‘O Heavenly Rain,’ a Poem by a Friend

Here’s a poem by another Facebook friend of mine, Amy Elizabeth Sisson Riberdy. (Here’s more of her poetry, if you like what you read below, Dear Reader.) Again, I’ll be putting the poem in italics to distinguish her writing from mine:

O dark grey heavens, give it your all
Open! – Release the iron floodgates
Of rushing rains and crashing thunders
Send those healing waters rushing down
To a parched and hungry world that thirsts
For the nourishing life only you
Can give down to him and me and them
And all who cry for the mercy of
Your rain

O shrouded heavens, cool the dry ground
With your pounding, seething cleansing rains
As we lift our pleading mouths to drink
Let the swords of angels tear and rend
The dark shrouds to free the cascading
Torrents of great black billowing clouds
That rise above our beseeching hands
We pray thee, O merciful heavens
Please let loose the soothing showers of
Your rain.


O merciful heavens, drench the dust
Of white hot desert sands and fill these
Mud – caked rivers to the very brim
With all that man desires to savour
Let me swim in your cooling blessings
Caressing your refreshing embrace
And be lost eternally down in
Swirling waters of endless oceans
Cleansed forever in the freedom of
Your rain

…and now, for my analysis.

The yearning for rain immediately made me think of King Lear in Act III, Scene ii, lines 1-9, then lines 14-24:

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world!
Crack nature’s molds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!…”

Then,

“Rumble thy bellyful. Spit, fire; spout, rain.
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children;
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak and despis’d old man;
But yet I call you servile ministers
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engender’d battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. O, ho! ‘Tis foul!”

The next piece of classic writing that her poem made me think of was the Great Flood narrative in Genesis, a drowning of the Earth to wipe away all of sinful mankind and replace it with Noah’s righteous (or so they’d seem) family.

Now, the contrasts between these three literary examples of great rainfalls are themselves great. Amy is begging for rains that will restore life to the dried and dying earth. Lear is saying that the rain may be as cruel to him as it pleases. God floods the earth to cause death to all sinners.

Yet, even in these contrasts we can see points of dialectical comparison. Amy wants to “Send those healing waters rushing down/To a parched and hungry world that thirsts.” (thesis) Lear would be accepting of the cruelty of the storm (negation); for the very destructiveness of the Great Flood will rid the world of evil, purify it, and allow for new life in the end (sublation).

To enjoy “the mercy of/Your rain,” we must first accept the pain of a purge of all that is evil, “With your pounding, seething cleansing rains.” When “the swords of angels tear and rend,” we again see the juxtaposition of harshness and violence (“swords…tear and rend”) with sweetness (“angels”). We cannot have happiness without sadness.

Nobody likes going out in the rain and getting soaked, but we need rain to water our plants and give us food. So, in order to live, we must experience unpleasantness. As Robert Plant once sang, “upon us all a little rain must fall.”

Though God destroyed the world with rain, Amy calls up to the “merciful heavens” to “let loose the soothing showers of/Your rain.” Lear would have pour the “horrible pleasure” of the rain. In all three cases, one is grieved to one’s heart. Amy is grieved by the drought she sees all around her, be that a literal or metaphorical one. God is grieved and regretful of the sinful humanity He sees on the Earth. Lear is grieved by the wickedness of his two daughters, Goneril and Regan, and by the good daughter, Cordelia, to whom he was so wicked in disowning. All three would be relieved of their pain…through the powerful downpour of rain.

Amy would “swim in your cooling blessings/Caressing your refreshing embrace”…that is a really beautifully written line, such music in the words. She’d “be lost eternally down in/Swirling waters of endless oceans,” reminding me of my oft-used metaphor for Brahman, the title of a song I wrote years ago, and the title of my blog. She’d be “Cleansed forever in the freedom of/Your rain.”

“Your rain” is a refrain appearing three times. This trio can be symbolic of the dialectic I noted above (thesis/negation/sublation), the Trinity, the Hindu Trimurti, the triple-goddess, or any other conceivable group of three, for three is a magical, richly-symbolic number, representing beginning, middle, and end. Indeed, the three verses can be seen to symbolize three massive rainfalls, or even three huge raindrops, if you wish.

Rain’s wetness irritates, but it also cleanses.

Let it fall.

‘Where Do the Words Go,’ a Poem by a Friend

Here’s another poem by Clelia Albano, author of “I Can’t Breathe.” (I’m putting her words in italics to distinguish them from mine.)

Where do the words go when they are detached from things, when a slip
of the tongue subverts the sprout of a thought.
Have they a separate existence
from ours?
Do they take a walk through the promenades of parallel worlds?

– I don’t want to get too deep –

My eyes sting, imagination is in standby.
Neither a good food nor relaxing music can help me.
Where are the words I repent I uttered, the words I eagerly whispered.
Where are the words of my dead,
the words of my mother, the words
I screamed, I spelled out loud as
a child, the ones I learned coupled with drawings of leaves, nuts,
strawberries, bottles, ships, cats
and dogs, frogs, trees, tables and chairs, mom and dad, roses and stars,
houses and cars…
Do I exist without words?

And now, for my analysis.

This is a poem about the regret we feel when we say things we shouldn’t have. In my analysis of a new poem by Jason Morton, I wrote of how words can help us break free and can heal us. But sometimes, of course, words hurt. No matter how hard we try, we cannot choose words too carefully.

Words fly out of our mouths like projectiles, hurting those whose ears hear them. Or, to use a more classically allusive simile, words are like all those evils that all-too-curious Pandora released from the jar (pithos). Once they’re gone, we can never retrieve our words. They’re lost to us.

“Where do the words go”? Clelia asks, “they are detached from things” that would keep them safe from hurting others, the pithos of our would-be closed mouths. It’s too late “when a slip of the tongue subverts the sprout of a thought,” the sprout being the unconscious, which Lacan said is structured like a language.

Do words have “a separate existence/from ours?” Are they in “parallel worlds?”…that is to say, are they so far removed from our world that they’ll be eternally inaccessible to us? She would so much like to retrieve all the words she wishes she never said.

Going “too deep” might involve discovering parts of her unconscious that frighten her. Her eyes “sting” from the regret she feels over seeing the pain in the eyes of others because of her words. Her “imagination is in standby” because she doesn’t want to imagine the pain she has caused those she cares about, with the words that flew out of her mouth too quickly.

No food or music can soothe the guilt she feels from the pain she unintentionally caused others, from those words “eagerly whispered.” There aren’t only her words, though, but also “the words of [her] dead” (long-lost family and friends) and from her mother, words that hurt her, too, and which may have provoked her own regretted words, “the words [she] screamed.”

Now, these lost words aren’t only harsh ones. Sometimes they’re of pleasant things, coupled with things like “leaves,/nuts, strawberries, bottles, ships, cats/and dogs, frogs, trees, tables and chairs, mom and dad, roses and stars,/houses and cars.” As a poet, she loves words, and when they fly out, she can feel that she’s lost them forever, too. Perhaps if she got them back, she imagines that she’d have the opportunity to revise them and make them even better.

As writers, do we “exist without words?”

As a blogger, I find it inconceivable that we can exist without them.

Analysis of the Electra Myth

I: Introduction

The story of Electra has been one of the most popular and oft-repeated in Greek myth. All three of the great ancient Greek tragedians–Aeschylus (i.e., The Libation Bearers, part two of his Oresteia), Sophocles, and Euripides–wrote plays based on her story of avenging her father’s murder; Richard Strauss also wrote a one-act opera, Elektra, with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal that was loosely based on Sophocles’ version.

I’ll be basing this analysis more on the versions by Sophocles, Euripides, and Strauss than on Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, since Aeschylus’ is the second part of a trilogy of plays that ought to have its own, separate analysis, and since its plot is to a considerable extent repeated (and even parodied) in Euripides’ version. Besides, Aeschylus’ Electra is a supporting, rather than lead, character.

As I discuss the themes of this narrative, it should be noted that I validate Freud‘s rejection of Jung‘s term for the female version of the Oedipus complex, the “Electra complex.” Yes, Electra loves her long-dead father, Agamemnon, and of course, she hates her mother, Clytemnestra; but her love for her father is in no way incestuous–it’s purely out of filial piety and devotion. Her mother isn’t a rival to her father’s love: Electra hates her for having plotted his murder with her lover, Aegisthus.

Accordingly, as I did for the most part with my analysis of the Oedipus myth, I won’t be discussing the female Oedipus complex, or “Electra complex,” or whatever one wishes to call it. I will, however, incorporate a number of post-Freudian psychoanalytic concepts, in particular, Kleinian notions of psychological splitting.

II: Backstory

One must begin with a discussion of the backstory of the Electra myth. Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, was bound by oath to help retrieve the beautiful Helen of Sparta, wife of his brother, Menelaus, after she was abducted by Paris and taken to Troy, thus starting the Trojan War. To ensure safe sailing from his home to Troy, Agamemnon was told he had to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia.

It is safe to assume that he took no pleasure at all in offering the girl to Artemis. As the sacrifice was being carried out, he must have been shaking, and his eyes must have been dropping apologetic tears for a daughter he so dearly loved. Still, he was bound by oath to help his brother get Helen back, and keeping one’s honour was considered more important than life in those days.

In some accounts of the story, the girl was really killed, but in other versions, she was spirited away from Aulis, by Artemis herself, just in time; and she lived from then on among the Taurians. Either way, though, it was still believed by Clytemnestra that her husband had had their daughter killed.

Added to this outrage, Clytemnestra had been without a man to share her bed for years, as the Trojan War had kept Agamemnon away from home for ten years. So she found a paramour in Aegisthus, with whom she’d plan to kill her husband when he finally returned. His having brought home a concubine, the prophetess Cassandra, did nothing to redeem him in his wife’s eyes, of course.

So when he returned from Troy with Cassandra, and took a bath–no one ever listening to her prophecies that he’d be murdered soon (Agamemnon, lines 877-1121, pages 44-55), since she was cursed never to have her accurate prophecies heeded–Clytemnestra threw a net over him, and Aegisthus hacked him up with an axe (in some versions, his wife killed him herself). Cassandra was killed, too, by Clytemnestra.

Electra’s brother, Orestes, was sent away in exile, cared for by an elderly tutor, out of fear that the boy’s mother and her new husband, usurping King Aegisthus, would have him killed to prevent him from coming of age and killing the king and queen to avenge Agamemnon. Also, while timid, boot-licking Chrysothemis, Electra’s sister, has continued to live well in the palace, spiteful Electra has lost the privileges of being a princess, and now lives no better than a peasant (In Euripides’ play, she even marries a peasant, though the marriage is never consummated.).

III: The Story Begins

Sophocles’ drama opens with the tutor and Orestes discussing the plan to trick Clytemnestra and Aegisthus into believing her feared son has been killed in a chariot race. This ruse will allow Orestes to enter the palace safely, unsuspected and anonymous.

Euripides’ play begins with Electra’s peasant husband–a kind man not only sympathetic to her plight, but also respectful of a princess’s virtue, not wanting to soil her virginity–who describes her predicament (Electra, lines 1-53, pages 237-239).

Strauss’s opera opens with the thundering leitmotif representing fallen Agamemnon, a second-inversion D-minor triad whose notes are played in succession, but with the root beginning and ending it: D-A-F…then D again. A number of servants ask where Elektra is, then mention how harsh they find her; only one servant sympathizes with her, and this servant is flogged for disagreeing with the rest of them.

We soon hear the Elektra chord, a dissonant one that combines two triads in different keys–one in E major, and the other in C-sharp major–to make up a complex polychord, an eleventh chord. The bitonality of this chord suggests Elektra’s psychological splitting, her bifurcated, black-and-white thinking regarding her parents. Agamemnon is all-good to her, while Klytaemnestra is all-bad.

It is healthy for a child to regard his or her parents as being combinations of good and bad; such is the integration seen in what Melanie Klein called the depressive position, but Elektra’s splitting is what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position–paranoid out of a fear of persecution from the hated, frustrating parent. (This persecutory anxiety will be fully developed when Orestes is hounded by the Furies at the end of the story, as I explain below.)

This splitting happens in her internal world as well as her external world, for we all make internal representations of our parents in our minds, and these internalized objects have a profound influence on how we perceive and react to the world around us. So Elektra’s grief over the murder of her father, and her rage at her mother and Aegisth spill over into her relationships with everyone–hence her nastiness to all the servants.

Elektra is one of Strauss’s most modernist and dissonant works (along with Salomé), using a chromaticism that stretches tonality to its limits. This use of dissonance reflects the tormented world in not only Elektra’s mind, but also in Klytaemnestra’s, in the queen’s guilt, bad dreams, and fear of being murdered by Orest (“Ich habe keine guten Nächte”).

IV: The Turning Point

Strauss’s opera follows Sophocles’ tragedy in having Orestes send the palace a false report of his death, whereas in Euripides’ play, there is no such ruse (in The Libation Bearers, Orestes has only those in the palace know of the ruse–his mother, his old nurse Cilissa, Aegisthus, etc., but not his sister–lines 627-629, page 96); Electra learns early on that her brother is alive and has returned to kill their mother and Aegisthus.

Having Electra temporarily believe that Orestes is dead works better in my opinion, for it raises the dramatic tension. While Euripides’ having Electra marry a peasant emphasizes her degradation to the lower classes, she’s already plenty degraded in Sophocles’ play and Strauss’s opera without the poor husband, however still living in squalor; and her lonely misery is heightened to near despair when she learns of Orestes’ ‘death.’

She desperately tries to get Chrysothemis’ help in the plot to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, even claiming (in the opera, “Wie stark du bist”) that her sister has a strength and courage she so obviously lacks; then, when Chrysothemis still timidly refuses to help, lonely Electra, despising her sister, feels her despair intensify (Electra, lines 100-1040; line 1140, pages 99-100; page102).

Then Orestes arrives.

At first, he maintains that he’s just a messenger passing on the sad news of Orestes’ death, reinforcing her sorrow; but when he realizes she is his sister–dressed in rags instead of properly adorned as a princess, and wishing to hold the urn containing his supposed ashes–he reveals his true identity to her (lines 1202-1249, page 106).

This is the peripeteia (reversal of fortune) and anagnorisis (recognition) in Sophocles’ play and Strauss’s opera, the latter of which emphasizes the shock with screaming dissonances in the music that then calm down in a decrescendo, resolving in a sweet tune rocking back and forth between a suspension fourth and a major key, up and down in waves from fourth to major third, D-flat and C.

The diametric opposition between her despair and her relief, expressed in the music between the extreme dissonance and gentle harmonic resolution described above, can be seen dialectically in the manner I often compare with the ouroboros, a phasing from the serpent’s bitten tail of despair to its biting head of relief; since the head biting the tail represents, as I interpret it, extreme opposites on a circular continuum, the ouroboros’ coiled body.

While, in Part XII of my analysis of the Oedipus myth, I discussed how there is little to be seen as different before and after the peripeteia and anagnorisis, that is, of Oedipus losing all doubt that he’s fulfilled the prophecy of patricide and incest with his mother; in the Electra myth, the despair before, and joy after, the recognition scene are truly like black and white.

This split between sorrow and joy that is made in the recognition scene is a parallel with the psychological splitting that Electra feels between the family she loves (Agamemnon and Orestes) and the family she hates and despises (her mother and sister). This splitting must be examined further.

V: The Ultimate Toxic Family

“In marriage there ought to be some safety,
but nothing is ever secure, and love can go bad
in a moment, and husbands and wives will look at each other
in utter loathing. And parents will come to despise their children
as Althaea, Meleagar’s mother, grew to hate
her son–and she threw his life’s log
onto that burning grate.” –second chorister, The Libation Bearers, lines 569-575, page 94

One interesting thing about Electra and Orestes is that, for all their loyalty and filial devotion to their father, they seem to have little, if any, regard for what he did to their sister, Iphigenia. All that matters to them is Clytemnestra taking on a lover and killing their father. She is thus the ‘bad mother’ and he the ‘good father,’ without any thought as to how she could have some good in her, and he could have some bad in him.

Clytemnestra’s marriage to Agamemnon was forced, as Robert Graves noted in his Greek Myths (112, c and h, pages 413-414). Such an unhappy marriage can easily motivate finding another lover, especially with Agamemnon away in Troy for ten years. He brought home a concubine in Cassandra, which hardly made him any less of an adulterer than Clytemnestra. If Iphigenia was taken away to the Taurians, and thus not killed in a sacrifice, no one in Mycenae seems to have known. Clytemnestra’s killing Agamemnon was no less revenge for Iphigenia than Orestes’ killing of his mother is to avenge Agamemnon. So what is Orestes’ and Electra’s problem?

In two film narratives of the Trojan War–Troy in 2004, and the TV miniseries, Helen of Troy, in 2003–Agamemnon is portrayed (by Brian Cox and Rufus Sewell, respectively) in a particularly negative light, and in the second of these, Clytemnestra (played by Katie Blake) is portrayed sympathetically in her avenging of the killing of Iphigenia. One’s perspective on who is good and who is bad, as well as how good and how bad, can vary considerably.

Still, Orestes and Electra, in the classical dramas and in Strauss’s opera, are obstinate in seeing only good in their father, and only bad in their mother, to the point of actually killing her; and this hostility is especially evident in Electra, since Orestes in Euripides’ play is hesitant about killing Clytemnestra until Electra pushes him to keep his resolve (lines 960-981; pages 280-281). In The Libation Bearers, Orestes briefly wavers, but his cousin and friend, Pylades, quickly inspires a return of his resolve (lines 797-803; page 104)

On the other hand, Orestes’ hostility to the bad mother, and to the ‘bad breast‘ part-object (as Melanie Klein called it), is symbolized in Clytemnestra’s dream of giving suck to a dragon (or serpent, depending on the translation, the animal representative of matricidal Orestes) that bites her breast and drinks her milk mixed with her blood (Aeschylus, lines 500-508, 514-522, pages 91-92; also line 830, page 106). The serpent/dragon baby bites the nipple as a hostile baby would, in its oral-sadistic/cannibalistic reaction, to the ‘bad breast’ of its mother. As a phallic serpent or dragon coming out of her womb, newborn Orestes as such, still connected to her with the uncut umbilical cord, thus makes her the phallic mother, the frightening combined parent figure that Klein wrote about.

Now, whatever splitting into absolute good and bad that goes on with regards to the external world, also goes on in the internal world, that is, in the internal objects of the ones doing the psychological splitting. As I mentioned above, we all have internal mental representations of our parents, so if we see them as all bad out there in front of us, their inner representations will also feel all bad in our minds. Electra and Orestes, in their murderous hatred of their mother, are no exception to this rule.

In Sophocles’ play, Clytemnestra is killed first (about lines 1408-1416; page 113), and at the end of the play, Aegisthus is led offstage to be killed after the play is finished (about lines 1470-1510; page 117). In Strauss’s opera, it’s understood that both parents, in the same order as given in Sophocles, have been killed offstage before the end.

In Aeschylus’ and Euripides’ plays, Aegisthus is killed first (announced by a messenger in lines 756-759; page 272 of Euripides’ Electra, and in lines 773-786, pages 102-103, announced by a servant in The Libation Bearers). Clytemnestra is killed at the climax of both plays (Aeschylus, lines 793-857, pages 104-108; Euripides, lines 1155-1161, pages 288-289). Then Orestes and Electra have to deal with the guilt over what they’ve done. Aeschylus’ Orestes has foreseen his own despairing guilt before even committing the matricide: “Let me kill her, and then end my own life.” (line 398, page 87)

In The Eumenides, part three of Aeschylus’ trilogy, Orestes will be put on trial for matricide. At the end of Euripides’ play, Castor of the Dioscuri gives Orestes guidance (lines 1228-1344, pages 292-296) as to how to deal with his upcoming predicament, being hounded by the Erinyes until they drive him mad with guilt, which brings us to the next point.

VI: Guilt

The Erinyes, or Furies, are demonesses personifying one’s guilty conscience (Graves, page 431), or vengeance for committing heinous crimes like matricide. Though generally indeterminate in number, they are often represented as a trio of female spirits, suggesting an association with the chthonic earth mother Goddess in triad (Graves, page 38, note 3), in her wrathful aspect. Looked at in this light, they can be seen to symbolize that bad mother internalized object, the frightening archaic mother, whose identification with the ego in turn lays the foundations for the guilt-tripping superego.

One can kill one’s mother in body, but the spirit of the mother in one’s mind lives there like a ghost haunting a house, and it stays there for life. This haunting in Orestes’ mind (and in the mind of Electra, who in Euripides’ play helps him kill Clytemnestra–lines 1210-1214, page 291; see also the translator’s preface, page 233) is what drives him mad with guilt.

WRD Fairbairn, in his paper, “The Repression and the Return of Bad Objects,” wrote of how these bad internalized objects are like evil spirits possessing us (Part 5, ‘The Dynamics of the Influence of Bad Objects,’ page 67). This kind of ‘possession’ (i.e., the Furies) is what’s happening to Orestes. It’s also happening to Elektra, who at the end of Strauss’s opera, dances a wild, mad dance of triumph until she falls down dead of exhaustion…and, no doubt, of unconscious guilt.

VII: A Drama of Class War?

Since at least some of the servants celebrate the killing of the king and queen (Euripides, lines 841-848, page 275; Aeschylus, lines 688-689, pages 98-99, line 927, page 110; also, at the end of Strauss’s opera), and since Electra has been demoted from princess to pauper (Euripides, lines 998-1004, page 282, this demotion being especially degrading for her in her marriage to the peasant), it is tempting to treat the story as an allegory of class war. I’m not about to do that, though: the crowning of Orestes as king, as well as the reinstating of Electra as a princess dressed in finery, would mean only that the servants have new rulers. No change in the ancient class structure of masters and slaves would occur with the regicide at the story’s climax.

Nonetheless, there is something for the proletarian to learn, in his or her revolutionary fervour, from the outcome of this regicide. Orestes and Electra plotted only the killing of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra: no thought was given as to how to rebuild life in Mycenae, to establish Orestes as the new king.

Similarly, some proletarians today think only of revolution for revolution’s sake: tearing down the hated old order, but not thinking about how to improve the lives of the people by building socialism. As a result of their nihilism, these leftists leave everything in chaos, making it easier for fascism to creep in; or if other, constructive leftists take over the state and try to build a better world, the destructive, sour-minded leftists criticize the new government and exaggerate its imperfections, demanding yet another revolution, leading to more chaos and vulnerability to fascist reaction.

The regicide that Orestes and Electra have committed can be compared to such post-revolutionary chaos in how he, instead of simply being crowned the new king, is hounded by the Erinyes; even after his trial in Athens, in which he’s acquitted of the charge of matricide, he’s still chased by those demonesses until he arrives among the Taurians and gets help from his long-lost sister, Iphigenia.

Just as there’s splitting between the all-good parent and the all-bad one, so is there splitting between the corrupt political world in its state of being (thesis) and the nihilistic world of nothing left, once revolution has destroyed the corrupt world (negation). And just as a healthy parent/child relationship is created by integrating the good and bad felt in one’s parents (the depressive position), so is there a healthy political world when it is being built out of the ashes of the old one, growing socialism in a state of becoming (sublation).

As we face the global economic collapse that the coronavirus panic has been eclipsing, we cannot–as I pointed out in my Joker analysis–just engage in wanton violence and rioting in the streets, the splitting of thesis and negation, “with joy and horror, dancing together,” as Orestes says at the end of The Libation Bearers (line 905, page 109), and with no sublation. We must rebuild our world, replacing the failed system of producing commodities for profit with a new system, producing commodities to provide for everyone. If we fail to create this new way, only fury will be following us everywhere.

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (complete edition), Penguin Books, London, 1955

Aeschylus, 1, The Oresteia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1998

Sophocles (E.F. Watling, translator), Electra and Other Plays, Penguin Classics, London, 1953

Euripides, 2, Hippolytus/Suppliant Women/Helen/Electra/Cyclops, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1998

Analysis of the Echo and Narcissus Myth

I will be basing my analysis of this myth largely on the poetic narrative in Ovid‘s Metamorphoses. Though Ovid uses the Roman names for the gods, I’ll be using the Greek names.

Echo and Narcissus represent two extremes of the human personality. Echo is all for other people, to the detriment of herself, and Narcissus is all for himself, to the detriment of others…and of himself.

As the personification of excessive ego-libido, though, Narcissus isn’t the only character in this story who is tainted with this vice. Zeus and Hera, in their own ways, are excessively egotistical and exploitative, too, being the king and queen of heaven, and having all the privileges and arrogance of a ruling class.

Zeus’ presumptuous arrogance lies in, among other things, his belief that he is entitled to enjoy any pretty young mortal woman or nymph he likes. He jumps them and ravishes them without any consideration for whether or not they consent to his lustful acts.

Of course, Hera doesn’t approve of his affairs, but no part of her anger comes from any consideration that Zeus is a rapist; rather, her wrath comes from the narcissistic injury she feels at not being enough to satisfy his lust. (Recall, also, that she is his elder sister as well as his wife, and she would proudly deny that women enjoy sex as much as a man; accordingly, she is annoyed when Tiresias tells her women enjoy it much more than men do.) Instead of feeling any compassion for Zeus’ rape victims, she punishes them for tempting him away from her, thus blaming the victim.

As for Echo, the Oread is merely obeying Zeus’s command by distracting Hera with her long-winded stories, giving the nymphs he has enjoyed time to get away, so he’d not be caught in the act of adultery with them. Echo may be talkative, but this in itself is a minor fault. Hera’s punishment, forcing Echo never to say anything other than the final words of anyone speaking immediately before her mimicking, is too much to bear.

Hera’s punishment, an excessive one motivated by narcissistic rage against someone who couldn’t refuse Zeus’ command, is a form of emotional abuse. Echo’s loquacity is a fault, but one’s right not to have to suffer emotional abuse should not be dependent on one not having any significant faults.

Taking away Echo’s ability to speak her own words, making her only repeat those of others, is tantamount to taking away her very individuality, her identity. To exist as a person is dependent on one’s ability to express what one feels inside. Talking is, in itself, a kind of psychotherapy.

Just as narcissism is derived from Narcissus, so is “Echoism” derived from Echo. Coined by psychoanalyst Dean Davis and popularized by psychologist Dr. Craig Malkin, Echoism is the polar opposite of narcissism. Echoists are extreme codependent people-pleasers. Just as narcissists live in a solipsistic world in which other people are mere extensions of themselves, Echoists are so much extensions of others that they have no sense of themselves at all.

Small wonder Echo–in her pining away, in her despair over Narcissus’ rejection of her love–disintegrates…her body vanishing, her only remaining existence being her voice, never even speaking its own words, but only imitating the words of others. The Echoist’s personality is engulfed, swallowed up, by the personalities of other people.

As for Narcissus, we see not only his ego-libido (self-love)–in the form of what Freud called secondary narcissism, a regression from the object-libido (love of others) one is supposed to develop after outgrowing the ego-libido of infantile primary narcissism–but we also see malignant traits in him, directed towards other people. His contempt for others is shown in the cruelty with which he rejects not only the love of Echo, but that of all of the admirers–male and female–of his good looks.

Narcissists are known for their viciousness and cruelty to others, and their namesake is, of course, no exception. Ameinius, a man who feels an unrequited homosexual passion for Narcissus, kills himself out of grief, but not before praying to have his cruel love-object understand the pain of never being able to have the object of his desire. According to Ovid, Nemesis hears his prayer; according to Robert Gravesversion of the narrative, Artemis answers it (Graves, page 287).

And so, Narcissus goes for a drink from that fateful pool of water. His admiration of his reflection is like Lacan‘s notion of the mirror stage, only Narcissus’ experience is an extreme version of the self-alienation we all as infants first experience on at least some level.

He sees his ideal-I in the watery reflection; it’s him, yet it isn’t him. Infants develop a sense of an ego when they first see themselves in a mirror, the reflection showing a unified, coherent totality of a self, as opposed to the awkward, clumsy, fragmented self the baby feels himself to be. One feels oneself to be so incomplete, yet the specular image seems so whole, so together, so perfect…and so over there, not here, even when the reflection is as close to oneself as it is to Narcissus. So close, yet so far away.

The ideal of perfection seen over there is something one strives to equal for the length of one’s life, just as Narcissus aches to hold in his arms the body he sees in the watery reflection, but can’t hold (Mary M. Innes translation, page 92). He can’t, just as none of us can attain the ideal we see in the mirror, that fantasied self-image, for the ego we see over there is a lie.

The lie that Narcissus sees in the water is his narcissistic False Self; his True Self is the wretched young man looking down into the water. As Tiresias has prophesied, Narcissus will live to an old age…if he never comes to know himself. Too late for that; the boy was better off vainly admiring his seemingly perfect False Self, never knowing the limitations of his True Self.

As Narcissus suffers from a love that will never be returned to him, so does Echo. Yet where her identity fades into nothingness, all that’s left being a voice imitative of others, his death is really a transformation into another pretty object to be admired–the narcissus flower of white petals and a yellow centre (Innes, page 94…though, in Graves’s version, he plunges a dagger into his chest, and the narcissus flower springs up from his blood soaked on the ground–page 288).

Her disintegration symbolizes how the codependent victim of narcissistic abuse is slowly chipped away at, caused to erode, to lose one’s sense of self to one’s domineering environment, only repeating the feelings of others, never one’s own feelings. His transformation into a flower symbolizes how, even in death, a narcissist can still be loved and admired, even by such victims of his as Echo (who mourns for Narcissus to the end), as well as by his flying monkeys and enablers.

Echoism and narcissism thus represent two uncomfortable extremes on a personality spectrum. A balance between ego-libido and object-libido (love for other people) should be striven for. One must have neither too much nor too little a sense of self. There must be neither all-I nor all-you…but we.

Of course, this split between extreme self-love and self-hate might not be so pronounced in our society if the ruling class–each Zeus and Hera of today’s world–weren’t so vain themselves. For it is their self-absorption that causes the alienation resulting, in turn, in the pathologies of the masses.

Analysis of the Oedipus Myth

I: Introduction

In this analysis, I plan to say little about the Oedipus complex, because–apart from what a cliché that has turned into–I’ve already written so much about it that doing so here again would be irritatingly redundant. Instead, I’ll focus mostly on other aspects, themes, and symbolism of the myth.

These themes and symbolism centre around the dialectical relationships between knowing and not wanting to know (what Wilfred Bion called the K and -K links, respectively), which in turn are symbolized by seeing and blindness. Also, there’s the dialectical unity of resisting fate vs. succumbing to it. There’s the dialectic of family love and family hate, too, leading to the next theme.

That theme is male-on-male violence: Laius raping Chrysippus, Oedipus killing Laius, his accusatory threats against Tiresias and Creon, his blinding of himself, and his cursing of his sons/brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, who in turn kill each other. Finally, could Oedipus’ killing of his father and marriage to his mother represent an attempted shift from matrilineal to patrilineal succession?

II: Sin and Punishment

The story all begins with King Laius having committed a terrible sin to offend the gods. Some scholars think that his homosexual passion for the beautiful youth Chrysippus, leading to his abduction and rape of the boy, was a later addition to the overall story, so I imagine earlier versions must have had Laius angering the gods in some other way.

In any case, Laius’ punishment will involve not only shaming him, but his entire family, too. Belief in such extensive divine punishment seems to have been common in the ancient world, given how close-knit the family was back then, as if all members shared the same identity, thus making the entire family as guilty of the sin as the original sinner was. Recall what Yahweh said to Moses: “for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” (Exodus 20:5)

Laius does everything he can to prevent the terrible prophecy that any son he has by Iocaste will one day rise up and kill him; hence George Devereux‘s invention of the term, ‘Laius complex.’ The king refuses to sleep with his queen, Iocaste, but the constant attempts at defying his fate ultimately lead to its fulfillment, for the gods will have their way, no matter how hard we try to thwart their will.

Iocaste, annoyed at never being fulfilled in the bedroom (see Graves, 105, page 371, paragraph a.), gets Laius drunk one night, and he lies with her, getting her pregnant. As I’ve discussed many times before, I use the ouroboros to symbolize a circular continuum where opposites meet and phase into each other dialectically, where the serpent’s head bites its tail.

Laius’ attempts to prevent the prophecy from coming true, at the serpent’s bitten tail, are his movement along the coiled length of its body, away from its tail and toward its head, where perfect safety from the prophecy’s fulfillment would be. But the further he goes away from the tail and toward the head, the more sexually frustrated Iocaste becomes, since she’s being made to suffer a longer and longer period without any fulfillment of her desires. So instead of just reaching the serpent’s biting head and stopping there, she makes him go past it and over to the bitten tail, getting her with child.

III: Oedipus Is Born

To Laius’ even greater horror, the child born is a son. Since the prophecy also involves the boy marrying her and sharing her bed, Iocaste agrees to have the baby exposed.

In an attempt to accelerate the baby’s death, by keeping it from crawling away from danger, Laius puts a pin into its feet. The resulting injury to the baby inspires its name, “Oedipus” (“swollen foot”). Iocaste can’t bear to kill her own child, so she has a servant, a shepherd, take the baby away to be exposed. He, too, can’t bear to let the baby die, so he gives it to another shepherd, one in Corinth. This shepherd, in turn, gives Oedipus to childless King Polybus.

Polybus’ shame at not being able to have a child of his own leads him to pretend that Oedipus is his biological son. Oedipus thus believes this king of Corinth, and his queen, Merope (or Periboea, depending on the source), are his true parents. When doubts are raised of his true parentage, Oedipus consults the Delphic oracle, who tells him the prophecy instead of confirming or denying whether the king and queen of Corinth are his parents. So thinking still that Polybus and Merope are his biological parents, Oedipus leaves Corinth and heads in the direction of…Thebes!

Here we see how oversolicitude of the prophecy coming true pushes Oedipus past the ouroboros’ biting head, where a safe prevention of its coming true lies, to the bitten tail of its surely coming true.

IV: Swollen Feet, and the Sphinx

What we note about Oedipus is his constant travels…on those ‘swollen feet.’ This use of injured feet can be seen to symbolize how his movement from here to there always involves pain of some sort. He’s had to leave Thebes and any hope of getting love from his real parents. He’s had to leave Corinth and the love of his assumed parents. And his trip back to Thebes will involve his unwitting fulfillment of the first part of the prophecy…he kills Laius.

At a place where three roads meet, Oedipus encounters a chariot carrying a wealthy older man and his servants. Neither Oedipus nor the old man has the patience or humility to make way and let the other pass, so a fight begins. Oedipus kills everyone except one servant, who manages to run away and tell the tale later. The killed rich old man is, of course, Laius.

Oedipus continues on his journey in the direction of Thebes, and just before the entrance to the city he encounters the Sphinx, a monster with the head and breasts of a woman, a lion’s body, an eagle’s wings, and a serpent’s tail (the description varies, of course, depending on the source). Whoever cannot answer her riddle will be strangled and eaten by her…everyone who has tried, so far, which is odd, given how easy to answer the riddle actually is.

V: The Riddle

There are variations on how the riddle is asked, but perhaps the best-known version is, “What animal goes on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?” Another version is, “What creature of one voice has sometimes two feet, sometimes three, sometimes four, and is weakest when it has the most?”

This second version relates well with Oedipus’ experience, since he as a baby had the pin swelling his little feet, and he as a blind old man, shamed and in despair after learning of his unwitting fulfillment of the prophecy, has not only a walking stick, but also his daughter/sister, Antigone, to help him go everywhere. As I said above, everywhere he walks, he is in pain.

The idea that the Sphinx’s riddle is difficult to answer shouldn’t be taken literally, since as I said above, it’s actually ridiculously easy to answer: man is the animal, crawling as a baby on all fours ‘in the morning’ of his life; walking on two legs as a young man during the ‘noon’ of his life; and needing a walking stick as an old man during the ‘evening’ of his life. The point of the ‘difficulty’ of the riddle–as I see it–is that it was fated for Oedipus…and Oedipus alone…to answer it, for it is about him knowing himself, something few people really do.

VI: Unnatural Knowledge

Having a special knowledge of the arcane matters of life is a province of the unusual people of our world, the perverse and unnatural ones, even. Such monstrosities as the part-human, part-animal Sphinx (suggesting a conception by bestiality), and incestuous patricides like Oedipus alone will know life’s darkest secrets. Nietzsche commented on this special insight-from-the-unnatural in The Birth of Tragedy (Section 9, pages 68-69), and we should see Oedipus’ ability to answer the riddle in terms of his drive toward self-knowledge, as we’ll see when examining Sophocles‘ play.

The Sphinx kills herself in shame and despair over someone knowing the answer to her ‘enigmatic’ riddle, and Thebes is saved from her. Since the Theban people have lost their king to, as the story goes, a gang of robbers rather than a sole man, and since Oedipus–a stranger in town [!]–is the city’s hero, he is made their new king. His marriage to Iocaste thus fulfills the second part of the prophecy.

Their marriage, of course, is by no means Platonic. He gets his mother pregnant and has two sons/brothers (Eteocles and Polyneices) and two daughters/sisters (Antigone and Ismene) by her. If Freud was right, one can imagine the nights that Oedipus shares in bed with Iocaste to be by far the most enjoyable times of his whole wretched life. Not only is he enjoying his mother with neither guilt nor a paternal rival, but he is the honoured hero of his city.

His pride, accordingly, is puffed up. Then the plague descends on Thebes, and our discussion of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus begins.

VII: Pride Comes Before a Fall

Oedipus’ hubris first demonstrates itself in his outward show of concern for his people. He speaks of how his pain is greater than that of his people, feeling each individual’s suffering as well as his own, and his not being able to sleep at night.

Oh, really, Oedipus? You, a king in all your finery, have it worse than the poor multitude? You feel each person’s individual pain, plus your own, but they don’t feel each other’s, the pain of their families, of their neighbours? Only you are gifted with such a magnanimous compassion?

He has sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to consult the Delphic oracle to find out what must be done to rid Thebes of the plague. Creon returns and tells Oedipus that they must find the murderer of Laius, who is still in the city [!].

Oedipus also has the blind seer Tiresias reveal who the killer is. The king praises Tiresias for his gift of prophecy, but the blind old man considers his special abilities to be a curse, since knowing the truth can be painful, and can cause others great pain.

Tiresias, like Oedipus and the Sphinx, has gained access to esoteric forms of knowledge through unnatural means. When Tiresias was younger, he was made a woman for seven years as punishment for having beaten a pair of copulating snakes. With this experience, he knew which sex derived greater pleasure from lovemaking; and in telling Zeus and Hera that it is women who enjoy sex far more than men, the goddess was indignant and made him blind…but Zeus compensated for this by giving him the gift of foresight.

VIII: Ignorance Is Bliss

Tiresias is averse in the extreme to telling the Theban king what he knows, since the pain for Oedipus will be overwhelming. This refusal to promote knowledge is what Bion called -K, and this psychoanalytic angle on the Oedipus myth was detailed in Bion‘s book, Elements of Psychoanalysis (in chapters 10, 11, and 14 especially).

Oedipus, however, is driven to know the truth (K) at all costs, so he angrily provokes Tiresias to give it up by accusing him of complicity in Laius’ murder. What’s interesting about this exchange between the king and the prophet is how it can be paralleled with the interlocution between Oedipus and the Sphinx. The monster has asked Oedipus a riddle to which only he knows the answer; Oedipus (a monster of another sort) asks Tiresias something only he can answer. The Sphinx kills herself on hearing Oedipus’ correct answer; Oedipus’ self-destruction begins on hearing Tiresias’ correct answer.

We’ll note the dialectical relation between knowing and wishing not to know (K vs. -K) when Oedipus, having pushed for an answer from Tiresias, now rejects the truth upon hearing it. This is the biting head of the ouroboros (K) phasing over to its bitten tail (-K). Instead of accepting the painful truth that Oedipus killed Laius, the shaken king fantasizes that Creon, supposedly coveting the crown, has suborned Tiresias to lie about Oedipus being Laius’ murderer.

What reinforces this dialectical K vs. -K relationship is how Oedipus should already know, or at least suspect, his own guilt. He knows of the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother; he hasn’t been certain that Polybus and Merope are his true parents; he’s killed a wealthy old man on a road near Thebes; and he’s married a woman old enough to be his mother. Denial and projection are his only defences against Tiresias’ increasingly probable revelation.

IX: Carnal Knowledge

Allow me to digress for a few paragraphs…

Bion conceived of our growing in knowledge (K) as originating in the baby’s interactions with its mother. Since the baby doesn’t yet have a thinking apparatus for processing the external stimuli that agitate him, his mother must do this processing for him, in the form of soothing the baby and pacifying him. Then those agitating feelings can become tolerable thoughts for the baby once they’ve been processed and detoxified by his mother; they are then returned to him.

She is a container of his anxieties and frustrations, feelings that Bion called the contained. Her containment of her baby’s agitations–reassuring him that everything is OK, and returning his feelings to him in a tolerable form–helps him to develop his own ability later to do the containing for himself and thus grow in K, a link between himself and other people involving an exchange of emotional experiences through projective identification (read here for more information on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts).

To relate all this to the play, since Oedipus was given to a shepherd to be exposed on Mount Cithaeron, he was never given that needed containment from Iocaste. In fact, he experienced negative containment from Laius, through the pin that pierced his feet, a traumatic experience causing a nameless dread that has adversely affected Oedipus’ development into adulthood.

Bion used a masculine symbol to represent the contained (implying phallic symbolism), and a feminine symbol to represent the container (implicitly yonic). This suggests the erotic symbolism of copulation in his theory of containment. Such associations are significant considering Oedipus’ relationship with Iocaste. His lack of soothing, pacifying containment as a baby has led to its dialectical opposite: excessive, erotic containment with her when he has become an adult; this is a shift from the serpent’s bitten tail of negative containment to the biting head of ‘erotic containment.’

We go from the lack of shared, exchanged emotional experiences between baby Oedipus and Iocaste (the ouroboros’ bitten tail) to excessively shared, exchanged emotional experiences between adult Oedipus and Iocaste, in the form of their incest (the serpent’s biting head). From -K to forbidden K.

Similarly, we go from the symbolically phallic pin (Laius’ contained) making the symbolically yonic wound in baby Oedipus’ feet (the container), to Oedipus’ literal phallus (his contained) put in Iocaste’s literal yoni (her container). From negative to taboo container/contained, from -K to carnal K.

X: Arousing Pity and Fear

Aristotle, in his Poetics, said that tragedy should arouse pity and fear in the audience, as well as the catharsis of those emotions (Aristotle 6, p. 348). Pity and fear are better “aroused by the very structure and incidents of the play” than through spectacle (Aristotle 14, page 358). For Aristotle, Sophocles’ Oedipus is an ideal example of such a play.

What must be remembered is that we all know the Oedipus story; the ancient Greek audiences knew that Oedipus is doomed to kill his father and marry and commit incest with his mother. The magic of watching the play, or even just reading it, as Aristotle observed, is in sympathizing with poor Oedipus as he learns, little by agonizingly little, that he has fulfilled the prophecy. As he continues his compulsive investigation, he peels away every hope of his innocence, peels away every doubt that he is guilty. Each peeling away, one by one, is torture for him, and for us as we feel the pain with him.

We are shaken with Oedipus when we hear Tiresias say that the prophecy has been fulfilled, but we feel temporary relief in how we empathize with the king’s illusory belief that Polybus and Merope are his parents. When Iocaste mentions Laius having been killed where three roads meet (about line 716), then that Laius looked much like Oedipus (about line 744), we feel his surges of agitation, even though she has been trying to relieve his fears by demonstrating the supposed falsity of prophecy.

When Oedipus takes heart in the account that Laius was killed by a group of robbers rather than by one (about lines 890-894), we enjoy feeling his relief even though we know the report to be wrong. Again, the report from a shepherd/messenger from Corinth that Polybus is dead (about line 985) gives Oedipus hope, for he can’t kill a father already dead. Though we know his father isn’t the Corinthian, but the former Theban, king doesn’t matter: we empathize with Oedipus, so we feel his relief, and enjoy it. We wish with him that it could be true.

This relief is ephemeral, though, for we’re soon to feel Oedipus’ dashed hopes when the shepherd explains that he gave baby Oedipus to Polybus and Merope, having received the baby himself from a Theban shepherd! Oedipus is inching closer and closer to the terrible truth, and we as an empathizing audience feel his growing fears as if we were discovering it all with him.

This mounting fear is like the suspense felt in a horror movie, the secret to such a film’s success. Oedipus sends to have the Theban shepherd brought before him to tell him the truth. He clings to the feeble hope that he isn’t Laius’ abandoned son, but rather that of a Theban slave (about lines 1092-1093), which is nowhere near as shameful. We share his agitation in clinging to that tiny hope, knowing he’ll soon lose even that.

XI: Hamartia

One way to think about the tragic flaw of the hero of an ancient Greek drama is to see it as a comment on the faults of a society’s political leaders, to exhort them to improve on their governance.

As we’ve noticed in Oedipus, his flaw is his hubris. He is puffed up with pride over having saved Thebes from the Sphinx by correctly answering her riddle. But as I pointed out above, the riddle isn’t particularly difficult to solve; his being the only one able to answer it seems more to do with it being about his own life than about it being difficult to solve.

What’s more, he’s no real hero of Thebes: he killed their king over a petty squabble, because he was too proud to give way to Laius’ chariot. He is the opposite of a saviour, and only his willful ignorance (-K) delays his acceptance of the truth.

Vanity has been a serious fault in leaders throughout history and legend, from Caligula and King Lear up to many (if not almost all) of our heads of state today. They want to be flattered rather than hear needed criticisms. In other words, they’re narcissists.

What is the origin of pathological levels of narcissism? Heinz Kohut discovered it in a lack of parental empathy. He conceived of two poles on which a child builds a healthy sense of self and restrained, moderate levels of narcissism: the grandiose self, and the idealized parental imago. In being abandoned by Laius and Iocaste, given over to a shepherd to be exposed, baby Oedipus was deprived of both poles of healthy, psychological structure: small wonder he grew up proud at the first moment of his life that he was ever meaningfully appreciated.

To cut the wound even deeper, though he was raised and cared for by King Polybus, who never even let on that he was adopted, Oedipus was forced to give up his parental idealizations to avoid shaming them through fulfilling the prophecy. Committing incest (as he imagined he would be) with Queen Merope would destroy his grandiose self, still something he fears the possibility of even after hearing of Polybus’ death (about line 976); and killing the Corinthian king would have meant the killing of his idealized parental imago. With both poles gone, he’d be destroying himself.

Lacking parents to idealize, Oedipus would need to overcompensate with the grandiose self in order to salvage whatever psychological structure he could muster. Small wonder he felt narcissistic rage when that rich man on the chariot demanded he give way on the road, and small wonder he’s been basking in the adulation of the Thebans since his delivering of them from the Sphinx.

It’s fitting, then, that the universal narcissistic trauma children suffer is called the Oedipus complex (to make my one reference to it in this article). Oedipus never had his true mother’s love, that maternal love that a little boy selfishly wants to hog all to himself and never share with his father. Hence, Oedipus’ incest with Iocaste as a long overdue overcompensation for that infantile deprivation. On the universality of this childhood trauma, recall Freud’s quote from Sophocles’ play:

“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.” (Freud, page 162)

XII: Peripeteia and Anagnorisis

Oedipus’ discovery (anagnorisis) that he has, in fact, fulfilled the prophecy leads to his reversal of fortune (peripeteia), the climax of Sophocles’ tragedy. The peripeteia, as Aristotle explained it in the Poetics, involves a complete switch from one state of fortune to its opposite: in Oedipus’ case, from overweening pride to overwhelming shame, from being an honoured king to being a pitied exile; and Aristotle deemed Sophocles’ Oedipus to be the exemplary tragedy.

Yet this switch from one state of affairs to its opposite should be seen as a dialectical unity of opposites, for the anagnorisis is so causally linked with the peripeteia, the one so immediately following the other, that they seem almost to coincide, to be at one with each other. And Oedipus’ ‘discovery’ is really just something he’s always known, deep down, to have been true. The truth has just been buried in his unconscious, and now it’s returned to consciousness.

He knew the prophecy back when he was in Corinth, and he surely knows that the will of the gods is not something easily thwarted. He learned of the prophecy after already having the parentage of Polybus and Merope put in doubt. Oedipus killed a rich man old enough to be his father where three roads meet. He’s married a woman old enough to be his mother. And Tiresias, a famed, honoured prophet, explicitly tells him he has fulfilled the prophecy. What is there to discover later on?

It’s not that Oedipus has discovered the shameful truth; it’s that he now knows he can no longer deny that truth. He has been using denial, projection, and repression to shield himself from the truth, even as he’s been investigating it unflinchingly. Here we see the dialectical relationship between K and -K. And since his discovery of the truth is a foregone conclusion, so is his reversal of fortune.

It’s ironic that a blind old man tells seeing Oedipus the harsh truth, he who has been wilfully blind to the truth. Then, when he can no longer deny, project, or repress the truth into a conveniently faulty memory, he removes pins from the clothes of Iocaste–whom he’s just seen having hanged herself–and stabs them into his eyes.

Tiresias is thus a kind of double of Oedipus, his judgemental ego ideal, yet also his mirrored ideal-I facing him and articulating the truth he dare not say about himself. Though blind, Tiresias is more complete, more whole, than is the metaphorically blind Theban king. Accordingly, Oedipus would rather deny and project his guilt onto his personified mirror, Tiresias, claiming the blind old prophet is conspiring with Creon to dethrone him, than acknowledge that he himself has already dethroned his own father…and should already know it, or at least suspect it.

Just as the contrast between not knowing and anagnorisis is dialectically unified, so is the contrast between his fortunes as a king and his ill fortune as an exile. His loss of a kingly throne at the end of the play is not his first time to be thrown out. He was an exile of Thebes from birth, after Laius’ thwarted attempt to expose him. Then he exiled himself from Corinth upon hearing the prophecy. Being regal has been more the exception than the rule in his life of wandering; and even his rule as king has been insecure the whole time, with that prophecy looming like a shadow over his head.

So, what peripeteia has there really been?

His feet have been swollen his whole life, from doing far more homeless travelling than resting.

XIII: Matrilineal or Patrilineal Succession?

A common element in ancient myth has been the killing of an old sacred king, to be replaced by a new king. The queen, in being the wife of both kings, is keeping the royal bloodline intact through matrilineal succession. This pattern has been noted by such writers as Frazer in The Golden Bough and the other ritualist theorists of myth from a century ago.

As Northrop Frye noted in The Great Code, meaning in ancient times was predominantly conveyed through the metaphorical and allegorical phases of language, as opposed to the modern-day, prosaic descriptive phase. Phenomena weren’t usually expressed in words describing what they literally were, as they typically would be today; they were far more often compared to, analogized with, and “put for,” other things (Frye, page 7). So a retelling of the killing of the old king through human sacrifice was given metaphorically and allegorically through a mythic narrative, as we see in the Oedipus story. (I discuss such mythic distortions of ancient ritual in this post.)

In this particular myth, however, a prince kills his father-king and succeeds him, resulting in a patrilineal succession, which largely replaced the matrilineal kind in the ancient Middle East/Mediterranean world. Does this story, through metaphor and allegory, express a conflict-laden transition from mother-kin to father-kin? Such a speculation was made by Robert Graves in his two-volume Greek Myths (Graves, 105, note 7, page 377). AeschylusOresteia also seem to represent such a conflict in the trial over Orestes‘ murder of his mother (I cover this issue in more detail here).

XIV: Oedipus’ Eye-Gouging as his Fragmentation

Oedipus’ hubris, his self-conception as a great king and saviour of Thebes, is his narcissistic False Self, a manifestation of his grandiose self. The other of the two poles of his sense of self, personified in Iocaste, is his idealized parental imago; since he doesn’t yet know (or consciously admit to himself) that she’s his mother, this other pole would seem to be a transference of that parental idealization. The shame he feels, from the realization of his incest and patricide, has destroyed his grandiose self; her suicide has destroyed his (now-understood-to-be) idealized parental imago. Both poles are destroyed: his narcissistic defences against fragmentation are destroyed; his mutilating of his eyes is thus symbolic of this fragmentation.

The play ends with the Chorus proclaiming that no man is happy until he dies. This observation seems an echo of the story of Cleobis and Biton, who showed great filial devotion to their mother. She in turn wished Hera would grant her sons the greatest of gifts; the brothers immediately died (they fell asleep in Hera’s temple and never woke), since only in death is there true happiness.

XIV: Oedipus at Colonus

The disgraced king wasn’t immediately exiled as of the end of Oedipus Rex, but as of the beginning of this play (actually the third chronologically written of Sophocles’ Theban plays, written just before he died and produced posthumously…and therefore inconsistent with the other two Theban plays), he has been a wandering exile for some time, guided by his faithful daughter/sister, Antigone.

An interesting theme of Oedipus at Colonus is his relationship with the land: at some times, he’s a curse to it; at other times, he’s a blessing. Naturally, there’s a dialectical relationship between this blessed and cursed state, too.

His incest and patricide caused a plague on Thebes, making him a curse on that land. This is interesting when seen in the light of his having been the temporary lord of that land. As E.F. Watling says in the introduction to his translation of the Theban plays, “king” doesn’t exactly convey Oedipus’ status over Thebes, though the word seems close enough. Oedipus “was probably something more like a wealthy landowner. All that is necessary for the play is that he should be recognised as a ‘great one’ in virtue of his own power of command and, it may be, of the election of his townsmen.” (Watling, page 18)

The ruling classes throughout history have been not only rich, but also owners of land, be they ancient slave-masters, feudal landlords, or today’s bourgeois owners of private property. In exploring the hamartia not only of Oedipus, but also of Laius, Creon, Eteocles, and Polyneices, and of how their flaws make us question their worthiness as lords over the people, we begin to wonder about the very validity of the 1% having ‘property rights,’ as against the 99% not having such rights. Given the enormity of our lords’ faults, what makes them any better than we are?

Antigone has led blind old Oedipus to Colonus, a village near Athens. She’s led him to rest on a stone in an area sacred to the Erinyes; a villager there says his presence has profaned the land, and he must leave. That Oedipus now knows that this place is sacred to the Erinyes is actually good news. (It’s also dialectically ironic that he, an incestuous patricide, would be a blessing here, since the Erinyes are personifications of guilt and vengeance.)

He tells the locals that a prophecy from Apollo says that he will die in a place sacred to the Erinyes, and being buried there, he will be a blessing to the people of the area. In fact, the Thebans have learned of such a prophecy since his exile, and Creon wants to bring Oedipus back home, so that his burial in Colonus won’t benefit another city at Thebes’ expense.

Oedipus, in his rage against disloyal Creon, Eteocles, and Polyneices, refuses to go back. He will, however, respect the wishes of the Chorus of villagers of Colonus, and be led by Antigone off the Erinyes’ sacred land. He will also have newly-arrived Ismene do the expiatory rites to eliminate any curse he may have unwittingly brought by sitting on the stone on the Erinyes’ sacred ground.

So, he’s both a blessing and a curse to the land. Such relationships to the land determine our perceived worthiness as people; such a reality is as true today, if only in a secular sense, as it was then. Consider our cruel treatment of the homeless today (‘anti-homeless’ architecture on the ground and on park benches; laws against feeding the homeless). Bezos, Gates, Buffett, Trump, Zuckerberg, et al are the god-kings of our time; one representative of them, French president Emmanuel Macron, is practically an Oedipus himself!

The moment of Oedipus’ death is an interesting one: the blind old man can, without his daughter’s guidance, find the place where the gods would have him buried…he walks there unaided (about lines 1543-1551)! His close connection with the gods, knowing his burial will be a blessing to Athens, combined with his age and blindness, makes him all the more of a double of Tiresias. He is as much of a blind old prophet as the one who so reluctantly told him he’d killed his father and married his mother. Though this play, Antigone, and Oedipus Rex aren’t consistent in plot-line, they are so in terms of theme.

XV: Antigone

Oedipus’ curse on his sons/brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, for not coming to his aid in his exile, has led the brothers to kill each other over who would rule over Thebes. Creon, the current king of Thebes, is angry over the wickedness of Polyneices, and refuses to bury his body.

In dialectical contrast to the hatred and rancour felt among all these other members of this cursed family, Antigone wants to show love for and duty to her dead, unburied brother. She’d disobey Creon’s order never to bury Polyneices, and risk the king’s wrath. The ouroboros’ bitten tail of fraternal hate has phased over to the serpent’s biting head of sisterly love.

Hegel was touched by Antigone’s self-sacrificing love. As Walter Kaufmann noted in Hegel: a Reinterpretation, “in the Phenomenology, Hegel celebrates the brother-sister relationship as the highest possible ethical relationship. He twice mentions and quotes Antigone in this context, and no attentive reader can fail to notice that the whole discussion revolves around Sophocles’ play.” (Kaufmann, 6, pages 17-18; see also 30, pages 125-127) The passages in the Phenomenology that Kaufmann refers to are in Part VI: Spirit, section A, a. and b. (Hegel, pages 267-289) Hegel considered Antigone’s love to be an example of Sittlichkeit. She would die out of love for her brother.

XVI: Conclusion

So, in the Theban plays, we see dialectical relationships not only between seeking the truth (K) and resisting it (-K), but also in one’s relationship with the land. One is at the ouroboros’ biting head as the lord of the land, then one passes over to the bitten tail when one’s presumptuous arrogance, one’s tragic flaw, results in one being a landless, swollen-footed exile.

We also see such dialectics in the love/hate relationship between family members. We go from attempted filicide, as well as successful patricide and fratricide, at the bitten tail of the ouroboros; then to sisterly love and Sittlichkeit at the serpent’s head, and then to forbidden love, mother/son incest, where the head bites the tail, leading from extreme virtue back to extreme vice.

These are universal themes, far beyond Freud’s mommy issues. The dialectical presentation of these themes makes them all the more universal, for everything is made up of dialectical contradictions, in the material world as well as that of ideas. This is what makes the Oedipus myth great, and worthy of examining over and over again. It affects all of us, from ancient times to today.

Further Reading

Sophocles (E.F. Watling, translator), The Theban Plays, Penguin Classics, London, 1947

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (complete edition), Penguin Books, London, 1955

W.R. Bion, Elements of Psychoanalysis, Karnac Books, London, 1963

Friedrich Nietzsche (Walter Kaufmann, translator), The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, Vintage Books, New York, 1967

Walter Kaufmann, Hegel: a Reinterpretation, Doubleday Anchor Books, New York, 1965

G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977

Aristotle (W.D. Ross, translator), The Pocket Aristotle, Washington Square Press, New York, 1958

Northrop Frye, The Great Code: the Bible and Literature, Penguin Books, Toronto, 1983

Analysis of the Ancient Greek Creation Myth

I: Introduction

As is typical of Greek myth in general, there are conflicting versions of the stories of the primordial deities and the roles they play in the creation. I’ll be basing most of this analysis on Hesiod‘s Theogony, with some references from sources like Homer, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes as well.

I am less interested in presenting an ‘accurate’ account of the creation (What is an ‘accurate account’ of it? It’s myth, not science; and as I said above, there are contradictory versions of it.) than I am in exploring possible symbolic and allegorical meanings in it. This is my interpretation of such meanings, for what that’s worth. I’m no expert in mythography or anthropology, so take what I’m writing with a generous grain of salt.

The narration may unfold with the passing of time, that is, from generation to generation in the family tree of the gods; but this allegory here is not about presenting events in a temporal sense. It’s more about understanding the relationships and contrasts between different states of being. Also, I’m not bringing up every single god and goddess, Titan and Titaness; there are simply too many names to enumerate here, and I’m more interested in the direction the narrative takes, and the symbolism and themes I see in it, than I’d be in going over every single detail found in Hesiod, etc.

II: The Nirvana-Void

Hesiod begins, after the customary invocation of the Muses, with Chaos, which in modern English would be better rendered as the Chasm, a void of formless nothingness, the ground from which everything comes. Note the dialectical relationship between nothing and everything (or being), which Hegel sublated as becoming in his Science of Logic (Hegel, Chapter One, ‘Being,’ pages 82-83).

A comparison with other religious and mystical traditions is useful. The void of nothing/everything in Hinduism is Brahman, a union with which is salvation, or liberation from worldly suffering, to the Hindu. It’s interesting in this context to compare the ancient Greek concept of Chaos with the Hindu creation myth, from the Rig Veda, 10.129; both consider everything to have paradoxically arisen from a void (“nothingness was not, nor existence”), resulting in darkness, “unillumined cosmic water,” then “desire descended on [the One].”

For Buddhists, this nothing/everything is the Dharmakāya (“the body of reality”), the Buddha-nature existing in everything; and the void of liberation from samsāra is nirvana. For Taoists, the dialectical interrelation of yin and yang is the Tao.

To return to ancient Greek traditions, the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said that “everything flows“; so the basic unifying principle behind everything, those particles of which everything is composed and which can also be regarded as waves–Chaos, Brahman, the Tao, Bion‘s O (the thing-in-itself), or in a sense, even Lacan‘s Real Order, can be symbolized as the waves of an infinite ocean.

Small wonder Homer, in Book XIV of The Iliad, had Hera say that all the gods descended from Oceanus: “I go now to the ends of the generous earth, on a visit/to Okeanos, whence the gods have risen, and Tethys our mother/who brought me up kindly in their own house, and cared for me/and took me from Rheia, at that time when Zeus of the wide brows/drove Kronos underneath the earth and the barren water.” (Homer, page 299, lines 200-204) Recall also that the gods are personifications of everything, including abstract concepts, hence polytheism‘s tendency towards pantheism.

Now, this oneness behind everything isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There is no sentimentality to be found here. Bion’s O, and especially Lacan’s Real, have traumatizing aspects, too. The visionary ego death that Aldous Huxley wrote about in the use of drugs in Heaven and Hell has, as his essay’s title suggests, both blissful and terrifying aspects, depending on one’s physical, or especially mental, health (Huxley, pages 88-91). The ocean in Moby-Dick has both good and bad aspects, too, and Melville warns the pantheists not to ignore the dark side of the infinite seas (‘The Mast-Head,’ 35).

So, pantheism is best qualified with dialectical monism in order to avoid a sentimental oversimplification of the truth. The All should not be so naïvely seen as it is in Wordsworth‘s “Tintern Abbey“; Kubrick‘s vision of Chaos (as I interpret it in my analysis) at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey is much more accurate. This is the tohu wa-bohu of Genesis 1:2, the “waste and void” state of the world when God creates heaven and earth.

III: Darkness, Light, and Desire

In keeping with the darker side of Chaos, it gives birth to Erebus (“darkness”), Tartarus (“hell”), and the goddess Nyx (“night”). This begetting of negativity is comparable to Otto Rank‘s notion of birth trauma, after which the frustrated baby experiences psychological splitting as a defence mechanism against a scary world of suffering it cannot understand.

This splitting will in turn result in the antitheses of those dark deities, namely Aether (“light,” “upper sky”) and Hemera (“day”). According to a passage in Aristophanes‘ comedy, The Birds, Nyx laid an egg in Erebus, giving birth to Eros (“love,” but more accurately rendered “desire”):

“First, Void, and the Night. No glimmer of light pierced Tartarus’ boundless dominions;
Nor Earth nor Air nor Firmament there. Then Night of the ebony pinions
Brought forth in her nest within Erebus’ breast an Egg, by the Whirlwind sired;
From whence was born, as the months rolled on, great Eros, the ever desired,
With wings on his shoulders of scintillant gold, as swift as the storm in his flying,
Who mated with Space in a darkling embrace, in the bosom of Tartarus lying.
‘Twas thus that our breed was engendered, the seed hatched out by this epochal union,
No gods were above us till turbulent Love had effected a cosmic communion.
From mystic espousals, atomic carousals–a vast, cataclysmic commotion–
Arose the Divinities, Heaven’s infinities, Earth, and the billows of Ocean.
So, nothing can be as primeval as we. Our sonship to Eros, moreover,
Is proved by our flight and our constant delight in befriending a passionate lover.”
(Aristophanes, The Birds, starting from about line 690, pages 255-256)

Soon comes Gaea, the earth-mother goddess who gives birth to Ouranos (“heaven”). Mother and son become wife and husband. This incestuous union, seen in light of my analogy of the above-mentioned gods of darkness and light with a baby’s use of psychological splitting, can thus also be seen as analogous with the fulfillment of the infantile Oedipal fantasy.

The point of all my allegorizing is to show how this creation myth can be seen to represent changing psychological states. We go from the peace of mind of the Chasm, that restful embryonic state in the dark womb, what Romain Rolland called–in his correspondence with Freud–the “oceanic feeling” of bliss, to the trauma of entering the physical world–birth.

The dark deities can also be seen to represent the unconscious, with Chaos representing the collective unconscious. The mythographers’ and poets’ narrations can thus be seen as dramatizations of unconscious urges and strivings, feelings that can be traced back to primal, archaic, infantile emotional states.

The splitting into dark vs. light, night vs. day, etc., all these separations indicate a lack, in one half in a realm, of the other, opposite half (as opposed to the original unity in Chaos), a lack (manque à être) that gives rise to desire, as Lacan observed, a desire personified by Eros.

Note how the descendants of Nyx tend to be of dark, gloomy, negative things–not all of them, of course, but most of them, in varying degrees: Moros (“doom”), Thanatos (“death”), Momus (“blame,” “reproach,” “disgrace,” “satire,” and “mockery”), Oizys (“pain,” “misery,” “anxiety,” “grief,” and “depression”), Nemesis (“retribution”), Apate (“deceit,” “fraud”), Geras (“old age”), and Eris (“strife,” “discord”). The rest of Nyx’s offspring are mostly neutral, at best; only Philotes “(“love,” “affection,” “friendship”) is positive.

Eris’ offspring in turn are also generally negative: Ponos (“hardship,” “toil”), Lethe (“forgetfulness,” “oblivion,” “concealment,” “unmindfulness”), Limos (“starvation”), the Algea (“physical and mental pains”), the Hysminai (“battles,” “conflicts,” “combats”), the Machai (“wars”), the Phonoi (“murders”), the Androktasiai (“manslaughters”), the Neikea (“quarrels,” “arguments”), the Pseudea (“lies”), the Amphillogiai (“disputes”), Dysnomia (“lawlessness”), and Atë (“ruin,” “mischief,” “delusion,” “folly”).

IV: Lack and Desire

As we can see, things go from a blissful (or at least relatively blissful) state to a hellish one rather quickly. It’s like the dialectical relationship between opposites that I’ve symbolized in previous posts with the ouroboros: where the serpent’s biting head is one extreme opposite, its bitten tail is the other extreme, and the coiled middle of its body is every intermediate point on a circular continuum. We thus could see the biting head as blissful Chaos, the bitten tail as the hellish existence of most of Nyx’s and Eris’ children, and the coiled middle, going in the direction towards the head, as the other gods’ and Titans’ striving, through desire, to replace the lack and attain happiness once again.

Now, the nature of the desire felt between Gaea and Ouranos in their sexual union is a transgressive desire (i.e., mother/son incest). Such transgressive indulgence in pleasure is what Lacan called jouissance. It’s transgressive in its excess, a kind of ‘surplus-value‘ of pleasure (to borrow a Marxian term), enjoyment for its own sake.

To use my ouroboros symbolism again, this excessive pleasure is the serpent’s head biting its tail, leading to enjoyment’s extreme opposite, the pain of the bitten tail. The offspring of Gaea’s and Ouranos’ thrilling sexual union are the Titans (Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys, and Cronus), Cyclopes (who will give Zeus his thunderbolt), and Hecatoncheires (“the hundred-handed ones”)…these latter two trios being an ugly bunch, so Ouranos hates all his children and imprisons them in a secret place in Gaea’s body, angering her.

The earth-mother goddess gives her Titan son, Cronus, a flint-sickle knife with which to attack Ouranos, since Cronus is the only Titan willing to get revenge on his wicked father. Cronus uses the knife to castrate his father: he throws the severed genitals into the sea; a foam grows around them in the water, and Aphrodite emerges nude from the foam.

Is there a more vivid representation of Lacanian lack, through the image of castration, giving rise to desire (as symbolized by the birth of Aphrodite), anywhere in myth, art, or literature? In an interesting reversal, instead of the father threatening the Oedipally-minded son with castration, the son does so to the father.

V: From Blessedness to Suffering

My allegorizing of the mythic narrative here, though, isn’t concerned with time sequence. In fact, I see the process of creation here as happening in reverse order to its allegorical meaning–that is, if that meaning is to be understood as a progression from sinful desire to spiritual liberation. We go from the perfect blessedness (as I interpret it) of Brahman-like Chaos to the world of suffering because, as Blake put it, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.

In the Greek narrative, we’re moving away from nirvanic bliss and deeper into the suffering of physical life–in ‘reverse order,’ as it were–so it would seem appropriate to have sons castrating fathers instead of vice versa (an Oedipal wish-fulfillment, with castration anxiety projected onto fathers; and Ouranos, lacking a father as a rival, shares a bed with his mother, Gaea, so we have even more Oedipal wish-fulfillment). Thus, we have the Laius complex instead of the Oedipal one. (I explored these ideas in my analysis of Eraserhead.)

With the beauty and desirability of nude Aphrodite emerging from the foam around Ouranos’ severed genitals, we must juxtapose a dialectical opposite: the vengeful Erinyes, or Furies, which have come from the blood of those genitals, as have the Giants and the Meliae. Desire comes from lack, pleasure comes with pain, and desire causes suffering.

VI: Family Feuding

With Cronus’ ascent to the throne as the new king of heaven comes the same hostility to his children as Ouranos has had. The intergenerational conflict returns in cycles, so we’ll see a wickedness in Cronus similar to that of his father…much worse, actually; for instead of merely imprisoning those who are a threat to his power, or who are a source of loathing and disgust to him, Cronus decides to eat all of his newborn children! Recall the shocking paintings that have depicted this atrocity.

His wife and older sister, Rhea (note the incest parallel with Gaea and Ouranos, and later with Zeus and his older sister, Hera…more transgressive jouissance), is as upset with his devouring of their children as Gaea has been with Ouranos’ imprisoning of their children; so Rhea, too, plots with her youngest son, Zeus, to get revenge on Cronus and free the eaten children (by feeding Cronus an emetic and making him throw them all up). Another parallel with the revenge on the first-generation father, noted by Freud (page 469) and John Tzetzes (as Robert Graves noted), is Zeus’ castration of Cronus, often censored from Greek creation mythologies.

So, what we’ve had since the creation of Eros is a whole lot of procreation (since the ancients believed that all things are created through intermingling in the form of sex), leading to a whole lot of family strife, power struggles, and ultimately, war. For in order to depose Cronus and establish Zeus as the new king of heaven, there must be a ten-year war (the Titanomachy) between the Olympian gods (Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, those just regurgitated by Cronus, and Zeus) on the one side, and Cronus and the Titans (including Atlas) on the other side. (Themis and Prometheus are the only Titans who fight on Zeus’ side.)

Zeus gets help from the Cyclopes through their giving him lightning as a weapon, and from the three Hecatoncheires, whose three hundred arms hurl huge rocks at the Titans, ultimately burying them. They’ll all be imprisoned in Tartarus forever (though some accounts say Zeus eventually frees them).

Next comes the Gigantomachy, Zeus’ and the Olympians’ battle with the Giants. Typhon, a huge whirlwind, a serpentine giant, and–according to Hesiod–the son of Gaea and Tartarus (from whom we get the Romanization of the Chinese taifeng>>>typhoon), is the next to challenge, and to be defeated by, Zeus.

VII: Stability and Authority

So Zeus is now the king of heaven, and his brothers–Poseidon and Hades–are respectively the kings of the sea and the underworld, the lower levels of the flat, tiered cosmos as imagined by the ancients. But Zeus has the same fear of being deposed, a fear projected from his own unfilial attitude to Cronus, who in turn has been equally unfilial to Ouranos. Zeus’ solution to the problem is to carry it further than just eating his children. His wife at the time, the wise Titaness Metis, is pregnant with their child, so he eats both child and mother!

This eating of threats to one’s power, this imprisoning of them, is symbolic of repression of unwanted or unacceptable feelings into the unconscious; but as psychoanalysts know, the repressed always returns, though in an unrecognizable form. In Zeus’ case, that return of the symbolic repressed will come in the form of Athena, coming out of his aching skull fully-grown with her armour and weapons. He needn’t fear, though, for she is all for the father, representative of the shift from matrilineal to patrilineal forms of societal organization. Read the Oresteia to see my point about that shift. The following passage from The Eumenides, spoken by Apollo, should clarify it:

“The mother of what is called her child is not its parent, but only the nurse of the newly implanted germ. The begetter is the parent, whereas she, as a stranger for a stranger, doth but preserve the sprout, except God shall blight its birth. And I will offer thee a sure proof of what I say: fatherhood there may be, when mother there is none. Here at hand is a witness, the child of Olympian Zeus–and not so much as nursed in the darkness of the womb, but such a scion as no goddess could bring forth.
“But for my part, O Pallas, as in all things else, as so with this man; for I have sent him as suppliant to thy sanctuary that he might prove faithful for all time to come, and that thou, O Goddess, mightest win him as a new ally, him and his after-race, and it abide everlastingly that the posterity of this people maintain their plighted bond.” –Apollo, Eumenides, pages 335, 337)

All of the myths leading up to Zeus’ accession to the throne have reflected matrilineality: goddesses sometimes bear children through sexual union with a male, other times through parthenogenesis, reflective of the prehistoric ignorance of the male role in reproduction. Since succession is matrilineal at this point, Gaea is free to take on more lovers than just Ouranos; so she has mated with another son of hers, Pontus, a god of the sea (more transgressive, Oedipal pleasure [according to Hesiod, Pontus has no father]!), and has these children: Nereus, Thaumas, Phorcys, Ceto, and Eurybia. Furthermore, god-kings are humiliated, castrated, and deposed, while queen goddesses–though furious with the wickedness of their male consorts–remain bodily intact.

But now that Zeus is king of the heavens, having married his older sister, Hera, he can freely do as he pleases without fear of direct retribution against himself, while he hypocritically judges the wickedness of others, especially that of mortals. This reflects the new patrilineal way, and the authoritarianism of the patriarchal family. Zeus is incestuously married, he has castrated and deposed his father, and much to Hera’s annoyance, he seduces and ravishes pretty mortal maidens.

Yet, “he’s the greatest god of all,” as Claudius observed (here at 33:32).

VIII: Conclusion–The Creation as an Allegory for Our Times

We can see, through this narrative, just how far we’ve erred from the blissful, oceanic state of the beginning. From the formless, peaceful oneness of the Void, we’ve gone to the dualism of splitting into the dark and light, then to transgressive indulgence in pleasure leading to jealousy and hate, and from there to violence, war, and the imprisonment of the humiliated and defeated.

Finally, stability is established, but through authoritarian rule, and with all the double standards that allow the ruling classes–be they the masters of slaves in the ancient world, as I described in my Caligula analysis, or the feudal landlords of 500 to 1,000 years ago, or the bourgeoisie today–to indulge in all manner of sinfulness, for which we, the small people, will be punished as soon as we are caught.

How do we regain that primal bliss? I don’t have any definitive answers, of course, but for what it’s worth, I imagine that going backwards in the narrative I just analyzed is going in the right direction. I don’t mean physically or literally going in that direction, of course; I’m talking about revisiting the psychological traumas that the various points in the narrative symbolize. Efforts have been made to reverse the patrilineal double standards against women–efforts far more successful in the socialist states than in the capitalist West, though socialist progress has since been thwarted by imperialism. I would advise reviving that progress.

Added to the sociological healing must also come the needed psychological healing. Optimal frustration (as Heinz Kohut called it) of the narcissistic tendencies (those linked with Oedipal traumas) must be coupled with integration of the split parts of the personality, a shift from what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position. Bliss is actually a marriage of heaven and hell, of dark with the light.

When heaven and hell are ‘divorced,’ so to speak, as in the case of psychological splitting, one tends to project the hellish part outward in order to avoid a pain we must face. We must feel our trauma if we’re to heal it.

Many would rather escape to a world of pleasure than face that pain. The resulting manic defence means indulgence in sex, drugs, etc., that is, the transgressive, excess pleasure of jouissance, which is a pleasure that spills over into pain, for no two opposites, including pleasure and pain, are permanently, decisively separated.

The Olympian gods of our ruling class may, however, separate pleasure (reserved for themselves alone) from pain (to which only the poor are subjected). The acquisition of wealth is a zero-sum game, coupled with extremes of poverty. In this connection, it’s useful that Lacan was inspired by Marx’s notion of surplus value in expounding on the surplus-pleasure of jouissance, or excess pleasure for its own sake. This pleasure, spilling over into pain, is exploitative.

Zeus rapes maidens, just as the Epsteins and Weinsteins of our world, as well as some Catholic priests, sexually assault the innocent. The oligarchs of today are our gods, living up high on the Mount Olympus of their wealth and power, while we struggle at the bottom of that mountain.

Those up on Olympus must be brought down. Those traumas of ours, repressed and imprisoned in the Tartarus of our unconscious, must be freed by being acknowledged, or else they’ll sneak out, often in surprising and unwelcome forms. The lack that gives rise to desire, that symbolic castration of Ouranos and Cronus, must also be acknowledged, or else desire will fly out of control, leading to more conflicts and wars, both political and psychological.

The blissful Chasm is a world of unified dark and light, lacking and having, a communion of free-flowing people, interconnected, integrated, communicative…peaceful. Let’s go back to the beginning.

“Stone Bound,” a Poem by a Friend

Here is another poem by my friend, poet Jason Morton (whose writing can be found here), He wrote the poem last year (here’s another one of his poems that I looked at recently). Again, I’m printing the poem in italics to distinguish his writing from mine:

I greet the dawn with empty eyes
Staring through a broken disguise

In my heart of hearts I know
My happiness is somewhere over the rainbow

Treasured madness a vision of life undone
Where pills are a miracle and the frozen faces storm

And empty means of visibility
Are just filling me with unreality

All I ever wanted is right here with you
What can I do but wait for a moment to find someone true

And the sky folds into itself
You are you but still someone else

And the whatevers cease
Breaking Into being
And everything is the same
When love is just a game
A hole in my sky
A whole in my heart
Where reality is breaking
And you break my heart

I let you go again
Though we weren’t together
If I play pretend
We’re in for pleasant weather
Whether you love me or not
Is the name of the game
Everything is the same
When all I feel is shame

And the sky falls again

I am stone bound

Stone heart
Stone eyes
Stone gazes
Stone sky
Stone dreams
Stone wants
Stone needs
Stone haunts

Stone bound

Here is my analysis of the poem.

This is a poem about a general malaise, affected by the poet’s feelings of alienation from the Church and the heartbreak of past relationships. His sadness endures with every new day: “I greet the dawn with empty eyes”.

Hope and happiness are manifestly fake and phoney, for he stares “through a broken disguise.” In this light, we can see the real, ironic meaning behind the sentimentality of imagining his happiness being “somewhere over the rainbow”.

Happiness, instead, is a “treasured madness”. It’s “a vision of life undone” because of the cruel false hope that is never realized. Instead of trying to find an ever-elusive real happiness, one tries to escape one’s despair through the manic defences of drinking, drugs, and other fleeting physical pleasures, “where pills are a miracle”.

The image of storming “frozen faces” serves the dual purpose of reinforcing the cold sense of sadness, but also with another ironic allusion to the false sentimentality seen in children’s movies (Frozen), as seen above in the song title from The Wizard of Oz.

This false sentimentality is all just “empty means of visibility…filling [him] with unreality”.

He has only wanted to be “right here with you”; this you could be any possible source of human happiness: a former lover who has since broken his heart, an unrequited love, God, whom he once tried to believe in, but cannot, or any kind of friendship that never came to be.

The “wait for a moment to find someone true” seems like Vladimir and Estragon waiting for never-arriving Godot. When “the sky folds into itself”, this sounds like God hiding away instead of presenting Himself to help the suffering poet. God, or whoever the poet needs, may be who He (or she) is, but is “still someone else”, not the ideal the poet has hoped for, or maybe really a far worse disappointment, maybe a complete nonentity.

Total disillusion reigns: “the whatevers cease”, for the poet cannot even sigh and say “whatever” anymore; and “everything is the same…love is just a game”, be this an imagined love of God, or the frustrated hopes of loving someone who doesn’t return that love. The “hole in [his] sky” sounds like the death of God.

In the line “a whole in my heart”, the w is intended, a pun on both words, with or without the w. That’s the point: one is unhappy regardless of having all that one ‘needs’ (all material possessions, superficial satisfactions, etc.), or if there’s a real hole in one’s life. Christianity promises to make us whole through the holes in Christ’s hands and feet, but one still feels empty, for “reality is breaking/And you break my heart”.

Note the irregular use of rhyme in the poem. In our modern age, favouring free verse over traditional meter and rhyme schemes, the latter is often perceived as naïve and unsophisticated. So here, with the unevenly-metered (if they’re metered at all) lines with rhymes or near-rhymes on the ends of most of them, we see a kind of parody of such ‘naïve’ and ‘unsophisticated’ verses, just like the naïveté of such children’s movies as Frozen and The Wizard of Oz. Sweet, childlike naïveté is perverted with the uneven meters of the lines, thus symbolically showing how such innocence is destroyed with the breaking of hearts.

The poet has “let you go again”. Again, you could be God, whose faith the poet has lost, since he and God “weren’t together” (i.e., God was never by his side to begin with, as the Church had promised He would be). You could also be someone the poet was hoping to have a romantic relationship with, but it never materialized, so his letting-go of this person is just him resigning himself to the heart-breaking reality.

He could “play pretend,” and he and the object of his love would be “in for pleasant weather”, that is the pleasantness of illusory happiness, an imaginary dawn with God’s heavens unfolded. But it makes no difference if the object of his love actually loves him or not, for “everything is the same”, whether in love or in religion, because all the poet feels “is shame”, the shame of being unloved, or of being a sinner in the eyes of a God who doesn’t even exist.

Thus, “the sky falls again”: this time, it’s the heavenly God who falls from grace, instead of Adam and Eve. The sky falls because the poet’s world feels like it’s falling apart. It falls again because he has felt these pains so many times before.

His pain is so complete that he feels everything is hard as stone, and he is “stone bound”, that is, unable to free himself from his stony bounds, his hard fetters of unhappiness. Not only are his body parts as hard as stone–as if he’s looked into the eyes, the “stone gazes” of Medusa, the ugly reality of life, and become petrified with the horror of it all–but also the sky, his dreams, his wants, and his needs are all stone.

Note how the penultimate verse, with its repetition of the word “stone” has a shape almost like a statue or monolith. It could be a stone idol of a god or love object whose value has lost all meaning to the poet, or it could be himself, having been turned to stone by all the Gorgon disappointments of life.

All his hopes of making things better are turned to stone. Even the ghosts of his past, the “stone haunts”, are petrified with fear and despair.

Let’s hope he gets stone unbound soon.

“The Pack (a Promise of Forever),” a Poem by a Friend

A friend of mine, a poet named Jason Morton whose writing can be found here, wrote this poem, which I’d like to look at now. The italics are mine, to separate his writing from mine:

The pack ( a promise of forever )

The rising dawn catches sunlight in your eyes,
Like a placid river with rough currents disguised,
Shadows of forever a eternity is what I offer,
Follow me, the path is clear,
Clean in streams of consciousness,
Will you rise with me?
Will you fight for me?
Will you live for me?
Will you die for me?
Loyalty means everything,
I live and die for my pack,
Mother and father, brothers and sisters,
None will ever defeat us!
When the world ends,
Eternity will still be here,
I will be your Guardian,
And protect you from heavens ego and hells fiery cold

abandonment,
And if all time should die,
And we no longer even exist as souls,
Our memory will leave an indentation upon
The vast emptiness where once loyalty was key.

We see here the promise of religion, in particular the Christian one. A promise of eternal life is made in exchange for loyalty to the Church. It could also be seen as the promise of a narcissistic family, promising their eternal ‘love’ in exchange for loyalty to the narcissistic group, or even such a promise of any group of people engaging in groupthink, such as the feeling of security and belonging in what Althusser called the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs).

With “the rising dawn” comes the light of goodness seen in someone’s eyes, a goodness seen to be useful to the cult (for all of the above-mentioned groups–Church, toxic family, radical political organization, or any other ISA–can be seen as different kinds of cults). That good light is outwardly peaceful, “a placid river,” yet obscuring potentially aggressive tendencies, “rough currents.”

The offerer of “shadows of forever” would present himself as identical in principle to the one offered “a eternity” (<<this a is intentional–more on this later), the cult being “streams” presenting themselves as a kind of mirror to the “placid river.” This false equating is a manipulative trick meant to lure one into the cult. This call to join the cult is akin to what Althusser called ‘hailing’ someone, making him subject, however unconsciously, to an ideology, to make him conform to the system.

The offerer would die for the pack, and so should the one offered entry into the group. “Mother and father” sound like the Mother of God and God the Father; “brothers and sisters” thus can be monks and nuns. All of these people could also just be members of a toxic family, or members of some other collective engaging in groupthink, the leaders and the followers being of both sexes.

There’s a promise of eternal life and glory: “None will ever defeat us!”; yet in the backs of our minds we know nothing is permanent–even the offerer knows this (“if all time should die/And we no longer even exist as souls”).

The offerer seems to be Jesus, calling Himself “your Guardian,” and saying He’ll “protect you from heavens ego,” that is, the self-righteous vanity of God the Father, as Jesus would die for our sins, instead of God just forgiving us without need of the quasi-pagan sacrifice. Note how “heavens” has no apostrophe to indicate a possessive; this suggests a dual meaning, the possessive joined with the plural, for there are many heavens (just as there are many hells, hence the deliberate lack of an apostrophe there, too), depending on which definition of it your religion or ideology uses.

“Clean in streams of consciousness” sounds like the free flow of thought, as though joining the in-group will allow someone freedom of thought. The deliberate “a eternity,” however, apart from suggesting how inarticulate and uneducated the offerer is, also evokes–in its choppy, disjointed sound–the lack of a flow, a breaking-off from the endless movement of eternity, giving away the offerer’s lie. Eternity won’t always be here, and the offerer knows it.

But when we die, it won’t matter (sarcasm); for there will be “an indentation upon/The vast emptiness where once loyalty was key.” Loyalty to an ideology, be it religion, family, or government, is vanity. Our existence is an indentation on emptiness, for we never really mattered as individuals; we only mattered in our helping to perpetuate the ideology.

Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, to paraphrase Matthew. An ironic warning coming from a flock of sheep, isn’t it?

Don’t join the pack.

“I Can’t Breathe,” a Poem by a Friend

A friend of mine, Clelia Albano, wrote this poem in memory of Eric Garner, who was murdered by a police officer in Staten Island, New York City in 2014. It is meant in solidarity to all victims of police brutality, and it is a plea for justice.

[I would like to update this post with a reference to the murder of George Floyd, who was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis in a manner similar to the murder of Garner. Now this poem can be considered a tribute to both victims.]

Here are the verses, each given with vivid photos in the above link. The italics are mine, meant to distinguish her writing from mine.

I CAN’T BREATHE (in memory of Eric Garner)

At my birth with my first breath
uncorrupted by words
I was like the others.

Electronic appendices of
mankind
did amplify middling thinking
while I grew up.

Suddenly I found myself on a
road
where other appendices made
me
swallow tarmac.

A stain to remove,
a breath, the last,
to strangle.

And yet I am alive.

…and now, for my analysis of the poem.

Life begins and ends with breath, and since Garner was held in a chokehold, repeating the words “I can’t breathe!” eleven times while lying face down on the sidewalk, it is appropriate to emphasize the link between living and breathing.

In the innocence of infancy and early childhood, one is “uncorrupted by words,” which are representative of our introduction into society, for connection with others is through language. Lacan pointed out how we enter the Symbolic Order through language, culture, societal customs, and laws. Normally, this entrance into society is healthy; but in a world laden with racism against blacks, words, customs, and laws corrupt us.

To make matters worse, “electronic appendices of mankind” (which, to me, sound suspiciously like those of social media, which tend to aggravate social alienation rather than mitigate it) “amplify middling thinking,” that is, make us all mediocre–they stunt our development.

There are even worse appendices, though: in particular, the long arm of the law, which can be, and as in Garner’s case, often is, lethal. Being made to “swallow tarmac” is a powerful image expressing the violence of his murder.

The racist cops made him into “a stain to remove,” rather than the living, breathing human being that he really was…not that they’d have ever noticed or cared.

They may have strangled the last breath out of him, but he’s still alive, in all of us, in our memory and love of him, as we stand in solidarity with him and other victims of police brutality.

Analysis of ‘Venus In Furs’

Venus In Furs is a novella written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and published in 1870. Because the semi-autobiographical story is about a young man, Severin von Kusiemski, who persuades a beautiful woman, Wanda von Dunajew (her real-life counterpart having been Sacher-Masoch’s mistress, Baroness Fanny Pistor), to dominate, whip, humiliate, and enslave him, we derive the word masochism from its author…thanks to Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his seminal text, Psychopathia Sexualis.

Though the novella was originally meant to be part of an unfinished cycle of stories called The Testament of Cain, Venus In Furs is by far Sacher-Masoch’s most famous work, and it is one of the few of his writings to be translated into English.

Here are some quotes:

“Is there any greater cruelty for the lover than the beloved woman’s infidelity?” –narrator of framing story (page 4)

‘”And as a rule it is the man who feels the woman’s foot,” cried Madam Venus with exuberant scorn…’ (page 5)

“Yes, I am cruel–since you take so much pleasure in that word–and am I not entitled to be cruel? Man desires, woman is desired. That is woman’s entire but decisive advantage.” –‘Madame Venus,’ the talking statue in the narrator’s dream (pages 5-6)

“Woman’s power lies in Man’s passion, and she knows how to make use of it if man isn’t careful. His only choice is to be woman’s tyrant or slave.” –Severin, to the narrator (page 10)

‘…my beloved was made of stone…a stone statue of Venus…This Venus was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.’ –Severin (page 12)

‘Enough: this Venus was beautiful, and I loved her as passionately, as morbidly and profoundly, as insanely as a man can love only a woman who responds to his love with an eternally consistent, eternally calm stone smile. Yes, I literally worshiped her.’ –Severin, of his Venus statue (page 12)

“Nature knows of no permanence in the male-female relationship.” –Wanda (page 19)

‘My love was like a profound, a bottomless abyss, into which I kept sinking deeper and deeper, from which nothing could save me.’ –Severin (page 27)

‘Cold shivers ran down my spine. I looked at her: she stood before me, so solid and self-assured, and her eyes had a cold glint.’ –Severin, of Wanda (page 28)

“…the greatest passions…arise from opposites. We are such opposites, almost hostile to each other. That explains this love of mine, which is part hatred, part fear. In such a relationship, only one person can be the hammer, the other the anvil. I want to be the anvil. I can’t be happy if I look down on my beloved. I want to be able to worship a woman, and I can do so only if she is cruel to me.” –Severin, to Wanda (page 29)

“…sensuality now became a sort of culture in my imagination, and I swore not to squander its holy sensations on an ordinary creature but to save them for an ideal woman–if possible, the Goddess of Love herself.” –Severin (page 32)

“In my mind I always pictured a beautiful female ideal…” –Severin (page 33)

“So a woman wearing fur,” cried Wanda, “is nothing but a big cat…?” (page 35)

“I saw sensuality as sacred, indeed the only sacredness. I saw woman and her beauty as divine since her calling is the most important task of existence: the propagation of the species.” –Severin (page 36)

“Yes–you’ve aroused my most cherished fantasy.” –Severin, to Wanda (page 37)

‘”I’m afraid I’ve already found my ideal!” I cried and pressed my hot face into her lap.’ –Severin, to Wanda (page 37)

“You’ve corrupted my imagination…” –Wanda, to Severin

“Women are neither as good as their admirers and defenders would have it nor as bad as their enemies make them out to be.” –Wanda (page 47)

‘Wanda…was so kind, so intimate, so full of grace.’ –Severin (page 48)

“A woman’s infidelity is certainly a painful stimulus, the supreme voluptuousness.” –Severin, to Wanda (page 49)

“You may always address me as ‘Mistress,’ do you understand?” –Wanda, to Severin (page 60)

‘…from time to time I heard our Mistress enjoying herself, surrounded by admirers…’ –Severin (page 77)

‘Venus in Furs was jealous of her slave. She tore the whip from its nail and struck me across the face. Next she summoned the black maidservants, and had them tie me up and drag me down to the cellar, where they threw me into a dark, dank subterranean vault–a bona fide dungeon cell.’ –Severin (page 84)

‘I felt myself starting to hate that woman.’ –Severin, of Wanda (page 85)

‘…I saw that she was wearing only the fur, and I was terrified–I don’t know why–as terrified as a condemned man who knows he is heading toward the scaffold, yet starts to tremble the moment he sees it.’ –Severin, of half-naked Wanda (page 89)

‘…Wanda threw off her fur coat in a single moment and stood before me like the Goddess in the Tribuna.

‘At that instant, she looked so chaste, so holy in her uncloaked beauty that I knelt before her as I had knelt before the Goddess, and I pressed my lips devoutly to her foot.’ –Severin (page 90)

‘He was a handsome man, by God. No, more: he was a man such as I had never seen in the flesh. He stands in the Belvedere, hewn in marble, with the same slender and yet iron muscles, the same face, the same rippling curls.’ –Severin, of Alexis Papadopolis, his rival for Wanda’s love (page 96)

‘What I felt was fear–a fear of losing the woman whom I loved almost fanatically; and this fear was so violent, so crushing that I suddenly burst out sobbing like a child.’ –Severin (page 101)

“You know what I am,” she retorted nastily. “I’m a woman of stone, Venus in Furs, your ideal–just kneel and worship me.” –Wanda, to Severin (page 103)

“The moral is that I was an ass.” –Severin, speaking to the narrator (page 119)

“The moral is that woman, as Nature has created her and as she is currently reared by man, is his enemy and can be only his slave or his despot, but never his companion. She will be able to become his companion only when she has the same rights as he, when she is his equal in education and work.” –Severin (page 119)

The story begins with a framing device involving the original narrator telling Severin about a dream he’s had of conversing with a living statue of Venus, who has a huge fur wrapped around her marble body (page 3).

This notion of being infatuated with the statues of Venus is a motif recurring throughout the novella, for a man’s willful enslavement to a woman is based on his pagan worship of her (as he sees it) divine beauty.

This beauty is carved into immovable stone: cold, inflexible, hard, and therefore cruel. The immovability of the stone also suggests permanence; combine this unmoving, unchanging permanence with beauty, we have ourselves an ideal.

The notion of ideal feminine beauty is also a recurring theme in the novella. Recall Goethe‘s words: “The Eternal Feminine draws us on high.” Beauty on the outside is seen as a symbol of beauty on the inside…regardless of how unrealistic such ideals are.

Another classic work of art–a painting–has inspired Severin: Titian‘s Venus with Mirror, the goddess’s lower body wrapped in fur, apart from which she is naked. Both Severin and the narrator fetishize her in the fur.

In his paper, “Fetishism,” Freud pointed out that the fur fetish is based on desire for a woman’s pubic hair, a desire traced back to boys’ Oedipal desire for their mother, and their horror, upon seeing her genitals, at realizing she has no phallus. Camille Paglia, in Sexual Personae, believes that Venus In Furs supports Freud’s claim (Paglia, pages 258, 436).

As Freud himself observed: “…it is as though the last impression before the uncanny and traumatic one is retained as a fetish. Thus the foot or shoe owes its preference as a fetish–or a part of it–to the circumstances that the inquisitive boy peered at the woman’s genitals from below, from her legs up; fur and velvet–as has long been suspected–are a fixation of the sight of the pubic hair, which should have been followed by the longed-for sight of the female member; pieces of underclothing, which are so often chosen as a fetish, crystallize the moment of undressing, the last moment in which the woman could still be regarded as phallic.” (Freud, pages 354-355)

If Freud’s explanation seems far-fetched, consider Jacques Lacan‘s more metaphorical version. The mother’s lack of a phallus is, for Lacan, connected with the dissolution of the Oedipus complex and the father’s prohibition against a boy’s having of his mother; the boy cannot be the phallus that his mother desires, because his father won’t allow it. Hence, his father has symbolically castrated him. From this lack–manque–comes one’s desire.

Since a boy can’t have his mother, he must look elsewhere to gratify his unfulfillable desire, the objet petit a, a substitute for the forbidden mother that, in this story, Severin and the narrator can attempt to replace with the fur fetish and the Venus ideal. [For a more thorough explanation of such psychoanalytic concepts as those of Lacan, look here.]

Freud’s thoughts on fetishism seem to anticipate Lacan’s ideas about manque and the objet petit a in this passage: “In the conflict between the weight of the unwelcome perception and the force of his counter-wish, a compromise has been reached, as is only possible under the dominance of the unconscious laws of thought–the primary processes. Yes, in his mind the woman has got a penis, in spite of everything; but this penis is no longer the same as it was before. Something else has taken its place, has been appointed its substitute, as it were, and now inherits the interest which was formerly directed to its predecessor…We can now see what the fetish achieves and what it is that maintains it. It remains a token of triumph over the threat of castration and a protection against it.” (Freud, page 354)

That Titian’s painting has the fur covering Venus’ lower half further supports the symbolic association of the fur with her pubic hair. Cupid, Venus’ son, holds her mirror: the Goddess of Love and Beauty is the Mother.

Now we can see the origin of Severin’s desire to be dominated by a beautiful woman: he has an unresolved Oedipus complex, transferred onto Wanda. She symbolizes his mother, who in his unconscious has been split into Melanie Klein‘s “good mother”–his idealized parental imago whose beauty he desires to enjoy (hence, the furs)–and the “bad mother” who punishes him and is cruel to him.

Freud noted how a spanking can give erotic pleasure to a child: “Ever since Jean Jacques Rousseau‘s Confessions, it has been well known to all educationists that the painful stimulation of the skin of the buttocks is one of the erotogenic roots of the passive instinct of cruelty (masochism).” (Freud, page 111)

Severin, as a boy, must have enjoyed getting swats on his little buttocks from the hand of his pretty mama. Little is said in the novella about his relationship with his mother; the lack of any mention of his (as I suspect) shameful desires for her can easily be attributed to repression. Instead, Severin freely admits to desiring his beautiful but violent aunt–a clear displacing of his Oedipal desires from his mother to his aunt! (pages 32-34)

To return to the beginning of the novella, the narrator is woken from his dream by a hand “as brown as bronze” (page 6), suggesting another hard, cold statue, this time one of a man, the narrator’s “Cossack,” who stands “at his full height of almost six feet.” (page 6)

The Cossack tells the narrator that he must hurry and meet up with Severin, and that “it’s a cryin’ shame” (page 6) that the narrator is asleep when he must be going. This scene is symbolic of the father making a boy give up on his Oedipal dream of having Mother (symbolized by the statue of Venus in the dream). The “bronze” statue of the Cossack represents the father bringing the narrator (symbolic of a boy experiencing the Oedipus complex) into the world of reality.

Severin’s story, of himself also leaving his dreams (page 117) and coming into reality, will help the narrator understand the need to wake up, too; for the narrator is an obvious double of Severin. In fact, both men can be seen to represent the universal Oedipal desirer, the common male masochist. Severin’s story is written in a manuscript called Confessions of a Suprasensual Man. (page 10)

Speaking of writing, it seems prophetic that the narrator has a book by Hegel lying next to him as he sleeps (page 7); in the explanatory notes at the end of my Penguin Classics English translation of Venus In Furs (page 125), it is justifiably assumed that the passage of Hegel that the narrator has been reading before dozing off is the master/slave dialectic section of The Phenomenology of Spirit. In this dialectic, the slave gradually comes to free himself of his master, as Severin will of Wanda, and–one hopes–the narrator will of his slavish devotion to Venus in furs, too.

Before Severin meets Wanda, he–just like the narrator–has been idolizing a stone statue of Venus; only instead of it being in his dreams, Severin’s is in a meadow, in a garden in the small wilderness where his house is. Because of this ideal, he has had very little interest in Wanda…but she will soon embody that ideal for him, in the flesh.

There are numerous passages in the novella that suggest that Severin’s love for Wanda is at least comparable to a boy’s Oedipal love for his mother. To give one example: after kissing her foot, which causes her to run away, leaving her slipper in his hand–because she feels he is “getting more and more indecent,” he returns it to her the next day and stands “in the corner like a child awaiting its punishment.” (page 24)

Another example, suggestive of his relationship with Wanda as being like that of a mother and her little boy, is on page 82: “She started caressing me, cuddling me, kissing me like a child.” Yet another example, symbolically suggestive of a boy’s Oedipal jealousy, is on page 101: “What I felt was fear–a fear of losing the woman whom I loved almost fanatically; and this fear was so violent, so crushing that I suddenly burst out sobbing like a child.”

He remembers having his idolatrous fetishes from as early as the cradle; he “can’t remember ever not having them.” His mother told him he was “suprasensual” from those earliest years, “suprasensual” being his word for describing his desires. (page 30)

I’ve already mentioned his aunt, to whom–I believe–he made his first transference of his repressed Oedipal desires for his mother. Countess Sobol “was a beautiful, majestic woman with a charming smile; but [Severin] hated her, for the family regarded her as a Messalina.” (page 32) This love/hate is the splitting of the mother into her good and bad aspects, but displaced onto Severin’s aunt.

Severin describes his aunt beating him with a switch while wearing “her fur-lined kazabaika.” After the beating, he “was forced to kneel down, thank her for the punishment, and kiss her hand.

“Now just look at the suprasensual fool! The switch held by the beautiful, voluptuous woman, who looked like an angry monarch in her fur jacket, first aroused my desire for women, and from then on my aunt seemed like the most attractive woman on God’s earth.” (page 32)

Since Severin is telling the story, and since he’s clearly addled by his strange passions, it’s easy to believe that he’s an unreliable narrator. (His having been “healed” of the sickness of his masochism at the end of the novella is also unconvincing, especially given how Sacher-Masoch himself, on whom Severin and the narrator are based, carried on with his acting-out of his female domination fantasies years after the publication of Venus In Furs, to the irritation of his wife at the time!) When he admits he incestuously desires his aunt, this could easily be a cover-up for a much more forbidden desire…to have, and be punished by, his mother!

Severin explains his fur fetish to Wanda by speaking of “the bewitching beneficial influence that cats exert on highly sensitive and intelligent people.” (page 35) Yes, Wanda, “a woman wearing fur…is nothing but a big cat.”

Sacher-Masoch uses the word Katzen, in italics in the original German. Now, Katze innocently just means cat, the -n being the plural ending. But consider the context behind the usage of the word in this “erotic” conversation. (page 35)

In English, “pussy” has been used to mean a woman’s genitals as early as the 1870s, and probably earlier. In French, chatte, the feminine for chat, has had the same meaning, so the European association between the feline and the vagina has existed for some time.

Furthermore, Katzen sounds dangerously close to tzchen, the German word for kitten, or…pussy! Given the strict censorship of any lewd ideas back in the prudish late 19th century (Recall the scandal surrounding Oscar Wilde’s Salome, in which the title character would baiser John the Baptist’s mouth!), one should find it easy to believe that Sacher-Masoch was using Katzen as a euphemism for the yoni.

So, in all of this, we see further support for Freud’s idea that furs and velvet are associated with a woman’s pubic hair. If by Katze, Sacher-Masoch had innocently meant cat, what would make Severin’s conversation with Wanda such an “erotic treatise”?

Almost immediately after this discussion of furs and Katzen, Severin mentions his reason for worshipping woman’s divine beauty: “her calling is…the propagation of the species.” (page 36) Human life emerges from female genitals, our uncanny sight of origin (a seeming wound where a phallus might have been, if only in unconscious phantasy). Woman is a goddess because she is a mother, the Giver of Life. Severin’s sexual passions, and his pagan devotions, are at their unconscious root, Oedipal.

He wants to be “the slave of a woman, a beautiful woman,” one who ties him up and whips him, and who kicks him “when she belongs to another man.” (page 37) How similar such a woman is to the Oedipally desired mother who punishes her naughty son with spankings, and who belongs to another man…the boy’s father. Having found his ideal in Wanda, Severin presses his “hot face into her lap” (page 37), an area of her body where he often brings his face (pages 44, 50, 112), where–were her clothes to be removed–her pubic hair would be found.

She tells him he is “mistaken” to “believe that everything lurking in [his] imagination is in [her] nature too” (page 38), but he won’t listen. For such opposites as those of love and hate are what give us our greatest passions (page 29).

His experience of Wanda, as mentioned above, is a transferred splitting of the Oedipally desired mother into absolute good and bad. He likes these extremes because of the arrest in his childhood sexual development, as we saw with his aunt. He won’t learn or grow out of these fixations, what Wilfred Bion would have called -K, a refusal to know; and for this reason, Severin will suffer terribly as the story goes on.

Wanda herself comments on his refusal to know her, to grow in knowledge (-K): “Don’t you know me yet, don’t you even want to know me?” she asks him (page 28). For Bion, another important element in the Oedipus myth is the urge to gain knowledge (K) at all costs, as the Theban king wishes to do in learning the identity of Laius‘ killer; yet Tiresias understands the danger of revealing this identity, and so in his reluctance to tell Oedipus, represents -K.

Severin’s refusal to grow in knowledge (-K) is linked to his repressed, unresolved Oedipus complex, transferred first onto his aunt, then onto Wanda. His growth in knowledge would involve a reintegration of the split good and bad aspects of his mother, a movement from the paranoid-schizoid position (PS) to the depressive position (D).

In the fetishizing of his feminine ideal, Severin stays split: he idolizes the good mother, displaced onto Wanda’s beauty when in the furs; and he suffers the cruelty of the bad mother, displaced onto Wanda when she whips, kicks, enslaves, and–worst of all–cheats on him.

She warns him of the danger of arousing her narcissism by worshipping her and allowing himself to be unconditionally enslaved by her; but he won’t listen (-K, reversible perspective). She would have him integrate the absolute good and bad of femininity: “Women are neither as good as their admirers and defenders would have it nor as bad as their enemies make them out to be…The best woman sinks momentarily into filth, the worst woman rises unexpectedly to great good deeds, putting her despisers to shame. No woman is so good or so evil as not to be capable at any moment of both the most diabolical and most divine, both the foulest and the purest thoughts, feelings, actions.” (page 47)

Still, Severin won’t listen, for he prefers those extreme opposites that arouse passion (page 29), his split state of PS, over the sane moderation of D. He wants to stay in thrall to his ideal imagining of her, which he “both reviled and worshiped.” (page 105)

Now, she agrees to his absurd fantasy of enslaving him while wearing furs, though secretly she plans to cure him of his desires by pushing his fantasy too far. In living out his fantasy of being dominated by a beautiful woman, Severin is experiencing what Lacan called jouissance, a transgressive overindulgence in pleasure, a surfeiting that leads to pain.

In jouissance, one willingly endures this pain as a kind of extension of the transgressive pleasure. This is a shifting past the biting head of the ouroboros (extreme pleasure) to experience the bitten tail (extreme pain). In other posts, I’ve written of the dialectical relationship between opposites as symbolized by the ouroboros’ head and tail, with the coiled length of its body representing every intermediate point on a circular continuum between those extreme opposites.

While Severin thinks Wanda is indulging his jouissance in going past the biting head over to the bitten tail, she’s actually taking him in the opposite direction. She’s taking him along the coiled length of the serpent, further and further away from the biting head of pleasure, and closer and closer to the bitten tail of pain…unbearable pain, unbearable even for him.

By being enslaved by his “Venus in furs,” with Wanda as the replacement for his mother, Severin is using Wanda as his objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of his desire. He can’t have Mother, in her desirable aspect (i.e., the good mother, who like the Virgin Mary, is “full of grace”–page 48), or in her domineering aspect (the bad mother); so he has Wanda. But Wanda as a symbolic mother introduces a torture that even masochistic Severin can’t accept: the male rival as symbolic father.

In the BDSM community, consensual limits–as to how much pain, erotic humiliation, etc., is given and received–are strictly respected (through safewords, etc.). No such restraint is seen in Sacher-Masoch’s novella or in the Marquis de Sade‘s pornographic novels, in which victims (including children!) are not only tied up and whipped, but also raped, tortured, and murdered–the wealthy, powerful criminals responsible getting away scot-free.

Severin wants to experience the jealous fear of Wanda cuckolding him, but only within a reasonable limit–just the fear of it (page 49). She carries things way beyond his masochistic fantasies, though, in particular with a Greek named Alexis Papadopolis. (page 97)

Normally, the mother/infant relationship involves the mother soothing the baby’s fears, anxieties, and frustrations by absorbing and containing them in what Bion called maternal reverie, then sending those feelings back to the child in a form tolerable to it. This exchange of energy back and forth, through projective identification, is how a baby grows in K.

What Wanda, as Severin’s symbolic mother, is doing, however, is a negative version of this container/contained relationship (the mother, as container, being a symbolic yoni, and the baby’s contained anxieties being a symbolic phallus), so that instead of soothing Severin’s anguish, she is turning it into a nameless dread, driving him mad with jealousy.

In a nightmare, he dreams she has turned into “a huge polar bear drilling her claws into [his] body.” (page 68) He awakens to “hear her diabolical laughter.” This is an example of the negative container/contained relationship: in his dream, it is he who must contain her hostility, symbolized by her phallic claws digging yonic wounds into his skin. When he wakes in terror, she won’t contain his fear; instead, she laughs at it, making him feel worse.

The persecutory anxiety of his PS continues when he dreams of being condemned to death for having “murdered Wanda in a raging fit of jealousy.” (page 80) He is about to be beheaded, but instead of feeling the blade of an ax go beyond touching the back of his neck, he feels a slap. Wanda has woken him up with the slap, and she demands her fur.

She is free to make him feel jealous all she wants, but he is forbidden to treat her the same way. When he looks too long at Haydée, one of Wanda’s African female servants, he is put in “a bona fide dungeon cell.” (page 84)

Freud’s theory about the fur fetish as a covering of the female genitals, the shocking sight of a missing phallus [Freud, page 352: “the fetish is a substitute for the woman’s (the mother’s) penis that the little boy once believed in and–for reasons familiar to us–does not want to give up.”], seems apparent when Wanda is nude before Severin, except for the fur she’s wearing (page 89). He narrates, “I saw that she was wearing only the fur, and I was terrified–I don’t know why…”

He doesn’t know why he’s afraid (one would think he’d simply be aroused) because the root of his desire is a repressed wish to have his mother; but her lack of a phallus, as Lacan observed, is associated with Severin’s having been forbidden to have her, a forbidding from the Name of the Father…and the name of Severin’s symbolic father is Papadopolis.

Severin is afraid to know Wanda’s beauty (-K), so when she throws off her fur coat and stands before him in her glorious nakedness, he doesn’t think about his “Goddess” lustfully, but instead kneels before her, for “she looked so chaste, so holy in her uncloaked beauty” (page 90). Like the Virgin Mary, Wanda is “so full of grace.” (page 48) He would rather have a reaction formation to her, seeing the pure, good mother, than lust after the naked, whorish, bad (symbolic) mother.

Still, she arouses his jealousy with a number of male admirers, including a poor young painter (pages 91-95), and finally, the Greek! (pages 96-97) Severin finds Papadopolis especially threatening, for he knows he cannot compete with him to win Wanda’s love.

Severin feels “seized with that dreadful mortal terror, an inkling that this man could capture her, fascinate her, subjugate her.” Severin feels “inadequate next to his savage virility…envious, jealous.” (page 99) This is the same Oedipal jealousy a little boy feels when he knows only Daddy can have Mommy.

Severin wants to run away from Wanda…but he can’t.

Ultimately, she has him tied up, but Papadopolis is to whip him! (pages 114-117) Since Wanda and the Greek are Severin’s symbolic mother and father, the whipping symbolizes a re-experiencing of the childhood, Oedipal trauma of a boy being punished by his father for wanting his mother. The pain is too much for Severin; in his indignant rage, he demands to be untied. (page 115)

This descent into greater and greater suffering is like moving along the coiled length of the ouroboros’ body to reach the bitten tail of the most excruciating pain, then to reach a state of clarity, to understand the need to give up his Oedipal jouissance, to realize his objet petit a will never be fulfilled. It’s like “awakening from a dream.” (page 117)

After escaping from this ordeal, Severin goes home to help his old and ill father. Along with an unrealized wish to join the army, we can see in this father/son reunion a symbolized identification with the father, which is precisely what happens to a boy after the dissolution of the Oedipus complex.

Wanda, one day long after, writes a letter to Severin, explaining how the excesses of her cruelty were meant to cure him of his strange passion, to send him past the bitten tail of pain and over to the biting head of self-mastery, a return to peace of mind.

Severin, however, is not truly cured; he’s just switched from masochist to sadist. Now, he dominates women instead of submitting to them (page 9). As Freud, reversing Severin’s process, once said, “A sadist is always at the same time a masochist…” (Freud, page 73)

Severin’s submission to, and idolatry of, Wanda has really just been a reaction formation against his wish to rule over women. The Oedipus complex, properly understood, is a narcissistic trauma: a child’s love of his mother is a selfish wish to have her all to himself, never to share her. She, as his ideal, is a mirror reflecting his narcissism back to him as he experiences the Imaginary Order. In worshipping Wanda, Severin has merely been projecting his excessive self-love (disguised as self-abasement in his reaction formation with her) onto her.

Women are wise to resist men who want to worship them. Sacher-Masoch’s wife learned this the hard way. True equality of the sexes will come when men stop deifying women, which dialectically resolves into misogyny, a shift from the ouroboros’ biting head of worshipping women to the bitten tail of despising them. The apotheosis of Woman as Mother, as Giver of Life, easily shifts over to the notion that “a woman’s place is in the home.” Women should be seen as neither goddesses nor slaves, but as human beings.

Severin himself acknowledges that woman “will be able to become [man’s] companion only when she has the same rights as he, when she is his equal in education and work.” (page 119) Still, he bosses around “a pretty, buxom blonde…bringing [him and the narrator] cold meat and eggs for [their] tea.” (page 9) This is Bion’s -K and reversible perspective: Severin can understand the basic principle of supporting equality, but the specific premises–that one must do what one can to promote equality in one’s day-to-day life–are rejected.

Severin is thus still trapped in the duality of the paranoid-schizoid position (PS). He can bear dialectical opposites, Hegel’s thesis and negation, but not the sublation of those opposites, the ambivalent feeling of the depressive position (D). He is by no means cured.

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Venus In Furs, Penguin Classics, London, 1870

Sigmund Freud, 7. On Sexuality, The Pelican Freud Library, Penguin Books, London, 1987

Wilfred Bion, Elements of Psychoanalysis, Karnac, London, 1963