The Book!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Heroic Depression and Depressive Heroes: Otto Rank

Burne-Jones: Perseus and Andromeda

Neither Sigmund Freud nor Alice Miller, intrepid analysts, as we have seen, are trustworthy in their reports of clinical evidence. So much for clinical evidence: this reveals a fundamental flaw. What we have glimpsed seems to favour the Dymphna legend over Freud’s Oedipus Complex as a paradigm for mental illness. But by their nature, clinical reports are unreliable. They are always at best third hand: reported by patient to analyst, and then by analyst to us. We are lost in a game of Chinese whispers. Try that at home.

Even were the reports first-hand, clinical evidence is little more than anecdotal. Samples are small; there is no control; respondents are self-selected.

We must, therefore, resort to literary evidence. Other than our own experience, it is all we have.

This is what Freud does. Aside from Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, he refers us to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as evidence of the Oedipus Complex from literature. Beyond this, he refers us to the work of Otto Rank.

In his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud writes:

“It is once again an interesting fact that the Oedipus complex, which has been rejected from real life, has been left to imaginative writing, has been placed freely, as it were, at its disposal. Otto Rank has shown in a careful study how the Oedipus complex has provided dramatic authors with a wealth of themes in endless modifications, softenings and disguises” (Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 1916-1917).

He speaks here of a study Rank issued in 1909, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. It is to this volume that we now turn, to either substantiate or falsify Freud’s thesis.

But first we must ask, is Freud right in this initial assumption? Do we have just cause to believe these ancient stories are about the workings of the psyche? Perhaps they are just good stories; perhaps they are, as many have thought, allegories of the heavens, of the movements through the seasons and the sky of sun and moon. We have warrant, from long tradition, for the story of Dymphna being about mental illness. We would have such warrant, say, for a legend of “Amor and Psyche”--literally, “Love and the Soul.” Both Oedipus Rex and Hamlet seem to show their protagonists as suffering from the familiar symptoms of depression. But is this so for the hero myths Rank selects?

Rank offers his argument. He calls myths and literature “a dream of the masses of the people” (Myth of the Birth of the Hero, p. 10). Joseph Campbell, writing his Hero With a Thousand Faces almost a half-century later, makes nearly the same claim: “Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream” (The Hero With a Thousand Faces, p. 19). Myths are pure expressions of the content of the human unconscious, then, just as dreams are, assuming dreams are. They are a window on the soul. Rank goes so far as to see myth and literature as essentially insane: “The projection mechanism … necessitates the uniform characterization of the myth as a paranoid structure, in view of its resemblance to peculiar processes in the mechanism of certain psychic disturbances” (The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, p. 78).

This is, fortunately or unfortunately, not true. Myths and literature differ from dreams in one essential matter: their authors are conscious and know what they are doing. They exercise conscious control over their contents. They are therefore literally not “from the subconscious”; unless some particular author resorts to automatic writing, or recording his dreams. Authors like Shakespeare or Sophocles were aware and able to choose what happened next, or what this character’s motivation is. Myths and fiction are no more dreamlike or randomly generated in principle than the writings of Sigmund Freud or Otto Rank. The imagined window on the subconscious slams shut.

There is, however, a second possibility. Even if the original composition of a myth was conscious, what accounts for its preservation and popularity over the years? Surely this is because it speaks to something in the collective subconscious? You could say, “it just makes a good story”: but then, what makes a story a good story? Is it not that it powerfully appeals to our emotions?

Klimt: Danae

And what accounts for the observed similarity of myth motifs everywhere? Both Joseph Campbell and Rank highlight this: "the psychological study of the essence of these myths might help to reveal the source from which has flowed uniformly, at all times and in all places, an identical mythological content" (Rank, op. cit., p. 9). This is true enough: although there are no dragons in nature, everywhere there be dragons in folk tales, in China as much as in England. Every folk tradition seems to recall a universal flood. Unicorns emerge from the forests of China and of France. There is a Korean version of “Cinderella.” In pagan times, Romans had no trouble recognizing gods they met abroad as versions their native Roman gods.

This fact does not, however, make the myth contents unconscious. Surely the popularity of myths, as much as their original invention, is founded on a collection of conscious individual choices. People do not decide to transcribe or retell legends against their will. And, in principle, no quantity or mass of conscious thoughts makes one unconscious thought. If most people cannot or do not say exactly why they love a particular story or fictional character, this does not necessarily mean they are unconscious of it. It may mean they cannot or do not see any point in trying to express the attraction in terms clearer than those of the story itself. For example, it is not necessarily that they do not know why they love Falstaff: it is that the easiest and most complete way to explain why they love Falstaff is by saying he is so like Falstaff, so Falstaffian. Can one say, similarly, adequately, why one loves one’s wife? One does so, perhaps, by recalling a story of some incident that reveals her personality. Like the stories of Falstaff. The human psyche is simply that complex; it cannot be reduced to simple discursive statements. What was it that Heraclitus said?

“One would never discover the limits of psyche, should one traverse every road--so deep a logos does it possess.”
What we can say, therefore, is that myths and legends that manage widespread and longstanding popularity must somehow, for that to be so, represent some universal and important human concern; but not the contents of the unconscious.

Rank is right to point out that this concern cannot be purely to do with the physical world: “the astral theory is not altogether satisfactory and fails to afford an insight into the motives of myth formation” (op. cit., p. 7). It is, for example, a universal experience that the sun rises each morning in the east; but is it a universal concern? Is it not, instead, simply a commonplace? Why would people everywhere spontaneously care enough about it as to marvel at and record and remember stories told about it? To set up little altars to it and offer it sacrifices?

Moreover, a simple physical observation like seeing the sun rise every morning simply does not require a myth or legend to express it. It is sufficient to say “the sun rises every morning.” Why take the trouble of couching such a thing in literary terms? That is unnecessary hard work. Old Occam would go bankrupt were he such an extravagant barber.

When one is speaking of myths, the bar of significance must be particularly high. These are stories of such great human significance that they were commonly felt to merit religious worship. The intrinsic value of their message must approach the ultimate. The mechanics of cloud formation, for example, just would not seem to cut it.

How the psyche (i.e., the soul) functions, what is its purpose and destiny, on the other hand, looks to be one of the few worthy and plausible subjects for such myth or high literature—along with questions about the nature of the cosmos (which is, please note, not the physical universe, but the ordered universe, the logos: matters like beauty, the good, the true, balance, justice, value, the principles of logic and of mathematics, why we are here and what happens when we die).

The experience and workings of the soul, then, would indeed be an experience common to all mankind. This would explain the universal similarity of myth motifs. Two plus two equals four no matter where you are; and sorrow is sorrow, and love is love.

The experience of depression, melancholia, or mental illness, what it is, where it comes from, and what might cure it, would then be a topic likely to be found there somewhere.

Understanding myths as primarily about the workings of the soul, moreover, explains well why they are presented as narratives and in symbolic or allegorical language—a significantly harder thing to do than simply framing declarative sentences. Psychic matters are, by nature and by definition, not directly present to the senses. You cannot taste anger, or smell imagination, or hug justice.

Gilgamesh (modern)

What is visible and tangible is called physis or body; what is not visible or tangible is called spirit or psyche.

The physical world is apparent in detail to all of us; it is visible. I can say “rock,” and if you perhaps do not know what I mean, I point to a rock, and we both understand. This is not true of psychic things: we may both experience love, and may both experience it at the same time, but we cannot clearly point to and confirm our experience as we can with a physical thing. I say “love”: but is it clear to you what I mean by the word? It is not. The experience you call love might be different.

We must resort to metaphor: we might say we have, for example, “the warm fuzzies.”

This is what T.S. Eliot called an “objective correlative.” We are in fact touching nothing either warm or fuzzy; but somehow this image drawn from the physical world manages to convey the essence. It is apparent to both of us what warmth is, and what fuzzy feels like. Love is to the emotions as warmth and fuzziness is to the touch.

There is, in sum, an automatic and absolute need for symbol, metaphor or narrative, as Eliot pointed out, to speak of things psychic. This includes not just emotions, but “abstract” concepts like ego, justice, freedom, imagination, memory, or moral good. Important things: indeed, all our most important concerns. We must either tell a story to illustrate, like Romeo and Juliet, or use an objective correlative, like “my love is like a red, red, rose.”

Hence we make myths and compose literature.

Freud and Rank then are right in looking at myth and literature to validate their ideas of the psyche; but for the wrong reasons. Myth and literature are indeed our best sources on the interior life. However, it is not that myths and literature are spontaneous upwellings of the “subconscious.” It is not that they are the ravings of madmen. It is that they, uniquely, are able to describe interior states. Not referring to them is like trying to talk about mathematics without using numbers. The best and clearest thinking on such matters will be found there.

And so we accept the evidence of literature as valid.

But is Rank right to look specifically at hero legends for examples of neurosis? After all, these are not the only kind of myth, or of literature. What of the comic muse, which has nothing to say about heroes? Even among myths, the classic myth is the story of a god, not a mortal hero.

Rank argues for hero legends as definitive because, he says, the ego is bound to see itself as heroic, and therefore to identify as the hero. “The ego of the child behaves in this respect like the hero of the myth, and as a matter of fact, the hero should always be interpreted merely as a collective ego, which is equipped with all the excellences” (Rank, pp. 72-3). The hero legend is the story of the development of the individual ego. “Myths are ... created by adults, by means of retrograde childhood fantasies, the hero being credited with the myth-maker’s personal infantile history” (p. 84). This seems to have become an accepted principle, endorsed again by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. More specifically, Rank explains, “These neurotic children [who write the myths] are mostly those who were punished by the parents to break them of bad sexual habits, and they take their revenge upon their parents by their imaginings” (The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, p. 70). “Daydreams are neurotic and all about sex” (ibid., p. 69).

This fairly obviously cannot be so. Not all egos are egotistical, and therefore prone to see themselves as exceptional--as the hero of a heroic story. Protagonist, perhaps; but this is not the same thing. And even this is simple-minded as a reading of literature: the audience does not necessarily identify with a story’s protagonist.

Some people are humble by nature. Some people are depressed. Depressed egos would be, prima facie, especially disinclined to see themselves as “heroic,” and so unlikely to see themselves portrayed by a hero legend. Neither Hamlet nor Oedipus, indeed, are straightforward examples of the “hero” genre--as would be, say, Heracles, or Beowulf, or Rama. Even if the chorus or audience might hail them as heroes, and others might praise them in their respective plays, Hamlet and Oedipus are themselves strikingly prone to self-criticism. Ergo, Rank’s argument contradicts itself: if Hamlet and Oedipus are accurate reflections of the depressive or neurotic type, hero legends cannot represent this type; or not through the mechanism he proposes.

Yet this is Rank’s assertion: that depressives and neurotics created the hero legends as projections of their own inflated self-image.

Rank’s sampling of hero legends is also skewed in another obvious way. There is such a thing as a heroine in literature; but when we think “hero legend,” the hero of the legend is almost necessarily male—as the name implies. Merriam-Webster gives the meaning of the word as “a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability.” Oxford defines hero as “a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” Courage and strength are traditionally more characteristic of, and more admired in, the male.


And, as a matter of plain fact, all of Rank’s chosen examples are male.

This is odd since most of Freud’s patients, and probably Rank’s too, were female.

Women make up half the human population, and are reputedly about as likely as men to suffer depression. Accordingly, Rank’s selection cannot be giving us a full portrait of depression.

Nevertheless, once again, Rank’s selection may be useful, even if he arrives at it for wrong reasons. It was, in fact, often observed among ancient authors that heroes as a class tended to be melancholic. Gellius called melancholy “a disease of heroes” (Attic Nights, XVIll, 7, 4; R. Klibansjy, E. Panofsky, F. Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy, London: 1964, Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., p. 16). Aristotle pondered why “the tragic heroes, like Ajax, Heracles and Bellerophon … were melancholics” (Problem XXX; Saturn and Melancholy, p. 17). So, while the story of the hero may or may not be intended as a paradigm of melancholy, it may be understood as an example of it.

To be clear, judging by described symptoms, the ancients meant by “melancholy” largely the same thing we now call “depression.” Hippocrates writes “Constant anxiety and depression are signs of melancholy.” (Aphorismata; Saturn and Melancholy, p. 12). Galen writes, “Hippocrates was right in summing up all melancholy symptoms in the two following: Fear and Depression” (De Locis Affetis, 3, 10; Saturn and Melancholy p. 12).

DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) the official authority in the US for diagnosing mental illnesses, lists the first symptom of depression as “Depressed mood or irritable most of the day, nearly every day, as indicated by either subjective report (e.g., feels sad or empty) or observation made by others (e.g., appears tearful).” Anxiety or fear is not mentioned. The manual prefers objective, physical symptoms like weight gain or trouble sleeping. Officially, the two, anxiety and depression, are now considered separate “disorders.” However, anxiety is actually a common feature of “depression” as experienced. “Nearly one-half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder,” notes a New Zealand web site. Funny, that. I have even heard it said that it is a more common symptom of “depression” than depressed mood. For DSM 5, the latest version as of this writing, it was proposed to add “irrational worry, preoccupation with unpleasant worries, trouble relaxing, feeling tense, fear that something awful might happen” as an official symptom of depression. But apparently there was resistance to tinkering with such a “popular” diagnosis (; ).

So, why would heroes be depressive? Why would heroes, of all people, have low self-esteem?

We are no longer obliged, like Rank, to assume that self-described heroes wrote their own stories, or that the stories exist because listeners identify with the hero’s heroism. The stories can have been written by others out of admiration. So, without contradiction, the protagonist’s actual actions can be obviously praiseworthy, while he himself thinks they are not. This apparent paradox does, however, confirm something previously noted of Oedipus and Hamlet and neurotics generally: for whatever reason, the disturbance, as Freud put it, rides the strongest horse in the stable. In the examples we have seen, Dymphna, Oedipus, Ophelia, and Hamlet, the depressive tends to be exceptional in general: unusually beautiful, unusually intelligent, unusually athletic. Heroic qualities—great strength and courage—would be further examples of this.

One can also see why “low self-esteem” might well, contrary to modern pop psychology, lead to great accomplishment. If one feels good about oneself, one has that much less reason to prove oneself worthwhile. Simply being Hercules, and enjoying it, is enough. If one feels lousy about oneself, one has motivation to do something exceptional to justify one’s existence: something heroic.

Tristan and Isolde

Aside from seeing only male heroes, Rank’s choice of specific examples looks arbitrary, and he nowhere accounts for his selection. The web site ThoughtCo, “the World’s Largest Educational Resource,” gives a list of the “ten greatest heroes of Greek mythology” ( Heracles, Achilles, Theseus, Odysseus, Perseus, Jason, Bellerophon, Orpheus, Cadmus, Atalanta. Rank’s selection includes only two of them. He omits Ajax and Bellerophon, despite Aristotle having singled them out as examples of depression. He includes the life of Jesus as a hero legend--surely an unconventional choice. Yet, if he wants to use biographies of religious figures as hero legends, where are Muhammed, Zoroaster, the Buddha, Manes, Gandhi? None appear on his list.

One is led to assume that Rank’s selection is of legends he believes best illustrate and reinforce the thesis of a universal Oedipus Complex.

So, do Rank’s examples indeed demonstrate the reality of Freud’s Oedipus Complex? If not, if they fail to show the Oedipus Complex despite all this, surely it is thereby conclusively disproven.

They do not; they do fail to show it. There is a conspicuous lack among them of any visible effort or intent by said heroes to either kill their father or couple sexually with their mother—the two essential elements of Freud’s monomyth. Of Rank’s 15 examples, there are only two or three heroes who kill or try to kill Dad or some other father figure. There are two who marry Mom incestuously—both unintentionally.

Rank’s complete list: Sargon, Moses, Karna, Oedipus, Paris, Telephus, Perseus, Gilgamesh, Cyrus, Tristan, Romulus, Hercules, Jesus, Siegfried, Lohengrin.

Sargon: no and no.

Moses: no and no.

Karna: no and no.

Oedipus: yes and yes; but both are unintentional.

Paris: no and no.

Telephus: no and yes; but the incest is unintentional. Without either knowing the identity of the other, he is given his mother’s hand in marriage. The marriage is not consummated.

Perseus: yes and no. He does not kill his father, but he kills his grandfather unintentionally with a discus thrown at an athletic competition. He also kills Polydectes, who could be considered his step-grandfather--to protect his mother from incest. In other words, like Hamlet, he is portrayed as the opponent of incest.

Gilgamesh: no and no.

Cyrus: no and no.

Tristan: no and no.

Romulus: no and no.

Hercules: no and no. He does kill his tutor, Linos, who may be considered in loco parentis, a substitute for the father.

Jesus: no and no. The very thought seems absurd.

Siegfried: yes and no. He kills his stepfather, but in self-defense.


Lohengrin: no and no.

For comparison, let us see how Rank’s chosen examples accord with the Dymphna complex. Even though, for this purpose, they are purely randomly selected.

Broadly, to review, our “Dymphna Complex” hypothesis argues that the essence of depression is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); and that, in the normal course of things, the most likely source for the trauma is significant and systematic mistreatment during childhood. Such systematic and significant abuse most probably comes from selfish and abusive parenting. This may be most aptly represented in story by the parent, of either sex, either killing the child, trying to kill the child, or coupling with them for their own pleasure. Or, to suggest another obvious possibility, devouring them. These are not the only possible images, but they are the “objective correlatives” we have seen so far.

Let us see:

Sargon: his mother tries to kill him at birth. She is a high priestess; presumably she must rid herself of the inconvenient child because she was supposed to be virginal, and had an illicit affair. Her pleasure and position come first: the kid must die. Yes and yes—attempt to kill, selfish parent.

Moses: his parents try to kill him at birth. However, this does not necessarily signify. They did not want to kill him; the act was by command of the Pharaoh. But then little Moses is fished out and adopted by the Pharaoh’s unwed daughter, putting the Pharaoh in loco parentis. So, retroactively, yes, his step-father did try to kill him, with full intent. Moreover, interestingly, the marriage of his natural parents, innocent of malice as they might be, was also incestuous: Amram and Jochebed, his mother and father, were nephew and aunt (Exodus 6:20). This is a marriage relationship prohibited as incestuous in Leviticus. Pleasure and self trumped family responsibilities.

There is another anomaly in the Moses story that, as such anomalies always do, commands our attention and alerts us to look for further meaning. According to Exodus, the decree of the Pharaoh was to kill all male Hebrew children, but not females (Exodus 1:16). It looks as though this was to prevent these slave people from multiplying and becoming too powerful; this is a concern mentioned earlier in the text (Exodus 1: 9-10). But this cannot be the true explanation. One male can father many children; ask any farmer who keeps cows or chickens. But the number of children per female is more strictly limited. Mothers are the key. The way to prevent the Hebrews from multiplying would be to kill all the female children. As if to reinforce this point, Hebrew descent is traced through the mother.

The infancy of Cyrus

This contradictory detail may be there to alert us delicately that the real unspoken reason for the Pharaoh’s policy was sexual jealousy: kill the sons, and ravish the daughters.

In either case, this would not seem to have the best interests of the Hebrew children at heart. And so, in the case of Moses, we again have yes and yes: the parents attempt to kill the child, and the parents are shown as selfish.

Karna: his mother tries to kill him at birth. This is because she, a princess, is unwed, and an illegitimate child would prevent her from one day becoming a queen. So again yes and yes, wanting to kill the child and putting her own pleasures before her family responsibilities.

Oedipus: as we have seen, both natural parents tried to kill him at birth. One wed him, but without knowing. Or so she claims. Yes and yes.

Paris: his father, Priam, tried to kill him at birth. However, this was not for his own purposes, and with regret; he had been warned that the child would lead to the downfall of Troy. Accordingly, he cannot be accused of selfishness. Paris might himself be charged with indulging illicit sexual desires in abducting Helen; but at least they were not in violation of his family responsibilities. The violation was of Helen’s. This is not, then, a clear example of the Dymphna Complex: yes, he suffered trauma in childhood, but no, it was not due to a selfish parent. And he is, in turn, a dubious example of a hero. Heroes characteristically rescue the polis from danger: they do not cause the danger.

Telephus: his grandfather tries to kill him at birth. The case is complicated by Rank’s refusal to see women as heroes. The original abused child here seems to be Telephus’s mother, Auge; Telephus’s own fate looks like collateral damage, and his own story like an extension of hers. Auge’s father forces her to become a virginal priestess and refuses her her own life—a fine image of possessiveness. When she nevertheless conceives due to rape, the child is exposed, and she is sold into slavery as punishment. Her new master then adopts her, and, again abusively, tries to force her into a marriage—he gives her away as a prize. This marriage is actually, unwittingly, to her son, and so incestuous. Combined, Telephus and Auge seem to be male and female versions of a story of child abuse.

Auge’s father, in trying to prevent her from having her own life and family, and then in selling her into slavery, is surely behaving with extreme selfishness. That the selfishness and the refusal to allow his child to have their own life extends to the third generation accentuates the depth of his depravity. So, yes, and yes; in Telephus’s case, taking his grandfather as in loco parentis.

Romulus and Remus

Perseus: his grandfather tries to kill him at birth. As with Telephus, the story of his mother, Danae, seems to be as important as his own, and as famous. Her father locks her in a bronze tower, making his possession of her complete. Zeus nevertheless manages to impregnate her, appearing as a shower of gold, and so her father tries to kill both mother and child by exposure. In Pindar’s version of the legend, Perseus’s father is not Zeus, but Danae’s paternal uncle, who rapes her—another incestuous near-parent.

Cast on the waters in a sealed casket, Perseus and Danae are rescued by a fisherman; the fisherman’s brother is the local king, Polydectes. Polydectes, now her adoptive father or uncle, takes an illicit fancy to the lovely Danae, and tries to kill Perseus, her protector, to get him out of the way. Because the relationship is not by blood, this might not stand out as incestuous in our modern terms. But, as we have seen, the essence of incest in pre-Mendelian times was a violation of the responsibilities of the family, not blood ties.

According to the legend—and this is commonly the case in these legends—his grandfather wants to kill Perseus and his mother because an oracle has said her child will replace him as king. However, Acrisius, Danae’s father and Perseus’s grandfather, is already advanced in years and has no other children when Perseus is born. Nor, according to the oracle, will he ever have any other children. In other words, Acrisius is deliberately cutting off the royal succession, at great risk to his kingdom as well as the cost of both his children and his grandchildren’s lives, rather than accept the idea of ever dying. It is a mad attempt to remain king forever—an image of supreme self-centredness.

We have here, therefore, an especially clear and complete analysis of the Dymphna/abused child/hero complex, given in both male and female forms, and reiterated. Yes and yes and yes and yes and yes.

Perhaps we also have by now enough evidence to notice a common difference in legends of the heroine and the hero. The hero, male, is generally persecuted at birth, an attempt made on his life when he is still in infancy. For the heroine, female, the first plan seems instead to be to exert total ownership. Which looks like pampering, not persecution. But when the ivory tower is broached, at or after puberty, all hell breaks loose, and an attempt is made to kill her then. We have seen this with Dymphna, Ophelia, Auge, and Danae. We will see it again.

Gilgamesh: according to the Greek telling that Rank cites, his grandfather tried to kill him at birth. Again, that this was the grandfather rather than the father accentuates the selfishness: Gilgamesh was the second oppressed generation. “He [the grandfather] became a second Acrisius [the father of Danae] for his daughter, over whom he watched with the greatest severity,” says Aelian (Animal Stories). When the child is born, he is thrown off the Acropolis, while the mother-daughter is imprisoned. So this fits again with the male and female patterns: the son is killed, the daughter enslaved. Yes and yes.

Cyrus: his grandfather tried to kill him at birth. Here we have another story of two generations of abuse. The king feared his grandchild would replace him, and so forced his daughter into marriage with a foreigner of distinctly lower class, to ensure that her progeny would attain no power. Nevertheless, when he discovers she is pregnant, he decides to kill the child. Yes and yes.


Tristan: both his parents die when he is born. As a result, he might be assumed to have had a difficult, deprived childhood; indeed, he is named “Tristan” because he is said to have been “born in sorrow.” But in this case it is not due to selfish parents. This example supports the idea that depression comes from a traumatic childhood, but demonstrates that this trauma is not always due specifically to a selfish parent. Yes and no: childhood trauma, but not due to the parents.

Romulus: his story is similar to those of Telephus and Perseus. His great uncle forces his mother to become a vestal virgin, to ensure that no third generation could arise to replace him in his dotage—or even after his death. When she nevertheless conceives, the twin children are exposed at birth to kill them. If we accept a great uncle as a substitute for the father, yes and yes.

Hercules: his mother, Alcmene, tries to kill him at birth. He is later rescued and returned to her as a foundling, and raised by her without knowing he is her own son. As he is the illegitimate son of Zeus, Hera, Zeus’s wife, might be considered his stepmother. She tries to kill him repeatedly, and hounds him throughout his life, out of jealousy over the affair. This might not be selfish on her part; unjust, but not necessarily a matter of selfishness. But Zeus as father stands accused, and rightly, of a selfish indulgence in his own pleasures in violation of his family duties; otherwise this persecution would not have happened. Hercules is made to suffer for the sins of his father, as scapegoat or whipping boy. Some versions of the legend say his stepfather, Amphitryon, also tries to kill him in his cradle. In any case, Amphitryon later exiles him from the family home, requiring him to live on his own among cattle. Not a perfect childhood. Yes and maybe.

Jesus: his life is threatened at birth by King Herod. But then, by the same token, if for his sake, so are the lives of many others—the Holy Innocents. Herod is not his father, and not in loco parentis. There is no image of sexual impropriety involving either himself or his parents--a virgin birth suggests the opposite. One might at a stretch argue that he is put to death by his “Father,” God the Father. But this is incoherent in theological terms. To begin with, he is not put to death by the actions of the father, but by mankind. If his father ultimately wills this, it is no more nor less true that he wills it himself: he lays down his own life for his friends. And the son and the father are one in will and substance. No and emphatically no, unless you assume the story is the opposite of the truth.

There are arguably traces of the hero legend here, but the story of Jesus is clearly anomalous in this group. It does not seem to fit either with Freud’s theories; nor with the common features of other hero legends. I suspect Rank includes it only to be provocative, to suggest that our stories of Jesus are myths—which is to say, by his interpretation, insane ravings of the sex-driven subconscious.


Siegfried: Siegfried’s mother is accused by the villainous Count Hartvin of having adulterous relations with a servant. According to the legend, these charges are false; she is innocent. Hartvin accuses her precisely because she has, virtuously, refused his adulterous advances. It is Hartvin, not a relation, who is being abusive and selfish; although Sigismund, Siegfried’s father, can be accused of being a fool and disloyal to his wife in suspecting her. Siegfried is almost killed in his cradle, but by Count Hartvin, not by a parent.

Later, his stepfather, Minir, tries to kill him. Minir summons his brother, Siegfried’s adopted uncle, who is conveniently a dragon, to devour the boy. Siegfried kills him in self-defense.

The Siegfried saga, then, vaguely, but only vaguely, reflects the Dymphna complex: Siegfried has a lousy time of it in childhood, and this is partly due to a step-parent, partly due to another’s selfishness and sexual desires. Yes and partly.

Lohengrin: his childhood is not featured in the classic stories. He is a hero without an origin story. He appears when needed in a boat pulled by swans. Perhaps Rank felt he had to include him because of his stature in the German imagination, thanks especially to the opera by Wagner. Uncertain and unknown.

So, from fifteen samples—for our present purposes, random—we have thirteen traumatic childhoods. There is a plain attempt on the life of the child in thirteen cases. This is by a parent or step parent in eight cases; by a grandparent in four more; and once by great uncle. In six cases, at least one of the hero’s parents seems to have been guilty of a serious sexual impropriety, suggesting an excessive devotion to their own desires. In five cases, a grandfather forbids his daughter, the hero’s mother, any independent sex or family life, surely an expression of extreme selfishness, and reminiscent of the relationship of Polonius and Ophelia in Hamlet. In almost all cases, the stated reason for the oppression of the hero is that he is expected to grow up to replace the parent or grandparent in power. In none does he actually do so, except inadvertently in the case of Oedipus. Rather than showing any malice towards the parent, then, the stories uniformly show parental malice is unjustified.

Long: The Birth of Moses

The stories, in sum, even though hand selected by Rank as the best literary examples of the Freudian thesis, discredit the Freudian thesis. They fit well, on the other hand, with the Dymphna thesis: neurosis (and perhaps heroism) is caused by trauma, and most often by a selfish parent’s hellish abuse in childhood or adolescence.

How does Rank account for the discrepancy?

He does so by invoking a simple but unjustifiable principle of interpretation: that everything in myth and dream means the opposite if what it says. When the stories say the child is being threatened with death by the parent, he is actually being born: death is birth and birth is death. When the parents want to kill him, that means he wants to kill his parents. When the hero’s real father is the king, but he is raised by humble shepherds, it means his real parents are humble shepherds, but he fantasizes being a son of the king; and so on.

This does not, to be fair, apparently work with every detail. Girls are not boys, and boys are not girls; sons are not mothers, the sky is not below, and boats are not always found traversing dry land. It only works, one suspects, when useful for the Oedipal thesis.

Let Rank tell you himself. I am not making this up:

“The fictitious romance is the excuse, as it were, for the hostile feelings which the child harbors against his father, and which in this fiction are projected against the father. The exposure in the myth, therefore, is equivalent to the repudiation or nonrecognition in the romantic fantasy. The child simply gets rid of the father in the neurotic romance, while in the myth the father endeavors to lose the child” (Rank, op. cit., p. 73).
“The highborn parents are the echo, as it were, of the exaggerated notions the child originally harbored concerning his parents” (ibid., p. 82).

This is not a legitimate principle of literary interpretation. Literary works are consciously composed. Accordingly, this is to accuse the authors, if not raving insane, simply of lying. You need to have strong evidence for such a charge; Rank gives none, other than his supposed expertise from clinical observation. It is no more legitimate than to assert without evidence that the writings of Otto Rank or Sigmund Freud always really mean the opposite of what they say. It is, in fact, less legitimate.

Telephus sucked by a doe

If you not going to take the literal meaning of a text, you need some warrant for this: there must be a flag or clue in the source that a metaphor or symbol is intended. That is for any metaphor, let alone for a flat reversal of meaning.

In the case of the hero legends, we have a specific warrant that this is NOT permissible and is NOT the case: we are entreated by all that is good and holy in the stories themselves to read them as meaning what they say. In Shakespeare’s play, for example, it is extremely important to Hamlet that people say just what they mean, and not dissemble. Note his dialogues with Polonius and Osric. To him intent to deceive is anathema. So too with Oedipus’s determination to find the truth in his investigation of Laius’s death, no matter where the hammer of justice may fall. Lying is out of the question. Dymphna, in turn, is a saint of the Catholic church; with all that that implies regarding the Eighthi Commandment.

It would therefore be a violation of the core message, in a hero legend, to lie. There might of course be metaphors or figures of speech; but not lies.

There is however an obvious example at hand of another text which offers us just such a legitimate warrant to assume it may be lying. Ironically, Ranks and Freud’s casual suggestion that other texts can be read this way gives us reason to suspect Rank and Freud consider this fair play. They are thereby expressly reserving the right to do so themselves.

We have a right to suspect, therefore, that they see childhood abuse and the Dymphna Complex plainly enough, as we can, in these literary sources; but choose for their own purposes, whatever they might be, to deny it.

It is hard not to suspect this in, for example, Rank’s insistence that stories of exposing children to die must be purely fictional, while the reality is a desire to kill the father. This is especially hard to credit because we know, and knew when he wrote, that the ancient Greeks and Romans really did commonly expose unwanted children to die; as did most ancient civilizations. Yet parricide or matricide has always been considered a serious crime. So how can one reasonably assume infanticide is imaginary, and parricide the reality?

Elsewhere, Rank rightly observes: “The father who refuses to give his daughter to any of her suitors, or who attaches to the winning of the daughter certain conditions difficult of fulfillment, does this because he really begrudges her to all others, for when all is told he wishes to possess her himself. He locks her up in some inaccessible spot, so as to safeguard her virginity (Perseus, Gilgamesh, Telephus, Romulus), and when his command is disobeyed he pursues the daughter and her offspring with insatiable hatred” (Myth of the Birth of the Hero, p. 80). Exactly. And yet this shows the child’s animus against the parent? Plainly, the legends present a selfish and possessive father.

Sargon of Akkad

Rank surely stretches credulity again when he describes the parent’s attempt to kill the child as the child’s aggressive “desire to enforce his materialization even against the will of the parents” (ibid., p. 76). Can he really expect to be taken seriously?

Point, set, match. Judged by his own chosen evidence, Freud was 180 degrees off kilter. The many generations of sufferers who came to the Shrine of St. Dymphna for her intercession were right. Depression is due to childhood trauma. And the best among us seem to have known this for millennia.

iOr ninth, if you follow the Protestant numbering.

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