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Oh, blank confusion! true epitome
Of what the mighty City is herself.
Wordsworth, The Prelude
Over and over, throughout the Greek tragedies, in Aeschylus almost as much as Euripides, the characters express doubt about the goodness of the gods. Are the gods jealous of human success and happiness per se? Or just jealous of the greed and hubris success so often engenders? Are the gods worthy of esteem because they are good, or merely because they are powerful? If only the latter, then what should be the standards of human goodness? Questions like these are not only the most fundamental human intellectual concerns. They also generate anxiety. How can I protect the good from the bad if I don't know which is which? For Melanie Klein, contemporary of Anna Freud, and often regarded as the founder of object relations theory, there is no more fundamental anxiety than this: that we shall confuse good and bad, love and hate, and so destroy all that we really love and care about.
Below several Greek tragedies are examined from this roughly Kleinian perspective. "Roughly," because only the general framework of her psychoanalytic theory will be employed, not her detailed studies of the dynamics of internal objects (see Alford 1989). In part my goal is to show that a Kleinian perspective can illuminate several tragedies, not just Aeschylus' Oresteia, to which Klein devoted a brief essay shortly before her death. More generally, my goal is to show that sorting out good from bad is the most fundamental issue humans face, that the Greek tragic poets knew this, and in this regard Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides possess deep psychological insight. It is not unusual to apply psychoanalytic theory to Greek tragedy, several books being devoted to this topic. Generally, however, these applications are quite reductive, as when George Devereux (1976, 11) argues that Xerxes crossing of the Hellespont in Aeschylus' Persians must "certainly be viewed as the son's symbolic sexual defilement of his mother."(1) Rather than reducing Greek tragedy to a Kleinian, rather than the more familiar Freudian account, I seek to enlarge psychoanalysis with Greek tragedy; that is, to show how a roughly Kleinian account of Greek tragedy can help us better understand the broadest and most fundamental concerns of the tragic poets. Conversely, I seek to show that the concerns of the poets can correct aspects of Klein's account. The tragic poets lived closer to the fundamental psychological realities of human experience than we do, in part because they did not suffer from the illusion that science, technology, consumer goods, and bureaucracy could shield us from ourselves, from our own nature. It is this, above all else, that renders them so psychologically astute.
In the Kleinian view the passions live a virtual life of their own. The protagonist does not so much have passionate experiences as carry them, as in the clichie (so appropriate to Greek tragedy) "you don't choose love; love chooses you." It is this relatively structureless aspect of Klein's account, in which the passions are almost more real than the person who experiences them, that makes it especially appropriate to reading Greek tragedy, even if hers is not the last word on the subject. For Klein the key passions are love and hate, as the very young child soon comes to fear that his hatred of his mother will lead him to harm her. The child fears this because he or she depends on mother so much, and also because the child soon comes to genuinely love mother. In order to protect those whom he loves, the child comes to hold good and bad rigidly apart, as though the bad mother and good mother were two separate people. Klein (1946) calls this organization of anxieties and defenses the paranoid-schizoid position, a dramatic term that should not make us think that it is sicker than it is. By paranoid Klein means that the child projects his hate and love into the world, originally into mother, and finds it there, in the form of persecutors: fantastic fears of being attacked that reflect the child's own aggression. The Furies, who punish matricide in Aeschylus' Oresteia, are exemplary persecutors says Klein.
By schizoid, Klein means that the child holds good and bad rigidly apart, so rigidly that an actual and original whole, mother, is seen as if she were two beings: good mother and bad mother. Schizoid, or splitting, thus refers to the ability to hold two (or more) contradictory ideas in the mind at the same time (Freud 1940 ). Often splitting is reinforced by idealization and devaluation, in which the good is grossly idealized, in order that it may be more firmly separated from the bad, which is totally devalued. Indeed, the single best and most visible sign of splitting is excessive idealization, evidence that the intrusion of the bad upon it is so threatening that the good must be rendered sublime and perfect in order to protect it. Conversely, the best sign of emotional integration and maturity is the ability to tolerate the ambivalence of the good, including, dare one say it, of the god.
Klein goes on to argue that securely established paranoid-schizoid defenses are absolutely necessary to the child's emotional development. Long before emotional integration can take place the child must be able to hold good and bad apart, allowing him to be crystal clear about what is good and what is bad in the first place (actually, of course, too clear: the world is more complex). Rigid paranoid-schizoid defenses also increase his confidence that he can protect the good from the bad. The psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer (1978, pt. 2, 64) comments upon Klein's Narrative of a Child Analysis, her record of treating a ten-year-old boy named Richard, noting that Richard's core problem was inadequate splitting-and-idealization. He "could not keep the destructive and Hitleresque part of himself from crowding in on and taking over the good part." Because of his inadequate splitting-and-idealization (Meltzer runs them together with hyphens as though they were one process), Richard tended to confuse good and bad, leading to greatly heightened paranoia (for example, was the helpful maid a good object or a bad one?), hypocrisy, and confusion. Though he is no Kleinian, Robert Jay Lifton's study of The Nazi Doctors (1986, 430-33) reveals a similar phenomenon. Many of the Nazi Doctors, particularly those who worked in the concentration camps, dealt with their guilt and anxiety by reversing good and bad, so that killing became healing, and healing killing. It is as though before they could commit ultimate evil, they had first to convince themselves that it was good.
The poets' account of Greek anxiety about the gods, as well as Greek cultural confusion generally about what is admirable and shameful, reflects these same processes. Confusion and reversal of good and bad served to diminish anxiety over a world in which goodness and badness could no longer be distinguished or separated. The chorus in Antigone states the proverbial wisdom, "the bad becomes the good to him a god would doom" (621-22). But if, the gods themselves are bad, requiring that man do bad things, then what is one to do? Is it good to be bad, bad to be good, or what? The iterations, and hence the possibilities for confusion, are endless. One might call this the fundamental anxiety, at least for the Greeks, and probably for us as well: how to know good and bad, and so distinguish between them. Philoctetes puts the problem in terms every Greek would understand: "How can I reckon the score ... when praising Heaven I find the gods are bad?" (Sophocles, Philoctetes, 451). The relationship between anxiety about the goodness of the gods and what Klein calls paranoid-schizoid anxiety is apparent. How can one protect the good from the bad if one cannot even keep them straight? This, we recall, was Richard's problem. It was the problem of the poets as well. Furthermore, even if one comes to know, as Euripides seems to, that the gods are generally bad, and so no source of moral guidance, the question of whether man might do better only becomes more poignant. If the immortals are not good, how can a mere mortal be? Could a man really be superior to a god? Depressive anxiety Klein calls this.
Klein wrote an essay on the Oresteia (1963), arguing that the resolution found in the third play of the trilogy, the Eumenides, in which the persecuting Furies are integrated into the community, so that they become servants of justice, represents what she calls depressive integration, in which the rigidly separate categories of good and bad are integrated under the leadership of the good (it is called "depressive" because the child originally despairs of being able to bring good and bad together without destroying the good). Often this leadership is expressed in terms of the desire to make …