Oedipal Paradigms in Collision: A Centennial Emendation of a Piece of Freudian Canon (1897-1997) (Book Review)

Author:  Covitz, Howard
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1998
Reviewed By: Stephen J. Miller, Spring 2005, pp. 51-52

Oedipal Paradigms in Collision tantalizes the Freudian audience with a view of the primacy of the Oedipus but it is a different Oedipus than any Freudian thinker would recognize. This is, however, a very scholarly work despite Covitz’s overly dense and complicated use of language. He thoroughly reviews the literature from Freud’s first statements, through the contributions of ego psychologists, discussing the contributions of various developmental psychoanalytic theorists, and including various object relational theorists. The paucity of clinical material, however, further complicates this highly theoretical work.

In his first chapter, Covitz explores Freud’s various theories regarding the Oedipus complex. The author points out Freud’s lack of clarity in terms of what constitutes the Oedipus. Is it merely the typical positive Oedipus? Is it a positive and a negative Oedipus? Does the child vacillate between positive and negative Oedipal wishes? In a sense, Covitz’s questions distort Freud’s descriptions of the Oedipus, which, after all, originated from the clinical situation. In 1923 Freud wrote, “For one gets the impression that the simple [positive] Oedipus complex is by no means its commonest form, but rather represents a simplification or schematization which, to be sure, is often enough justified enough for practical purposes.” Freud continues: “Closer study usually discloses the more complete Oedipus complex, which is twofold, a positive and a negative, and is due to the bisexuality originally in children” (p. 33). My point is that Covitz’s argument is to some extent a red herring. For Freud, theory arises out of the clinical situation. Freud remains close to impulses and close to the sources of conflict, anxiety and defense.

In his second chapter, Covitz nicely reviews the contribution of various ego psychologists, detailing their basic exploration of the development of the ego, and noting their paucity of examination of the ego in terms of the Oedipus complex. Also included in this chapter is Covitz’s understanding of Hans Loewald, which reportedly served as a primary motive for this work. Specifically Covitz reviews Loewald’s article, “The Waning of the Oedipus Complex” (1979). In this article Loewald, among other things, proposed a different motive source to the child’s parricidal wishes. Loewald described the parent’s protective bond with the child as “sacred,” and proposed that in the course of development the child increasingly assumes these parental functions. This, in Loewald’s view, evokes the child’s fantasy of “killing” the parents, resulting in unavoidable feelings of guilt. Loewald shifts the focus from manifestations of aggressive impulses to issues involving dependency-independency in the child/parent relationship in the course of development. It is this shift which comprises the basis of Covitz’s reframing of the Oedipus complex.

In his third chapter, Covitz reviews the work of notable developmental psychoanalysts, emphasizing Margaret Mahler’s theory of separation-individuation. Covitz traces the movement from dyadic to triadic object relations. In his fourth chapter, Covitz explores his shift from Freud’s theory of impulse, drive, or instinct to a relational motive, which represents the basis of Covitz’s theory. In Covitz’s model the Oedipal period is fundamental to the development of psychopathology but the Freudian Oedipus complex itself has been replaced by the exploration of development from dyadic to triadic object relations. Incest, parricide, and bisexuality are viewed as secondary phenomenon. Object relations in the course of development are primary.

Borrowing a term from Loewald (1979), Covitz describes five sub-phases of development of object-relations comprising the Oedipal period, which he describes as an “elemental view of the Oedipus complex” (p. xvi). By “elemental” Loewald/Covitz are referring to phenomenon that are a byproduct of individuation and identity formation; as opposed to “symbolic,” which they see as a consequence of conflict over sexual and aggressive impulses. In Covitz’s model, he even wants to replace the myth of Oedipus with the book of Genesis! Theory is valuable in that it elucidates the clinical situation. Yet Covitz’s model, from a Freudian point of view, guts the elucidating aspect of theory. It is precisely the sexual and aggressive impulses that result in the greatest anxiety, depressive affect, resistance, and conflict. Covitz’s model serves to obscure rather than to explicate such motives. Freud (1908) long ago reported the general resistance to psychoanalytic discoveries regarding infantile sexuality. This remains true today as well. This is my most fundamental criticism of this work.

Clearly, object-relations play a fundamental role in the development of the ego and the shaping of all intrapsychic conflict, including the Oedipus complex. Clearly, early developmental (e.g. pre-oedipal, dyadic) experiences, particularly experiences with others, build towards one’s experience of the Oedipus. As Erikson (1950) demonstrated long ago, previous experiences are recapitulated at each succeeding phase of development. In this day and age, many analysts will probably embrace Covitz’s view of the Oedipus. Yet, from my point of view, a contemporary Freudian point of view, Covitz’s premise limits and obscures the active mastery of intrapsychic conflict. It reframes the actual contents of patient’s conflicted experience with derivatives.

This brings me to a related and final criticism of this book. Firstly, there was not enough clinical material, particularly verbatim transcripts demonstrating patients’ actual experiences, in this book. Psychoanalysts can easily move theoretical discourse into a rarefied world of its own. Patient’s actual reports of their experiences brings us back to earth and gives us something real to talk and think about.

Oedipal Paradigms in Collision is certainly a scholarly work. The author has presented his thesis convincingly, having reviewed much of the influential psychoanalytic literature of the last 50 years. The breath and depth of his theoretical understanding is unquestionable. This book certainly represents a contribution to the literature and Covitz will be major voice in discussions of the centrality of the Oedipus


Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: W.W. Norton
Freud, S. (1908/1975). On the sexual theories of children, In Standard Edition IX, London: Hogarth Press, pp. 209-226.
Freud, S. (1923/1975). The ego and the id, In Standard Edition, XIX, London: Hogarth Press, pp. 12-66.
Loewald, H. (1979). The waning of the Oedipus complex, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 27, pp 751-775.

Reviewer Note

Stephen J. Miller is a psychoanalyst practicing in Oklahoma City. He is a Board Member of Section I of Division 39 and of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis.


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