The following essay was originally written as an introduction to psychoanalysis for my mother’s high school English class.
Where is Oedipus?
From a psychoanalytic point of view, there is only one story: Oedipus and its variations.
We might start where Freud started: with dreams. As he discovered, a dream is a message from the unconscious, and not just any message: it is an expression of a desire so scandalous that it must be censored. Freud hypothesizes the existence of an internal voice – the superego – whose job is to censor these messages. To reconstruct the mutilated message, we must undo the work of censorship carried out by the superego. This is the work of psychoanalysis. And once we restore the secret message of the dream, we always recognize some variation on the same story.
Psychoanalysis begins with the premise that reality has the structure of a dream. What we call objective reality is always a compromise between our fantasies and the indifference of existence. It is the double-sided screen rippling at the frontier of two infinities, neither of which can be perceived directly. Reality can only disclose itself to us through our fantasies, just as our fantasies can only disclose themselves to us through reality.
What a patient undergoing psychoanalysis refers to as “reality” is nothing but the compromise between fantasy and the Real that he has elaborated in his unconscious. In other words, reality it is a product of repression. Every appeal to “reality” is always an invitation to impose my repression on you – which is why we should never trust anyone who grounds his arguments in an appeal to objective reality. Reality is therefore a defense mechanism against the Real, which must always be understood as concerning the subject alone.
When we watch a nature special on television, for example, we see everything but nature itself. We see above all a projection of our own fantasies: mating, the hunt, the tribe. Our fantasies allow us to see something of the Real, but never all of it. Nature specials tell us more about ourselves than they do about nature. For were we to come face to face with the true, radical Otherness of nature, we would simply see – nothing, just as we cannot see the millions of neutrinos that shoot straight through the gaps between the electrons in our bodies on their silent passage through the void.
Freud discovered that our fantasies, although always unique and personal, nonetheless share a basic structure. He called this structure the Oedipus complex. Flies eat by vomiting digestive fluid on their food then sucking it up. The Oedipus complex is the symbolic digestive fluid we vomit on the world to digest it with our minds. We cannot understand anything – ourselves, other people, nature – without imposing an Oedipal story on it. Like a sheet draped over a ghost, it simultaneously disfigures and discloses what lies behind it. As we move towards enlightenment, we realize the extent to which we confuse perception with construction.
“Oedipus” refers to the incest prohibition, which is the fundamental law of human society – the only law universal to all cultures. In a certain sense, then, “incest prohibition” is an exact synonym for society as such. Why? Because society emerges – can only emerge – as a substitution-formation for the prohibited sexual relationship between the child and his parents. The secret of Oedipus, and the secret of society, is that the incest prohibition constitutes society by prohibiting something that is impossible anyway.
One might respond that incest is, on the contrary, quite possible and alarmingly common. Obviously this is true; but what might be referred to as Incest with a capital I is not simple sexual contact with a family member but rather the overcoming of subjectivity in a return to some primordial union with existence.
The scandal of incest has nothing to do with incest being “against nature”. The scandal of incest is that an object that must remain locked away at a distance in order for a world to exist as such is revealed as non-existent, an event whose consequence is a devaluation of reality.
What does it mean to say “an object”? For psychoanalysis, sexual desire has an inherently fetishistic structure. What I desire in another is always some partial object, some “piece” of that person – be it a body part, a symbolic attribute, or something that cannot even be put into words.
This “living” object hidden somewhere in the body of the other is nothing but the support of reality itself. What we call society only remains coherent, pressurized, and vectorized because it is filled out with a hidden libidinal object.
To use an analogy: when we walk into a library, it is only the supposed existence of a book that touches the Real in some way – be it through science or narrative – that gives shape to our experience of the library and sends us from one book to another.
The success of the Internet lies here: if we all spend so much time surfing the Web, it is because we suppose that somewhere out there a webpage exists that touches the Real (which is always my Real). Otherwise, why bother? Of course, there is no final webpage that would put an end once and for all to the need for symbolic circulation…but we are not capable of doing without some equivalent of this fantasy of a final access to the Real.
There is no way of unveiling, once and for all, the Real Thing that we suppose to be hidden somewhere, be it inside a book, coded in a URL, inside a woman or attached to a man. The reason is because it only exists through our fantasies. Like Freddy Kreuger, The Real needs our fantasies to exist.
The Object that structures reality thus has a paradoxical essence: on the one hand, it does not exist in that it can never be seized. On the other hand, it casts a shadow in the form of the symbolic structure of society, which only exists as a by-product of the removal from reality of this object.
Here we must make a brief detour through the dialectical philosophy of Hegel to find our way forward. Hegel’s fundamental insight was that the world does not coincide with itself. What does this mean? In every case, the binary pairs that structure our world – good/evil, fake/real, clean/dirty, man/woman, etc. – are not “externally opposed” but rather constitute each other as such. In every case, one term must be understood as a subset of the other. When we pursue one term in the binary pair far enough, it spontaneously flips over into its opposite. For Aristotle, there was A, there was not-A, and there was nothing in between. For Hegel, A and not-A are simultaneously one and two, without one and two collapsing into each other. Identity IS difference and difference IS identity. The fundamental logical algorithm of Hegel’s ontology lies here: A and not-A are both the same and different, yet this difference and this both-ness neither coincide nor invalidate each other.
Crucially, for Hegel time is therefore a structural feature of logic. In other words, there is no timeless, transcendental plane where A does not equal not-A. On the contrary, for Hegel, like Heraclitus, all that is real is change. This is the dialectical process: concepts secrete their opposites, break away from each other, come together, miss each other again, generate future conflicts and future resolutions that will again, in their turn, become new conflicts. In this dialectical soup, truth is never fixed and stationary. Truth evolves.
This basic rule of dialectics – the mutual determination of opposites, which is expressed over time – is another way of designating the non-existent sexual rapport. Reality does not exist in any sort of “static” sense: it can never be seized once and for all (“…and they lived happily ever after”). We are all tempted to think in timeless, absolute terms – a thing either is or is not, and the fact that it will one day pass away seems like evidence to us that it is not real.
Reality is transformation. It exists – in time, concretely, imperfectly – precisely because it does not exist in some immutable, transcendental sphere. In other words, reality can exist concretely precisely because it cannot exist abstractly. This is what Hegel refers to as “concrete universality”.
Psychoanalysis is the science of this self-contradictory relationship that finds itself precisely where it misses itself, loses itself. Here we return to the Object, which appears as the point of inconsistency of the Real itself. This mysterious Object that can only be seized by not being seized is nothing less than the fulcrum of that fantasy that we call reality. The Object emerges a a response to the repression of the Real’s inconsistency and from then on it functions as both index and mask of this inconsistency.
In 1931, the Austrian logician Kurt Gödel proved that any given system – what we refer to as reality as such a system – can either be complete or consistent but not both. Mathematics is such a system; physics is another; natural language is another. In other words, for a system to be perceived as consistent, we must sacrifice some element that must be “repressed”.
This is how subjectivity emerges: as a response to this necessary subtraction of some piece of the Real in order that reality might be constituted as a consistent sphere and not a chaotic, paradoxical soup. Advanced physics and mathematics, with their paradoxical wave-particles, multiple dimensions, impossible “imaginary” numbers, etc. furnish us with such an inconsistent and radically impossible-to-imaginarize model of the universe.
The necessary subtraction of this piece of the Real thus leaves a gaping hole, one that must be plugged up. Such a hole can only be plugged up by a paradoxical object, one that is simultaneously itself and not-itself, one that is simultaneously more than itself and less than itself.
In this sense, what we refer to as the Symbol is another avatar of the Object. What distinguishes a symbol from a sign is that a symbol simultaneously represents a thing and something “more”, some mysterious X factor that cannot be expressed directly because language presupposes consistency at the expense of completeness. Symbols and metaphors are thus the many-faced logical operators that simultaneously suture our world and offer us a glimpse of the true, paradoxical nature of the Real.
Lady MacBeth’s bloodstain does not simply represent her guilt; it both represents her guilt and incarnates, in its irreducible thereness, something that goes beyond anything that we can name as such. It simultaneously plays an Oedipal role (by attaching her to her symbolic obligations) and an ontological role (it saturates reality). This is the secret to understanding symbols, from Luke Skywalker’s light saber to Hitler’s mustache to the plague that ravages Thebes.
Here we return to our starting point, the Oedipus complex. What psychoanalysis calls the Oedipus complex is the story we construct to keep the paradoxical Object at a certain distance – because were we to approach it too closely, we would see that it does not exist in any solid sense. What we call “incest prohibition” is nothing but the removal from circulation of something – some variable X – that must remain off-limits in order that we might have a world. This X is again the paradoxical object that plugs up the hole in the Real. And every human society has come up with essentially the same stand-in for X: the mother.
The “natural” grounding of the incest prohibition – “incest causes inbreeding and disease” – is nothing but a pseudo-biological ex post facto justification that covers up the true nature of the incest prohibition. We ought rather to see our own fantasy here: that incest causes illness and degeneracy – a fantasy that is already present in Sophocles’ play.
“Oedipus” is thus shorthand for any social or symbolic system that puts the impossible Object in circulation by prohibiting it. As we have seen, reality cannot exist without some such Oedipal structure to hold it together and grant it consistency.
To return to Hegel, the dialectic, which never rests, is animated by Spirit. What Hegel refers to as Spirit, Freud refers to as libido – the eternal pushing-forward of existence. The mode of appearance of Spirit, of libido, is, again, the Object. It is precisely by following this object, chasing this object, desiring this object, missing this object, chasing after this object again, that the object itself can grow, can change, can metamorphose – and us with it.
Lacan came up with a wonderful neologism to describe our relationship with this object outside of us that structures our reality. He called it extimate – simultaneously external and intimate – the paradox of an external body that is more us than ourselves – the external kernel of our being.
“Oedipus” is the study of the singular path that the Object carves for each and every one of us. It always concerns us and us alone. Whereas the Real is the same for everybody, reality is always singular: my reality, your reality, her reality. The object can get stuck here…refused there…misrecognized somewhere else. All of the famous psychoanalytic concepts – regression, introjection, the superego, repression, defense mechanisms, denial, orality, anality, hysteria, and on an on – are so many technical words used to describe the metamorphoses of the Object that creates us as subjects.
The point of departure of this essay was the universality of Oedipus. Every story ever told is a variation on the dialectical process described above – the destiny of the object, whose last essence is always sexual. Here we must be precise: sexuality is the mode of appearance of ontology as such; it is the signal that we are approaching the Object. Rather than seeing sexuality as “sexual” we must see it as fulfilling an essentially philosophical purpose: sex is the means by which human beings approach the impossible truth which is “hidden behind” the Object. This truth can be referred to but never seen, never seized as such. The Truth is not simply that the Real is permanently beyond our grasp, permanently behind the Object. The Truth, the Real, is permanently beyond its own grasp. Behind every object, behind every Phallus, behind every symbol, behind every desire, lies always – another object, another symbol, another desire – and it never ends.
The psychoanalytic process, like the philosophical process, is a process of circulating around this object in such a way that it can be animated with Spirit, with the Libido that it needs to continue evolving – we can ask for nothing more than this constant transformation with no end.
Let us here turn to a few concrete examples to illustrate this conceptual edifice.
Fight Club, which came out in 1999, is a film that whose message has become iconic. Superficially, Fight Club is about the existential ennui of late-capitalist man. The main character, a slave to his possessions, is saved from his plight by the encounter with Tyler Durden, a man who attempts, again and again, to teach the Edward Norton character to seize life directly. Tyler Durden is handsome, virile, fearless, and full of witty monologues excoriating the sterility of consumer culture. The fight clubs that he starts are nodes of resistance against this sterility.
The most superficial reading of Fight Club is to see in it a brainless film about violence and psychosis. Better but still insufficient is the pseudo-analytical reading that sees Fight Club as a critique of consumer capitalism. In such a reading, Tyler Durden’s revolutionary discourse is taken at face value as representing the “message” of the film. The real story of Fight Club is something else altogether – it is a love story.
Fight Club begins with an encounter – between a man and a woman. Remember that the Truth can only be approached this way – through an encounter with the Object, one that takes place under the sign of sexuality. Fight Club begins when Edward Norton’s character encounters that intolerable Object that reflects back to him his own extimacy – in other words, that Object that signifies to him that what he considers hard reality is in fact shot through with fantasy. This object tells him that he is not in control; that he is not separate from the universe but part of it. The encounter with the Object is an invitation to change – it is an order from the universe that the Object and the Subject must enact a new synthesis, must consummate their encounter by producing something new.
The entire “story” of Fight Club is thus nothing but a necessary parenthesis between the moment the Edward Norton character sees the Helena Bonham Carter character and the moment he shoots himself in the mouth – finally allowing himself to encounter his truth. Everything Tyler Durden says and does is double-coded, and has no meaning outside of its Oedipal meaning: as a series of necessary dead-ends that must fail in order that Edward Norton might finally find has painful way to the Object. Tyler Durden’s monologues about capitalism, consumerism, masculinity, etc. may be superficially interesting, but they are true only inasmuch as they are vanishing words mediating Norton’s approach to the Object.
The entire point of Fight Club is that the concept of a fight club is a symptom whose extremity, whose patent unhealthiness, whose impossibility as a viable solution, is matched only by the depth and breadth of Edward Norton’s refusal to recognize the Object that forms the external kernel of his being.
Let us now consider the case of Ayn Rand. Her entire output must be understood the same way: as a vanishing philosophy designed simultaneously to attain the Object and continue pushing it away – a formula that could be regarded as the basic structure of hysteria.
The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are not works of philosophy; they are love stories – the double-coded statements of Ayn Rand’s own Oedipal fantasies. To approach these works on the superficial level is like interpreting a dream without translating it back into the language of the unconscious.
If Ayn Rand’s works are so popular among a certain demographic – precocious, somewhat alienated teenage boys – it is because that which is repressed in Ayn Rand’s universe resonates with a complementary repressed content on the part of the readers.
What is repressed in Ayn Rand’s world? Freud recommended that a psychoanalyst pay particular attention to that anything that is said twice and anything that is never said. What is most notably absent in Ayn Rand’s fantasy universe? Humor, for one; compassion, for another. The total absence of these patent psychological realities must not be considered simple lacunae but repressions that, like all repressions, must be enacted and re-enacted because they never disappear once and for all. We see here a first clue as to why her books are so long – there is so much that must be repressed that the battle must be fought again and again and again, page after page.
Of course, on a more general level, every discourse – every story – operates a repression inasmuch as every story sacrifices completeness at the expense of consistency.
The psychoanalytic process is the process of lifting repression, of draining the unconscious of secondary repressions until all that is left is that no-longer reducible kernel of repression that can never be lifted inasmuch as it is constitutive of reality.
Most Ayn Rand believers are over-intelligent, sexually unhappy young men. I was one of them. It is with astonishment and embarrassment that I now consider some of the beliefs that I held at that period of my life: that pleasure was undignified; that seriousness was a cardinal virtue; that intelligence, construed narrowly as something like IQ, constituted the fundamental measure of a human being’s worth.
Fifteen years later, I can see a little more clearly what was really going on. These symptoms were the first manifestations of a transformation that would eventually lead me to repudiate everything I initially believed. In other words, Ayn Rand allowed me to begin obliquely preparing an approach to the long-denied Object in my own life. I had to allow my repressions to merge with the repressions operated in these novels, precisely in order that they might be given a first shape, one that, crucially, then had to be refused. It would have been impossible for me to refuse these repressions without first encountering them in a systematic form – for only such an encounter with what had until then existed inside me namelessly could begin to put words were previously there existed only confusion and anxiety.
Wo es war, soll Ich werden. Where It was, there I shall come to be – Freud’s words of order.
Although I have long outgrown Ayn Rand, I am grateful to her for allowing me to begin to symbolize something that before her remained completely inchoate. When I literally threw Atlas Shrugged in disgust at the wall of my dorm room during John Galt’s final monologue a full year after picking up The Fountainhead for the first time, it was a sign that the Object had finally, tardily, begun to evolve. I sensed too – on some dim level – that my fascination with Ayn Rand, had something to do with my own developing (and completely unformed) adult sexuality. I did not know why this should be the case but in retrospect this is clear to me – somehow, the works of Ayn Rand brought me one step closer to becoming a man.
Perhaps one explanation for why Ayn Rand is so popular among such a precise demographic is because her own sexuality was arrested at a precise stage in her libidinal development. Here we encounter a second possible explanation for the length of her books: it is because Ayn Rand remained all her life fixated on an Object that was never allowed to evolve that she had to write the same story over and over again without ever encountering that synthesis that would allow her to write The End and begin something new.
If so many young, half-developed men fall into Objectivism, it is because they are responding to the desire of a woman whose similar half-development renders her visible to them in the same way that methadone is visible to a heroin addict.
It is no coincidence that Rand used her personal philosophy/cult to seduce a man twenty-five years her junior. Objectivism was never anything but a screen for Ayn Rand, which explains its impotence. If so many more young men than young women are seduced by Rand’s philosophy, it is because this was always its real goal: not simply to attract but to conjure into existence the man who had until then only existed in Rand’s fantasy. Nathaniel Branden, Rand’s young paramour, is here an illustration of the paradox of extimacy: his truth, his essence, was located outside of him in Ayn Rand’s discourse, and it is precisely because he refused to recognize this extimacy that he allowed himself to be transformed from a living, singular man into a character that did not and could not exist in reality because it was never anything but Ayn Rand’s impossible, incestuous fantasy of reunion with the lost Object.
Let it be noted that Branden is an anagram for “Ben Rand”, which means “son of Rand” in Hebrew, a language both Rand and Branden, whose real name was Blumenthal, were familiar with as they were both Jewish. (This observation was made by Murray Rothbard, a former member of Rand’s Objectivist inner circle in New York.) Branden’s adoption of this mysterious new name upon encountering Ayn Rand here illustrates several crucial properties of the unconscious, namely the breathtaking intelligence, precocity, and economy with which it constructs symbols whose purpose is simultaneously to mask and reveal the truth. Using only seven letters, Branden’s unconscious unveiled the central secret and last truth of Ayn Rand’s writing, namely her own unconscious Oedipal fantasy of having a son in order that she might reunite with him sexually – only no one was willing to decipher this message that had been written in plain sight for all to see.
Today, Nathaniel Branden, the man whom Ayn Rand considered a living personification of John Galt, works as a personal coach and motivational speaker. We might here measure the gulf that separates psychoanalysis – whose point of departure is the existence and absolute otherness of the unconscious – with the ego-psychology now championed by Branden, whose point of departure is the mortifying belief that coincidence with oneself is possible with enough self-discipline. With age, the mummified Branden’s fake tan, cleft chin and capped teeth reveal more and more clearly the refusal of the Object of which he has turned himself into a representative.
Ayn Rand’s personal life thus furnishes us the key for understanding her system: as a screen for the “real” story of her life – the strictly Oedipal story that is the truth of Objectivism.
Ayn Rand turned into a bitter and unpleasant woman with age because she remained transfixed by a static image of the Object, an image of perfection, an image of completeness – one that never budged beyond a certain immature stage of psychosexual development.
In a curious twist, it is thus precisely because Ayn Rand remained blocked at this level that she has been able to help so many young men (like the young man I used to be) to see exactly how they need to grow. The element of time is crucial here. We see here a third possible justification for the extreme length of Ayn Rand’s books: this length is essential to the maieutic process. In other words, they have to be long because we need to be able to sense, bodily, through repetition, that something is wrong. When we read Ayn Rand we gradually begin to sense that something that should be changing, moving, evolving, growing, is remaining static, stuck, inert, sterile.
It took me all of The Fountainhead plus nine hundred pages of Atlas Shrugged to realize this – a fact that should indicate the tenacity with which I wanted to hang on to the illusion that I was not a divided subject, that I was in control of myself, that I needed no object.
And now, finally, those of you who are reading this essay have come to the point at which the abstract philosophy presented in the first section fuses together with the Oedipal story of my own life. You are reading a paper that I have written not only for my own mother but for the young man I used to be – for you who are reading these words are in the position that I was in almost twenty years ago as a student of gifted English at Mandeville High, a student who sensed that the world was much bigger than Mandeville, Louisiana with its dullness, its hypocrisy, its comfort, its provinciality.
In a certain sense, you are the author of this essay inasmuch as I was once sitting in the very same desk you are sitting now, wondering if anything outside of Mandeville really existed or if it was all a charade.
Today I write these words from Paris, France, where I have lived for the last eight years. If I managed to get from Mandeville to Paris it is because I never allowed myself to believe in reality as such – and it was only once I got the fuck out that this intuition was fully confirmed in the pages of the thinkers I have cited here. Reality can only derive its consistency from fantasy. Sometimes people ask me how I ended up here – in a certain sense it is thus not false of me to say that it all started with The Fountainhead. The Object that began to take shape when I first encountered Ayn Rand – or rather, continued to take shape, for the Object’s birth is simultaneous with our own birth – has never stopped mutating and never will. If I possess any strength – and sometimes it is difficult to believe that I have any strength at all – it has been the strength demonstrated by Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who simply allowed herself to follow the Object down the rabbit-hole, where it could continue to evolve.
Be good to my mother – you’re lucky to have the opportunity to learn from someone like her.