For Bonnie Honig

‘What would happen if psychoanalysis were to have taken Antigone rather than Oedipus as its point of departure’.1 Judith Butler’s reformulation of George Steiner’s musing captures several overlapping issues that are of interest both to scholars of classical reception and to the broader history of ideas. The question of how and why classical texts have played such an important role in the development of psychoanalysis has been given renewed prominence in recent years particularly in the wake of Richard Armstrong’s work on Freud.2 Meanwhile Rachel Bowlby, Judith Butler, and Bonnie Honig, amongst others, have explored the consequences of the investment in the Oedipus story for psychoanalysis and its narratives of gender.3 In the post-Freudian era, the prominence of psychoanalysis and its championing of the Oedipus complex has had the effect of troping gender in tragic terms. The encounter between classics and psychoanalysis, between Freud and Oedipus, has, thus, given rise to a two-way dynamic: classical myths contribute to the gender politics of psychoanalysis while at the same time psychoanalysis classicizes the modern subject and creates a tragic emplotment for gender identities in modernity.

This article will explore the interconnections between classics, psychoanalysis, and gender politics by investigating the role of universalism in the modern reception of tragedy. The relationship of tragedy to universalism can be explored from a whole range of different perspectives. My goal in this article is to look in more detail at a particular philosophical investment in tragedy that has aligned a universalist reading of tragedy to a certain humanism, a humanism that has had important consequences for gender and sexuality. By looking at the influence of German Idealism on Freud’s writings, I aim to understand how a preoccupation with the universal has been a persistent feature of the modern philosophical understanding of tragedy. What role does this philosophy of the tragic play in the construction of Freud’s Oedipus? To what extent is Freud’s insistence on the universality of the Oedipus complex a consequence of the gendered assumptions of German Idealism and its theories of tragedy? What is the relationship between Freud’s interest in the universal and the wider question of psychoanalysis’ engagement with humanism? I do not aim to construct an intellectual history that would link Freud’s reading of Oedipus directly to specific arguments within Idealist philosophy about tragedy and the tragic. Rather by exploring their shared but distinctive commitments to the universalism of Oedipus, I am trying to understand a persistent dialectic between humanism and anti-humanism that runs through the modern fascination with the tragic. In the second half of the article, I explore how this complex intertwining of universalism and humanism has affected the later feminist critiques of Freud. Paradoxically, while feminists have sought to move beyond Oedipus and the narratives of sexuality he inscribes, they have nevertheless carried over Freud’s investment in tragedy and have thus unwittingly reanimated many of his humanist and universalist assumptions.

Feminist have for a long time worried about Freud’s assertion of the universality of the Oedipus complex. In electing Oedipus as a universal paradigm, Freud commits himself to a vision of humanity founded on what Luce Irigaray has called ‘hommosexualité’ — a ‘one sex’ model of sexuality that privileges the masculine. It took Freud over twenty years after his first extended discussion of Oedipus in The Interpretation of Dreams to reassess his belief that the Oedipus complex was equally valid for girls and for boys.4 It was only in the mid-1920s that Freud began to publish his essays ‘The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex’ and ‘Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes’, which paved the way to the recognition of specificity of the girl’s experience in his essay ‘Female Sexuality’. Freud, moreover, was vocal in his rejection of Carl Jung’s efforts to provide a parallel mythic narrative for girls in the so-called ‘Electra Complex’. By the time Freud makes explicit reference to Jung’s rival tragic emplotment in his essay on ‘Female Sexuality’, he was himself committed to affirming the masculine particularity of the Oedipus complex ‘in the strict sense’ and was even led to write ‘it would seem as though we must retract the universality of the thesis that the Oedipus complex is the nucleus of the neuroses’.5 In this essay, Freud likens his new understanding of the specificity of female sexuality to an archaeological discovery: ‘Our insight into this early, pre-Oedipus, phase comes to us as a surprise, like the discovery, in another field, of the Minoan-Mycenean civilization behind the civilization of Greece’.6 Female sexuality comes to Freud as a surprise. Just as it was impossible for archaeologists to imagine the Minoan-Mycenean civilization lurking beneath its Classical successor, so the existence of a pre-Oedipal or even non-Oedipal sexuality came as a late and reluctant realization to Freud. But despite this awakening, Freud continued to declare his inability to understand female sexuality infamously asserting that ‘the sexual life of adult women is a “dark continent” for psychology’.7

Since the early twentieth century, Freud’s obsession with Oedipus was seen to play a fundamental role in the limitations of his understanding of female sexuality. For his contemporaries such as Carl Jung, Freud’s singular fixation on the Sophoclean hero blinded him to the possibility of alternative narratives of female desire. In order to explore the gender politics of psychoanalysis, then, it is necessary to understand the particular role that Oedipus plays in the development of Freud’s thought. Others have linked the masculinist bias of Freud’s Oedipal obsessions either to the specifics of his biography or to wider cultural factors, I argue that the history of reading tragedy in the nineteenth century left its mark on Freud’s representation of the Sophoclean hero. While the question of gender is not immediately foregrounded in this tradition, a persistent concern with questions of universalism shapes Freud’s own representation of Oedipus as a universal (masculine) paradigm.

We are all Oedipus

Since the publication of Peter Rudnytsky’s Freud and Oedipus in 1987 there has been a great deal of interest in the question of what led Freud to choose Oedipus as the figurehead of the new science of psychoanalysis.8 As Richard Armstrong and others have shown more recently, not only did the Oedipus complex come to be considered the core insight of psychoanalytic theory,9 but the figure of Oedipus became an icon of the psychoanalytic movement itself — an image of Oedipus and the Sphinx even acted as the logo of the Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, the official press of the psychoanalytic movement from 1919 to 1938. Oedipus is the brand on which the success and failure of psychoanalysis rests. To quote Richard Armstrong: ‘the figure of Oedipus […] literally becomes the cultural capital for the movement’.10 Despite the fact that ‘the Oedipus complex’, as such, only enters Freud’s analytic lexicon after 1910, the entire edifice of psychoanalysis is retrospectively founded on Freud’s ‘discovery’ of his infantile Oedipal desires. The first mention that Freud makes of Oedipus precedes the well-known elaboration in the Interpretation of Dreams by several years. It appears in a letter he wrote to Fliess in 1897 — here the play is mentioned in the context of Freud’s revelation of his own feelings towards his mother and father. The letter provides the evidence for the autobiographical foundation of Freud’s investment in the myth. But for most critics, Freud’s fascination with the Sophoclean play can be traced back further beyond the Fliess letters to his school days and to the performances of the tragedy that he witnessed in Paris and Vienna at a formative moment in his training. As Armstrong summarizes: ‘Freud’s fascination with Oedipus grows out of a personal experience with the text […] coupled with the personal and professional crisis of the late 1890s that lead to the development of psychoanalysis as we know it’.11

The question that has insistently confronted critics is how to reconcile the idiosyncrasy of Freud’s infantile desires with his statement of the universal validity of the Oedipus complex. This problem of universalization is already at the core of his letter to Fliess: ‘I have found, in my own case too, [the phenomenon of] being in love with my mother and jealous of my father, and I now consider it a universal event in childhood, even if not so early as in children who have been made hysterical’.12 In the Interpretation of Dreams, on the other hand, it is his own experience that is sidelined in favour of an appeal to Sophocles as evidence for the generalizable quality of certain dreams and their relation to childhood psychology: ‘The discovery is confirmed by a legend that has come down to us from classical antiquity: a legend whose profound and universal power (allgemeingültige Wirksamkeit) to move can only be understood if the hypothesis I have put forward in regard to the psychology of children has an equally universal validity. What I have in mind is the legend of King Oedipus and Sophocles’ drama which bears his name’.13 A great deal has been written about the vicious circularity of Freud’s argument in this well-known passage. Oedipus’ fate is assumed through its antiquity and continuing appeal to a modern audience to have a paradigmatic quality that in turn acts as evidence for the universal truth of Freud’s insights into childhood psychology. Because Oedipus has an Oedipus complex and Oedipus’ story comes down to us from an ancient legend that still has the power to move us today, it must be the case that we are all afflicted by the same complex. As Jean-Pierre Vernant famously argued: ‘the text can only provide this confirmation provided that it is itself interpreted by reference to the framework of the modern spectator’s dream – as conceived at least by the theory in question’.14 Given Freud’s unambiguously totalizing formulations it is not surprising that the complex became the so-called ‘nuclear core’ of psychoanalysis. Freud’s later hypothesis in Totem and Taboo that the Oedipus myth has its basis in an actual historical event is merely an extension of his earliest arguments about the universality of the complex.

Those critics who have been keen to establish the biographical basis of his Oedipus have highlighted the subjectiveness of Freud’s childhood fantasies, the contingency of his education and the coincidence of his theatrical experiences in Paris and Vienna.15 And yet, this emphasis on the specificity of Freud’s journey towards Oedipus could not be more at odds with Freud’s proclamations, from the very outset, about the universality of the complex. The background of German philhellenism, the so-called tyranny of Greece over the German imagination, has repeatedly been drawn upon to reconcile Freud’s seemingly unique biographical predispositions to the wider cultural currents of his age. Indeed a dual focus on biography and broader intellectual history is the stated aim of Rudnytsky’s, Armstrong’s, and Le Rider’s studies of Freud and his relationship to antiquity.16 In broad terms, each argue that the wider cultural investment in Greece at this time became the vehicle of Oedipus’ universalization. Freud’s acculturation in a Gymnasium, his immersion in a classically inspired Bildung, his transposition of the philological techniques of Altertumswissenschaft to the theory of psychoanalysis, all played a role in his choice of Oedipus as a paradigmatic figure. Classical antiquity is the hinge that connects the particularities of Freud’s self-analysis to his grand ambition to create a universally applicable theory of humanity. But there is a specificity to Freud’s insistence on universality of Oedipus that I think gets lost in this broader picture. Beyond the wider role of German philhellenism in providing a crucial context for understanding the cultural inflections of Freud’s theories, a specific history of reading tragedy within this tradition offers a different way of understanding the resonance of Freud’s universalism. At a general level the Classics may well be the medium through which Freud elevates his personal experiences to the analysis of humanity writ large. But it is a nineteenth-century philosophical reading of tragedy that provides the conceptual apparatus for the reconciliation between subjectivity and universalism which is at the heart of Freud’s reading of Oedipus.

For Freud the starting point of any analysis of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus has to be an attempt to understand why the modern playgoer can receive this play in the same way as his ancient predecessor: ‘If Oedipus Rex moves a modern audience no less powerfully than it did the contemporary Greek one … the explanation can only be that its effect does not lie in the contrast between destiny and human will, but is to be looked for in the particular nature of the material on which that contrast is exemplified’.17 The whole project of classical scholarship on tragedy in the second half of the twentieth century could be seen to have been devoted to precisely the opposite pursuit — its aim has been to show how the modern play-goer could not have been more radically distanced from the political, cultural, and religious expectations of his fifth-century Athenian counterpart.18 Nor has it just been classical scholars who have been dedicated to debunking Freud’s perceived assertions about the universalism of tragedy. For George Steiner, we are living in the age of the death of tragedy — there is, he claims, an insurmountable chasm that separates us from the tragic age of the Greeks.19 But Freud’s peroration: ‘Oedipus’ destiny moves us only because it might have been our own’ does not emerge from a vacuum. He was building on a much longer tradition that had linked the self-identity of the modern subject to the fate of the tragic protagonist.

Since the close of the eighteenth century and the emergence of the so-called philosophy of the tragic, the question of tragedy had moved from the aesthetic to the metaphysical realm.20 As Vassilis Lambropoulos writes about ‘the tragic’: ‘since the 1790s, this quality has been attributed to every domain, feature and function known to mankind, from life to cosmos, and from culture to society. The term has entered the vocabulary of existence and experience, description and evaluation, high reflection and common argument. It has been broadly present in the major systems of thought, art and scholarship during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’.21

The figure of Oedipus had played a crucial role in this development. By the time Freud came to his own analysis of tragedy, philosophers had been proclaiming that we were all Oedipus for well over a century.22 Although he may not have been responding directly to this philosophical tradition, in his choice of Oedipus, Freud finds himself in dialogue with many of its preoccupations. Ever since the German Idealist philosopher Schelling had made Oedipus the central plank of his discussion of the tension between freedom and necessity in his Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism (1795),23 Oedipus had become what Lacoue-Labarthe has called a ‘figure in philosophy, and the figure of philosophy’.24 If Schelling founds his reaction to Kantian metaphysics on the conflict between fate and free will in Oedipus, it is perhaps Hegel who most clearly ties Oedipus’ quest to the project of philosophy as a whole. In his Philosophy of History, Hegel places Oedipus at the threshold of Oriental wisdom and European self-consciousness:

In the Egyptian Neith, Truth is still a problem. The Greek Apollo is its solution; his utterance is: Man know thyself. In this dictum is not intended a self-recognition that regards the specialities of one’s own weaknesses and defects: it is not the individual that is admonished to become acquainted with his own idiosyncrasy, but humanity in general is summoned to self-knowledge. This mandate was given to the Greeks, and in the Greek Spirit humanity exhibits itself in its clear and developed form.

Wonderfully, then, must the Greek legend surprise us, which relates, that the Sphinx – the great Egyptian symbol- appeared in Thebes, uttering the words: what is that which in the morning goes on four legs, at midday on two, and in the evening on three? Oedipus, giving the solution, Man, precipitated the Sphinx from the rock. The solution and liberation of that Oriental Spirit, which in Egypt had advanced so far as to propose the problem, is certainly this: that the Inner Being [the Essence] of Nature is Thought, which has its existence only in the human consciousness.25

The quest for self-knowledge so familiar from the Freudian reading is already intimated in the Hegelian scenario. And yet, it is almost as if Hegel is anticipating the Freudian reading when he warns: ‘In this dictum is not intended a self-recognition that regards the specialities of one’s own weaknesses and defects: it is not the individual that is admonished to become acquainted with his own idiosyncrasy, but humanity in general is summoned to self-knowledge’. Freud, in an important way particularizes the general human imperative towards self-consciousness that Hegel exhorts. Nevertheless, when Hegel makes Oedipus synonymous with human identity — a human identity predicated on self-knowledge, he turns him into a figure ripe for appropriation by Freud. Oedipus’ identity in Hegel rests on his universality — that is he is constituted by his ability to identify ‘mankind in general’. In Hegel’s reading of Oedipus we witness the perfect coincidence of the discourse of universalism and the ideology of humanism. Oedipus’ status as an archetype of humanity is predicated on his understanding of his fate as a universal condition.

It is interesting that it is this image of Oedipus, the Oedipus in his encounter with the Sphinx, whose iconography surrounded Freud and the institution of psychoanalysis more generally. Freud owned many images of Oedipus and the Sphinx such as the well-known ancient Athenian red-figure hydria but the greatest prominence was given to the neo-classical image of Oedipus painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (Figure 1), which was hanging over his couch in his consulting room.26 As Armstrong suggests: ‘Ingres’ painting is evocative of many things that one can readily associate with the ambitions of psychoanalysis’27 and the overt sexualization of the encounter, together with his depiction of female monstrosity, would certainly be amongst them. But what interests me is that in his choice of this neo-classical depiction, Freud upholds the association between Oedipus and the quest for human enlightenment that we see in Hegel’s description. Ingres gives a visual identity to Hegel’s Oedipus in his moment of liberation from the Oriental Spirit. Far from the victim of irrational incestuous and parricidal desires, Oedipus in this image emerges as the figure in and of philosophy. It is ‘this’ depiction of Oedipus that Freud’s students decided to present him with on a medallion as a 50th birthday present, this image that Freud used as a bookplate for his collection, and this image that became the logo of the Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag (Figure 2). If Oedipus becomes the icon of psychoanalysis, the icon that psychoanalysis chooses to associate him with has very little to do with the complex that bears his name.

Fig. 1

Ingres, Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808).

Fig. 1

Ingres, Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808).

Fig. 2

Logo of the Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag.

Fig. 2

Logo of the Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag.

And yet, it is a conflict between Oedipus the philosopher and Oedipus as parrincest that seems to structure Freud’s discussion of Sophocles’ play in the Interpretation of Dreams. For Freud’s demonstration of the universality of Oedipus hinges precisely on a debate around his conflicting identity. Freud, introduces his own reading of the play by undermining the validity of previous readings:

Oedipus Rex is what is known as a tragedy of destiny (Schicksalstragödie). Its tragic effect is said to lie in the contrast between the supreme will of the gods and the vain attempts of mankind to escape the evil that threatens them. The lesson which, it is said, the deeply moved spectator should learn from the tragedy is submission to divine will and realization of his own impotence. Modern dramatists have accordingly tried to achieve a similar tragic effect by weaving the same contrast into a plot invented by themselves. But the spectators have looked on unmoved while a cure or an oracle was fulfilled in spite of all the efforts of some innocent man: later tragedies of destiny have failed in their effect.28

When Freud characterizes Oedipus as a tragedy of destiny he is drawing on the philosophical tradition that we have been exploring. For both Schelling and Hegel, Oedipus’ tragic fate arises from a confrontation between freedom and necessity. Schelling’s ingenuous reading turns on his ability to make of Oedipus’s impotence in the face of fate a triumph of the human will over destiny. Despite Hegel’s strong emphasis on the ability of Oedipus to overcome his fate through the assertion of his human command of reason, he nevertheless acknowledged the limitations of Oedipus’ triumph and locates his tragedy precisely in the confrontation of these two realities.29 Neither Schelling nor Hegel subscribed in any simple way to the ‘lesson’ that Freud claims the tragedy of destiny is supposed to convey — but it was the philosophy of the tragic developed in German idealism that turned Oedipus into the tragedy of destiny ‘par excellence’ and it is this reading that Freud sees himself overturning:

If Oedipus Rex moves a modern audience no less powerfully than it did the contemporary Greek one, the explanation can only be that its effect does not lie in the contrast between destiny (Schicksal) and human will (Menschenwillen), but it is to be looked for in the peculiar nature of the material on which that contrast is exemplified. There must be something which makes a voice within us ready to recognise the compelling force of destiny in the Oedipus, while we can dismiss as merely arbitrary such dispositions as are laid down in [Grillparzer’s] Die Ahnfrau or other modern tragedies of destiny. And a factor of this kind is in fact involved in the story of King Oedipus. His destiny (Schicksal) moves us only because it might have been ours, because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our births as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse toward our mothers, and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father.30

As Armstrong has argued, Freud’s rhetoric in this passage in based on his ability to discredit former allegorical, or I would say, philosophical readings of this play: ‘Part of Freud’s intransigent argument for the Oedipus complex is simply to affirm the literal nature of the myth’s meaning: it really is a tale of incest and patricide, nothing more, nothing less’.31 Freud in this passage founds an alternative humanism to the one that lies behind Schelling’s and Hegel’s readings. For Schelling and Hegel, Oedipus represents man in general because he uses his reason, his all too human reason, to confront a destiny that he cannot escape. The humanism of Freud’s Oedipus is located in his irrational desires: ‘we were all destined to direct our first sexual impulses toward our mothers, and our first impulses of hatred and violence toward our fathers’. Freud rejects the contents of the philosophical reading of Oedipus but maintains its form. He casts off the Oedipus of reason but he reinscribes the universalism of his fate.

The universalizing of Oedipus in Freud’s narrative is the trace of an earlier philosophy of the tragic that he ostensibly thrives to displace. This is all the more striking given that the practice and theory of psychoanalysis is so obviously concerned with the idiosyncrasies and specificities of an individual’s life’s story — the very idiosyncrasies that Hegel rejects in his characterization of Oedipal self-knowledge. Moreover, even though he rejects the idea of a ‘tragedy of destiny’ (Schicksalstragödie), Freud’s whole analysis is nevertheless dependent on the idea of a human being subject to a destiny beyond his control: ‘His fate moves us only because it might have been our own, because the oracle laid upon us before our birth the very curse which rested upon him.’ Despite his protestations, Freud escapes neither the vocabulary nor the ideology of ‘destiny’, of Schicksal, which lies behind the philosophy of the tragic. As Sarah Winter argues: ‘Freud appropriates the generic message of tragedy even as he dismisses it: while he claims that the transhistorical effect of the play is due to its specific story of Oedipus, and not to its demonstration of the power of fate over mortals, he still endows Oedipal desires and relations with the inevitability of tragic destiny’.32

Freud’s universal irrational parrincestic Oedipus could, thus, be characterized as the ironic mirror image of the universal Oedipus of philosophy. But Freud’s persistent heroization of Oedipus as a figure of science should not be forgotten. The medallion that was offered to Freud on his 50th birthday by his students was inscribed with a quotation from Sophocles’ OT. 1525: ‘ὃς τὰ κλείν᾽ αἰνίγματ᾽ ᾔδει καὶ κράτιστος ἦν ἀνήρ’ ‘Who knew the famous riddles and was a man most mighty’. Ernest Jones in his biography recounts how Freud ‘became pale and agitated … as if he had encountered a revenant’ when he received the medallion.33 ‘As a young student at the university of Vienna [Freud] used to stroll around the great arcaded court inspecting the busts of former famous professors of the institution. He then had a phantasy, not merely of seeing his own bust there in the future, which would not have been anything remarkable in an ambitious student, but of it being inscribed with the identical words he now saw on the medallion’.34

Although almost certainly apocryphal, the story abounds with ironies. By presenting him with the medallion the students place Freud not in the position of Oedipus but that of Laius. This Oedipal dynamic is further emphasized by the temporality of the quotation from Sophocles. Sophocles speaks of Oedipus’ great intellectual powers in the past tense (ᾔδει, he knew, ἦν, he was). This is not surprising as the quotation comes from the very last chorus of the play — a chorus that looks back in hindsight and thus also exposes the limitations and ironies of Oedipus’ knowledge and power. By claiming that he had anticipated this moment of Oedipal transfer, Freud reasserts his authority over his students.35 ‘This anecdote serves as a psychoanalytic parable, which immerses us in the problem of Freud’s identification with Oedipus’,36 writes Rudnytsky. But it is the double nature of Freud’s identification that is so interesting. The Oedipus that Freud appropriates is simultaneously the continuation ‘and’ the inversion of the Oedipus of the philosophical tradition that emerged in the wake of the enlightenment. Freud’s Oedipus in his multiple guises is testimony to the persistence of a humanism and a universalism that has its origins in the philosophy of the tragic.

It would, however, be wrong to characterize the modern philosophical investment in Greek tragedy as a project that was in any straightforward way committed to revealing the universalism of the tragic experience. A dialectic between sameness and difference, an interplay between antiquity and modernity had been inscribed in this philosophy of the tragic from the start. From Hegel’s engagement with the Antigone as an exemplification of the historical development of Spirit to Hölderlin’s assertion that ‘Greek art is foreign to us’ — the German word he uses is fremd, the so-called Idealists looked to tragedy to understand the distance as much as the proximity of antiquity.37 Nietzsche may have advocated an aesthetic revival of tragedy but that didn’t prevent him from affirming: ‘One does not learn from the Greeks, their manner is too foreign’ — that same word fremd.38 If the philosophy of modernity from Hegel to Freud has been bound up with the idea of the tragic, this relationship has not been constructed on a simple model of identity or identification. Indeed, even Freud’s claim that Sophocles compels ‘us to recognize our own inner minds in which those same impulses, though suppressed, are still to be found’,39 he still insists that the discovery of our inner Oedipus involves an uncomfortable confrontation with the fremd-ness, the strangeness within ourselves — that is presumably why we have repressed it. Hegel may have proclaimed ‘Among the Greeks we find ourselves immediately at home’,40 but it was to tragedy that modernity has turned to come face to face with the unheimliche as much as the heimische. It is the uncanny Oedipus who stands behind Freud’s assertion that ‘the ego is not master in its own house’.41

In Freud’s Oedipus, we see how both of these aspects of tragedy come together. We find the universalism of human reason depicted in Oedipus’ encounter with the Sphinx rubbing shoulders with the dark alienation of our unconscious murderous and incestuous desires. These two aspects of Freud’s Oedipus are never fully reconciled in his writings. It is in Nietzsche rather than in Freud that we get a more explicit account of how the two facets of Oedipus’ symbolism might be understood together. Nietzsche writes in the Birth of Tragedy:

Oedipus, murderer of his father, husband of his mother, Oedipus the solver of the Sphinx’s riddle! What does this trinity of fateful deeds tell us? There is an ancient popular belief, particularly in Persia, that a wise magician can only be born out of incest; the riddle-solving Oedipus who woos his mother immediately leads us to interpret this as meaning that some enormous offence against nature […] must first have occurred to supply the cause […]. How else could nature be forced to reveal its secrets, other than by victorious resistance to her […]? I see this insight expressed in the terrible trinity of Oedipus’ fates: the same man who solves the riddle of nature – that of the double-natured sphinx – must also destroy the most sacred orders of nature by murdering his father and becoming his mother’s husband. Wisdom, the myth seems to whisper to us, and Dionysiac wisdom in particular, is an unnatural abomination: whoever plunges nature into the abyss of destruction by what he knows must in turn experience the dissolution of nature in his own person.42

‘Wisdom is an offence against nature’, Nietzsche affirms. The different aspects of Oedipus’ trifold fate are intimately connected. His incest and his murder are both the cause and effect of the power of his reason. His destruction, then, is a self-destruction brought about by the very faculty that had made him a saviour both to himself and to mankind in general. But for Nietzsche, tragic poetry has the force to reconcile us to the experience of our own dissolution. ‘Sophoclean melodies’, as he calls them, make tragedy’s glimpse on to the destruction of the self seem bearable. ‘It becomes plain’ Nietzsche writes ‘that the poet’s whole interpretation of the story is nothing other than one of those images of light held out to us by healing nature after we have gazed into the abyss’.43 Like Freud who shines a redemptive light onto the hell of the unconscious, Sophocles shines ‘a shaft of sunlight’ onto the abyss of tragic destiny. Both Freud and Nietzsche present us with an anti-humanist Oedipus, but both nevertheless resist a nihilistic interpretation of tragedy. Oedipus may have become an anti-humanist paradigm but for both Nietzsche and Freud he is ‘humanized’ by his tragedy.

The tragedy of gender

There are many ways of understanding the concern with universalism and its limits in the modern philosophical investment in tragedy from Schelling to Freud. The particular configuration of universalism and humanism that infuses Freud’s analysis of Oedipus has perhaps had its most significant impact on the gender politics of psychoanalysis. It should be clear from my argument so far that the universalism of Freud’s Oedipus is striking precisely because it seems to emerge from a reading that calls into question many of the premises of humanism. Oedipus becomes a paradigmatic figure for Hegel in his discovery that his self-recognition as man should become a motto for ‘humanity in general’. Freud subverts the Hegelian message by showing how the unconscious makes a mockery of Oedipus’s self-knowledge and that it is rather the limitations of his self-knowledge that are at the basis of shared fate of humanity. But one of the most controversial aspects on Freud’s Oedipus is his upholding of the gendering that is elided in Hegelian parable. As we shall see, Hegel’s broader approach to tragedy and, in particular his reading of Antigone, inscribes humanism with an indelible masculinist bias. In the passage from the Philosophy of History, however, Hegel consistently uses the gender-neutral term Mensch in his exhortation: Man know thyself. While Hegel’s Oedipus may appear to transcend gender, the Freudian project of Oedipal self-knowledge has its telos in Oedipus’ self-recognition as a man. One need only recall the quotation from Sophocles inscribed on Freud’s medallion: ‘ὃς τὰ κλείν᾽ αἰνίγματ᾽ ᾔδει καὶ κράτιστος ἦν ἀνήρ’ ‘Who knew the famous riddles and was a man most mighty’. Oedipus comes to self-knowledge not as an anthropos but decidedly as an aner.

As we have already seen, Freud’s problematic insistence that the Oedipal narrative was equally valid for both sexes came under attack during his own lifetime. When more recently Steiner questioned the primacy of Oedipus and offers up Antigone as an alternative he is, in a sense, merely following Carl Jung’s lead in returning to the archive of antiquity to found a different understanding of the human drama. Jung and Steiner, however, merely anticipated a much more sustained questioning of the centrality of Oedipus by feminist critics. Rachel Bowlby, for instance, describes the project of her book Freudian Mythologies as a search for an alternative to the ur-story of the Oedipus complex through, on a one hand, the recognition of a multiplicity of other potential ur-stories and on the other, an impetus to retell the myth of Oedipus in a different light:

Myths also alter their possible or likely meanings according to the changing cultural contexts in which they are retold. In the light of present-day Western experience of the undoing or mutation of the family forms, the stories of some ancient Greek tragedies can seem strangely contemporary: step-parents, single parents, step-siblings, half-siblings, second families, and adoption are everywhere to be found – the last three in Oedipus the King alone. Yet despite his interest elsewhere in what he takes to be the universal children’s fantasy of being adopted, Freud never mentions that this is in fact Oedipus’ reality.44

Bowlby espouses two distinct methods in her attempts in the book to found ‘modern identities’ on ‘Greek tragedy’. In several chapters she creates original narratives of female sexuality from her provocative readings of Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women and Euripides’ Ion. In others, her focus is on opening up Freud’s analysis of the Chronos myth and, in particular, the Oedipus story, to new destabilising interpretations.

Bowlby’s emphasis on the concept of Freudian ‘mythology’ plays an important role in her recuperation of these Greek tragic stories. She does so by highlighting her debt to Barthes’ Mythologies — a book that played an important role in demystifying Greek narratives by supplanting them with powerful contemporary icons of human identity. In the process Barthes exposed the ideological underpinning of all stories ancient and modern. As Bowlby explains:

Often, but not always, the words ‘ideology’ or ‘theory’ are interchangeable with ‘mythology’ in this sense. […] But I like ‘mythologies’ because, unlike ‘ideology’ or ‘theory’, the word implies a narrative movement of telling and retelling that at once sustains and changes the likely fabulous ideas and stories in circulation. Conversely, a myth that makes sense to no one will fade away. […] Many such myths in the fields of sexuality and kinship are now newly open to question in this way – beginning with the two-parent theory mentioned above.45

Bowlby may contrast the open-ended multivalence of mythology here to the fixity of the concepts of ‘ideology’ and ‘theory’, but as her argument develops another antithesis seems to take centre stage: myth and tragedy. The lexicon of myth liberates these stories from the narrative framework of tragedy. It is the aesthetic form of tragedy as much as the straight-jacket of ‘ideology’ that traps these tales in the vicious circularity of Freudian theory. Bowlby concludes her book with a final return to Oedipus: ‘The story of the Oedipus complex, unlike the story of Oedipus, is not, in the end, a tragedy. Where there is recapitulation something else follows – a different conclusion, another version of an old story, a possible new beginning. And one in which women, too, may get a life’.46 It is by removing Oedipus from the inexorable cycle of a tragic destiny that Bowlby imagines the possibility of a new beginning. Interestingly, despite what she seems to argue elsewhere in the book, it is the Oedipus of tragedy and not the Oedipus of Freud that she finally rejects. The Oedipus complex can survive a ‘different conclusion’ in a way that the Oedipus’ tragedy could never do. Freud in this version would be more compatible with the promise of ‘women getting a life’ than Greek tragedy is. Perhaps a similar impulse to Bowlby’s lies behind Heiner Müller’s provocative claim that: ‘In the century of Orestes and Electra which is unfolding, Oedipus will be a comedy’. Dethroning Oedipus for Müller, both entails finding an alternative to his narrative as Jung and Bowlby attest, but it also involves reconfiguring his story as a comedy.

In many ways Judith Butler’s re-reading of both Freud and Greek tragedy in Antigone’s Claim appears to parallel Bowlby’s quest in Freudian Mythologies. Like Bowlby, Butler highlights how contemporary configurations of familial structures make the Oedipal triangle of ‘mummy, daddy, me’ appear ever more problematic. Where Bowlby puts emphasis on the complexity of Oedipus’ own family — his adoption, his multiple parents and half siblings — Butler reexamines these same realities from the vantage point of Antigone. Butler, thus, sees herself explicitly taking up Steiner’s invitation to reimagine a history of kinship that would take Antigone rather than Oedipus as its starting point. Adopting Antigone’s ‘postoedipal’ subjecthood, Butler asks: ‘If the incest taboo is reconceived so that it does not mandate heterosexuality as its solution, what forms of sexual alliance and new kinship might be acknowledged as a result?’.47

But while Bowlby’s interrogation of normative conceptions of kinship involves rescuing Oedipus from his tragic narrative, Butler’s provocative rereading of Antigone keeps tragedy at the forefront of her analysis. In turning to Antigone, Bulter attempts to side-step the gendered assumptions of both philosophy’s and psychoanalysis’ investment in Oedipus. But by foregrounding another tragic heroine, a heroine, moreover, whose narrative had become deeply implicated in Hegel’s philosophy of tragedy, she returns to the very problematic nexus of ideas we find in Freud. Indeed it is the very relationship between tragedy and humanism that provides the backdrop to Butler’s engagement with Sophocles. As Bonnie Honig has argued, Butler’s attempts to move beyond Freud in her reading of Antigone both in this book and her later work Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence appear to involve a return to a new kind of humanism.48 Honig asserts: ‘Humanism is making a comeback; not the rationalist, universalist variety discredited by poststructuralism and the horrific events of the twentieth century, but a newer variant, one that reprises an earlier humanism in which what is common to humans is not rationality but the ontological fact of mortality, not the capacity to reason but the vulnerability to suffering’.49

In her desire to move beyond Oedipus, Butler appears to follow Lacan whose own Ethics of Psychoanalysis had turned to Antigone to challenge the conventional humanist reading of Sophocles:

Some people have said … that Sophocles is a humanist. He is found to be human since he gives the idea of a properly human measure between a rootedness in archaic ideals represented by Aeschylus and a move toward bathos, sentimentality, criticism and sophistry that Aristotle had already reproached Euripides with. I don't disagree with the notion that Sophocles is in that median position, but as far as finding in him some relationship to humanism is concerned, that would be to give a wholly new meaning to the word. As for us we consider ourselves to be at the end of the vein of humanist thought. From our point of view man is in the process of splitting apart, as if as a result of a spectral analysis, an example of which I have engaged in here in moving along the joint between the imaginary and the symbolic in which we seek out the relationship of man to the signifier, and the ‘splitting’ it gives rise to in him.50

Lacan sees himself at ‘the end of the vein of humanist thought’. For Lacan, ‘man’ has been in the process of ‘splitting apart’, assaulted, one imagines, by the dual force of Freudian psychoanalysis and Structuralist linguistics. Butler continues Lacan’s project of ‘splitting’ but turns many of his gendered assumptions on their head. Lacan’s interest in the end of ‘man’, Butler demonstrates, still leaves the heteronormative masculinist subject intact. Despite Lacan’s claims in his seminar to question the very process of signification, Antigone’s desire remains trapped in a symbolic order governed by the universalizing Law of Oedipus. For Butler, however, Antigone challenges the Oedipal structure in her embodiment of kinship gone awry. Moreover, in her ‘masculine’ defiance of the state, she confuses the categories of gender. By infiltrating the political sphere, Butler’s Antigone demonstrates that ‘the family is not outside of or antithetical to politics’.51

But despite Butler’s overt challenge to the universalism of Lacan’s Oedipus, her Antigone, according to Honig, revives an alternative universalism.52 For Antigone’s ‘masculine’ defiance of the state is grounded in ‘a post-Enlightenment humanism of lament and finitude’.53 Antigone’s revolt may be categorized as a politics by Butler, but it is nonetheless rooted in an appeal to an imperative that seems to transcend the sphere of politics. Her decision to bury Polyneices may enact a certain form of politics but it originates in an appeal to an ethical communality beyond the divisive categorisations of the political. Antigone’s act is based on a recognition of the universal of mortality, on the non-negotiable right to mourn one’s kin. The feminist politics Antigone validates thus more often than not reinscribe the role of women whose defiance of the state takes the form of their demand to mourn the unmournable: ‘Antigone is trying to grieve, to grieve openly, publicly under conditions in which grief is explicitly prohibited by an edict, an edict that assumes the criminality of grieving Polyneices and names as criminal anyone who calls the authority of that edict into question’.54 It is no surprise that it is in Antigone’s name that many contemporary mourning mothers caught up in wars and revolutions have expressed their resistance to authority.55 But the comparison, as Honig argues, may well be counter productive: ‘Classicizing the mourning mother naturalizes the maternal and the human, and creates a new universalism: we humans are and always have been, or had, mothers who mourn our mortality. And this universalism, into which tragedy is said to interpellate us, grounds the mortalist-humanist turn to ethics, displacing the conflicts and divisions that are fundamental to both tragedy and politics’.56

Beyond Honig’s more general observations about Butler’s inadvertent return to humanism, it is the connection to Antigone’s tragic destiny that concerns me most. For ultimately what Butler emphasizes when she lionises the mourning Antigone is the tragic as a universal condition. Where Bowlby attempts to reclaim Oedipus as a figure for feminist politics by extracting him from his tragic narrative, Butler constructs Antigone’s heroic resistance around her tragic fate. Honig identifies the process of ‘classicizing’ in general as the bar to Antigone’s feminist political potential, but I see a more specific narrative of ‘classicization’ as the problem. At one level, one could argue that in her attempt to side-step one particular form of classicization that has taken the name of Oedipus, Butler ends up implicating herself in another equally pernicious one. Attempting to side-step Freud, Butler ends up reanimating Hegel. Steiner’s postulate that psychoanalysis would have assumed a different sexual politics if it had taken Antigone rather than Oedipus as its starting point, underplays a history of reading in which Antigone had herself been subject to the most recalcitrant of gendered readings.57

Of course, neither Steiner nor Butler are blind to this. Indeed, much of Butler’s argument in Antigone’s Claim is constructed around a dialogue with Hegel. It is against Hegel’s firm delimitation of familial and public spheres that Butler aims her central argument about the mutual implication of kinship and the political. Nevertheless, Butler takes over Hegel’s core insight into Antigone’s fate — that she is constituted in and by her obligation to mourn her brother. In Hegel, because of the unconscious nature of her attachment to her brother, Antigone’s resistance can never be a fully ethical act let alone a political one. Butler, on the contrary, demonstrates that by entering into a public debate with Creon, by becoming a self-conscious criminal, Antigone cannot help but become a political actor. But for both Butler and Hegel, Antigone’s attachment to her brother is, as it were, pre-political. I am not suggesting that for Butler it is pre-political because the laws of the family exist outside the realm of the political, it is rather pre-political because mourning and mortality belong to the category of human universals.

Once again we find the form of the philosophy of the tragic reasserting itself just as its content is called into question. Where Freud inverts the content of Hegel’s humanism by making the parrincestic Oedipus the paradigm of the modern subject, Butler inverts Hegel’s unconscious Antigone by turning her into the figure of the criminal. And yet, even in her opposition to Hegel, by concentrating on Antigone’s tragic destiny, she embraces a universalism and a humanism antithetical to her feminist message. Butler is enmeshed in a history of reading that she cannot ultimately escape. She is caught between a philosophical tradition that tethers Antigone to a gendered universal and a literary genre that can only narrate gender as a tragedy.

Sarah Winter has written of Freud’s Oedipus: ‘Since Freud's tragic stories of cultural beginnings trace a ‘heroic’, patriarchal genealogy for masculinity, and then secondarily postulate a particularly feminine biological necessity, the pyschoanalytic production of the Oedipal subject also stages a tragedy of gender.’58 For Winter and many others, it is Freud in his particular narrative of the Oedipus Complex who is responsible for creating the tragedy of gender in modernity. Freud’s Oedipus is simultaneously unambiguous in his masculinity and constituted from the outset by his universalism. Moreover, by appropriating the apparatus of tragedy, Freud endows Oedipus’ story with an inexorability that turns any resistance into nothing more than bad faith.

In The Question of Lay Analysis, Freud writes:

In asserting that a child’s first choice of an object is, to use the technical term, an incestuous one, analysis no doubt once more hurt the most scared feelings of humanity, and might well be prepared for a corresponding amount of disbelief, contradiction and attack. And these it has received in abundance. Nothing has damaged it more in the good opinion of its contemporaries than its hypothesis of the Oedipus complex as a structure universally bound to human destiny.59

In Freud’s own retrospective account, Oedipus both inflicts a fatal wound to the project of humanism and elevates his fate to a ‘structure universally bound to human destiny’. Even at the moment that it dislodges the most cherished ideals of the humanist reading of tragedy, psychoanalysis reveals how tenacious the philosophical concepts of fate and universalism are to the subsequent readings of the genre. Both Hegel’s Oedipus and his Antigone stand behind Freud’s complex. Oedipus’ universality and Antigone’s inability to enter the universal equally haunt Freud’s tragic protagonist. And what is more, they persist even in feminist attempts to move beyond Freud. Turning to Electra or Antigone or other myths from the ancient archive has become a preferred tactic of those who have sought to move beyond the patriarchal precepts of psychoanalysis. For Bonnie Honig, it is the classicization of contemporary political activism that reintroduces an unwelcome humanism to feminist readings of Antigone. Rather than classicization more generally, I have argued that it is the particular configuration of tragedy, humanism and universalism that has proved insurmountable in the post-Freudian feminist readings. A configuration that Freud inherits from the nineteenth-century philosophy of tragic and perpetuates into modernity’s tragedies of gender.60

1 Butler (2000: 57) based on the discussion of Steiner (1984: 18).
2 Armstrong (2005).
3 Bowlby (2007), Butler (2000), Honig (2010).
4 For a classic feminist discussion of the Oedipus Complex, see Mitchell (2000: 61–73).
5 Freud (1953–74) SE xxi, 229, 226.
6 Ibid. xxi, 226.
7 Ibid. xx, 212.
8 Rudnytsky (1987).
9 See Armstrong (2005: 47–52) and Forrester (1980: 84–96).
10 Armstrong (2005: 52).
11 Ibid. 47.
12 Masson (1985: 272).
13 Freud SE iv, 261.
14 Vernant and Vidal-Naquet (1988: 87).
15 For the influence of these theatrical productions on Freud, see Armstrong (1999) and Macintosh (2004) & (2009).
16 Rudnytsky (1987), Armstrong (2005), Le Rider (2002).
17 Freud SE iv, 262.
18 See paradigmatically Vernant and Vidal-Naquet (1988) and the articles collected in Winkler and Zeitlin (1990).
19 Steiner (1961).
20 On the development of this philosophy of the tragic, see Szondi (2002).
21 Lambropoulos (2006: 7).
22 The influence of this philosophical tradition on Freud’s Oedipus is sketched by Rudnytsky (1987). Freud’s wider relationship to German Idealism and Germany philosophy is discussed in Ffytche (2011) and Nicholls and Liebscher (2010). Although Freud’s direct engagement with specific texts is difficult to establish, it is clear that he had read some Schelling and that he was familiar, at the very least second-hand, with many of Hegel’s writings.
23 Schelling (1980).
24 Lacoue-Labarthe (2003: 8). For Oedipus as philosopher see also Goux (1993).
25 Hegel (1902: 298).
26 I am concentrating here on the iconography of Oedipus which surrounded Freud but it would also be possible to explore the performance history which influenced his particular understanding of the tragedy. In particular, one could investigate how, through the intermediary of Schlegel’s Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (1809), Idealism left it’s mark on performances of Greek tragedy throughout the nineteenth century. Armstrong (1999) and Macinstosh (2009) have written extensively about the importance of these theatrical representations for Freud although Armstrong (2012) is more skeptical about the possibility of tying Freud’s reading to particular performances. Hugo Von Hofmannsthal’s play Oedipus and the Sphinx (1906), which itself displays the influence of Idealism, may also have played a role in Freud’s choice of iconography.
27 Armstrong (2005: 54).
28 Freud SE iv, 262.
29 There are, of course, important differences between Schelling’s and Hegel’s readings of Oedipus, see Szondi (2002) and Lacoue-Labarthe (2003) for a more detailed analysis. What I am emphasizing here is the important overlap in their understanding of Oedipus whose freedom is linked in a distinctive way to his capacity to reason.
30 Freud SE iv, 262.
31 Armstrong (2005: 51).
32 Winter (1999: 29).
33 Jones (1953–7: 2:14).
34 Ibid.
35 My thanks to Bonnie Honig for urging me to think harder about this anecdote.
36 Rudnytsky (1987: 5).
37 Hölderlin (1988: 152).
38 Nietzsche (1968: 106).
39 Freud SE iv, 263.
40 Hegel (1902: 300).
41 Freud SE xxvii, 143.
42 Nietzsche (1999: 47–8).
43 Nietzsche (1999: 48).
44 Bowlby (2007: 9).
45 Ibid. 8.
46 Ibid. 234.
47 Butler (2000), cover copy.
48 Butler (2004).
49 Honig (2010: 1).
50 Lacan (1997: 273).
51 Holmes (2012:169).
52 In her perceptive review of Antigone’s Claim, Rachel Bowlby (2003) also draws attention to a number of places where Butler’s reading reinforces rather than calls into question Antigone’s universalism.
53 Honig (2010:5).
54 Butler (2000: 79).
55 The essays in Mee and Foley (2011) illustrate the potency of Antigone as a political symbol on the global stage.
56 Honig (2010: 2).
57 For Hegel’s reading of Antigone, see Paolucci and Paolucci (1962), Burian (2010) and Leonard (2005: 96–147).
58 Winter (1999: 55).
59 Freud, SE xx, 213.
60 I would like to thank my audiences at Oxford and Maynooth and the Collegium Phaenomenologicum for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article. In particular, I would like to thank Tim Whitmarsh, Palagia Goulimari, Katherine Harloe, William Desmond, David Scourfield, Sara Brill and Phiroze Vasunia for their invaluable insights. I am very grateful to readers for the journal whose suggestions helped me improve the argument substantially. Finally my thanks go to Bonnie Honig both for her brilliant reading of an early draft and for her work on Antigone which inspired this piece.

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