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Steiner, J. (1990). The Retreat from Truth to Omnipotence in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus. Int. R. Psycho-Anal., 17:227-237.

(1990). International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 17:227-237

The Retreat from Truth to Omnipotence in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus

John Steiner

The fact that reality can be too much for any individual to bear has led to the recognition that various mechanisms are brought into play to deal with it. I have previously described how we turn a blind eye to disturbing facts and have linked this to the mechanisms which Freud (1927) described in cases of fetishism in which we both know and do not know something at the same time (Steiner, 1985). Although important in the perversions such a mixed reaction to reality and truth is widespread and reflects a general propensity to misrepresent aspects of reality which we find difficult to bear (Money-Kyrle, 1968), (1971).

At other times reality presents more catastrophic dangers and can lead to extreme measures including destructive attacks on the ego and in particular on the mental apparatus responsible for the perception of reality (Bion, 1956). If these attacks leave the ego so weakened that reality cannot even be partially approached the individual may retreat from truth to omnipotence with much more serious consequences for the personality. Indeed such a retreat often results in psychotic phenomena if the omnipotence cannot be kept within the bounds of reason.

These mechanisms represent different ways reality is dealt with and are amongst the current developments which are occupying psychoanalysts today (Spillius, 1988a), (1988b). When I discovered through the writings of Vellacott (1971) that Oedipus the King can be interpreted in a novel way, it was immediately apparent that the themes involved were similar and it was this which enabled me to connect the attitude of Oedipus to some of these mechanisms.

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