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.