The Book!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Rwandan Way

A good friend sends this short piece on how they handle depression in Rwanda. I think it illustrates my belief that mental illness was dealt with far more effectively in the days before psychology. The whole community gets together and they sing and drum it out.

If you read older writings, there was a general understanding before modern times that any and all forms of mental illness were transitory. Now, psychiatry and psychology finds them all, in principle, incurable." That is quie an indictment.

I can see all kinds of reasons why the communal singing and drumming would work against depression.

It reconnects you with the community, reconnects you with the spirit, with meaning, with art.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Take the Shirt Off My Back!

Exciting news! Od's Blog now offers t-shirts with Christian messenging. Irritate your neighbours!

Od's Togs

T-shirts and togs for Christian soldiers and culture warriors!

Let your light shine!

"You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven."

Onward, Christian soldiers!

Dress to confess!

We have what we have because our forefathers and foremothers were prepared to fight for it!

It is not always easy or safe to be a Christian. But it is what we are called to do.

"Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven."

Especially for the sake of the lost and forgotten, we must witness; especially for the sake of our children, in these times when so much in our tradition is being challenged or attacked.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Freud's Seduction

Martyrdom of St. Dymphna

As we have seen, Freud is not a reliable witness when he offers literary evidence for the existence of an Oedipus Complex driving mental illness. His version does violence to the actual events of the stories he cites, Hamlet and Oedipus Rex. He holds that the child wants to kill the one parent, and have sex with the other. Both plays, however, show the parent wanting to kill the child. There is incest, but the incest either does not involve the child (Hamlet), or it is against his will (Oedipus).

The real story line of these plays conforms instead to the legend of Saint Dymphna, the patron saint of mental illness since Medieval times: the parent wants to kill the child, and/or have sex with them.

Since Freud is untrustworthy on the literary evidence, which we can examine for ourselves, we have reason to doubt his word on the clinical evidence, which only he has really seen. If he can so distort the evidence we can see, he is at least as likely to have distorted the evidence we cannot see.

In fact, we can be pretty sure he did distort it. For the Oedipus Complex was not the first interpretation of this data that occurred even to Freud. He first saw something more like the Dymphna Complex. In 1896, Freud published a paper, “The Aetiology of Hysteria,” in which he confidently declared, on the basis of his clinical experience, that mental illness came, not from repressed Oedipal desires, but from—just as we now believe—childhood trauma. It was PTSD.

In the 1896 paper, he maintains that every patient he has seen had suffered childhood sexual abuse.

“In some eighteen cases of hysteria I have been able to discover this connection in every single symptom, and, where the circumstances allowed, to confirm it by therapeutic success” (Standard Edition of the Complete Works, vol. 3, London: Hogarth, 1953-74, p. 199; Jeffrey Masson, The Assault on Truth, 5th Ed., NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Untreed Reads, 2012, loc. 1219). In letters to his close friend and colleague Wilhelm Fliess, he calls this experience of sexual abuse “the key that unlocks everything” (undated letter; Freud, The Origins of Psychoanalysis, NY: Basic, 1954, p. 73; Masson, loc. 1050). “At the bottom of every case of hysteria,” he writes, “there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience, occurrences which belong to the earliest years of childhood” (“The Aetiology of Hysteria,” Standard Edition of the Complete Works; Masson, loc. 3094). He suggests that the motto of psychoanalysis should be “What have they done to you, poor child?” (letter to Fliess, December 22, 1897; Masson, loc. 1615).

Freud sees the issue as sexual assault specifically, and takes little notice of other forms of abuse: he does not consider any physical or emotional harm to the child of other than a sexual nature. This diverges from the Dymphna, Oedipus, and Hamlet legends, all of which speak also of attempted murder—a fairly serious omission.

This may, however, have to do with the state of psychiatry and psychiatric discourse at the time. Odd as it may sound now, it was accepted then as a bedrock principle that mental illness was caused by masturbation (Masson, loc. 1057). “There is no question,” writes Emma Eckstein in 1904, “as the leading figures in psychiatry tell us, that masturbation practiced in early childhood can have dire consequences for the mental development of the individual” (Die Sexualfrage in der Erziehung des Kindes (The Question of Sexuality in Child-Rearing), Leipzig: Curt Wigand, 1904, p. 14; Masson, loc. 2711).

Freud, too, believed this.

To Freud, therefore, the focus on sexuality may have been a given, an assumption he never thought to question. It is also an assumption of special value to someone seeking a purely material basis for our psychic ills: they can thereby all be traced to the Darwinian need for propagation of the species. Psychiatry accordingly validates itself as a science founded on biological principles.

Freud does seem to acknowledge, in some degree, that the issue may be the emotional or psychological experience, not the physical experience, of sex. The parent, he says, “is yet armed with complete authority and the right to punish, and can exchange the one role for the other to the uninhibited satisfaction of his moods” (“The Aetiology of Hysteria”; Masson, loc. 3279); while the child is “at the mercy of this arbitrary will” (ibid., loc. 3280). It would seem to follow that emotional abuse is the real issue, not sexual abuse; but Freud does not pursue this. It is too abstract, perhaps, for his “scientific” temperament. He remains resolutely materialistic: “stimulation of the genitals, coitus-like acts, and so on, must therefore be recognized, in the last analysis, as being the traumas which lead to a hysterical reaction to events at puberty and to the development of hysterical symptoms” (ibid., loc. 3148). In the end, it’s physical. It would be troubling to scientific objectivity if either real human emotion or ethics were really involved.

He also does not stress that the sexual assaults are incestuous; instead, he speaks of sexual experience of any kind. However, it does seem that these “premature sexual experiences” were indeed usually incestuous; Freud avoids saying so explicitly, it seems, out of Victorian modesty. Freud writes of “the fantasy encountered in most female patients... that the father seduced her in childhood” (Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, New York: International Universities Press, 1962–1975, vol. 4: 1912–1918; Masson, loc. 322).

“At some time during 1895 or 1896,” writes Jeffrey Masson, “Freud had become convinced that the person most often guilty of the sexual abuse of young children (primarily girls) was the father. In the published letter of September 21, 1897, to Fliess, Freud writes: ‘Then the surprise that, in all cases, the father, not excluding my own, had to be accused of being perverse’” (Masson, loc. 1293). In his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 1916, Freud writes that among female patients “their father figures fairly regularly as the seducer” (Standard Edition of the Complete Works, vol. 16, p. 70; Masson, loc. 1797). Elsewhere he writes “With female patients the part of seducer was almost always assigned to their father” (Autobiographical Study, 1925; S.E. vol. 20, pp. 33–34; Masson, loc. 2593). Again, “almost all my women patients told me that they had been seduced by their father” (New Introductory Lectures, 1933, S.E. vol. 22, p. 120; Masson, loc. 2621).

Odd that Freud did not consider the fact that the sex was incestuous worthy of more mention.

Nor was this specifically a father-daughter dynamic; according to Freud’s patients, the assailant (Freud uses the euphemism “seductor”) was as likely to be the mother. His patients were apparently mostly women, skewing the sample, but even so, at one point he writes: “girls regularly accuse their mother of seducing them” (“Female Sexuality,” S.E. vol. 21, p. 238: Masson, loc. 2613).

In other words, if Freud’s account is to be accepted, most of his female patients reported under analysis that they had been sexually assaulted in childhood by both their mother and their father.

It should be noted that “seduced” is used here as a euphemism: another example, perhaps, of Victorian delicacy. More explicitly, Freud speaks of “a brutal assault committed by an adult or by a seduction less rapid and less repulsive, but reaching the same conclusion” (“L’Hérédité et l’étiologie des névroses,” S.E., vol. 3, p. 152; Masson, loc. 1258).

In 1905, Freud publicly retracted this “seduction theory,” that neurosis was caused by childhood sexual assault, and replaced it with the “Oedipus complex,” that it was caused by a childhood wish to have sex with the parent. The most obvious explanation was not the one he settled on as the real one.


Publicly, he gives his reason in “On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement” (1914; S.E., vol, 14; Masson, loc. 1769): the “Seduction theory” “broke down under the weight of its own improbability and contradiction.”

Privately, he explains to Wilhelm Fliess in correspondence:

“The continual disappointment in my efforts to bring any analysis to a real conclusion; the running away of people who for a period of time had been most gripped [by analysis]; the absence of the complete successes on which I had counted; the possibility of explaining to myself the partial successes in other ways, in the usual fashion — this was the first group. Then the surprise that in all cases, the father, not excluding my own, had to be accused of being perverse — the realization of the unexpected frequency of hysteria, with precisely the same conditions prevailing in each, whereas surely such widespread perversions against children are not very probable. (The [incidence] of perversion would have to be immeasurably more frequent than the [resulting] hysteria because the illness, after all, occurs only where there has been an accumulation of events and there is a contributory factor that weakens the defense.) Then, third, the certain insight that there are no indications of reality in the unconscious, so that one cannot distinguish between truth and fiction that has been cathected with affect. (Accordingly, there would remain the solution that the sexual fantasy invariably seizes upon the theme of the parents.) Fourth, the consideration that in the most deep-reaching psychosis the unconscious memory does not break through, so that the secret of the childhood experiences is not disclosed even in the most confused delirium.” (letter to Wilhelm Fliess, 1897; Masson, loc. 1492).

His first concern, that the theory of childhood abuse was powerless to bring an analysis to a successful conclusion, contradicts what he himself claimed earlier: one of his justifications for the seduction theory in 1897 is that it had been “confirmed by therapeutic success” (“The Aetiology of Hysteria,” S.E., vol. 3, p. 199; Masson, loc. 1219-1223). This underlines the sad reality that we cannot accept Freud’s claims for his clinical evidence at face value.

Moreover, this is a non sequitur: there is no reason to suppose that knowing the cause of one’s suffering will end the suffering. Does knowing you broke your leg in a fall heal the broken leg? Indeed, neither the Dymphna story, nor the Oedipus legend, nor Hamlet suggest that merely realizing you have been abused is a cure. Rather, for both Hamlet and Oedipus, it is this very knowledge that causes the onset of symptoms.

This reveals a crucial point: Freud’s primary concern was not to find the cause of mental illness. Nor, for that matter, was it to cure it. It was to find a clinical technique employable by physicians like himself, and monetizable, to cure it. While it might be relevant for Freud’s purposes, this objection carries no weight for ours.

Nor, it should be mentioned, is there any clear scientific evidence that Freud’s eventual methods are any better at bringing “mental illness” to a conclusion. They are not, it seems, clearly superior to the “seduction theory” even in that regard. What we can say is that people are prepared to pay for them. Freud is troubled with “the running away of people who for a period of time had been most gripped [by analysis].” For all we know, this might be because they felt themselves cured; but it did not suit Freud’s purposes.

What to make of Freud’s fourth objection: “in the most deep-reaching psychosis the unconscious memory [of sexual assault] does not break through”? If this is true—that in the most serious cases of insanity the patient cannot seem to remember anything about incest—might this not simply be an indication of how serious the psychosis is? So much so that they are unable to communicate well enough with the analyst, or have lost contact with their own experiences and memories? After all, when you are in general denial of external reality, why would you not be in denial of this particular external reality? Or, might it simply indicate that the causes of common neurosis were different from those for the most deep-reaching psychosis? Why assume they are the same? Or again, the problem is as likely to be with the techniques Freud has developed for eliciting such memories; they may not be powerful enough to work on those who are deeply psychotic.

Leaves us with Freud’s third point, that the unconscious “cannot distinguish between truth and fiction.” This is obviously true: dreams do not restrict themselves to reporting real events. But this is an objection, not to the thesis that mental illness is caused by childhood abuse, but to Freud’s insistence on taking these accounts of sexual literally: that they must describe actual sexual contact. They might instead be a symbolic representation of emotional abuse.

To insist on a literal interpretation seems naive and wrong, just as indeed it later appeared to Freud. Hamlet argues against it: there the incest, as we have seen, is significant only as symbolic of a possessive and self-centred attitude; Hamlet himself is not involved. Nor, so far as we can tell, did Polonius literally rape Ophelia. Nor did Damon ever actually rape Dymphna: the intent was the point.

Unfortunately, Freud’s training and prejudices were those of a physician, a materialist, a doctor of the body. He did not accept or understand that statements can have meanings beyond their literal meanings, and that such meanings were not arbitrary. Once he was forced to abandon the idea that memories and dreams of incest must refer to literal experiences of incest, he was apparently inclined to understand them instead as “lies”―and impute mendacity to his patients. He knew nothing of poetry.

His patients were a pack of liars, then.

It was a short step to blaming them for everything.

“I dream,” Freud writes to Fliess, “of a primeval devil religion whose rites are carried on secretly, and I understand the harsh therapy of the witches’ judges” (letter of January 24, 1897; Masson, loc. 1469). Sandor Ferenczi, his closest disciple in his later years, records Freud saying “patients are riffraff” (Diary entry for May 1, 1932; Masson, loc. 2468).” Jung reports similar comments: when he tells Freud of his experiences with one schizophrenic patient, Freud responds, “But how in the world were you able to bear spending hours and days with this phenomenally ugly female?” (Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, NY: Vintage, 1962, p. 160).

I hope you, at least, gentle reader, can see the problem. When Robert Burns wrote, for example, “my love is like a red, red rose”―would you really look at his wife, and at a rose, and accuse him of lying?

Nor is the image of the rose arbitrary. Could Burns have conveyed the same message by saying “my love is like a cabbage”?

Had he had a decent literary education, Freud might have grasped this from the literary sources. A play, after all, is in itself an extended metaphor. The Battle of Agincourt is not happening before you, on the Globe stage. Moreover, in Oedipus Rex, oracles are consulted. When did an oracle ever speak plainly?

Just so, the imagination by its nature speaks in symbols and metaphors.

This is what happens when a literalist and a materialist tries to make sense of the human soul.

But this alone is not enough to force Freud to abandon his seduction theory. Given that what the imagination produces is often not literally true, what leads Freud to conclude that it is not literally true in this case? It still might be. After all, in his earlier writing, Freud even claimed to have independent verification:

“I regard it as a fortunate accident that, out of eighteen cases, I have been able to obtain an objective confirmation of this sort in two. In one instance, it was the brother (who had remained well) who of his own accord confirmed — not, it is true, his earliest sexual experiences with his sister (who was the patient) — but at least scenes of that kind from later childhood, and the fact that there had been sexual relations dating further back. In the other instance, it happened that two women whom I was treating had as children had sexual relations with the same man, in the course of which certain scenes had taken place à trois. A particular symptom, which was derived from these childhood events, had developed in both women, as evidence of what they had experienced in common” (“The Aetiology of Hysteria”; Masson, loc. 3142-3148).

This brings us then to Freud’s second objection: “the surprise that in all cases, the father, not excluding my own, had to be accused of being perverse.” This is the crucial point, and it is surely a valid one. Most people feel no urge to have sex with any child, let alone their own. Let alone their child of the same sex. Let alone giving in to this urge. Yet if we are to believe Freud’s patients, or Freud’s account of his patients, all or nearly all were sexually assaulted by both their mother and their father in childhood. It seems unlikely that such a phenomenon should be so widespread.

However, this too is an objection to taking the reports of incest literally, not to the reality of childhood abuse. The soul speaks in parables, symbols, and metaphors; and it is most concerned with spiritual, not physical, affairs. Take the incest as a symbol of a smothering, possessive, self-interested parent, and the objection disappears.

When we, in common speech, say, “I got screwed,” or “he screwed me,” not to cite less delicate terms, do we always mean this literally?

The incest image must still be figuratively or symbolically important, otherwise why did the patient imagine it? And imagine it, according to Freud, associated with obviously heightened emotions: “in such a way that he seemed to be living through it with all the appropriate feelings” (“The Aetiology of Hysteria”; Masson, loc. 1280). But we experience similar heightened emotions, after all, while watching a horror movie. This does not prove that the events actually occurred.

In other words, Freud offers no valid reasons for giving up his initial and more straightforward thesis, that all had suffered abuse in childhood. He does have valid reasons for giving up the assumption that the abuse was only sexual. Yet, to preserve his thesis that the roots of mental illness are sexual, he surrenders the assumption that they are found in abuse. Perhaps this is because his primary commitment is to a material rather than a spiritual or emotional cause for “mental illness.” He needs to find as cause something that might concern a physician—as opposed, say, to a minister or priest.

In speaking of his disappointment at having to abandon his original “seduction theory,” he writes to Fliess:

“The expectation of eternal fame was so beautiful, as was that of certain wealth, complete independence, travels, and lifting the children above the severe worries which robbed me of my youth. Everything depended upon whether or not hysteria would come out right” (Letter to Fliess, September 21, 1897; Masson, loc. 1517).

Not such a rare or surprising sentiment; and not such a discredit to him. But it reveals Freud’s bottom line. It is not truth; it is fame and fortune. So what would happen if the true cause of mental illness was not useful to him in this way? Would he accept that, or keep looking? It was important for him, as a medical man, to find what looked like a physical, medical, cause for mental struggles.

Sandor Ferenczi

There has since been frequent backsliding, by one analyst or another, to the original and, indeed, as we have seen, traditional thought that mental illness comes from childhood abuse. This was so for Freud’s nearest collaborator in his later years, Sandor Ferenczi. In his diary, Ferenczi writes that neurosis seems to be “the result of real acts on the part of adults, namely violent passions directed toward the child, who then develops a fixation, not from desire [as Freud maintained], but from fear. ‘My mother and father will kill me if I don’t love them, and identify with their wishes.’” (Diary entry of September 21, 1897; Masson, loc. 1964).

That sounds very much like Dymphna’s experience.

Ferenczi agrees with Freud in seeing the chief issue as literal sexual abuse; he too is, after all, a medical doctor, a “man of science.” But he is aware of the possibility of other forms of mistreatment. He sees scapegoating: “the parent who denies what he has done, or denies its harmful effects, often becomes physically abusive toward the child (projecting the wickedness onto the child).” He sees physical abuse: “Not only forced love,” he writes, “but also unbearable punishments can have a fixating effect” (“Confusion of Tongues,” 1932; Masson, loc. 3513). He sees emotional abuse: “Seduction,” he points out, meaning the incestuous seduction of one’s child, “is a form of hatred, not love” (ibid.; loc. 1988). “It is the hate [the adult feels for the child]” he writes, “that traumatically surprises and terrifies the child who is seduced by an adult, and transforms him” (ibid.; loc. 3554).

He also sees another important form of emotional abuse: “the terrorism of suffering.” “In addition to passionate love and passionate punishments there is a third way of binding the child to oneself and that is the terrorism of suffering. Children have the compulsion to smooth over all kinds of disorders in the family, that is to say, to take onto their tender shoulders the burdens of all others; naturally, in the final analysis, not out of pure unselfishness but to regain the lost peace and the tenderness that is part of it” (ibid.; loc. 1999).

This is a type of abuse dealt with in detail by Alice Miller: selfish, immature parents force their children to take responsibility upon themselves for all their parents’ problems and concerns, to act as their parents’ parents. If psychiatry has been slow to see the issue, literature and popular culture have not been. This is a classic element of the “Jewish mother” type, familiar on page, stage, and screen. One example is Breavman’s mother in Leonard Cohen’s The Favorite Game. “A mother,” Ferenczi writes, “can make a lifelong nurse, in fact a substitute mother, out of the child by bewailing her suffering, totally disregarding the interests of the child” (Ferenczi, op. cit.; Masson, loc. 3537). This is also, in a similar fashion, the “co-dependency” examined in detail by Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics.

Robert Fliess, the son of Freud’s first collaborator, Wilhelm Fliess, who trained as a Freudian analyst, also circled back to the idea that childhood abuse was the key to mental illness. He uses the term “ambulatory psychotic” to refer to the Laius or the Damon personality, a parent who is entirely self-centred. Their “psychosis,” he argues, is generally invisible to the world outside the family home: they appear to be normal, even upstanding members of society (Masson, loc. 1880). But the story is very different in their dealings with their children. Fliess writes:

“There is no place here to deal with the inexhaustible subject of the psychoses; I can therefore say only in passing that the child of such a parent becomes the object of defused aggression (maltreated and beaten almost within an inch of his life), and of a perverse sexuality that hardly knows an incest barrier (is seduced in the most bizarre ways by the parents, and, at his or her instigation, by others)” (Fliess, Erogeneity and Libido: Addenda to the Theory of the Psychosexual Development of the Human, Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1956, p. 17; Masson, loc. 1906).

Especially since the 1970s, there have been a flood of others. Masson cites, apart from himself and Alice Miller, Elaine Carmen, Patricia Rieker, Trudy Mills, Florence Rush and Judith Herman. There have also, in recent years, been a number of autobiographies that describe just such abuse: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Random House, 1970); Sandra Bulter’s Conspiracy of Silence: The Trauma of Incest (New Glide Publications, 1978); Louise Armstrong’s Kiss Daddy Goodnight: A Speak - Out on Incest (Hawthorn Books, 1978); Susan Forward’s Betrayal of Innocence: Incest and Its Devastation (Penguin, 1979); Katherine Brady’s Father’s Days (Seaview, 1979); and Charlotte Vale Allen’s Daddy’s Girl: A Memoir (Simon and Schuster, 1980). It is now, it seems, the standard view.

Unfortunately, as the titles of many of those autobiographies suggest, we are still generally focused on sexual abuse as the core issue. This simply does not make sense: emotional damage comes most probably from emotional, not physical, abuse.

Other elements of the Dymphna story also seem to be confirmed by the cumulative clinical experience. We have mentioned before Freud’s comment that “the disturbance rides the strongest horse in the stable” (quoted, for example, by James FitzGerald, What Disturbs Our Blood, Toronto: Random House, 210, p. 419)--that neurosis or mental illness seems to afflict the most talented in a family, or in society as a whole.

He is not alone in this perception. In 1860, the French physician Ambroise Tardieu wrote a pioneering account of French children subjected to extreme parental abuse, “Etude médico - légale sur les sévices et mauvais traitements exercés sur des enfants” (“A Medico-legal Study of Cruelty and Brutal Treatment Inflicted on Children,” Annales d’hygiène publique et de médecine légale, 2nd ser., 13 [1860], pp. 361–398). He notes: “Their features reveal the deepest sadness; they are timid and apprehensive, often they look dazed and the expression in their eyes is lifeless. But sometimes, often in fact, it is very different: they have a precocious intelligence which only reveals itself in a dark fire in their eyes” (op. cit., p. 365; ).

Purely imagined? Romantic nonsense? Perhaps. But Ferenczi claims the same thing. He finds that his patients “display a strange, almost clairvoyant knowledge of the thoughts and emotions of the analyst” (“Confusion of Tongues”; Masson, loc. 3454). He suggests a theory: “The sexually violated child can suddenly bring to fruition under the pressure of traumatic exigency all future faculties which are virtually preformed in him and are necessary for marriage, motherhood and fatherhood, as well as all feelings of a mature person. Here one can confidently speak of traumatic (pathologic) progression or precocity in contrast to the familiar concept of regression” (ibid.; Masson, loc 1991). He theorizes that “they have been the victims of such cruelty on the part of their parents that in order to survive they had to develop a remarkable sensitivity to determine what their parents were really feeling, so that they could avoid their murderous rage.” Accordingly, they become “sensitives,” and are so adept at reading the emotions of their clients that they seem aware of—indeed, are aware of—hidden knowledge (loc. 2438).

Perhaps. But, whatever the reason, we have here confirmation of another aspect of the Dymphna complex: that the abused child has unusual intelligence and/or a special contact with the spiritual world. This is Oedipus’s signature ability to solve riddles. This is Hamlet’s knack of seeing through and reading the intentions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of Polonius and his manipulation of Ophelia. More abstractly, this is Oedipus’s ability to bless any place he visits, and Dymphna’s saving powers as intercessor.

One might explain this talent, as Ferenczi does, as a necessary survival tool. It might also be the result of growing up living life through another’s eyes. That may bring great suffering, but also teach empathy. “Gradually I came to the conviction,” writes Ferenczi, “that patients have an extremely refined feeling for the wishes, tendencies, moods, likes and dislikes of the analyst, even should these feelings remain totally unconscious to the analyst himself. Instead of contradicting the analyst, instead of accusing him of certain misdemeanors or blunders, patients identify with him” (ibid.: Masson, loc. 3403). It also rather sounds like sainthood.

As Ferenczi sees it, this tendency is naturally tied to a tendency to refuse to blame the parent for anything. “The overwhelming power and authority of the adults renders them [the children] silent; often they are deprived of their senses. Yet that very fear, when it reaches its zenith, forces them automatically to surrender to the will of the aggressor, to anticipate each of his wishes and to submit to them; forgetting themselves entirely, to identify totally with the aggressor” (ibid.; Masson, loc. 3474)

In his early study, Tardieu reports with puzzlement the experience of a Dr. Nidart, called to testify against the parents of an abused girl:

“What Dr. Nidart discovered, to his evident puzzlement, was that Adelina would ‘invent stories’ of what had happened to her, in order to cover up the crimes of her parents against her own person, ‘imagining’ falls and accidents, rather than allow others to know the horrible truth of what had been done to her. As we shall see, her parents had kept her literally hermetically sealed off from the real world outside, and in a pathetic, heartbreaking gesture of tenderness toward her own tormentors, she wished to protect them ... from the world” (Tardieu, op. cit.; Masson, loc. 397).

This is the same tendency Adult Children of Alcoholics and Al-Anon refer to as “enabling.” Elsewhere, is is known as the “Stockholm syndrome.” Ferenczi speaks of “introjection”: the guilt that the parent ought to feel is instead “introjected” into the child, so the parent can remain guilt-free (Masson, loc. 1980). This also appears in “scapegoating”; making it especially effective.

“She (or, more rarely, he) becomes ashamed, the victim of the unconscious remorse of the parent that is expressed in violent anger toward the child” (Ferenczi, op. cit.; Masson, loc. 1986).

Ferenczi says the child is sometimes obliged to deny objective reality in order to protect the parent from blame. As a result, “his confidence in the testimony of his own senses has been destroyed” (loc. 3484). This is what is sometimes called “gaslighting.” One can see how this might encourage the development of psychosis.

Another element of the complex that Ferenczi comments on is a great sensitivity to hypocrisy. We have already seen this in our literary examples, but perhaps not taken sufficient notice of it.

Masson writes, speaking for Ferenczi:

“The analyst behaved with neutrality, but actually felt something quite different. These feelings, especially when they were negative, were not conveyed to the patient. This, Ferenczi felt, was hypocrisy. Moreover, he noticed that his patients were very sensitive to this hypocrisy, and try as he might to conceal his real feelings, patients invariably uncovered them. This sensitivity to genuine emotional states began to preoccupy Ferenczi more and more (the diary discusses it at length). He speculated on why his patients were so sensitive to issues of truth and honesty” (Masson, loc. 2101).

This is a special case of the victim’s ability to see through hand understand underlying motives. But it seems to be an especially important issue. We see it in Hamlet’s testing of the sincerity of Polonius and Osric:

Osric: I thank your lordship, it is very hot.
Hamlet: No, believe me, ‘tis very cold; the wind is northerly.
Osric: It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed.
Hamlet: But yet methinks it is very sultry and hot for my complexion.
Osric: Exceedingly, my lord; it is very sultry.

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.

It is not just that the victim of abuse is able to see through hypocrisy: he or she seems to have an underlying need to do so. Perhaps this is the effect of growing up with counterfeit love, or with a parent who seeks always to manipulate. One craves sincerity, and doubts all assertions. It may also be the consequence of having often been “gaslighted.”

To review, then, the evidence from clinical psychiatry confirms the accuracy of the Dymphna legend as an analysis of the causes of mental illness: permanent emotional damage is most often caused, as a sort of PTSD, by abuse from self-centred parents. In the accounts of Freud, Ferenczi, Fliess, and others, we find again the motifs of incest and malice by the parent towards the child. We find too many other elements testified to by the literary version of the tale: an exceptional victim, with apparent spiritual powers or talents; a resistance to blaming the parent; selflessness and self-sacrifice; a need for sincerity.

The sad thing is that this has all plainly been understood, in ancient times, in Medieval times, and in the Renaissance; at least by some. The literary sources are testament to this. The history of psychoanalysis, then, has been of a long effort to escape the evidence, which has now collapsed. Leaving us dragging our swollen foot back laboriously to roughly the point at which it all began generations ago.

At how much cost in human suffering?

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Essential Reading for a Proper Education


King Lear
Julius Caesar
Romeo and Juliet
Richard II
Henry IV, Part 1
Richard III
Merchant of Venice
The Tempest


The Odyssey
The Iliad
The Homeric Hymns
Hesiod, Theogony
The Argonautica
The Golden Ass
Selected dialogues of Plato
Ovid, Metamorphoses
Heraclitus, fragments
Sophocles, Oedipus Rex
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound


the rest in summary/outline, at least: stories of Daniel, Samson, Job, Jonah, David, Solomon

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Latest Racist Atrocity: The Red Ensign

The old flag

Time to man battle stations, lads. True patriot love is commanded in all thy sons. This opinion piece just appeared in the National Post. It tries to paint the Canadian Red Ensign as a symbol of hate.

To be fair, the article claims that this is being done by groups on the “alt-right.” An anonymous spokesman for “Anti-Racist Canada” explains “racists have adopted the Red Ensign ‘to represent a time when Canada was a “white man’s country.”’” Caitlin Bailey, speaking for the Canadian Centre for the Great War, says “it has turned into a white nationalist symbol.”

It might be true that some racists have chosen to use the Red Ensign as a symbol of their beliefs. I do not know. I do not follow any racist web sites or organizations. Perhaps Mr. Hamilton does. However, the occasion for the present piece is the flying of the Ensign by the “Proud Boys” who visited (Hamilton says “confronted,” which does not seem a fair description to me) a recent anti-Canadian protest in Halifax. The implication is that, if the Proud Boys flew it, it was as an expression of racism.

The piece begins:

“When five members of the anti-immigration, alt-right Proud Boys strode into a Halifax park on Canada Day to confront Indigenous protesters, the Canadian flag they carried was more than 50 years out of date.”

This is a slander of the Proud Boys, the Ensign, and of Canada.

The idea seems to be that, from this point on, anyone who flies the Red Ensign is to be considered a racist. So much for Canadian heritage.

If you go to the Proud Boys official web site, they list one of their founding principles as “Anti-Racism.” They add, for good measure, the statement “We do not discriminate based upon race or sexuality.” They sure don’t make racists like they used to.

Accordingly, this National Post article is properly understood as an attack, not on racism, but on Canadian traditions. As well, perhaps, as on freedom of speech.

The parallel the piece itself draws to the Red Ensign is the Confederate flag in the US.

That comparison is deeply offensive. It is insulting to Canada and the Ensign. No Canadian government has ever endorsed a policy comparable in its moral depravity to slavery. Or rather, they have, and it is abortion—something implicitly endorsed, I suppose, by flying the Maple Leaf, but not the Red Ensign.

But it was even wrong for the left to suppress the Confederate battle flag as a “symbol of racism.” It might have been to them—but they had and have no business or right to impose their own racist views on others. Recently, a woman attending an auto show in Toronto area caused a major commotion over the presence of a model of the “General Lee,” the car featured in the old “Dukes of Hazzard” TV show--because it had a Confederate flag painted on its roof. I guess that is what we can expect soon with images of the Red Ensign.

The hateful object

The flag commonly called “the Confederate Flag,” however, was not the flag of the Confederacy: that was the Stars and Bars. It was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. That is an important distinction. It commemorates not some policy of some government, good or bad, but the men who fought under Robert E. Lee. It is arbitrary to assign a political meaning to it: flying it honours the 250,000 or so men who died fighting under that flag. 

The real Confederate flag.

But weren’t they fighting for slavery?

It is unlikely that many of them thought so. Almost none were themselves slave holders. In their own minds, they were fighting for their homes, their honour, their wives and children. Some were fighting for states’ rights, for the principles laid down in the American Declaration of Independence: the right to secede and to form their own government.

So too with the Red Ensign. The primary reason for flying it—and the obvious reason why it appeals in particular to military men, like the Halifax Five—is that Canadian soldiers fought and died under that banner at Vimy Ridge, on D-Day, in Italy, in Korea. It is a dishonour to their memory if we no longer fly it.

On Quora, Geoff Olynyk intelligently did a word search for “red ensign” on the two best-known Canadian right-wing web sites, Small Dead Animals and Five Feet of Fury. He found much love for the Red Ensign, but no trace of any racist associations. The racism seems to be entirely on the part of the left.

Still, if people like Graeme Hamilton, who wrote the National Post article, seriously believe the Ensign, one of our national symbols, is in danger of being co-opted by racists, the proper remedy is obvious: we should consider it our patriotic duty to all fly the Red Ensign everywhere immediately, to ensure that it cannot be. If he or anyone else calls instead for it to be taken down, they reveal their true agenda: an attack on Canada’s heritage.

I suspect this of indeed being their real agenda. They hate the Red Ensign because it, unlike the Maple Leaf, includes references to Canada’s European cultural heritage: the Union Jack in the top left quadrant, the English and Scottish lions, the Irish harp, the fleur-de-lys. The problem with it for them is that it acknowledges and commemorates that Canada developed as an extension of specifically European civilization.

But this is simply fact. If you deny or dislike this, you deny and dislike Canada. Canada exists because a large group of American colonists were determined to maintain their connection to Britain, when the US split away. They joined another large group of colonists, already here, who were determined to preserve their French and Catholic culture, and refused to join the US on those grounds.

One might object to the Ensign on the grounds that it does not, and of course cannot, include symbols for every ethnic group present in Canada: nothing for the Germans, nor Chinese, nor Haitians. But besides being impossible, this is unnecessary. Simply being from somewhere else is not the issue. It was the desire to preserve the British and French cultural connections, not the German or Haitian, that created Canada. For Chinese or Italians, it surely made little difference culturally whether they emigrated to Canada or the US.

Deny the British and the French connections, and you deny Canada’s reason to exist. Why, then, are we not Americans? Why should there be a separate nation in the northern half of the continent?

Save and defend Canada. Fly the Red Ensign.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Ignorance is Strength

On the face of it, the official objections to the actions of the Halifax “Proud Boys” on Canada Day-- appearing to peacefully watch an anti-Canadian protest in a Canadian public park and ask questions—are insane. But then, so are the objections one hears to Donald Trump’s recent speech in Warsaw. How can it even be controversial to express support for either Canada or Western civilization?

Yet this is now called “racism.” You are now a “white supremacist” if you believe in and promote either Canada or Western civilization. The fact that you also believe in racial equality, as both Canada and Western civilization do at their core, simply does not matter. Believing in racial equality is now racist.

A recent Atlantic article lays it out. According to the left, your culture is determined by your skin colour and your genetics.

They then attribute this belief to the right, but this is completely illegitimate. It is a core assertion of the left. And it is racism, classically defined.

Consider what this means. One is “racist,” then, for asserting that Michelangelo is the greatest fresco painter ever. You are racist, because Michelangelo was “white”―and worse, male. (But there is no problem with praising Toni Morrison, or Susan Aglukark.)

Surely you have to admit he was fairly good.

In other words, we have just reversed the polarities. Now not being racist is racist, and being racist is not being racist. Freedom is slavery, war is peace, ignorance is strength.

The Atlantic also objects because “Western civilization” is a religion-based concept. So it discriminates against Muslims, I suppose.

Here, they have more of a case. Race is no part of culture; America demonstrates that; but religion is at any culture’s core. You bet that Western civilization is based on Christianity and Judaism. Not just Christianity, mind you—I think any objective evaluation would have to say that Jews and Judaism have had an influence far greater than their actual numbers. And the pagan Greek philosophers are also an essential foundation. But yes, it is absolutely true that Judaism and Christianity have shaped our civilization, and given us its core values: separation of church and state, human equality, the brotherhood of man, democracy, science, the common law, freedom of speech, the equality of the sexes, and so on.

This is exactly why mass non-Christian and non-Jewish immigration are a concern. Do we value such matters? Are they not our core values? Do we not realize that they are based on Judeo-Christian presuppositions? Do we not realize that people coming from other cultures do not spontaneously agree? That, indeed, while these core values are the core values of Christianity and Judaism, some other religious traditions may actually directly oppose them? And what do we do then? In the name of human equality, we reject human equality? In the name of freedom of speech, we oppose freedom of speech?

Apparently many of us do not understand this. The Atlantic does not understand this. This is why legislation like the recent M-103 in the Canadian Parliament is so dangerous: in calling for a prohibition on “Islamophobia,” it, like the Atlantic, understands no distinction between objecting to elements of Islam and objecting to Muslims.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Canada Day Atrocities

There are a lot of ironies in the current controversy about the “Halifax Five”-- a group of off-duty Canadian military men who showed up at an aboriginal protest ceremony in Halifax’s Cornwallis Park on Canada Day. They--the sailors and a soldier--were all wearing black t-shirts, and carrying a Red Ensign. Apparently they were members of the “Proud Boys,” a voluntary association founded by YouTube commentator Gavin McInnes.

Although they wore what looked like a kind of uniform—sinister, to my mind—the Proud Boys were, so far as I can see from the video evidence, unfailingly polite, despite verbal provocation by some of the “aboriginal” demonstrators. They were just asking questions, smiling all the time. They left, when the protesters demanded that they leave—despite the fact that they were in a public park.

So who is in trouble now? Not the protesters, who demanded that they leave; not the protesters, who were verbally hostile. No, the military guys. They are now “under investigation,” suspended from their duties, and may lose their jobs and military careers.

"The members involved will be removed from training and duties while we conduct an investigation and review the circumstances. Their future in the military is certainly in doubt,” General Jonathan Vance, chief of defense staff, announced to the press. He added an apology to Canadian aboriginals. Defense Minister Sajjan added his own condemnation: “I want to give you my personal assurance that this kind of behaviour will not be tolerated within the ranks of the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence.”

This is insane.

The focus of the original demonstration was to complain about General Edward Cornwallis, after whom the park is named. It was held before his statue.

The Halifax Cornwallis statue

Cornwallis is the founder of Halifax, and first British governor of Nova Scotia. Reason enough, one might think, for him to be commemorated.

But, according to the protesters, he is guilty of “genocide.” Because he issued a proclamation in 1749 offering a bounty on Micmac scalps: men, women, or children.

This would indeed be an atrocity by European standards. But how can the Micmac protest? This was their standard practice when waging war. Cornwallis was only fighting on the same terms. To condemn Cornwallis and not the Indians would be like condemning the French and not the Germans for the use of poison gas in World War I.

Was the intent genocide? No. The British and the Micmac were at war. The Micmac had begun it; according to a message to Cornwallis, they were objecting to British settlement at Halifax, which they claimed as their land.

Problem: the Micmac had already agreed with the English to the Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1725. According to this treaty, the Micmac formally submitted to the sovereignty of the English king.

“Whereas, His Majesty King George, by concession of the Most Christian King, made at the Treaty of Utrecht, is become the rightful possessor of the Province of Nova Scotia or Acadia ... do, in the name and behalf of the Nations we represent, acknowledge His said Majesty King George's jurisdiction and dominion over the territories of the said Province of Nova Scotia or Acadia, and make our submission to His said Majesty in as ample manner as we have formerly done to the King of France.”

They further swore not to disturb any English possessions: present or future.

“And, we further promise, on behalf of the Nations we represent, that the Indians shall not molest any of His Majesty's Subjects or their dependents in their Settlements already made or lawfully to be made, or in their carrying on their traffic and other affairs within the said Provinces.”

If the Micmac had a complaint, they had promised to submit it to British law:

“That, in case of any misunderstanding, quarrel or injury between the English and the Indians, no private revenge shall be taken, but application shall be made for redress, according to His Majesty's Laws.”

In other words, the Indians were breaking treaty. In now going to war, they were not legitimate combatants, but rebels in arms, committing treason.

Cornwallis could, actually, be plausibly accused of genocide. Just not here. Just not against the Indians. Against the Scots. He fought at the Battle of Culloden, on the Hanoverian side, and in the mopping up after the battle committed many atrocities. He would lock entire families of Highland Scots in their homes, then set them on fire.

“Cornwallis led 320 soldiers to pacify an area of the Western Highlands. Suspected Jacobite families were boarded into homes and burned to death. Properties were looted, livestock were chased off, and crops were destroyed.” – Canadian Encyclopedia

Ironically, in Nova Scotia—New Scotland—heavily settled by Highland Scots, nobody has objected on these grounds to honouring Cornwallis. Instead, it is the Micmac, with no particular beef, who do.

Just goes to show who is in charge.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

The Freudian Slouch on the Couch

I put a thought experiment to my Freudian friend: suppose someone came to an analyst or psychiatrist, of any school, and said they had been speaking with an angel. As Mohammed did, or Joseph Smith, or Mary, or St. Francis, or Abraham, or Moses, or Joan of Arc. Would they accept that, or declare them mad? For if they could not accept that, they are working antithetically to religion. The two cannot both be true within the same universe.

He replied, “No competent lay therapist would pronounce someone who was visited by an angel as insane. Together they would find meaning in it.”

I am not satisfied. I find meaning in this phrasing, “find meaning in it.” Isn’t the meaning of the incident obvious? It’s an angel. It’s a message from God. Surely this “find meaning” means the analyst rejects this possibility and tries to replace it with a materialist explanation?

And then, if the patient does not buy the materialist explanation, he or she is declared mad.

There are, granted, procedures a religious person should follow as well to, as Paul said, “test the spirits.” But the phrase “find meaning in it” would not be the right one.

The first question would be, “is it an angel or a demon?”

And then there is a place for a certain sort of “analysis,” granted. God speaks in parables. He is oracular, the Greeks would say. The meaning is often not the literal meaning. So you might say “unravel the meaning of it.” Why is God speaking to you now? What is he telling you? What does he want you do to?

My friend ranks Freud with Copernicus and Darwin, as scientific paradigm shifters. I would rank him instead with Marx, as two thinkers who tried to apply the “scientific method,” or rather, a scientistic world view, to areas where it cannot work and does not belong.

Science relies on experiment and observation. You cannot directly observe the human soul: that is the key insight of Buddhism. You certainly cannot directly observe the soul of another.

As Heraclitus said almost three thousand years ago, you can never plumb the depths of soul, so deep is its logos.

Nor is a human soul an object, like an apple falling from a tree. This creates an insurmountable observer paradox: there is no way the observer can claim greater knowledge than the “object” of his study. Both are, unlike a geologist and a rock, in principle equally sentient beings. Worse: the object has knowledge of itself the observer cannot have. To overcome this, it is necessary to declare the observer mad, and so incompetent. Thank you, DSM. This objectifies him.

Ah, you say, but that is just the biomedical boys. They know nothing of the subconscious!

I think Freud created the subconscious to work around this same problem: positing an area of the soul of which the analysand is supposedly unaware. Still does not work, though: it is actually an area the analysand can see and experience, and the analyst cannot. This struck me when I realized that, to accept the theory as presented by Jung, you had to accept that a person is “unconscious” when, for example, reading a novel or watching a movie. So too in your dreams: you are conscious of the dream; only the analyst is not. If you are going to be scientific about it, the analysand is the expert, and is teaching the analyst.

But then, there is no such area of the soul. What Freud called the “subconscious” is simply the spiritual realm: Coleridge’s primary imagination, the spirit world, the kingdom of heaven, the source of Plato’s ideal forms. The place where mathematics comes from, and ethics, and archetypes, and innate knowledge of all sorts.

This is hardly a new discovery. Freud only tried, with his “subconscious,” to give a materialist explanation for it. Beyond the canard that it is all down to synapses in the brain, it was a repository of our repressed desires—for material things. For physical survival and for survival of the species: for food and sex.

Materialism. If the spiritual existed at all, it existed only secondarily; like the heat from a fire.

Yes, the spiritual world is beyond our direct conscious control. Just as is the physical world: we cannot decide what will happen in our dreams, and we cannot simply will it to rain. It is, in other words, something that exists and operates independently of us and our will. It is wrong, therefore, to think it is somehow nevertheless part of ourselves, “our” subconscious, any more than the physical world is. We do not speak of “our” physical universe. Yet this is what Freud asserts—in order to deny the independent existence of spiritual entities.

We are willing things we are not willing, then. A contradiction in terms.

Declaring ownership over the spirit world is a pretty blasphemous thing; and a pretty dangerous thing.

Freud came up with this construction because he had to. He understood that there is no modus vivendi between psychiatry and religion. Psychiatry was intended by Freud as the “scientific” replacement for religion. There is no common ground.

The rough beast is now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. The pagan jinn, the demons, are back. Science has led to progress in the material sphere, where it can operate. It has led only to regress when misapplied to the human world: witness the 20th century. Fascism, in its day, was “scientific.” Communism was and is “scientific.” Eugenics was “scientific.” Hallucinogenics, opioids, and so on, were “better living through chemistry.” And now the tide of madness rises.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Hamlet and Oedipus

Aside from Oedipus Rex, Freud cites Hamlet as a literary example of his Oedipus complex. “Another of the great poetic tragedies, Shakespeare's Hamlet, is rooted in the same soil as Oedipus Rex,” he writes (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 86).

So here Freud offers a second literary example to support his contention that the Oedipus complex is the essential conflict in the human psyche. We have found, however, that the story of Oedipus itself does not support Freud’s contention. It instead seems to show an opposite conflict, that outlined in the legend of St. Dymphna, of a traumatic threat to the child from the parent.

Does the story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, fit his thesis?

In the first place, one might rightly object that Hamlet is not clearly an analysis of mental illness. One of the great questions of the play is whether Hamlet is in fact suffering delusions, or is feigning madness to protect himself from—er--a traumatic threat from his parents, his mother and step-father. There seems to be, as Polonius says, a “method in his madness.” He seems quite capable, as with his treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of reasoning things out rather clear-headedly.

But if he is not experiencing psychosis, Hamlet is, at least, suffering depression. Before he hears of his father's murder, before he has clear cause to fear for his own safety, he is already in low spirits:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!

That, surely, is a description of a depressed state. And so is this passage:

I have of late--but
wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

Ophelia seems to be a clearer example of flat-out psychotic madness. But even this is disputed within the play. As described by Gertrude, her death appears to be an accident, caused by her loss of contact with the surrounding physical reality: she does not seem to understand her situation when she falls off a branch into the water. Yet the gravedigger ponders whether she, as a suicide, ought to be buried in consecrated ground, and the priest later confirms that she is considered a suicide. This must mean they do not believe she was really mad.

It all makes Hamlet, at first glance, a dubious reference as a study of madness. This is perhaps why Freud only cites it in passing, without explaining how it supports his point.

But let us say that it is. I suspect that, in the end, Shakespeare is not saying Hamlet is not mad, but that there is method in all madness. Hamlet does, after all, see a full-blown apparition of his father, in Gertrude’s presence. She sees nothing: this suggests hallucination. Yet this “hallucination” gives Hamlet real and valid information about his father’s death.

This is just what Polonius says within the play:

How pregnant sometimes his replies are! a happiness
that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity
could not so prosperously be delivered of.

In other words, what we normies class as madness is actually contact with an actual spirit world.

So the play is about what we call “mental illness,” then. Does it fit Freud’s analysis?

No more than does the tale of Dymphna, or of Oedipus. Strike three for Freud’s Oedipus complex.

Hamlet is driven to melancholy, or perhaps schizophrenia, it seems, through extreme grief over the death of a father; he is driven to kill for revenge over this. Ophelia goes mad over the death of hers—even though he is, as the audience can see, not a very impressive or honest man. Fortinbras resorts to treasonous war for revenge of his, even though Fortinbras senior brought his fate upon himself. Laërtes resorts to treasonous rebellion and murder for revenge of his:

I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
That both the worlds I give to negligence,
Let come what comes; only I'll be revenged
Most thoroughly for my father
Kind of drives the point home.

Yet Freud would have it all about each of them wanting to kill their father?

This is surely a perfect inversion of the evidence. The evidence is not only all on the other side, but emphatically on the other side.

There is indeed also incest in the play, as Freud would expect there to be: both Hamlet and the ghost make a point of calling the marriage of Gertrude, his mother, and Claudius, his uncle, incestuous.

But this incest is against the will of Hamlet, who clearly deplores it. And it does not even involve him directly as a sex partner. It can hardly be, as Freud says, a wish fulfillment.

Hamlet’s story does, however, correspond with the “Dymphna complex” we have posited, the set of features we found to be common to the Dymphna and the Oedipus legends. It seems to presume, again, that the cause of “mental illness” is a selfish, possessive parent.

Let us review the elements of the Dymphna complex, as we have seen them so far, and see how they apply:

The father is king, the child a prince or princess; or this is the story of a prominent family

Hamlet and Fortinbras are royal princes, like Dymphna (princess) and Oedipus. Laërtes and Ophelia come at least from a prominent noble family. Again, this might have no significance: it is a requirement of the genre that the subject of a tragedy be high-born. (But why is that?)

The victim is unusually beautiful, handsome, athletic, intelligent; he or she is exceptional.

Ophelia testifies to this for Hamlet:

Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!—
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,
Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th’ observed of all observers, quite, quite down!

This is substantiated by Hamlet’s ability to better than hold his own against the celebrated swordsmanship of Laërtes in the final scene.

Hamlet is also, like Oedipus, unusually intelligent; that he is a master of riddles is a fulcrum of the play. He feigns, or at least is felt capable of feigning, madness. He shows a quick wit in all his conversation. He cleverly frees himself from the trap set for him by Claudius, Rosencranz, and Guildenstern. When they first appear, he is able to guess, without being told, why they are here.

He is an authority on drama. He is a scholar at Wittenberg. He is also referred to by Claudius as hugely popular with the people:

The other motive,
Why to a public count I might not go,
Is the great love the general gender bear him;
Who, dipping all his faults in their affection,
Would, like the spring that turneth wood to stone,
Convert his gyves to graces.

It is the exceptional child who especially draws the malevolent attention of the selfish parent. This gives step-father Claudius obvious cause for both fear and resentment; and so for wishing Hamlet destroyed.

Her brother Laërtes vouches for Ophelia being exceptional:
Whose worth, if praises may go back again,
Stood challenger on mount of all the age
For her perfections
Her ability to attract the attentions of a man her social superior, as so often pointed out by Polonius, also attests to this.

Laërtes’s great athleticism is vouched for by Lamond:

He made confession of you,
And gave you such a masterly report
For art and exercise in your defence
And for your rapier most especially,
That he cried out, ‘twould be a sight indeed,
If one could match you: the scrimers of their nation,
He swore, had had neither motion, guard, nor eye,
If you opposed them.
The victim is unusually selfless and driven by ethical considerations.

This is not immediately apparent, perhaps, of Hamlet, to a modern audience. After all, he kills Polonius, and arranges the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

He is, that is to say, no pacifist. Some today are inclined to equate violence with evil. Yet this is wrong; neither Shakespeare, Hamlet nor Hamlet’s first udience would have made this mistake. True Christian morality requires a robust defense of the right. “All that is needed for evil to triumph,” as Burke observed, “is for good men to do nothing.”


Hamlet kills Polonius in hot blood, not knowing who he is. If a royal discovers someone hiding behind a curtain in the queen’s bed chamber, he has good reason to strike first and ask questions later; the stakes are too high. The kingdom’s inner sanctum has been violated, by a thief, an assassin, or a spy. His life as well as the nation is in peril, and swift action may be his only chance. Polonius was a fool, to be in this position. It shows the intensity of his determination to control others, and the absence of any sense of others’ interests or concerns.

Hamlet has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his friends, killed. But they were accessories to his own intended murder; and self-preservation left him no other choice. If he had simply confiscated the diplomatic letters calling for his execution, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern might have conveyed the same message orally. He needed to pre-emptively undermine their credibility with the English king.

These strikingly decisive actions show, on the other hand, that, contrary to some interpretations of the play, Hamlet is not indecisive. He is no coward, and he is no pacifist.

Which throws into stark relief his hesitation in killing Claudius, running through the play. Making it doubly important to understand his reason for this.

By eliminating alternative explanations, it demonstrates that his concern is ethical. Unfortunately for Hamlet, revenge is prohibited in Christian morality: “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord”; “Let not the sun go down on your anger.” Yet his father’s ghost has demanded just that, vengeance. He must reconcile these two opposed moral requirements. He must somehow kill Claudius, but not in cold blood, not for revenge.

If this seems too fine a point for the gentle reader’s conscience, it is not for Hamlet’s. He demonstrates his concern for conscience and for cosmic righteousness when he first appears in the play, in rejecting the thought of suicide:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!

It is the issue in his famous soliloquy:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, ...

Which is the nobler course? To fight against this evil, or to turn the other cheek?

To be sure, he does accuse himself of cowardice:

Am I a coward?
Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i' the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? who does me this?
'Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal

But he himself has answered that charge already:

who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
He cannot, therefore, bring himself to kill Claudius at prayer. He can kill Claudius only if immediate circumstances require it.

Returning from his aborted trip to England, he sends his uncle a letter:

“'Tis Hamlets character. ‘Naked!’ And in a postscript here, he says ‘alone.’”

This sounds like an open invitation to come after him. He is hoping to provoke an attack, requiring him to defend himself.

Then he accepts the fencing challenge from Laërtes even though he has shown himself adept at smelling and escaping traps, and although he has every reason to know Laërtes holds a grudge against him, and his uncle is trying to kill him.

Indeed, he does suspect the trap:

But thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here
about my heart: but it is no matter.
Hamlet’s moral scruples are shown here in another way. Laërtes and Claudius are rightly confident they can slip a fatal blade into the duel, because Hamlet would risk his own death rather than accuse another of cheating.

he, being remiss,
Most generous and free from all contriving,
Will not peruse the foils

In the end, Hamlet kills Claudius only once Claudius has, in effect, already killed him—after he has been cut with the poisoned sword. Justice is served, at the cost of his own life.

As with Oedipus and Dymphna, then, Hamlet is exceptionally selfless and righteous, and this is a cause of his tragedy. Had he been thinking of his own self-interest, he might have simply run Claudius through while he was praying, inherited the kingdom, married Ophelia, and lived happily ever after. Far from seeking his own father’s death, as Freud suggests, he risks and sacrifices his own life to avenge his father.

Put another way, Hamlet, Oedipus, and Dymphna are all martyrs. And so is Laërtes: he too dies to avenge his father’s death.

Ophelia is shown as the dutiful daughter, obedient despite her own will and desires. She shows her father all of Hamlet’s letters. Told to avoid Hamlet, she says to her father simply, “I shall obey, my lord.”

Laërtes demonstrates that he has the same moral concerns as Hamlet, although he honours them only in the breach:

I dare damnation. To this point I stand
That both the worlds I give to negligence.
Let come what comes, only I’ll be revenged
Most thoroughly for my father.

The parent is selfish and self-centred. He or she treats others as objects.

This is most clearly true of Claudius. Claudius says this of himself; there can be no misunderstanding: “we love ourself.”

The fact that he murdered his brother to become king is the clearest evidence.

Lesser examples are his readiness to manipulate Rosencranz and Guildenstern to kill Hamlet, despite their friendship with him. This is a betrayal of all three, to serve his own purposes. He shows callous manipulation again in his readiness to exploit Laërtes to the same end. He is pushing people like chess pieces across a board.

The case against Gertrude for selfishness is less obvious, but at least as strong. Hamlet refers to his mother’s attitude after his father’s death when he says to Ophelia:

But, by 'r Lady, he must build churches then, or else shall he suffer not thinking on, with the hobby-horse, whose epitaph is “For, oh, for, oh, the hobby-horse is forgot.”
She is treating another human being, and her own husband, like a plaything. He was of no significance to her.

Is Hamlet being fair?

Surely he is. Consider the visible facts. Would Claudius have taken the risk of assassinating King Hamlet if he did not have a guarantee that he would inherit the throne? Without that, what would have been the point? Could it have merited the risks?

And how could he have had such a guarantee?

Primogeniture was the rule: the throne should normally have gone to Hamlet Junior. Nor was there any reason to keep it from him: he is thirty years old, not under-age and in need of tutelage. He is a scholar, and a capable swordsman. He would have been, Claudius points out, a popular choice.

In the face of this, Claudius would have been mad to kill the king in hopes of replacing him. Unless ...

On introducing her to the audience, Claudius refers to Gertrude as “the imperial jointress to this warlike state.” “Jointress” is a legal term. It comes from “jointure”: “an estate settled on a wife for the period during which she survives her husband, in lieu of a dower” (Merriam-Webster). In other words, Gertrude had been legally named by her husband as successor to the crown.

That this was possible in Denmark of the day is supported by the account of Fortinbras Senior: he left his kingdom, the play tells us, to whomever defeated him in combat.

this Fortinbras; who by a seal’d compact,
Well ratified by law and heraldry,
Did forfeit, with his life, all those his lands
Which he stood seized of, to the conqueror:
Against the which, a moiety competent
Was gaged by our king; which had return'd
To the inheritance of Fortinbras,
Had he been vanquisher; as, by the same covenant,
And carriage of the article design'd,
His fell to Hamlet.
Gertrude therefore was the one person with the best motive for wanting King Hamlet dead: she acquired by this the throne.

Nor could Claudius have had any reason to do the deed unless she were involved. He must have been certain she would marry him. She must have guaranteed it.

Why? Perhaps, from her point of view, unlike the strong-willed Hamlet, Claudius could be controlled. He says as much, to Laërtes:

for myself--
My virtue or my plague, be it either which--
She's so conjunctive to my life and soul,
That, as the star moves not but in his sphere,
I could not but by her.

Aside from the incestuous nature of their marriage, the fact that she remarried almost immediately after the death of her husband—Hamlet says it was “within a month”--suggests much. Is this the act of a loving wife?

She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
She was, in sum, surely behind the assassination.

Hamlet thinks so:

A bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.

Now, what about Laërtes and Ophelia? They seem to be doublets of the Hamlet story; Ophelia too goes mad. Is Polonius as well such a selfish, callous sort? Do we have warrant to think so?

Hamlet believes so. To begin with, it seems necessary that Polonius too, was involved in the taking of the throne by Claudius. In Danish law, the succession was legally in control of the Thing, the Danish parliament. This is underlined by Hamlet’s own speech in favour of Fortinbras while dying: there is an election in parliament. Polonius was chief counsellor, prime minister. He ran the Thing. He must have handled this tricky business for Gertrude and Claudius, and perhaps was rewarded for it.

With the same shrewdness that guesses immediately why Rosencranz and Guildenstern have suddenly appeared at Elsinore, Hamlet was surely able to smell out Polonius’s control of Ophelia’s actions towards him; her drawing away.

Hamlet addresses Polonius at one point as “Jephthah,” one of the Biblical judges of Israel. The one best-known fact about Jephthah is that he put his own daughter to death (Judges 11: 30-37).

Hamlet: O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!
Polonius: What a treasure had he, my lord?
Hamlet: Why,
‘One fair daughter and no more,
The which he loved passing well.’
Hamlet: Am I not i’ the right, old Jephthah?
Polonius: If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter
that I love passing well.
Hamlet: Nay, that follows not.
We must not assume, Hamlet is suggesting here, that parents love their children; and Hamlet believes that Polonius does not. He is sacrificing Ophelia for his own ends.

When Hamlet calls Polonius a “fish-monger,” or rather, less honest than a fish-monger, is not the implication that he is offering his daughter for sale as a merchant might flog his wares in the streets? That she is no more than that to him—a commodity? This seems to be why Hamlet pulls back from Ophelia: he thinks in playing hard to get she is being offered to him in this way.

Hamlet advises Polonius concerning his daughter, “Let her not walk i’ th’ sun. Conception is a blessing, but, as your daughter may conceive—Friend, look to ’t.”

There is a double entendre here: “Conception” means pregnancy, but also thought. And coming into the sunlight suggests a thought dawning, not pregnancy. Polonius, in other words, is advised not to let his daughter see what is really going on.

When Polonius says to Hamlet, “Upon mine honour,--” Hamlet responds “Then came each actor on his ass,--.” That is, Polonius’s honour is an ass. It is a vehicle Polonius uses to get him where he wants to go; he has no true concern with right or justice. An ass is, traditionally, an image of unbridled desires.

Polonius has no honour and will say whatever profits him. Hamlet neatly demonstrates this in a famous exchange:

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and ‘tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.
Hamlet introduces Polonius to his friends with the words: “that great baby you see there is not yet out of his swaddling-clouts.” This suggests the same thing: a baby knows nothing but his own desires. He has not developed a moral sense.

Polonius gives his son the celebrated advice:

This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
This is, in as many words, a charter of selfishness.

Advising his daughter, he urges that calculation of self-interest take precedence over feelings of love.

Tender yourself more dearly;
Or―not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Running it thus―you'll tender me a fool.

Seek a higher price for yourself—and my interests come before your feelings. Here we see the fish-monger in action.

When Claudius asks, of Ophelia’s relations with Hamlet,

But how hath she
Received his love?
Polonius’s immediate answer is: “What do you think of me?”

This assumes and asserts that his daughter is under his complete control. Her actions reflect him and his character. She has no independent existence.

In her final madness, Ophelia muses: “It is the false steward that stole his master’s daughter.”

Is there is method in her madness as well? What can this mean? Who is her father’s steward?

Better yet, who is her father?

To a Christian, of course, her true father, as with all of us, is God. Our Earthly father does not own us, but is a steward. Polonius, then, in seeking to own her, has stolen her from God.

In Act II, Polonius arranges to spy on his son Laërtes: a controlling, manipulative act, which assumes ownership and disrespect. He even coaches his spy, Reynaldo, in how to manipulate others, feigning friendship in order to gain their confidence.

Marry, sir, here’s my drift;
And I believe, it is a fetch of wit:
You laying these slight sullies on my son,
As ‘twere a thing a little soil’d i’ the working, Mark you,
Your party in converse, him you would sound,
Having ever seen in the prenominate crimes
The youth you breathe of guilty, be assured
He closes with you in this consequence;
‘Good sir,’ or so, or ‘friend,’ or ‘gentleman,’
According to the phrase or the addition
Of man and country.
He reads all his daughter’s love letters; and decides when he will “loose” his daughter and to whom, as if she were a worm on a hook. He spies on them too, from behind an arras. Spying is second nature to him; he spies on everyone; and this is an extreme form of control.

It must have been hell to grow up with such a father.

We have too little information on Fortinbras to say whether his parents were similar. But being named after his father is a clue: it is a common practice, but a parent who gives his child the same name is flirting symbolically with seeing his child as an extension of himself rather than a separate person.

The same could be said of Hamlet’s true father, Hamlet.

The parent tries to kill the child.

Claudius, as step-father, tries to kill Hamlet three ways before the curtain falls: by sending him to England to be executed, by Laërtes’s poisoned blade, and, just to make certain, by a poisoned cup of wine.

I think intent is proven.

His ruthlessness contrasts with Hamlet’s hesitation in killing him.

Fuseli: Hamlet's ghost

Of course, Claudius is not Hamlet’s real father. His real father, or his fathers ghost, or some demon claiming to be him, is, however, also reckless of Hamlet’s interests. He wants Hamlet to risk his life to avenge a wrong done to him—a selfish demand. And it is a demand—note the repeated command from the ghost to “swear!”
Hamlet: Speak; I am bound to hear.
Ghost: So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.
It is not just that Hamlet must risk his own life. He must also, as we have seen, risk the fires of purgatory or eternal damnation. The ghost, of course, must be fully aware of this, because he is experiencing such punishments himself.

But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
What loving father wishes that on his son?

Gertrude, unlike Claudius and King Hamlet, does not seek to kill her son—her disapproval is keeping Claudius from killing him openly. Yet her actions put him, as the heir apparent, in obvious peril. Claudius’s claim to the throne is insecure; so insecure that Laërtes, who has no claim, is able to mount a credible rebellion at short notice. Hamlet is the obvious alternative. She knows Claudius will murder for the sake of the crown. Is she really doing an exemplary job of looking out for her son’s welfare? Or is she sacrificing it to her own desires?

She might not actually want him dead; but she plainly would not be that upset about it either.

What of Polonius?

We cannot expect such a dramatic act as attempted homicide from Polonius. In the first place, as a courtier, not a king, he does not have the power to easily pull it off. In the second, Polonius is a man of words, not actions. If he kills he will kill with words, and figuratively.

Polonius’s attempts to control Ophelia in her interactions with Hamlet, although they are plausibly presented as being in her own interest, do seem to count as reckless endangerment: the loss of Hamlet’s love seems one of two factors, along with his own death, that drive her mad.

And he had every reason to foresee this danger. He says, of young love, referring to Hamlets apparent madness,

truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for
love; very near this.
And so he knows he is playing with fire. Did he assume his daughter had no feelings?

Again, while he does not try to kill his son Laërtes in the physical sense, he is happy to wreck his reputation with words. He instructs his spy Reynaldo to spread lies in France about his son being immoral:

But, if’t be he I mean, he’s very wild;
Addicted so and so: and there put on him
What forgeries you please
He suggests this is in order to maintain his control. And that is shocking enough. But it might be of value to him in its own right. Laërtes is obviously a more impressive character than his father.

One might also mention, in this regard, Fortinbras Senior’s heedlessness of his son’s interests in staking his kingdom on a duel. Which, of course, Hamlet Senior did as well. Not to mention leaving the kingdom to his wife instead of his son.

Parent seeks incest with child; theme of parent-child incest

This does and does not happen here. We have incest, but not incest between parent and child. There is an incestuous marriage between Gertrude and Claudius, brother and sister-in-law. There is no apparent incest in the family of Polonius.

Unfortunate for Freud. Freud claimed the child wants incest with the parent. There is no trace of that here. But then too, if parent-child incest is an image of a parent wanting to totally possess the child, this incest does not serve that purpose either. So why should incest appear here at all?

Perhaps it has independent value as evidence that the parent puts their own physical desires above family obligations or proper family feelings: in this, it would be like Laius’s homosexual rape of Chrysippus in the Oedipus cycle. The Greeks were not troubled by homosexuality; but rape is rape. And incest is incest.

There may also be something in incest that evokes, specifically, treating another human being as an object, as a Danish vibrator, instead of as a fellow soul.

Today, we feel that incest is a problem because of the risk of genetic defects. We would not, therefore, consider a marriage between a woman and her brother-in-law incestuous.

But how much did the Elizabethans even know about such genetic issues?

The problem for them must have been either 1) that such unions confuse family ties and so violate proper family obligations—an uncle is also a father, and so forth; it may therefore suggest a person who shirks their responsibilities to relatives generally to satisfy their own desires; or 2) that a brother is likely to closely resemble a brother. So the transfer of affections from one to the other is too likely to be based on similarities, and not on the factors that make humans human, individual, and unique. You are not loving them for themselves, but forcing them into the place of some other person. So, like Damon’s intended incest in the Dymphna legend, it marks someone who does not see others as individuals.

By this interpretation, the incestuous marriage marks Gertrude specifically—not Claudius—as selfish and heedless of others.

Presumably, such a person will presumably see their children the same way. Children are there for the parent’s pleasure and advancement.

Ophelia and Laertes before the king and queen

There is a second possible reference to incest in the play. When Ophelia goes mad, she seems to confuse Hamlet with her father, Polonius. That is, she sings songs about her lover having died.

Larded with sweet flowers
Which bewept to the grave did go
With true-love showers.
She also, against character, sings songs with rather bawdy suggestions that she has been deflowered by someone who now rejects her.

Quoth she, before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.
So would I ha' done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.

If there is method in madness, what can it mean?

It is not entirely clear that Hamlet has left her forever. Might he not come back mentally well, and resume their relationship? Yet she speaks of her relationship with her lover as, one way or another, dead or lost to her.

Might this in fact imply incest? Neither Polonius nor Hamlet is named: we only assume Hamlet is meant. When she refers to her lover dying, or gone forever, the simplest explanation would be that, in fact, her “lover” was her father.

There is no need to understand this as a literal incest—the unconscious mind does not work literally. Spirit may well be more concerned with a spiritual incest. She could be expressing instead the general sense that her father overstepped his paternal bounds by seeking to possess her too completely, as if he were also husband and lover. And that this possessiveness was an invasion of her person comparable to ravishing her. Whether Hamlet returned or not, she might have understood with her father’s death that this ruined her emotionally for marriage.

The child resists this fate (of incest, or, for Oedipus, of killing the parent).

Unlike Oedipus and Dymphna, Hamlet is not called upon to resist incest. He is, however, obviously deeply opposed to the incestuous marriage, and, of course, to the murder of his father. One might say that, to avoid such an incestuous relationship, he seems prepared to renounce all sex of any sort.

Go to, I'll no more on’t; it hath
made me mad. I say, we will have no more marriages:
those that are married already, all but one, shall
live; the rest shall keep as they are. To a
nunnery, go.

In general, the main action of the play is revenge by a son for the death of a father: Hamlet, Fortinbras, and Laërtes are all driven by this motive. This surely counts as resistance to his murder.

Besides the opportunity to kill Claudius at prayer, Hamlet has an opportunity to kill his mother, Gertrude, in her bedchamber. His mother actually expects this, and cries for help. Yet he has already determined that he must not. Matricide is unthinkable. Instead, he kills the figure behind the curtain, who appears to be a threat to her.

O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom:
Let me be cruel, not unnatural:
I will speak daggers to her, but use none;
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites;
How in my words soever she be shent,
To give them seals never, my soul, consent!
There is a paradox here. The play establishes that Hamlet, Fortinbras, Laërtes and Ophelia all have abusive, possessive parents. And yet the action of the play is about how devastated they all are when this parent dies: they go mad, they kill for revenge. They have every reason to instead attack their parents, their parents expect it—and yet their reaction is the opposite. Isn’t this strange?

Hamlet has nothing but praise for his father:

See, what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion's curls; the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
A station like the herald Mercury
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;
A combination and a form indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal,
To give the world assurance of a man:
This was your husband.
One finds the same dissonance in Oedipus Rex. All of Oedipus’s troubles, as Tiresias points out, are a curse set upon him by his parents. Yet rather than condemn his parents, Oedipus takes all the guilt upon himself.

I know not with what eyes
I could have met my father in the shades,
Or my poor mother, since against the twain
I sinned, a sin no gallows could atone.
How fair a nursling then I seemed, how foul
The canker that lay festering in the bud!
Now is the blight revealed of root and fruit.

Yet the only thing that made the little nursling “foul” was its parents rejection of it. It was only foul in their eyes.

This must all strike the audience as wrongheaded.

Ophelia, similarly, seems to blame herself for the harm her father has brought on her by driving her away from Hamlet. In her madness, she remarks, “Well, God 'ild you! They say the owl was a baker's daughter.” This is a reference to an old folk tale in which Jesus appears in disguise and begs a baker for a loaf of bread. The daughter, however, objects to his generosity, and as a result is transformed into a night owl.

This seems to blame Ophelia for rejecting Hamlet, and exonerate her father.

Is all this perhaps making an important point about “mental illness”?

Consider the probable effects of being raised by a highly self-centred parent. It is a bitter joke among the Adult Children of Alcoholics group: “when the child of an alcoholic dies, someone else’s entire life flashes before their eyes.”

Children of self-centred parents have been imprinted from the nursery with the fundamental premise that Dad or Mom is the most important thing in the universe, and they are nothing in comparison. Kids learn things. Hence, perhaps, much or all of the mental or moral conflict that produces mental illness.

Worse still if the abusive parent decides a child is somehow a threat. He will then imbue the child, like Oedipus, with the certainty that there is something foul about their nature, no matter what they do. Even when this is not the case, the self-centred parent is invariably going to be resistant to accepting the blame for anything he or she does wrong, and is likely to form a settled habit to put it on the child as the most convenient scapegoat. To admit error or wrong would be a challenge to their own intrinsic wonderfullness.

It follows that the last thing on earth they could bear to do, even despite the worst possible provocation, is raise a hand against their abusive parent.

Yet, ironically, much of the harm they suffer can come from a paranoid conviction in the parent that the child is out to get him or her--a conviction Freud, for one, tragically endorses. Laius is not the only character in Greek legend who receives an oracle claiming his son will eventually kill him. The first such oracle was given to Kronos, the father of all the Olympian gods. The suspicion is that primeval.

So, while Gertrude, out of her guilt, assumes Hamlet intends to kill her, he has no such intent.

Indeed, as if to anticipate her thought, Hamlet himself explains why the fantasy that a child wants to kill (or even supercede) their parent is absurd. And this reveals another reason why Hamlet resists striking even at his step-father.

Rosencranz tells him of a troupe of actors who have come from the city, because, he says, their performances are being overshadowed by those of local children.

there is, sir, an aery of children, little eyases,
that cry out on the top of question, and are most
tyrannically clapped for’t: these are now the
fashion, and so berattle the common stages--so they
call them--that many wearing rapiers are afraid of
goose-quills and dare scarce come thither.
Hamlet responds:
What, are they children? who maintains ‘em? how are
they escoted? Will they pursue the quality no
longer than they can sing? will they not say
afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common
players--as it is most like, if their means are no
better--their writers do them wrong, to make them
exclaim against their own succession?
In other words, children would never do such a thing on their own account as seek to overthrow their elders. As long as they are children, they are entirely dependent on their parents. And, since they will themselves grow to be adults, they would be “exclaiming against their own succession.” Accordingly, any attack on a parent, even once it were physically possible, would be an attack on their own future hopes; for they too will become adults one day.

Honour your father and mother, as the Bible advises, so that that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land. It is always in one's own self-interest.

And any writer who suggests otherwise, Shakespeare suggests, is manipulating either the children or the facts.

Accordingly, Freud’s Oedipus complex cannot be correct.

Child flees the parents: exile.

At the beginning of the tragedy, both Laërtes and Hamlet seek exile. Laërtes wants to go to France, and Hamlet to Wittenberg. In both cases, the parents, being possessive and controlling, resist. Polonius appears to reluctantly consent, but then sets spies upon his son. Gertrude begs Hamlet to stay. He agrees, against his will, demonstrating his filial piety.

Later, Claudius himself suggests Hamlet be sent to England. But only so that he may be killed safely offstage.

Fortinbras also exiles himself from Norway, to fight in either Denmark or Poland.

We do seem to have a pattern here, to add to the exiles of Dymphna and Oedipus. Why this motif of exile?

Or is it escape? In the first instance, it is the obvious way to avoid the clutches of a possessive or a malicious parent. They, of course, can be expected to resist: an absent child is harder to control and manipulate. It is less theirs.

Within the play, Claudius expresses a belief, presumably common at that time, that exile, or travel, is a remedy for mental illness generally:

Haply the seas and countries different
With variable objects shall expel
This something-settled matter in his heart,
Whereon his brains still beating puts him thus
From fashion of himself.

This seems to have been a common belief in many times and places: that travel or exile is a useful treatment for madness. In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault writes of the Medieval “ships of fools,” which he holds to have actually sailed continually up and down the Rhine river, for the sake of their lunatic passengers.

But this would most especially be true if the prime cause of the “settled matter,” of madness generally, were the actions of a parent—were the family situation back home.

Hamlet suggests that madness depends entirely on the circumstances: it is environmental in its causes.

I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is
southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw
It follows that a change of environment would help.

At another point, greeting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he simply and plainly states: “Denmark’s a prison.”

In the scenes following Hamlet’s return from the voyage to England, he seems strikingly more calm and straightforward in his speech. Did Shakespeare really forget he was supposed to be mad, or feigning madness? Or has the voyage and the separation from his (foster) parents indeed cleared his mind?

Delacroix: Hamlet and Horatio in the graveyard

What of Ophelia? As a daughter, she cannot so leave. This perhaps explains why she becomes fully mad, psychotic, on the death of her father, while Laërtes, Hamlet, and Fortinbras are mostly spurred to revenge.

A mental exile, a drawing away mentally from one’s physical surroundings, may be a natural protective reaction to an intolerable situation from which physical escape is not available. One exiles oneself mentally.

This is, perhaps, the explanation for “psychosis” generally.

And it suggests some obvious treatment options.

The child suffers.

Far from getting to fulfill any wishes, as Freud would suggest, Hamlet and Ophelia have suffered depression and/or madness. They have lost their relationship with each other. Hamlet has lost the kingdom. Fortinbras has suffered the loss of his inheritance. Hamlet, Ophelia, and Laërtes all lie dead as the curtain falls.

It does not look as though they are having a good day.

The child has some special connection with the spirit world. This gives him or her healing power for others.

Oedipus somehow brought blessings wherever he was welcomed. Dymphna intercedes for the living.

What about Hamlet?

The notion that he has special connections with the spiritual world is introduced at the outset of the play, in the appearance of his father’s ghost. The ghost will speak only to Hamlet. Surely this is straightforward enough? Hamlet has a special ability to talk to spirits.

Let us impart what we have seen to-night
Unto young Hamlet; for, upon my life,
This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.

Later, in the graveyard, he communes with the dead.

He claims contact with the spirit world:

Claudius: So is it, if thou knew’st our purposes.
Hamlet: I see a cherub that sees them.

By his death, aside from leaving us this play, he heals the nation: he has lanced what was rotten in Denmark.

Speaking with his mother, Hamlet assumes the role of spiritual director, tutoring her on the good of her soul:

Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg,
Yea, curb and woo for leave to do him good.
Once more, good night:
And when you are desirous to be bless'd,
I'll blessing beg of you.

As with Oedipus, the intention of the story is not to heal mental illness. It is for “mental illness” to heal us.

Hamlet himself gives the purpose of the play named after him:

the play’s the thing
With which to prick the conscience of the king.

It is addressed, not to the Hamlets of the audience, but to the Claudiuses of the audience—to the “kings” and “queens” who create devastation and havoc for others with their sin.

The play may, ideally, make them recognize their wrong and reform.

Indeed, both Claudius and Gertrude are driven by the platy within a play to admit their fault—although neither has the moral fibre to amend their ways.

Yet some perhaps in the audience may.