trial of their ever-doubted prowess – you might call them sexual athletes since they are always trying to break their own records. These men often become psychically impotent prematurely. They day-dream compulsively – you do it on paper! – about imagined triumphs and then force themselves to make them real.

I don’t know if I feel guilt exactly, but I spend most of my life convinced of my own inadequacy. Being a teacher tends to feed these feelings. No matter what I do, my students are never going to speak or write perfectly. Teaching is like seeing a leak in a dam that prevents your hometown from flooding. You stick your finger in the hole. Then there’s another one, so you stick another finger there. If the leaks are close enough, you may be able to reach a third. Then you look around and realize that all your neighbors are sticking their fingers in leaks too. We know that someone needs to repave the dam, and sometimes we get very angry about that. But we just keep sticking fingers in the holes and wait for someone else to fix the systemic problems. There’s never any question of success; we just try to fail the least. Most of the time I think I’m good at what I do, but I’m never free of the uncertainty. Educational supervisors tend to work on the assumption that if nothing’s wrong, they don’t need to say anything, so in most teaching situations I’ve tended to feel isolated and underappreciated. The job where I have felt the best about my work was at The Home Depot. I worked in freight, so there was some paperwork in receiving and some forklift operating and a lot of taking things out of boxes and putting them on shelves; it satisfied the same need for order that tempts me toward library work. But my supervisor worked with me for a night every few weeks, and he always told me I did a good job, and every night he thanked the entire team for the work we did. I know that many people (like Deborah Tannen) say that women are better at giving praise, but in my workplaces I’ve found that not to be the case.

OccMan, you’re drifting. Bardin wasn’t writing about professional inadequacy; it’s pretty clear that he meant sexual inadequacy. Yes that’s true, but I don’t believe the two are so easily separable. Those people who have a proven record of romantic success tend to have the confidence and ambition necessary to succeed professionally; they’re used to a world that says Yes to them, so they go after everything they want in whichever area of life that might be. That’s why so few ugly people become rich. Then there are people like me, who have been taught their whole lives that they can’t have anything worth having, so it’s hard for me to try hard to get either a good job or a good boyfriend, because deep down I don’t think I deserve one or the other. Failure in one area of life leads to failure in the others because I feel Failure like a label printed on my skin.

Philip Banter is a good representative of this idea. He’s married to a woman he cares about, but has a number of one-night stands on the side. It looks like he has success, but he’s a shit husband, and he sees the hookups as failures rather than conquests. He’s looking for a feeling of strength, power, desirableness, puissance, but he only ends up feeling guilty, so he drinks until he can’t remember, his hands start shaking, and he has periodic blackouts. His job is similar: he has a great job as an ad writer, but he doesn’t put in the work to be good at it. He writes terrible repetitive copy, losing client after client, until his boss/father-in-law fires him and tells his wife to divorce him. There are a number of episodes of the Twilight Zone that fit this schema as well (including all of those featuring bachelors who fail at business).

One of the striking things about this novel is the structure. I don’t mean that it’s divided into three installments, one for each section of the predictive confession (which are also days); I mean the precise moment that the last chapter ends and the epilogue begins. You’re familiar with the final scene from Dashiell Hammett pictures: Nick Charles or Sam Spade gathers all the suspects and victims into one room, goes on explaining how each of them could have done it, dismissing each suspect in turn until someone does something stupid, like confessing. In the last chapter, Philip has everyone gathered in like fashion, he starts his detective monologue, but then he gets interrupted, he runs out, and someone kills him (not a spoiler; read the title again). The book proper ends with Philip’s death, and the audience still doesn’t know who the killer is. While most detective novels are about the successful search for the truth, Banter reminds us how inadequate we are to discover it. Even the psychiatrist can’t figure it out in time to save his friend’s life. Nothing gets wrapped up until the epilogue, when we have to repeat the detective monologue scene, getting it a little more right this time. Bardin hits us with it again in the last line of the book:

But there was nothing he could do about that . . .

Ending on the ellipsis, as if even the writer, who stands in the place of God, can’t bring about a satisfactory conclusion. There’s nothing the characters can do to right some of the wrongs of the world. Lives have been ended, others destroyed, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. In the end, in some way, we are all inadequate.