The child departs

October 19, 2007

Does Freudian theory, and in particular the Oedipus complex as a way of explaining sexual development, still have anything to teach us? Matthew Reisz, below, explores a reinvestigation of Freud's great source, the Greek myths, from a female - matricidal - standpoint. But first Henrietta Moore turns her attention to the question of initiation rituals. When we think about the differences between women and men, our thoughts linger on those telling questions of who puts the rubbish out or empties the washing machine, and who has the greater spatial abilities or emotional competencies. Our deliberations are often based on unexamined assumptions about self-evident differences, those that arise in our natures or in our bodies, and no amount of feminist politics, sociological insight or progressive policy ever seems to succeed in completely eradicating the taken-for-granted character of these ideas.

The differences between women and men are hardly a mystery. They are there for all to see, and most of us are profoundly grateful for them. And yet things are not quite what they seem, as psychoanalytic theories suggest by drawing our attention to the fact that biological sex difference does not provide a straightforward basis for gender differences and sexual identities.

Freud's great contribution was his insight that masculinity and femininity do not map easily on to male and female bodies and that, far from being natural givens, they should be viewed as social achievements. Anthropological data has traditionally provided some insight into this through the study of initiation rituals. Wherever these have occurred, they are often referred to as making boys into men and girls into women. But what is this process of "making" about?

Initiation rituals can hardly be said to instil an understanding of binary gender differences, for the young protagonists are already aware that some of them are girls and some of them are boys. An earlier generation of anthropologists focused on the role of such rituals in bringing about "Oedipal resolutions", in other words, separating boys from their mothers and encouraging them to identify with their fathers through a combination of alarming threats - sometimes accompanied by actual "attacks" on the genitals, such as circumcision - and processes of "male bonding". Apart from the fact that this explanation seemed irrelevant for girls, it did little to clarify why the establishment of gender differences should require so much violence and powerful ritual to bring about successful results. What is all this Sturm und Drang about, if the differences between women and men are self-evident, natural and there for all to see? Why, for that matter, if initiation rituals make boys into men, is it necessary in so many societies for gender differences to be socially maintained and reinforced throughout the lifetime of individuals?

Freud's insistence that sexual difference is an achievement rather than a given went some way to answering these questions. His work - and indeed its scientific validity - has been the subject of fierce debate, but it is one of his related propositions that is currently stimulating new thinking in anthropology. Freud argued that human social life is possible only if individuals consent to relinquish something, agree to restrict their possibilities of satisfaction. In his view, culture is the product of the repression of incestuous sexuality - what individuals have to relinquish is their desire for the mother, for the primary union of mother and child, when they accede instead to the demands of society, and identify with social laws and responsibilities as embodied in the authority of the father. In expounding this view, Freud has often been criticised for simply reinforcing patriarchy and heterosexuality, but what is of interest is his contention that sexual difference - the social recognition that some individuals are female and some are male - is somehow related to the origins of society, to the way that individuals are connected to each other, and to social laws and institutions.

We might imagine that this theory is a historically specific one and, in its details, it most certainly is. What is striking, however, is the way that rituals in many different contexts reflect on the problems and specifics of gender identity, and explore how humans come to form societies, but can apparently do so only by becoming two different kinds, the female and the male. The story of Adam and Eve is only one of many such reflections.

Claude Lévi-Strauss argued in his book The Jealous Potter (1985) that certain ideas credited to psychoanalysis were already inherent in mythic thought, claiming in his analysis of North and South American myths that "they were far ahead of us when it comes to a good many of the notions that did not find expression in the Western world until Freud". There is a certain irony here because it is well recognised that Freud's own thinking and research were heavily influenced by early anthropological research and writing, and perhaps his idea that the origins of culture are linked to the problem of sexual difference, to how we become male and female, arises from his engagement with anthropological material and Greek myths.

In the early part of the 20th century, anthropology and psychoanalysis fell out of love with each other in a rather public fashion. The catalyst was a disagreement between Bronislaw Malinowski and Ernst Jones as to the universal applicability of the Oedipus complex - the relinquishing of the boy's desire for the mother and consequent identification with the father, which Freud argued were essential for the assumption of sexual identity. The aim in developing the theory of the Oedipus complex was to explain some of the mechanisms through which social structures are incorporated into individual consciousness, to describe how desire is channelled along socially appropriate lines. Malinowski argued, on the basis of anthropological data from the Trobriand Islands (today known as the Kiriwina), that passions and attachments vary within different family forms and so the Oedipus complex must logically vary from one culture to another. Jones's rebuttal was a fierce defence of its universal applicability and significance, insisting that its structures did not vary with cultural forms. Malinowski's arguments were empirically and theoretically weak, but time has proved his assertion of variation in the "family romance" generally correct, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Psychoanalytic theory - primarily through its engagement with anthropology and feminism - has had to come to terms with the idea that, in any given context, there are several ways to be a woman or a man and individuals may identity with a number of these "multiple gender positions", some of them contradictory and conflicting. Contemporary aspects of masculinity in the British context might include the bloke, the lad, the sportsman, the engaged father, the hard-boiled entrepreneur, the aggressive risk-taker. Most men will experience their masculinity as being made up of different combinations of these aspects, some of which are more dominant in certain areas of their lives than others. From this perspective, it is evident that no one becomes a woman or a man simply by acquiescing in a single pre-existing model of masculinity or femininity, and consequently it is not possible to sustain the idea of the Oedipus complex as the single defining moment in the acquisition of sexual identity.

The process of becoming male or female is obviously a complex, long drawn- out affair that has the potential to change over time, and this perhaps explains the drama of initiation rituals and the constant making and remaking of the masculine and the feminine throughout the lifetime of the individual. It certainly suggests that bodies, self-evident as they are, cannot be the whole story.

Henrietta L. Moore is professor of social anthropology, London School of Economics.


If psychoanalysis has been a crucial tool in unlocking some knotty problems in anthropology, Amber Jacobs - lecturer in English and critical theory at Sussex University - argues in a new book that it is now time for anthropology to return the compliment.

Classical Freudian theory is built round the notion of the Oedipus complex, where Freud "discover[ed] what he believed to be a universal structure of desire". This was taken from the myth that inspired one of the greatest of Greek tragedies, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex , because Freud believed that myths, like dreams, offer a window into the world of our unconscious desires.

The centrality of the Oedipus complex means that Freud and his followers have had far more to say about boys' and men's fantasies of murdering their fathers than either male or female feelings about matricide.

Jacobs describes herself as "a feminist working with psychoanalysis and committed to its indispensable insights - while also retaining a commitment to paradigm shifts". She is well aware of the places where Freudian ideas have become ossified. Her new work, On Matricide , offers an ambitious attempt to fill in some of the gaps.

Freud has often been criticised for implicitly incorporating into his universal view of human nature the specific family structures and sexual assumptions of his own day. This may not be very surprising in itself, but it raises questions about how far how his theories apply in a world where feminists have radically deconstructed traditional sex roles, and where in vitro fertilisation, one-parent families and gay and lesbian adoptions have radically altered the meanings of the words "father" and "mother", and presumably the tangled emotions children feel about them.

To get beyond this impasse, Jacobs returns to anthropology and myth. "The enormous extent to which Greek myth and tragedy informed Freud's thought," she notes, "might have led one to assume that the development of his theories would involve a further study of myth." But such further study has been sadly lacking. Jacobs takes up the challenge and, more specifically, excavates the great mythic narrative of the House of Atreus that inspired the only surviving trilogy of Greek tragedies, Aeschylus' Oresteia .

This starts with the murder of Agamemnon by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover Aegisthus when Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War. He has already sacrificed his daughter Iphigeneia to secure a fair wind from the gods when the Greeks were setting sail for Troy. The terrible and seemingly endless cycle of violence continues when Orestes kills his mother, Clytemnestra, to avenge his father, Agamemnon.

Jacobs hopes to revivify psychoanalysis by focusing on the story of how Orestes, helped by his sister Electra, is called upon to kill his mother. Her interpretation draws on the central insights of anthropologist (and master myth decoder) Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose four volumes of Mythologiques were published in French between 1964 and 1971. Arguing that myths have to be read like an "orchestral score" and not "as a continuous sequence", he lays down the fundamental principles of his structuralist method. "We have to understand the myth as a totality and discover that the basic meaning of the myth is not conveyed by the sequence of events," he writes Only by considering the interrelations of elements within the myth and the place of each myth within a larger sequence can we hope to penetrate to its essence.

Many feminist theorists, according to Jacobs, have exploded the notion of stable sexual identities and present an optimistic picture of today's woman "cartwheeling and dancing round sexual positions, changing costumes and blowing apart stereotypes, ironically inhabiting conventional structures of femininity in order to show up their fabricated nature". Such imagined fiestas leave little space for political struggles against injustice and oppression and fail to take on board psychoanalysis's "constant reminder of the reality of limitation and loss".

On Matricide opens up psychoanalysis to feminism and political radicalism by expanding its range of core myths. And it does so by means of a detour via structural anthropology.

On Matricide: Myth, Psychoanalysis and the Law of the Mother , by Amber Jacobs, is published by Columbia University Press, £26.50.

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