[This paper was originally presented at a Psychoanalytic Symposium, University of Witwatersrand as long ago as 2011.  Despite being superseded by more recent writings — particularly  “Oedipality and Oedipal Complexes Reconsidered: On the Incest Taboo as a Key to the Universality of the Human Condition”( which is to appear in the next issue of the ‘International Journal of Psychoanalysis’) — these “Brief Reflections” introduce, in what is hopefully a useful manner, the significance of each individual’s encounter with the incest taboo as generative of the human disposition toward hostility and aggression.]

I want to begin with a story.  Once upon a time, when I worked as a forester, the all-male gang of laborers, to which I was assigned, had a recurrent joke, in the form of a riddle.  What was striking about this riddle was not only the frequency with which it was told and retold, but also the fact that each time we would all roll about almost as if we had never heard it before, in a brief pandemonium of shared laughter and back-slapping.  Whatever the homoerotic undertones of this group communion, the content of the riddle addresses, I believe, the abyss in which one faces a truthfulnessthat has a profound and awesome relevance to one’s whole being-in-the-world.  The riddle is inanely simple:  Where is it that you spend nine months trying to get out of, and the rest of your life trying to get back into?


We have now had almost twelve decades of experience with a discipline — psychoanalysis — that promises a significant step in the potential for enlightenment of the human spirit.  Yet the progress of its development has been so multitudinous as to seem nowadays almost like a Tower of Babel: Sometimes spectacular in its wisdom, often sublimely idiotic.  This discipline holds the key to understanding the experiential roots of hostility in the formation of the human soul or psyche — no small matter for a species that is characterized by the oppression and exploitive abuse of one grouping against another, that has an unrelenting appetite for genocidal violence, and that will almost certainly terminate itself by ecocide.  Against these proclivities, humanity appears to have learned little from thousands of years of spiritual practice in Dharmic, Taoic, Judeo-Christian-Islamic, and other traditions.  What chance that humanity will learn from 120 years of a poetic-scientific method by which to interrogate its own soul?

I would argue: that we, as psychoanalysts, are responsible in some measure for the dismal answer to this question; that, whatever its advances, the history of psychoanalysis has embraced a series of interlinked retreats away from the raw insight of Freud’s psychology; and that we are still afraid of what psychoanalysis teaches, particularly as it relates to the roots of the hostilities that seem to be the condition of our humanity.

Here is my thesis.  Much, if not all, of the human capacity for hostility can be traced back to the various paths and processes by which we are all wrenched away from the maternal body.  In stating this so simplistically, I am of course not implying that the meaningfulness of the maternal body is unitary and uniform, or that it impacts the infant’s embodied experience in a singular or nonconflictive manner; I am not assuming that the maternal body is necessarily welcoming or blissful, nor that infancy is, or could ever be, some halcyon condition of inception.  But what I am going to suggest is that, in the past hundred years of psychoanalysis, there had been an unfortunate trend both toward misunderstanding (and thus underestimating) the significance of oedipal complexities in the formation of the psyche, and toward focusing on so-called “preoedipal issues” of attachment, as if they can be understood without reference to oedipal complexities.

There are three interrelated reasons to be seriously concerned about this trend.  First, this approach overlooks the discovery that it is oedipality that establishes the major operative feature of the structuration of the human psyche, namely the repression barrier.  Second, the approach assumes — I believe incorrectly — that the processes occurring between the Mother (or primary caretaker) and the Infant can be understood without the articulation of knowledge structures that come with oedipality.  Another version of this insight is expressed in André Green’s rebuttal of Donald Winnicott when Green insisted that not only is there no such thing as an Infant, there is actually no such thing as a Mother-Infant dyad — because there is always a paternal function, epistemologically if not interpersonally, entering into the equation.  Third, this approach installs a developmental model in which the events of one phase are conditioned and constrained by the events of the prior phases.  That is, it assumes that the timeline of the psyche is unitary and linear.  However, against such developmentalism, Freud demonstrated that the psychological significance of events at a particular phase can equally be conditioned and constrained by events at later phases.  Thus, the plurality of timelines in the formation of the psyche is such that psychoanalysis is, contrary to common belief, not really a developmental discipline at all.  The current trend understands preoedipal relations to shape oedipal complexities, but egregiously ignores Freud’s discovery that the significance of preoedipal relations is always shaped by oedipality.  [Here we would need to discuss the critical Freudian discovery of Nachträglichkeit (or retroactive determination) which is, in a sense, the sine qua non of his method, but that is for another paper.]

That said by way of preface, allow me to return to Sophocles in order to illustrate why we need to understand these complexities, if we are ever to know about the roots of our hostilities.  Oedipus’ story is complicated, especially in its nuances, but may be sketched as follows.  King Laius, on hearing a prophecy that he will be killed by his own Son, takes the Infant Oedipus, pierces the balljoints of his ankles and arranges for him to be cast out and left to die on the pathless hillside of Mount Cithaeron.  Oedipus is rescued and later adopted by a childless Corinthian couple, Polybus and Merope, who know nothing of this traumatic infantile history.  Now grown but still unaware of his adoption, Oedipus leaves Corinth because he has heard — from a different source — the prophecy that he would kill his Father and marry his Mother.  During his travels, the club-footed Oedipus encounters, at a crossroads, a man riding in a carriage, accompanied by his servants on foot.  The man behaves rudely, his carriage pushing Oedipus off the path.  In response, Oedipus angrily kills the man and his servants, supposedly not knowing that his victim is actually his biological Father, King Laius.  Subsequently, Oedipus marries Laius’ widow, Jocasta, who is actually his biological Mother (but, of course, he is supposedly unaware of this).  He has children with her, and becomes the new King of Thebes after solving the riddle of the Sphinx.  However, the kingdom then suffers a strange plague that begins to destroy the productive and reproductive foundations of its politics and its economy.  Oedipus is determined to discover the cause of this malady, despite the fact that he is warned, both by his Mother-Wife Jocasta and by the blind prophet Teiresias, against this pursuit of knowledge about the causes of the plague and accordingly about his own personal history.  The malady is, of course, meted by the gods as the kingdom’s punishment for the dirty secret of the recondite corruption, which involves both the patricide and the incestuous marriage.  As the truth about these becomes evident, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus, after taking one last look at his Mother-Wife’s nude body, stabs out his eyeballs, permanently blinding himself.  He then leaves Thebes, placing himself in exile at Colonus, accompanied by his loyal Daughter, Antigone.

The sheer power of the narrative’s construction opens us to its many instructive aspects.  As we all know, for didactic purposes, Freud offered a partial reading of the saga to illustrate a boy’s forbidden wishes to be rid of any rival for a Mother’s erotic attention, and indeed even to commit patricide in order to remove what is perceived as the major impediment to incestuous gratifications.  This emphasis glosses over some intrinsic thematic dimensions, of which I will mention just three.

The first is the epistemological, which particularly pertains to the grave dangers of knowledge.  Think of it this way.  Can you really kill a man who shares half your chromosomal heritage, without there being some chimerical recognition of kinship?  Can you really have regular coitus, and indeed impregnate multiple times, a woman with whom you share your genes, without some dim sense of prohibition?  As he kills the obnoxious aristocrat in the carriage, does it truly never occur to Oedipus, even in some shadowy preconscious formulation, that he and his victim look somewhat alike?  As he cavorts with his wife, is he never struck by the fact that he and his consort, despite their gender difference, look somewhat alike?  Can two humans really share the x chromosome and there not be some glimmer of a repudiated awareness?  I leave you to ponder these questions.

The second neglected theme is the homoerotic nexus of all relations between Sons and their Father-figures (and between Daughters and their Mother-figures, for that matter).  I will not detail this at the moment, but it is surely noteworthy that the mythology tells us that Laius had already violently raped Chrysippus, who is Oedipus’ double, and is a boy with whom Oedipus, in another version of the tale, had already shared sexual favors.

The third mythematic dimension to which too little attention has been directed is the infanticidal, or more specifically filicidal contextualization of Oedipus’ life.  The neglect of this dimension is perhaps especially telling.  Not only do we live in a culture in which many of us defer to a God who instructed Abraham to sacrifice his firstborn, Isaac, and then (almost two thousand years later) sent his own Son, Yeshua, down to earth to be killed by a hysterical mob, but even those of us affiliated with the Sanātana Dharmic traditions must surely be impressed by the emergence just within the past five centuries, and enormous popularity throughout South Asia, of the mythical deity Ganesha, who acquired his elephant head as a result of his Father Shiva’s efforts to kill him for standing in the way of his desire to rape Ganesha’s Mother, Parvati.

In my recent work, I have discussed how these three thematic dimensions are of paramount importance, and cannot be omitted from our understanding of all that this myth has to tell us about the human condition.  However, central to the mythematic lessons emphasized by Freud and that thus have benefitted psychoanalytic wisdom are the issues of knowledge and blindness.  Oedipus’ relentless search for knowledge that will save his kingdom and disclose his personal history brings him to encounter a delectable horror (his own wife as matrem nudam, to borrow Freud’s delicate phrasing).  The horror is not, of course, with nudity per se, but with the recognition that the womb (or more accurately the vaginal canal) from which he was birthed is the very same as that of his intromissive sexual partner and his children’s Mother.  Oedipus’ self-blinding is an epistemologically demarcative act dividing what may be known from what may not.  In a symbolic connotation which links the eyes to the genitals, self-blinding implies auto-castration, as well as the boundary between what we may know and what we may not.  As Sam Kimball points out, it is noteworthy that Oedipus does not merely slash his eyes into blindness, but actually stabs out the eyeballs; Sophocles uses the Greek word arthra somewhat anomalously both for the eyeballs and for the ball-joints of the ankles that were already damaged by paternal violence, as well, of course, as would be used to designate the testes.  Also, as an aside, the brilliant work of Jonardon Ganeri was recently brought to my attention, suggesting that there may be a root to this word in the Sanskrit term artha, which is loosely defined both as meaningfulness and as that which one may righteously possess.

In any event, permanent damage is inflicted first by the Father upon the Son, and then by the Son upon himself — and between these two enactments, the Son happens to kill the Father.  The permanent damage of the enactments is both physically and epistemologically crippling.  This auto-castrative self-blinding of the subject is — in short — the performative establishment of the repression barrier, the precursor of which is the Father’s act of crippling his Son and attempting filicide in such a way that the boy might never own the knowledge of his Father’s identity.  The demarcative act of scotomization thus signifies or symbolizes both the repression barrier and the barrier of the incest taboo (transmitted intergenerationally and without selfconsiousness).  It thus demarcates the possibilities of semiosis or representationality — the possible structures of what may be known — from the irrepressible pluritemporal and polysexual desires of our embodied experience; desires that persistently impinge on the structures of knowledge yet can never be self-consciously known to them.

So what can we learn from all this about the roots of human hostility?  [Alec Russel, After Mandela]  At the forefront of our considerations is the correct answer to give when you are cornered in the following tricky situation.  At a family braaii, your favorite Great Aunt asks you what you are studying nowadays.  You courageously reply, “Psychoanalytic Psychology!”  She says, “What’s that?”  The one true and correct response (I do, of course, have my tongue in my cheek) is:  Psychoanalysis is the discipline that demonstrates the impact of the incest taboo on the formation of the human psyche, and it is the method of healing that loosens the human subject’s imprisonment in repetition-compulsivity.  Notice I say “loosens” not detaches.

The incest taboo is necessary and universal, although differently interpreted across cultures; as Georges Bataille writes “the horror of incest … makes humans of us and the problem it poses is the problem of” humans themselves in so far as we add a human dimension to our animal nature.  [And, as an aside, I would like to say how much we all owe to Professor Mitchell’s 2003 opus for its brilliant analyses of the significance of incest taboos between siblings.]  Whatever its cultural variations, the taboo can be considered the “law of laws,” the prototype of all boundaries.  In these brief reflections, I cannot discuss how or why it came to be, so we will merely assume that it is there, or more importantly here, and point to its consequences with respect to the genesis of human hostilities.  In the format of this brief paper, I will point to the threefold implications of this taboo.

The first consequence is the necessity and inevitability of our disengagement, or wrenching away from, the maternal body.  Without the taboo, we would surely remain entirely enmeshed or entangled erotically.  And if you doubt this, remember that the taboo operates in the mind of every Mother, even if it is not encoded in the body of the Infant.

The second consequence is the extent to which we live at a distance from our own embodied experience.  Colloquially, to a greater or lesser degree, we all live “in our heads.”  In common with Mr. Duffy in James Joyce’s Dubliners, a bank cashier who is described as living “at a little distance from his body” (p. 86), this is a condition of ubiquitous alienation.

The third consequence is the violence inherent between generations in the structuring of our reproductive arrangements.  We owe it to Winnicott’s brilliant 1949 paper that it has become more possible for us to talk about the hatred Mothers inevitably harbor toward their Infants — more possible, at least within our psychoanalytic circles, if not within the general culture.  We should now be able to talk about the hatred Fathers inherently have toward their offspring.  And we should now be able (following impressive work by Sam Kimball and several others) to talk generally about the evolutionary necessity of infanticidal impulses.  The birth of a Son is, in a profound sense, the deathknell of the Father; but also, especially in a patriarchal and patrinominal lineage, Fathers need Sons because such a birth grants the Father some sort of fantasized immortality (reproductive futurity against the death drive, as Lee Edelman suggests, and also symbolic perpetuation of the Name-of-the-Father).  Finally, with the work of Haydée Faimberg and others, we are surely now in a position to understand in more detail how every child’s life story is circumscribed by the unconscious phantasies of his or her primary caretakers; for example, you can surely see that there is a strong sense in which Oedipus’ story is almost entirely foretold in Laius’ unconscious (and Jocasta’s for that matter); for example, in Laius’ terror of prophecies that seem to come from an external source, in his barbaric filicidal ambitions, in his propensity for violence (which I have not told you in any detail), in his torturously suppressed homosexual inclinations, and all the envy and jealous unfolding from these dynamics.

[For many of us, it is disturbing enough to think that we were raised by our parents, molded by their conscious intentions, but it is yet more disturbing to consider the extent to which our entire life-history may be an expression of their repressed phantasy life.]

Each of these three consequences is, in different ways, associated with the ideological installation and maintenance of the repression barrier — the issue of what we can allow ourselves to know and what remains unknown or unknowable.  They are some of the ways in which the story of Oedipus illustrates both what I call the “castratedness” of every human subject in the delimitation of our desire and hence of our knowledge, and perhaps less directly, via the contextualization of Oedipus’ life by his Father’s unconscious and yet also enacted infanticidal intentions, what I call the “deathfulness” of the human subject in its constitutive preoccupation with its own absence or mortality.  Surely, if we were better able to accept the inevitability of our castratedness and deathfulness, much — if not all — of the force of human malice would abate.

As I see it, psychoanalysis teaches us that we are all inherently inadequate and insufficient — “castrated” to adapt a term that Freud appears to have used somewhat more literally (and perhaps even carelessly).  For we are not, and can never become, masters of ourselves, and our compulsive ambitions to dominate others, which have caused so much anguish to humanity, are surely but a macabre reaction against this truth about our own being-in-the-world.  Moreover, as Leszek Kolakowski wrote in his 1988 essay, the “I” — meaning the Cartesian ego that establishes “I am now thinking, therefore I exist” — “is a kind of black hole.”  Freud showed us in 1920 how the presence of a thing is established out of the thing’s originative absencing; if “I” has no meaningfulness other than the endlessly displaced and deferred locutions of “me this” and “me that,” then the apparent fullness of the presencing of the present moment becomes a gaping abyss.  The human subject is “death-bound” as Alphonso Lingis expressed it in 1989, its “deathfulness” is inherent to its being-in-the-world.

Repetition-compulsivity, as we are taught in our revised versions of metapsychological theorizing, is intrinsically an activity of unavoidable semi-structuralized violence, designed to build an edifice of representations of self, other and affect or action that might ward off the awareness of the insurpassable castratedness and deathfulness of our subjectivity.  Thus, the prospect of even the slightest release from its grip on us brings with it the terror of the abyss.  We enter psychoanalysis seeking relief from the suffering associated with our ailment; we discover in psychoanalysis the multiple ways in which we are determined to hold onto our suffering.  In large measure, this determination is an outgrowth of our compulsive refusal to embrace joyfully the castratedness and deathfulness of our being.  Against this embrace, we build the architecture of our narratives, inflected with the inherently aggressivized motif of domination and subjugation, toward the self and its others.

So what are the practical implications of these brief reflections on some of the roots of our hostilities?  I will point to just three contentious aspects of this thesis.

First, all the work that has emerged out of psychoanalytic wisdom, directed toward improving the life of infants, making more harmonious and healthy the bonding of caretakers and their babies is, of course, unquestionably important.  However, an excessive or exclusive focus on such work can easily foster the currently fashionable delusion that, so to speak, world peace will be secured as soon as we can all be assured of a better time at the breast.  As life-sustaining and pleasure-enhancing as breasts indeed are, they are not the exclusive key to a better human future.

Second, in the past hundred years, psychoanalysts have consistently retreated away from some of the least palatable implications of their disciplinary discoveries, most notably by re-establishing the fantasy of a unified or potentially unified self and endorsing the fantasy of a mind that is alienated from, yet somehow in charge of, the embodiment of our lived experiences.  As a discipline, we need to stand firm on our existential critique of the ideologies of mastery, conquest and possession — the ideologies of domination and subjugation that are motivated by our multileveled refusal to accept the castratedness and deathfulness of our human condition.

Third, it must be said that, as a discipline, psychoanalytic psychologists have been stronger on analyzing the individual, weaker on understanding individual suffering as embedded in cultural malaise.  That is, weaker on the elaboration of an ideology-critique that might be meaningful and impactful on the social and political levels.  The incest taboo is the “law of laws” and how we narrate our life around it, constructively and then deconstructively, determines much of our life’s course.  As Freud argued implicitly but incisively, we cannot disregard or disobey this taboo, just as we cannot entirely free ourselves from the conditions and constraints of repetition-compulsivity in our thinking, our feeling and our acting.  However, as human beings, we enjoy a margin of freedom dependent on our ability to embrace the inevitable castratedness and deathfulness of our being in the face of our encounter with — that is to say, in the awareness of — this “law of laws.”  This is a freedom that, at the very least, loosens our existential commitment to the roots of our hostilities.

One of the tricks of human discourse is that it makes this law of laws seem to be only remotely relevant, or even entirely irrelevant, to the manifold and incessant crises of violence in which humanity is embroiled — crises so poignantly articulated in many of the papers that have occupied the rich thoughtfulness of this morning’s and yesterday’s deliberations at this Symposium — perennial warfare, ubiquitous exploitation, racism, sexism, interpersonal rage and intrapsychic destructiveness, as well as the suicidal course on which our species is unarguably embarked.  Yet surely the inane power of the laughter of my colleagues in the woods — a mode of laughter Georges Bataille or Julia Kristeva might have called le rire apocalyptique or le rire déchirant — indicts the possibility of irrelevance or only marginal relevance.  The potential of psychoanalysis as a discourse of liberation surely lies in understanding this power — that is, understanding the connections between the “law or laws” and the roots of our multitudinous hostilities.  In his 1959 masterpiece, Life against Death, Norman O. Brown wrote: “Once we recognize the limitations of talk from the couch, or rather, once we recognize that talk from the couch is still an activity in culture, it becomes plain that there is nothing for psychoanalysis to psychoanalyze except these projections … and thus psychoanalysis fulfills itself when it becomes historical and cultural analysis” (pp. 170-171).  We are far from succeeding in fulfilling this prescription; nonetheless, I think this possibility is part of the privilege of practicing psychoanalysis, especially in a country such as South Africa today.



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