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The Oedipus Complex

Freud defined the Oedipus Complex as that period when the boy is in love with his mother, drawn to her, compelled by desires for her which are fueled by his instincts. Naturally, then, the father becomes the boy’s opponent. When the end of the Oedipus Complex is described in detail, Freud tells us that the ego is “smashed to pieces by the threat of castration” (1964d: 257). Through this image, Freud conveys the infantile idea of a fragmentation related to survival and loss of the good mother - the psychotic core of shame (Ayers, 2003). According to Freud, upon realizing the actual possibility of castration, and determining to separate from his mother, the child begins to develop a superego. The very point of separation from the mother is psychotic, but this is masked by the Oedipal triad overcoming the pre-oedipal dyad.

Two types of castration anxiety

There are two types of castration anxiety that inspire the erection of a superego. One major source of castration anxiety comes from the father as an implied threat of punishment for his son’s interest in the mother/wife. No matter how much this threat is loaded with anxiety, however, it is hard for a boy to avoid the magnetic pull of his sexual connection to his mother, especially given the fact that his first erotic encounter was suckling at her breast. His continued attraction leads him into the deepest area of castration anxiety, one that centers on the prohibition of masturbation. At this level, the primary emasculator is the mother. She threatens castration as the punishment for masturbation, and her penisless genitals - the head of Medusa - provides the final proof and testament that the permanent removal of the penis is a real possibility. Mother’s vagina, that dark passageway through which human life is born, is looked upon as dangerous, murky, and ravenous with teeth - an image that captures man’s weakness. In Freud’s words:

When the male child’s interest turns to his genitals he betrays the fact by manipulating them frequently . . . More or less plainly, more or less brutally, a threat is pronounced that this part of him which he values so highly will be taken away from him. Usually it is from women that the threat emanates; very often they seek to strengthen their authority by a reference to the father . . . It is not until a fresh experience comes his way that the child begins to reckon with the possibility of being castrated, and then only hesitatingly and unwillingly . . . The observation finally breaks down his unbelief in the sight of the female genitals . . . With this, the loss of his own penis becomes imaginable, and the threat of castration takes its deferred effect . . . The child turns away from the Oedipus complex.

(1964d: 174)

With the onset of masturbation, the child is aware of another source of pleasure arising in his body which is not connected to his mother’s care. The child’s display of genital stimulation is not enthusiastically reflected by the gleam in mother’s eye. Mother’s disapproval becomes one of the first major narcissistic injuries. With this rejection or lack of reflection, good mother becomes terrible mother, and the boy meets the eyes of the succubus in Medusa’s gaze.

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