UNIVERSAL OEDIPUS: An anthropological perspective

"'I am only a literary man', he said, 'but you are a natural scientist and discoverer.
However, there is one thing I must say to you: I have never had sexual feelings
towards my mother'. 'But there is no need at all for you to have known them',
was my reply; 'to grown-up people those are unconscious feelings'. 'Oh! so that's
what you think!' he said with relief, and pressed my hand."
- Freud describing how he converted the celebrated Danish scholar Georg Brandes
to psychoanalysis, New Introductory Lectures, 1933.

From its first appearance in a letter to Fliess of October 1897, Freud saw the Oedipus complex as a "universal event" of early childhood. He waved objections to his stress on the importance of incestuous impulses in neurosis aside with such statements as: "We are driven to believe that this rejection is principally a product of the distaste which human beings feel for their earliest incestuous wishes, now overtaken by repression" (1). Here Freud creates an argumentum ad hominem, which the critic cannot win - all psychoanalytical interpretations are automatically viable since rejection becomes a complex in itself: "yes" means yes and "no" means a repressed yes (2). This circular argument has been quite rightly debated. Although research has supported the universality of infantile sexuality (3), as we shall see, this is certainly not the case with the Oedipus complex itself. Even psychoanalyst Erich Fromm believed that Freud may have devised the complex merely to reassure himself that his own attachments to his mother were not unusual.

It has often been claimed that the Oedipus complex is "mythological" in form and not therefore reducible to an "actual" situation. If the primal murder was indeed a "phylogenetic" experience, then it could be assumed that all males, at least, would have an Oedipus complex since they would feel inherited guilt for the murder of the primal father even if they lacked parents themselves (it is still difficult to see how the primal murder could initiate the female Oedipus complex). However, the notion of the phylogenetic experience has been almost wholly discounted in modern biology. In addition, in spite of championing phylogenesis in certain chapters of both Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism, Freud himself always regarded the complex as far more than a mere inherited formulation. It was very much a part of the family life of the subject in all his case histories. It can therefore be concluded that ultimately Freud only ever turned to the phylogenetic experience as a last resort (4), and hence we can criticise the Oedipus complex on sociological grounds. As we have seen, the early psychoanalysts believed that it was as strong in children brought up by foster parents or parent substitutes so was not defined in strictly biological terms, but did not consider what happened if the child was reared outside the traditional patriarchal (i.e. Western) family environment.

Noted Polish-born British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), the founder of the functional school, carried out various studies of matrilineal societies such as the Trobriand Islanders of North Western Melanesia and maintained throughout that different family structures would produce different family complexes. Melanesians were ignorant of the means of conception and considered an expectant mother to have been impregnated by the spirit of a dead kinswoman. Consequently, paternal authority was invested not in the true father of the child but in the mother's brother, who, due to a brother-sister taboo common to such peoples, usually lived in a separate village. Whilst the biological father later became a key figure in the child's care, he had no power over it and had to strive to earn its affections; thus the traditional fatherly role of Western society was split into two with discipline on the maternal uncle's side and tender care on the biological father's. Such a spilt would appear to ensure against the development of an Oedipus complex in early childhood since neither man appeared as a rival during the period of the child's early attachments to its mother. These were instead allowed to run their natural course and the child was eventually diverted by other interests such as sex games with its peers, which were encouraged rather than forbidden and vilified as they are in the West.

Malinowski did however acknowledge that when the male child became subject to the taboos and laws of Melanesian society in later life, he could develop a repressed desire to remove the seat of power (the maternal uncle) and to engage in a sexual relationship with his sister, whom he was forbidden to associate with due to the brother-sister taboo. These desires, of course, are not analogous to each other - killing the maternal uncle would not bring access to the sister the way killing the father to possess the mother would. In any case, argued Malinowski, these impulses were rarely strong and never resulted in a neurosis (5). Another challenge to the Oedipus complex at around the same time came from the young American anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-78). In her 1928 best seller Coming of Age in Samoa, one of the most successful anthropological texts of all time, she argued that in Samoan society children were usually reared in large heterogeneous family groups in which the relationship with the natural parents was accorded no more importance than that with any other adult relatives living in the household. Consequently, the child's ties to its parents were too weak to provoke oedipal desires of any kind (6).

The cultural gap between Freud's time and our own is also important when considering the Oedipus complex's claim to universality. The sanctity of the family no longer exists: in Freud's day divorce was rare, whereas nowadays families are being broken up all the time. Increasingly large numbers of women do not appear to see the need for a strong patriarchal figure in their child's life - consequently, many children today do not even know who their fathers are and are not encouraged to find out. Therefore, the Oedipus complex can no longer even be said to be a "universal" Western trait, if indeed it ever could. Whilst some studies of young children's behaviour, such as those conducted by Storr (1960) and Hall (1966), have detected Oedipal trends, others, for example Valentine (1956) and Eysenck (1985), have failed to find the complex's presence (7). In any case, as Karen Horney has shown (8), the vastly different social dynamics of different cultures means that there can never be a universal psychology - what is regarded as neurotic in one society may be normal elsewhere, and vice versa.


1) See Totem and Taboo (1913-14), Standard Edition XIII, p.17.

2) Freud attempted to qualify this near the end of his life in Constructions in Analysis (1937, Standard Edition XXIII) by asserting that the patient always supplies secondary indications (such as facial expressions) that the psychoanalytical interpretation is the correct one. However, this was in many ways too little, too late to appease the majority of his critics.

3) See Bocock, Robert ([1976] 1991) Freud and Modern Society, Chapman & Hall, London.


4) This is particularly evident in the "Wolf Man" case history: "I fully agree with Jung in recognising the existence of this phylogenetic heritage [see above] but I regard it as a methodological error to seize on a phylogenetic explanation before the ontogenetic possibilities have been exhausted" (see An Infantile Neurosis (1918), Standard Edition XVII, p.97). Since Freud reluctantly conceded that the primal murder might have been no more than a primitive "wishful phantasy" (see Totem and Taboo (1913-14), Standard Edition XIII, p.160), it may even be possible to see the totem thesis as an allegorical description of Freud's (the Father's) ambivalent relationships with his followers ("sons"). See Eysenck, H. J. (1985) The Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire, Viking, London, p.189.

5) See Malinowski, Bronislaw ([1927] 1949) Sex and Repression in Savage Society, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London.

6) See Mead, Margaret ([1928] 1973) Coming of Age in Samoa, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth. It should be noted, however, that Malinowki's and Mead's theses are not without their critics. Melford Spiro concluded that whilst the Oedipus complex may be culturally relative, the Trobrianders did not constitute evidence for this and had in fact developed strong Oedipus complexes. See Ahsen, Akhter (1984) Rhea Complex: A Detour Around Oedipus Complex, Brandon House, New York. Similarly, in his book Margaret Mead and Samoa: The making and unmaking of an anthropological myth ((1984), Penguin Books, Harmondsworth) Derek Freeman refuted many of Mead's conclusions. He claimed that despite being raised in group households children still remained attached to their biological family and expressed distress when separated from it. Freeman also asserted that the Oedipal situation is "decidedly present" in Samoan society (p.320). William N. Stephens' 1962 study The Oedipus Complex Hypothesis: Cross Cultural Evidence (Glencoe Free Press, New York) found evidence of sexual attraction towards the mother in young boys from primitive cultures, though the evidence of sexual rivalry for the father was less clear.

7) See Valentine, C. W.([1956] 1962) The Normal Child (and some of his abnormalities), Penguin Books, Harmondsworth; Storr, Anthony ([1960] 1966) The Integrity of the Personality, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth; Hall, Calvin S. (1966) The Meaning of Dreams (revised edition), McGraw-Hill, New York; Eysenck (1985).

8) See Horney, Karen ([1939] 1980) New Ways in Psychoanalysis, W. W. Norton, London.


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ã Robin Tamblyn, 2000.

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