Project Freud, Oedipus and castration

This project involves reading Freud’s passage The Dissolution of the Oedipal Complex and then using the arguments it presents

  1. to help understand Edvard Munch’s painting Ashes and,
  2. to seek out some images or picture postcards which show a dominatrix or simply a large woman and to annotate these with regard to Freud’s castration complex.

In summary, Freud’s work maintains that both men and women go through a formative period as very young children when they are attracted to their parent of the opposite sex and perceive the same sex parent as a rival – the so-called Oedipal Complex. This is named after the character in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex  who kills his father and marries his mother. For most children this phase is ‘dissolved’ or is put aside. Freud suggests that resolution of this complex is fundamental to our development and if it remains unresolved can result in various neuroses. At the heart of the motivation of a male child to give up their Oedipal Complex is the idea of Castration Anxiety. The boy gives up his desire for his mother because of the fear that were he not to do so the consequences would be his castration. This fear surfaces when a boy first becomes aware that women do not have a penis and assumes that a parent has been responsible for its removal. Freud also suggested that women also go through an Oedipal Complex phase and that it is generally discarded because  “…In her, far more than in the boy, these changes seem to be the result of upbringing and of intimidation from outside which threatens her with a loss of love.”  It is worth noting that Freud’s contention that because of her lack of a penis, the female “…feels this as a wrong done to her and as a ground for inferiority.” is highly controversial!

Munch – Ashes

Ashes. 1894. Edvard Munch. Oil on canvas. 120.5 x 141 cm.

Ashes  deals with a recurrant theme for Munch –  the problematic relationship between men and  women and the mysteries of  sexuality. It is a visual depiction of emotions with representational content secondary concern. The detail of the figures and landscape are suppressed. It shows a man and a woman in a barren landscape, with trees in the background and rocks, including one which look like a skull on the ground.

The woman is standing and stares out at the viewer. She is clutching her hair which cascades down over the man who is crouched at the bottom left of the painting. She has sad and despondent eyes. Her expression is empty, vacant. Despite this her complexion is colourful, almost bright.

The man is turned away from her with his head bowed. One of his hands rests on his head. His complexion is deadly pale. He appears powerless, without hope, downtrodden.

To the left smoke rises from  a tree. This is said to be symbolic of Munch’s pessimistic view of the relationship between the sexes.

The the woman’s white chemise is wide open revealing a red bodice suggesting that her innocence has been lost.  In contrast the man is dressed in dark clothing suggesting gloom and despondency. The painting uses colour symbolically – black for sorrow, white for innocence and red for passion.

The smoke seems to suggest that all that is left of the relationship between the man and the woman is ashes. Despite this the woman still exudes sexuality.

The work could be interpreted as a visual representation of the Oedipal Complex with the man’s sorrow representing the recognition of that the man’s desire for the woman (his mother) can never be fulfilled.

Munch lost his mother at a young age. It is said that he could not free himself from the association of sexual relationships with death. Perhaps the death occurred before Munch’s dissolution of the Oedipal Complex, leaving him unable  ever to set aside his desire for his mother. Her death meant that this desire could never be fulfilled, leaving him in an unresolved state of hopelessness and pessimism about relationships with the opposite sex.

The woman’s frontal stance, her open chemise showing her bare breast and her red bodice signifying passion suggest to me that the woman in the painting may have been unfaithful – perhaps this is a reference to his mother’s relationship with his father. The idea of a male child’s rivalry with his father for his mother’s attentions is a key aspect of the Oedipal Complex. The woman is depicted as open to sexual advances but not for those of the man crouching in the corner.

Postcards Annotation

I expected it to be easy to find relevant postcards through searching the internet. In fact I have found it quite difficult. I have resorted to using characters from comic books. My first character is a mysterious woman calling herself the “Red Queen” who appears in Marvel comic books.

Red Queen – dominatrix in X Men comic books by Marvel

She is simultaneously available, (scantily clad, volumptuous figure, open red lips,posed with hand on hip, red hair flowing onto her shoulders), and at the same time unattainable (mask, bodice clamped shut with buckles, whip in hand). This symbolism all points to the dilemma of the Oedipal Complex. The woman (mother) is loves me and appears available but in truth is not. The whip coloured in red is the threat which prohibits such a relationship. It symbolises the threat of castration. In case we are in any doubt about her intentions the words  ‘That’s right me….now scream worm!’ make her intentions absolutely clear.

The Black Widow is a character from the Ironman comic book series. This is a contemporary image of movie star Eliza Dushku playing the role.

Eliza Dushku as the Black Widow

This image is completely festooned with phallic symbols – the gun and numerous the towers,  which appear to come from the Kremlin. The Russian theme adds a cold war sense of menace to the scene. As does the Black Widow’s black costume and her enormous gun. The image has the same available/yet not available tension of the previous image. On balance though I read her pose to be threatening and again the symbolism seems to suggest that castration (or  loss of phallus) might be the nature of the threat.


Project Fetishing the object of your eye

This project involved reading sections from the course reader by Freud and Fenichel on the psychology and philosophy of looking. The next step was to answer a number of questions. My thoughts are set out below for each of the questions.

How does what you have read help your understanding of why and how we look at things in a ritualised way – for instance going to an art gallery?

From what I read there seems to be a number of factors at work.

In the first instance it is possible that some people who visit galleries and other venues where looking is ritualised, do so because they have fetishised the objects on display. A person gains satisfaction from looking at the art, photographs, museum pieces etc because these objects have come to stand for something missing in their lives. The element which is missing could in theory be anything. It could be that the objects on display represent experiences not attainable by the individual – for example expeditions to exotic places that the individual could never afford or summon up the courage to visit or the creation of photographs or art which the individual does not have the skills to complete themselves. So in this regard, the objects stand in for an unfulfilled or missing experience in the life of the viewer.

The essays also indicate a second factor. As a human being our first instinctive reaction when we look at the external world is to seek to imitate it. This process is called identification. We wish to share in the experience of that which we look at. This is why in many religions it is an impious act to look at God face to face. To look at God implies identification with God or likening oneself with God. In venues for ritualised looking, the exhibits are objects held in the highest esteem in whatever discipline is under display. Those looking at these treasured exhibits are most likely seeking to share in the experience (and genius) of those exhibiting.

These points illustrate why someone might go to a venue for ritualised looking and how they might look at the exhibits, but it does not answer the question of why such venues are created in the first place. I can only surmise that there are very many people who fetishise or seek to identify with the objects under display. So much so that the creation of venues to facilitate looking has been recognised as a need by society as a whole.

Do the articles suggest to you reasons for staring at someone being at best bad manners and at worst threatening?

The essays suggest a number of factors to support this view.

There is considerable evidence that looking has an unconscious significance of devouring.Very often sadistic impulses are involved in such looking.  So when we look at someone this could be an indication of our wish to devour them or even to destroy them. This is most definitely threatening and much worse than bad manners.

Looking also has associations with magic and hypnotism. In a magic glance one can render the subject incapable of movement or to turn them to stone. The hypnotist is able through looking to complel the subject to do his/her bidding. I suspect that this is what is behind the term ‘evil eye’. Psychologists suggest that such an eye is another symbol for the terrible devouring female genital. Both of these situations are detrimental to person being looked at.

Can you make any suggestions as to the reasons for some people’s need to avidly watch television?

I suspect that substitution of things missing in their lives with the experiences of others which they see on the television is at the heart of this. People have fetishised TV programmes. The experiences of TV personalities replace the ‘missing’ experiences in their own lives. Identification is another factor in play. Viewers wish to share in the experiences they witness on TV – violence, sex, celebrity etc etc are objects of desire.

What visual fetishes have you noted in everyday life – your own or others?

When I look at my own situation, I seem to have a particular predilection to buying photography books. I have in fact become a collector of such books. I had put this down to the fact that photography is a major preoccupation of mine. But why do I collect so many books? Could it be that they are a substitute for my own lack of photographic skills? Have I fetishised photography books. I also seem to buy lots of clothes. Often, these are really clothes to be worn by younger people. Am I using these clothes as a substitute for something else. If so what? Could it be that I want to be perceived as cool and as I am not I buy cool clothes as a substitute.

Why are people so keen to display wedding portraits or family portraits?

I wonder if this is because people fetishise such images which generally display happy and harmonious times because their real family and married lives are far from harmonious. The family portrait and snapshots are often fictions. The family fighting in the car all the way to the seaside pictured later on the beach all smiling…..what is reality? People want to feel that their family life is going well and perhaps they live this through the fiction of the family album.