Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Neo-Oedipus Complex

Oedipus  explains the riddle of the Sphinx by Ingres
Thanks to Freud and ultimately Shakespeare we think of the Oedipus myth as being about patricide and matriphilia. But when you really consider at the details of the narrative, it’s really about misperception. Fearing a prophecy that he will be murdered by his son, Laius abandons Oedipus, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Oedipus reacting to a similar prophecy--what we’d call gossip today--runs away from his adoptive parents and ends up killing his real father, in an emblematic confrontation on a highway. OK we all know that the Oedipus complex makes some sense, but merely as a fantasy. It is estimated that patricides in the U.S. only account for around 2% of homicides per year. A far greater percentage of the population suffers from loss aversion, a psychological condition in which people undertake defensive or evasive behavior to prevent anticipated disasters, with many of these behaviors turning out to be counterproductive and maladaptive in and of themselves. Like Oedipus they end up running from anticipated danger only to confront the very problem they were trying to escape. It’s often said that men figuratively marry the same woman they have just divorced. Fear of climate and environmental catastrophes often blind us from thinking clearly. We run from the greatly feared tsunami and end up being buried in volcanic ash. Jared Diamond wrote a book called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed about the downfall of major civilizations and one wonders if the downfall of some civilizations was not exacerbated by what we might call a neo-Oedipus complex, a kind of mass phobia in which whole segments of the population run away from things they had no need to fear.

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