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The Mysterious and Powerful Unknowns within Us

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     Amongst many other highly complex processes, human nature is composed of different levels of awareness with the domination of consciousness and unconsciousness. Despite the effects that the consciousness has on us, the influence of the unconscious is far greater. Freud, and other scholars, explain transformative and culture-changing theories which show how the unconscious operates. Hence, some of the mysteries of our mind according to Freud are the natural incestuous drive, the Oedipus and the Electra complex, and the inherent life and death instincts. Such unconscious drives are best exemplified within the Greek play Antigone by Sophocles. Antigone is the true and miraculous embodiment of these desires. Thus, the following analysis will provide further explanation of these unconscious drives and show how these desires shape, as well as direct, Antigone’s actions.

     Antigone by Sophocles is a Greek play which revolves around the acts of a powerful young woman. After a war in Thebes, King Creon properly buries Etecoles who was considered a war hero whereas he forbids the burial of Polynices who was considered a traitor. Nonetheless, Antigone disobeys her uncle’s law and buries Polynices because she did not want to let the body of her brother be unburied. Consequently, what may seem as sisterly love will become something totally different and the motives of Antigone to bury Polynices go far beyond familial love.

     To begin with, incest is defined as sexual relations between family members or blood relatives (Arens par.1). Throughout the history of humankind incest has been a social taboo and it has always been related to rape, abuses and assaults; albeit, incest itself does not cause harm to the ones that commit it or to the broader community (Wolf 1). Incest is also perceived as disgusting and people avoid it or avoid people that are involved in it. Furthermore, when talking about incest there are two different schools of thought: constitutionalists and conventionalists. The former assume that the avoidance of incest is embedded in our condition whereas the latter claim that the desire for incest is an inborn drive of humans (1). Likewise, according to the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, early societies discovered the benefits of outbreeding, thus in ancient times they avoided incest. Additionally, sociologist Edward Tylor claims that primitive societies gained from alliances so they started to marry outside the tribe. As a result of such alliances they avoided incest (Arens par.4). Also, humans are attracted to sexual objects which are not familiar to them, explains anthropologist Edward Westermarck, thus making incest even less likely (Wolf 29-30). Despite all of the aforementioned arguments there is an inevitable unconscious incestuous drive within human nature because there is genetic sexual attraction between close kin which people ultimately cannot avoid (Lieberman, Fessler and Smith 1229). Furthermore, in his book Totemism and Exogamy Sir James Frazer clearly states that incest is a natural human drive and something natural should not be forbidden, as it is not forbidden to eat or drink (Wolf 31). In addition, Freud explains that humans have a strong incestuous desire within them, and that the first sexual drives are incestuous (32).

     Moreover, Freud goes beyond insisting that there is an ultimate unconscious desire for incest; he states that such sexual drives are directed from the children towards the parents. In other words, the son sexually desires his mother and has a drive to kill his father, the Oedipus complex, whereas the girl sexually desires her father and wants to kill her mother, the Electra complex (Seel et al. 15-16). Freud explains that the Electra complex is not as strong as the Oedipus complex because of the differences in the development of the genders and because the first love for both children is the mother (16). Hence, for girls the first love is homosexual, the mother and not the father as the Electra complex assumes, whereas for boys it is heterosexual as the Oedipus complex claims (Freud 65). Although the Electra complex may be “less strong” than the Oedipus complex, it is an unconscious sexual drive within women nonetheless. Therefore, Freud upholds the argument that the first childhood sexual desires are incestuous (Wolf 32). Also, the Advanced Studies Group states that there is genetic attraction between close kin, thereby scientifically supporting these Freudian theories even further (32).

     Likewise, in his essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud mentions two other inborn drives: the life drive or Eros, and the death drive or Thanatos (Akhtar and O’Neil 2). The life instinct is a sexual and self-preserving drive whereas the death instinct is a self-destructive drive (2). Although the two drives fulfil one another, still, they have completely different functions (Carel 5). They complete one another in the sense that Eros without Thanatos would not have meaning, and without Eros Thanatos per se would not exist; but they also compete with each other (Georgescu 135). In other words, each of these terms requires its other. Nonetheless, Eros does not affect Thanatos whereas the death instinct does affect the life drive (Carel 4). This means that Thanatos is more powerful than the life drive. Furthermore, Thanatos rather than being aggressive behavior toward others, it is an unconscious drive of seeking one’s own destruction (Georgescu 134). Ergo, unconsciously we seek our death or commit acts that cause it. Moreover, according to Freud people seek their own death because they want to return to an embryonic state of their own being (139). As such, the pain that they feel from Thanatos is a form of pleasure different from the pleasures that people feel from Eros. Therefore, when encountering different forms of the death drive, such as sadism, masochism and so forth, people feel a different form of pleasure which is beyond the pleasure principle (Akhtar and O’Neil 76).

     Subsequently, these unconscious drives are best exemplified in the Greek play Antigone by Sophocles. The incestuous desire that Antigone has for her brother, Polynices, is noticed clearly in the play. In the very first dialogue, between Ismene and Antigone, Antigone says, “I will bury him myself. And even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory. I will lie with the one I love and loved by him - an outrage sacred by the gods. I have longer to please the dead than please the living here: in the kingdom down below I’ll lie forever” (Sophocles 655). In other words, she wants to be with Polynices whom she loved and who also loved her; furthermore, she wants to lie with him forever. Then Antigone continues, “I’ll raise a mound for him, for my dear brother” (655). Here we can see that she refers to Polynices with the word dear; she could call him brother but she chooses to call him with a word that shows passion. Likewise, in that same dialogue Ismene replies to Antigone’s forward-looking acts with: “you’re in love with impossibility” (655). This can be seen as what Ismene thinks about Antigone’s acts, the burial of Polynices, but it can be that Ismene is referring to Antigone’s love for Polynices rather than the acts she is about to take. Later in the play the Chorus says, “Your own blind will, your passion has destroyed you” (676) which potentially shows that the sexual passion Antigone felt for Polynices has destroyed her. Furthermore, because Antigone was well aware of the consequences of her acts, burying Polynices would not only push her toward her loving end, lie with her brother forever, but it also helped her escape the marriage with Haemon. This further strengthens the idea that she was in love with Polynices and did not want another lover, only her brother.

     In addition, beyond having an incestuous desire to be with Poynices, Antigone initially has a sexual drive to be with her father, known as the Electra complex; however, since Oedipus dies she redirects her sexual wants toward another target, Polynices, who can be seen as a substitute for Oedipus. The aforementioned dialogue between Ismene and Antigone where Antigone shows her desire to lie forever with the one she loves does not tell us who is the one she loves; it can be that the one she wants to lie with is her father rather than her brother. Moreover, in a dialogue with Antigone the Leader states, “Like father like daughter, passionate, wild…” (665). In other words, she has inherited the wildness and passion of her father which means that just as Oedipus was prone to be with his mother, the Oedipus complex, also Antigone wants to be with her father, the Electra complex. Later in that same dialogue Antigone says, “I was born to join in love, not hate - that is my nature” to which Creon replies, “Go down below and love, if love you must - love the dead!” (667). In Antigone’s words we can see that she admits her nature and the drives she was born with whereas Creon reconfirms that she loves someone who is dead, Oedipus or Polynices, a double meaning sentence, and that she must die herself so she can lie with the one she wants. In another dialogue the Chorus says, “Your life’s in ruins, child – I wonder… do you pay for your father’s terrible ordeal?” (675) where they ask Antigone if she is paying for the acts of her father to whose allegations Antigone replies, “There – at last you’ve touched it, the worst pain the worst anguish! Raking up the grief for father three times over, for all the doom that’s struck us down, the brilliant house of Laius “(675). In this part Antigone colorfully shows the love for Oedipus, how much pain and torture she has suffered because of his loss. “Such, such were my parents, and I their wretched child” (675); clearly with this line Antigone illustrates that she is her parents’ daughter, she knows her desires and that is why she refers to herself as wretched.

     Furthermore, Antigone’s acts seem to be very intentional which make one think that she is pursuing her own death. In other words, her unconscious desires for incest push Antigone toward Thanatos because she commits acts that cause her death—the burial of Polynices. In a dialogue with Creon Antigone says, “And if I am to die before my time I consider that a gain” (665). This shows that she sees her death as something desirable. Then in a dialogue with Ismene where Ismene wants to share the guilt with Antigone and die with her, Antigone says, “Never sharing my dying” (667). This means, she desires her death so much that she wants to die alone in a great death and not share that glory with anyone else. “You’re right - if I mock you, I get no pleasure from it, only pain” (667). These words from Antigone show that the pleasure she felt waiting for her death was beyond the pleasure principle; a form of pleasure gained only from Thanatos. Antigone continues, “Your wisdom appealed to one world-mine, another” (668) and later: “Courage! Live your life. I gave myself to death, long ago, so I might serve the dead” (668). In other words, Antigone shows that she was always part of the underworld and thought about death a long time ago. Moreover, Creon locks her in an isolated vault which resembles a mother’s womb which can be seen as the place where that primordial and inorganic state of being is achieved. Also, the rope with which Antigone commits suicide resembles the umbilical cord of the womb. These all show that Antigone had a powerful unconscious death instinct.

     Consequently, Antigone is the embodiment of all the unconscious drives that are innate features of human nature. The unconscious incestuous drive which is a social taboo but still considered as a strong sexual desire by Freud, is clearly illustrated with the love that Antigone has for Polynices. The Electra complex, the sexual drive that a daughter has for her father and the desire to kill the mother, as an unavoidable unconscious drive embedded in women, is shown by the sexual urges that Antigone strongly felt for Oedipus. And the death instinct or Thanatos, the unconscious drive against self-preservation, is demonstrated by the acts Antigone undertakes; acts that cause her death later on in the play. Ultimately, these unconscious drives altogether are a powerful mechanism behind our daily actions. Nonetheless, Antigone makes us question the conviction that we are conscious about the acts that we commit. Therefore, what may seem as an anachronistic play of ancient times is effectively a truly trans-historical, trans-cultural and timeless description of the human condition.

Works Cited

Akhtar, Salman, and O'Neil, Mary Kay. “The International Psychoanalytical Association Contemporary Freud: Turning Points and Critical Issues Series: On Freud's ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’.” London, GB: Karnac Books. 2011.      Web. 12 February 2017. Arens, W. “Incest.” Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. 2009. Web. February 9, 2017.

Carel, Havi. “Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies, 6: Life and Death in Freud and Heidegger.” Amsterdam, NL: Rodopi. 2006. Web. 12 February 2017.

Freud, Hendrika C. “Electra vs Oedipus: The Drama of the Mother–Daughter Relationship (1).” Florence, US: Routledge. 2010. Web. 11 February 2017.

Georgescu, Matei. "The Duality between Life and Death Instincts In Freud." Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice 3.1. 134-9. 2011. Web. 12 Feb. 2017.

Lieberman, Debra; Fessler, Daniel M. T.; and Smith, Adam. “The Relationship between Familial Resemblance and Sexual Attraction: An Update on Westermarck, Freud, and the Incest Taboo.” Personality & Social Psychology        Bulletin. Volume: 37, Issue: 9, Page: 1229-1232. 2011. Web. February 10, 2017.

Seel, Dietmar; Ullrich, Burkhard; and Zepf, Florian Daniel. “Oedipus and the Oedipus Complex: A Revision.” London, GB: Karnac Books. 2016. Web. 11 February 2017.

Sophocles. Antigone. Ed. Martin Puchner. Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume 1. W.W. Norton and Co. Inc. New York, 2017.

Wolf, Arthur. “Incest Avoidance and the Incest Taboos: Two Aspects of Human Nature.” Palo Alto, US: Stanford Briefs. 2014. Web. 10 February 2017.


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