Friday, September 19th, 2014
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1899 / Vienna

Sigmund Freud Sets the Record Straight


To express the matter boldly, it is as though a sexual preference becomes active at an early period, as though the boy regards his father as a rival in love, and as though the girl takes the same attitude toward her mother—a rival by getting rid of whom he or she cannot but profit.

Before rejecting this idea as monstrous, let the reader consider the actual relations between parents and children. What the requirements of culture and piety demand of this relation must be distinguished from what daily observation shows us to be the fact. More than one cause for hostile feeling is concealed within the relations between parents and children; the conditions necessary for the actuation of wishes which cannot exist in the presence of the censor are most abundantly provided. Let us dwell at first upon the relation between father and son. I believe that the sanctity which we have ascribed to the injunction of the Decalogue dulls our perception of reality. Perhaps we hardly dare to notice that the greater part of humanity neglects to obey the Fifth Commandment. In the lowest as well as in the highest strata of human society, piety toward parents is in the habit of receding before other interests. The obscure reports which have come to us in mythology and legend from the primeval ages of human society give us an unpleasant idea of the power of the father and the ruthlessness with which it was used. Kronos devours his children [Boeotia, page 58], as the wild boar devours the brood of the sow; Zeus emasculates his father and takes his place as a ruler. The more despotically the father ruled in the ancient family, the more must the son have taken the position of an enemy, and the greater must have been his impatience, as designated successor, to obtain the mastery himself after his father’s death. Even in our own middle-class family the father is accustomed to aid the development of the germ of hatred which naturally belongs to the paternal relation by refusing the son the disposal of his own destiny, or the means necessary for this. A physician often has occasion to notice that the son’s grief at the loss of his father cannot suppress his satisfaction at the liberty which he has at last obtained. Every father frantically holds on to whatever of the sadly antiquated potestas patris still remains in the society of today, and every poet who, like Henrik Ibsen, puts the ancient strife between father and son in the foreground of his fiction is sure of his effect. The causes of conflict between mother and daughter arise when the daughter grows up and finds a guardian in her mother, while she desires sexual freedom, and when, on the other hand, the mother has been warned by the budding beauty of her daughter that the time has come for her to renounce sexual claims.

All these conditions are notorious and open to everyone’s inspection. But they do not serve to explain dreams of the death of parents found in the case of persons to whom piety toward their parents has long since come to be inviolable. We are furthermore prepared by the preceding discussion to find that the death wish toward parents is to be explained by reference to earliest childhood.

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About the Author

From The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud introduced the Oedipus complex here in his first major work. Growing up in Vienna in the mid-1800s, Freud recalled that, owing to his classmates’ anti-Semitism, his hero was a Carthaginian general: “Hannibal and Rome symbolized as a youth the antithesis between the tenaciousness of the Jews and the organization of the Catholic Church.” The founder of psychoanalysis published Moses and Monotheism the year Adolf Hitler invaded Austria and died in London in 1939 at the age of eighty-three.

You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He’s more particular. The father is always a Republican towards his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat.
Robert Frost, 1960
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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