Let us begin then by laying facts aside, as they do not affect the question. –Rousseau
Let me start by saying that Freud’s Oedipus Complex, cultivated over the course of 40 years, is not nearly so real as a few generations of psychoanalysts treated it. In his autobiography, Freud mentions that he started with a ahistorical conjecture from Darwin that had as much sociological grounding as a history lesson derived from a Renaissance Fair and then goes to this:
There rose before me from all these components the following hypothesis, or, I would rather say, vision. The father of the primal horde, since he was an unlimited despot, had seized all the women for himself; his sons, being dangerous to him as rivals, had been killed or driven away. One day, however, the sons came together and united to overwhelm, kill, and devour their father, who had been their enemy but also their ideal.
If this sounds like it’s on crack, well, it might be. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World clearly depicts the implausibility of the complex by playing out the schism between the idea of the self-made man who has destroyed his own father and the actual act of destroying one’s own father (who, by failing to die, depicts the legacy that children carry forward whether they want to or not). Decades later, after the Oedipus Complex had thoroughly saturated the practice of psychoanalysis, Deleuze and Guattari would write Anti-Oedipus, an obnoxious tome (that at least starts off) as vulgar as it is pretentious, but it does sum up how the deployment of the unchecked theory reduced the field to a normalized neurosis:
psychoanalysis was shutting sexuality up in a rather bizarre sort of box painted with bourgeois motifs, in a kind of rather repugnant artifical triangle, thereby stfiling the whole of sexuality as a production of desire so as to recast it along entirely different lines, making of it a “dirty little secret.” the dirty little family secret, a private theater rather than the fantastic factory of Nature and Production. … It is only little by little that [Freud] makes the familial romance… into a mere dependence on Oedipus, and that he neuroticizes everything in the unconscious at the same time as he oedipalizes, and closes the familal triangle over the entire unconscious. … The unconscious ceases to be what it is–a factory, a workshop–to become a theater, a scene and its staging… The psychoanalyst become a director for a private theater, rather than the engineer or mechanic who sets up units of production… The psychoanalyst no longer says to the patient: “Tell me a little bit about your desiring-machines, won’t you?” Instead he screams: “Answer daddy-and-mommy when I speak to you!”
And so the Oedipus Complex was over-played, as we might well expect any normalization of incest — historically recorded as aberrant behavior even in ancient Greece because of birth defects, per Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 2 — to be. But this isn’t to say that there’s nothing there, and indeed I think Deleuze and Guattari kind of stumbled across it: their depiction of “a rather bizarre sort of box painted with bourgeois motifs” forwards Malvina Reyonds’s depiction of suburban sprawl: “And the boys go into business / And marry and raise a family / In boxes made of ticky tacky / And they all look just the same.”
I would suggest that the Oedipus Complex is not generally true, but that it has been fostered and coddled by the power struggles between growing children and entrenched parents; that the tightness of common (not absolute, mind you, but common) familial living conditions can make it difficult for a child to continue developing at-pace into adulthood: the space that they should be growing into is already occupied by their parent. And this traditionally followed sexual maturity, but as we’ve added life-stages, the age has slipped to 18 or now sometimes older as “emerging adults” move back in with their parents. Consider:
- In The Odyssey, Telemachos is only like 14 when he tells his middle-aged mom that he’s taking over the house.* This scene would be absurd today, but was suitable, proper, and almost overdue in ancient Greece, so we see the character growing into the void that his absent father left.
- In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet was only 14 when her parents were going to marry her off to that Paris guy only she went and eloped with Romeo instead. Her mom isn’t going anywhere so she’s being pushed out of the house.
- In An Education, the kid is 16 and her struggling post-WW2 British parents are well-disposed to her considerably older boyfriend — again, trying to push her out of the house before she comes in to sharp of conflict with her parents. (Here’s an also-relevant review of this particular artifact.)
- Dr. Carl Jung’s — who studied under Freud before a major falling out; Jung had an ongoing interest in the evolved common subconscious and the symbols, archetypes, and mythic themes that lurked in/came out of it, hence Sleeping Beauty in a moment — father died when he was 20. His mother’s comment was “He died in time for you”; the loss of the parent makes room for the growth of the child.
The point here is that if the parent doesn’t yield ground (which they are not obligated to do), then the child is likely to conflict with the parent even as they’re learning models and patterns of power and control from the parent. But — and this is why this conflict started as a bourgeois problem — children are fundamentally the legacy of the parents, so parents who are socioeconomically endowed enough to care about a legacy aren’t going to simply ditch their kid as soon as the kid seems capable of self-survival, but rather continue to foster and cultivate them for longer to ensure their legacy (not just their kid) survives.
Tangent: It is worth noting that many social trends descend from bourgeois attitudes and behaviors to the masses and are then subsequently discarded by the bourgeois. Foucault sees this in attitudes towards sexuality in History of Sexuality Volume 1, Alistair Croll sees it come up again in cell phones — specifically, the cell phone used to be a class signal for hypermobility, but now that they’re ubiquitous the absence of a cell phone is a signal for being difficult to access (ergo valuable).
So kids, if these references seem implausible because you’ve got the normative notion of “18 is adulthood because smoking, sex, and selective service” stuck in your thinking, then let’s observe that in mid-2016, Virginia raised the minimum age at which a person can get married from 13 to 16 — or 18 if the person is not an “emancipated minor.” “Similar bills were introduced in California, Maryland, New Jersey and New York this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.” This seems anomalous because the kids getting married aren’t the ones protected by wealth and privilege, they’re the ones who can’t go anywhere and thus have nowhere to go so, like the punks in the underbelly of American Idiot, they fall beneath notice. If this surprises the hell out of you, then you might want to peek at Bageant’s Deer Hunting With Jesus.
My interest, however, is in the the bourgie suburban kids living for 18 years in their parents’ 30-year mortgage, time frames that emphasize a cool “don’t disrupt my plans” conservatism that I’d lost sight of until I went to a garden party last month. Margaret Thatcher famously/infamously said that there’s no society, just a bunch of unconnected families and individuals — that self-interest consumed all interest. It’s kind of stunning to me how much of conservatism (beyond climate change denial) boils down to the mythic Noah’s Ark, the story about the first of the “little boxes.” A straight reading of Noah’s Ark teaches us that it’s morally permissible to let everybody outside of your family die, but you have to protect your family specifically because your kids are the only relevant way the species will continue (because it’s morally permissible, even necessary, to let everybody else and their kids die). These are some of the first lessons that get transmitted to children in conservative families, the first way we externally validate having an “us versus them” mentality: “See the giraffe on the ark? See the elephant on the ark? See the everybody else in the whole world, dead and drowned beneath the ark?” But it’s an opening narrative of how parents will sacrifice any ambition they have, bury any life-goals they may aspire to, to ensure their child has an opportunity for success — a narrative that, as mentioned, they will repeat to their child as a promise to not let the child drown.
But the point we were at was that the kid is the way the parents are going to keep their name, lineage, and culture alive into the future, and is not to be simply tossed off to whatever the fates will do with it. (Oedipus’s parents tried that and just look where it got them!) In ancient Greece (and subsequently Rome) marriages were only for people who had money to establish name and lineage necessary for inheritance — Foucault mentions this in History of Sexuality 2, part of a series that I assure you is way more boring than it sounds. The lingering lesson is that if you’re rich, you don’t let your kid marry below their class. But the side-effect of this is that your kid is likely to be stuck at home for longer.
So, teenagers: if you’re wondering why Juliet was able to elope at 14 and Telemachos was getting into real estate at age 14 and you’re stuck taking AP Somethingorother at age 17 and may actually have your bachelor’s degree before you’re old enough to legally drink (I did), it’s because rich people set aspirational social policy for the US that was generally normalized with the explosion of the middle class in the post-WW2 years. And that social normative policy aimed to have more kids be marked as kids until they were 18 and then they ought to go to college (high aspiration) or into a solid trade (good aspiration, only it got phased out as an aspiration in the 1970s and cut from curriculum in the 1990s).
In short: Their aspirational (and, as Virginia demonstrates, changeable) social policy makes your childhood last longer than evolution has deemed natural.
This is why teenage angst and sexual frustration and arguing with parents who don’t quite remember not having the perspective that they’ve since developed that you’ll also be developing in the future.
And part of that perspective is our socially-cultivated fear of female sexuality, specifically the reproductive consequences thereof. Yes, these consequences are generally overstated and anachronistic but the life of the adolescent woman is part of the reproductive pattern that is expected to continue, not break. Remember: the (traditional and still-conservative) aspirational goal of a parent through their child is to have a clear line for name, lineage, and culture. And if they know that and their peer group knows that, then if a daughter has Some Random Kid (because the pattern continues, not breaks), then no peer-parent is going to want their son to marry that daughter because it’s a step down in class and aspiration to pick up that Some Random Kid who is not of their name or lineage. Teenage sexuality, especially female sexuality, is perceived not just as a risk but as an ongoing chronic risk.
But this is also why Sleeping Beauty is a total bourgie fairy tale.
See, the Princess is cursed to die when she hits sexual maturity because of Some Prick. But the curse gets mitigated so that she just falls asleep until a prince shows up. The original was pretty rapey and has been toned down, but the thing to note is that her savior is a consistently a high-born prince (regardless of his behavior): low-born rogues, cads, and bounders — anybody that could functionally ended her life as a princess by getting her pregnant and dragging her down to their class — need not apply.
But the message Sleeping Beauty sends to parents is clear: if you’re rich and have a beautiful daughter, then you really kind of want to put her in suspended animation when she hits sexual maturity until a suitable prince shows up because that’s the only way she — and your lineage and legacy — will be safe. (Contrariwise, Juliet’s parents didn’t and just look at what happened!) But with the expansion of the middle class and the appeal to legacy that causes parents to generally regard their children as beautiful, we’ve gone from medieval parents fearing their daughters’ sexuality to modern suburbanite parents poking their daughters with a variety of spindles (we call them “enrichment opportunities”) in response to socioeconomic pressure to defer procreative tendencies until a partner suitable to the family’s name, lineage, and culture can be found.
Now kids, I know that sounds psychotic but your parents aren’t entirely wrong: statistically speaking, you shouldn’t plan to get married before you’re like 28. No matter how conservative your parents are or how much you’re in love with your current boyfriend/girlfriend that your parents may-or-may-not have tried to set you up with while chattering away at a garden party — they totally did, I was there, it was weird — the statistics show that until you’re cognitively developed as an individual pursuing your goals and comfortable wielding what power you have you won’t have a good feel for what kind of partner you want to progress into the future with. Let me repeat this because it’s very fucking important: Get a clue on how you’re living your life before you legally bind somebody else to your fate, and insist that they return the favor. Being ignorant of this led me to make a decade-long mistake and I don’t want you repeating it.
So the big finish is: “WTF are high schoolers expected to do more in terms of extracurriculars than they’ll ever do again?” It’s because the bourgie parents are desperately trying to distract their (first-and-foremost) daughters from biological adulthood which hasn’t changed even as the age of socioeconomic adulthood has steadily risen. (It’s not even 18, it’s 28.) But then everybody else has to compete with those enriched affluent daughters for access to the assortative mating pool that is college from previous generations so everybody else gets sucked into this enrichment maelstrom, doing a half-assed job at all of it.
Previously, I thought the enrichment maelstrom was to dull the brightest kids so that they couldn’t overwhelm the overworked, underpaid, and often under-qualified (to keep up with more than a couple of precocious minds, anyway) adults that form our public education/babysitting system — a system not truly designed to educate, but rather to condition for docility, a biopower policy coup for capital. (See Aaron Swartz’s genealogy of education for the evidence; last section, first chapter.) But the alternative theory is that as the conditioning “educational” policy extended childhood to facilitate the mating practices of the bourgeoisie, more had to be crammed into it to deal with the biological challenges that leisure-enforcing child labor laws turned into risk for parents.
In this interpretation, the point of the extracurricular overload — now consistent with the rest of school — is to cultivate a docility over time: the demanded hyperactivity in High School is intended to exhaust the child, to turn them into a veritable Sleeping Beauty (or at least narcoleptic wreck) incapable of posing a biologically mandated clear and assertive challenge to their parents’ claustrophobic authority and the urban socioeconomic system in which their parents participate.
And that’s how the Oedipal complex is wrong, but still describes the emergent conflict between prolonged adolescents and parents well enough to cause moral panic and require a coping mechanism, with conservation-oriented Sleeping Beauty being redeployed not as a warning but rather as a stratagem.
* How old is Telemachos? Literal readers will note that the Trojan war took 10 years and Odysseus’s return from Troy took another 10 years, so Telemachos must be over 20 years old, but this is overly literal. The point behind Odysseus’s prolonged return is not that it took 10 years (really, Odysseus never tarries long in any location in The Odyssey except with Kalypso because he’s always keen to return home), but rather that a soldier’s return from a campaign was-and-can-be as difficult as the campaign itself. The length of the return from the campaign was chosen to mirror the stated length of the campaign, in much the same way Hamlet’s alleged age (30) and the circumstances of his birth put him in a mythological peer group featuring Jesus Christ and Alexander the Great rather than having a specific relevance to the story.
It is noteworthy that even if we went for a literal reading, the dog Argos is allegedly “only” 19 (book 17, line 327) when its well-bonded master Odysseus returns home and then Argos promptly dies. First, the dog was in the prime of its life when Odysseus went off to war (per Eumaios’s description) so we can cut the total time away down from 19 years just to start, but — second — beyond that petMD notes that the life expectancy of dogs runs around 13 years for hounds and sheepdogs, and those are the cared-for dogs that don’t sleep in shit covered in parasites as poor Argos was doing. If we strike three years of youth to put the dog in its hunting prime before Odysseus left for Troy, give the full decade at Troy, and take a shipwreck-prone two-year return trip, then Argos can still be an elderly 15-year-old dog when he dies, despite the neglect that should’ve killed him earlier. Regardless, the dog’s written age flatly contradicts the literal inference of Telemachos’s age being “more than 10 + 10.”
Beyond that, there are other factors in what doesn’t happen that indicate it’s not a literal 10 years. Per Foucault, Greek boys were considered adult-y when they could shave; it would’ve been horribly unseemly for Telemachos to pine around his absent father’s estate for the first 8-or-so years of his adult life — a point made worse because he’s a prince — and to keep that from happening, Athena intervenes and plays the role of the still-absent father for Telemachos to get him out of the house and culturing him into manhood. (Also noteworthy in its absence: there’s no mention of Telemachos’s participation in the orgiastic licentiousness that the suitors were engaging in with Odysseus’s slave-women despite them “belonging to” Telemachos by inheritance.) Beyond that, the necessary belief that the land would have been without a king/warlord/”shepherd of the people” for two decades and manage to have both ongoing prosperity and also to not be overrun by bandits or annexed by a neighboring warlord (who had returned from Troy in a timely fashion) is flatly implausible. Furthermore, none of the neighboring kings/warlords/”shepherds of the people” died of old age or disease or some other war in the alleged decade since their return from Troy; with the exception of (notably assassinated) Agamemnon, everybody’s right where they’re supposed to be to help Telemachos grow up. Even Odysseus’s elderly father is still alive at the end of the story, as if a whole decade hadn’t passed at all.
So, noting the lack of change in the political landscape since the fall of Troy, the behavioral patterns of Telemachos, and the listed age of Argos the dog, we can easily conclude that Odysseus’s 10-year return from Troy was not an actual 10 years but a symbolic 10 years. Having discounted the actual quantity of years, we can infer by his behavior (and the suitors’ response to him) that Telemachos was almost certainly a teenager and probably a young one at that.
Thanks to Anna for raising this question.