Friday Think Piece: Oedipus and Anti-Oedipus
I’m going to introduce a new semi-periodic series here, the Friday think piece. They’ll be disorganized. They’ll be wild. They’ll be unpredictable. Unlike many things I write, I am as likely to back off from claims made here as to defend them. Think pieces will also reference stuff I’ve read lately, with little to no expectation that anyone will be keeping up.
The one thing they won’t be is deleted. I write a ton of material, usually a couple thousand words a day, and most of it never sees a reader. But if you’ll bear with me, I’ll share some unpolished thoughts, once a week or every two weeks, always on Friday. Without further ado, here’s the first.
Freud’s Anxious Legacy
For most of western history, heterosexuality wasn’t conceptualized as a puzzle or a problem. It simply was — man is made for woman, and woman is made for man. God or Nature has taken care of it all, and, shall we say, there is nothing particularly interesting behind the curtain. Sex is an open book. It’s all on the surface.
The universe is a plenitude, and the gaps, in knowledge and conceptualization, are filled by heterosexuality. It not only poses no questions, but it is itself an answer and an explanation. Grammar has gender. So do the sun and the moon, and night and day. Animals, very obviously, are sexual, and their sex, open and unashamed, is a part of virtually everyone’s lived experience. Adam and Eve were real people as well as archetypes. They weren’t people in an ancient legend. They were your parents. Even plants, when we finally got around to looking, are found to have heterosexual sex (sometimes with themselves, true, but again, this wasn’t problematized).
As such, non-heterosexuality couldn’t possibly be a problem. If it did happen, it would pass, which it did. Worrying about it would almost be like worrying that holding one’s breath would one day replace the temporary fad of breathing. Or like we’d decide we were tired of the sun, and blot it out. (Only the Marquis de Sade finally did come to this conclusion, and he recommended it. But everything about the divine marquis is exceptional. He fits no patterns, so we’ll move on.)
Sigmund Freud changed everything, even for those who claim to reject him. Or perhaps especially. Yes, there had been sexologists before Freud, but none had done so much to change how we think of heterosexuality. Heterosexuality was no longer a universal plenitude. It was the end of a long, difficult journey that was full of false starts and dead ends. Virtually every mental illness, including even those that had no obvious bearing on sexuality, was ascribed to the misbegotten journey of a failed heterosexual.
Why, we must ask, did this appeal to anyone? Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus describes western society as utterly in the thrall of the Oedipal story. We really do believe that some part of every heterosexual has braved an unknown odyssey. And that this story holds the key to happiness. When disturbed, we must return to it. Oedipus as religion. Give me mommy and daddy, and then make me kill daddy so I can fuck mommy. Why on earth, Deleuze and Guattari quite reasonably ask, do normal people beg for this nonsense?
No doubt it flatters the ordinary individual to think that an unknown bit of him had been tirelessly voyaging from one sexual stage to another, unrealized, in silence, for longer than it took Ulysses to reach Ithaca. That most of this journey was perverse. That all of it was obscure. And that this mysterious process was a rousing success — a success as plain as the last time he thought about normal heterosexual sex, which wasn’t that long ago.
The Multicultural Challenge
People, however, are diverse, in both time and place. One would think, amid all the different cultures of the world, that one or another of them would periodically show some massive divergence from the hetero-ideal. Traditional Arab culture, perhaps, with its elaborate seclusion of women? No, they are straight. Mandarin culture, with its modesty and (to our lights) strange desiderata of beauty? Again, heterosexual. Modern industrial culture in the West has taken the farm animals from our sight and relegated Adam and Eve to at best one competing story among many in mankind’s ancestry. And still the heterosexuals pour forth. There are variations, to be sure, but they are variations on a theme.
How is it that nothing has managed to stop the settled direction of human sexuality on a more massive scale? The short answer, I think, is that Freud was wrong. There is no perilous journey. The vector that impels heterosexuality is incredibly strong, as Freud knew, but it also has a direction very well set for it in advance, which he seems less to have appreciated.
Only something extraordinary can redirect or possibly overcome this vector. The puzzling thing is, we don’t know what “extraordinary” would look like in this context. We only know that it’s probably something of overwhelming magnitude in itself, fully as unstoppable as ordinary heterosexuality, and probably preempting or co-opting it. And whatever it is, it’s got little to do with culture, genetics, or childhood development.
The Ex-Gays and Freud
One place where the Oedipal journey or something like it remains the dominant mythology is, improbably, among ex-gay therapists.
I say “improbably” because a really traditional Christian would not be a Freudian at all. Why graft a bunch of silly, violent, pagan Greek myths onto the majestic, universal story of Male and Female? Utterly extraneous at best, likely confusing at worst. The Christian world breathes heterosexuality, does it not? I should as well explain botany by way of Mozart.
Yet the religious right is perhaps the last refuge of Freudian psychology, which is more or less dead everywhere else (thanks, but not in large enough part, to Deleuze and Guattari). Ex-gays declare that they suffer from childhood traumas, from distant fathers, from smothering mothers, from a lack of “true” love between males, from… a really hopeless mess of missteps on their Oedipal journey. And no one believes them, except for themselves.
Why do they need it? Because, like the earlier Freudians, they need a subject that they can work on indefinitely. Deleuze and Guattari are instructive here. Ex-gay therapists need a field of play that is infinite, indeterminate, and subject to the multiple readings and re-readings that constitute the talking cure. They need never to be satisfied, and they still need to look okay even if they never succeed, even if the desiring machines of the psyche keep churning right along, barely diverted in their course. They need to run a business, with regular hours, and fees, and incredibly low expectations. Which amounts to the same thing.
They need never to find “the gay gene.” While there probably isn’t any such thing, there also probably is something pretty damn strong that detours some people from heterosexuality, and that either co-opts entirely the heterosexual impulse or else extinguishes it. This impulse, whatever it is, must be remarkably efficacious. Because heterosexuality is too. (Another thing, as said, that they can’t admit — if they did, they’d soon run into thoughts a lot like these.)