november 2009 | Psychological Meetings
On the necessity to kill one’s father or: On the art of meeting the new one
“It all ended in an intense exchange of words between my father and myself. I warned him not to hit me. He hit and I hit back, he staggered and fell sitting to the floor. Mother cried, pleading with us to come to our senses. … It was in a feeling of relief that I left the rectory. I stayed away for a good many years.”
From The Magic Lantern by Ingmar Bergman
He said that he was in his early thirties and that he had not yet considered leaving home. He was the only one left of four siblings, all younger than him. They had up and left quickly; two were married with children of their own. He didn’t even have a steady girlfriend. He’d never had one.
He said that the thought had never occurred to him to find his own place because he considered the parental home as meeting all his basic needs. He had a large room to himself, most of the furniture was his own and he could come and go as he pleased. His father was a chief surgeon and head of a hospital clinic. His mother was a meek, hard working nurse. She had always had the role of the family’s, particularly the father’s, chambermaid. The father came and went in the house but did not live there, well, not in the sense of taking an active part in any day-today activities at any rate. He was nearly always late home and ordered his supper in advance with a brief telephone call to his wife. After supper while she was taking care of the washing up, he usually fled into his study and shut the door. He was seen briefly at the breakfast table. He always read the morning paper.
From early childhood the son had understood that the most coveted thing in the family, the one thing he could contribute with, was advancement in school. Tell me, the father would say between munches at the dinner table, how are things going then? What have you learnt? And the constant warnings: without good grades you’ll get nowhere in life. It’s important to get somewhere in life. You have to work hard. Bear that in mind! Then the Chief Surgeon would disappear into his study once more.
He was now in his early thirties and felt that the contact with his parents was quite good. They provided him with accommodation; they often dined together and would discuss worldly events. Well, the mother did not take such an active part in these discussions, but gladly listened. And the father certainly made his feelings known on some issues which the son could definitely not agree with, and controversy had arisen once or twice when the son expressed a different opinion to that of the father. But on the whole things were pretty good. But the words had hardly left his lips before his eyes became glazy and absent, the corners of his mouth drooped and the loneliness settled like a shroud around his head.
Freud had an innate interest in one of Sophocles’s antique dramas. Like many others, Freud felt that the dramas illustrated perfectly many of man’s conflicting engagements and roles. A case in point: King Laois of Thebes had heard from the Delphic Oracle that his own son would be his slayer. When his young wife gave birth to a baby boy he had nails driven through the child’s feet and told a shepherd to leave it in the wilderness among the wild animals. But the shepherd felt compassion for the boy and gave it to another shepherd who took it to the royal couple in Corinth. They accepted the child, whose feet were now extremely swollen, and gave it the name Oedipus, meaning swollen feet. When Oedipus is growing up he hears from the Delphic Oracle that he would one day slay his father and marry his mother. He does not dare to return to Corinth but travels around aimlessly, irritated and frustrated. During his travels he is thrust out of the road by a carriage and in anger he kills the driver, the old passenger and the attendants. After some time he arrives in Thebes, a town full of gloom and dejection. The Goddess Hera has put a sphinx in the town, a terrifying monstrosity, who asks the townspeople an odd question, if they do not reply correctly she swallows them up one by one. Oedipus challenges the sphinx and receives the question: Who walks on four feet in the morning, two at lunchtime and three in the evening? Oedipus replies man, which was correct, and with a roar the sphinx tumbles into the sea and destroys itself. Oedipus is celebrated and has the honour of marrying the widow Jocasta, who of course is his mother.
There is a continuation of the drama, but I will not go into it here. Suffice it to say that Freud used the drama to illustrate the boy’s struggle to become a grown man, and in different ways hold his own against his predecessor, the father, and, in different ways and by different means, fight for honour and victory, symbolised by finally claiming the Mother, the one who gives life, as his spouse. Therewith he wins life itself, he defeats that which the father stood for and, by his own efforts, he can create the life he himself wants.
Everything in this antique drama must of course be viewed through its symbolic content. The slaying of the father is not about the literal killing of the real father but of the image of the Father; that which symbolised all that was admonishing and strict in the family culture he grew up in. First by destroying the inner, all too dominant and demanding structure (the Father in symbolic meaning), that which he had made his own because it came with the food, the drink, the talk and all the other behaviours, not until then could he rise up and continue with a new perspective. But this can be extremely anxiety-ridden. The guilt feelings lie in wait like a piercing bear trap, and the mental picture of being punished for a deep longing renders many completely powerless.
Author and Journalist Arthur Koestler wrote something along the lines of: “On studying any type of organisation, from the insect kingdom to the Pentagon, we will find that it is hierarchically organised, and the same applies to simple organisms and, albeit less manifest, their inherent and acquired practices.” Koestler thus describes man as a biophysical creature: every cell, every organ, each organ system, each body part, all the tissue; everything is hierarchically organised. Man himself can also be described as a hierarchical organisation, likewise a group of people, a company, an association, a nation, etcetera. Moreover, all its parts, or holons, as Koestler calls them, cannot exist without each other. Everything is dependent on everything. A change within a holon will eventually, and unavoidably, lead to change in everything else and for everybody else. This is the basis of system theory and system ecology. When The Christ Child, or El Niño as it is commonly known, grows stronger in South America, the climatologic effects spread around the world. Somebody somewhere will be happy and sunburnt; somebody somewhere else will become desperate, sick and die.
Everything is interlinked and everything has developed, and will continue to develop, in the continuous interplay between autonomous attempts to break out on the one hand, and that which retains and interlinks on the other. Koestler again: when a holon, a person for example, strays too far towards the outer edge, it is soon in trouble. And the opposite: when a person allows themselves to be swallowed up by the group, and is therewith prepared to surrender their personality, they become dissolved, unprincipled, uncertain of themselves and potentially dangerous for their surroundings. Life is thus a tightrope and a dynamic, often conflict-filled movement from pole to pole, from the mattamore of integration to the desert of autonomy. Tick tock, tick tock, the pendulum swings between dependency and independence.
All meetings have one portal, one entrance. This implies two routes. Perhaps you prefer to listen and learn and sit at a ready laid table? Then you take this route. Or perhaps you prefer to make your own way by taking a more critical and questioning stance. Then you take this route. None of the routes are especially gratifying in the long term.
But that is man’s lot on earth. In order to rise up to our true body height, to develop our potential, we must first be prepared to kill. When that is out of the way we find ourselves in the grainy, uncertain light of dawn. When we take our next stumbling step forward we head towards new and unknown meetings. The portal is there over and over again, likewise the two routes.
The young man with the traits of loneliness has not yet killed. He has not yet plucked up the courage to hit the Father. He is biding his time waiting for some type of second birth. But one day he stands up and pushes down what he needs to push down. Not until then will he have the courage to meet the new dawn.