Oedipus is a tragic figure and a victim of a strange fate. He is left to die on a mountainside by his father as a child — a father who enacts such a desperate act of cruelty in order to save his own skin, his family, his rule. He is rescued by a shepherd, adopted by another royal household. When he grows older, he hears the prophecy that led to his abandonment and instead choses to leave his new family. He embarks on a line of flight and heads out into the world.
It is only then that fate’s twisted sense of humour comes to bear on Oedipus’ life. He unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother. When the truth of his new life is revealed, his wife-mother hangs herself and Oedipus blinds himself. But the cycle begins again. This time, however, lessons have been learnt, if the outcome is no less tragic.
Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter of incest, cares for her old man all the same, and embarks on a line of flight with him, later standing by those she loves beyond any other sense of loyalty to the state or to power. Born of a tragic and complex family, she nonetheless strives forward on her own and makes herself worthy of the things that happen to her, an enemy of the state but a soldier of love.
Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus is a book full of resources for escaping our own tendency towards self-oppression. It is unfortunate, however, that these potentials have often been encased within their critique of psychoanalysis and allowed to go no further. Taken up by others, their critique of Oedipus leads many to (quite literally) throw the baby out with the bathwater. We should remember their argument is that Oedipus is not in himself oedipalizing — no, that function is found within the family itself as a bourgeois institution. But it is also only the first in a series of nested institutions that demand the same affinity.
I’ve been interested in Oedipus again recently as I have been slowly working towards a project — potentially a PhD — that tries to consider the orphan as a positive figure for philosophy. Orphans are positive figures in literature, after all; ubiquitous figures sent out on lines of flight from birth whose lack allows them to skirt the edges of social expectation and belonging, often making them innately radical figures who mix up whatever institution they are captured by. (Think Luke Skywalker and the rebellion; Harry Potter and the wizarding world; Oliver Twist and the London underworld; Superman and planet Earth, etc. etc.) But in philosophy and psychoanalysis, this lack is so often negative and totalizing.
Entombed within Freud’s Oedipus Complex, Oedipus’ tragic fate is replicated again and again. The lack the orphan or adoptee feels — the hole left by family — becomes a dangerous attractor to servitude. This lack becomes, in the words of Deleuze and Guattari, a “displaced or internalized limit where desire lets itself be caught”.
When I think of a situation where this tension is most visible, I can’t help but think of Israel and Palestine. In fact, it is telling that so many post-structuralists, interested in the psycho-political affects of displacement and escape, have long declared solidarity with the Palestinians, from Deleuze and Guattari themselves to more explicit adoptees who affirmed their lines of flight, like Jean Genet. But of course, to many, Deleuze and Guattari in particular are dangerous figures who have been utilised by the Israeli Defense Force to further brutalize and displace the Palestinians themselves.
The distinction here should be obvious, but to many it is not. From the Nakba to the Holocaust, we are capable of recognising that both Palestinians and Israelis now hold a central catastrophe, a displacement, at the heart of their existences. Like any displaced child, they may hold onto knowledge of a far more sprawling family tree or history, but they themselves have been pushed off the map. They experience a lack at the heart of their being. It is a question of how we respond to this lack and the things we do in its name.
Just like Oedipus and Antigone, their situations are complex and resist reduction, but we can nonetheless see how the tragedy unfolds. The displacement of the Jewish people, whether from their ancestral lands or from Europe during the Second World War (because Zionism predates the Holocaust, lest we forget), also constitutes a “limit where desire lets itself be caught”. Rather than the family, this desire is captured by the Oedipalizing State, which, like the family as a social institution, restricts the potential innate to the displaced child who could have made a new world for themselves. Just as children leave the family to create the family anew, the generative potential of flight is made reproductive rather than productive in its own right.
Not all Jews are beholden to the encasement that Israel represents, of course. They perhaps understand their place in the world far better. A history of flight is a traumatic thing for any people to experience, but it sets you up well to assist in and offer solidarity to the emancipation of others. The productive nature of a line of flight is no less difficult to remain committed to, often setting oneself against the world at large, but it is righteous.
Zionism is the opposite. It is the Oedipal function raised up to the level of the state, which enacts the liberating philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari from the wrong side — not to free others from servitude but to perpetuate the trauma of displacement at the heart of their existence. Israel reproduces the trauma at its heart ad nauseum, rather than producing a new world in which others might be liberated from the sorts of tyranny they experienced.
This is the sort of anti-oedipal political programme that is elucidated by a text like Anti-Oedipus. It is a shame it is so often restricted to the first war it waged, against Freudian psychoanalysis. Its resources can travel much further, if we let them. In this way, it is a book that warrants a taste of its own medicine — free it from its “parenthood”, reconstructed by an academic oedipalizing process. Once achieved, it has so much left to teach us, not only in Palestine, but everywhere in contemporary politics, where politicians are elected on promises of change and escape only to replicate the tyranny of their predecessors in a more distilled manner.
The tragedy of Oedipus is alive and well in the 21st century.