Melanie Klein and The Oedipus Complex

    Last week, I talked about sublimation in general, and the continuous nature of our behavioral development. Today I will talk about a specific instance of sublimation, and one of Sigmund Freud's most controversial ideas: the Oedipus Complex.

    Contrary to popular belief, Freud's idea is much deeper than the arbitrary statement that "men want to kill their fathers, and sleep with their mothers". In fact, I believe the reason Freud framed it in these specific terms is because his research was based on the observation of dysfunctional adults. Because of that, the work of Melanie Klein, who based her work on Freud's, but focused on both healthy and dysfunctional children, gives us a much better understanding of the subject.

    Klein identified a constant in human development: the first entity we interact with to a significant degree is our own mother. Since our associations (conceptual and pre-conceptual) are created out of concrete observations, and previous associations, and the first instance of the association "object/entity/thing" is our mother, that relationship sets the context for our future integrations and differentiations.

    She identifies that, since we are able to perceive the sensations of pain and pleasure even before we can properly identify specific entities, they give rise to the pre-conceptual associations of "things-that-cause-pleasure/joy/life" and "things-that-cause-pain/suffering/death". Our primary instances of pain and pleasure come from interactions with our mother - namely, pleasure is experienced through the act of breastfeeding, and pain through the act of waiting for our mothers to realize we need to be fed.

    Klein points out several other key identifications that start in the mother-baby relationship, like the perception that existents can change while maintaining their identity. The perception that both "mother the feeder" and "mother the denier" are the same entity, for example, is the first instance of identifying apparent opposites in the same entity. These associations are the context out of which we will later develop key concepts like "subject", "object", "positive", "negative", "aspect", "good" and "evil", and the metaphysical value-judgements associated with them. It is easy to see how, once a child has developed the very general value-judgement that "objects cause pain", or "different aspects means different entities", they would set a very problematic context for his subsequent valuations.

    A baby, however, is not yet able to differentiate between multiple forms of pleasure and pain, and between its multiple drives. Sexual, emotional, dietary and excretive pleasure, for example, are all perceived as one thing, and judgements are very general, along the lines of "painful entity must be destroyed", or "pleasurable entity must be incorporated". The more complex judgements of an adult are not created "out of nothing" throughout his life, but as differentiations of these general judgements, developed as a child.

    Freud's Oedipus complex is the identification that our adult value judgements are ultimately sublimations of the judgements we made in infancy. His "sleeping with the mother" is a (rather shocking) way of representing the infant's perception of "good object must be pleased, and made one with me", while his "killing the father" is a representation of "bad entity that causes the absence of good entity must be completely destroyed".

    Contrary to much of the criticism, it isn't the deterministic idea that our infancy determines our future, but the rational acknowledgement that knowledge is built out of previous knowledge - which means our first experiences, mediated by our mothers, are very important to our development as people. In practical terms, is also the acknowledgement that, if someone has psychological problems, their relationship with their mother is a very reasonable place to look for answers, precisely because it is so important.

  -  April 28th, 2020