Jocasta's Riddle: How psychotherapy requires self-inquiry as tragic reflection

by Cliff Bostock

JOCASTA: Stop - in the name of god,
If you love your own life, call off this search!
(Sophocles, p. 222)

It has long been my observation as a clinician that psychotherapy proceeds from the tragic rather than the comic imagination. Since my first impulses are always comic, I often find myself at odds with my own training. Where a sympathetic nod is expected, I often find myself wanting to laugh. Amid gravitas, I feel cursed to see levity.

That the comic perspective has made life's difficulty tolerable for me - even saved my life when I fell into serious depressions - is irrefutable in my own story. As a therapist, though, I have had enormous difficulty communicating this perspective to my clients, even those whose fundamental style is comedic. The religious gay man obsessed with apocalyptic punishments for his sexual orientation rages at me that I don't take him seriously after he reads Flannery O'Connor, as I've suggested. Why, I have wondered repeatedly, do clients prefer to see themselves as Hamlet?

Reading Sophocles' three Theban plays has helped answered that question for me. The story of Oedipus is that of a man obsessed to know the facts of his past - exactly the project of psychotherapy. Oedipus is the foundational myth of psychoanalysis, the myth into which anyone who practices or employs psychotherapy steps. (Arguably, our entire culture has stepped into this myth and is now struggling to step out of it.)

As James Hillman (1991) has repeatedly noted, even if we discount Freud's particular reading of the myth in his postulation of the Oedipus Complex, we are left with certain structural parallels between the action of the Theban plays and Freud's method. These parallels amount to a tragic movement. (I here view all psychotherapy, because it reduces experience to unseen causes of childhood, as fundamentally psychoanalytical, "neo-Oedipal.") To enter therapy, then, is necessarily to enter a tragic self-reflection, a reduction of experience to historical causes, even if one has migrated from a world of principally comedic perspective.

In the following I will summarize some of the parallels of the tragic perspective and psychotherapy, within the foundational context of Oedipus Rex, calling especially on Hillman. But I am most curious to explore what I think Hillman (and Freud!) most ignore: Jocasta's admonition to Oedipus, shared with Creon, to stop questioning his origins, to not step into tragic self-reflection

Freud and Sophocles

We live inside the imagination of Freud. He regarded the Oedipus Complex as foundational to the development of the psyche:

In my experience, which is already extensive, the chief part in the mental lives of all children who later become psychoneurotics is played by their parents. Being in love with the one parent and hating the other are among the essential cosntituents of the stock of psychical impulses which is formed at that time and which is of such importance in determining the symptoms of the later neurosis. It is not my belief, however that psychoneurotics differ sharply in this respect from other human beings who remain normal - that they are able, that is, to create something absolutely new and peculiar to themselves. It is far more probable - and this is confirmed by occasional observations on normal children - that they are only distinguished by exhibiting on a magnified scale feelings of love and hatred to their parents which occur less obviously and less intensely in the minds of most children. (1965, p. 294).

He then goes on to make the argument that the continuing resonance of Sophocles' rendering of the Oedipus myth for the modern mind is not in an interpretation relevant to a theme of destiny that requires man to subjugate his will to divine forces. (For Freud, of course, religion was dead.) Instead, he argues, the play awakens memory of the fundamental drama of childhood: falling in love with the mother, wishing the father dead and reconciling these wishes. He writes that these wishes recur in dreams.

He further argues, by a reduction, that Sophocles' tragedy is the narrative of "primaeval dream material" because Jocasta remarks (line 1074): "…Many a man before you in his dreams has shared his mother's bed."

It is not my purpose here to examine the validity of the Oedipus Complex . I believe it is fundamentally wrong. Like Bachelard (p. 19), I think any image whose "wings are clipped" and concretized as a fixed symbol has lots its own truth to an unconscious human motive, including Freud's. I want to concentrate on the fact that Freud has brought us an interpretation of the play and myth that profoundly suits his personal psychological conflicts but on a particular historical stage, the turn of the century, that bears keen resemblances to the thinking and conditions of Sophocles' time.

Freud's own mother complex has been well documented and, as Christine Downing quotes him, Freud himself observed that biographers "are fixated on their subjects in a quite special way….They have chosen their hero…because - for reasons of their personal emotional life - they have felt a special affection for him from the very first" (p. 58).

In a move similar to Freud's, I submit that his identification with Oedipus pertains as much to the character's reductive hubris, his scientism, as to the complex. Hillman (1983) seems to miss this point himself in his citation of the famous 1934 interview with Papini in which Freud called himself an artist and then, with astonishing inflation (and arguable lack of truth) says: "…no one proposes like me to translate the inspirations offered by the currents of modern literature into scientific theories. In psychoanalysis you may find fused together…the three greatest literary schools of the nineteenth century: Heine, Zola and Mallarme are united in me under the patronage of my old master, Goethe" (p. 3).

Nearly all of Freud's psychobiographies, like Leonardo, are of men who attempted to bring science and art together. While concerns like successful repression of homoerotic feelings in da Vinci are the ostensible reason for these studies, can it not be just as true that his agenda was to support his own identification with the effort to bring art under the reductive analysis of science, to reduce the creative impulse to personal causes?

Sophocles, remember, lived at the intellectual zenith of the fifth-century and, Fagle notes, Oedipus Rex is filled with mathematical language (p. 142) that, I would argue, reinforces the reductive path Oedipus takes in undertaking to disclose the causes of his city's suffering. Thus Sophocles was, in his play, an artistic form, examining the reductive method. Oedipus, like Freud, is utterly convinced of the necessity of this move to the reductive when he answers Jocasta, after she has left to kill herself: "That is my blood, my nature-I will never betray it, never fail to search and learn my birth!" (p. 224).

The tragedies, like Freud's method, also distance themselves from religion. Roland Barthes (pp. 63-87) has observed that Greek tragedy was actually performed in a liminal space situated squarely amid the evolving conflict between religion and philosophy of the time, between destiny and reason, the struggle between the polis-mind and the evolving individual ego. Its performance was literally in the stage's threshold spaces (like, metaphorically, the meeting of the three roads in Oedipus).

While tragedies were performed as part of the Dionysian festivals, they were not under the direct sponsorship of the Dionysian cults. Although regarded as the highest form of theater at the time, the tragedies were considered quite apart from their antecedents: the more religious dithyramb, satyr play and comedy. They employed myth but stood outside religious observance. "Nothing, in tragedy," writes Barthes, can derive from dionysiac irrationality" (p. 73).

It is fascinating to imagine what the three Theban tragedies, particulary in their many episodes of violence, may be saying about the occasion of their presentation - the Dionysian festivals, which celebrated dismemberment and the irrational. The continual images of dismemberment that describe the fate of Polynices' corpse in Antigone may well be a direct commentary on the Dionysian.

The corpse is kept outside the walls of the city to be dismembered by wild animals, just as Dionysos, whose followers dismember animals, is kept outside except during the three annual festivals. How is it that Creon assures the corpse's (Dionysian) dismemberment by refusing its burial and then reverses himself on the basis of an oracular (Apollonian) curse? Likewise, Antigone defies him and engages in a symbolic act of burial (on behalf of Dionysos or Hades) but then, in a peculiar twist of the plot, reverses herself and makes it clear that her motivations are personal. She is entombed alive and hangs herself, her lover killing himself in a conflation of (Freudian-like) eros and thantaos in the womb/tomb. "O tomb, my bridal-bed!" she cries, on her way to death. (p. 105). Creon metaphorically suffers the punishment to which he has condemned her: living death.

Obviously, it is the action of the individuals, the choices they make, that moves the play forward, not the intervention of the gods. Creon and Antigone both lay dogmatic claim to representing the gods and both reverse themselves and thus, Sophocles must be telling us, we cannot know, really, what the gods stand for. These reversals occur throughout the plays. The gods, as Freud argued, not only must be crazy. They don't exist as other than wishes. "The guilt is all mine!" Creon declares (p. 126.)

It is a shame that Freud did not comment on Antigone. But we may surmise that Sophocles' general appeal to Freud - and it is in Sophocles' telling of Oedipus that he takes his inspiration - is partly their shared belief that the gods, the unspeakable, cannot be "known" except as projections of the individual will, symbolizations of instinctual wishes: mythologems instead of religious realities. In the plays, and in Freud's psychology, it is those who demand blind obedience to the morals of the gods, as they understand them, who suffer most. This is reiterated in the tragedies' content and structure. (The polis, through the chorus, constantly questions individuals about the gods and this is analogous to the analytical inquiry.) Even the staging reiterates the dubious reliability of the gods. The tragedies were civic productions related to but not under the auspices of a religious cult.

Freud's identification with Sophocles and his tragic heroes extends, therefore, far beyond his theory of the Oedipus Complex. Freud came of age in the industrial revolution, when the great cities of Europe underwent the same transformations as the Greek city states: pollution, the revolution of individual consciousness, the advent of new cultural forms, the breakup of families, the ascenscion of science, the loss of religion and the coming of apocalyptic-scale world wars. The heroes of Sophocles plays, in short, became Freud's patients.

Sophoclean movement and the psyche

So, Oedipus steps into the question of his origins and he is moved toward a tragic end. Jocasta pleads for him to give up his questioning, but having entered this question, he is drawn along by it. He doesn't even stop to think about its impact. He loses everything. Ironically, the skill at answering riddles, which earned him the kingship (his ego), now once again seems to save the city, but this time destroys his worldly success and leads him to blind himself and abandon his position. His own sons exile him. He becomes as fully oracular as Tiresias, but nevertheless remains enraged and unforgiving of his sons. He has forgiven himself, after all, realizing that those actions he took that led to the fulfilment of the oracle were beyond knowing. He ultimately goes to a mysterious, nearly godlike death in Colonus, nevertheless still enraged at his sons and Creon, vengeful in the very choice of his dying.

His burial near Athens, has the same effect as his skill at answering riddles: the city is protected. But this is not Thebes. His choice to be buried here returns Thebes to its suffering, undoing the very purpose of his exile, to end its suffering. His sons and daughters then meet terrible death. And they, like him, have explained their impending deaths in terms of their origins. Antigone, opens with the heroine declaiming: "How many griefs our father Oedipus handed down!" (p. 59). Then she just as quickly, blames the gods: "Do you know one, I ask you, one grief that Zeus will not perfect for the two of us…?"

I summarize the plot because it reveals a dark assertion: the inquiry, the discovery, does not break the curse of one's origins or the demand to know (and blame) them. Sophocles, like Freud, therefore envisions this questioning, this tragic style, as inevitable, fundamental to the psyche.(Hillman half agrees.) Freud, of course, argued repeatedly that melancholy was a reasonable response to life because of the inevitability of death and the wish for it. The meaningful end of life is coming to an erotic relationship with death in Freud's view (Downing, pp. 281-284). That is why the end of Colonus must have appealed to him. Amid his rage and love, Oedipus goes happily to his death in the arms of his daughters' love, having blessed a surrogate son, Theseus. Antigone, likewise, goes to death willingly, despite her rage and confused reversals, calling her tomb her bridal bed.

Hillman (1991) imagines the closing scenes of Colonus as movement into anima, embodied soul. As Oedipus speaks against the oracle at last and calls for his daughters' touch, he is beckoned to the underworld. He confers the blessing of his dying body upon the younger Theseus - a homoerotic and Pieta-like act of love, we are told by Hillman, that he cannot commit with his sons but which nonetheless reverses the experience with his own father, Laius, who abandoned him for death. (Freud might call this the necessary erotic submission between father and son without fear of castration.) Hillman ultimately calls Colonus a movement from Freud to Jung, from the city's personalistic preoccupations and enslavement under Apollo to the Dionysian landscape of numinous soul (1991, p. 9-3).

Perhaps, but I think it is important to notice something in the landscape that Hillman does not take into adequate account in his rather sentimental rush to "Jungianize" the conclusion. Oedipus, in Colonus arrives at the grove of the Eumenides. The Eumenides, are the transformed aspect of the Furies. Hillman sees this as a statement of the peace which is descending on Oedipus as, it appears, he is transformed into an archetype of the Wise Old Man.

But, according to Ginette Paris (1995) the Furies were not transformed into the Eumenides by submission or forgiveness. Indeed, they were transformed only after one had exacted revenge (particularly when there had been an offense of blood ties). That is precisely what Oedpius is doing in Colonus, for all the flowery, lush language of "golden crocuses" and such. His choice to die there insures the death of his sons and the suffering of Thebes, despite his twice saving it. Dionysos, the lord of violent dismemberment, is repeatedly invoked in the language.

So what "heals" Oedipus, if we may say he is healed? Is it revenge or is it forgiveness? Perhaps that is what we may not know and why we are forbidden to visit the site of Oedipus' grave, the exact way and place he enters death. It is unthinkable to us that revenge could heal - for that is opposed to the project of contemporary humanistic psychotherapy, which advocates forgiveness above all. But it is certainly within the Greek imagination to see the main healing of injuries inflicted by kin as arising from an act of revenge. And it is into that imagination we step when we enter therapy.

Freud himself would agree, certainly, that there is the instinct to revenge, to kill, for this is fundamental to the complex, but he would also demand its sublimation, even as he would just as surely state that the repression would guarantee its return in a crisis. (Realize there are no civil punishments exacted in the plays, although the oracle, as an institution, could be regarded as the movement of civilization to enforce its taboos.)

Hillman makes a somewhat evasive move around this. He agrees that, yes, Oedipus dies unchanged in some aspects of his character but he argues, convincingly, that character is beside the point. Through the action of the plays, he says, the soul of Oedipus has been released from the concrete of character. This is a rather Christianized reading of a pagan death which, we notice, occurs in an intergenerational bloodbath. There is no redemption of the future here if we read, as Hillman does, Oedipus' progeny as both psychic consequences and literal heirs.

So, let us return to Jocasta's admonition, which contains a riddle. What if, Oedipus had abandoned his search or at least made it less public by following Creon's advice to confer in private? Granted, once one steps into the tragic perspective, one is probably doomed to play the drama out on those terms. But if tragedy and comedy are alternative perspectives, as they were for the Greeks and remain for us, and if character is not the issue, why choose the tragic lens?

This question is old. Aristophanes' plays, after all, satirize Athenian tragedy. And surely Sophocles intended some irony in his observations on the gods. Oedipus is overripe at every moment for satire. It is easy to imagine a parody of the blind tyrant, played by Robert Duval perhaps, raining down bitter curses on his son as the bluebirds of the Eumenides' peaceable kingdom, its soil freshly bloodied, flutter about him. It is equally easy to imagine Antigone satirized as she is dragged off stage, shrieking that she was just trying to please the gods, when moments before she has let slip that the gods actually had nothing to do with her actions.

There is hardly a moment of existence - including death -- that cannot be viewed comedically, so the argument that tragedy demands its own expression as an archetypal force or instinct of thantos, as Freud alleged, is suspect. (And if so, why should it not be sublimated?)

I return to hubris, the hubris of science, and the inflation that Freud the scientist brought to his enterprise. Did western culture, along with Freud, who was annointed as its priest of the psyche, instead of the more jovial Adler, assert its preference for the tragic when it put its faith in science and technology and existentialism? Did the tragic become our main way of imagining our lives by the attachment of hubris to its movement? (Or, if hubris is given with the tragic perspective, is it our refusal to detach from the hubris, rather than the facts of suffering, that keeps us mired in our pain?)

At every turn, even before he steps into the question of his origins, Oedipus displays hubris - in ignoring the obvious and then, after years of psychological self-blinding, insisting on his dedication to the oracle's truth. Freud excuses this as an artistic device to build suspense, characterizing it as analogous to psychoanalysis' slow approach to the truth (p. 296). It could as well be seen as the inherent failure of the Apollonian way of imagining, for Oedipus tells the chorus that he is driven by Apollo in his quest to sacrifice his comfort for the truth. But the oracle's truth does not, ultimately, make sense. It makes only rhetorical sense. One might, for example, argue that Oedipus cannot take Jocasta's advice because the city's health is at stake. And yet, Thebes is destined to suffer anyway, as we learn in Colonus. Thus the oracle itself, the Apollonian mode of thinking, is flawed, hubristic. Freud is as blind to his motivations as Oedipus is. Psychoanlysis is as blind to its prejudices as Apollo's oracle is to itself.

Hillman confesses the same: "As long as I am doing a psychoanalysis of psychoanalysis, my thought is limited by the Oedipal method" (1991, p. 7-2). Nor can he, despite a book like We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse, imagine his way out of the tragic, Oedipal method of inquiry. He writes critically about the way psychoanalysis imagines itself as conferring consciousness:

Yet analysis itself is only one way, a way that offers a disciplined contribution to the skills of psychological reflection, imagination and conversation. No small skills these, but hey hardly encompass consciousness. The fisherman with his net, the soul-singer's voice with the blues, the attorney's awareness in argument, the kindergarten teacher and the nurse moving among their charges, the gardener's sense of sun, shade, soil, and moisture - these exquisitely attentive consciousness require no examination of subjective history. Yet, analysis would say for them to be conscious they must enter the church, go into therapy. I would rather say the unexamined life is indeed worth living. More: life is not a riddle; how monstrous to consider it so! (1991, p. 7-3)

This rings so true, but notice that those he exempts from the task of the Oedipal inquiry are not comedians. They are by and large serious folks, the initiated. The singer sings the blues, not a love ballad. The attorney argues. The fisherman of the deeps is mentioned but not the clown. Teachers and nurses - therapists of different sorts - are exempted from analysis but what about the priests? Gardeners, their hands dirty with the stuff of the underworld, are exempted but what about the scene-painters, those literalists of the Sophoclean stage?

So, what Hillman really means is that the unexamined life is worth living, if one's life already has the depth to which analysis wishes to lead it. He only exempts one from the inquiry, not from the goal. He, like Freud and Oedipus, cannot by any means climb out of the hubris of their conceptualizations.

Thus the answer to our riddle - Jocasta's riddle - is that the oracle, the lens itself, must be smashed. Apollo must be exiled with Dionysos, admitted to the city no more frequently. Had the oracle been abandoned, Thebes might have ceased its hysteric suffering, since its suffering was a somatic manifestation of its devotion to the oracle, which represents the hubristic demand for truth, the monotheism within even the polytheistic perspective. Still, Oedipus would have moved toward the fate of all men, death.

Likewise, Freud must be exiled to the place of his brothers, like Goethe, men who sought and failed to bring the artistic spirit under the reduction of science, who tried to set spirit, which by definition is lightness, aside. He is not a villain. He saw the mythical radiance of the family but then clipped the wings of his visions, rendering the imagined mother and father, imobile symbols - like the figures in his dreams that always have the same, nearly mathematically precise meanings.

Art must be rescued from Freud and invited back into the city on its own terms. Images, as Gaston Bachelard suggested, must be given back their wings so they can choose their own direction toward Apollo or Dionysos (p. 19). Healing must be returned to poets.


Bachelard, Gaston (1988). Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement. Dallas: The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

Barthes, Roland (1985). The Responsibility of Forms. Berkely: The University of California Press.

Downing, Christine (1996). Myths and Mysteries of Same Sex Love. New York: Continuum.

Fagle, Robert (1984). Introduction to Antigone, Introduction to Oedipus the King, Introduction to Oedipus at Colonus. In The Three Theban Plays. New York: Penguin.

Freud, Sigmund (1965). The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Avon.

Hillman, James (1983). Healing Fiction. Dallas: Spring Publications.

Hillman, James (1991). Oedipus Revisited. In Oedpus Variations. Woodstock: Spring Publications. (Material cited here is from a reprinting of the essay on the World Wide Web: http://home.netinc.ca/~wallaceb/Hillman.htm. Page numbers therefore refer to web pages within sections. 7-2 means, for example, section 7, page 2. I will replace these with book page numbers in the future.)

Hillman, James & Ventura, Michael (1992). We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse. New York:HarperCollins.

Paris, Ginette (1995). Longer Lives. An audio presentation during a conference, Midlife and Beyond. Pacfica Graduate Institute, April 8-9, 1995.

Sophocles (1984). The Three Theban Plays. Trans. Robert Fagles.

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