Playing the Indian Card

Friday, June 23, 2017

Of Freud and Oedipus

Oedipus and the sphinx

There are obvious similarities between the story of St. Dymphna and Freud’s “Oedipus complex,” which he proposes to be the root of all mental illness. Both involve the idea of parent-child incest. Both involve the death of a parent.

As Freud introduces his central idea:

“While he is still a small child, a son will already begin to develop a special affection for his mother, whom he regards as belonging to him; he begins to feel his father as a rival who disputes his sole possession. And in the same way a little girl looks on her mother as a person who interferes with her affectionate relation to her father and who occupies a position which she herself could very well fill. Observation shows us to what early years these attitudes go back. We refer to them as the ‘Oedipus complex,’ because the legend of Oedipus realizes, with only a slight softening, the two extreme wishes that arise from the son's situation―to kill his father and take his mother to wife.”

Sounds like the Dymphna story.

Surely this is important evidence that Freud was right?

But not to be too hasty, why is it that Freud hits upon the Oedipus story in the first place as the key to mental illness? With the Dymphna story, it is straightforward: we have the warrant of tradition. Obviously, her story said something somehow to the mentally ill. But the case for Oedipus is less plain. Why should we suppose this is what the ancient play is about? What distinguishes his play from thousands of others as being the final word on neurosis?

Freud answers, firstly, that he commonly finds similar motifs in the dreams of his neurotic patients. This would indeed seem good evidence; if we had it. Unfortunately, we do not. Unless we are practicing psychiatrists, we have to take Freud’s word for it.

What other warrant does he have?

Freud next appeals to the enduring popularity of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex as demonstrating that something in it strikes a psychic chord, resonates with our own experience:

“If the Oedipus Rex is capable of moving a modern reader or playgoer no less powerfully than it moved the contemporary Greeks, the only possible explanation is that the effect of the Greek tragedy does not depend upon the conflict between fate and human will, but upon the peculiar nature of the material by which this conflict is revealed. There must be a voice within us which is prepared to acknowledge the compelling power of fate in the Oedipus, while we are able to condemn the situations occurring in Die Ahnfrau [a German play by Grillparzer, 1817] or other tragedies of fate as arbitrary inventions. And there actually is a motive in the story of King Oedipus which explains the verdict of this inner voice. 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” (Interpretation of Dreams, p. 85).

True enough, if true; but doesn’t this apply equally to a baker’s dozen or more ancient plays that have remained just as popular for just as long? Antigone, Medea, Prometheus Bound, The Birds, and so on? Does Oedipus obviously stand apart in this regard? At least, did it, before Freud singled it out? Clearly, Oedipus Rex left a special mark on Freud; but is there evidence that this reaction is general?

Jocasta and Oedipus

This is not clear.

Third, Freud points out that the play itself makes direct reference to its central motif being encountered commonly in dreams:

“In the very text of Sophocles’ tragedy there is an unmistakable reference to the fact that the Oedipus legend had its source in dream-material of immemorial antiquity, the content of which was the painful disturbance of the child’s relations to its parents caused by the first impulses of sexuality. Jocasta comforts Oedipus―who is not yet enlightened, but is troubled by the recollection of the oracle―by an allusion to a dream which is often dreamed, though it cannot, in her opinion, mean anything: - For many a man hath seen himself in dreams His mother’s mate, but he who gives no heed To suchlike matters bears the easier life” (ibid., p 86).

Here is the same passage in Watling’s more modern-sounding translation:

Nor need this mother-marrying frighten you; Many a man has dreamt as much. Such things Must be forgotten, if life is to be endured” (Oedipus Rex, Watling, trans., 1947).

The point may be that this is a common dream—or it may only be that the oracle is as meaningless and random as a dream.

Freud further maintains that the thing is proven by the fact that we all ourselves, as we all well know, commonly have this dream—of marrying our Mum and killing our Dad.

“The dream of having sexual intercourse with one’s mother was as common then as it is today with many people, who tell it with indignation and astonishment” (Interpretation of Dreams, p. 86).
“It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so” (ibid., pp. 279-280).

They do? We do? We all have this dream?

The reader knows best if this is true for themselves. I have never had such a dream. Honestly. Am I unusually unoedipal in my concerns?

I ran a little survey, on my web site and on my Facebook page, simply asking whether anyone had ever dreamt of either killing or having sex with a parent. Response: nobody. Zero. Never. Of course, Freud would point out, most might be ashamed to admit it. But responses were anonymous.

But then, how could Freud for his part know if it was a common dream? Whom did he survey? 

Oedipus in old age.

I suppose that we can assume from his assertion that he found such dreams to be common among the mentally ill, and perhaps also among his psychiatric colleagues. Who else might he have asked, in the Victorian age, without the Internet? Are those he might have asked likely to be representative of the general population?

But never mind; if this does not signify, Freud has more evidence. Freud’s final point is that the same motif, of killing one parent and marrying the other, is common in literature. He refers to the work of his disciple Otto Rank, a classical scholar, as demonstrating this.

We will leave Rank’s work for another time. For now, this at least and at last gives us some objective evidence we can look at: literary sources. It makes our first and best bit of evidence thus far for Freud’s Oedipal theory its similarity to the legend of St. Dymphna―this being the sort of “literary” example Freud is appealing to.

Very well then. Does the Oedipus Complex fairly describe what we find in the story of Dymphna?

No. There are problems with it. Although critical elements are the same—death of a parent, incest―the tale of Dymphna and Freud’s Oedipus also diverge on essential points.

It is the very pivot of the Dymphna story that the Irish princess does not want sex with her father. Her father wants sex with her―and she dies rather than permit it.

Not much of a wish fulfillment, surely?

Freud would no doubt argue that this is a matter of repression by the superego. Perhaps; but we are left unable to trust any evidence at that point. If up can mean down, in can mean out, and yes can mean no, who can ever say what anything means? By such rules we can have no evidence at all. Aristotle had a point: either a thing is, or it is not.

According to Freud, while wishing sex with one, the child wants to murder the other parent. In the Dymphna legend, the parent murders the child.

It begins to look on the face of the evidence as though Freud got the thing backwards.

But then, take another look at the tale of Oedipus. It looks as though Freud got that backwards as well. The actual play, and the Greek legend, so far as we know it, conforms better with the Dymphna legend than it does with Freud’s analysis.

With the sphinx

Freud himself acknowledges, in a backhanded way, that Sophocles’s play does not match his posited complex. He writes, as if in explanation, that the play itself is a “modification of the legend” (Freud, op. cit., p. 247). But in fact, although some tellings have been lost, none that survive conform with Freud’s reconstruction. Elsewhere he writes, “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―in distortions, that is to say, of the kind which we are already familiar with as the work of a censorship” (Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis,1916-1917). So by his rules, anything that resembles his Oedipus complex, he is able to appropriate as evidence, even if valences are reversed.

Yes, Oedipus kills his father and sleeps with his mother. So far, Freud is right. But like Dymphna, and counter to Freud, Oedipus does not want to do either. There is no wish, and so no wish fulfillment, involved, on the literal reading of the tale. Like Dymphna, Oedipus goes to extreme lengths in the opposite direction. Having been warned by the oracle that this was his destiny, he flees home and family to prevent it. Like Dymphna, he chooses exile instead.

“At this I fled away, putting the stars Between me and Corinth, never to see home again, That no such horror should ever come to pass” (Watling translation).

The motif of exile, at least, appears in both legends. Yet Freud’s theory does not register this. The motif of strongly resisting the murder-incest is a match; yet Freud’s theory denies it.

With Oedipus as with Dymphna, it is the parent who wants to kill the child; the child does not want to kill the parent. Damon beheads Dymphna. Laius and Jocasta want to kill Oedipus, and try to twice, although they fail.

A good reason to become traumatized. On its face, a better reason to be traumatized than a mere repressed desire to kill your Dad.

Laius and Jocasta try to kill Oedipus when he is born. In The Phoenician Women, Jocasta gives a brief account:

“He, [Laius] yielding to his lust in a drunken fit, begat a son of me, and when his babe was born, conscious of his sin and of the god’s warning, he gave the child to shepherds to expose in Hera’s meadow on mount Cithaeron, after piercing his ankles with iron spikes; whence it was that Hellas named him Oedipus” (Coleridge trans.).

Jocasta’s report of the event in Oedipus Rex (Watling trans.):

“As for the child, It was not yet three days old, when he [Laius] cast it out (By other hands, not his) with rivetted ankles To perish on the empty mountain-side.”

Hence the name “Oedipus” (swollen foot): the character’s name suggests that this act of being exposed as a child, of being the victim of parental rejection and attempted infanticide, is definitive of his nature. Oedipus is perhaps the archetype of the rejected child.

Yet Freud makes nothing of this.

As to sleeping with his mother, in the story, neither Oedipus nor his mother Jocasta want this. They were both unaware of the true situation. Jocasta was simply awarded as spoils, with the throne, to whomever could answer the riddle of the Sphinx.

But if either could or should have been aware, it is Jocasta, not Oedipus.

While Oedipus does not know why he has a wound in his ankle, Jocasta might have guessed, having been present when it was inflicted. It is the sort of thing—a birthmark – that, in many another tale, establishes the identity of a long-lost relative. His name even puts the evidence in her face. Odd, then, that she suspects nothing. She is even, according to the play, aware of some physical resemblance of Oedipus to his father. Asked by Oedipus what Laius looked like, she answers, “about your figure” (Watling trans.) “In shape he was not all that unlike you” (Johnston trans.) ( On top of this, Oedipus declares it “public knowledge” that the oracle had predicted he would kill his father and bed his mother.

No, no. It’s public knowledge. Loxias
once said it was my fate that I would marry
my own mother and shed my father’s blood
with my own hands (Johnston trans.)
The prophecy matches that given to Laius. Jocasta must have known of both prophecies. Can she have been so blind? Could Sophocles have missed such a big plot hole?

Hence, if there were any incestuous feelings, they were again coming from the parent. Oedipus, never before having consciously set eyes on father or mother, categorically cannot have been guided by such feelings.

As if to drive the point of murderous intent home, Laius tries to kill Oedipus a second time, albeit they do not recognize each other, when they meet at the Davlia crossroads. It seems clear here that Laius is the aggressor.

This is Oedipus’s account (Watling trans.):

The guide there tried to force me off the road—
and the old man, too, got personally involved.
In my rage, I lashed out at the driver,
who was shoving me aside. The old man,
seeing me walking past him in the carriage,
kept his eye on me, and with his double whip
struck me on the head, right here on top.
Well, I retaliated in good measure—
with the staff I held I hit him a quick blow
and knocked him from his carriage to the road.
Laius’s driver tried to force him off the road, and Laius sucker-punched him on the way by.

Granted, we have only Oedipus’s account; and he is not an impartial witness. But the truth of his report is supported by the circumstances. Would a solitary traveller on foot, and even perhaps slightly lame, have started the fight, against six armed and mounted men?

So if the two stories indeed speak of the inner workings of the psyche, the freight of the Oedipus legend, as of the Dymphna legend, is that parents often have an innate desire to destroy their children, or to own them utterly, or both.

And not vice versa.

The guilt of Laius, the father, might have been much clearer to Oedipus’s first audiences than to Freud. Sophocles’s Oedipus was not the first ancient play to deal with the descendants of Laius. There was already Euripides’ Phoenician Women and Chrysippus, which covered some of the same ground. There was a trilogy by Aeschylus, which won the Athenian drama prize in 467 BC: Laius, Oedipus, and Seven against Thebes. Note that for Aeschylus, the story of Oedipus was, so to speak, the middle act. 

Unfortunately for us, most of these earlier plays—this context familiar to the original audience, on which Sophocles was relying—have been lost.

But we can see ourselves there must be important earlier bits to the story. Where did that sphinx come from? Why was she blighting the polis when Oedipus first arrived?

She came thanks to Laius. Laius is the first cause, in all of this.

We know from surviving fragments and references that Laius, before he ascended the throne of Thebes, had been taken in as a guest by the royal house of Pisa (Elis). He was made tutor to the royal prince, Chrysippus. Unfortunately, Chrysippus being unusually good looking, Laius developed a homosexual attraction to his student. When Chrysippus rejected his sexual advances, Laius kidnapped and raped him, “while still a boy.” Some sources (e.g., Euripides) say Chrysippus then committed suicide for shame; others say he was killed on orders from his stepmother, who resented him.

This was, of course, a profound violation if Laius’s moral duties as a guest and as a tutor, a profound violation of hospitality and of proper gratitude. One might well say this was the action of someone who sees other human beings as mere objects, there to satisfy their wants and desires. Laius’s character is thus established. His actions at the Davlia crossroads reinforce this portrait.

As a result of this crime, Pelops, the king of Pisa, cursed Laius with being in future killed by his own son. The goddess Hera reacted, independently, by sending the sphinx (Apollodorus, 3.5.8).

Here we seem to have a third version of the Dymphna complex. Take “teacher” here as equivalent to parent—as we commonly consider it; we say in law that teachers function in loco parentis. Then Laius’s rape of Chrysippus was equivalent to another parental incest.

Presumably, after all, the trauma here does not depend on being assaulted by one’s parent, specifically, but by someone with near-absolute control over you, from whom you are supremely vulnerable and from whom you expect and need instead help, support, and the nurturing of your own individuality.

And, in one version of the story, Chrysippus too, like Dymphna and like Oedipus, was killed (or, in the case of Oedipus, murder was attempted) by a parent.

By this repetition of the motif, it is doubly emphasized that Laius is the cause of it all, of all that follows; for he is the guilty party in both. Oedipus and his infantile subconscious had nothing to do with it.

Even within Sophocles’s surviving play, Tiresias makes the guilty parties plain: “A swift and two-edged sword, Your mother's and your father's curse, shall sweep you Out of this land.” It is the fault of the parents, not of baby Oedipus.

This doublet of Oedipus in Chrysippus also suggests that killing one’s child and having sex with them are not opposite tendencies, but expressions of the same tendency—as they are in Dymphna’s legend. Like Damon, Laius does both. Both are the exercise of absolute ownership, absolute possession; of seeing the child as object. Just as an old Southern slave master might, as he preferred, either rape or kill his property.

And, in this Chrysippus doublet, as in the Dymphna legend, we see what seems a clear connection with depression, if not with other forms of mental illness: in the one version, Chrysippus commits suicide as a result.

Depression is portrayed plainly enough in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex as well; even if Freud does not remark upon this. Oedipus seems to be the model of the depressed person in Greek legend generally. When Homer, long before Sophocles wrote, mentions Oedipus, in the earliest known reference to the character, he concludes “he remained king of Thebes, in great grief for the spite the gods had borne him” (Odyssey, XI.271ff). Euripides introduces Oedipus in The Phoenician Women as “that awful sufferer,” and adds that “his misfortunes have unhinged him.” Depression is apparently the traditional and expected denouement of the action. Self-blinding and self-exile seem to be visual representations, what Eliot called “objective correlatives,” to make the emotions more dramatic, more presentable on the stage. The metaphorical darkness is represented by a physical darkness.

But Sophocles ably depicts the experience if depression in words as well. After Oedipus discovers his true identity, “his torture’s more Than man can suffer, as yourselves will see” (Storr trans.):

Dark, dark! The horror of darkness, like a shroud,
Wraps me and bears me on through mist and cloud.
Ah me, ah me! What spasms athwart me shoot,
What pangs of agonizing memory? (Storr trans.)
O dark intolerable inescapable night
That has no day!
Cloud that no air can take away!
O and again
That piercing pain,
Torture in the flesh and in the soul’s dark memory. (Watling trans.)
Where is there any beauty
For me to see? Where loveliness
Of sight or sound? Away!
Lead me quickly away
Out of this land. I am lost,
Hated of gods, no man so damned (Watling trans.)

He wanders “A thrall to sorrow worse than any slave” (Storr trans.)

You get the picture: that is depression.

But here again we have a problem for Freud’s analysis of the tale.

Freud’s proposed solution for neurosis, for depression, for “mental illness” generally, was to talk it out and reveal its roots. Psychoanalysis is often called “the talking cure.” You analysed, with your analyst, and together tracked things back to that first trauma. And knowing and acknowledging this freed you from its effects.

Rather as happens in the play.

Indeed, Freud saw the unravelling of the Oedipus riddle as the very model of analysis. “The action of the play,” he writes, “consists simply in the disclosure, approached step by step and artistically delayed (and comparable to the work of a psychoanalysis) that Oedipus himself is the murderer of Laius” (The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 85).

Unfortunately, the action of Sophocles’s play produces the very opposite of the claims of psychiatry. Oedipus himself is doing well, so long as he knows nothing of his childhood abuse. The play even underlines this:

Till now the storied fortune of this house
Was fortunate indeed (Storr trans.)
He is loved and respected by everyone; he is a king on his throne, the saviour of Thebes.

We judge you
the first of men in what happens in this life
and in our interactions with the gods. (Johnston trans.)

It is the analysis, the revelation of his childhood abuse, which causes his neurosis—more than the fact of the abuse itself.

Oedipus’s immediate reaction to the revelation of his upbringing is to of blind himself: he has seen too much.

Her dress was pinned
With golden brooches, which the King snatched out
And thrust, from full arm's length, into his eyes―
Eyes that should see no longer his shame, his guilt,
No longer see those they should never have seen,
Nor see, unseeing, those he had longed to see,
Henceforth seeing nothing but night ... To this wild tune
He pierced his eyeballs time and time again,
Till bloody tears ran down his beard – not drops
But in full spate a whole cascade descending
In drenching cataracts of scarlet rain (Watling trans.).
Not a great ad for analysis.

Freud writes, “King Oedipus, who slew his father Laius and wedded his mother Jocasta, is nothing more or less than a wish-fulfilment―the fulfillment of the wish of our childhood.” (Freud, op. cit.) But if this were so, why would Oedipus not be happy at the end of the play? Why would he suffer instead? He has had his wish fulfilled. And, if the worry was public or social disapproval, no matter. As he is king, nobody can gainsay him. Ask Laius. He is one of life’s great winners: he has pulled a royal flush.

On the basis of Freud’s own chosen evidence, unfortunately, the very worst thing you could do for someone suffering from mental illness would be to put them under psychoanalysis.

As Tiresias observes, as if assigning a moral to the play, “when wisdom brings no profit, To be wise is to suffer.” Better not to know.

Till now the storied fortune of this house
Was fortunate indeed; but from this day
Woe, lamentation, ruin, death, disgrace,
All ills that can be named, all, all are theirs (Storr).

Oedipus dies, one play later, without being cured of his manifest depression. At the point of death, he still speaks of being “enslaved to misery Far worse than any other mortal man.” (Johnston trans.) If there was a cure for his suffering, it clearly was not just talking things out.

Freud misses altogether, perhaps because it violates his theory, another important point of similarity between the Dymphna and the Oedipus narrative. Both Dymphna and Oedipus are presented as moral paragons. Freud reverses this by making Oedipus’s subconscious ultimately responsible for his own suffering.

Dymphna is, after all, a saint of the Catholic (and Orthodox) Church. She chooses exile and death rather than dishonour. But more—with the money she took from her father’s treasury, according to legend, she set up a charity to aid the poor (

Oedipus is shown throughout Sophocles’s drama as selfless. “To help his fellow-men With all his power,” he observes at one point, “is man’s most noble work.” When petitioners approach him at the opening of the play, he assures them, “I would willingly do anything to help you;… while you suffer, none suffers more than I. You have your several griefs, each for himself; But my heart bears the weight of my own, and yours And all my people’s sorrows.” Indeed, had he been content with his own happiness, and ready to leave the common people in their misery, he never would have come to grief.

When Creon asks if Oedipus would rather hear the oracle in private, he responds, indicating the populace, “Their plight concerns me now, more than my life.” It is his very generosity and selflessness that brings his own curse upon him:

“Nor do I exempt myself from the imprecation:
If, with my knowledge, house or hearth of mine
Receive the guilty man, upon my head
Lie all the curses I have laid on others.”

When the chorus urges that he pardon Creon, he concedes this with the words “let him go; even though it mean my death Or exile in disgrace.” When Tiresias warns that following up this matter may lead to “Your great misfortune, and your ruin,” he responds, gallantly, “No matter! I have saved this land from ruin. I am content.” Others always come first.

This, surely, is intended as a telling contrast to the selfish actions and attitude of Laius, who thinks of himself first, and of others not at all. To miss it is, it seems, to miss something utterly central to the legend.

As well as being exceptionally moral, Oedipus and Dymphna seem to be exceptional in general; exceptional in several ways.

Both, of course, are of royal blood; and so is Chrysippus. All are princes and princesses. It could be that this indicates that the problem here described is especially common in prominent families. After all, they say that the homes of the great are commonly haunted. And this makes some obvious sense: those who tend to be self-aggrandizing are those who, in the natural course of events, are most likely to gather to themselves an excess of wealth and power. And so they are those most likely to treat their children as their possessions. Portraying the parent as a king or queen may also be an outward symbol of their own self-importance: they think of themselves as the rightful kings of all that they survey. It then follows that their child is a prince or princess. But it is also true, and probably sufficient explanation, that being noble makes one a more suitable subject of a story. It is more or less required to be the hero of a tragedy. Although one wonders here which comes first: the dramatic requirement, or some reality that spawned it.

It is part of the essential legend of Oedipus, at least, that he is also exceptionally intelligent: he solves the impossible riddle of the Sphinx. This seems significant, because we have studies indicating that a higher IQ is related to a higher likelihood of suffering depression. Medical Daily cites a study, for example, finding that those who earned straight As in high school are four times more likely than the average to experience “bipolar disorder,” a.k.a. manic depression. “More than 30 studies have linked higher intelligence to mental health disorders including major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and others.” (Matthew Mienta, “Why Smarter People Are More Likely To Be Mentally Ill,” Medical Daily, Feb 24, 2014, So it seems there is a link; reflected too in the old saying that “Genius is next to madness.” The Oedipus legend seems to be aware of this, and perhaps to explain it.

It is tempting to think, and some have proposed it, that being intelligent simply predisposes one to depression because the world is, seen right, depressing. But, based on the legends we have here, this seems to give intelligence too much prominence. Oedipus is exceptionally intelligent: but there is nothing of this in the legends of Dymphna or Chrysippus. Moreover, it is not only in intelligence and in morality that Dymphna and Oedipus excel. Dymphna is also exceptionally beautiful; and so is Chrysippus. As the Catholic Encyclopedia recounts the legend, “After the death of her mother, who was of extraordinary beauty, her father desired to marry his own daughter, who was just as beautiful.”

I once signed up for a depression encounter group in Toronto, summoned by an ad in a local paper. I looked around at the first meeting, and was struck by one overwhelming fact: this was an awfully good-looking group of people. Most also turned out to be artists.

Great place to pick up chicks.

Oedipus and Chrysippus are also exceptionally athletic: Oedipus kills six trained men, even after they have gotten in the first blow. The remarkable nature of this feat is underlined by an initial claim that the deed was done by a “band of robbers.” Creon reports of the one retainer who returned from the encounter, “His story was that robbers―not one but many―Fell in with the King’s party and put them to death.” It is, in other words, too much for most to believe it was done by just one man. Chrysippus is a competitor in the Olympic Games.

So the point is not that the child is exceptionally intelligent, but that he or she is exceptional in general. Indeed, the fact that the child is exceptional is plainly presented as crucial to his or her fate. Dymphna’s beauty is why her father is drawn towards her. It is why Laius is drawn to Chrysippus. The oracle that Oedipus will slay his father implies that he will, full grown, be the greater man. And we see that his exceptional morality and his intellectual curiosity are the keys to his destruction. In the Dymphna legend, her generosity also plays a part: agents of her father are able to track her down by the Irish coins she has given to the poor.

Why would this be?

It stands to reason that, to a self-centred parent, the fact that the child stands out as exceptional would be a red flag. If possessed, it makes him or her a more valuable possession. If released, it makes him or her an existential threat. Should he/she threaten to eventually eclipse the adult—that is intolerable. It suggests the parent is not the centre of the universe.

Hence, perhaps, the two alternative reactions to the gifted child given by the myth: either incest, total possession, or murder, total elimination.

The tendency has more than once been noted by analysts for the best and brightest within a family to suffer most from neurosis. I once had a professor who quoted often the saying that “the neurosis rides the strongest horse in the stable.” I have been unable to trace it; he claimed that it came from Freud. One also thinks of Alice Miller’s study, The Drama of the Gifted Child. She sees giftedness, although she defines it very broadly, as a precondition for mental illness.

There is another striking point of similarity between our legends. Freud’s interest, of course, is how to cure “mental illness.” But neither Dymphna nor Oedipus are “cured.” Both simply suffer and die.

But they both cure others. Their suffering, it seems, is redemptive. Both are saviour figures.

Dymphna ministers to the poor in life. After death, presumably by dint of her experience, she is able to intercede, as a saint in heaven, for others who suffer.

Oedipus is presented, even at the very start of Sophocles’s play, as a saviour; someone with special powers to help others. He saves Thebes from the sphinx. When the petitioning chorus approaches him at the outset of the drama, they refer to him as “the first of men in what happens in this life and in our interactions with the gods” (Johnson translation): he is held to be a prophet or a shaman. After the action of the play, in Oedipus at Colonnus, he says, “The words I say have visionary power.” Wherever he goes, he brings blessing:

By remaining in that land I would bring
advantages to those who welcomed me
and ruin to the ones who drove me out. (Oedipus at Colonnus, Johnston trans.)

If there is healing here, it would seem to be in the stories themselves; the legends. In learning them, repeating them, and in appealing in veneration for the help of the honourable figures of Dymphna, Oedipus, and Chrysippus, we sufferers in the audience can be healed.

This indeed, according to Aristotle, was what tragic drama existed to do.

Unfortunately, Freud and psychoanalysis seem indeed to have gotten it all backwards. The root of “mental illness” is not unresolved infantile sexuality, but abuse by a parent or parent figure. They have probably been doing more harm than good.


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