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Oedipus Untold

August 24, 1986|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

In Sophocles' play "Oedipus Rex," the King of Thebes, piecing together hints, memories and accidental disclosures, infers at length a grim truth: He has killed his own father and married his mother. The purely intellectual character of the play--as the self-analysis of the king rather than the dramatic enactment of his crime--commended it to the psychologist Sigmund Freud whose self-analysis had come to an analogous conclusion.

Piecing together hints, memories and accidental disclosures from his own life, Freud had inferred the existence in his mind of unconscious, Oedipus-like feelings: Sexual attraction to his mother, anger and guilt toward his father. He named this complex of feelings the Oedipus Complex, explaining it psychologically as the continuation into adult life of the love he had felt as an infant for the first object presented to his affection, his mother, and as the parallel continuation of the resentment he felt toward his father as rival for his mother's love. By postulating that such infantile erotic experience and its unconscious continuation into adult life were universal, Freud had, loosely speaking, the original sin necessary for a new religion; for if all men suffer the psychic dislocation of such an Oedipus complex, then all need to discover in themselves what Freud discovered in himself. In brief, all need the revelation of psychoanalysis.

FOR THE RECORD - Freudian Slip
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 7, 1986 Home Edition Book Review Page 8 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Sigmund Freud's father, Jacob, was incorrectly called "Josef" in "Endpapers--Oedipus Untold" (The Book Review, Aug. 24).

What Freud expected the analyzed man to discover by psychoanalysis was, however, not that he had actually killed his father and married his mother but precisely, and paradoxically, that he had not done so, only wished to do so. Oedipal action would preclude normal love and work. Oedipal feelings would not, not once they had been identified as mere feelings. Before that point, they would be disruptive indeed--unconscious attraction to mother being, for Freud, the root of the neurotic failure to begin an adult love life and unconscious resentment of father being the root of a parallel failure to assume and accept authority in adult work. In short, the triple postulate of psychoanalysis is that these feelings exist, that they (and not some other supposed set of feelings) are the cause of neurosis, and that in principle the recognition of them cancels their effects.

At this point, the stage would seem to be set for yet another refutation of the oft-refuted Austrian physician. But rather than refute, I propose only to enlarge, and at that, not through any new work of revisionist psychoanalysis (the bibliography of psychoanalysis already exceeds one million titles) but instead through a new dictionary of classical mythology. In short, instead of another look at Freud, I propose another look at Oedipus.

Pierre Grimal's "The Dictionary of Classical Mythology" (Blackwell Reference: $34.95; 8 by 10 inches; 602 pp., heavily illustrated) has been for a generation the premier one-volume classical reference work in French. Now published in a fine translation by A. R. Maxwell-Hyslop, it bids fare to replace the till-now standard "Oxford Classical Dictionary." To be fair, the OCD does not intend to be a compendium of classical mythology but rather one of all classical learning. The result, however, is that on classical literature and mythology, about which most modern readers surely care more than they do about classical history, the OCD (unillustrated, by the way) is less detailed and in every way less interesting than Grimal.

Though we speak conventionally about the rebirth of classical learning in the Renaissance, innumerable actual Greek and Latin books lost during and after the barbarian invasions were lost for good. The Italian Renaissance could do nothing to resurrect them.

What modern classical learning could and did do was meticulously assemble allusions to and citations from these lost works. By an archaeology of literature that has proceeded now for five centuries, classical scholars have come to know an astounding amount about poems, plays, epics, philosophical dialogues, and the like, all of which, strictly speaking, have perished. A work like Grimal's represents the late and mature form of this venerable intellectual rescue mission. One stands before it in wonderment.

The tragedy of Oedipus, to take just that one example, was in its day an expansion of and a reflection upon an episode in the now-lost epic of Oedipus. The ancient Greeks saw the tragedy against the background of the epic (and against the still more congested and fertile background of the myth) rather as we might see "Gone with the Wind" against the background of the Civil War.

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