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The Oedipus Complex Today

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A collection of papers focusing on the Kleinian conception of the Oedipus complex, how this is now understood, and what effect it has had on clinical practice.The papers by Ronald Britton, Michael Feldman and Edna O'Shaughnessy which form the greater part of The Oedipus Complex Today were originally given at the Melanie Klein Conference on the Oedipus Complex in September 1987 at University College, London. The conference, jointly organized by Professor J. Sandler of the Psychoanalysis Unit at University College and Mrs. Ruth Riesenberg-Malcolm on behalf of the Melanie Klein Trust, was considered such a successful statement of modern Kleinian views on the subject that the Trust has decided to present the papers in book form, together with an expanded version of the introduction by Dr Hanna Segal, and also a reprint of Melanie Klein's 1945 paper 'The Oedipus Complex in the Light of Early Anxieties'.The three papers, writes Dr Segal, 'are based on central concepts first put forward by Mrs Klein. They show, however a considerable development and elaboration of her basic ideas. For instance, though Mrs Klein established the existence of primitive and psychotic forms of the Oedipus Complex, the chapters presented show how much work has been done in studying those early phenomena clinically. They also show a considerable advance in understanding the effect of those early processes and phantasies on such mental functions as perception and thinking.'All the chapters are also concerned with technique, and it is in this area that developments since Mrs Klein are possibly most striking. They are concerned with the effect of primitive acting in the psychoanalytic session. They describe the constant pressure on the analyst to play a role in the primitive Oedipal drama and the potentially disruptive effects on the analyst's own thinking. In psychoanalysis, theory and technique are closely interrelated. It is the clinical and technical challenge that leads the psychoanalyst to modify and refine his theoretical framework, and this is the way psychoanalytic theory grows. I think the chapters presented here are evidence of the continuing vitality and development of Freud's and Klein's ideas.'

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1. The Oedipus complex in the light of early anxieties

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Melanie Klein

INTRODUCTION

I have two main objectives in presenting this paper. I intend to single out some typical early anxiety situations and show their connection with the Oedipus complex. Since these anxieties and defences are part of the infantile depressive position as I see it, I hope to throw some light on the relation between the depressive position and libidinal development. My second purpose is to compare my conclusions about the Oedipus complex with Freud’s views on that subject.

I shall exemplify my argument by short extracts from two case histories. Many more details could be adduced about both analyses about the patients’ family relationships and about the technique used. I shall, however, confine myself to those details of the material which are most essential from the point of view of my subject-matter.

The children whose case histories I shall use to illustrate my argument were both suffering from severe emotional difficulties. In making use of such material as a basis for my conclusions about the normal course of the Oedipus development, I am following a method well tried in psycho-analysis. Freud justified this angle of approach in many of his writings. For instance in one place, he says: ‘Pathology has always done us the service of making discernible by isolation and exaggeration conditions which would remain concealed in a normal state.’ (S.E. 22, p. 121).

 

2. The missing link: parental sexuality in the Oedipus complex

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Ronald Britton

For Freud the Oedipus complex was the nuclear complex from its discovery in 1897 to the end of his life (Freud, 1897, 1924d). It remained central in the development of the individual for Melanie Klein. She adopted the term ‘oedipal situation’ and included in it what Freud had referred to as the primal scene, i.e. the sexual relations of the parents both as perceived and as imagined (Klein, 1928; also chapter one, this volume).

From the outset of her work with children Melanie Klein was impressed at the ubiquity of the oedipal situation and its unique importance; she also thought that it began much earlier than did Freud and that it began in relation to part objects before evolving into the familiar Oedipus complex, which related to the two parents perceived as whole objects—that is, as persons. So for her it began in infancy with phantasies of a relation to breast and penis and phantasies of the relationship between these two part objects, which would be succeeded by ideas about the parents under the influence of these earlier phantasies. She felt that the child’s attitude and relationship to this unfolding situation was of profound significance for the urge to learn, which she called the epistemophilic impulse, and for the individual’s relationship to reality. In 1926 she wrote,

 

3. The Oedipus complex: manifestations in the inner world and the therapeutic situation

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Michael Feldman

Melanie Klein expanded our understanding of the Oedipus complex by developing the notion of the child’s internal world, inhabited by figures derived from early experiences, whose qualities and functions are influenced by projections and distortions. She showed how, in the child’s phantasy, these figures relate to one another in complex ways, and some of these relationships constitute early versions of the Oedipus complex (Klein, 1928, 1932; also chapter one in this volume). Part of the power of her clinical theories derives from the way she was able to use her understanding of the nature and relationships of these internal figures to recognize what was being experienced and enacted by the child, in the clinical situation, as it was made manifest in the transference.

I would like to use three clinical fragments to illustrate some points that derive from this. First, the familiar but compelling phenomenon of the way in which the patient’s experience of the figures of his childhood remains alive in his mind and influences his current relationships, including the way he experiences and uses the analyst. One of the characteristics of the oedipal situation, which is reflected in the analysis, is that the participants often find themselves faced with a difficult ‘moral’ dilemma, rather than a clear choice. Each finds himself pulled in more than one direction, and each option seems to involve a compromise and may require a blurring or avoidance of aspects of reality that arouse too much pain or guilt. Needless to say, in the original story Oedipus did not make a conscious decision to kill his father and marry his mother; the choices that presented themselves to all the participants seemed to be the best ones at the time, and the marriage had the approbation of the people of Thebes, even though there were those who knew the truth and presumably considered it best to remain silent. The awful reality emerged only slowly, with difficulty, and at considerable cost (Steiner, 1985).

 

4. The invisible Oedipus complex

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Edna O’Shaughnessy

A current controversy about the Oedipus complex is whether it is indeed universal and of central importance, still to be regarded as ‘the nuclear complex of development’. It is a clinical fact that there are long periods of analysis—possibly, some have suggested, even whole analyses—in which there seem to be little or even no oedipal material. In trying to account for this fact, analysts have taken different ways. One way, taken by Kohut and his followers (Kohut, 1971), is to set the Oedipus complex aside, posit a theory of self-psychology and advise a new clinical technique, which focuses on deficit and offers restoration. Kleinians take an opposite way. Their approach, when the Oedipus complex is what I am calling ‘invisible’, is that this is so, hot because it is unimportant, but because it is so important and felt by the patient (from whatever causes) to be so unnegotiable that he employs psychic means to make and keep it invisible.

In this chapter I focus on one small area of the Oedipus complex; its first stages, when these are reached after a disturbed early development. When Klein (1928, 1932) added early stages and later linked the Depressive Position, on which in her view mental health depends, to Freud’s nuclear complex, she expanded the emotional constellation from which the Oedipus complex of each patient takes its very individual form. The patients I describe are struggling to obliterate an early oedipal situation, which feels continually to be threatening. As will become apparent, feelings of exclusion, problems of separateness and of being single in the presence of an oedipal pair, and, above all, a distinctive type of sexual splitting are foremost in these patients.

 

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