Nov 18, 2013

The Real Story of Oedipus Rex

Oedipus and the Sphinx, by Gustave Moreau

If you ask the layman what he knows about the Oedipus story, he'll likely mention something about wanting to sleep with your mother and killing your father. Fair enough, that does happen in the story. I find, however, that the classic approach to the story is severely lacking. While Oedipus' story certainly contains a metaphor which is useful for psychoanalytic theory, it is only one part of the story. The myth does not begin and end with the desire for the mother and the fear of castration. In fact, it begins and ends with the same image: a blind seer. In order to understand Oedipus, even and especially the psychic process, we need to take the story as a whole.

The myth begins, as many do, with a prophecy. Oedipus was the newborn son of a king and queen, and, being good despots, wanted to make sure this new son wouldn't screw everything up for them. However, first we need to take a look at the prophet himself, given that the blind seer is an image that appears in both beginning and end. Oedipus' parents sought out the oracle of Delphi, although I believe it would be appropriate to consider the Theban prophet Tiresias, who is also famous for having been a woman for seven years. From Wiki:

On Mount Cyllene in the Peloponnese, as Tiresias came upon a pair of copulating snakes, he hit the pair a smart blow with his stick. Hera was not pleased, and she punished Tiresias by transforming him into a woman. As a woman, Tiresias became a priestess of Hera, married and had children, including Manto, who also possessed the gift of prophecy. According to some versions of the tale, Lady Tiresias was a prostitute of great renown. After seven years as a woman, Tiresias again found mating snakes; depending on the myth, either she made sure to leave the snakes alone this time, or, according to Hyginus, trampled on them. As a result, Tiresias was released from his sentence and permitted to regain his masculinity. This ancient story is recorded in lost lines of Hesiod.

So Tiresias, having been both of sexes, was summoned when Zeus and Hera were having an argument as to whether men or women enjoyed doing it more. Tiresias declared in no uncertain terms that it was the woman. As he soon found out, though, women do not want men to know this: Hera struck him blind. Zeus, however, to make up for his lost sight, gave him the gift of prophecy. This fact will be important when we reach the end of Oedipus' story.

The king and queen went, then, to see a prophet about the new heir. This prophet told them that Oedipus would eventually murder his father and marry his mother. Evidently, the king, Laius, hadn't paid attention when his tutor told him about Chronos and Zeus, and decided that the best course of action was to simply get rid of Oedipus. Prophecies, though, are self-fulfilling: it is exactly this abandonment that will eventually lead to Oedipus murdering his father and marrying his mother. So obviously the infant survived the attempted murder, and eventually came to be adopted by the royals of a different city.

Saturno devorando a su hijo,  Francisco de Goya

This point is particularly important: I mentioned the Chronos and Zeus story because it is exactly because it was prophecied that a son of Chronos would replace him as ruler that Chronos tried to eat his children. Needless to say, that's exactly what caused Zeus' (Gaia's, really) ire. The same is true for Narcissus - check here for an in-depth look at the Narcissus myth. To me, this alludes to the idea that we are the creators of our own realities. If we interpret a myth as we interpret a dream, then all the characters in the myth are the different facets of a single psyche. It can be reasoned, then, that Tiresias is an aspect of Oedipus, meaning that it was Oedipus himself who determined his fate. The circumstances around which his early development took place are the determiners of his destiny.

Oedipus, naturally, is not an actual person, but a stand-in for man. That this story continues to be relevant thousands of years after it was first told evinces its universal character. It doesn't matter if you were born in Qing-dynasty China or in 1960s San Francisco, we humans all go through the same psychological development, but it is the very deviation from the standard development that makes us all individuals. Our parents, our communities and our cultures screw us, yes, but it was our choice to be born into those given circumstances, so the important question to ask is: why? It's a cliché that talented artists generally had rough childhoods, but it's true nonetheless. Without those misfortunes, they would have been mere cogs in the machine.

Which brings me to another important point: Oedipus is a king. At first glance, the king's job seems to be to essentially run the kingdom, and that much is true, but it goes deeper than that. The psychodynamic function of the king is to serve as example and inspiration. The king is the city-/state's source of vital energy, it is his decisions that determine the fate of the country. That is to say, the king in this sense is able to exert his free will. His subjects cannot do so, not because they have no free will, but because they haven't developed to the point that they can be responsible for thousands of others. I don't need to tell you what happens when a king doesn't serve as the moral compass of his nation: examples abound in human history.

The king represents the man with the divine conscience, with the knowledge that he is all that he is because of his own will. This man is aware of the inescapable nature of his roots, but he is also brave enough to make choices that go against his programming. Thus, the story of Oedipus is that of a man's journey to a higher counsciousness. To take it literally is making the exact mistake that Oedipus himself avoided making. We'll return to this when we get to the Sphinx.

No, that's not an empirical depiction

So Oedipus is raised in another family, but he eventually learns about the prophecy made for him. Since he thought the prophecy referred to his adoptive parents, he left the city so that no harm would come to them. For a man's life to be truly his own, he must decide to leave his parents' house, that is, to make choices that go against the desire of the family-cum-society. Whether he stays in the city or moves away is, in this context, irrelevant - what matters is the person made a choice of their own.

Naturally, however, our past comes to confront us. As we grow, we come to realise that though we have left our parents' house, our parents have never left us. After all, the way we do things was learned exactly by repeating what our parents themselves did, on many levels. As a matter of fact, leaving your parents' house, metaphorically speaking (but remember the whole point here is that everything is a metaphor), is a way of protecting them, because just as we need to develop from youth to adulthood, so do they need to develop from middle age to old age, and that is much harder to do if you are still responsible for your children after they've grown.

Oedipus, then, leaves on his own, and on the road encounters a stranger, who insists that Oedipus move out of his way. However, Oedipus has made his choice, so he doesn't budge. This stranger is, of course, Laius, Oedipus' real father, and you know what happens next. This means that Oedipus is no longer a servant of his nomos, and he makes his own choices. However, he is not yet fully aware of this, as shown by the fact that it will take him years to realize that he had killed his own father. He is also unaware that, though he may have killed his parent, his parent's influence made him who he was, they defined his carnal existence.

It is the father's role to instigate the expression of individuality in his children (as opposed to the mother's role of providing the child with the raw materials it needs to develop). This takes form in one of two ways: the father as protector, as representative of the family, who assures his son that he is free to make his choices because he can always come home if things take a wrong turn; and the father as critic, as taskmaster, pointing out the mistakes he makes and the duties he must fulfill.

Our hero then learns of the ravages plaguing the nearby city of Thebes, which is where he actually comes from. This is when Oedipus begins his real journey into his own soul. Because he has left his true desires, his heiros, to the side, he must now win it back. That he was raised in Corinth shows that he had been living a life that was not his - that is to say, it is the life he chose to accomplish some purpose, but he is not "at home", as it were. Of course there are many who want to be where they were born, but then this is not a story about a man who stayed in his home village.

The source of the misfortunes in Thebes is the Sphinx, a horrible monster (?) with the head of a woman, the body of a lion and the wings of an eagle. She is, of course, but an aspect of his psyche, and you don't need a doctorate in psychoanalysis to see how monsters in our head represent repressed aspects of the psyche. The Sphinx seems to me a rather crucial element of the story - it is only after facing the Sphinx that Oedipus is ready to truly face his mother.

It's important to remember once more that this is a dream. All the characters are objects in his psyche, which represent not the actual people but facets of the dreamer's mind. Thus, Oedipus did not actually murder his own father (to the extent that Oedipus was a real person), but murdered the father-object that unconsciously restrained/castrated him. Likewise, he probably heard the story of the Sphinx in Egypt one day, and that particular object came to represent a shadow aspect of his soul. And this, then, is the rest that Oedipus, and thus the listener/reader by analogy, must face when confronted with the Sphinx.

Oedipus explains the riddle of the Sphinx, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
In what is probably too well-known to be a true puzzle anymore, the Sphinx asks Oedipus: what animal has four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon and three in the evening? Oedipus, though, is ready, and he knows the answer: man himself. It doesn't seem like a particularly difficult puzzle, but it's not the puzzle per se which is the key but rather what the puzzle represents. In realizing that the riddle did not ask a literal question, he was able to see what was actually behind the riddle: an ability to think metaphorically.

And there's the rub. This whole story is a puzzle, nothing is literal here. In showing that he's ready to confront events not as things per se, but as representations of what's going in his mind, Oedipus demonstrates that he is ready to be accountable for his own choices. After he answers the puzzle correctly, the Sphinx throws herself from a cliff, back into the deep portions of the mind. Oedipus, meanwhile, is treated as a savior and made king, since the previous king, his father, had obviously gone missing.

The result is that Oedipus marries his own mother, Jocasta, and while at first he is not actually conscious of the fact that it's his mother, this is actually true for most men. Look at any man's wife, and from the right angle you can see how strikingly similar she is to his own mother, if not in appearance then in temperament. And there is nothing wrong with this! This is simply part of the natural development of a man's psyche, and the sooner he recognizes this the more able he is to be genuinely himself. He chose his mother, after all.

If we consider the cross of the psyche, we have the nomos/superego at the top and the heiros/id at the bottom. That the nomos is usually represented by the mother and the heiros the father in no way means that literally the mother played the mother's role and vice-versa, although this is often the case. The nomos is what we draw from the Outside, that which we consume and which was provided by our family and environment. Normally it is the mother who literally carries out this role, but many people do so throughout a person's life. The heiros, on the other hand, is that connection between our incarnate self and our discarnate self, or Higher Self, or soul.

So our mother feeds us, both materially and energically, and gives us the nourishment we need. Naturally, we realize that she is the provider of life, and we long to return to the Eden that was her womb, where everything around was one, and where we had everything we needed. Now, once born, we feel the material world castrating our desires, so we want to go back to mommy, and sometimes we do. This is why our desires are almost always associated with our mother, and why we end up marrying women like them. As long as we don't do it literally though, everything ends up OK. It's the father's job to show the boy that it's ok to be castrated sometimes, it doesn't stop you from achieving your desires.

Does that look like a man with mommy issues?

I am speaking here, of course, of the archetypical male's journey - surely women also have a superego and an id, but the polarities are different, so the story plays out differently. Further on I'll look at myths where women are the main characters, such as the stories of Elektra and Antigone (which are connected to Oedipus anyway).

Oedipus then finds himself king of Thebes and husband to his mother. Now, if you've been following, you'll understand that he is actually married to a woman who looks/behaves like his mother, you don't need to wonder about the age difference - has has children with this woman. Eventually the queen finds out she has been married to her son, and kills herself. Oedipus has accepted and integrated his mother-object to the point that it is a part of himself, of his subjectivity, and no longer needs to be projected onto a psychical object.

In the story, Oedipus finds his mother's corpse and discovers the truth (actually, he knew it all along). He takes a pin from her clothes and stabs both his eyes, becoming blind. And here the story comes full circle - remember that this all started with a blind seer. What does the blindness represent? The prophet does not need eyes to see. He understands that everything is a metaphor, and is thus able to interpret patterns and cycles. Oedipus has attained self-knowledge to the point where he no longer needs to rely on his mother-object, while at the same realizing that he is a product of his heritage.

If the king is the man who has taken charge of his life, the seer is the man who has accepted his life. Fire is the element associated with consciousness and vital energy, and its three zodiacal signs shows the three stages of the development of this consciousness: first is Aries, the warrior, who has a desire and therefore willpower, but whose desires are a product of his commander; second is Leo, the king, who has broken from the bonds of his past and is now fully responsible for his own life and his own choices; third is Sagittarius, the prophet, who has understood the mission he has carried out, and is able to see his patterns repeated before him.

So what does the Oedipus myth teach us? It teaches us that we need to accept paradoxes in life because it is in these very paradoxes that lies meaning. It teaches us that we are responsible for everything about us, not only our own bodies and lives but everything that happens around us. We have made choices, and the more we are aware of these choices, the better we can become at carrying them out. Oedipus teaches us that while it certainly is our parents' fault that we turned out screwed up the way we did, it was your choice to turn out this way in the first place - the trick is to understand why you made those choices, and accept them rather than avoid them. He teaches us that our first, primeval desire is indeed for our mothers, but that it's ok because that's the only way we can have a desire in the first place.

Now that you know where your desire comes from, it is time to refine it. Certainly there are aspects of your desire that you believe to be moral or ethical, and some that you believe to be just wrong. It is up to you, then, to give in to or to forgo those desires, and to accept responsibilities for those choices. Understand that while everything that happens to you is in some way about you, nothing that happens is exclusively about you either. So to what extent does your desire come into contradiction with others' desire? What lessons can you learn from all those interactions?

Are you ready to answer the riddle of your own Sphinx?

Oct 20, 2013

The Fourfold Youniverse, pt. 2: the Elemental Man

In the first part of the series, I discussed the division of reality into the four elements. The four elements, together with the three essential qualities, give us the twelve signs of the zodiac. This provides us with another reason to refute astrology as the heavens somehow causally affecting events on Earth - the zodiac is about the intrinsic qualities of life on the planet (perhaps of all reality, but I doubt that - either way, who's to say what astrology is elsewhere?).

This is where the value of Fire reveals itself: most are busy making a microscopic analysis of the facts, and only a few care to take a bird's-eye view of the matter. When you look at an ant, it's hard to understand its purpose, why it does what it does, but look at the colony as a whole and you'll start to get the picture. Likewise, while there certainly is some worth to a dividing, detail-oriented approach, the truth can only be seen if the results of that approach are compared with the results of a macro approach.

At ground level, it's just a weird neighborhood

I've always had a soft spot for movies when it comes to art, which is easy to tell. The reason is very simple: insofar as art is an expression of the collective unconscious, movies are the way it can be done with the element of time (it is possible via other art forms, such as photography, putting pictures in a chronological order, but if you do that, it starts to become less photography and more cinema anyway). Movies, then, tell the stories that we as a whole dream about - stories that always express the archetypes of Earth, just as your dreams express your own archetypes.

Coming back to psychology first, though, let's take another look at the four functions of the psyche. I have always felt that the standard psychoanalytic dynamic of ego/superego/id was somehow lacking (not to mention that the id is critically misunderstood - but don't take my word for it), just as the traditional Father/Son/Holy Spirit division also lacked its fourth element. Well, until the assumption of Mary in 1950, that is.

Thus, in order for my own concepts of the psychoanalytic dynamic not to be confused with the classic, I'll be giving them different names - which of course carry their own load, but I'm not going to invent gobbledygook either. So the superego and the id, as a whole, are more or less clearly defined, which led me to see the ego as actually being a conflation of two opposing factors. We have then:

Nomos then corresponds to the superego, and heiros (meaning 'sacred') to the id. It should be clear that, where Freud saw a depository of repressed memories and desires, I see rather a connection to that part of us which lies outside of space and time - our soul, as it were, but not that ghosty thing inside your body that a lot of people will imagine. The function of the element of water in our psyche is to act as a connection to our higher self, as it were, which includes, of course, our memories. It's easy to see that memory retrieval is hardly logical, or even coherent. The heiros is your guardian angel, that voice inside your head - which is a part of you, not someone else, remember - that tells you to do something crazy that turns out to actually work. Yes, the devil is part of the sacred too.

That leaves us with eros and logos. Eros, the element of fire, represents our desire, our will, our consciousness, not to mention our ability to make choices. Without the eros, the individual will be nothing more than a slave to the outer rules, the nomos - he won't even move, really. However, it's certainly not easy to make choices, especially when the inner feeling conflicts with the outer norm. This is where the logos comes in: it is the mediator between the nomos and the the heiros, the helper, the logical thinker.

The eros is also what we would consider to be our identity. An identity, something that differenciates you, is what allows you to separate from the nomos. However, all the archetypes are within us, even the ones we consider diametrically opposed to our identity. We thus need to project those conflicting archetypes, to use others as a way of expressing that archetype without feeling like you lost yourself. That's where the logos comes in - it acts as a mediator between yourself and that part of yourself which are most distant from. This is why the logos will usually appear in one's dreams as a person of the opposite sex - as Jung would call it, the anima or animus of the individual.

Cupid and Psyche, by William Etty

So if all the characters in your dream are just the different aspects of yourself, it would seem to make sense to take the characters in a movie as the different aspects of a single individual - usually the main character, but it doesn't really matter who the dreamer is, since movies are telling collective stories, to which each of us can relate in varying degrees. This explains why there is romance in just about every film - we are unconsciously attempting to get in touch with our other selves.

Take the classic romance story. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, but some form of authority (parents, customs, governments, etc) comes in the way, and they can't be together, until boy receives help from an unlikely source and they are able to defeat the authority and finally get together. In order to become individuals, we must separate ourselves from the collective, the outer rules, and choose our own paths, and that is why movies are the predominant art form of the post-modern age. We all want to be individuals, desperately, to have our own story.

It's the same for everyone: in order to grow and to protect ourselves from the chaos of earthly life, we need to have a sense of structure and order, which we get from our parents, teachers, governors, etc. As we continue on the journey, the world itself changes, and sometimes the old rules don't work out anymore. It's not easy, though, to change the structure, because it makes us feel helpless, powerless. The help we need is also within us, however. This is where the heiros comes in - it's that part of yourself which allows you to reform the nomos, as it were, a process that will always involve pain and loss. Very often, we are depressed because we recognize intuitively that something is not right, but we cannot seem to know what. It's hard to tell which rule is wrong.

However, we usually don't realize that the losses and pain we go through serve a purpose, and are there ultimately for our own benefit (which can, admittedly, be hard to see). Most believe that the ultimate purpose of life on Earth is happiness, but if you look at the system objectively, you'll be hard-pressed to find indications that this is actually the case - in fact, it would be much easier to argue that the very purpose of life of Earth is suffering and difficulty. But then, if it were easy, it would be no fun.

The four functions of the psyche correspond to the four quadrants in an astrological birth chart. Thus, a person who has many planets in the 1st quadrant (1st to 3rd houses) will generally be rather eros-driven, and will be particularly prone to the qualities and defects of eros, that is, particularly concerned with their own identity and their own will. There is a particular paradox that occurs, then, when the 1st quadrant is filled with planets in the signs of the 3rd zodiacal quadrant, for example the person with a Sun in Libra in the first house. However, these opposing qualities allow the person to reduce the paradox, the complexio oppositorium, to its core. So, to spin the circle back to movies one more time (I include TV series in the category, of course there are distinctions but the medium is essentially the same), let us concretize, and see an example:

Elementary. Look at that word again, and remember that it means 'simple'. Archetypes are elementary. Well, well. So if we psychoanalyze the series, so to speak, we should be able to see the dynamics quite easily - and indeed, they are in your face. The Sherlock Holmes character was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin. Poe was the grandfather of the modern mystery story, and in one of the stories, "The Purloined Letter", the eponymous letter, desperately sought by the police but never found, was in fact hidden in plain sight. Likewise, the mysteries of the universe aren't locked away in some secret alcove, rather, they're right there on TV, looking at us.

Here is the IMDB synopsis, if you haven't seen the show:

Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is a recovering addict who meets Joan Watson (Lucy Lui) as his 'sober companion'. Initially their relationship is strictly professional, and somewhat frosty, but they grow to understand and work with one another, eventually forming a friendship and partnership. Together they assist Captain Gregson and Detective Bell of the NYPD, where Holmes' observational abilities and deductive talent unravel a series of complicated cases.

Alongside his police work, Sherlock struggles with a past he left behind in London involving an ex-girlfriend Irene Adler, a 'nemesis' in Moriarty, and an absent father.

Let us imagine then, that all four main characters (for dream-interpretation purposes, two people can represent the same character) represent the four elements. Watson is the main character, the series is about her, not Holmes. She was originally a surgeon, but became a sober companion, and then a detective after meeting Holmes. All of those are about helping other people. Additionally, she possesses many characteristics associated with Libra: she is generally cheerful and pleasant, she has a good sense of fashion and tends to be indecisive at times, and she's quite sympathetic.

Holmes, on the other hand, is impulsive, prone to temper tantrums, aggressive and selfish, characteristics of Aries. Since the main character here is a woman, it stands to reason that the logos would be of the opposite sex. Furthermore, he's British, that is, a foreigner, and foreigners in dreams represent aspects of ourselves that are very strange or distant to us. Watson, representing the Libra archetype, has a natural tendency to reject Aries characteristics, but there comes a time in everyone's life when they must confront their logos, the aspect of ourselves we project on others. This becomes particularly poignant during our 40s, and is what most people mean when they talk about midlife crises. Yes, Watson is middle-aged (Lucy Liu is 45).

Captain Gregson and Detective Bell, the police generally, represent the heiros of the dreamer. This might seem counter-intuitive at first, because usually the police are the agents of the nomos, of the repressive authority, but if we have an inverse chart then that's what fits. Either way, you'll notice they're not the prototypical cops: they're helpful and protective at times, and challenge and confront at other times. The role of the heiros is double, at once defending and criticizing, but the objective is the same: to get the dreamer on the right path, whichever that might be. I'll leave you to figure out how Moriarty is Cancer - to do so myself would be to spoil the first season.

Remember that clothes broadcast our identities

So, if the nomos is the bad guy, what's it doing there? Well, we all have our shadow side. It might seem right to suggest that Moriarty is amoral, but I would argue otherwise: Moriarty is unethical, not amoral. He doesn't play by anyone's rules but his own, but he has his own rules. The nomos exists because it is our structure, it is the stuff that we are made of. Without an internal structure, we are at the mercy of the elements (har, har). This is why Capricorn, the sign of the nomos, is represented by a mammal, which has a bone structure, and Cancer, the sign of the heiros, is represented by a crab, which has an exoskeleton instead (that is, a soft interior). It is only with an inner structure that we survive the outer conflicts, and with an outer structure that we survive our inner conflicts.

The nomos has the resources that we need at our disposal. In the case of the show, Moriarty has all the deductive resources, let's say, that are necessary, as evidenced by the fact that he is constantly outsmarting Holmes. Holmes himself is the epitome of rationality, and thus accurately represents the logos: our critical faculty, our ability to judge facts objectively, to get outside our own skin, as it were. The thing about the logos, though, is that it is completely amoral, in the sense that any choice can be rationalized - it's a cliché example, but the nazis justified their actions with science too. Thus, just as Watson needs to Holmes to be an objective analyst, Holmes needs Watson (and the cops) to be his moral compass.

It's fitting that the show is about assassinations, too. When someone is nomos-possessed (and note how Watson is extremely subservient to her parents), that is, when the superego is running the show, he or she will not hesitate to "kill" any aspects of self that are a threat to the status quo. However, a human being, just like the Earth itself, is a self-regulating system, and that's where the logos comes in. Its function, as I mentioned earlier, is to act as a balancer between the nomos and the heiros. When it detects that the nomos is unfairly powerful, it comes to the rescue - in this case, in the form of an Aries investigative detective. It's interesting to note that Scorpio (Mars rules both Aries and Scorpio, fyi) is the sign of criminal investigations and death, but also of psychology itself. It is also the sign of sex, which is a literal representation of the reduction of the complexio oppositorum.

Before teaming up with Watson, Holmes had been in rehab after excessive use of heroin (there's that Scorpio again). Frequently, people who overdose on drugs, or attempt suicide in general, are doing so as a call for attention. The logos needed to get the eros's attention, and indeed it did. Previously, Holmes had lived in London - far away from Watson's conscience. Interestingly, Watson was hired by Holmes's father; interesting because the heiros and the logos compose the patriarchal, right-hand side of the wheel. After all, father is absent - there had, until now, been an excess of nomos and a lack of heiros.

If the role of the superego is to consolidate the individual, to establish the rules, it is the id's job to question those rules, in short, to reform the superego. To sum up the first season of Elementary, Holmes and Watson become gradually aware of the existence of Moriarty, who always seems to be two (or ten) steps ahead. In the final episode, and it's no spoiler to say this, they finally manage to outsmart and thwart Moriarty. Watson is finally able to begin reintegrating her broken self, and rid herself of the excess weight dropped on her by her parents. She has become the Elemental Woman.