Film Theory: Freud, Oedipal Crisis, Taboos of the Past

The disjunction between the real and the symbolic: the father dies without having settled satisfactorily his accounts.

Freud’s notion of the Oedipus complex provided the cornerstone for his (at the time) revolutionary psychoanalytic theory, and on which the other phenomena relevant to film theory depend.

Freud took the name Oedipus from classical mythology, particularly the story, dramatized by Sophocles, of how Oedipus unwittingly killed his father and married his mother, a deed for which he was severely punished.

The myth represents for Freud the inevitable fantasy of the growing child.

In the first phase, the child is bound in illusory unity with his mother, whom he does not recognize as Other, separate, or different, and as a result, he exists blissfully in a pre Oedipal phase.

But as he moves into the phallic phase, the child becomes aware of his father. At the height of his positive Oedipal phase, he loves his mother and hates his father who takes mother for himself.

Successful resolution of this Oedipal phase takes place on the boy’s discovery that his mother lacks the penis. i.e. is castrated (he can only imagine that all people must originally have had penises).

This bitter discovery propels him away from his mother, since he fears that by identifying with the one who lacks the penis, he will endanger his own organ.

He now identifies with his father, whom he longs to be like, and he looks forward to “finding someone like his mother” to marry.

Freud did not pay much attention to the girl’s Oedipal crisis, but post Freudians have generally agreed that it is a much more complicated one. They argue that the girl turns away from her mother through penis envy and the belief that her mother is responsible for her lack of a penis. The girl tries to get from the father what the mother could not provide, now equating “child” with “penis”, and looking to bear the child with a man like her father.

The best neo Freudian analysis of the girl’s Oedipal complex can be found in Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (1978, Berkeley, Calif., University of California Press).

Chodorow examines the difficult task for the girl in having to turn away completely from her first love object, her mother, and place erotic interest in her father. She argues that since they cannot “replace” their mothers, as boys do with their wives, girls remain attached pre-oedipally to their mothers throughout adulthood.

Taboos and Impact of the Past through Superego

Freud had observed: “Mankind never lives completely in the presence. The ideologies¬† of the superego perpetrate the past, the traditions,¬† of the race and the people, which yield but slowly to the influence of the present and to new developments. And so long as they work through the superego, they play an important part in man’s life, quite independently of economic conditions.”