Archive for the ‘on Freud’ Category







Drawing up a comparison between Freud and Plato on the nature of our erotic life is a project that would require a long and attentive dedication to each thinker’s over-all perspective on human nature. Not being capable of undertaking such a massive enterprise, I propose instead to focus this comparative essay on the relationship between sexuality, sublimation and the human search for truth through narrative.

The comparison between both thinkers is primarily made possible because of the fact that Freud, in different parts of his work, alludes to Plato’s views on the nature of ‘Eros’. For instance, in his Group Psychology the German thinker writes concerning the centrality of sexuality in the overall picture of psychoanalysis:

“By coming to this decision, Psychoanalysis has let loose a storm of indignation, as though it had been guilty of an act of outrageous innovation. Yet it has done nothing original in taking love in this ‘wider’ sense. In its origin, function and relation to sexual love, the ‘Eros’ of the philosopher Plato coincides exactly with the love force, the libido of psychoanalysis” (GP, 119) (See also, 3ES, Preface 4, 43)


According to Freud the libido, that is to say, the “energy regarded as quantitative magnitude …… of those instincts which have to do with all that may be comprised under the word ‘love’” (GP, 116), is merely a reformulation of the Platonic understanding of erotic longing. However, this claim is so strong that it cannot but puzzle us. This is so primarily because it is not at all clear that Plato has anything like ‘THE’ theory of sexuality within his dialogues. Instead it is of the nature of the dialogues to provide avenues for reflection, but no absolutely clear end roads where human reflection would become an impossibility. Besides, the interaction between the different Platonic dialogues may actually provide varying, perhaps mutually conflicting views, on the nature of human eroticity. Given this multiplicity which Freud seems to overlook, one is lead to ask: when Freud talks of the Platonic ‘theory of love’, does he have in mind the Symposium, the Phaedrus¸ or perhaps the Republic? Or does he mean the three, somehow made commensurable? And even if he does indeed have in mind particularly the Symposium, does he take it for granted that Plato’s views are identical to those of Socrates’ speech founded upon the remembrance of Diotima’s words? If this is so, then what ought we to do with all the other speeches? Why did Plato take the trouble of writing them in that order, with speakers the character of which clarify the nature of their speeches, and moreover, in such dramatic, and lively, fashion?

Having this questions in mind, in order to get clearer on how precisely Plato and Freud stand as regards the transformability of sexuality into ever widening activities, relations and aims, I propose to look at the question of sublimation in general, but particularly as it rotates around the crucially important notion of truth as it appears in each thinker’s view. I will carry this out by dividing this essay into two sections which perhaps can stand as mirror images to each other. In the first I will try to shed some light on the dialogical nature of the Symposium. This involves, among other things, bringing to the fore what I take to be the central confrontation of the dialogue, that is to say, the always indirect battle of positions held between Aristophanes (and to a minor extent Alcibiades) and Socrates. In their confrontation, I take it, lies the most important Platonic contribution to the understanding of the complexities and difficulties one runs into in seeking to comprehend the nature of our erotic longing as human beings, and perhaps even as potential Socrateses. The difficult issue of truth comes to light not in the personal, steadfast, and perhaps even stubborn adherence to one of the speeches, but rather in the critical acceptance of the dialogical interaction between the participants who together let us know that Eros, and the narration of Eros, are two sides of the same coin.

In the second section I will proceed to consider, briefly, some of the issues in Freud’s treatment of the ever elusive concept of sublimation within his work, and its relation to the pessimistic claims which mark the latter writings centering on the status of civilization and its relation to our unhappiness. Having done this, I will proceed to look at how precisely sublimation can, in the specific case of the analytic situation, brings out the ‘truthfulness’ of psychoanalysis as the working through of perplexities and unconscious barriers in order to get clearer, through the dialogical articulation of the participants involved, about the history and meaningfulness of one’s own past. I will claim that by centering on the issue of the narrative character of psychoanalytic truth, i.e., the textuality inherent in case histories, one finds the closest possible linking bridge between the complex and quite different views held by both Plato and Freud.



The Symposium is a Platonic dialogue. Now, this may seem like an obvious claim, one which truly reveals nothing that is not self-evident. However, this very narrative character of the Platonic writings, a character which varies within the different Platonic periods, is the one which makes of Plato’s work a truly living breathing work. In the case of the Symposium in particular it is this dialogical characteristic which makes it evident that the Platonic understanding of the role of Eros in our lives is not simply identical to that of Socrates. Perhaps we can even find in this dialogue a questioning of the Socratic adventure towards philosophical truth. This is nowhere clearer than in the silent confrontation found between the speeches of Aristophanes and that of Socrates. In order to see exactly what is at stake in their agonistic encounter I will center the discussion upon the words of the Greek comedian. In situating the comedian’s speech within the dialogue, I will try to situate myself within, what I take to be, Plato’s overall intentions.

But before doing so, one ought to keep in mind a parallel that constantly reappears between Aristophanes and Freud. Aristophanes covers up the tragic nature of his brief speech on the nature of human erotic longing with the temporary soothing elements of comic myth. In this sense Aristophanes shares, as we shall see, Freud’s own pessimism regarding the search for human happiness through a life centered fundamentally on the erotic intermingling between lovers. For Freud, “the weak side of this technique of living is easy to see … it is that we are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love” (CiD, 270). But before looking more closely at the way this pessimism finds expression in Aristophanes’ speech, we must seek to briefly situate the comedian’s words within the whole of the Platonic dialogue.

That this concern is central in trying to understand the comic’s speech can be clearly seen in that Aristophanes is mysteriously silenced by Plato at different crucially climatic points of the dialogue. The first of these occurs just after Socrates has finished recollecting Diotima’s complex words concerning the possibility of an ascent to “the beautiful in itself”. Diotima’s speech on the nature of the philosophical life not only explicitly mentions and rejects Aristophanes’ myth ———due to its distancing itself, allegedly, from the goodness of the lovers involved (206d-e)——– but also involves a starting point in the ascent that stands in outright conflict with the comedian’s understanding of what is involved in the “ordinary” erotic interrelation between lovers. For Diotima the initiate in erotic understanding:

“first of all … must love one body and there generate beautiful speeches. Then he must realize that the beauty that is in any body whatsoever is related to that in another body; and if he must pursue the beauty of looks, it is great folly not to believe that the beauty of all bodies is one and the same. And with this realization he must be the lover of all beautiful bodies and in contempt slacken this erotic intensity for only one body, in the belief that it is petty” (210a).

For the Diotimian lover, the uniquely beautiful body of the loved one is not only interchangeable with others, but is linked to a kind of brutishness unworthy of those engaged in ascending towards “higher ground” (and those who believe this bodily interchangeability is not so problematic, must grapple with the fact that it also holds for the individual soul of that human being which we love as no other (210d)). Now, what is extremely suspicious from the stance of the defender of Aristophanes’s speech, lies in that, once Socrates has finished speaking, we learn that the comedian does not only NOT praise it, but moreover is just about to speak when Plato silences his reservations via the entrance of the bodily beautiful and drunken Alcibiades (212c). Perhaps Alcibiades’ speech will retake elements of Aristophanes’s myth, but perhaps too Alcibiades will not fully express the comedian’s deepest reservations. Now, however that may turn out to be, it is likewise suspicious that towards the end of the dialogue Plato once again is quick to silence Aristophanes. In the culminating conversation between Aristophanes, Agathon and Socrates, conversation in which the latter is trying to “compel” (223d) the other two to admit that the tragic poet is also a comic poet, Aristophanes , by the magical hand of the author, is the first to be “put to sleep”. Socrates, in contrast, goes on sleepless to continue his contemplative activity at the Lyceum. How to understand this? Is there a hierarchy between the different speeches, Socrates’ being the culminating one? Does Socrates speech take up and complete Aristophanes’, just as Pausanias claimed to complete Phaedrus’? Does Aristophanes’ speech present itself not as a dialectical “stepping stone” for what is to follow, but rather as a sort of broken bridge which divides two different ways of living one’s erotic life? If this is so, then clearly Plato’s views on what sublimation and truth might be taken to be, are not so easily identifiable with Socrates’ own words.

The competition between Socrates, who is characterized by his ‘strangeness’ (215a), ‘outrageousness’ (175c) and ‘oddness’ (175a), and Aristophanes, is further made clear by the starting point each takes up in order to the clarify our erotic involvements. While Socrates, unlike in the Apology, claims to have “perfect knowledge of erotics” —— a knowledge expressed, in his youth, not by him but by Diotima (177d) ——– Aristophanes speaks from his own personal, perhaps lived-through, opinion (‘doxa’) (189c) (although it is also important to remember that Aristophanes, of all the speakers, is the only not paired with any other as lover to beloved). Moreover, both speakers seems to hold allegiance to very different gods. Socrates lets us know that Aristophanes’s “whole activity is devoted to Dionysius and Aphrodite” (177d). Aristophanes is concerned with two very particular Olympians: on the one hand Dionysius, the only god who knows of death and a subsequent rebirth, the god of wine and music (music being “exiled” from the dialogue, while wine is “moderated”; until the final entrance of Alcibiades), the god of excess which Agathon calls upon to judge the rivalry between him and Socrates (175e); and on the other hand, Aphrodite, the beautiful goddess of delicate feet born asexually from the genitals of Uranus after having been conquered by Cronos, the goddess who commits adultery with Ares and is made to pay for it by Hephaestus, to whom we shall return. These two gods, which are mysteriously absent from Aristophanes’s speech itself, stand in outright contrast to the Apollinian values of self-knowledge and moderation, values which partly characterize the behavior of Socrates.

Aristophanes’ linkage to the love of wine, and thus to Dionysius, is made clear from the very line which marks his entrance. Celebrating Agathon’s victory he drank not moderately, but rather like a human sponge, taking in so much that he has become completely soaked. (176b). Aristophanes is not by any means a measured Athenian gentleman. His disordering presence becomes even more evident precisely when his turn to speak arrives. If Socrates rudely interrupts by his bodily inactivity the dinner to which he is invited (174d), Aristophanes rudely interrupts (or perhaps is overtaken) by his bodily activity, thus changing the original order of the speeches. Just when Pausanias has finished his sophisticated speech on pederasty, Aristophanes reveals that hiccups have gotten the best of him. Hiccups, we are mysteriously told, due to “satiety or something else” (perhaps wine?) (185d). Eryximachus, the physician who had played a key role both in ordering the whole banquet (177d), and in moderating the dangerous effects of wine (176d), sets out to cure the poor comedian’s sudden illness. Medicine rescues the comedian by putting forward the strongest of cures known to hiccuping, the soaking outbursts of sneezing. Once Eryximachus’ “doctoral” speech come to an end (presumably with Aristophanes hiccuping and sneezing throughout), the comedian ironically challenges the doctor’s claims to understanding the nature and erotics of the body. He says: “so I wonder at the orderly decency of the body, desiring such noises and garglings as a sneeze is; for my hiccuping stopped right away as I applied the sneeze to it” (189c). That Aristophanes is not by any means thanking his doctor, is made evident by the laughter of all those present; a laughter which comes into conflict with the seriousness of the doctor who fights back by way of an aggressive challenge. Eryximachus will become the guardian of comedy; “you did have the chance to speak in peace”, he tells Aristophanes (189b). The comic poet becomes now the doctor who must cure the excessive anger which bursts easily from the moderate physician. Aristophanes seeks a truce claiming to want to start from the beginning: “let what has been said be as if it were never spoken” (189b). (An apology which seems to imply that the previous speeches have somehow gone wrong.) Eryximachus, in turn, demands that the poet give a rational account (‘logos’) of Eros; a demand which, if fulfilled, would reduce the speech of the comic to pure silence. Aristophanes will speak in another vein, it is one which involves story-telling, imaginative interaction and poetic creativity; much the same things we feel are necessary in speaking about one’s love for that other who makes us feel “head over heels”. Finally, the comedian shares with us his one big fear; Aristophanes is not afraid of saying laughable things, that is to say, things which can be shared by all of us who somehow feel ourselves identified with what is said —–things which, besides, represent a gain for the poetic Muse (189c)—— but he is afraid of saying things that are “laughed at”, that is to say, things from which we think we can distance ourselves and judge from a higher plane than that of our vulnerable and tragic condition (189b).

In trying to situate Aristophanes’ speech within the whole of the Platonic dialogue, I argued that he and Freud investigate the viability and shortcomings of the highly risky human possibility which centers the attainment of happiness on a radical emphasis in the life of erotic sharing between two individuals. But besides this similarity, what is more amazing still, is that we find in Freud a passage in which he makes us recollect Aristophanes’s own mythological comprehension of the power of Eros in our lives. For Freud:

“ a pair of lovers are sufficient to themselves, …… in no other case does Eros so clearly betray the core of his being, his purpose of making one out of more than one … (thus) we can imagine quite well a cultural community consisting of double individuals like this, who libidinally satisfied in themselves, are connected with one another through the bonds of common work and common interests …. but this desirable state of things does not, and never did, exist” (CiD, 298).


For Aristophanes, once upon a time, such state did “exist”, and his story stands as imaginative “proof”. It is a story which allows us to re-’collect’ the genesis of human erotic longing. Only through its understanding can we come closer to comprehending that force in us which strives to reach out for another’s physical and psychical partnership.

The brevity of the speech stands in stark contrast with its complexity. Too many issues are brought together and unfortunately, I cannot, nor know how to, deal with many of them. I propose therefore to zero-in more closely on one of these aspects, namely, the central issue which links Aristophanes to Freud’s ‘community of double individuals’, the issue of human ‘happiness’ and the nature of erotic desire.

Aristophanes claims that the power of Eros lies in its providing us with the greatest possible happiness any human being could ever expect to achieve in this world. As he puts it: “Eros is the most philanthropic of gods, the helper of human beings as well as a physician dealing with an illness the healing of which would result in the greatest happiness for the human race” (189c-d)”. According to Aristophanes we humans can allegedly reach happiness via erotic involvement, but it seems, not just with anybody. Eros represents this regressive possibility by allowing us to catch a glimpse of our ancient nature. Unlike the tragic results of the first operation by Zeus, operation which culminated in the painful death of the two newly severed parts which were left to cling unto each other, dying “due to hunger and the rest of their inactivity, because they were unwilling to do anything apart from one another” (191b), for us who are the “beneficiaries” of the second more complex Apollinian operation, sexuality has been brought to the fore. Having placed the genitals, the “shameful things” in Greek, in the front (191b), we can move beyond clinging by now engaging in sexual activity. Through the latter the previous oneness can be, only temporarily for sure, remembered once again. Eros’ power allows this, and it is because of it that we must thank, praise and sacrifice to this god’s, usually taken for granted, divine presence (189c). But sexual interaction with just anyone will not lead to the happiness which reminds us of our past protohuman “fulfillment”. We must permanently search for that other who matches the jagged features of our patched up bodies (191a). Eros is then “the bringer-together of their (that is to say, ‘our’) ancient nature, who tries to make one of two and to heal their (that is to say, ‘our’) human nature. Each of us is a token (‘symbolon’) of a human being ….. and so each is always in search of his own token” (191d). Ever since we become old enough to feel the erotic longing for another’s patches, we turn into permanent seekers of what in Spanish we call “mi otra media naranja”, that is to say, that “my other half-orange” who will complete our fruit like original nature in which we resembled the natural gods. The Greeks here preferred to speak of apples (190e).

And if ever we are so lucky as to be allowed by Eros to find that other who strikes us wondrously with friendship and erotic love to the point that, now, we “are unwilling to be apart from one another even for a short time” (192c), then human bliss seems to reach its highest possible peak. The other’s presence modifies one’s own self-perception and that of the world in a way in which both are mutually enriched; we feel ourselves enhanced in a world which suddenly opens itself to new, previously unseen, possibilities.

But Aristophanes and Freud seem to have reservations. Freud, we saw, centers his critique on the loss of the beloved. Aristophanes, though aware of this danger, provides a more devastating critique by looking at the problematic functioning of erotic desire itself. The lucky lovers who are finally able to reach each other, presumably following several painful misses and rather uncomfortable fits ——— for Aristophanes makes it clear that this reunion is not what normally happens at present (193b) ———- these lucky lovers nevertheless seem to desire something more. This something, Aristophanes jokingly says, one could not conceivably take it simply to be the delight of sexual intercourse with that other half which seems to fit, ‘just right’, in yourself: “as though it were for this reason —-of all things—– that each so enjoys being with the other… but the soul of each wants something else” (192c). But that elusive ‘something else’ which the soul of each wants for him/herself, that cannot be easily put into words. Just as it so happens when one is asked why one loves his/her, hopefully, ‘real’ other half, there comes a point where you cannot quite “explain”, and instead just feel like saying, “Can’t you see why?, well that is really odd”.

Nevertheless Aristophanes challenges this silence, the same silence which Plato forces on him, by providing us with a riddle to be solved. The riddle, like Oedipus’, concerns humans, but unlike the King’s, Aristophanes’s concerns a dilemma which is brought to light by looking at our desiring nature. The riddle is spoken by yet another Olympian god, Hephaestus, the weak god of fire and crafts/arts (techne). It is he who chained Aphrodite and Ares for having committed adultery; chaining them, not to bring them eternal bliss, but rather eternal boredom. Hephaestus seems, tragically, to seek welding as punishment (Od. 315). This god is made to ask us humans what we really want out of love, and, just as Zeus was perplexed with the attitude of the circular beings, so we humans stand perplexed by Hephaestus’ question (192d). He must therefore not only rephrase the question, but very directly answer it in doing so. Would we not really desire just to become one once again, our belly wrinkles giving way to a stronger sphericity? What more lovely than reaching this “golden state” capable even of denying the individual death of its members, so that even “in Hades you (that is to say, we) would be together one instead of two?” (192e). Would this not be the ultimate happiness, that which involved a shared immortality?

The riddle, and riddles one would think are so because they are, presumably, very difficult to answer, is to our perplexity immediately answered in the affirmative. It seems as though nothing would be more desirable for us, ill halves, than to permanently rejoin that other whom Eros has granted us, finally, to reach. However, we should remember that even the protohumans though fused to their extremities, nonetheless did not seem to have seen themselves as part of a Paradise in which nothing was lacking. Even asexual human sphericity finds itself lacking, striving to move beyond its original condition. Oneness reaches beyond itself, although of course it reaches out more powerfully with four arms, four legs, not just two of each. And moreover, what distinguishes our humanity lies precisely in that, like it or not, we will forever remain as halves in constant search for that which we lack. Desire flourishes precisely due to this incompleteness which moves us beyond ourselves. The feverish conditions which evolve out of the absence of the loved one seem to move in the same direction. If Hephaestus’ riddle were not only answered in the affirmative, but actually set in place, our human condition as we know it, fragile and ill as it may be, would come to a permanent end. Letting Hephaestus do his work would turn out to be a punishment much severer than that of Zeus who intended to break us down once more, leaving us “hopping on one leg” (190d). Seeking to become spherical again requires the death of Eros’ presence in our lives. And Aristophanes hints to this towards the end of his speech in a paragraph which links past, present and future possibilities: “our race would be happy if we were to bring our love to a consummate end, and each of us were to get his own favorite on his return to his ancient nature. And if this is the best, it must necessarily be the case that, IN PRESENT CIRCUMSTANCES, that which is closest to it is the best; and that is to get a favorite whose nature is to one’s tastes” (193c) (here a specific reference to the pederasts, but shedding light, I believe, into all the different kinds of relationships). Aristophanes qualifies his appeal to a return to oneness by continually using the hypothetical ‘if’, as in ‘if this is the best’. But as I have argued this undoubtedly is not the best desirable course for us humans to take. Our present circumstances cannot be done away with, no matter how hard we imagine ourselves to have been otherwise. At best we should seek out to reach the sweetness of that other who allows the growth of those beautiful wings characteristic of the highest kind of lovers in the Phaedrus (251e); but, at the same time knowing, or perhaps feeling, full well that Eros’ presence immediately sets us humans in the web of a dilemma which seems to promise much more that it can offer. Aristophanes laughs, and allows us to laugh at this all-too-human endevour.

Perhaps it is because of this dilemma, characteristic, of our ‘ordinary’ erotic life that Socrates takes a radically different starting point in his search for the desiring value of the beautiful in our lives. Attempting to analyze that speech in full would require taking up too many difficult issues, many of which I am uncertain. Instead, I would just like to, in order to complete this section, show how it is precisely Socrates who stands, in his daily living and acting, as the greatest challenge to the Aristophanean conception of lovers comically seeking to erase their split nature. It is by looking at Socrates’ way of life, a philosophical way of life which questions all others, that another perspective on erotic desire and its role in the achievement of truth becomes possible.

That Socrates is brought to court in this dialogue, though clearly in a different setting than that of the Apology, can be seen from the very start. As we pointed out above, Agathon has promised to take him to court about their wisdom with Dionysus as judge (176a). But clearly Agathon’s challenge seems to have been more forcibly made by he who has Dionysius as his God. It is Aristophanes, silenced throughout by Plato, who carries the greatest challenge to the Socratic philosopher and his demeening view of the body.

This ridiculing of any bodily knowledge is clearly exemplified, for instance, in Socrates ironic treatment of Agathon’s view of the corporeal transference of wisdom (175e). Furthermore the belief that in bodily contact there lies some kind of understanding, as Aristophanes seems to believe, is precisely what Socrates finds troubling in Alcibiades’ love:

“So if, in observing my beauty, you are trying to get a share in it and to exchange beauty for beauty, you are intending to get far the better deal. For you are trying to acquire truth of beautiful thing in exchange for the seeming and opinion of beautiful things; and you really have in mind to exchange ‘gold for bronze’” (218e)


The importance of bringing this to light, is that it is particularly in the confrontation between Socrates and Alcibiades where the conflict between perspectives achieves its highest point. Drunk Alcibiades, who acknowledges his love of fame derived from the dedication to the city and consequent self-neglect, (216a) tells Socrates: “I shall tell the truth. See if you allow it.” (215e). Philosophy, understood as the love of the truth, finds its Socratic response not only in an acceptance of the challenge, but in a demand to do so.

Leaving aside the claims of the beautiful Alcibiades, it is quite obvious that Socrates’ ascent takes place under very different conditions. Socrates, who as a young man was led by Diotima to the most perfect revelations (210a), understands this ascent as one linked directly to the search of a very different kind of truth. It is a truth of unquestionable nature, for as he tells Agathon, “It is rather that you are unable to contradict the truth … since it is not at all hard to contradict Socrates” (201c). Although Diotima doubted whether young Socrates could follow in her lead, it is clear that now Socrates is convinced of the path he was taught by her (212b). What the highest step in the ladder reveals is a contemplative reality which has moved radically beyond the eroticity of Aristophanes’ everyday lovers, and their particular sort of truth. Although it is defined negatively for the most part (211a), and only given to us in a glimpse (210e), it becomes clear that according to Socrates only herein lies full human flourishing and happiness through the exploration of the divine in us:

“only here, in seeing in the way the beautiful is seeable, will he get to engender not phantom images of virtue … but true, because he lays hold of the true; and that once he has given birth to and cherished true virtue it lies within him to become dear to god, and if it is possible for any human being, to become immortal as well” (212a)


In ascending, what was perceived as supremely important in the ascent, is relegated to lower levels of comprehension incapable of grasping the beauty of the whole. And Socrates, the embodied human being in love with philosophy, stands as palpable truth of this transformation both in word and action. He is a human being like no other either present or past (221c-d). Socrates is truly a weird character. Although utterly ugly in bodily terms ——so much so that he is likened to Silenus and Marsyas—— his ‘internal’ beauty (217a), and the speeches that flow from it (215d) are of incomparable beauty and eroticity. This human being ——— with unheard of courage in retreat (220eff), with unheard of capacity for sustained thought (220c), with unheard of lack of bodily necessities, not only in the most sensual of situations (219d), but also in the crudest of winters (220b)——– this human being dedicates his whole life to the undertaking of a way of life which severs ties with the richness and honors sought by the majority (216e).

But puzzled by the presenc of such disparate speeches we are led to ask, if Aristophanes and Socrates present such conflicting perspectives of the role of sexuality in the conformation of our life plans, then who does Plato take to be the ‘true’ path we as humans ought to follow? An easy way out, it seems to me, is to claim that Plato’s love of Socrates obviously leads to the primacy of the speech of his beloved teacher. However, what I have tried to argue is instead that Plato uses the narrative character of his dialogue precisely to allow us to develop the philosophical capacity of reflexive self-awareness. In engaging ourselves in the reading of the work as a whole, what are revealed are not straight unquestionable answers to our dilemmas and perplexities, but rather a presentation of the complexities involved in thinking about the nature of our erotic life. Plato, like Socrates and Aristophanes, loves the agon of words, over and beyond any tranquil acceptance of clear-cut positions.



The Platonic and Freudian perspectives on erotic desire touch and differ in multiple places and aspects. On the one hand, one finds that the striking parallels between Freud and Aristophanes can be more fully appreciated if one looks more closely at the pessimism which permeates the former’s writings on the processes and mechanisms underlying civilized institutions and behavior. On the other hand, the parallel with the Platonic dialogue as a way to self-understanding is more closely bound, if one moves beyond the previous tragic perspective, to the liberating therapeutic value of the analytic situation.

As I argued above, the Aristophenean position represented a simultaneous comic and tragic perspective onthe nature of our everyday love affairs. For Freud, it seems at times, the comic aspect is completely overrun by the tragedy of our human condition. An example of this is the troublingly entitled work Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness. Providing us with a diagnosis of the modern condition, and not intended as a text for a particular kind of reformation (CSM, 55), it focuses rather on the characteristic repression of sexuality on which modern civilization, and for that matter any other civilization, is built. According to Freud: “we must view … all factors which impair sexual life, suppress its activity or distort its aims as being pathogenic factor in the psychoneurosis” (CSM, 38). What occurs at the level of the individual, namely, the supression of her instictual drives, is likewise the distinguishing mark of society as a whole which can survive only through an active taming of sexual and aggressive instincts. This suppression, which reminds one of Zeus’ operation in Aristophanes’ speech, involves for Freud, not the possibility of new paths, but instead primarily an impossibility of reaching human fulfillment. For him: “when society pays for obedience to its far-reaching regulations by an increase in nervous illness, it cannot claim to have purchased a gain at the price of sacrifices; it cannot claim a gain at all” (CSM, 54). This pessimistic trend, which hampers directly the human possibilities of achieving a full-fledged happiness, permeates as well Freud’s discussion of religion as it appears in his Future of an Illusion. There he once again reminds us that “the decisive question is whether and to what extent it is possible to lessen the burden of the instinctual sacrifices imposed on men, to reconcile men to those which must necessarily remain and to provide compensation for them (TFI, 186). Civilization imposes sacrifices, and according to Freud, we turn to religion as an illusory compensation for our incompleteness. However, the connection of this burden to the claims to happiness is more clearly explicited in Civilization and its Discontents. There Freud points out the different factors, both external and internal, which make it for us humans easier to realize that “unhappiness (for us) is much less difficult to experience” (CiD, 264). The eventual decay of our body and our death, the indifference and aggressiveness of nature towards us, and the unsatisfactory character of our relations with others, are for Freud the central conditions leading to our modern malaise (CiD, 329). This malaise, built on the repression of our instinctual nature, is made possible because of our experience of guilt. Freud intention, following Nietzsche’s analysis of the rise of consciousness in the Genealogy of Morals, is “to represent the sense of guilt as the most important problem in the development of civilization and to show that the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through a heightening of the sense of guilt” (CiD, 327). Freudian pessimism reaches its greatest height in the perception of the development of the super-ego which sets itself against the very being which gave rise to it. Its ruthless governing reveals that: “a threatened external unhappiness—-loss of love and punishment on the part of the external authority—has been exchanged for a permanent internal unhappiness, for the tension of the sense of guilt” (320).

However, this pessimism is balanced in psychoanalysis by its claims not only to provide a regressive diagnosis of our condition, but also to provide us with the necessary tools for therapeutic counteraction. This is why Freud writes that “an analytic of such neuroses might lead to therapeutic recommendations which could lay claim to great practical interest” (CiD, 338). Psychoanalysis, which seeks an education to reality (TFI, 233), aims at bringing forth the truth of our condition. Take for instance the reality of death and our unconscious denial of its presence. Towards the end of his short essay on our attitude towards death, Freud tells us that from his investigation, though undoubtedly regressive in some respects, nevertheless comes forth a realization of our human limitations. His analysis thus has the minimum advantage“of taking the truth more into account and of manking life more tolerable for us” (OAD, 89).

The tolerability of this condition can be further enhanced by the possibility of of sublimation. According to Freud through the redirection of instinctual energies, repression is avoided, or at least, somehow rechanneled. Sublimation:

“places extraordinary large amounts of force at the disposal of civilized activity and it does it in virtue of its especially worked characteristic of being able to displace its aim without materially diminishing its intensity. This (is a) capacity to exchange its originally sexual aim for another one, which is no longer sexual but which is psychologically related to the first aim…” (CSM 39).


By allowing us to reshape the drives towards sexual interaction and aggressive behavior, it becomes possible to move into the realm of ‘higher and finer’ cultural achievements. However, according to Freud this capacity can be actually developed by a few, and even in those intermittently (CSM, 45). And not only this, the transformation of the sexual instinct into these higher activities, such as those of artistic activity, intellectual inquiry, ethical comprehension and religious dedication, is constantly set within the above mentioned condition of inherent supression in the coming about of any civilization. But if this is so, how then can there truly be redirection which is not itself built upon renunciation?

One way of dealing with this problematic question, thus moving beyond its pessimistic overtones, is to retake one of Abramson’s central points, namely the idea that repression “is centrally the repression of ideas; it must be understood as the corruption of meaning as well as damning of energy” (86). Psychoanalysis re-comprehends our condition by bringing to light new ways of comprehending the way we see ourselves. Psychoanalysis leads us beyond repression by paving the way into consciousness and its hidden meanings. It is primarily in the analytic situation where analyst and analysand come to enact psychoanalysis’ truth. It is this truth, which involves the painful search and articulation of a liberating narrative, the one which can also bring us closer not only to comprehending the phenomena of sublimation, but likewise to understanding the most important and immediate bonding element between both the Platonic and Freudian discourses.

Freud claimed that psychoanalysis gave us truth. Getting clearer on what he could have meant by claiming this involves looking at psychoanalytic practice itself. According to Ricoeur, on whom I base the following remarks, psychoanalytic theory “is (should be) the codification of what takes place in the analytic situation and more precisely in the analytic relationship” (Ricoeur, TQoPiFW, 248). One is therefore concerned with specifying what will ultimately count as knowledge for this distinct situation. Analytic ‘facts’, for instance, differ fundamentally from the ‘facts’ of the natural sciences. Ricoeur provides us with four distinguishing criteria.

First, that which can be treated in the analytic situation are those experiences of the analysand which are capable of being said. The object of psychoanalysis is not instinct simply as a physiological phenomena. Desire is accessible to us only in its coming to language. It is in virtue of this that Freud can speak of translating or deciphering the content of instinctual drives. The facts in psychoanalysis are inherently language related; instincts remain unknown in themselves. Freud makes this explicit in his paper on The Unconscious:

“I am in fact of the opinion that the antithesis of conscious and unconscious is not applicable to instincts. An instinct can never become an object of consciousness —–only the idea that represents the instinct can. Even in the Ucs. an instinct cannot be represented otherwise than by an idea. If the instinct did not attach itself or manifest itself as an affective state, we could know nothing about it” (F, TU, Vol 11, 179)


Only what is sayable can become factual in psychoanalysis; by the same token only what the interlocutors in the Platonic dialogue say, can guide us towards a better comprehension of the text as a whole.

The second criteria for facts emphasizes the fact that in the analytic situation two subjectivities encounter each other. Desire comes to language not only for the sake of being said, but more importantly, because it is a saying directed to another. Intersubjectivity is built into analytic facts because desire itself is structured intersubjectively; desire is the desire of or for another. Without the existence of the other, desire would not be spoken. Consequently, the attempt to do away with speech by aiming at pure objectivity:

“misunderstands the essential point, namely, that the analytic experience unfolds in the field of speech and that within that field, what comes to light is another language disassociated from common language which presents itself to be deciphered” (FaP, III, 367)


The importance of intersubjectivity finds its highest expression in the phenomena of transference. The former, coupled with the peculiar character of the analytic situation as one in which the overpowering exigencies of the reality principle are temporarily set aside, allows a repressed desire to be heard. The recovery of this language involves a remembering which in turn is made possible by the curbing of the resistances in the analysand through new energies. It is the liberation of the latter which allow a re-interpretation of past events. (Remembering is not only a crucial factor in Aristophanes myth, but likewise marks the whole of the Symposium).

Here the central feature of transference comes to light. This is so for if desire is addressed to another as a demand, the other can deny this satisfaction. This inherent quality of desire allows the analyst, through he denial of satisfaction, to aid in he reconstituiton of the analyzand herself. Hence Ricoeur tells us: “the constitution of the subject in speech and the constitution of desire in intersubjectivity are one and the same phenomenon” (FaP, 387). This intersubjective reconstitution is clearly portrayed in the agonistic interaction between, but not only, Socrates, Aristophanes and Alcibiades.

A third crucial element in defining the criteria appropriate to psychoanalytic facts lies in the necessary differentiation between psychical and material reality. What the analyst “observes” is not an act, but instead an interpretation of an act which need not necessarily have occurred. The analyst’s inquiry is ultimately based on the interpretative value placed by the analysand on a given experience: “what is important to the analyst are the dimensions of the environment as ‘believed’ by the subject, what is pertinent to him is not the fact, but the meaning the fact has assumed in the subject’s history” (FaP, 364). The meaningfulness of psychical reality reminds us that the analytic space is one in which fantasy is played out. Likewise in the Platonic dialogue it is clear that the discussion of Eros involves many reinterpretations or events which conflict with historical reality. It is astonishing to find that the Symposium tells us erotic readers how Apollodorus conversed with a friend, “which reports a previous conversation of his own, in which he recalls a speech by Aristodemus, who reports (among others) a speech of Socrates, who reports a speech of Diotima, who reports the secrets of the mysteries. (Nussbaum, 167-8).

The final factual criteria in psychoanalysis according to Ricouer, concerns the aim which both the analysand and the analyst strive for, namely, the developing of what is capable of a narrative in the analysand’s experience. This is to say that the primary texts are individual case histories. In this fourth criteria one can clearly see the interdependence of the previous three. Narration is not a given but instead involves a creative process which could not even begin if desire were not accessible to us in speech. Likewise this work towards narrativity is the product of an intersubjective relation. Both analysand and the analyst are active participants in this reconstruction which requires the building up for forces to overcome resistances. The former are made possible by engaging in a process of remembrance through which a re-interpretation of one’s past is made possible. In narration lies self-understanding. I dwell in fantasy to find myself in reality. The Platonic dialogue, as act of the letrary and philosophical imagination, represents one of the most sublime of this recreations, one in which through words the world, and we ourselves, come to life once again.

Having looked at what it is that Ricoeur argues counts as a fact in psychoanalysis, and having briefly compared it to some elemental aspects of the Symposium, we can turn finally to a characterization of the psychoanalytic framework as a whole. Here we touch upon Freud’s tripartite definition of psychoanalysis. He writes in the first of two encyclopedia articles:

“Psychoanalysis is the name 1) of a procedure for the investigation of mental processes which are always inaccessible in any other way, 2) of a method (based on that investigation) for the treatment of neurotic disorders and 3) of a collection of psychological information obtained along these lines which is gradually being accumulated into a new scientific discipline” (Freud, TEA, 131, Vol. 15)


Psychoanalysis as a procedure for the investigation of mental processes which are always inaccessible in any other way deals particularly with the translation and deciphering of hidden and distorted meanings. This procedure is one which claims to give us a kind of truth of therapeutic value. In order to specify these truth claims, and the criteria of verifiability appropriate to psychoanalysis, Ricoeur returns to the four criteria for facts stated above.

First, analytic experience shows us desire coming to discourse. What is true or false consequently is what is said. Therefore, the truth aimed at is one which involves a saying-true rather than a being-true. Truth is not one that is observe, but one that is heard, In saying-truly the analysand guarantees self-reflection, she moves from misunderstanding to self-recognition. In this, Freudian discourse comes much closer to Platonic dialogue than to Socratic contemplation which, as we saw in the peak of its contemplative fulfillment seems to move even beyond language, the words of which seem inadequate in portraying the presence of a ‘being-true’ which is revealed by philosophical praxis.

Second, desire exists as desire for another. Truth claims are thus necessarily placed within the field of intersubjective communication. Pure objectivity becomes not only unthinkable, its imposition would imply the loss of speech. Both subjectivities which encounter themselves in analysis are engaged in a work which aims at the saying of truth. The joint effort of analysand and analyst aims at giving back a fantastical yet alienated realm to the analysand. The task of the latter is to incorporate this alienation through understanding. And as we saw in our first section, it is precisely this interaction which guarantees that one does not fall into a simplistic understanding of the Symposium, one in which Plato and the Socratic speech are unproblematically identified.

Here we already move beyond the second criteria for truth, namely the recognition of intersubjectivity, to the third criteria for facts of which we spoke before, that is, that what is psychoanalitically relevant is what the analysand makes of his fantasies. The aim of analysis is not the undermining of fantasy, but rather its recovery through self-understanding. The possibility of truth herein lies in something like this. In analytic experience I come to recognize my condition as human being. That is to say, I come to realize that I may not possibly realize the whole of my fantastical life. But at the very least I come to understand the reasons for this denial. By making myself responsible for my fantasy, I acknowledge the force of necessity. In the case of the Platonic dialogue, by realizing the tension between the Socratic and Aristophenean positions (to siganl out only two) I am borught to a realization of the impossibility of holding onto both simultaneously. It seems as though the Symposium is marked by an either/or dichotomy.

This last claim can perhaps be illuminated by looking at Ricoeur’s fourth criteria for facts, and the consequent truth claim appropriate to it. What is developed in analysis is a case history, a history of fantasy. A misunderstood past is made truly historical in virtue not only of my playing out my fantasy, but more importantly, by being appropriated as distinct from the real. Narrativity is critical and thus aims at this specific truth, the reconstitution of a subject through self-understanding. The analysand:

“is both the actor and the critiquer of a history which he is at first unable to recount. The problem of recognizing oneself is the problem of recovering the ability of reconstructing one’s own history, to continue endlessly to give the form of a story to reflections of oneself” (Ricoeur, TQoPiFW, 268)


Ultimately, the truth brought to light in analysis lies in the development of this unique case history. This is so for the fundamental precondition for the former’s existence is that the potential for self-reflection has been actualized. It is this very potential which Plato once actualized in his self-clarifying dialogues, an activity and a task which allows us to see in his dialogues a vivid reflection of his ‘sublimated’ love of words and truth. A passionate love to which the writings of Freud lead as well.







Freud, Sigmund, On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, Volume 11 of the Penguin Freud Library, “The Unconscious” 159-210. (Edition 1984)


———–Civilization Society and Religion, Volume 12 of Penguin Freud Library, “‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness” pgs 33-55. (edition 1985), “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death”, “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego”, “The Future of an Illusion”, “Civilization and its Discontents” .


———–Historical and Expository Works on Psychoanalysis, “An Outline of Psychoanalysis, pgs 371-444.



Plato, Symposium, Photocopies given out in class.


——– Phaedrus, Penguin Books, Translated by Walter Hamilton.





Abramson, Jeffrey, Liberation and Its Limits, The Free Press, New York, 1984, Chapter 6, “Sublimation: A way Out?”


Carson, Anne, Eros the Bittersweet¸ Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1988.


Nussbaum, Martha, The Fragility of Goodness, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989, (1986). Chapter 6 “The Speech of Alcibiades” pgs., 165-195.


Ricoeur, P., Freud and Philosophy, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1970. Translated by Denis Savage.


———- Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,

“The question of proof in Freud’s Psychoanalytic writings” pgs 247-273.


Rosen, Stanley, Plato’s Symposium, Yale University Press, New Haven, (1968), 1987.

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One cannot help but be puzzled by Freud’s four-page interpretation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrranus. Innumerable pages have been written on the tragedy, and yet Freud seems not to be troubled much by his brief and allegedly clear solution of the work’s principal riddle. Freud seems to share some of Oedipus’ confidence as riddle-solver. But we must ask just how so.

In order to get clear on Freud’s interpretation, I propose to divide this essay into five sections the interrrelation of which, I hope, will become clearer as we move along struggling with the issues present in each. In the first I will look specifically at Freud’s analysis as explicitly presented in The Interpretation of Dreams. By proceeding in this manner three possible paths of interpretation will be brought to light: i) the ‘regressive path’, which is the pillar of all, ii) the ‘humiliation path’, and finally iii) the ‘revealing path’. Then I will proceed to show why the four page interpretation is so problematic by focusing primarily on the issue of the ahistorical nature of Freud’s analysis. The third section will be devoted to signaling out two central aspects of the play itself, aspects upon which Freud barely touches: the issue of the revelation of truth and its relation to Oedipus’ pride and hubris. Why Freud is blind to some of these aspects will become clearer in the fourth section when psychoanalysis’ regressive type of inquiry will be uncovered. Finally, in the last section, I will try to show how the ‘humiliation’ and ‘regression’ paths of interpretation, both of which are present in psychoanalytic theory and practice, make sense only with view to a third ‘revealing’ interpretation in which a special kind of truth can be brought to light; a truth that can be lived meaningfully.


Freud’s interpretation of Sophocles’ play is very specifically located. Without an understanding of this location Freud’s brief analysis is dramatically impoverished. Therefore, it is crucially important to remember that the interpretation of the tragedy takes place in Chapter V of The Interpretation of Dreams which is the chapter that deals with the material and sources of dreams. But within it the play only appears in the section entitled “Typical Dreams”. We are moving closer to localizing the isssue but still a further qualification is required; the tragedy appears only within it in the subsection beta , that is, the one concerning dreams of the death of persons of whom the dreamer is fond of. The four-page interpretation of the play thus involves death dreams, which are a special kind of dreams, which in turn refer to special kinds of sources.

Among typical dreams one finds those dealing with embarrasing situations involving some sort of nudity. It is among these that we come to the dream of the unhappy wanderer; Odysseus himself standing naked and covered with mud before Nausicaa. Literature makes an early appearance in this section on ‘typical dreams’. Besides, Freud’s commentary on the dream present in Homer’s work paves the way for what is to follow: “the deepest and eternal nature of man, upon whose education in his hearer the poet is accustomed to rely, lies in those impulses of the mind which have their roots in a childhood that has become prehistoric” (F, TIoD, 346). Odysseus’ dream portrays Homer’s reaching out backwardly in time. Children’s shameless exhibitionism likewise pointing to some long lost Paradise where shame, anxiety, sexuality and cultural actvity were not yet present (ibid., 343).

The fact that some writers such as Homer follow the creative process “in a reverse direction and so trace back the imaginative writing into a dream”, allows Freud to ascertain the connection between dreams and literary works of diverse kinds (ibid., 345). If this connection is to hold, then it becomes crucial to find some common element shared both by literary art and typical dreams. And in fact, Freud claims to have found such a linking thread. Of typical dreams we are “accustomed to assume they have the same meaning for all of us” (ibid., 339). That is to say, what links typical dreams to literary works is the underpinning sense of universality characteristic of both. What is meant by this can be better appreciated if one listens to Eliot’s words concerning Twain’s Mississippi river; this river “is not only the river known to those who voyage on it, or live beside it, but the universal river of human life” (Eliot, LNI, 66).

The fact that the discussion is carried out in reference to ‘embarrasing dreams of being naked’ brings nudity itself as a common element underpinning children, adults and literature; children live it, adults embarrasingly dream it, and artists, as we shall see in the case of Sophocles, use its power to undress us, leaving us nakedly facing ourselves in order to better live.

To nakedness there follows a sort of death. And it is in relation to dreams of loved ones that we find Freud’s words on Oedipus. Such dreams, under normal circumstances, seek not a real and bloody manifestation of the desire from which they stem, but rather reveal an unfulfilled wish the history of which can be traced regressively. Psychoanalysis “is satisfied with the inference that this death has been wished for at some time or other during the dreamer’s childhood” (ibid., 349). A desire to kill has been set up, or better sets itself up, as part of our human make-up. Dreams’ power to move backward allows us to bring to light what would otherwise remain concealed, or at least, not properly understood.

Wishing the death of brothers and sisters can be understood by referring to the child’s intensely maginified egoism. Children, at one point in their development, take themselves much like Oedipus will, to be all powerful. And given that for them death is easily equatible with ‘general absence’, then their wishing the death of brothers and sisters becomes, through psychoanalysis, more comprehensible, much less shocking.

But wishing the death of one’s parents, now that seems like a much more complicated matter. There is truly a riddle here: how can we make sense of the wish to kill precisely those beings who have given us life and love in the first place? People who perhaps we are fortunate enough to admire? Freud, like Oedipus, does not shy away from the riddle. Instead he calls on the reader to consider what analysis has found in the case of psychoneurotics who exhibit “on a magnified scale feelings of love and hatred for their parents which occur less obviously and less intensely in the minds of most children” (ibid., 362). It is from the analysis of these troubled humans that analysis, Freud confesses, reaches “complete conviction” (ibid., 360). They convince the analyst of two things: first, that there is a sexual preference by children for the parent of their opposite sex and, second, that the other parent stands as a rival “whose elimination could not fail to be to their advantage” (ibid., 356-7). Analysing neurotic patients then, like dream analysis, involves a regressive uncovering of childhood wishes.

It is only after having said all of this that Freud begins to speak of Oedipus. But the role of the interpretation to follow is not intended to add anything new to the findings already reached. Rather than there being in Sophocles’ tragedy a new discovery, what we find is a different, albeit not unrelated path, towards the revelation of the same conflict. Dreams, neurosis and Literature seem to follow different paths towards an identical destination:

“this discovery is confirmed by a legend that has come down to us from antiquity; a legend whose profound and universal power can ONLY be understood if the hypothesis I have put forward in regard to the psychology of children has an equal universal validity.” (ibid., 362-3; my emphasis)

The argument is intended to be purely circular.[1] The emergence of the meaning of the death wish in dreams ——– an understanding that arises out of an understanding of the distortive mechanism of the dream-work process ——- is intricately connected to the meaning which emerges undistorted in the tragedy:

“It is thus the psychology of children that furnishes the core of the argument, provided that it has ‘universal validity’. But it is the legend and its literary elaboration which provide evidence for this. The explanation is thus perfectly circular: psychoanalysis brings out ‘the particular nature of the material’ ….; but it is the tragedy which makes it speak” (Ricoeur, PWA, 9)

The tragedy speaks from a realm different than that of our, or neurotics, everyday dreams. But within the work itself Jocasta fails not to remind us that what psychoanalysis discovers in the twentieth century is something deeper, the universal character of which, Sophocles’ tragedy allows us to better see.

In Freud’s four-page analysis, I take there to be three interconnected interpretations at work. I will call the first, the ‘regresive interpretation’, the second, the ‘humiliation interpretation’ and, the last, the ‘revelation interpretation’. For Freud, seemingly, the first of these carries most of the weight in our understanding of Oedipus’ psuche. Nevertheless, I will show not only that the other two are already present as early as The Interpretation of Dreams , but likewise take on added importance if one looks beyond the analysis of Sophocles’ play. While section IV will deal with the ‘humiliation’ and ‘regression’ interpretations in the broad context of Freud work, section V will elucidate briefly what the ‘revelation’ interpretation involves.

The ‘regressive’ interpretation is primarily intended to fill up the circular argument of which we spoke above. The tragedies main, or for Freud, ONLY theme, is that dealing with the issues of incest and parricide. Oedipus’ destiny:

“moves us only because it might have been ours —- because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father” (Freud, ibid., 364)

We are thus shockingly perturbed and moved by the tragedy becuase it leaves us nakedly facing the wishful nature which cements our psychological history. We shrink upon reading Oedipus’ life-story because we repudiate the meaning of the dreams we ourselves have; dreams which, thanks to psychoanalysis, we come too know all too well. The real shame (and guilt) which asssaults us having dreamt these phantastic dreams, finds a parallel in Oedipus’ own self-punishment. But we, we do not blind ourselves as the hero does. Instead we are “blinded”, through repression, and thus cease seeking to carry out these disturbing wishes in reality.

The ‘humiliation interpretation’ —– to borrow Ricoeurs terminology[2]—– finds expression in the text some of Freud’s own words which strike us as a reprehension. Having quoted the last lines of the play, lines which ask of us to fix our eyes on the culminating fall of the Greek hero left nakedly facing himself, Freud tells us that all this: “strikes us as a warning at ourselves and our pride, at us who since our childhood have grown so wise and mighty in our eyes. Like Oedipus we live in ignorance …..” (Freud, ibid., 365). Now, this is of course not just any kind of ignorance, but precisely the kind of ignorance which ties this second interpretation to the first. It is ignorance, as Freud proceeds to say, of our childhood wishes for incest and parricide. Having regressed and acknowledged what this regression entails “we may all of us well seek to close our eyes to these scenes of our childhood” (Freud, ibid., 365). We moderns close our eyes ashamed (or feeling guilt); Oedipus, through Sophocles’ “pen”, does not simply close them but instead violently and bloodily pulls them out.

The third and final interpretation is the one I have called the ‘revelation interpretation’. It likewise, I believe, finds expression in the text in the following words: “the action of the play consists in nothing other than the process of revealing with cunning delays and ever mounting excitement — a process that can be likened to psychoanalysis” (Freud, ibid., 363). Revelation is here not to be taken in the religious sense of an undistorted meaning given to us humans by the divine.[3] Rather, for our purposes, it is to be understood as the coming to light of truth as meaningfulness.

Through the intertwining of the three interpretations, we will come to see how psychoanalysis not only humiliates in order to open the realm of the past, but is likewise projected and fed by the desire of present resolution and future construction of healthy ways of moving about.

However, even though the three interpretations interact in different ways, they are seemingly under the banner of the first. This is so in the sense that, as we quoted above, this first interpretation is the one which truly allows us to understand what is going on in Oedipus’ mind; it alone can really explain what is that something which the tragedy triggers in us. The tragedy stirs us because we find in it the birth of the Oedipus complex. And its taking shape in early childhood stands, for Freud, as the pillar of psychoanalysis. This complex is both decisive and divisive; it is representative of a frontier. Those adhering to it are truly, for Freud, psychoanalysts. Its denying critics are playing on a separate field:

“It has justly been said that the Oedipus complex is the nuclear complex of neuroses, and constitutes the essential part of their content. It represents the peak of infantile sexuality, which, through its after effects, exercises a decisive influence on the sexuality of adults. Every new arrival on this planet is faced by the task of mastering the Oedipus complex; anyone who fails to do so falls a victim to neurosis. With the progress of psychoanalytic studies the importance of the Oedipus complex has become more and more clearly evident; its recognition has become the shibboleth that distinguishes the adherents of psychoanalysis from its opponents” (Freud, 3ES, 149)

This quote, written 20 years after the writing of the principal work on dreams, sees the Oedipus complex as a shibboleth, that is to say, the crucial piece, the real clue, the very solution of a very important human riddle.


Section I, I hope, has shown that Freud’s four-page commentary of Oedipus Tyrannus is more complex that it would appear at first sight. And yet one is left with a sense of lack and incompleteness. One longs for something more, so to speak.

It is Greek scholars who particularly feel this way. There is just something odd and suspicious in trying to understand a Greek text through three quotes taken out of context and reprinted, seemingly, haphazardly. But what is most puzzling is that Freud, particulary in The Interpretation of Dreams, goes out of his way not to rid the reader of innumerable quotations from all corners of knowldege. Unknown scientists, difficult philosophers and literats all share in Freud’s voluminous work on dreams. But Sophocles does so in an astonishingly limited way; particularly given the centrality of his appearance.

It is precisely this oversimplification which really irritates Greek scholars such as Vernant and Vidal-Naquet. One finds their protest for example in their purposely entitled essay “Oedipus without the Complex”:

“If one proceeds … as Freud does, by succesive simplification and reduction —- of all Greek mythology to one particular legendary schema, of the whole of tragedy to one particular play, of this play to one particular aspect of the story and of this aspect to a dream —- one might just as well substitute, for example, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon for Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex” (Vernant, 69)

Although Vernant’s commentary is half-mocking, half-serious, I have been trying to argue that the simplification, while blatantly obvious —- and just because of this so very puzzling—– is not really so simplistic, but instead makes more sense within the context of Freud’s work.

Nevertheless there are two points to be recovered from the view that wants to argue for an Oedipus without a complex. One is the crucial issue, which I take it really goes to the heart of Freud’s limited interpretation, of history; the other the tension and relationship between, what I have called the ‘humiliation interpretation’ of the play and its counterpart, the ‘reggressive’ one.

Although in a sense the regressive nature of dreams makes them historical both phylogenetically and ontogenetically, it is obvious that Sophocles’ play is seen by Freud without the most minimal attempt at understanding the context within which it arose. In a sense Freud’s interpretation, in its search for universality, takes a leap outside history: “for in the Freudian interpretation the historical aspect of tragedy remains totally incomprehensible” (Vernant, 67). But tragedy is so historically situated. Tragedy springs out of and within a highly complex artistic, religious and social reality. To put it in the most minimum terms; we moderns read Greek tragedy, the Greeks in contrast, at one point in their history, lived and experienced it through their bodies. Tragedy made them feel truly naked.

Tragedy arouse not just anywhere; its birth lies in a crossroad —-much like the crossroad at which Oedipus begins his doom. Tragedy is born out of and expresses conflict and contradiction. The highest tension possible comes to live in the peculiar form of art which is Greek Tragedy. But the tension from which it sprung is not completely our own. It is rather that which appears, very broadly speaking, in the struggle between conflicting moments and ways of viewing the world. Contraries come face to face for a moment in history: the decaying myth encounters the emerging philosophical outlook, prejuridical social forms struggle with the juridical status of the new born cities, the almost absolute determination of action by divine forces is questioned by a new conception of action and decision “in” the agent (Vernant, IWGT, OWC), the competitive virtues face the now emphasized cooperative ones (Adkins, MR). It is in this border zone that the tragic hero lives and breathes. He is a torn being, both acted upon and acting over:

“It is a form that must convey a sense of the contradictions that rend the entire universe, the social and political world and the domain of values, and that thus presents man himself as ….. some kind of an incomprehensible, baffling monster, both an agent and one acted upon, guilty and innocent, dominating the whole of nature with is industrious mind yet incapable of controlling himself, lucid and yet blinded by a frenzy sent to him by the gods … his choice takes place in a world full of obscure and ambiguous forces, a divided world … “ (Vernant, 68)[4]

Understanding this divided world involves taking the gods seriously. But instead what Freud tells us is precisely that the interpretation which holds that Oedipus Tyrranus is a tragedy of destiny — which for Freud, erroneously implies complete submission to divine will (F, TIoD, 364)[5]——– is not the most accurate. This is so for, Freud argues, other modern tragedies of destiny fail to move us: “the espectators have looked on unmoved while a curse or an oracle was fulfilled in spite of all efforts of some innocent man. Later tragedians of destiny have failed in their effect” (Freud, ibid., 364) Freud does not investigate further why precisely it is that such tragedies do not move US, and in doing so he does not quite see how and why they did move the Greeks.[6]Furthermore to his argument one could equally reply, playing devil’s advocate: “dramatic success would be simple if it sufficed to write plays about incest, there have been plenty. But Walpole’s Mysterious Mother, for example, is stone dead. Oedipus lives. Why?” (Lucas, 168).

It is part of this ‘why’ that Freud, as child of the Enlightenment, cannot see. And this is a reminder that we always runs the danger of misreading the Greeks by projecting on to them our own views, vocabulary, and practices.(Vernant, 29).[7]

The second issue which I would like to touch upon is the question of the primacy of what I have called, the ‘humiliation’ thesis, over and against the ‘regressive’ one. For Vernant the value of the play lies precisely where Freud sees it not. Oedipus errs out of megalomania, out of an excess of grandeur. He oversteps ——- and at the same time is made to overstep ——- the limitations set upon us humans by the divine and cosmological order. Under this perspective, the central theme of the tragedy becomes, not incest and parricide, but “absolute power and the necessary hubris that necessarily stems from it” (Vernant, 84). Oedipus is overproud, oversure of his prowess as solver of riddles. And this facet of his character is made worse because of his lack of self-criticism. Rather than seek to change himself, Oedipus, as we shall see, changes the world by distorting it. The central concern of the play is therefore, not so much the murder of Laius, but Laius’ murderer and his relation to the gods:

“It is this hubris characteristic of a tyrant … that causes Oedipus’ downfall and is one of the mainsprings of tragedy. For the inquiry concerns not only the murder of Laius but also the question of Oedipus himself, Oedipus the clairvoyant; the solver of riddles, who is a riddle to himself that, in his blindness as king, he cannot solve.” (Vernant, 81)

The ‘humiliation’ interpretation is primary; the ‘regressive’ only an added one.

Having come to see some of the dangers in bypassing the historical context within which Oedipus’ tragedy was played out, we are now led to ask who is this Oedipus king, who even though most famous of riddle-solvers, has become a riddle to himself. We would like to get clearer on who is he of whom his mother-bride says “may you never, unhappy, know who you are” (Lucas 1068).[8]To do so we cannot follow Freud any longer, but rather must turn our sight, weary of what we shall see, to Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.


Oedipus is intent on truth. He is driven against all obstacles, both self-imposed and of external origin, to try to uncover Laius’ murderer. Oedipus’ self-clarifying inquiry into the nature of his past will leave him, all of us at least think we already know, nakedly revealed. Oedipus is truly undermined for the ground on which he felt secure is taken away from him. He enters the eternal darkness of the really unhappy wanderer; he who blindly gropes in the night. But Oedipus is king, and as such he is also beholder of heroic force and power. He thinks highly of himself and it is precisely because of this that his drive towards truth is capable of overcoming his and others’ resistances. Only in revealing himself through his past, does Oedipus humiliate himself to the point where even though self-blinded, he nevertheless will come to see a new light —– a light far away in Colonus.

The very first lines of the play intertwine these two struggling paths; the one towards truth, the other towards true hubris: “I thought it right to hear the truth, my children/and so am come/ I, Oedipus, whose name fills all men’s mouths” (Lucas, 7-9). [9] Moreover, the Oedipus who knows himself bent to truth is he who also knows that other’s must bend in his presence. The Thebeans, who look up to him (35), place in him their salvation: “greatest in the eyes of all/ Here at thy feet we beg thee, Oedipus,/ Find us some help” (42-44). And Oedipus will be at all costs —- even if he must loose himself —– of ‘some help’.

First he seeks help in the divine; by way of Apollo. Apollo, god known as ‘Phoebus’ which means bright or radiant (133), as Lycean King that isprotector of flocks as against wolves (203), and as healer (155). (Lucas, page 230). This gods of light speaks bright words that aim at a healing which protects from the ravages of excessive beings. His words to the Thebeans stand clear, pollution can only come to an end through exile or blood. (100).

It is with this new information that Oedipus recognizes that he must begin anew: “I must start afresh, and bring to light/ these hidden things” (132-3). Oedipus will start an excavation out of which will surface what is hidden; but nothing does he know of the fact that this tunneling is carried through and about himself. Unknowing he firmly continues his search for truth, initially understood only in reference to the murder of Laius (129). But in order to so continue; he is in need of further information. And not just anybody gives it to him.

Summoned by Creon, Teiresias enters the action. But he does so in a very peculiar way; his entrance is one that is guided. Teiresias comes to life in the tragic play led by the weak hand of a boy. He is the well-known prophecy teller who was blinded for having looked at Athena’s naked body. But to blindness followed as divine gift another kind of seeing, that of foreseeing. Nakedness, which appears again, cost him his sight; but having seen the nude goddess won him a sight which “shares most nearly Apollo’s vision” (285). His new sight then would seem to have some relation to the power to heal. Moreover, what Teiresias sees, now blinded, is nothing other than the naked truth, he is“the prophet in whose heart/ alone of men, lives knowledge of truth” (300-1).

Teiresias entrance is not only guided by a child, it is one guided by silence; he knows all too well what his words carry with them. The enraged Oedipus cannot endure this and calls him, who for all is the wisest of men, a “creature of unending night”, a creature who has no power “to injure (him) or any that sees the light” (375-6). Oedipus has truly lost all measure, and his excessive pride fills his mouth:

“If merely for the sake of this my greatness,

Bestowed on me by the Thebens, a gift unasked,

The loyal Creon, my friend from long ago,

By stealthy machinations undermines me,

setting upon me this insidious wizard —-

Gear-gathering hypocrite, blind in his art,

With eyes only for gain!

For tell me now, when have you proved true seer?

Why, when there came that chanting, monstrous hound,

Had you then no answer to deliver Thebes?

And yet her riddle was not to be read

By the first comer’s wit —- that was the time

For powers prophetic. But of those no sign

You gave us —- neither by the voice of birds,

Nor taught by any God. But then came I —–

the ignorant Oedipus! —– and closed her mouth

By force of intellect — no birds to help me!” (381-398)

Oedipus reveals himself as the self-sufficient king and riddle solver who has lost his humanity; he alone has defeated the Sphynx and alone he will stand accursed. He has both severed ties to friends, through his distortion of Creon’s intentions, and to the Gods, through his mocking of Teiresias mediator.

But even so, Oedipus will not cease asking. He is driven to uncover the riddle which he know sees facing him. “Who was it that gave me life?” he asks the humiliated Teiresias (438). A puzzle to which the seer answers, mockingly enough, with yet another riddle: “this day shall bring thy birth — and thy destruction” (438). And we, puzzled ask, how is Oedipus, already born, to be brought to birth once again? And how is it that this newly won first sight of light, will simultaneously involve the darkest night of death?

The action rushes on and it does so primarily through a process of remembering. Oedipus remembers the words of the insulting drunkard who had said Polybus and Merope were not truly his parents (778-9). And his capacity to reminesce is aided by its slow eruption in different characters which are lead slowly, but surely, towards the discovery of the meaning behind Oedipus’ birth. The herdsman who saved Oedipus as a child from death has to be reminded by the messenger about these past events. Besides this dialogical remembering is one dealing with truth:

Herdsman. Not that I can recall it —— out of hand

Mesenger. No wonder sire. But though he does not know me,

I’ll soon remind him. Well I know he knows

Those times that we ranged together round Cithaeron,

He with two flocks ……..

Am I talking truth or not?

Herdsman. ‘Tis true enough; though a great while ago” (1132-40)

The herdsman is even forced to remember and answer by Oedipus’ threats of physical torture (1150). But when all the information has been put together, Oedipus realizes what has happened; how it was he who murdered his father, thus committing parricide, and he who wed his mother, thus committing incest. A contradictory (like the contradictory world out of which tragedy is born) ‘shadow full clarity’ sets in: “now all accomplished —-all is clear/Light of this day, let me look last on thee/ Since now I stand revealed, curst in my birth/ curst in my wedlock, curst in my bloodshed” (1182-5). Oedipus stands revealed; he has been uncovered, all his clothing removed.

But the shadow of the intellect is not enough; this blindness must be appropriated by the body itself. In a monologue of utter despair Oedipus, as reported by the servant, yells “henceforth be darkened/ eyes that saw whom ye should not” (1270-4). Oedipus king lies truly helpless. He is now become a hideous monster to look upon (1318-20), too “hateful for human sight” (1301-2).

But his is a king’s nature and pride, even now, is not lacking. Thus to the leader’s words: “I cannot count well what though hast done”, he answers, “ah cease advising me/tell me not now/ that what I did was not the best to do” (1368-9). Oedipus most definitely does not believe himself merely to be a puppet of the gods, as Freud would have it. He knows well both that it was he who blinded himself and, in a sense, not he who was involved in the acts of parricide and incest: “It was Apollo, my friends, Apollo/That made me suffer this misery;/But my eyes were stricken by myself alone./What need had I to see/For whom life kept no sight of sweetness more?” (1328-32).[10]

Oedipus does not die or commit suicide. If had so proceeded, Teiresias’ riddle involving a birth and a death in the instant of coming to know, would have been denied. Teiresias foresees another path into the future. And as the mark of this beginning, which is now simply seen as total disorientation, Oedipus chooses exile. But exile not just anywhere but precisely to the land in which he as a child, one could say, was truly saved to life:

“Leave me among the mountains, where Cithaeron

Is linked with my name forever. There it was

My parents when they lived, assigned my grave;

There let me die, according to their will

That sought to doom me then —-yet well I see

No sickness, no mischance, had power upon me;

Who could never have escaped, had I not been

Reserved for some portentuous doom.

But let my own fate drive to what end it will” (1451-9)

And end of which Freud did not speak and which Oedipus will find only in the Colonus of a poet in his nineties. (Lucas, 215)

It is only after all this has been revealed that one —-finally—– encounters the closing words of the play which are quoted by Freud in his analysis in The Interpretation of Dreams.[11] Our feeling that something was missing seems not to have been completely misleading. But then why Freud’s confidence in his four-page analysis? Why this neglect of relevant aspects from a man whose magnificence, humour and humanity shine through in all his writings?


Freud did not ever pretend to see everything clearly, but he did claim the capacity to give us clarity in certain dimensions of our understanding: “Freudian interpretation touches on the essential precisely as a result of its narrowness” (Ricoeur, PMCC, 141).

Diagnosis is psychoanalysis’ path towards understanding. As investigatory practice it is not content with the way things appear, but is rather suspicious of such a-critically held appearances. For instance, something more lies behind the appearance of the manifest content, of our identifying love for our parents, of our neurosis, of our kokes, of our love of God, of our civilization’s goals. It is because of this that the linguistic symbols which psychoanalysis sets out to comprehend come to light, in the first instance, as shadowy, illusory and deceitful. The meaning of symbols is undermined by their presence as idols. Analysis, in uncovering deceit, distortion and blindness, cannot but ask negatively. (Ricoeur, FP, 31). Psychoanalysis is intent on undressing symbols, so that in their nakedness we can better come to comprehend and reappropriate them once again.

Psychoanalysis, as a hermeneutics of suspicion, is primarily concerned with the humiliation of the historically developed narcissism which anchors our pride in conscious knowledge. Of course psychoanalysis cannot deny the immediate certainty of consciousness, the Cartesian ‘I think’, but it does lay bare the former’s illusory claims to immediate truth. Consciousness in this view, is in immediacy a ‘false consciousness’ for, although it posits itself, it does not possess itself: “psychoanalysis cannot situate the essence of the psychical in consciousness,, but is obliged to regard consciousness as a quality of the psychical, which may be present in addition to other qualities or may be absent” (Freud, EI, 351) Psychoanalysis, Ricoeur tells us, does away with “consciousness and its pretensions of ruling over meaning in order to save reflection” (Ricoeur, FP 422). Meaning is a task, not a given.

The movement towards reflection necessarrily implies a dispossession or displacement of the illusory cogito. We relinquish consciousness in order to recapture it at a more complex level through the integration of a ‘deeper’ understanding of the conditions within which consciousness itself is born. To gain myself I must, oddly enough, somehow be willing to loose myself:

“If it is true that the language of desire is a discourse combining meaning and force[12], reflection, in order to get at the root of desire, must let itself be dispossessed of the conscious meaning of discourse and displace it to another place of meaning ……… But since desire is accesible only in the disguises in which it places itself, it is only by interpreting the signs of desire that one can recapture in reflection the emergence of desire and thus enlarge reflection to the point where it regains what it had lost” (Ricoeur, FP , 424)

There is then a reduction not ‘to’ consciousness but ‘of’ consciousness and for the sake of a new, more humble, type of conscious activity. But, why is discentering so crucial to my rediscovery? It is because through it alone can one move beyond the narcissism which cements one’s ego. The illusion of a not fought for selflove, safeguards the ego from the work involved in its becoming. Freud’s appeal to our ‘humiliation’ interpretation is clear:

“You are sure you are informed of all that goes on in your mind …. come let yourself be taught something on this point ….. turn your eyes inward, look into your own self, learn first to know yourself! Then you will understand why you were bound to fall ill; perhaps to avoid falling ill in the future” (Ricouer quotes Freud, FP, 426-427)[13]

Consciousness is wounded by the “reality” of the unconscious. The ego no longer rules in an unqualified manner, but is instead set within a complex and demanding internal and external framework. The immediacy of the ego and the world is forever shattered; the idea, for instance, of an oceanic feeling —— adhered to uncritically —— is in reality the flight of an ego who denies the exigencies of an external reality which stands apart as alien, overpowering and senseless.[14]The ego is uncovered, undressed, and what Freud finds is a precipitate of lost objects. That objects have been lost signifies that direct real satisfaction of libidinal demands has not been adequately met. The ego thus presents itself to the Id as a totality of losses, ‘I’ becomes the primordial love object for ‘it’: “when the ego assumes the features of the objects, it is forcing itself, so to speak, upon the Id as a love object, and trying to make good the Id’s loss by saying: ‘Look, you can love me too —- I am so like the object’” (Freud, EI, 369). The ego which posits itself arrogantly, does not come close to possessing itself. In order to become itself, it must start by reviewing the history of its losses; it must engage in archeological investigation on itself. The ‘humiliation’ interpretation consequently goes hand in hand with the ‘regressive’ one. Making oneself humble implies retrogression and retrogression can only start through humility. A new circle is born.

Negation opens up the way to the remoteness of our history both phylogenetically and ontogenetically; this happens in various interrelated ways. One can see this backward motion in dream formation. Dreams lay bare, and allow us to acquaint ourselves through critical interpretation, not only with our personal history (going as far back as our childhood), but also, and through connections with works of art such as Oedipus Turranus, but also with the whole archaic heritage which constitutes our humanity. The first topography shows the mechanism of this regression in dreams which allows movement of unconscious material, not towards the motor end of the y-systems, but rather to the opposite extreme, namely, the perceptual end (Freud, TIoD, 692)[15]. Dreaming is not only ”an example of regression to the dreamer’s earliest condition, of the instinctual impulses that dominated it, and of the methods of expression …. available to him” (Freud, ibid., 699), but likewise a universal regression towards the archaic structures which involve the rise of the Oedipus complex itself. Psychoanalysis, having quoted Nietzsche, knows that this its particular kind of narrowness is far reaching:

“Dreams and neurosis seem to have preserved more mental antiquities than we could have imagined possible; so that psychoanalysis may claim a high place among the sciences which are concerned with the reconstruction of the earliest and most obscure periods of the begginings of the human race” (Freud, ibid., 700)

It is in this sense that topographic, temporal and formal regresion are at bottom one and the same kind of regression; for “what is older in time is also more primitive in form and in psychical topography lies nearer to the perceptual end” (Freud, TIoD, 699).

But this regressive tendency, is far from being only present in dreams, rather it permeates the whole of Freud’s outlook. It continues to play a central role in the second topography where in a difficult passage we are told: “in the id, which is capable of being inherited, are harboured residues of the existences of countless egos; and, when the ego forms its superego out of the id, it may perhaps only be reviving shapes of former egos and be bringing them to ressurrection” (Freud EI, 378). Understanding ourselves today involves then an understanding of residues present prior even to our birth. Moreover this regressive tendency is likewise present in Freud’s writings on culture.. An example of this being the analogy of mind and Rome in Civilization and its Discontents, where we are told concerning mental life:

“Since we overcame the error of supposing that the forgetting we are familiar with signified a destruction of the memory trace — that is, its annihilation —- we have inclined to take the opposite view that in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish — that everything is somehow preserved and that in suitable circumstances (when for instance, regression goes back far enough) it can once more be brought to light” (Freud, CD, 256) (my emphasis)

Regression is not an endless abysmal fall into the darkness of the unknown; it rather involves, as we shall see, a bringing to light; something for which we are better prepared having read Sophocles’ play. But furthermore, one finds this regressive type of inquiry coming to life in the very foundation of psychoanalysis, that is to say, it is present in psychoanalysis dualism. as seen in the perpetual struggle between the eros and the death instincts. The latter, which for Freud finds meaningful expression in sadism and hatred is not only supported by biology but its task is to lead organic lfe back ino the inanimate state” (Freud, EI, 380). This is truly as back as you can go.[16]

Having said all this, I hope it becomes clearer to see why it is that in an early work like The Interpretation of Dreams so much emphasis is placed by Freud on Jocasta’s words on incestous dreaming. Only with a view to the whole regressive nature of psychoanalytic investigation does the four-page interpretation of Sophocles’ play start to make more sense. Humiliation and regression, which we saw present in the work itself, are two of the banners held by psychoanalysis in its search for understanding. Ricouer, who captures this tendency in his concept of the ‘archeology of the subject’, tells us:

“If one interrelates all these modalities of archaism; there is formed the complex figure of a destiny in reverse, a destiny that draws one backward; never before had a doctrine so coherently revealed the disquieting consistency of this complex situation” (Ricoeur, FP, 452).

A complex situation hinted at by Teiresias’ puzzling words: “This day shall bring thy birth —– and thy destruction”. Destruction, painful as it might be, is not for destruction’s sake. Neither Sophocles nor psychoanalysis aim simply at leaving us nakedly and embarrasingly facing ourselves defenseless in the uttermost cold of cage-like caverns.


Literature is fond of playing with words. To reveal is one of those words that invite us to playfulness; it calls on foreplay, that is to say, all that which goes on before the actual playing. But some languages aid us better is playing certain games; I will therefore refer the reader to Spanish words here. To ‘reveal’ in English is to bring to light, to disclose. But, at least phonetically, the word could be seen to have some relation to the verb ‘to veil’ which means exactly the opposite, that is to say, to cover, to haze over. If one added the prefix ‘re’ which means to do again (as in redo your homework) then one would end up with the exactly opposite word to ‘re-veil’. The game I am playing works much better in Spanish, for the word for ‘to reveal’ is ‘revelar’, and the word for ‘to veil’ is ‘velar’. It is easier then to add the repetitie prefix ‘re’ which also exists in Spanish. To reveal then would involve a new type of vealing, a new covering up. The game takes added force because inseems to point precisely at Ricoeurs conception of what a ‘symbol’ is double meaning and which in reference to dream we are told: “the dream and its analogues er set within a region of language that presents itself as the locus of compelx significations when another meaning is BOTH hoddenn and given ina n immediate meaning” (Ricoeur, FP, 7). The regressive and humiliation have moved us a primary meaning that distorted, veiled. But there movement revelas new posibilities which leave us not strandeed nakedly humiliated in a maddening past but covers us agains, re-vveils’ us. How is dthis done? [17].

Now under this view to ‘reveal’ is a ‘re-veiling’ that is to say, a recovering, a covering oneself anew. Naked we would surely die; we humans must cover us through new meanings.

There are many ways in whih one could come to see how psychoanalysis could do this within its regressive framework; through a positive view on identification[18], also by way of a recovery of the never fully articulated and comprehended phenomena of sublimation by Freud[19], and finally, the course I propose here to take by looking at Freud’s own words, by reminding oneself of the practice which psychoanalysis involves. In the analytic situation analysand and analyst meet in dialogue to overcome regression and firmly held resistances. IN the analytic situation nakedness sets in, but it s a different kind of nakedness, one that reacts much like Athena did to Teiresias.

The analysand —and all of us reading Freud outside the analytic situation —- is suffering from symptoms which hamper his ability to move around, articulate and face the reality which mingles outside the analytical situation. He/she is stuck, so to speak, much like we dream universally of being embarrassingly stuck in our own nakedness. Their inability to orient themselves in the real world lies partly in a regressive fixation on past experiences: “not only do they remember painful experiences of the remote past, but they still cling to them emotionally; they cannot get free of the past and for its sake they neglect what is real and immediate” (F, 5LP, 40). But not only are they backwardly fixed, they cannot see what it is precisely they are fixed on. It is as if they had become amnesic. The analysand is there fore set in an awkward situation of simultaneously knowing and not knowing. Confusion sets in, as Freud clearly saw in the case of Fraulein Elizabeth von R.:

“it followed that her feelings themselves did not become clear to her …. her love for her brother in law was present in her consciousness as a foreign body …. with regard to these feelings she was in a peculiar situation of knowing and at the same time not knowing” (Freud, SoH, 165)

A riddle plays itself out here. It is a riddle that Oedipus knew all too well. Uncovering the riddle implies recognition this dangerously regressive tendency “the libido …. has netered on a regressive course and has revived the subject’s infantile images” (F, TDoT, 102). We are literally caught up in a dream world.

Psychoanalysis, like Oedipus, does not shy away from this riddle. It desires a try at it. It rebels against human suffering for it cannot understand how “people notice that the patient has some slit in his mind, but shrink from touching them for fear of increasing his suffering” (Freud, 5LP, 84). Psychoanalysis likes to touch; it does so for the purpose of healing. It faces our split head on and tries to comprehensively fill gaps building brdges of communication between both split —much like iin tragedy — disconnected worlds.

And it knows that this construction is a task, “one o f the hardest” (Freud, SoH, 138), is a true battle of continuous struggle towards recovery:

“The analysis has to struggle against the resistances … the resistance accompanies the treatment step by step. Every songle association, every act of the person under treatment must reckon with the resistance and represents a compromise between the forces that are striving towards recovery and the opposing ones which I have described” (Freud, TDoT, 103)

Psychoanalysis, following the basic rule of honesty which states that “whatever comes into one’s head must be reported without criticizing it “ (Freud, TDoT, 107), moves by way of shedding clothes, by untangling knots which hamper our everyday fulfillment. Psychoanalysis clears, much like Oedipus, its procedure is “one of clearing away the pathogenic material layer by layer, and we liked to compare it with the technique of excavating a city” (Freud, SoH, 139). Psychoanalysis exccavates but its excavations matter iin so far as the uncovered city that is brought to light is not simply left standing to werode but rather integrated, cultivated and admred by making it part of the whole topography of one’s mind. Psychoanalysis rebuilds, repaints, reconstructs. Psychoanalyis recovers, that is to say, it covers again our nakedness.

In the analytic situation, byy way of the, beautifully termed by Freud, “catalytic ferment” which is the transference (Freud, 5LP, 82), which is the “true vehicle of therapeutic influence” (ibid., 83) psychoanalysis embarks of the reconstruction of misunderstood losses in order to construct new meaning. Knowing all too well about the dangers of transference as substitute for the analysand most intimate desires — the analysand feels his nakedness can be covered by way of the analyst —-(Freud, TDoT, 103-4), it sets out on a quest towards the difficult articulation of a narrative, the coherence and beauty of which, allows, and proceeds from the overcoming of resistances. Freud sees this narrative structure but his scientific outlook is weary of its claims to real truth: “and it still strikes me as strange that the case histories I wrote should read like short stories and that we might say they lack the serious stamp of science” (Freud, SoH, 160). [20]

With the aid of a trained analyst who, with Freud’s unfortunate choice of words “tries to compel him to fit these emotional impulses into the nexus of the treatment and of his life history” (Freud, TDoT,, 108). The analysand is given the tools through which he can not only comprehend his/her past, but move beyond it creatively and realistically in a world outside the analytic situation for “what matters is that he shall be free of it in his real life” (ibid., 106). IN the construction of a narrative of which I cannot go into detail here, regression and humiliation end up ina form of revealing, as we saw a new covering, a revealing; a veiling in the warmth of meaningful words and actions. truth emerges out of a backward movement in which we doubt as never had. Truth emerges as a rock that “is reliable,, strong enough to be a foothold, a foundation for us to stand upon” (Loch, CSPT, 221) A rock from which Oedipus at Colonus finds his own death (Sophocles, OC, 1594), with these words, leaving his children without a father:

“My children, from this day

Ye have no father. Now my life is done.

You shall not toil to tend me any more.

How hard it was for you, I know, dear daughters;

Yet that one word of ‘love’ repaid it all.

No man could give you deeper love than mine.

And now without me

You both must pass the remnant of your days” (1614-1621)

His children are left nakedly facing the world, but they are better prepared for it.

[1]For a defense of such circularity as mode of understanding peculiar to human beings one can look at Heidegger’s Being and Time..

[2]For Ricoeur psychoanalysis can be understood, in conjunction with the work of Marx and Nietzsche, as a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’. For these critical thinkers the immediacy of meaning is questioned and each develops a way to gain insight into the process of distortion which governs, be it dreams, capitalist accumulation and alienation, and morality. This idea will perhaps become clearer in section IV of this essay. Besides, the term is used by Ricoeur in reference to the three-fold humiliation of Western thought: i) the cosmological humiliation by Copernicus, ii) the biological humiliation at the hands of Darwin, and iii) the psychological humiliation at the hands of Freud himself. (Ricoeur, FP, 32-36, see also PMCC). Humiliation therefore, as I take it, has nothing to do with guilt; but with something more like shame.

[3]Ricouer does attempt to situate psychoanalysis within, what he considers are three zones of symbolic language: i) the cosmic, linked to the phenomenology of religion, ii), the zone of the oneiric linked to psychoanalysis, and iii) the zone governed by poetic imagination (Ricoeur, FP, BOOK I: “Problematic: the placing of Freud”)

[4]Perhaps one could see in this tension clear parallels with the struggle between unconscious and conscious forces, between the ego and the id, but one must continuously be weary of projecting the way we understand ourselves to other cultures who shared neither our practices nor our conceptual frameworks. A crucial example is the inexistence of a concept of ‘will’ within Greek thought. (Vernant, 28)

[5]The theory of double motivation holds instead that there is not simply a submission by the agent but rather a complex double participation, both divine and human: “Since the origin lies in both man himself and outside him, the same character appears now as an agent, the cause and source of his actions, and now as acted upon, engulfed in a force that is beyond him and sweeps him away. yet although human and divine causality are intermingled in tragedy, they are not confused. The two levels are quite distinct, sometimes opposed to each other” (Vernant, 53)

[6]Within the tradition of a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ one could look at Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy for a clearer view of what Tragedy meant to the Greeks. Nevertheless, the Nietzschean analysis is not itself without problems, and one can therefore try to look at works such as Dodds’ stimulating The Greeks and the Irrational for a better understanding of teh context within which Greek Tragedy took place (e.g. Appendix I “Maenadism”). For a defense of a more Freudian analysis of Oedipus Tyrannus , one can also look at Thallia Feldman’s “Taboo and Neurotic Guilt in the Oedipus Theme”. Her argument is that “ it is principally Sophocles who, in his two dramas, bridges the transition between such surviving notions surrounding primitive taboo and their elevation into a significant stage beyond, one which indicates a new, individual concern and feeling” (Feldman, 60)

[7]The issue of historicity places real questions on the whole enterprise of psychoanalysis. This is nowhere better seen than in the important work of Michel Foucault who traces the history of madness in his Madness and Civilization. The possible ground for a critique of psychoanalysis is found particularly in his first and third volumes on the History of Sexuality. While in the third he attempts to understand Artemidorus within his context, in the first he argues that modernity is characterized by a deep concern for what is referred to the ‘repressive hypothesis’. The fundamental claim of this hypothesis, according to Focault, is one of liberation by engaging in discursive critique through which it is argued we may finally overcome both external and internal repression. (Of course Freud himself never aims at this, but some aspects of Foucault’’s critique due go to the heart of psychoanalytic practice) For Foucault this project is radically misguided. He seeks to show this by tracing its origin in history to the development of a practice peculiar to the West, namely, the radical emphasis we have placed in the discursiveness of sexuality. The overwhelming concern with the speaking of sexuality is traced back to the Christian confessional. In the confession one seeks permanently to ‘uncover’ oneself; it is an uncovering which makes possible,at least ideally, the emergence of some deeply concealed truth which up to that point had been held back. For Foucault the Christian confessional becomes secularized in a move from Augustine’s Confessions through to Rousseau’s Confessions and finally in the analytic situation itself. Freud many times writes as if within this paradigm, for example in An Outline of Psychoanalysis: he tewlls us: “this looks as though we were only aiming at the post of a secular father confessor. But there is a great difference, for what we want to hear from our patient is not only what he knows and conceals from other people; he is to tell us too what he does NOT know” (Freud, AOP, Chpter VI ) What is problematic for Foucault on this view of things is that we are continuously incited to confess believing that herein lies the breakdown of repression. But for Foucault this confessional practice is set within a whole network of power relations which give expression too a historically developed technology of the self through which we come to be constituted as particular kinds of subjects, that is, confessional subjects. The former perpetuate the discourse of protest which represents the very means of perpetuating their condition as the kind of subjects the have come to be. For Foucault this condition is that western human have become ‘confessional animals’ (Foucault, HoS I, 159) (This position radically questions many of the points in this essay).

[8]Vernant and Vidal Naquet have two furher arguments against Freud’s interpretation: i) the first concerns the circularity of the argument (I have tried to show that this is precisely what Freud intends and therefore the critique is unfair) (Vernant, 64); and ii) they question the whole idea of Oedipus’ really knowing or not whether Polybus and Merope were his parents. I think this to be a weaker argument and Freud could attempt to answer it.

[9]I will use F.L. Lucas translation because although its English is difficult I find it particularly beautiful. But perhaps not everyone coincides.

[10]Vernant and Vidal-Naquet shed light on this dual nature of the action: “the contrary aspects of the action he has accomplished by blinding himself are both united and opposed in the very same expressions that the chorus and himself both use … The divine causality and the human initiative which just now appearede to be so clearly opposed to each other have now come together and, at the very heart of the decision ‘chosen’ by Oedipus, a subtle play of language produces a shift from the action …. to that of passivity …” (Vernat, 54)

[11]”Dwellers here in Thebes our city, fix your eyes on Oedipus/Once he guesed the famous riddle, once our land knew none so great—-/Which among the sons of Cadmus envied not his high estate?/Now behold how deep above him there hath rolled the surge of doom/So with every child of mortal” (1524-8)

[12]Ricouer sees n Freud’s analysis two interpretations, the hermeneutical and the energetic, neither of which can be reduced to the other an the dual nature of which gives an added strength to psychoanalytic theory.

[13]Perhaps one could argue that part of the fascination with Sophocles’ play lies precisely in its appeal  to the language of sight. In this sense it moves us closer to the perceptual end of the first topography.

[14]A view which makes sense, I beleive, only as stemming from a Schopenahuerian view of the will.

[15]It is interesting to note that our game leads us, in its Spanish variant,  to realize that the verb “velar” also means to take care of something important, and particularly of the dead.

[16]The presence of the symbol is further made interesting if one looks at its Greek origin. As Anne Carson tells us in her beautiful Eros: the Bittersweet: “The English word ‘symbol’ is the Greek word symbolon which means, in teh ancient world, one half of a knucklebone carried as a token of identity to someone who has the other half. Together the two halves compose one meaning. A metaphor is a species of symbol. So is a lover.” (Carson , 75.)  The importance of this relation becomes more important if one sets to try to understand Freud’s claim to be following Plato in erotic matters. (Freud, 3ES, 43.)

[17]A positive view of identification would see it as an inevitable event, yet under certain historical circumstances not simply a negative one. One could try for example, to link the issue of identification with a notion of ‘identity’ such as theone defended by Charles Taylor in his Sources of the Self.


[19]Ricoeur recovers this in his view of Sophocles’ play seen principally as a tragedy of truth and in his genral understanding of art as providing the progressive movement which, while incorporating some regressive understaniding, nevertheless reveals present and future possibilities. : “because of their emphasis in disguise dreams look more to the past, to childhood. But in works of art the emphasis is on disclosure; thus works of art tend to be prospective symbols of one’s personal synthesis and of man’s future and not merely a regressive symptom of the artist’s unresolved conflict”. One can also  look at also Ricoeur’s “Psychoanalysis and the Work of art” where he touches on the realiton of he ‘fantastic’ as both representabel and substitutable, and the sublimation found in the work of Leonardo Da Vinci.

[20]On the issue of narrativity and truth see Ricoeur’s essay: “The Question of Proof in Freud’s Psychoanalytic Writings”



Freud, Sigmund, Two Short Accounts of Psycho-analysis, Penguin, London, 1991, “Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis” pgs. 31-87. Translated by James Strachey.

———– The Interpretation of Dreams, Volume 4 of the Penguin Freud Library, Penguin, London, 1991.

———–On Sexuality, Volume 7 of the Penguin Freud Library, particularly “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” pp. 33-169.

———–On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, Volume 11 of the Penguin Freud Library, “The Unconscious” 159-210, “The ego and the Id”, 339-401. (Edition 1984)

———–Civilization Society and Religion, Volume 12 of Penguin Freud Library, “‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness” pp. 33-55. (edition 1985


Loch, W., “Some Comments on the Subject of Psychoanalysis and Truth”, Essay 8 in Psychiatry and the Humanities Volume 2: Thought, Consciousness, and Reality, (de. Smith, Joseph) Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1977, pgs 217-250.

Lucas, F.L., Greek Tragedy and Comedy, “Oedipus the King”, The Viking Press, New York, 1967, pp. 168-208

Ricoeur, P., “Psychoanalysis and the Work of Art”, Essay 1 in Psychiatry and the Humanities Volume 1: Psychiatry, Art and Literature (de. Smith, Joseph), Yale Univesity Press, New Haven and London, 1977, pp. 3-33

———– Freud and Philosophy, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1970. Translated by Denis Savage.

———- Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,

“The question of proof in Freud’s Psychoanalytic writings” pp. 247-273.

Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, Translated and edited by Luci Berkowitz and Theodore Brunner, Norton and Company, New York, 1970. Particularly “Thalia Phillies Feldman “Taboo and Neurotic Guilt in the Oedipus Theme” pp. 59-69.

Vernat, J.P. and Vidal-Naquet P., “Preface”, Chapter 3: “Intimations of the Will in Greek Tragedy”, Chapter 4:“Oedipus without the complex”, in Tragedy and Myth in Ancient Greece, Harvester Press, Sussex, n.d., pp. 28-86.

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