Thoughts & Musings

Romping with Oedipus,
or Have You Knocked-off Your Dad Today?

ShrinkRap Thursday is June 19, July 24 & 31


by Rendueles Villalba

As it is with politics, issues of belief are advisedly off limits in polite conversation.  Civility hinges on intact God-dar (God radar) and surefooted circumnavigation.  Before we even speak, we “agree to disagree” or mutually create an impression of shared beliefs as we politely venture to safer ground – say summer movies, a great recipe find, or the ever handy antics of our kids and pets.  Theologian and philosopher Charles Taylor has called our age the Secular Age, not so much because a growing fraction of us are atheists – though this is the case – but because in our  post-Enlightenment 21st century globalism, we have so many versions of the God story living side by side.   To avoid outright war, each version must tolerate all the other provincial (read: misguided) claims on universal (read: my) truth.  Therefore, while we privately hold our various diverging beliefs, our peace-loving communal life is progressively restricted to the safely indisputable empirics of the secular world.  Notwithstanding killer gazpacho or adorable kiddy high jinks, our’s is a superficial Age, but hey, it’s peace – no small feat for adherents of contradictory creeds.

Freud would certainly diagnosis this Taylorian take on our “Secular Age” as a patent indulgence of his pleasure principle.  Simply put, the pleasure principle is an overarching logic to living that follows the dictum: maximize pleasure, minimize pain.  According to Freud, we enter life as Epicureans seeking to gratify desire and evade the bounty of slings and arrows that come our way.  When these motives are frustrated, we defend ourselves and our belief in their ultimate satisfaction by construing reality to conform with our pleasure.  Needless to say, in the process, actual reality takes it on the chin.

As the gap between our defensive fantasies and actual reality widens, the pleasure principle becomes increasing untenable.  This ushers the maturing emergence of the reality principle (or the unfortunate breakdown into all sorts of mental illness).  This is not to say that reality is without pleasure, just that we reorient our psychological compass from pleasure to truth.  Truth bestows meaning beyond the playthings of pleasure.  By aligning and identifying with the real, our world gains a grounding validity and we achieve authenticity.  This satisfaction transcends the life of mere pleasure and “sets us free” from an otherwise hollow existence.  This of course, brings us back to the unmentionable: belief.  Reality is never fully known.  Belief is its proxy.  It carries the “responsibility” of reality, but lack its authority.  Belief is ultimately an interpretation, and anyone interested in truth cannot escape the shadow of doubt inherent in any interpretation.  How true is my belief?  Is my interpretation simply that which pleases me?  A genuine commitment to reality threatens to lock us into a folie du doute (doubting mania) that our beliefs are simply what we want to see?  Alternatively, isn’t the wish to escape this insufferable fate of doubt an equally suspect retreat to the “pleasure” of certainty?  Quite the predicament.

So for a moment, put away empty toys and endless doubting and witness the event of Mark St. Germain’s 2009 play, Freud’s Last Session.  Germain depicts an imagined debate between Freud, self-proclaimed atheist and C.S. Lewis, Christian apologist converted from the sway of atheism.  The is year is 1939.  Freud is 83; three weeks shy of his death.  He has an  advanced oral sarcoma and very recently escaped his home in Vienna for asylum from Nazi aggression.  CS Lewis, 42 years Freud’s junior, is summoned to Freud’s London study for unclear reasons.  The specter of imminent war is backdrop.  Everyone is on high alert via radio vigils and air raid alarms.  And when the alarm is sounded, the run for cover is as much to the analyst couch as from Nazi bombs.

Freud wants to know something.  How can a man of intellect, abandon the governance of logic and logical atheism for the regressive delusion of God?  The timing, in relation to Freud’s approaching death suggests personal motives, perhaps a spasm of doubt or unconscious forces.  After all, is he not a collector of gods?  Is Lewis a clinical curiosity or a sidecar nestled alter self?  Perhaps the analyst and analysand in Freud’s Last Session are one in the same.  As in a dream, all characters are aspects of the dreamer.  Whether intended or not, St. Germain’s play strikingly follows the content and style of Freud’s 1927 essay, The Future of an Illusion.  In this, Freud lays out his argument for atheism, creates an imagined  “opponent”, and carries on a dialog with himself about the eventual maturation of civilization from theistic illusion.  It is a remarkable piece of writing, worthy of close reading.  I personally recommend it as a companion piece for exploring the treasure in Germain’s play.

If my rendering of Freud’s Last Session gives the impression of a heady dirge, let me correct the error.  Oedipus dances free and loose.  Mama plays hide-and-seek with titillating Freudian symbology.  Comedy is more than latent.  Freud’s Last Session ends with a grand joke – of which I have no intention of spoiling.  It is a hilarious coda that evokes a parallel to the larger dialog between Freud and Lewis.  We end in absurdly pleasurable mystery, custom ordered for devotees of the Secular Age.


The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.


Rendueles Villalba, MD is a staff psychiatrist and chief of the Integrated Therapies Program at Butler Hospital.  He is also a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University.  He is co-founder of Contemporary Therapeutics, a group private practice interested in the interface of Psychiatry and the Humanities.

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