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14. The limits of knowledge and the castration complex

Victoria Hamilton Karnac Books ePub

Freud linked the resolution of the Oedipus complex with the ‘castration complex’. Thus, for Freud, the castration complex was associated with questions of knowledge as well as the very particular reference it held in relation to the penis. I suggest that the castration complex is linked with the realisation that individual knowledge is limited. The resolution of the Oedipus complex entails a renunciation; not only must the child give up the fantasy that he can have an exclusive relationship with the parent of the opposite sex, he must also accept that there is an objective order of things which he will never completely understand or control. In some cases, this realisation is experienced as a castration or narcissistic blow. The blow is to the child’s budding feelings of power and curiosity and to the satisfactions gained by learning.

Psychoanalysis has interpreted Oedipus’ acts of banishment and self-mutilation as evidence of the castration complex (Freud, 1940, p. 200). Oedipus, it is said, punishes himself for his incestuous relationship with Jocasta. In my view, Oedipus’ self-mutilation does not only signify guilt, but his renunciation of power in the face of forces over which he has no control. Freud spoke of the fate of the Oedipus complex in different ways. In ‘The dissolution of the Oedipus complex’ (1924), Freud writes that the Oedipus complex is dissolved, it succumbs to repression and is followed by the latency period. Freud also discusses the ‘demolition’ and ‘destruction’ of the Oedipus complex. He asks, ‘What is it that brings about its destruction?’ It is the experience of painful disappointments which the boy suffers from his mother’s transference of her love to a new arrival and which the girl suffers from harsh punishments from her father who she liked to think loved her above all else. Even when none of these special events occur, the absence of satisfaction ‘must in the end lead the small lover to turn away from his hopeless longing. In this way, the Oedipus Complex would go to its destruction from its lack of success, and from the effects of its internal impossibility’ (Freud, 1924, p. 173).

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11. The riddle of life

Victoria Hamilton Karnac Books ePub

‘What being, with only one voice, has sometimes two feet, sometimes three, sometimes four, and is weakest when it has the most?’

‘Man, because he crawls on all fours as an infant, stands firmly on his two feet in his youth, and leans upon a staff in his old age.

I have linked the Oedipal phase with the age of enquiry and exploration which begins when the child is able to crawl and which is well underway when the child takes his first steps. This stage progresses with the child’s pronouncement of the T and the concomitant development of language, and his use of identity as a secure base for exploration. It culminates with the comprehension of the ‘reality principle’, which I associate with the capacity to relate to an order of things outside the area of subjective control and wishes. Transitional schemas assist in the differentiation of the personal from the consensual. In my interpretation, the riddle offers an invitation to leave behind the world of concrete action (characterised by analogical communication) and to enter a new domain of information and knowledge (characterised by paradoxical and digital communication). The riddle is a word-puzzle. In Sophocles’ play, we are told that Oedipus’ downfall is brought about by ‘blind deeds’. Actions are taken because of a lack of understanding. The acquisition of language allows the child to participate in an interpersonal world of ideas. The child and his parents are freed from communication through action. The relationship becomes less intense and immediate. Words may wound or soothe but they do not physically strike or stroke.1

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5. Narcissus: an ‘average’ history

Victoria Hamilton Karnac Books ePub

Let us now turn to the myth and read of the birth of the hero, Narcissus, and the unfolding relationship between him and his mother, Leiriope. In the words Freud used to describe his reconstruction of the Oedipus legend (Freud, 1939), the following account is presented as an ‘average’ story of Narcissus’ short life. We are told that Leiriope gave birth to ‘a child with whom one could have fallen in love even in his cradle, and she called him Narcissus’ (Ovid, 1955, p. 83). Through the naming of her child, Leiriope already announces some of her expectations. Graves tells us that the narcissus was also called ‘leirion’ (Graves, 1955, p. 288). The leirion was a three-petalled blue fleur-de-lys or iris which was sacred to the Triple-Goddess and worn as a chaplet when the Three Solemn Ones, or Erinnyes, were being placated. It flowers in the late autumn, shortly before the ‘poef s narcissus’, which, Graves says, is perhaps why Leiriope has been described as Narcissus’ mother. Leiriope means literally the face of (-ope) the leirion. It appears, therefore, that the narcissus flower either had another name, the leirion, or it closely superseded the flowering of the leirion. We may infer from Leiriope’s choice of a name that a child represented a strong wish for closeness and even for the birth of a version of herself.

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12. Knowledge and the tragic vision

Victoria Hamilton Karnac Books ePub

Freud and Wilfred Bion

In the next two chapters, I review two approaches to the origins and growth of knowledge. The first I refer to as the tragic vision, through which knowledge and pain are deemed inseparable. In the second, knowledge is connected to ‘a holy curiosity’ which does not arise in a dominant context of pain. In the final chapter of the book, I relate these two views of the origins of knowledge to attitudes, such as despair and optimism, towards the limit of man’s knowledge. I suggest that our feelings about limitation are grounded not only in our ideas and phantasies about the origins of knowledge (for instance, that it is forbidden), but in our most primitive notions of externality. And, again, our formulations relate to our respective conceptions of infancy and infant-mother relationships. Does the boundary inside/outside represent an exclusion or castration which cuts us off from what lies on the other side? Or does it represent a potential space, offering an infinite expansion to our limited sensibilities? To one person, the realisation that his or her mind is but a tiny part in a larger whole brings feelings of relief and comfort, whereas, to another, this realisation is experienced as a humiliation or a castration.

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1. Primary narcissism and primary fusion/union

Victoria Hamilton Karnac Books ePub

The difficulty for primary unity theories is the formulation of difference. It takes at least two x’s - people or messages - to make a difference. Without difference, there is no change and no development. When there is only one thing - as expressed in the primary autism postulate - or two things in a relationship of perfect fusion or unison, nothing happens, because there is no new information. Each person is drawn to the other in a relationship of replication. This is an extreme case. Although the state of oneness or fusion can facilitate human development, as in the post-partum period when the close tie between mother and infant guarantees survival, its persistence can lead to various narcissistic pathologies, an excellent illustration of which is offered in the exchange between Narcissus and Echo.

Freud made an all-important qualification to his use of the bird’s egg ‘fiction’ - namely, ‘provided one includes with it the care it receives from its mother’ (Freud, 1911, p. 220). Freud’s point, taken up by writers such as Mahler and Winnicott, is that, in the first hours and days of infant life, the mother seeks to replicate the intra-uterine relationship. For her, this goal is temporary, since she is aware that, in physical reality, she and her infant are distinct. It is proposed that the infant, on the other hand, wishes to maintain the illusory relationship as long as possible. For Freud, the law of conservation of energy appeared to be one of the most powerful organising principles in human psychical development. The wish to maintain the status quo or to return to a previous state of equilibrium is given more weight than the desire for new relationships, accomplishments and knowledge. This gives the psychoanalytic conception of development a curiously backward-turning direction. In much psychoanalytic theory, there is a tendency to assume that the most primitive state not only provides the template for all future experience but is also the preferred state. Freud stated that man is ‘incapable of giving up a satisfaction he had once enjoyed’ (Freud, 1914, p. 94) and, in his paper on narcissism, he concludes that ‘the development of the ego consists in a departure from primary narcissism and gives rise to a vigorous attempt to recover that state’ (Freud, 1914, p. 100). On balance, therefore, reality, relationship and change create an excess of unpleasure when compared to the self-contained state of primary narcissism. The satisfactions of achievement are related to the mastery of anxieties attendant upon the loss of the primary state. In the state of primary narcissism or primary autism, the achievement of a state of near-perfect homeostasis is postulated. But the external world must impinge; change is necessarily painful. The eggshell cracks, the infant feels dismembered or split. These are all absolute terms, in which change is conceived of as traumatic.

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