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Paul Verhaeghe: New Studies of Old Villans: A Radical Reconsideration of the Oedipus Complex
Other Press, New York, 2009, 118 pp, $17.95
Published online: 9 February 2011 Ó Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011
In his new book, Paul Verhaeghe explores and elucidates key theoretical treatments of the Oedipus complex while providing an elegantly articulated alternative perspective on this psychoanalytic concept. His perspective both signiﬁcantly alters our understanding of the nature and role of the Oedipus complex in human biopsychosocial development and broadens and strengthens the argument for its universal applicability. Verhaeghe arrives at this alternative perspective through a brief but pithy critical analysis of Freudian and Lacanian theories. He provides additional support for it in clinical observations, contemporary relational and intersubjective psychoanalytic theories, attachment and mentalization theories, and relevant infant research. While highly sophisticated scholars of psychoanalytic theory might question the novelty of some aspects of Verhaeghe’s perspective, clinicians and newer students of psychoanalysis, gender studies, and related disciplines will likely ﬁnd this work intriguing, challenging, and inspiring. Verhaeghe’s brief Preface and Introduction provide succinct initial answers to the question of why contemporary readers should study Freudian and Lacanian theories concerning Oedipal development. Verhaeghe then presents his argument for why both Freudian and early Lacanian theories of Oedipal conﬂict and development are insufﬁcient and ﬂawed, not only for the now widely disseminated reasons articulated by certain feminist and postmodern theorists, but because they present only neurotic, fantastical, even hysterical, partial solutions to the early developmental problems of affect regulation and identity formation. In his chapters entitled Father and Mother, Verhaeghe provides further explanation and evidence for what he calls
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Freud and Lacan’s ‘‘methodological error’’ (p. 34). Verhaeghe argues Freud reiﬁed the fantasized omnipotent, prohibitive father of the Oedipus complex via the invention of the myth of the primal horde. He also argues that Lacan’s early theory promoted the notion that a strong father is needed in order to protect the child from the seductive, rapacious crocodile mother. Verhaeghe notes that these two perspectives provide us with merely hysterical, partial solutions to early developmental challenges where a more complete, analytical solution is needed. In his longest and most complicated chapter, Jouissance, Verhaeghe demonstrates in a highly nuanced but efﬁcient fashion how Lacan’s later theory, with some support from contemporary infant mentalization and attachment theory, can explain the origin and nature of earlier, ﬂawed Oedipal theories and provide a more analytic solution to the problems of affect regulation and identity formation. As Verhaeghe summarizes: ‘‘The authoritarian father prohibiting jouissance, eventually threatening the subject with castration, is nothing but a social neurotic construction on top of an a priori given: the impossibility of jouissance’’ (p. 70). Instead, ‘‘[I]n this new view of the oedipal structure, the father acts merely as an agent of symbolic castration…. the master signiﬁer… [providing] both an identity for the subject and a safeguarding regulation in matters of enjoyment’’ (p. 70). Verhaeghe then explains how the father’s inevitable failure to actually be the master signiﬁer (i.e. his Lacanian lack) opens up the possibility for individual identity development. It is in this chapter that Verhaeghe’s authoritative knowledge of Freudian and Lacanian theory combines most powerfully with his skillful writing and penchant for acute social observation. In his next chapter, Identity, Verhaeghe extends his exploration and application of later Lacanian theory further into the realm of contemporary developmental psychology
acknowledging that it is in the Lacanian lack of both his and foregoing treatments of this subject that the possibility of difference and creativity exists. identity. (2010). Reference Shedler. his book does not provide a ﬁnal. especially as they are researched and applied in social work with individuals and families struggling with attachment. and clinical intervention were too quickly and easily dismissed in the postmodern era. in Conclusion: the Sinthome. and affect regulation. identity. identity development. while complex. resolution. Finally.216 Clin Soc Work J (2011) 39:215–216 and infant attachment research. J. Furthermore. especially as these arise in the treatment of addictions and personality disorders. Much like the revised psychoanalytic cure Verhaeghe describes in the ﬁnal chapter. fusion anxiety. while this book will undoubtedly advance discussions of psychoanalytic theory. and affect regulation related challenges and disorders. American Psychologist. The Third. 98–109. What it does offer is a creative analytic interpretation of the development of related psychoanalytic theories and associated social discourse as well as a compelling alternative perspective on the role of the Oedipus complex with respect to affect regulation and identity formation. 65(2). This invitation into dialogue is strengthened by the inclusion of an equally humble yet provocative Forward by Juliet Mitchell which provides yet another perspective on sexuality and gender identity development. mirroring. It is here that Verhaeghe confronts his reader with a conclusion concerning the aim psychotherapeutic intervention that is both deﬂating and liberating. for example. As a recent review of the research demonstrates (Shedler 2010). its implications might also prove inﬂuential in clinical practice. Verhaeghe argues convincingly that patients and analysands must confront this conclusion if they are to be freed from a cycle of Oedipal symptom formation. Verhaeghe integrates his work in earlier chapters into an explanation of one of Lacan’s more difﬁcult concepts and a further consideration of neurotic symptomology. where opportunities exist to address infant and child attachment and affect regulation related challenges. triangulation. Verhaeghe’s book is inspiring as it challenges the reader to move beyond mere dismissal into reconsideration and reinterpretation. Clinicians who work with adolescents and adults might ﬁnd this theory equally applicable insofar as it helps to explain the complex relationships between problems of interpersonal attachment. The efﬁcacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy. and reconstitution. Verhaeghe’s explanation of the primary caretakers’ roles with respect to the management of the impossibility of jouissance and its relationship to defensive externalization. Verhaeghe invites his reader to critically examine psychoanalytic theory in light of clinical experience and contemporary research. is truly compelling and seems likely to inspire additional research as well as application in clinical practice. separation anxiety. Verhaeghe’s integrative formulation might be particularly applicable in early intervention and parent guidance work. many psychoanalytic or psychodynamic perspectives on human psychology. and adult psychopathology. 123 . and the aim of psychoanalytic practice. idealization and identiﬁcation. psychopathology. guaranteed solution to the problem of the Oedipus complex or the controversies that have surrounded it. With appropriate humility.
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