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New Studies of Old VillainsReview - New Studies of Old Villains
A Radical Reconsideration of the Oedipus Complex
by Paul Verhaeghe
Other Press, 2009
Review by Rossitsa Terzieva-Artemis
Aug 4th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 32)

Readers usually are smitten by voluminous books and, even more so, when the subject is generally challenging. In this sense the new book by the renowned psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe is a surprisingly accessible text, nodding to the well-read academics and practitioners in the psychoanalytic field, but also to the ones less versed in Freudian and Lacanian theories. While a highly competent reader might question the title as to how "new" and "radical" these studies are, it is undeniable that the book is an exercise in clarity on a key issue in psychoanalysis, the Oedipus complex, which has accumulated a lot of controversy over the years.

Verhaeghe's task is set clearly in his comparative approach to the issues surrounding the Oedipus complex as studied primarily in the theories of Freud and Lacan, with a reference, however, to the mentalization and attachment theories as well. In line with this, the book is divided into several chapters whose focus traces a chronological development in the concept of the Oedipus complex as it becomes clear: from the initial speculations and findings of Freud -- shared to a certain degree by the early theories of Lacan -- on the nature of the Oedipus complex and the role of the Father, with a following emphasis on the Mother especially in Lacan, to the introduction of the concepts of jouissance and le sinthome in the later works of Lacan. The emphasis is quite obviously on the fundamental affinity between the theories of Freud and Lacan, with the important twists that the latter introduces in his interpretation of the (M)aster('s) texts to become a Master discourse on its own at least in the Continental European tradition.

Verhaeghe refers to several seminal Freudian texts and case studies, namely the cases of Dora, of Little Hans, and of the Wolf Man, as well as Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism. For the first time Freud mentions an idea which later will become "the Oedipus complex" in a letter to Fliess from 1897, and only in his 1910 paper "A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men" he gives that idea the well-known name. With a varied degree of persuasion Freud is trying to support clinically the theory of the Oedipus complex especially in his case studies. In the chapter simply entitled "Father," Verhaeghe traces the major moments in Freud's interpretation of the Oedipus complex in his early works: the installation of the father as a symbol of the primal Father as Law-giver; the castration complex and the penis envy for the boys and girls respectively, with the well-know caveats that many feminist scholars find in the rather hastily move made by Freud to "adapt" the Oedipus complex for children of both sexes; the incest taboo and exogamy. As Verhaeghe points out, his own problem with this theory has to do with "Freud's insistence on ignoring clinical evidence. According to Freud, the oedipal child is afraid of the father because of a desire for the mother, while clinical experience shows that his patients need such an authoritarian father figure […] On the contrary, he is the dreamt-of solution." (25) We might add here, that he is "the dreamt-of solution" for the neurotic subject who actually needs to deal with the mother as Lacan will make clear.

Naturally then, in the chapter dedicated to the mother, Verhaeghe traces the ensuing internal problems in the later writings of Freud, especially palpable in one of his last publications, Moses and Monotheism (1939). Unlike the case studies and Totem and Taboo which focus on the effects of paternal power on the son, in Moses and Monotheism Freud introduces some ideas about the effect of the patriarchal order on women and the installation of the typical male-female relationship of obedience and inferiority. Verhaeghe argues that Freud and Lacan share the same view which is "nothing but a masculine projection of the man's own drive united with a defense system against it -- at the expense of women." (29) However, as the author argues, "only Lacan will move beyond this pitfall, and then only in his last theories" (29), however, not before Lacan passes through the idea of the "crocodile mother" and the theory of the mirror stage.

In the following chapters "Jouissance," "Identity" and "Conclusion: the Sinthome" Verhaeghe deals with probably the most challenging eponymous concepts in Lacan. Emphasizing again the brevity of the book, readers may variously be dissatisfied by Verhaeghe's sweeping tour through difficult Lacanian texts or else acknowledge the elegant sense of synthesis that the author displays. Discussions of jouissance and le sinthome are book projects in themselves, so Verhaeghe's reading of these two concepts suggests further exploration of late Lacanian theory not just in relation to the Oedipus complex, but also in relation to gender and subject formation.

So, "brevity," "simplicity," and "clarity": indeed, it all sounds good for a tag for a book on the Oedipus complex. If we keep in mind that it is written by Paul Verhaeghe, however, one inevitably has to delve into the footnotes and the bibliography list at the end of New Studies of Old Villains and do... some more reading on this tricky "child" of psychoanalysis, the Oedipus complex. The fathers have well spoken about it; probably it will be worth rediscovering what the mothers have proffered too.


© 2009 Rossitsa Terzieva-Artemis


Rossitsa Terzieva-Artemis is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nicosia, Cyprus, specializing in modern British and American literatures, psychoanalysis, and continental philosophy.


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