Psychology in Writing: Exploring Origins through Understanding Oedipus

The quick and dirty of psychoanalysis, and the piece I want to cover today, is often

English: Sigmund Freud Museum at Příbor.

English: Sigmund Freud Museum at Příbor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

associated with a deep exploration of a person’s past to identify historic unresolved issues.  The theory of psychoanalysis is that, by identifying and working through these past issues clients will be free to move forward in the present.  This antithetical to the argument I laid out in the previous blog post about the deep exploration of the past or origin not being the most helpful device in moving our writing forward.  That being said, there are devices in psychoanalysis that can serve to make our characters journey forward much richer through having past events set up current surprises or challenges for our characters.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, is often portrayed as being overly focused on sexual issues, including alleging incestual fantasies as being part of typical human development.  Part of this perception is due to poor translation into English, part of it was fitting the interpretation to the zeitgeist at the time, and part of it was not understanding the context of the man who was doing the writing.  Freud was a classically trained scholar, meaning that he was well read in Greek and Roman mythology, which often served as allegories for life and as such he used them as illustrative concepts.  One of these myths that Freud used in his development of psychoanalysis was the story of Oedipus (if you haven’t read it, go read it now here, I’ll wait).  The classical psychological interpretation of this story is reflected in the description of the Oedipus Complex, where a male child wants to kill his father and romantically possess his mother.  From reading the myth, we can understand how psychoanalysts could arrive at that conclusion as being the correct interpretation.

A deeper reading illuminates a much richer story; it is a story of tragedy due to the lead character not knowing himself, i.e., lacking insight.  In the story, his abandoned keeps him from knowing his own origin, which means Oedipus does not know who his parents, leading him to (spoiler alert) kill his father and marry his mother.  This outcome is not because, as psychoanalyst would interpret, of a hatred of his father’s relationship with his mother and needing to eliminate him so that he can romantically possess his mother.  All of these events are set into motion because Oedipus does not know who he is until it is too late; his insight comes after the tragedy has unfolded.  At the end of the story Oedipus gouges out his eyes as a psychical representation of his psychic blindness.  Here is where the story becomes so much richer in reflecting on how Oedipus’ origin affects his present, over the simpler reading of it as a linear story of being abandoned followed by a string of coincidental encounters with people from his past (unbeknownst to him).

So what can we take from this and pull into our own writing?  I like to consider how unexamined aspects of a character’s past can cause them to make painful decisions in the present, and when the character becomes aware of those past elements it makes their decisions even more tragic.  For example, our hero facing off against a foe and dispatching the foe, only to find out with the dying breath that it is the heroes lost sister.  This forces the character to focus on the destiny that s/he has unintentionally chosen for due to this “blindness” to the past.  Conversely, examining and understanding the past can also give the character a source of strength, such as identifying with a dead or lost role model.  A character’s recognition of links to her/his past and what the deceased/lost character passed along to our hero/ine can serve as a point of development or encouragement.  When we think about origin and beginnings as something that the character carries, whether s/he knows it or not, we can give more intentionality to our character’s actions and add a deeper depth to the character by having this examination or lack thereof be a cause to flaws and/or strengths.

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One thought on “Psychology in Writing: Exploring Origins through Understanding Oedipus

  1. Pingback: (Late/Tough) Sunday Cryptoquote Spoiler – 05/19/13 | Unclerave's Wordy Weblog

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