Jocasta's Riddle: How psychotherapy requires self-inquiry as tragic reflection
by Cliff Bostock
That the comic perspective has made life's difficulty tolerable for me
- even saved my life when I fell into serious depressions - is irrefutable
in my own story. As a therapist, though, I have had enormous difficulty
communicating this perspective to my clients, even those whose fundamental
style is comedic. The religious gay man obsessed with apocalyptic punishments
for his sexual orientation rages at me that I don't take him seriously
after he reads Flannery O'Connor, as I've suggested. Why, I have wondered
repeatedly, do clients prefer to see themselves as Hamlet?
Reading Sophocles' three Theban plays has helped answered that question
for me. The story of Oedipus is that of a man obsessed to know the facts
of his past - exactly the project of psychotherapy. Oedipus is the foundational
myth of psychoanalysis, the myth into which anyone who practices or employs
psychotherapy steps. (Arguably, our entire culture has stepped into this
myth and is now struggling to step out of it.)
As James Hillman (1991) has repeatedly noted, even if we discount Freud's particular reading of the myth in his postulation of the Oedipus Complex, we are left with certain structural parallels between the action of the Theban plays and Freud's method. These parallels amount to a tragic movement. (I here view all psychotherapy, because it reduces experience to unseen causes of childhood, as fundamentally psychoanalytical, "neo-Oedipal.") To enter therapy, then, is necessarily to enter a tragic self-reflection, a reduction of experience to historical causes, even if one has migrated from a world of principally comedic perspective.
In the following I will summarize some of the parallels of the tragic perspective and psychotherapy, within the foundational context of Oedipus Rex, calling especially on Hillman. But I am most curious to explore what I think Hillman (and Freud!) most ignore: Jocasta's admonition to Oedipus, shared with Creon, to stop questioning his origins, to not step into tragic self-reflection
He then goes on to make the argument that the continuing resonance of
Sophocles' rendering of the Oedipus myth for the modern mind is not in
an interpretation relevant to a theme of destiny that requires man to
subjugate his will to divine forces. (For Freud, of course, religion was
dead.) Instead, he argues, the play awakens memory of the fundamental
drama of childhood: falling in love with the mother, wishing the father
dead and reconciling these wishes. He writes that these wishes recur in
He further argues, by a reduction, that Sophocles' tragedy is the narrative
of "primaeval dream material" because Jocasta remarks (line
Many a man before you in his dreams has shared his
It is not my purpose here to examine the validity of the Oedipus Complex
. I believe it is fundamentally wrong. Like Bachelard (p. 19), I think
any image whose "wings are clipped" and concretized as a fixed
symbol has lots its own truth to an unconscious human motive, including
Freud's. I want to concentrate on the fact that Freud has brought us an
interpretation of the play and myth that profoundly suits his personal
psychological conflicts but on a particular historical stage, the turn
of the century, that bears keen resemblances to the thinking and conditions
of Sophocles' time.
Freud's own mother complex has been well documented and, as Christine
Downing quotes him, Freud himself observed that biographers "are
fixated on their subjects in a quite special way
.They have chosen
because - for reasons of their personal emotional life
- they have felt a special affection for him from the very first"
In a move similar to Freud's, I submit that his identification with Oedipus
pertains as much to the character's reductive hubris, his scientism, as
to the complex. Hillman (1983) seems to miss this point himself in his
citation of the famous 1934 interview with Papini in which Freud called
himself an artist and then, with astonishing inflation (and arguable lack
of truth) says: "
no one proposes like me to translate the inspirations
offered by the currents of modern literature into scientific theories.
In psychoanalysis you may find fused together
the three greatest
literary schools of the nineteenth century: Heine, Zola and Mallarme are
united in me under the patronage of my old master, Goethe" (p. 3).
Nearly all of Freud's psychobiographies, like Leonardo, are of men who
attempted to bring science and art together. While concerns like successful
repression of homoerotic feelings in da Vinci are the ostensible reason
for these studies, can it not be just as true that his agenda was to support
his own identification with the effort to bring art under the reductive
analysis of science, to reduce the creative impulse to personal causes?
Sophocles, remember, lived at the intellectual zenith of the fifth-century
and, Fagle notes, Oedipus Rex is filled with mathematical language (p.
142) that, I would argue, reinforces the reductive path Oedipus takes
in undertaking to disclose the causes of his city's suffering. Thus Sophocles
was, in his play, an artistic form, examining the reductive method. Oedipus,
like Freud, is utterly convinced of the necessity of this move to the
reductive when he answers Jocasta, after she has left to kill herself:
"That is my blood, my nature-I will never betray it, never fail to
search and learn my birth!" (p. 224).
The tragedies, like Freud's method, also distance themselves from religion.
Roland Barthes (pp. 63-87) has observed that Greek tragedy was actually
performed in a liminal space situated squarely amid the evolving conflict
between religion and philosophy of the time, between destiny and reason,
the struggle between the polis-mind and the evolving individual ego. Its
performance was literally in the stage's threshold spaces (like, metaphorically,
the meeting of the three roads in Oedipus).
While tragedies were performed as part of the Dionysian festivals, they
were not under the direct sponsorship of the Dionysian cults. Although
regarded as the highest form of theater at the time, the tragedies were
considered quite apart from their antecedents: the more religious dithyramb,
satyr play and comedy. They employed myth but stood outside religious
observance. "Nothing, in tragedy," writes Barthes, can derive
from dionysiac irrationality" (p. 73).
It is fascinating to imagine what the three Theban tragedies, particulary
in their many episodes of violence, may be saying about the occasion of
their presentation - the Dionysian festivals, which celebrated dismemberment
and the irrational. The continual images of dismemberment that describe
the fate of Polynices' corpse in Antigone may well be a direct commentary
on the Dionysian.
The corpse is kept outside the walls of the city to be dismembered by
wild animals, just as Dionysos, whose followers dismember animals, is
kept outside except during the three annual festivals. How is it that
Creon assures the corpse's (Dionysian) dismemberment by refusing its burial
and then reverses himself on the basis of an oracular (Apollonian) curse?
Likewise, Antigone defies him and engages in a symbolic act of burial
(on behalf of Dionysos or Hades) but then, in a peculiar twist of the
plot, reverses herself and makes it clear that her motivations are personal.
She is entombed alive and hangs herself, her lover killing himself in
a conflation of (Freudian-like) eros and thantaos in the womb/tomb. "O
tomb, my bridal-bed!" she cries, on her way to death. (p. 105). Creon
metaphorically suffers the punishment to which he has condemned her: living
Obviously, it is the action of the individuals, the choices they make,
that moves the play forward, not the intervention of the gods. Creon and
Antigone both lay dogmatic claim to representing the gods and both reverse
themselves and thus, Sophocles must be telling us, we cannot know, really,
what the gods stand for. These reversals occur throughout the plays. The
gods, as Freud argued, not only must be crazy. They don't exist as other
than wishes. "The guilt is all mine!" Creon declares (p. 126.)
It is a shame that Freud did not comment on Antigone. But we may surmise
that Sophocles' general appeal to Freud - and it is in Sophocles' telling
of Oedipus that he takes his inspiration - is partly their shared belief
that the gods, the unspeakable, cannot be "known" except as
projections of the individual will, symbolizations of instinctual wishes:
mythologems instead of religious realities. In the plays, and in Freud's
psychology, it is those who demand blind obedience to the morals of the
gods, as they understand them, who suffer most. This is reiterated in
the tragedies' content and structure. (The polis, through the chorus,
constantly questions individuals about the gods and this is analogous
to the analytical inquiry.) Even the staging reiterates the dubious reliability
of the gods. The tragedies were civic productions related to but not under
the auspices of a religious cult.
Freud's identification with Sophocles and his tragic heroes extends, therefore, far beyond his theory of the Oedipus Complex. Freud came of age in the industrial revolution, when the great cities of Europe underwent the same transformations as the Greek city states: pollution, the revolution of individual consciousness, the advent of new cultural forms, the breakup of families, the ascenscion of science, the loss of religion and the coming of apocalyptic-scale world wars. The heroes of Sophocles plays, in short, became Freud's patients.
His burial near Athens, has the same effect as his skill at answering
riddles: the city is protected. But this is not Thebes. His choice to
be buried here returns Thebes to its suffering, undoing the very purpose
of his exile, to end its suffering. His sons and daughters then meet terrible
death. And they, like him, have explained their impending deaths in terms
of their origins. Antigone, opens with the heroine declaiming: "How
many griefs our father Oedipus handed down!" (p. 59). Then she just
as quickly, blames the gods: "Do you know one, I ask you, one grief
that Zeus will not perfect for the two of us
I summarize the plot because it reveals a dark assertion: the inquiry,
the discovery, does not break the curse of one's origins or the demand
to know (and blame) them. Sophocles, like Freud, therefore envisions this
questioning, this tragic style, as inevitable, fundamental to the psyche.(Hillman
half agrees.) Freud, of course, argued repeatedly that melancholy was
a reasonable response to life because of the inevitability of death and
the wish for it. The meaningful end of life is coming to an erotic relationship
with death in Freud's view (Downing, pp. 281-284). That is why the end
of Colonus must have appealed to him. Amid his rage and love, Oedipus
goes happily to his death in the arms of his daughters' love, having blessed
a surrogate son, Theseus. Antigone, likewise, goes to death willingly,
despite her rage and confused reversals, calling her tomb her bridal bed.
Hillman (1991) imagines the closing scenes of Colonus as movement into
anima, embodied soul. As Oedipus speaks against the oracle at last and
calls for his daughters' touch, he is beckoned to the underworld. He confers
the blessing of his dying body upon the younger Theseus - a homoerotic
and Pieta-like act of love, we are told by Hillman, that he cannot commit
with his sons but which nonetheless reverses the experience with his own
father, Laius, who abandoned him for death. (Freud might call this the
necessary erotic submission between father and son without fear of castration.)
Hillman ultimately calls Colonus a movement from Freud to Jung, from the
city's personalistic preoccupations and enslavement under Apollo to the
Dionysian landscape of numinous soul (1991, p. 9-3).
Perhaps, but I think it is important to notice something in the landscape
that Hillman does not take into adequate account in his rather sentimental
rush to "Jungianize" the conclusion. Oedipus, in Colonus arrives
at the grove of the Eumenides. The Eumenides, are the transformed aspect
of the Furies. Hillman sees this as a statement of the peace which is
descending on Oedipus as, it appears, he is transformed into an archetype
of the Wise Old Man.
But, according to Ginette Paris (1995) the Furies were not transformed
into the Eumenides by submission or forgiveness. Indeed, they were transformed
only after one had exacted revenge (particularly when there had been an
offense of blood ties). That is precisely what Oedpius is doing in Colonus,
for all the flowery, lush language of "golden crocuses" and
such. His choice to die there insures the death of his sons and the suffering
of Thebes, despite his twice saving it. Dionysos, the lord of violent
dismemberment, is repeatedly invoked in the language.
So what "heals" Oedipus, if we may say he is healed? Is it
revenge or is it forgiveness? Perhaps that is what we may not know and
why we are forbidden to visit the site of Oedipus' grave, the exact way
and place he enters death. It is unthinkable to us that revenge could
heal - for that is opposed to the project of contemporary humanistic psychotherapy,
which advocates forgiveness above all. But it is certainly within the
Greek imagination to see the main healing of injuries inflicted by kin
as arising from an act of revenge. And it is into that imagination we
step when we enter therapy.
Freud himself would agree, certainly, that there is the instinct to revenge,
to kill, for this is fundamental to the complex, but he would also demand
its sublimation, even as he would just as surely state that the repression
would guarantee its return in a crisis. (Realize there are no civil punishments
exacted in the plays, although the oracle, as an institution, could be
regarded as the movement of civilization to enforce its taboos.)
Hillman makes a somewhat evasive move around this. He agrees that, yes,
Oedipus dies unchanged in some aspects of his character but he argues,
convincingly, that character is beside the point. Through the action of
the plays, he says, the soul of Oedipus has been released from the concrete
of character. This is a rather Christianized reading of a pagan death
which, we notice, occurs in an intergenerational bloodbath. There is no
redemption of the future here if we read, as Hillman does, Oedipus' progeny
as both psychic consequences and literal heirs.
So, let us return to Jocasta's admonition, which contains a riddle. What
if, Oedipus had abandoned his search or at least made it less public by
following Creon's advice to confer in private? Granted, once one steps
into the tragic perspective, one is probably doomed to play the drama
out on those terms. But if tragedy and comedy are alternative perspectives,
as they were for the Greeks and remain for us, and if character is not
the issue, why choose the tragic lens?
This question is old. Aristophanes' plays, after all, satirize Athenian
tragedy. And surely Sophocles intended some irony in his observations
on the gods. Oedipus is overripe at every moment for satire. It is easy
to imagine a parody of the blind tyrant, played by Robert Duval perhaps,
raining down bitter curses on his son as the bluebirds of the Eumenides'
peaceable kingdom, its soil freshly bloodied, flutter about him. It is
equally easy to imagine Antigone satirized as she is dragged off stage,
shrieking that she was just trying to please the gods, when moments before
she has let slip that the gods actually had nothing to do with her actions.
There is hardly a moment of existence - including death -- that cannot
be viewed comedically, so the argument that tragedy demands its own expression
as an archetypal force or instinct of thantos, as Freud alleged, is suspect.
(And if so, why should it not be sublimated?)
I return to hubris, the hubris of science, and the inflation that Freud
the scientist brought to his enterprise. Did western culture, along with
Freud, who was annointed as its priest of the psyche, instead of the more
jovial Adler, assert its preference for the tragic when it put its faith
in science and technology and existentialism? Did the tragic become our
main way of imagining our lives by the attachment of hubris to its movement?
(Or, if hubris is given with the tragic perspective, is it our refusal
to detach from the hubris, rather than the facts of suffering, that keeps
us mired in our pain?)
At every turn, even before he steps into the question of his origins,
Oedipus displays hubris - in ignoring the obvious and then, after years
of psychological self-blinding, insisting on his dedication to the oracle's
truth. Freud excuses this as an artistic device to build suspense, characterizing
it as analogous to psychoanalysis' slow approach to the truth (p. 296).
It could as well be seen as the inherent failure of the Apollonian way
of imagining, for Oedipus tells the chorus that he is driven by Apollo
in his quest to sacrifice his comfort for the truth. But the oracle's
truth does not, ultimately, make sense. It makes only rhetorical sense.
One might, for example, argue that Oedipus cannot take Jocasta's advice
because the city's health is at stake. And yet, Thebes is destined to
suffer anyway, as we learn in Colonus. Thus the oracle itself, the Apollonian
mode of thinking, is flawed, hubristic. Freud is as blind to his motivations
as Oedipus is. Psychoanlysis is as blind to its prejudices as Apollo's
oracle is to itself.
Hillman confesses the same: "As long as I am doing a psychoanalysis
of psychoanalysis, my thought is limited by the Oedipal method" (1991,
p. 7-2). Nor can he, despite a book like We've Had a Hundred Years of
Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse, imagine his way out of the
tragic, Oedipal method of inquiry. He writes critically about the way
psychoanalysis imagines itself as conferring consciousness:
This rings so true, but notice that those he exempts from the task of
the Oedipal inquiry are not comedians. They are by and large serious folks,
the initiated. The singer sings the blues, not a love ballad. The attorney
argues. The fisherman of the deeps is mentioned but not the clown. Teachers
and nurses - therapists of different sorts - are exempted from analysis
but what about the priests? Gardeners, their hands dirty with the stuff
of the underworld, are exempted but what about the scene-painters, those
literalists of the Sophoclean stage?
So, what Hillman really means is that the unexamined life is worth living,
if one's life already has the depth to which analysis wishes to lead it.
He only exempts one from the inquiry, not from the goal. He, like Freud
and Oedipus, cannot by any means climb out of the hubris of their conceptualizations.
Thus the answer to our riddle - Jocasta's riddle - is that the oracle,
the lens itself, must be smashed. Apollo must be exiled with Dionysos,
admitted to the city no more frequently. Had the oracle been abandoned,
Thebes might have ceased its hysteric suffering, since its suffering was
a somatic manifestation of its devotion to the oracle, which represents
the hubristic demand for truth, the monotheism within even the polytheistic
perspective. Still, Oedipus would have moved toward the fate of all men,
Likewise, Freud must be exiled to the place of his brothers, like Goethe,
men who sought and failed to bring the artistic spirit under the reduction
of science, who tried to set spirit, which by definition is lightness,
aside. He is not a villain. He saw the mythical radiance of the family
but then clipped the wings of his visions, rendering the imagined mother
and father, imobile symbols - like the figures in his dreams that always
have the same, nearly mathematically precise meanings.
Art must be rescued from Freud and invited back into the city on its own terms. Images, as Gaston Bachelard suggested, must be given back their wings so they can choose their own direction toward Apollo or Dionysos (p. 19). Healing must be returned to poets.
Barthes, Roland (1985). The Responsibility of Forms. Berkely:
The University of California Press.
Fagle, Robert (1984). Introduction to Antigone, Introduction to Oedipus the King, Introduction to Oedipus at Colonus. In The Three Theban Plays. New York: Penguin.
Freud, Sigmund (1965). The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Avon.
Hillman, James (1983). Healing Fiction. Dallas: Spring Publications.
Hillman, James (1991). Oedipus Revisited. In Oedpus Variations. Woodstock: Spring Publications. (Material cited here is from a reprinting of the essay on the World Wide Web: http://home.netinc.ca/~wallaceb/Hillman.htm. Page numbers therefore refer to web pages within sections. 7-2 means, for example, section 7, page 2. I will replace these with book page numbers in the future.)
Hillman, James & Ventura, Michael (1992). We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse. New York:HarperCollins.
Paris, Ginette (1995). Longer Lives. An audio presentation during a conference, Midlife and Beyond. Pacfica Graduate Institute, April 8-9, 1995.
Sophocles (1984). The Three Theban Plays. Trans. Robert Fagles.
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